South America

Secrets of the incredible Galapagos Islands (9 surprises I found there)

baby sea lion Galapagos islands

 

The Galapagos Islands – sound exotic, right?! I remember learning about Charles Darwin’s theories back in grade school and hearing of the Galapagos Islands for the first time. A cluster of islands in the middle of nowhere; somewhere people surely didn’t visit (or so I thought). We laughed about a bird named the blue footed booby, which would’ve been even funnier had we known the males attract females by dancing with their sexy blue feet.

 

 

blue footed booby Galapagos islands
The one and only blue footed booby

 

Fast forward to 2009, when we were planning a trip for 2010 and my boss at the time had just returned from the Galapagos Islands. Her stories and photos easily sold me (if you are reading this April, thanks!). In fact, I could hardly believe some of her tales and HAD to find out for myself.

 

The Galapagos Islands are a cluster of 13 larger and seven smaller islands that are part of Ecuador, but lie nearly 1000 kilometres West of the mainland, straddling the equator. Only four of the islands are inhabited – Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal, and Floreana. Four of the six islands we visited had no one there but our group of 16 plus guides. It’s friggin’ hot and humid – some days we hiked in 37 degree celsius heat with full humidity. Nick was in a full sweat after 10 minutes at the hotel pool.

 

How do I explain this place in words? Well, first I’d say if I had to choose the most memorable place I’ve ever been, the Galapagos Islands would be it. It’s also in my Top 10 Exhilarating Travel Experiences.

 

 

Quick overview of our time in the Galapagos Islands/itinerary

 

The Galapagos Islands were the highlight of our 2010 trip to South America (the remainder of the trip was in Quito, Ecuador and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). We spent three days on Santa Cruz Island, then boarded a G Adventures boat (the G1 or “Pelikano”) with 14 other passengers for five days of sailing to five additional islands – Floreana, Espanola, North Seymour, South Plaza and Santa Fe.

 

why are the Galapagos islands unique, sailing the galapagos islands
The 16-passenger G Adventures (then GAP Adventures) boat we sailed on for five days

 

sailing Galapagos islands bar
Boat’s gotta have a bar, right?!

 

This wasn’t a “rest and relax” holiday. It was an adventure trip where each day we were awoken at 6:30 a.m. to explore one or two different islands. This involved fascinating and educational hikes, snorkelling once or twice a day for up to an hour or more, having dinner and chatting with people from all over the world on our boat, and not daring to have more than two drinks for fear of a seasickness hangover (we had learned our lesson, see #8).

 

But you can make the Galapagos whatever you want it to be.

 

I had a slight idea what it would be like, but it continually surprised me. Why? Read on to find out.  NOTE: All photos in this post are our original photos.

 

 

Surprise #1: We knew there’d be wildlife, but not THAT much

 

When we checked into our hotel in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island upon arrival, we went out to the back patio to see sea lions lounging in the shade beside the tables, a curious iguana roaming, a pelican perched near the bar and a crew of Sally Lightfoot crabs on the rocks. It didn’t take long for a sea lion to pop up out of the ocean and swiftly dive into the hotel pool, swim the length of it, jump out and plop back into the ocean. WHERE THE HELL WERE WE?!

 

Somewhere awesome!

 

First off, there are sea lions EVERYWHERE. Aside from in the hotel pool, they were all over the beaches. Trying to get on our boat. Lying on the floor of restaurants. Right beside you while you’re snorkelling. Especially abundant at the fish market.

 

 

sea lions on the beach, espanola island, Galapagos
I’m tuckered out too

 

There are also iguanas a plenty, often snuggling in clusters. On the beach. At the hotel. On the hiking trail. Fighting in front of you and eating each others’ eggs. Strolling past you as you’re laying in the sand clutching your stomach (I’m really building this up, aren’t I?). The coolest thing about the iguanas is that there are so many different colours, shapes and sizes of them. It’s Darwinism right before your eyes!

 

 

why are the galapagos islands unique, iguanas
Iguanas in all shapes and sizes… it’s evolution baby

 

Then there are the giant tortoises. We hired a local guy who knew zero English to take us to see them in the wild, and tried our best with a few words of Espagnol (“Cuanto anos tortugas?” as he’s shaking his head). We saw five or six giant old tortoises though so mission accomplished.

 

 

giant tortoises Santa Cruz island Galapagos islands
Watching giant tortoises on Santa Cruz Island

 

And let’s not forget the birds. Exotic birds, mating birds, birds with blue feet. Frigate birds, pink flamingoes, nazca boobies, pelicans, herons, finches, and huge waved albatrosses. Galapagos penguins swimming by you while you’re snorkelling. Nick and I had become “birders” at the ripe old ages of 28 and 29.

