A Guide to the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are a string of islands lying 1,000 kms or 600 miles from the coast of mainland Ecuador. They are made up of 13 major islands and dozens of smaller islands, islets and rocks. Of these only 4 of the islands are inhabited. The giant tortoises, marine iguanas, blue footed boobies and many other land, marine and bird species not found anywhere else in the world make this a very special and unique place. No wonder the Galapagos Islands were the inspiration for Darwin’s theory of evolution
The Galapagos Islands National Park
There are 2 airports on the Galapagos islands, one on the island of San Cristobal and the other on the island of Baltra. The gateway to the Galapagos is Ecuador. There are several daily flights to both of these from either Quito or Guayaquil international airports. These can be booked online through the Avianca and LATAM websites. The flight time from Quito is around 2 hours from Guayaquil one and half hours.
Before checking in for your flight to the Galapagos you must first obtain a TCT – transit control card. You cannot travel to the Galapagos without this.
There are counters at both Quito and Guayaquil airports to obtain this. You must complete a pre registration form which details how long you will stay in the Galapagos, accommodation and flight details. Hand this in at the counter with the fee of $20. Your bag will also be checked and sealed with a tag to ensure you are not carrying any prohibited items which may cause contamination.
Both of these steps must be done before check in with the airline. Upon arrival in the Galapagos all visitors must pay the Galapagos National Park entry fee. This is $100 and must be paid in cash. It goes towards the maintenance and upkeep of the national park.
Wildlife of the Galapagos
These are the animals which give the Galapagos their name. They are the largest tortoises in the world, the males can grow up to 5 feet in length. They are also the oldest with an average life expectancy of over 100 years. When the oldest tortoise died in 2006, she was 176 and was here when Charles Darwin arrived in 1835.
They can survive up to year without food or water. Their shell is part of their skeleton and grows with it, so cannot be removed from the body.
Used as a source of meat for hundreds of years, it is estimated 100,000 were killed. Four sub species were wiped out and others pushed to the brink of extinction. There were more recent threats from introduced animals, pigs, rats and especially goats destroyed their habitat and food supply . The goats and other species were culled. Breeding programmes have tried to stabilize the population and reintroduced more tortoises back into the wild.
Blue Footed Booby
Another iconic symbol of the Galapagos is the blue footed booby. They are not born with blue feet, they turn blue as they mature. Females have brighter blue feet than the males, as well as larger pupils. Females are also larger.
Only found on the Galapagos Islands, these are the only lizards to swim in the sea. They use their tails to propel them through the water. Many think their appearance is a little scary, especially when they are in large colonies, Charles Darwin described them as ‘hideous looking’. They are actually vegetarians, feeding on seaweed and algae. I thought they were wonderful and seeing them swim underwater was one of my favourite experiences.
The animals who most captured my heart in the Galapagos Islands were the sealions. Their playful antics in the water captivated me, I have many sealions selfies. I visited in December which is also breeding season. The sealion pups were incredibly cute and incredibly entertaining.
There are also fur seals, although there name is something of a misnomer as they are related to sealions not seals. Like sealions they have ear flap, seals only have holes. They are smaller than Galapagos sealions but have larger eyes and a shorter nose.
This is another species native to the Galapagos Islands and is the only species of penguin found north of the equator. It is also one of the smallest penguin species in the world. I saw them both on land and in the water. Awkward on land, they are so incredibly fast in the water. This is the 1st time I have had a penguin dart between my legs! Watching the penguins antics underwater was another huge highlight.
There are 2 types of frigate bird in the Galapagos, the Magnificent Frigate bird and the Great Frigate bird. They both live up to their name.
Despite being seabirds, their feathers aren’t waterproof, so they can’t dive down into the water to catch fish like pelicans or boobys. Instead they have become very adept at stealing the catches of these other birds.
Male frigate birds have red pouches on their throats called gular sacs. They inflate these like a balloon to attract females. It takes about 20 minutes to fully inflate.
