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 adventures 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 took us to some of the islands Darwin went to during his explorations and focused on the less visited western islands. 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 this magnificent underwater world is truly am amazing experience.
Below you’ll read about how we navigated the waters and had the trip of a lifetime. This first post highlights the first 5 islands we visited, while the other ports of call are featured in Destinations // Galapagos (Part 2). With this post I hope 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.
// SANTA CRUZ
After landing in Baltra, we took a public bus to our short ferry transfer to our first port of call in the Galapagos – Santa Cruz. Before boarding our boat Estrella Del Mar in Puerto Ayora, we made a pit stop to Los Gemelos (Twin Craters). These are two giant sinkholes in the highland region that formed when the ground caved in. We followed along the Scalesia-lined trails to the craters and got our fist glimpse of what we were in for during our trip.
We also made a pit stop at the El Manzanillo Ranch. Talk about a fun way to kick off our adventure – seeing the famous giant tortoises in their natural environment. The reserve had what looked like hundreds of these creatures roaming free amongst the tall grasses and lagoons and of course us navigating around them. Be sure to make your way to the Poza de Galapagos to see these giants basking in the mud and sun.
We then hopped on pangas and made our way aboard our home for the week – the Estrella Del Mar.
// CHINESE HAT
Our first full day was spent exploring lava flows and lava tunnels on the small island of Chinese Hat. This little island near Santiago got it’s name due to the resemblance it’s volcano cone shape has with traditional Chinese hats. It was also the first time we got to see sea lions in the wild. I must have taken a hundred photos. Little did we know that we would see hundreds over the course of our time in the Galapagos.
We also got to don our wetsuits and get into the water for the first time. The water is not warm and definitely shocks the system. You quickly forget how cold the water is when you begin navigating the turquoise waters and start seeing the colorful fish swimming around you. We weren’t even in the water 2 minutes before we realized a reef shark was swimming just a few feet below us. As we swam along the rock lined protected bay, we saw numerous schools of Parrotfish, different species of Angel Fish and Hogfish.
Continuing further into the Galapagos we arrived at Rabida Island. Rabida is not only known for it’s red sand beaches, but also having some of the most rare birds of the Galapagos. On the panga ride to the shore we spotted our first Blue Footed Boobies. Our guide also pointed out many of the nine different varieties of Finches and even the Galapagos Hawk as we set off on the Rabida’s trail. The trail passes a saltwater lagoon, continues up through the Palo Santo forest, and back down again past the sea lions snoozing on the beach.
Once on the beach we popped on our wet suits again and set off for a snorkel just off the shore. The red sand made the water a bit less clear, but provided a fun atmosphere to explore the fish, anemones, and crabs climbing the rock cliffs just off shore. A territorial male sea lion was patrolling the waters in the distance often swimming over to check out what was going on. The mind definitely begins to wander about what other animals might be swimming around us that we couldn’t see.
The following morning we woke up alongside Santiago Island, which is located between Isabala and Santa Cruz. We set off past Buccaneer Cove, a former hiding spot for pirates, and headed to Playa Espumilla. Located on the northern part of the island, Espumilla Beach is thought of as one of the prettiest beaches in the Galapagos due to it’s golden sand and thick mangroves. We went for a short hike through the mangroves, dodged tons of Sally Lightfoot Crabs, and saw many sea turtle nesting sites.
The turquoise waters were calling our names, so we set off on a deep-water snorkel before heading back to our boat. This area is known for its abundance of tropical fish, sea turtles, and rays. I really enjoyed the location, as we got to navigate around various rock formations – perfect hiding spots for all of the above. While way too deep for me to reach, the best sighting of the day for me was a majestic, solo manta ray. Multiple Brown Pelicans who I suspect were waiting for us to throw fish to them quickly joined us. Some of them got uncomfortably close and began pecking at us. Distracted by the birds some of us found ourselves way too far away from the cliff-lined shores and in very deep water. There was a bit of an “oh-shit” moment followed by us quickly making our way to warmer, shallower waters. Every snorkel we see bigger animals out in the water. While whale sharks were welcome, the other fish of the same specifies were not.
After lunch we landed at Puerto Egas to check out more of the wildlife that live among the rock formations. We strolled along the salt crater as well as the dark-sand beach and tidal pools.
We hopped in the water for another snorkel swimming alongside rays and more schools of fish we hadn’t yet seen in the water. It was as if each snorkel location changed and with it so did the wildlife.
Fernandina is the western most and youngest island in the archipelago. There is really only one thing to do here and that is to explore Punta Espinoa. You can walk across lava flows through one of the largest colonies of marine iguanas, dodge the playing sea lions, and even get an opportunity to see the Flightless Cormorant nesting sites. These birds are very interesting – through evolution their wings have grown smaller, they’ve lost the ability to fly and have become excellent divers.
We later set off to Mangle Point for one of the best snorkels of my life. Not even a minute after getting into the water we were greeted by a group of very playful sea lions. It was almost as if they were just as curious about us as we were them. There was a handful that swam alongside me for what felt like ages. It was one of those moments where nothing else in the world mattered. It was just me and a raft of sea lions showing me around their world. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. The pictures below don’t do this experience justice – be sure to check out the video to see these guys cuddling.
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.
Read More: Check out Destinations // Galapagos, Ecuador (Part 2) for more explorations in the Galapagos.