Galapagos: A Once in a Lifetime Trip To The Land That Time Forgot
My typical vacation consists of relaxing, being pampered, reading a mindless trashy novel, and occasionally taking a shore excursion by bus to someplace I’ve never been before... this Galapagos vacation in NO WAY resembled one of my typical vacations. I was lucky enough to sail on the Celebrity Xpedition to the Galapagos and it was the BEST vacation I ever had!
I have always been a fan of Charles Darwin and his fascinating works on the evolution of species as they relate to their environments. The volcanic islands of the Galapagos were one of his study grounds for plants, birds and reptiles that developed in isolation away from human development and interaction. The Galapagos National Park is a highly protected area and can only be visited with a permit and a naturalist guide, which is an effort to continue to protect and study these species.
My first crisis came when they told me I needed to put ten days of luggage in a 40-pound suitcase due to the air travel restrictions flying from Quito/Ecuador to Baltra.
I am a notorious over packer, and that is an understatement. I had to put my head around the fact this was not your typical cruise. There was no need for formal wear and high heels or even dressy night clothes. Hiking boots that go above your ankle and swim shoes were all the foot attire that was necessary (although I snuck in a pair of sandals, too). I packed clothes that were light colored, light weight and consisted mostly of khakis where the legs zipped off to shorts and well-ventilated shirts. Colors were only white, beige, green or blue... black would attract even more of the sun’s heat and bright colors would attract bugs. Yes, a bathing suit and few paperbacks made it in the luggage, but the paperbacks never made it out of the suitcase. Don’t bother taking fancy electronics, the Wi-Fi in this part is spotty, at best.
Day 1- Travel We flew into Quito, Ecuador. After a 40-minute ride, we arrived at the JW Marriott. It was a beautiful hotel. Quito is at 9,200 feet above sea-level and I was advised to bring some altitude pills, just in case.
Day 2- Quito City Tour
I did wake up with a slight headache, so I took two of the altitude pills and they seemed to work rather quickly. Breakfast and city tour were included in the package for the day. Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is packed with 18-th century architecture and is situated on a plateau lined with volcanoes.
Guagua Pichincha, just over six miles away, exploded over two decades ago covering Quito in ash. Cotopaxi, located about 31 miles south of Quito is a little more active and is considered part of the “Pacific Ring of Fire”. Don’t worry, we saw no signs of activity, just beauty. Both can be hiked (not by me, of course), if you have extra time.
Day 3- Flight to Baltra and Embarkation
This morning we got our documents early, took the transfer back to the airport and boarded our charter for the two-hour flight to Baltra. Once we arrived in Baltra, we donned life jackets and boarded the panga (like a zodiac) in small groups for the 15-minute trip to the ship. It was warm and humid, but we were met with cold towels by the whole crew, including the captain. Music was in the air as the guests walked a red carpet and were given mimosas. Here, your passports are taken momentarily by the purser’s desk and then returned.
(NOTE: This ship has no elevator). All drinks are complimentary, and a beautiful lunch buffet was set up on the back deck. After lunch the briefings start, snorkel gear is distributed, snorkel safety reviewed and then the naturalist onboard tells you what you are going to see the next day. You sign up for excursions based on how strenuous they are. I always picked the mild level; my sister always picked the high intensity. We circumnavigated Daphne Major, which is a volcanic island on which much study has been done on Darwin finches and their beak shape as they adapt to different environments. Dining is open seating and everything onboard closes by 10:30 pm because rest is recommended for the next day’s hikes.
Day 4- We anchored off Espanola. We have two landings today.
We first practiced the “Galapagos handshake” which is a safer way to board/disembark the pangas and then set off for a short beach walk off Garner Bay where the beaches were loaded with huge sea lions basking in the sun, followed by an optional beach snorkel. This was considered a “wet landing” as you physically got off the panga in the shallow waters. The sea lions didn’t seem phased by our presence and allowed us to take tons of pics of them while keeping a safe distance to not disturb their rest.
In the afternoon we landed at Suarez Point. There was a choice of a short two-hour rocky hike or a long rocky walk through the island, the biggest difference was that on the long walk you have a chance of seeing the waved albatross nesting grounds, which had just arrived back a few weeks prior with the sole purpose of nesting. I chose the short walk, and my sister went on the long walk and took pictures of the wildlife I missed. This was a “dry landing”, but I now realized why you need good boots that come above your ankles for extra support. We landed on a jetty with uneven wet sharp lava formed rocks. I was glad I took a walking stick and the socks really helped with the grip, but the
terrain was so hard on my legs and back and, quite honestly, I was scared I was going to fall. Sea lions lay on the beach, and many were nursing.
Many marine iguanas rambled slowly across our path, and they were visible in the brush on the side of our trail. They grow them big down here! We got to see lots of Nazca boobies and on this hike.
I got to see my first blue-footed booby, one of the famous and colorful inhabitants of the islands. At the very end of the short trail, like she was placed there to just to make us “short hikers” happy for the treacherous walk, was a huge nesting waved albatross, just waiting to be photographed. She must have wanted some “alone time” from the rest of her flock (hundreds of them) ... which my sister said was absolutely spectacular.
The naturalist told me that today was not the worst terrain... Day 6 will be. Tomorrow is supposed to be a breeze. No wonder people go to bed before 10 pm! I’m exhausted.
Day 5: We anchored off Floreana. We have two landings today.
The morning excursion took us to Cormorant Point, and I chose the long easy walk followed by optional snorkeling (choice of beach or deep water) . This island is the only one with flamingos in the wild.