Land or Sea
Visitors can decide whether to explore the Galapagos on a land based stay or aboard one of the liveaboard boats on a cruise. I experienced both. I will post my experiences and photos of both and you can decide which is best for you.
There are 4 inhabited islands, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana. There are accommodations on all the islands.
I flew from Guayaquil to San Cristobal and this is where I began. This is the most easterly of the Galapagos Islands and is the island where Charles Darwin first landed. It is also home to the largest sealion colony.
The town is only 10 minutes walk from the airport. There is a boardwalk running along the seafront. This is where I saw my 1st wildlife and it was exactly how I imagined the Galapagos to be. Many sealions can be seen on the rocks and beaches or playing in the water. The distincrive barks of the alpha males can be heard everywhere. Marine iguanas also adorn the rocks, soaking up the sunshine, alongside the very bright and colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs.
Many restaurants and bars also line the seafront with excellent food and fabulous views and happy hour cocktails.
Things to do
The 360 tour is a boat tour of the whole island with stops for photos and snorkeling. En route we saw 2 schools of dolphins.
The 1st stop is Rosa Blanca Bay, a very calm snorkeling spot. Here there are sharks, turtles and rays, I saw the biggest ray I have ever seen.
On land here is also where I saw my first blue footed booby, very exciting.
There is also a chance to see some local fishing techniques and eat a lunch of fresh sashimi amongst other local delicacies.
The 2nd snorkeling session is at Sardine Bay where there is also a wonderful white sand beach. Unfortunately, the day of my trip the weather took a turn for the worse and it was much too rough to dock there. So we visited a different beach.
The last snorkeling spot is at the famous Kicker Rock. It’s Spanish name is Leon Dormido meaning sleeping lion, which is exactly what it looks like. This is one of the iconic dive and snorkeling sites in the Galapagos Islands. A chance to swim with sealions, marine iguanas, rays, turtles and reef sharks. There is also a chance to see the hammerhead sharks which are here all year round.
Because of the strong winds and high waves it was only possible to snorkel a small portion of the more sheltered section of the rock for a short time.
So no hammerhead sharks, still worth the experience. I did swim with so many giant turtles, rays, white tipped reef sharks, shoals of fish and my first sealions. The visibility wasn’t great, so photos not great but fantastic memories. This is a great way of seeing a lot in a short time.
It is possible to take a dive or snorkeling trip just to Kicker Rock. I met other divers and snorkellers who had seen the school of hammerheads.
Exploring the island by car
There are also many attractions on land. This tour covers some of the best sights. This was offered by the owner of my guesthouse and was a very inexpensive way of seeing more of the island.
The 1st visit was to El Junco lagoon. This volcanic crater is the only permanent fresh water lake on the Galapagos Islands and has a rich variety of birdlife. Frigate birds bathe in the waters and there are beautival views over the island.
It was sunny when we set off but the other side of the island was rainy, foggy and windy. I couldn’t see the lagoon, let alone the birds on it. Still it was good to have a hike and I was accompanied along the way by lots of very friendly Darwin finches.
The next stop was to have my first encounters with giant tortoises at the sanctuary and breeding center. I was mesmerised. The center is free and no guide is required. Of course there are strict rules about always keeping a distance of 2 meters and not touching the animals. The walk around the reserve is lovely, you can see hatchlings, baby tortoises and many fully grown giants.
its purpose is to increase the survival rate of new hatchlings in the wild. They are kept at the center for the first few years of life because this is when they are particularly vulnerable to introduced predators.
There’s a big breeding programme going on in the islands to protect these remarkable creatures and release them into the wild on other parts of the islands. They are endangered or critically endangered depending on the sub-species.
The last stop was a beautiful Puerto Chino beach, I was the only one on it. Actually I should say I was the only person, of course I had a few friends.The waves were too high to be able to snorkel but it was a beautiful spot and a lovely walk to it.
Where to Stay
I stayed at La Posada de Jose Carlos.
