Sunday, May 5, 2013

A trip to the Galapagos islands

Abhi, his mom and me went on a vacation to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, this April. In this post, I have written a few things that might help you if you want to travel to the Galapagos. I have also shared a few photographs of our trip. If you want to know more, plenty of information about Galapagos is available on the internet.

Why Galapagos?
The Galapagos is an archipelago across the coast of Ecuador in South America. It is a group of 18 islands spread on either side of the equator. Charles Darwin visited a few of these islands on his voyage on ‘HMS Beagle’. It is believed that this voyage was what inspired him to come up with the “theory of evolution due to natural selection”. The Galapagos is home to animals and birds that are endemic to the Galapagos and not found anywhere else in the world. It is one of the few places in this world where you can see animals living fearlessly in their own habitat. Given the rich historical and scientific significance, it was quite naturally a top destination in our 'places we wish to visit' list.

How to get to the Galapagos?
You will need to fly into Ecuador. There are two international airports in Ecuador – Quito and Guayaquil. From here, you will have to take another flight to Baltra (Galapagos Islands). We flew from Guayaquil to Baltra. The Guayaquil airport is extremely good. Indian citizens are given visa upon arrival at Guayaquil or Quito. People at the immigration department in Ecuador speak reasonable English. This was my second trip to Latin America and I had learned enough Spanish to manage which really helped a lot. I would advise learning a little bit of Spanish or having an offline Spanish translator app on your phone.

Once you reach Baltra, you have two options to visit the many islands. Depending on your time and budget you can choose what you want to do.

1. Island Hopping – Few islands have towns which have hotels and B & B’s. Some people like to travel to an island, stay there, explore and hop on to the next island.

2. Cruise – Most people who visit the Galapagos choose this option because it is comfortable and you can also visit remote places and islands which have no human inhabitation. Again, depending on your budget and time you can choose between different cruises. Your options vary from small boats to yachts to luxury ships. There are many travel websites which give you details about the cruise packages.

When to go?
There is no perfect time to visit the Galapagos. It entirely depends on what you want to see and what kind of weather you are comfortable in. For more information about when, how, what, where – this is a good website to go to -

What we chose and why we chose?
We decided to go on an eight day cruise on the Galapagos Explorer II. We preferred a big ship because we were not very sure if we would be comfortable with the rocking sea on a smaller boat or yacht. We decided to go in the dry season for two reasons – We wanted to snorkel and the hence wanted to avoid the cold water in the wet season. Plus, we get enough rain in Washington state. ;-). Additionally, being vegetarians, we felt we would have more options on a bigger ship (which turned out to be true! The chef specially made Aloo parathas for us one night for dinner. Aloo parathas in Ecuador is really something!!)

We reserved our cruise through Galapagos Inc. Everyone at Galapagos Inc were extremely nice and professional. They gave us all the information we needed and made the entire process very easy. We give them five stars for all their help. We highly recommend their service.

Our ship had 6 floors which included a reception, main lounge (where we had presentations every evening about the schedule for the next day), a piano bar, a restaurant, a jaccuzi bar, a sun deck, a boutique and a library. There was also an elevator for people who did not want to climb stairs each time. There was a doctor on board all the time. The housekeeping crew made incredible towel puppets every day!

A few pictures of our ship:

All the lovely towel animals :)


Day 0 -
We decided to go one day ahead of our cruise so that we could rest and get over the weariness of the long flight journeys we took. After flying to Baltra, we went to a small town called “Puerto Ayora” on Santa Cruz island. Details about how to get to Puerto Ayora are accurate on wikitravel and it was really helpful. ( Once we reached the town, we headed to Hotel Mainao. It was a really nice hotel (breakfast included) with amazing views of the sea. In the evening we went on a stroll to explore the city. We visited the historic fishermen’s market. Sea lions and pelicans would drop in occasionally and steal fish (video below). It was really amazing to see how fearless these animals were.

Day 1 –
We left Hotel Mainao and headed to the Baltra airport to meet a crew member of our ship. We were escorted to the ship in a zodiac (small inflatable motor boat).

