Anyone who has studied natural history knows of the tale of Darwin arriving on HMS Beagle in the Galapagos in 1835. Setting off to explore the archipelago’s great volcanoes, he got a lot more than he bargained for. He navigated the islands, began collecting various species and conducted influential research. While only in the Galapagos for five weeks, his trip inspired him to write The Origin of Species – where he outlined his Theory of Evolution.
Growing up, both Rob and I constantly found ourselves watching travel and wildlife documentaries – a lot of which were about or inspired by Darwin’s adventures. Sharing the spirit of adventure, we made sure that we carved out some time in our travels around the world to visit this paradise.
We chose to explore the archipelago by boat and spent seven nights aboard the Estrella Del Mar for an in-depth exploration of the Galápagos. Our travels focused on the less visited western islands and took us to some of the islands Darwin went to during his explorations. Our days were spent exploring the Galapagos by both land and sea. Walking amongst some of the world’s most unique plant and animal species and diving into the water to explore the magnificent underwater world is truly an amazing experience.
Below is Part 2 of how we navigated the waters and had the trip of a lifetime. If you missed Part 1, be sure to check out Destinations // Galapagos (Part 1) for our initial ports of call that were featured.
As with Part 1, I hope to continue to inspire others to get the Galapagos on their travel radar. Yes – it’s pricey and requires a few flights to get to, but it’s worth every penny and every second it takes to get there.
// ISABELLA (DAY 1)
Isabella is the largest and most volcanically active islands in the Galapagos. We spent a couple of days exploring different parts of this incredible island. Our first day was spent hiking along the trails off of Urbina Bay looking for land iguanas hidden in the bushes. We saw quite a few of these interesting yellow reptiles. They looked like mythical dragons compared to all the marine iguanas we had been seeing over the course of the trip.
Our hike concluded with a dip on the black sand beach of Urbina Bay where we saw sea turtle heads popping up all over the place. It was a great way to end the day before returning to the boat and seeing whales breach during sunset.
// ISABAELLA (DAY 2)
The following morning my DSLR decided it needed a break and wouldn’t turn on, putting a damper on things. That quickly faded away as we hopped on the pangas and visited Elizabeth Bay. On our way to the mangroves we got our first opportunity to see a couple of the Galapagos penguins. Nestled on a cliff wall just a couple of meters away, they seemed relatively unphased by us.
Our journey continued through the shallows and mangroves of the bay. The water was crystal clear and so is the perfect location to get up close to sea turtles and rays. We turned off our motors and our guide paddled around what seemed like sea turtle central. Everywhere you looked heads were bobbing in and out of the water. I attached my GoPro to my foot using a hand strap, lowered it into the water and got some awesome footage of these majestic animals. What a morning – we not only got to see the sea turles but also rays, penguins, and more flightless cormorants.
After lunch and a siesta we ventured on land to Punta Moreno. We walked along the mangrove colony, multiple brackish lagoons and went along the lava rock trail to check out even more wildlife – especially birds. There was also a great panoramic viewpoint of three of Isabela’s volcanoes: Alcedo, Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul.
Later that day we set off on another late afternoon snorkel trip in Punta Vicente Roca. Due to it’s Pacific Ocean facing location, not only was the water the choppiest we had swam in, but it was also the coldest. I’m talking about it being ice cold – even our guide didn’t get in the water due to the temperature. Unsure of what we would see, I was coaching myself with a mind over matter discussion to get myself into the water. Surely we wont have a better water experience than the previous day snorkeling with sea lions – right?
That all changed once a massive sea turtle swam by our panga. It wasn’t even two seconds later that I was in and swimming alongside it. The shock of the cold water quickly wore off and there I was again – off in my own little world curiously following these creatures. Swimming over and under I carefully made my way around the coves with these guys like I was a merman.
Punta Vicente Roca is considered to be one of the best on Isabela Island. It’s easy to see why. In addition to sea turtles, we also swam along side more rays, different species of puffer fish and rare Galapagos Penguins (the only species that exists north of the Equator).
That evening we enjoyed a few sundowners, talked about the fun of the day and saw a couple whales breach in the distance. Again – amazing place.
// ISABAELLA (DAY 3)
The following morning our panga dropped us off on coastal lava rocks so we could visit Islote Tintoreras – also known as “Shark Alley.” Reef sharks navigate into what looks like a ravine during high tide and stay there during the night to sleep during low tide. The unique valley gives them the opportunity to rest as the current passes through their gills keeping them alive. It was awesome to witness so many sharks in one spot.
To get to the Islote Tijtoreas we followed the beachfront trail leads through massive marine iguanas and sea lion colonies.
In the afternoon we headed into the small town of Puerto Villamil, in order to hike up the Sierra Negra Volcano. With a diameter of 10 km across, Sierra Negra has the largest basaltic caldera in the Galápagos. Although it’s considered to be very active, the last time Sierra Negra erupted was October 2005 – so we trekked along. The path is relatively easy to get up to and takes about 45 minutes. We were greeted by cloud upon arrival, but we eventually got a clearing and saw the mega crater responsible for creating Isabela island.
Before heading back to our boat we made a pit stop to a Flamingo Lagoon and visited the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre. The giant tortoise has been close to extinction since the late 1950s. This centre is one of many that are working to raise and protect these endangered tortoises. They raise the tortoises in captivity from egg all the way until they are mature, after which they are put back into the wild.
// SANTA CRUZ
After breakfast we hiked to the beautiful white sand beaches at Tortuga Bay. Access to the entrance is walking distance from Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos, but be prepared for the 2km walk to get to the beach. The beach itself is relatively warm and quite calm – so was perfect for a swim. We didn’t see any black turtles or rays which this area is known for, but the beach might be one of the most beautiful I have seen.
Our trip to the beach was then followed by a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station. Built in 1964, the CGRS was created as a way to protect the tortoises against other species that were introduced to the Islands. The center now helps breed and maintain each of the various types of tortoises. So much work and effort now goes not only into breeding tortoises, but also ensuring that the fragile ecosystems of all of the Galapagos are maintained. The center was interesting to see as you could see the conservation efforts of scientists, researchers, and volunteers first hand.
// SAN CRISTOBAL
Before heading back to the airport for our return flight to Quito, we visited the San Cristóbal Interpretation Centre. While a bit run down, the center provides information on the history of the Galápagos Islands. Given that we had the benefit of an official nature guide the whole time, most of the information about the creation of the flora/fauna of the islands seemed redundant. Seeing the photos of sea lions is quite boring after spending all weeks walking and swimming alongside them – right? The history of settlement and the scandal that came along with it was very interesting to discover. Kidnappings, magic and the battle of the world trying to take over these beautiful islands is like reading something out of a fiction novel.
We didn’t get to spend much more time on this island – so no visit to the cloud forests or any red-footed boobie sightings, but geologically it is the oldest island and home of the oldest settlement in the islands.
No words will be able to truly capture how special the Galapagos is and how fantastic our adventure of exploration was. If the Galapagos is not on your travel bucket list make sure you clear off some space.
You will not regret it.