It is only 500 meters from the airport. Very hospitable owners, delicious breakfast with fresh fruit salad, fresh bread and omelette with lots of herbs or frittata. Excellent value for money. They offer free bike and snorkel rental, organise trips around the island at a very reasonable price and can book other tours.
For something a bit larger:
has balconies, hammocks and fabulous views. Perfect for a family.
San Cristobal is a lovely, friendly, laid-back island.
What to see and do
The Fish Market
The Charles Darwin Research Station.
Where to stay
Things to see and do
Asilo de la Paz
Post Office Bay
Where to Stay on Floreana
Things to see and do
Poza de los Flamingos
The Wall of Tears
The island of Isabella wasn’t always a national park. Between 1946 and 1959 it housed a penal colony. It made use of the infrastructure left by the Americans after the 2nd World War.
The ‘Wall of Tears’ was built by the prisoners. It had absolutely no purpose, it was just a punishment for the prisoners and a way of wearing them out and oppressing them. It is 7 meters high, 100 meters long and 3 meters wide. Many died during its construction.
The prison camp is long gone, even the concrete base is being reclaimed by the jungle. The ‘Wall of Tears’ has been preserved as a memorial to the hardships endured by those who were forced to build it. Locally it is said that sometimes screams emit from the walls and that the area has a heavy atmosphere.
The guide on my snorkelling trip was from the islands. His grandfather came to the islands as a guard in the camp. He never forgot the terrible treatment of the prisoners by those in charge of the camp, the punishments, the executions. None left the island to be able to report the abuse.
Finally in the 1950s the truth was exposed and the camp closed down. It was then decided to turn the island into a national park. The prisoners were given the choice of staying on the island or returning to the mainland, both as free men. Most stayed and it is believed that descendants of these men make up 70% of the island’s population.
The hike to the Wall of Tears is very scenic. To reach the entrance you can walk along the very beautiful:
Puerto Villamil Beach.
This is another of the island’s attractions and is one of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the Galapagos. There is so much wildlife to see along the way. The rocks are a favourite spot for marine iguanas to sunbathe, more than a hundred of them
Pelicans put on a show divebombing into the water for fish. I also spotted a blue footed booby on the rocks. On the seashore plovers and oystercatchers dart in and out of the water.
Alternatively there is a path/road which runs alongside the beach past a lovely little cemetery.
First you can stop off at flamingo lagoon and then continue to the entrance to the hike via the road or beach. It is also possible to cycle. Hiking the trail will take around 2 hours each way or 1 hour each way by bike.
There is much to see along the way and many stops at viewpoints, lagoons and mangroves.
There is also much wildlife, part of the walk is along the avenue of the tortoises and I saw 3 wild, giant tortoises and many Darwin finches and lava lizards will accompany you on the journey. The hike was one of the highlights of my trip.
Concha de Perla
Just before the ferry dock a boardwalk through the mangroves will take you to pearl beach. This is a very popular snorkeling spot. Here you can snorkel with sea lions, turtles, colorful fish and sometimes rays and marine iguanas.
All of the above activities on Isabela are completely free with no entrance fees. Many places in town rent snorkeling gear for a small fee.
This was my favourite snorkeling experience in the Galapagos. I took a tour to snorkel these astounding lava tunnels. It was a very choppy boat ride in places and quite a feat to navigate through the crashing waves and weave a path through the narrow channels.
The snorkeling through the maze of lava tunnels was marvellous. So many giant Pacific green turtles, at times it was difficult to get out of their way. Then I saw my 1st ever seahorse, incredible. Then another! Close encounters with black tip and white tip reef sharks, rays, needle fish and a lobster. What an incredible snorkeling experience.
There was also spectacular scenery and more wildlife on land. A baby booby! Notice no blue feet, they start to turn blue as the bird gets older, the bluer the feet, the older the bird.
I also saw my 1st Galapagos penguins.
What an amazing place, to be able to see so many spectacular things in one day.
Hiking the Sierra Negra Volcano