In general, we had a wake-up call at 7 am everyday followed by breakfast. We had two outings every day – one before lunch and one after lunch. We would be briefed about the activities the previous day after dinner. For each outing, we had to get on to the zodiac from the ship to get to the island. There were two types on landing at the islands – dry landing and wet landing. Dry landing was when we could get out of the zodiac directly on to the rocks or dry flat land. Wet landings were when we had to get on to the beach or at places where water would have covered the rocks due to high tide. I would advise carrying shoes for hiking, sandals (with velcro strap) for wet landings. (You don’t want to lose your sandals when getting out of the zodiac). Sun glasses, hats, insect repellent and sun protection is a MUST on all outdoor trips. A bathing suit for snorkeling/swimming. (Wet suits and snorkeling gear are available for rent on board). 

On the first day, after lunch, we had an orientation where we were introduced to the crew and we were also briefed about our entire trip followed by an emergency drill.

Lava rocks at Sulivan Bay
In the evening, we set out to explore Sulivan bay on Bartolomew island. Here we saw volcanic formations on the rocks – lava that had cooled and condensed. We also saw many sally lightfoot crabs, a marine iguana swimming, a lava heron, lava cactus and penguins. That night our ship was anchored. We saw sea lions hunting, four sharks circling our ship and many flying fish from the deck of our boat. It was such an amazing experience.

Sally Lightfoot crabs

Day 2 –
Female lava lizard
In the morning, we set out to Bartholomew island. It was a dry landing. We had a long hike followed by snorkeling time at the beach. We saw a variety of animals and plants.
Flora: Lava cactus, scalecia trees, salt bush and mangroves
Fauna: Sea lions, lava lizards, marine iguanas, a school of dolphins swimming.
The landscape was breathtaking during the hike. After the hike, we were given time to snorkel at the beach. The beach had clear water so snorkeling was a lot of fun. It was my first time snorkeling and I was very excited. I saw many colourful fish.

View atop Barthelomew Island

Lovely fish while snokelling

Hermit Crab
Post lunch, we had a commanding bridge tour. We were taken to the control room of the ship and an officer explained how things worked in the ship. It was very informative. Later in the afternoon we visited “Playa Espumilla” in James island. On our way to the beach, we spotted two sea turtles mating. Upon landing, we spotted the yellow warbler, the mocking bird, the pintail duck, the hermit crab and the female large ground finch.

Yellow warbler
Sea turtles mating ;)

Day 3 -

Hawaiian Petrels
In the morning, we had a tour on the zodiac where we spotted many birds and animals followed by snorkeling in deep waters. We visited “Punta Vicenta Roca” on Isabela island.

I was very scared about snorkeling in the ocean because (a) I have always been scared of water (b) I only learned swimming two months before the trip. However, I made up my mind to overcome my fear and enjoy myself. Looking back, I congratulate myself on that decision :)

Fauna: Galapagos penguins, marine turtles, marine iguanas, fur sea lions, Nazca boobies, blue footed boobies, brown noddy terns, Hawaiian petrels, flightless cormorants, swallow tailed gulls and frigate birds.

The feet of the blue footed boobies were so pretty. What a lovely blue!

Beautiful big blue footed booby

Abhi was right next to the turtle when he got this shot
Snorkeling here was an experience I will cherish my entire life. We had to jump into the Pacific Ocean from the zodiac. This time we had to snorkel in deep waters; at places the bottom of the ocean was not visible. We swam with sea lions, sea turtles and penguins. They were swimming right next to us fearlessly. The sea lion swam so quickly and often swooped past me. Many a time, I lost my balance and yelled loudly when the sea lion playfully charged at me! We also saw a massive sea turtle, which I think is the most peaceful creature I have ever seen  – it swims so slowly with not a worry in the world. For those who could not swim, there was a glass bottom boat tour. This is one of the advantages of going on a big ship. They have equipment and facilities for people of all ages. My mother in law saw underwater life on her glass bottom boat tour.

Finally caught the sea lion on camera once it stopped freaking me out

In the afternoon, we went to “Punta Espinosa” on Fernandina island.
Fauna: Sea lions, flightless cormorants, lava lizards, Galapagos hawks and marine iguanas.
Flora: Lava cactus, mangroves

Sea lion nursing its baby. So adorable!
On this hike, we saw hundreds of marine iguanas and we were less than 5 feet away from them. We walked past sea lions happily lazing in the sun. We saw the bones of a whale which were collected by the rangers of the Galapagos National Park. We saw the great blue heron and also watched a Galapagos hawk catch a marine iguana and eat it when it was alive. (Ewww Gross!)

