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A Guide to the Galapagos Islands

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

History

The Galapagos Islands sit on top of a volcanic hotspot, one of the most volcanically active areas in the world. They are situated on the Nazca tectonic plate. Over millions of years layers of molten magma formed into islands. There are still 13 active volcanoes on the Galapagos Islands and there have been 60 recorded eruptions from 6 of these. The last one was in Jan 2022 with Wolf volcano, although this was not overly violent.
The islands were actually discovered by accident. In 1535 a ship carrying Fray Tomas Berlanga, Bishop of Panama, was blown off course whilst trying to sail from Panama to Peru. This was the first the world had heard of the islands. Although he did mention the giant tortoises, he was less than impressed by the inhospitable terrain and lack of water and grass.
Pirates found the Galapagos to be a perfect hiding spot. They were followed by whalers, the waters surrounding the islands are a breeding ground for sperm whales and the islands were home to colonies of fur seals. Giant tortoises were used as a food supply. The whale, fur seal and giant tortoise populations were decimated. Giant tortoises became extinct on some of the islands.
The earliest settlers made their home in Floreana Island. The 1st of these was an Irishman named Patrick Watkins or ‘Irish Pat’ , who was marooned there by his shipmates in 1807. He survived by growing vegetables and he exchanged these with whalers for rum and spent most of his 2 years on the island drunk.
He also ended up with 4 ‘helpers’, he treated like slaves. These were men from different boats who he would get drunk on rum then subdue them until their boat had sailed. One night whilst the crew of a whaling boat were off hunting for giant tortoise, these 5 men stole the ship and set sail for mainland Ecuador. When the ship arrived in Guayaquil, only Patrick Watkins was left onboard.
In 1832 the islands were annexed by Ecuador and small settlements were established. There was even a penal colony on Isabela Island.
On September 15th 1835 the HMS Beagle arrived in the Galapagos. On board was a young naturalist by the name of  Charles Darwin. He spent 5 weeks collecting biological and geolocical samples.
During his studies, he realised that the finches on the islands had different shaped beaks depending on which island they were from. He also noted differences in the 3 types of mockingbird who lived on different island and was also told of the difference in giant tortoise types from island to island.
He used this to evidence and develop his theory of evolution through natural selection which he published in his book ‘On the Origin of the Species’. This brought Darwin praise and recognition and changed the Galapagos forever.

The Galapagos Islands National Park

The Galapagos Islands National Park was established in 1959 and protects 97% of the entire land mass, an area of 3,000 square miles. The Galapos Ocean Reserve protects 50,000 square miles of ocean around the islands. An additional area of 23,200 square miles has been added to this. In 1987 the Galapagos Islands were declared a World Heritage Site.

Getting There

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

Giant Tortoise

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.

Marine Iguanas

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.

Sealions

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.

Galapagos Penguins

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.

Frigate Birds

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.

Land

There are 4 inhabited islands, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana. There are accommodations on all the islands.

San Cristobal

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

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.

Book 360 tour

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.

Diving at Kicker Rock

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:

Casa Verde Vacation Holiday Home

has balconies, hammocks and fabulous views. Perfect for a family.

San Cristobal is a lovely, friendly, laid-back island.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is the main tourist hub for the Galapagos and this is centered around the town of Puerto Ayora. It is much busier than the other islands. The main street is lined with travel agencies, many offering last minute cruise deals. Local restaurants offer good value deals of mains and sides, including a beer or soft drink. There are many souvenir shops.

What to see and do

The Fish Market

Puerto Ayora is not as pretty as the main towns of the other islands. However, the fish market is something that should not be missed, it is always entertaining with the local sealion, pelicans and herons all competing for scraps.

Tortuga Bay

This is one of the most picturesque beaches in the Galapagos. It can be reached on foot, the entrance is a 15 – 20 minute walk from the center of Puerto Ayora. The path to the beach is a lovely path flanked by cactus, plants flowers, finches and lizards and the walk will take 30 – 45 minutes.
There are 2 beaches, the first is a long expanse of white sand. This is brava or angry beach. Here there are big waves and strong currents, it is popular with surfers but not suitable for swimming. Turn right and a further 20 minute walk will bring you to mansa or calm beach. This is a calm and protected lagoon, ideal for snorkeling.
If you don’t fancy the walk then you jump on a water taxi for $10

The Charles Darwin Research Station.

