Our Trip to the Galápagos Islands

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perfect picture for a  postcard
perfect picture for a postcard (View on flickr)

Note: You can see all the pictures of the Galápagos trip here.

Having cycled all this way, we decided since we were kind of in the neighborhood, we should visit the Galapagos Islands, which are part of Ecuador and 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian coast. We made the reservation for an 8 day tour of the Galapagos through the Happy Gringo travel agency in Quito, which had been recommended by another cyclist. Not knowing exactly when we would get there we communicated through email for a few days prior to our arrival in Ecuador. I was very impressed with their quick and thorough responses to our thousand questions.

When we finally got everything arranged, we had reservations on a 100-year-old twin-masted ship called the Sulidae (built in Denmark at the turn of the 20th century). They call it the pirate ship because of its age, style, and because it's painted black as night. Seeing the ship for the first time, I knew we would have a unique experience.

We flew out of Quito and arrived at the San Cristóbal airport where we met most of other passengers we would share this experience with. Right off, I knew we would all have a great time together. They seemed like similar folks with similar interest and all choosing to do a similar medium cost adventure. There was a couple from Canada, a couple from Australia, a mother and two adult children from Denmark, a newly in-love couple from Germany, and Ken, a masters student who reminded me of a National Geographic photographer.

Sulidae - the 1901 yacht we sailed on in the Galapagos
Sulidae - the 1901 yacht we sailed on in the Galapagos (View on flickr)

When we boarded the ship after the group briefing we were shown to our cabins. We did seem to get the smallest of the cabins and the smelliest. But luckily we did not bring much luggage, and our three small panniers just fit under the bottom bunk. I got the top bunk with a hatchway that opened so I could sleep cooler at night. We figured out what the smell was from the small bathroom that was part of our cabin and it was basically the combination of mildew, sea, and the nature of the beast. All week it would a challenge to manage, especially during times we experienced rougher seas. We did not plan on spending much time there other than sleeping so we just coped with it. We had the small room and more toward the front of the boat where we felt more of the rise and fall of the ship during the times when we where sailing (always at night). The people in the back of the boat had larger spaces, but the sound of the pumps and the motor were going all night long.

blue footed boobie and sea lion
blue footed boobie and sea lion (View on flickr)

The purpose of the trip was to see the wonders of the Galapagos Islands and we did that! During the 8-day trip we saw an extensive part of the Galapagos Island and had no time to sit and relax. We were on the go the whole tour from 8:00 in the morning to 8:00 at night. We brought along books we had imagined we would need to pass the time but hardly read a chapter the whole trip.

The crew sailed the boat at night and we arrived at a new place before the morning meal. After the morning meal would would take the panga, the (very) small motor boat to either an island to hike or a new place to snorkel or swim with the sea lions or motor around seeing the wonders.

a bunch of iguanas
a bunch of iguanas (View on flickr)

The first day we walked a nature trail on San Cristóbal Island and learned about the delicate environment that is home to much life that only can be found in this area. Actual the amazing thing about the Galapagos is that the animals, birds and many plants have adapted to each particular island.

During the next 8 days we would take many nature walks, guided by Raúl, the well informed park ranger/guide who was born in the area. In English, he educated us about the magic of the islands. I never tired of seeing black marine iguanas (they swim and dive, deep!) sunning on the black lava rocks, the restful sea lions lazing on the beach and or admiring the 500-pound giant tortoises munching on grass. Living up to 175 years, one old tortoise we meet was supposedly born during the time Charles Darwin did his research at the Galapagos Islands.

lava iguana
lava iguana (View on flickr)

In 1835 Charles Darwin studied and noted the similarities and differences of the flora and fauna and finally concluded that the species, in order to survive, would gradually alter based on environmental conditions. After 20 years of research he published the "The Origin of the Species by Natural Selection" in 1859.

What I enjoyed most was the snorkeling and swimming. Randy and I rented wetsuits and snorkeling gear so during the hours in the water we were comfortable and enjoyed the feast of underwater life. The most entertaining was swimming with the friendly and curious sea lions. They would swim right up to our masks and just about kiss the glass before swimming around in a circle and returning. One group of sea lions actual absconded with the anchor of our small motorboat and hung it up in some rocks. Randy had the most fun diving down into the deep water and being surrounded with many these wonderful creatures. Together they would twist and dive and resurface for a breath of air and descend once again for another frolic in the sea.

Randy playing with the sea lions
Randy playing with the sea lions (View on flickr)

Once Randy paying to much attention to his new friends and was swimming upside down near the bottom and clobbered his head on a massive rock. Laughing he came up for a breath holding his head and continued on with his play.