 

magnificent frigatebird galapagos islands
The male “magnificent frigatebird” on North Seymour island inflates its bright red gular (throat pouch) to attract females. The ones with the best pouches gets the best laydayyyyz!

 

Then there’s the underwater surprises – rays, eels, reef sharks, sea turtles, tons of fish, and of course the sea lions. We snorkelled each day we were there and I was in snorkelling heaven, especially with the clear, warm water (see also #6).

 

snorkelling with sea turtles Galapagos islands
Snorkelling with sea turtles off North Seymour Island

 

We also saw snakes, crabs, various spiders and insects. So if you’re a wildlife geek like me (I think this trip may have made me one), I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed by the Galapagos.

 

 

Galapagos snake
A Galapagos snake. I just googled it and they can be “slightly poisonous to humans.” Then I remembered our guide shouted “PUTA MADRE!!” when he saw it.

 

 

Surprise #2: The wildlife doesn’t give a shit you’re right beside them

 

In fact, you could touch them and they’d keep sleeping, eating, or playing. Of course you’re not supposed to touch them, but sometimes they get all up in your biz. Or you want a sea lion selfie, and they’re happy to oblige.

 

Wildlife in the Galapagos has never had a reason to feel threatened by humans. They’ve always owned the place, and humans have never been a predator. Although fear is a basic instinct in animals, they haven’t had to invoke it and have lived in relative harmony where for the most part, one animal isn’t another’s dinner.

 

So instead, we were probably more scared of them than they were of us. It’s human instinct right? Because animals can be territorial, protective, aggressive, or even cause disease. But we interacted from close distances and it was pretty unreal.

 

Galapagos wildlife, why are the Galapagos islands unique
Top L: Nick and a booby; Top R: me almost getting whipped by a sea lion fin; Bottom L: iguana face-off; Bottom R: sea lions galore

 

 

S#3: Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island

 

We would’ve never gone there unless we were told about it. This adventure to an awesome and beautiful place with hardly anybody there involved:

 

  1. Walking 45 minutes in high humidity and heat through a path in the bush
  2. Coming out of the path to see one of the most beautiful, long, quiet and deserted beaches I’ve ever seen
  3. Walking down the beach, marvelling at the beauty, and watching large birds soar above our heads
  4. Getting to what we thought was the end of the beach and seeing a heaping pile of iguanas for the first time
  5. Coming curiously close to them and realizing they couldn’t care less we were there
  6. Realizing you can go around a corner and end up at another deserted beach that was completely calm and perfect for swimming (Tortuga Bay was not)
  7. Seeing plants and cactuses we’d never seen before
  8. Wondering why no one was at this gorgeous and quiet place!?
  9. Having a ridiculously long walk back, but feeling super happy nonetheless

 

Galapagos islands unique, Espanola Island
Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island

 

iguanas at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island
Iguana party, Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island

 

 

S#4: It’s more developed than I thought it would be

 

Considering most of the Galapagos islands are uninhabited, I figured the inhabited ones wouldn’t be very developed. I can’t speak to all of them, but Santa Cruz had nice hotels, great restaurants, yummy street food, a couple of bars, and some funky shopping in Puerto Ayora where we stayed.

 

It was perfect because there were no high-rise hotels or mega resorts, no air-con shopping malls, and no streets full of tourists. The amenities were just the right amount to keep it comfortable and very enjoyable. We stayed at Hotel Solymar, which was nice but fairly simple. It was on the ocean, had a small pool and outdoor bar/patio, and clean and comfortable rooms.

 

I managed to remember two of the restaurants we ate at – The Rock Galapagos (casual seafood restaurant/lounge) and Red Mangrove Aventura Restaurant (sushi/Asian) – both were good.

 

Hotel Solymar Peurto Ayora Galapagos
Top L: Hotel Solymar in Puerto Ayora; Top R: sushi at Red Mangrove Aventura; Bottom L: seafood at The Rock Galapagos; Bottom R: pool and ocean view at Hotel Solymar

 

 

S#5: The snorkelling conditions and underwater sights were amazing

 

Each day we had long snorkels at various islands and sites. The water was not cold – I remember it being the perfect pool temperature – equatorial, indeed. It was clear and calm. We were in the middle of the Pacific, but it felt like we were in the Caribbean.

 

Frolicking around with the sea lions and coming within touching distance was a highlight. We watched sea turtles float by effortlessly and disrupted giant silver bait balls. There was a sneaky moray eel at one site and a couple smooth gray rays along with a reef shark at another. Then all of a sudden… a Galapagos penguin! I am forever sad I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo of it.