A team of over 200 scientists and volunteers work here on conservation and research projects. There is also a giant tortoise breeding programme. Different sub species of giant tortoise can be seen here.
Different types of giant tortoise evolved differently to adapt to their environment. Some developed shells shaped like saddles. This allowed them to lift their heads higher to reach the cactus growing higher in the trees. Others developed dome shaped shells for islands where there is lots of vegetation on the ground. The research station is included on some cruise itineraries.
The body of the centre’s most famous resident ‘Lonesome George’ has been preserved.

Where to stay

I stayed at Hostel Muyoyo
This was a good option, in the center and only 5 minutes walk from the ferry.
Also highly recommended is:
Capitan Max B&B

Floreana

Floreana was the first of the Galapagos islands to be colononised, although today less than 200 people live on the island.
It has certainly been home to some colourful characters. I have already recounted the story of Patrick Watkins, the first inhabitant. In 1929 a German doctor by the name of Friedrich Ritter arrived on the island, accompanied by his lover Dore Strauch. They had both left their respective spouses and wanted to create a Garden of Eden on this then uninhabited island.
A somewhat eccentric man, he had removed all of his and Dore’s teeth and they shared a pair of false teeth made from steel. It was a hard existence and to combat the heat and the thorny vegetation, they would often work naked, except for a pair of knee high boots.
There would be trouble in paradise. In 1932 another German family, Heinz and Margret Wittmer and their 13 year old son Harry arrived on the island. Margret was also pregnant. They were nicknamed ‘the Galapagos Swiss Family Robinson.’
They were soon joined by another colourful character, an Austrian woman who called herself Baroness  Eloise von Wagner Bosquet  She was accompanied by her 2 lovers.There were many stories of the Baroness and her bohemian lifestyle. There was certainly conflict between the inhabitants. On 27 March 1934 the Baroness and one of her lovers disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
There were many theories as to what happened to them. Many believed that Friederich Ritter had murdered them, or had they been murdered by one of her other lovers? Margret Wittmer said the Baroness had told her that some friends were taking her on a boat to Tahiti. We will probably never know.
Later that year Friedrich died from food poisoning from eating contaminated chicken. This is quite strange given that he was a vegetarian and that his wife had no ill effects. After his death Dore returned to Germany.
The Wittmers remained on the island. Tragically Harry drowned in a boating accident and Heinz also passed away. Margret remained on the island until her death in 2000. Her remaining son Rolf, who was born on the island, still lives on Floreana.
Both Margret and Dore wrote memoirs of their time on the island, although they differ somewhat in detail.
Satan came to Eden – Dore Strauch
Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos – Margret Wittmer

Things to see and do

Asilo de la Paz

Originally used as a hiding place by pirates, these caves are where these original inhabitants made their homes. Also the freshwater spring which gave them their water source.

Post Office Bay

In the 18th century homesick sailors came up with an ingenious way of sending letters home. They would be away from their families for months, even years. They erected a barrel on Floreana Island. Inside the barrel they put their letters for home. These were collected by sailors on homeward bound ships who would deliver them on their return. It is a tradition which still continues to this day. It is possible for visitors to leave their letters in the barrel.

Where to Stay on Floreana

It is possible to visit Floreana on a day trip from Santa Cruz. There are a few accommodations on the island for those wishing to stay longer. There is a ferry from Santa Cruz to Floreana 3 times a week with a journey time of 2 hours. Unfortunately, the day I was due to go, the ferry broke down and no one could access the island. I could not take the next one in 2 days as was boarding my liveaboard boat.
This is a place that was recommended by fellow travelers I met.
El Pajas

Isabella Island

This is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, it’s actually bigger than all the other islands put together. I also love that the island is the shape of a seahorse, as this was where I saw my first seahorse, a very magical moment. It was formed by the joining together of 6 volcanoes, all but one of these are still active. It has the most giant tortoises living in the wild with a different sub species on each volcano. The waters around Isababella are the best to see whales and 16 different species of whale have been seen here.

Things to see and do

For those on a budget there are many activities here that are free and easily accessible.

Poza de los Flamingos

Right next to the main town of Puerto Villamil is this flamingo lagoon. There are viewing platforms and a walkway.  I visited here twice to observe these beautiful birds.

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.

Los Tintoreras

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.

