Galapagos Islands are a dream destination for animal and nature lovers. The large variety of animals, plants and landscapes that are spread across the many islands make it a favourite destination for most visitors.
There are many different ways to visit the Galapagos, depending on your time and interests. You can stay on one or two islands and take day trips to nearby islands. Or take a multi-day cruise which allows you to see more islands with a larger variety of landscapes and animals. There are also live-aboard dive ships. We did a little of each. We went on a 5-day/6-night cruise where we began and ended on different islands. From these two islands we went on one-day dive trips. This allowed us to experience many different parts of the Galapagos.
Galapagos is an archipelago of 127 volcanic islands and islets 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador. This isolated location has resulted in a large amount of endemic plants and animals. Some islands even have their own endemic species specific to that island. Because of this diversity, Charles Darwin was able to go from island to island and compare how the unique differences in the species allowed them to survive and thrive in different environs.
The landscapes are very interesting and surprisingly different. Some islands are covered in solidified lava. These islands have plants and animals that have adapted to the different ground. One is the lava cactus which can be seen poking through cracks in the hardened lava. Small lava lizards quickly scurry between these cracks searching for food. In many areas, the lava has eroded resulting in interesting patterns, some that look like works of art with bright colours and unusual designs.
Other islands are not volcanic, but were formed by geological seismic uplifts. These islands often have bright red earth and dramatic rocky cliffs which provide refuge for many birds. The vegetation is also different. We saw many Opuntia Cactus, a type of prickly pear, that is endemic to Galapagos. Another interesting plant was the bright red ground cover called Galapagos Common Carpet Weed. It added lovely colour to our pictures. There were many of the aromatic Palo Santo trees. Its wood is burned as incense or used to make an essential oil. When we were there these trees were without leaves making them appear very ominous.
The capital city of Puerto Ayora is on Santa Cruz Island. The fish market in town looked like a usual fish market in South America, until we saw it from behind. There were dozens of sea lions and pelicans loudly begging for scraps. This must be a frequent occurrence because the market staff didn’t even flinch. They just tossed the unwanted parts of the fish over their shoulders to the waiting crowd.
On the other side of Santa Cruz is a remarkable lava tunnel. The tunnel is 1 km long and was formed when one layer of molten-lava solidified but the lava below kept going. This left an empty shell of lava with an inner empty core. We went through the tunnel from one end to the other. Mostly we could walk upright, but at times it was so shallow that we had to crawl. The inside of the tunnel was surprisingly smooth and looked hand-made rather than formed by a river of lava. It was very bizarre to be inside this formation.
Bartoleme Island has one of the most iconic images of the Galapagos with the Rock Pinnacle. The rock was formed by an underwater exploding volcano. The island’s viewpoint above gives an awesome view of the pinnacle, the island’s beaches and the surrounding islands.
There are many usual animals and reptiles on the islands including the three types of iguanas. There are dark black marine iguanas that spend most of their time in the ocean. There is also the yellow coloured land iguanas. In areas where these two iguanas can meet, there are the unusual hybrid iguanas. These are born from male marine and a female land iguanas. The hybrids always have light colouring on their neck, but otherwise may take on characteristics from either.
Sea lions are abundant on most of the islands and in the water. They are large, clumsy things on land, but are so much fun in the water. They love to play with you when you’re snorkeling by swimming somersaults and spinning around you. They came so close that sometimes our pictures are just of their nostrils. We only swam with one Galapagos penguin. He swam by us like a torpedo when we were snorkeling. I thought they’d be fun to swim with, but he wanted nothing to do with us.
Some islands have resident giant Galapagos turtles, which can weigh up to 417 kg. When we were driving on one of the islands there was a giant turtle in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. It took two park rangers to carry it to the side of the road. Other islands have hatching grounds for green turtles. We didn’t see these turtles, but did see their tracks in the sand as they went back to sea after laying their eggs.
There are numerous birds in Galapagos. The famous Darwin finches include 15 different species that have varying characteristics depending on the food available to them on each island. Darwin noticed the differences in these birds and began to develop his theories of evolution. The main differences that you can see are the beaks which range from short and stubby to long and thin; their colouring that ranges from black to yellow; and the different sizes of the birds. They are very flighty birds, and it was difficult to take pictures of them but here are a few pictures to help you understand the differences that started Darwin’s theories. It really made us realize how curious he had to have been to take note of these differences and want to understand why they occur.
More entertaining than scientific, we walked through a field to see frigate birds. The males were displaying their huge red gular sacs on their necks. They use these sacs to attract females. They look so awkward trying to move their heads, but the funniest thing was watching them fly with this huge red balloon hanging down.
Also funny to look at is the blue footed booby. Their feet are bright aquamarine blue contrasting to their white bodies and their piercing eyes. They have excellent vision which helps them be such good fishermen. The problem is they dive with their eyes open and after a few years, there is a lot of damage to their eyes. Older birds often become blind. We did see a few dead boobys lying on rocks. Apparently, this is common as they misjudge the water with their failing eyesight and crash into rocks instead of water.
There is amazing diving in Galapaogs. At Kicker Rock we saw huge schools of jack fish. One school formed such a large wall that they blocked out the sun. There were large flocks of eagle rays, and many colourful reef fish. We dove at Shark Point near Wolfe Island. Not only did we see a lot of sharks but we stopped at one spot to watch as hundreds of sharks swam past in a tight formation making it look like a busy highway of sharks. If you’re not an experienced diver be aware that many of the dive sites have very strong currents. Even as experienced diver, Richard was swimming about 1 m above Maggie when he was suddenly pulled up out of the water by a strong surge. He was tossed on to rocks and then sucked back in to the water. The description from the people on the boat was hysterical. They saw a diver doing a cartwheel across the surface rocks before landing back in the water. Thankfully he was okay, but there was confusion as to what happened to him for a while.
Choosing your type of visit to the Galapagos:
Staying on an island – Hotels are only allowed on the inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela. There are many day trips from each island, but you’re limited to how far you can go.
Cruises – You have to choose between a dive boat or a cruise boat. No boat does both:
- Dive boats – If you dive, you can visit many of the incredible dive sites in the area, but you can not visit any of the uninhabited islands.
- Cruise boats – If you go on a cruise boat, you will see many different islands with a large variety of plants and animals. On these boats though, there are opportunities to snorkel, but not dive.
Choosing a cruise boat
- Decide on the length of time – We did a 5 day 4 night cruise which really means 2 half days and 3 full days as the first and the last are only half days. and for us that was the best amount of time. This amount of time allowed us to visit a few different islands, see a variety of animals and plants, but it wasn’t so long that we were bored.
- Decide what you want to see – There are many different itineraries that include different islands, so do research on the islands first and decide which ones are on the top of your list. The look at which itineraries fit your interests.
- What size of boat is best – Smaller boats will be less stable, but as there are fewer people wanting to go to shore you will be able to visit all of the sites. Large boats are more stable and therefore easier on the stomach. The problem is that because there are so many people, not everyone gets to go on every excursion.
- All cruises will include A naturalist guide certified by the Galapagos National Park Department. You must have a guide to access the uninhabited islands of the national park.
For more pictures from Ecuador and video from our dive watch the YouTube presentation:
Whatever you chose, you’ll love your time in the Galapagos.
Coming Up Next: The Most Beautiful Colonial Towns in Colombia
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