In total, we visited 4 islands: San Cristóbal Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabella. We saw the famous blue-footed boobies, the lava finches, magnificent frigatebird, swam with Galapagos penguins, marine Iguanas, land Iguanas, Darwin finches. Galapagos hawks, and doves. pelicans, and Sally Lightfoot crabs. We visited several reserves and research centers,

We rode some very old and tired horses up to the second largest crater in the world on the Fernandina island. But the day was foggy and rainy so we did not see the crater. Three of the 16 horses fell during our trip including mine. My horses footing was shaky at best. It tripped forward onto its front two legs and forward I followed. I gripped on to the neck which softened my landing and I just rolled down and up on to my feet. I was a little bruised for a week or so but nothing major. One family who are experts on horses refused to ride the horses because they felt they where underfed and not fit to have riders and perhaps this is why 3 riders went down.

volcano chico
volcano chico (View on flickr)

We did get a beautiful view of Volcan Chico with newish lava flows. The old flows have turned red from the release of iron and the massive pitch-black flows from the 1968 eruption lie over the older oxidized under-base creating a surrealistic moonscape.

Another adventure we went on was by fishing boats. Because of the safety factor, the expedition went out on two boats which each had two 250HP engines. During the one hour trip to the lava tubes where we were going to snorkel the boats pounded through the open water.

finding our way to los tuboles
finding our way to los tuboles (View on flickr)

The boat slammed so many times, I imagine I am 1 inch shorter (if that is possible) after the spine crushing expedition. Once we got close to the cove the real adventure started. In order to get to the cove we had to find a way to shore through the 3 -5 foot surf waves. After scouting for a route through the surf for 30 minutes and many tries the fishermen finally succeeded by revving up the two powerful outboard motors and raced the surf into the quieter waters of the cove.

mangrove reflection
mangrove reflection (View on flickr)

Our driver put a handle of one motor between his legs, up into his crotch and the other motor he directed with his left hand. Once into the coves we swam with sharks, giant tortoises, Galapagos penguins, school of tuna and tons of other colorful fish. The collapsed lava tubes provide an enchanting cove of lava arches, brackish water just right to support giant swimming turtles and intermingled mangrove trees. I have never seen a more magical place.

The boat ride out of the caves was even more treacherous than the ride in. Our boat almost got creamed by the other boat on one failed attempt. The boat we rode in made it out after a half a dozen tries, but the other boat made it safely out of the crashing waves only after 30 minutes of trying and failing. The trick is to wait until there is a perfectly quiet set of waves. I did admire the fishermen's patience, skill and experience.

group dinner
group dinner (View on flickr)

One of the best parts of our trip was the wonderful food cooked by Carolina. Every meal she made was great, including homemade deserts. She cooked these fine meals in a space no bigger then 4' x 6'. How she created all those masterpieces in such a small space aboard a rocking ship, I will never know but I will remember her tortas, chocolate mouse, Carmel cheesecake and the shrimp bisque. Three fine meals a day were served up to twelve of us hunger explorers.

The ship sailed at night for 6 to 10 hours most nights in order to reach another island. It was rougher then we had anticipated but all but one night we got some sleep, well most of the time. The last night was the roughest.

group shot
group shot (View on flickr)

I had to close my hatch above my bed because of the waves crashed on to the deck and into my air hole. That night I do not want to experience again. I felt real bad for the new passenger we picked up for the last night of our trip and it was the beginning of her trip. She was sicker then a dog. I wonder how she survived.
The whole trip was wonderful: the crew, the places we visited, and the folks we shared this incredible week with. It is amazing that a small bunch of strangers for all over the world can become such good friends in a short period of time. It must be the magic of the place.

florenda borrenas bay
florenda borrenas bay (View on flickr)

If you are thinking of going to the Galapagos Islands, arranging a trip on a ship is a way to see more of the area. Go on a ship with 12 passengers which makes the experience very interment, faster to embark and easier on the delicate resources. Large ships with many passengers is taxing on a delicate environment and may be prohibited in the future. Pay more then you think you can for a quality boat. Go on the biggest boat you can find to make the sailing smoother, but not more people. Take sea sickness pills before you need them.

Swimming with the Galapagos Sea Turtle
Swimming with the Galapagos Sea Turtle (View on flickr)

Go during the ocean's quiet time (not that we know when that is...). The high season costs more and is during July and August but it may also be the high season for the wind and the waves. No mater, just do it and you will come away with many wonderful memories of a place of incredible beauty.