Book a trip to Snorkel the Tunnels

Hiking the Sierra Negra Volcano

The most popular tour is to hike the trail up to the crater rim altbough, it is also possible to undertake longer hikes. From Puerto Villamil there is a 20.4 round trip trail which takes around 5 and a half hours. This is the volcano with the largest caldera, a circumference of 30km or 19 miles, it is also the shallowest and only 100m deep in places. It is one of the active volcanoes and last erupted in 2018. Much birdlife and land iguanas can be seen en-route. At one point the track was blocked by a bull.
The shorter hike to the crater is included in some cruise ship itineraries. Otherwise a tour can be arranged in town.
Hike the volcano
Horse riding tours to the rim are also offered.
Book a horse riding tour to the volcano rim
Unfortunately, on the day of my hike the weather was rainy and cloudy. It didn’t clear so there was no view of the crater or the spectacular views at all, only mist and cloud. It can also be quite muddy, so bear this in mind.
Where to stay
I stayed at:
Hostel Sandrita
This was perfect, especially for a solo traveller. Beautiful building, balcony, delicious, plentiful breakfast, spotlessly clean and only $35 a night.
For something beachfront with incredible views, this is highly recommended:
Cormorant Beach House
This was my favourite beach bar.

Travelling between the Islands

There are flights between San Cristobal and Baltra and from the airport there are buses waiting to take you on the 40 minute journey to Puerto Ayora.
There are 2 ferries a day between San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. The journey time is normally between 2 – 2.5 hours, although it depends on sea conditions. The journey time from Santa Cruz to Isabela also takes around 2 hours and there are 2 sailings a day.

Galapagos Cruises

The other option to visit the Galapagos is by cruise on a liveaboard boat. There are over 70 boats operating on the Galapagos islands. These boats are ranked by category and priced accordingly. There are budget, tourist superior, 1st class and luxury boats and catamarans. They also vary in size from 16 passengers up to 100. The cruises also vary in length from 4 – 17 days.
Those on limited time may want to book in advance. However for those with not so many constraints, there are many fantastic deals to be had. Many travel agencies in the Puerto Ayora offer last minute deals.
I visited many agencies and the deal I obtained was almost half price. My 8 day cruise was $2050. For solo travelers it is also possible to book a shared cabin. You will share with someone of the same sex, or if no other solo travelers book, you will be lucky and have a double cabin to yourself.
The next decision is which itinerary to choose. Most itineraries focus on the South or West islands. The South Island cruises will visit Espanola, Floreana and San Cristobal islands. Cruises to the West explore Isabela and Fernandino islands.
Cruises also visit many smaller islands and rocks, which it is not possible to visit independently or with a day trip. The days are packed full with normally 2 land based hikes and 2 snorkels. There are also opportunities to kayak. All cruises have a guide/naturalist to provide lots of information about the wildlife and history of the islands.
The food on my cruise was plentiful and delicious. 3 meals a day are served as well as snacks after the activities. Water, soft drinks and tea/coffee are included and alcoholic drinks can be purchased at the bar. Included in the price of my cruise was snorkel equipment and wetsuits. Some cruises charge for this which can be $150 for an 8 day cruise, so this needs factoring into the cost.
I had a wonderful experience on my cruise. I chose a 16 person boat which for me was perfect. It was a lovely mix of ages and nationalities.
I swam with penguins, sealions, marine iguanas, sharks, rays, colorful fish and so many turtles.
The land based activities were also excellent, huge lava fields, beautiful beaches, land iguanas, fur seals, Galapagos eagles, flamingoes, flightless cormorants and frigate birds, ever changing landscapes.
Another of my highlights were the stars. With no light pollution the stars were so spectacular. Also the Galapagos Islands straddle the equator. Our boat crossed the equator and the ship’s readings reached zeros. This means you can view stars from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres at the same time, very special.
I’m not sure if watching giant tortoises mate was wonderful or traumatic 😀
On the boat we were often joined by friendly sealions and seabirds.
If you are looking at booking a cruise, I would contact a local agency. This is the one I used. Josue gave me several options and explained the itineraries in great depth, he was very knowlegeable. I have subsequently seen him recommended in other travel groups.
Blue Sky Travel Agency

Conclusion

So hopefully this has been a comprehensive guide which answers all of your questions. Feel free to ask me anything else. I experienced the Galapagos Islands both by being land based and on a boat, you can now decide which is the right fit for you. Writing this has brought back so many wonderful memories. Happy travels.
Please also see my post on:
The Bolivian Salt Flats
Here are a few more photos to whet your appetite.

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