We strolled to a lagoon where we saw hundreds of flamingos feeding. Their pink color was even more vibrant against the green sand. Our naturalist told us that the pink color is a result of eating shrimp and other crustaceans. During our stroll we also saw blue-footed boobies and the great frigate bird.
Our beach snorkel showed us some underwater treasures like red crab, snub-nose parrot fish , chocolate chip star fish, banded angle fish and lots more I never know names of. There’s only so many times you can yell “Hey, does anyone know what that is?” and not become annoying. The current is even strong off the beach, and I kept having to make my way back to the shore and not just float with my goggles in the water.
Our afternoon excursion was a panga ride with a stop at “Bahia Post Office” barrel. Our panga was welcomed to the island by a playful sea lion pup that kept swimming under the boat.
The Post Office barrel is only ashort 100-200 ft walk from the shore. This is the place where people “mailed” letters by leaving them in the old barrel and if a sailor or traveler were going to that place, they would deliver them. The custom continues today, but it's the excited tourists to the Galápagos Islands that are leaving them and delivering them back home. Most just want to see how long it takes.
Day 6: We anchored off Isabela Island. We have two landings today. In the morning we took a panga along Moreno Point. I learned another tip from the driver... polarized sunglasses are better to see activity under the water. The terrain was very rough lava fields. Here you get the best views of the three most active volcanoes in the Galapagos: Sierra Negra, Cerro Azul, and La Cumbre. I chose the extended panga tour, and my sister chose to include a long walk after a shorter panga tour. However, from the panga alone, I got great pictures of Galapagos penguins (one of the smallest penguin species in the world), Brown pelicans, sea turtles, flightless cormorant, and even saw a school of stingrays. My sister said that walking on the lava wasn't so bad, but it sure looked scary to me. Bottom line, I saw more species than she did while relaxing on the panga. Score!
The afternoon excursion was to Urvina Bay and you had a choice of a long, fast fitness walk (don't think so... but guess who did take it?) or, a short nature walk followed by optional snorkeling. It was an easy walk on hard sand. I saw about a dozen enormous land iguanas and one giant land tortoise; they wander right into your path. You need to stay alert. There was lots of shade and a nice breeze. Big difference from this morning’s terrain and it's the same island.
Day 7: We anchored off Fernandina for the morning and Isabela in the afternoon. We have two landings today.
For the morning we had a choice of a long walk around all of Fernandina or a half loop and return (not walking over the lava field). Fernandina is the western most island of the Galapagos as well as the youngest. It sits over the current “hot spot” in the Galapagos and is basically a shield volcano, La Cumbre. After today’s “dry landing” at Espinoza Point, we needed to walk through knee-high water for about 30 feet. Literally thousands of black iguanas were there, many with nests.
Plus, the flightless cormorants were out in force.
The afternoon “landing” was actually an extended panga ride around Vincente Roca Point. There was an optional deep-water snorkel for experienced snorkelers... not me. I’m not a strong swimmer and this channel is known for its upwelling of cold-water currents that bring in an abundance of marine life.
Many in our group did the snorkel and said that the penguins swam so close to them that some even brushed up against you, and just seemed to want to play.
On our panga tour we saw two different kinds of sea lions, blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants,
sea turtles, and the tiny Galapagos penguins.
Day 8: We anchored off Santa Cruz. We have two landings today.
The morning excursion was your choice of long walk, short walk, or super short walk on Santa Cruz. It was extremely hot and humid. We walked to the cliff to see the red-billed tropicbirds and swallow-tailed gulls nesting.
The trail was lined with pricky-pear cactus trees. Again, the land iguanas seemed not to care that we were there and just crawled out into our path.
The afternoon excursion on Dragon Hill included a rocky lava landing but it was well worth it, as it brought me face to face with a dragon! The endangered Cerro Dragon.
Scientists and researchers are working together to save this magnificent creature that roams this island. Here I also witnessed two large iguanas fighting...it was surreal. I felt like I got transported back in time and was a character in a “The Land that Time Forgot”.
Day 9: We anchored off Santa Cruz. We have one landing today.
We landed in the populated town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, home to both the Charles Darwin Foundation as well as the headquarters of the Galapagos National Park. We took a walking tour through the Charles Darwin Research Station. Here their focus is the conservation, protection, and research of the ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, whether it be mammal, marine, reptile or avian. This used to be home to “Lonesome George”,
the famous giant tortoise that was believed to be over hundred at the time of his passing in 2012. Today they are focused on breeding the giant tortoises to save them from extinction.
Next, rubber boots on our feet, we participated in the Scalesia Reforestation Project, an endemic tree that has lost much of its habitat in the Galapagos, adversely impacting wildlife that call the forest home, by planting a few seedlings.
Finally, we trekked with our group to the highlands where we were rewarded by a local meal of fried fish and organic vegetarian pesto spaghetti. School aged children danced in native costume encouraging our group to join them. Back on the ship, we were met by local artisans selling their hand made wares. To this day, I treasure the handmade blue-footed booby earrings I purchased at that time, and I always get a warm fuzzy feeling inside when I wear them, remembering this truly once in a lifetime journey into the untouched past.
Day 10: Debarkation
We said farewell to the crew, thanked our naturalist, and headed to our charter back to Quito.
Tonight, we had a “family” dinner with our group at a local restaurant, exchanged email addresses, promised to keep in touch, checked back into at the JW Marriott, and went to bed awaiting our flights home in the early morning.
By Sandy Cleary
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