 

A note on scuba diving: it’s apparently amazing in the Galapagos Islands, but “advanced” due to currents and conditions. I heard a scary story, then read another one, which prompted me to cancel my diving research. But if you are a confident and experienced diver, I hear the Galapagos is the place to spot hammerhead sharks.

 

Snorkelling Galapagos islands, sea turtle, snorkelling with sea lion, why are the Galapagos islands unique
Snorkelling adventures with sea turtles, tropical fish, sea lions, rays, eels, and bait balls (Nick pictured).

 

 

S#6: Each island we visited was different

 

Not only are the landscape, topography and vegetation sometimes different on each island, the wildlife is too. It spices things up, making it more exciting to explore the islands.

 

You might hit up Santa Fe island and see the desert-like scrub, cacti, and huge, dry-skinned yellow iguanas. If you visit Espanola you may see massive waved albatrosses and the picture-perfect turquoise beach at Gardner Bay with sea lions sleeping on the powder white sand. On Floreana you’ll be treated to one of the world’s only green-sand beaches and a huge herd of pink flamingoes.

 

espanola island, galápagos islands
Gorgeous views off Espanola Island (can you spot the iguana?)

 

hiking at South Plaza Island, Galapagos
Hiking at Santa Fe Island

 

flamingoes, Floreana island, Galapagos islands
A flock of flamingoes on Floreana Island

 

S#7: The quietness and feeling of remoteness was eerily amazing

 

If you’ve spent a day or a few hours on an uninhabited island you may know the feeling. Spending five days with only 14 other people every place you go, hiking on islands where no one is there, and snorkelling in waters where there aren’t a hundred other tourists was… magical. There were one or two other small groups at a couple of the dry landings, but that’s it.

 

Being in a setting like this puts our chaotic, digitally attacked lives into perspective. The rat race of Calgary, Canada (the city we were living in at the time) seemed absurd. Thank God there are places like this that you can escape to, and let the calm and tranquil surroundings help you regroup.

 

 

Tortuga bay, Santa Cruz, Puerto ayora, why are the Galapagos islands unique
The beach “around the bend” from Tortuga Bay

 

 

S#8: I am not immune to seasickness after all

 

I had to throw this one in here. I’ve been on many boats and have never been overly seasick (Nick used to say I have a “stomach like a goat.”) Since we were still kid-free and in our 20s, it only made sense to scope out the bar scene on Santa Cruz one night. We had a snorkelling trip booked the next morning, but didn’t think much of it.

 

We found a cool little bar called La Panga Disco and met a group of guys who were sailing around the world. Their stories were so interesting and the next thing we knew we were doing shots and wearing Rastafarian wigs…

 

The next morning we rallied to our snorkelling excursion, which ended up being us and a group of older women from New York. The snorkelling was great, but it didn’t take long for the hangover to give way to seasickness. Thank God the New Yorkers had Dramamine! It takes a while to kick in though, so when we hit dry land all we could do was lay in the sand until we felt the relief. I vividly remember feeling insanely sick, and every couple of minutes an oblivious iguana would walk right past me, almost too close for comfort. There was no way in hell I was moving, and neither were they.

 

la panga disco, puerto ayora, galápagos islands, why are the Galapagos islands unique
OK maybe it was just me wearing the wig

 

iguanas galapagos islands, why are the Galapagos islands unique
A handful of these guys walked right beside us as we lay in agony with seasickness…

 

 

S#9: The Galapagos Islands all around exceeded my expectations (there really isn’t anywhere else like it)

 

You know how sometimes you go somewhere and it’s awesome and beautiful, but it’s exactly how you’d expect it to be? Well this wasn’t like that. There were so many “wow” moments and I literally can’t think of anything I didn’t like there. Each day was different, exciting, and full of adventure. The islands are clean and pristine. No plastic floating in the ocean here, folks.

 

espanola island beach, Gardner bay beach, Galapagos beach, sea lions
Gardner Bay, Espanola Island

 

The one downside is that it’s not very easy to get to and it can be expensive if you book a tour before you arrive. It’s much cheaper to book a sailing trip or day trips to see the islands once you’re there.

 

I’d recommend the Galapagos Islands for families, couples, singles, and active seniors. I went to the Galapagos Islands with the expectation of soaking up some wildlife watching, equatorial heat, and adventure. We got that and much, much more.

 

Dying to go but worried it’ll cost too much? Check out this great article from Just Chasing Sunsets on DIY the Galapagos Islands – On a Budget.

 

iguanas Galapagos islands

 

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