Hundreds of marine iguanas on Fernandina

The Galapagos hawk was merciless in devouring the iguana

Day 4 –
Darwin lake
We set out to “Caleta Tagus” in the central western coast of Isabela island. In the morning we had a zodiac tour followed by a difficult hike. On the zodiac tour, we spotted a juvenile penguin shedding skin. The main attraction of the hike was the Darwin lake (extremely salty lake which does not support any life). Sailors who passed by this island had written the names of their boats and the year in which they sailed. The earliest one that we could spot was 1836. We also saw many species of Darwin finches.

Darwin finch

In the afternoon, we set out to “Bahia Elizabeth” on the zodiac. On this tour, we experienced a quintessential Galapagos moment. On a single rock, we saw sea lions, a marine iguana, Galapagos penguins, blue footed boobies, brown pelicans and crabs resting without disturbing each other (please see video below).

Galapagos penguin - my husband is really proud of this shot

Zodiac tour in the mangroves

We then headed to the mangroves, where we spotted sea turtles, a school of golden ray fish, a school of eagle rays and mallot fish. The sea turtle was within my hands reach from the zodiac. The golden rays shimmered in the water in the sunlight. They were unbelievably beautiful.

Sea turtle in the mangrove - its nesting area

Day 5 –

Post office bay
In the morning we set out to visit the “Post Office bay” in Floreana or Charles island. Eighteenth century whalers set up a wooden barrel that served as a post box. Sailors posted their letters and also picked up other's letters to deliver them. The post box is functioning even today.

Flora: Palo Santo, Manzonilla, Galapagos cotton, salty bushes

Inside a lava tunnel - all that light is from the flash on the camera

Later, we headed to the lava tunnel. It was steep tunnel that was formed because of lava flow during volcanic eruptions. It was so steep that at places we needed ropes to get in. It was pitch dark and there was knee deep water. It was a wonderful experience!

We were also given some time to snorkel at the beach but the water was so murky that we could hardly see anything for a long stretch. My husband says he spotted few rays though.

In the afternoon, we visited Punta Cormorant and had snorkeling time at the Devil’s crown in Floreana island. During the walk, we were supposed to see pink flamingos, but I did not spot any. Some others on our cruise said they did. These flamingos fly all the way from Bolivia to the Galapagos during summer. We had already seen the flamingos at Bolivia, so we were not so bothered. Also, on our way back on the zodiac, we could spot few sting rays and hammerhead sharks.

Devil's crown
Snorkeling at the devil’s crown was really challenging because of high currents in deep waters in the Pacific Ocean. Devils crown is an underwater volcanic formation. This region has extensive marine life and is an attractive spot for snorkelers. The currents were so strong that I could not swim for more than ten minutes. My husband, being a good swimmer swam in the crown. He says he spotted hammerhead sharks along with sea turtles, sea lions and beautifully coloured parrot fish.

Day 6 –
In the morning, we visited “Puerto Baquerizo” – La Galapaguera, a small town in San Cristobal island. From the town, we went on a one hour bus ride to see giant tortoises (endemic to Chatham island) bred in captivity.

Giant tortoise

Baby tortoises
Few centuries ago, there were thousands of giant tortoises endemic to the Galapagos islands. But, sailors who sailed past these islands, captured these tortoises for meat because they could survive with minimal food and water for years. Sadly, nobody knows how many tortoises were killed by sailors for food. Scientists estimate that thousands have been killed. These giant tortoises have now been declared as an endangered species and are being bred in captivity. The giant tortoises live for 150-200 years and wear more than 200 kgs! In the breeding center, we also saw many small tortoises and how they were being provided food and the correct temperature for survival. After this visit, there was some time for shopping. J There are few caf├ęs and restaurants that offer free wi-fi in this town.

That noon, we had some beach time. The sea was extremely rough and not many people swam. My husband did and had a great time being thrown around mercilessly by the sea.

Day 7 –
Gobbling a guava
In the morning, we visited Los Gemelos in Santa Cruz island and the “Tortuga Crossing” ecological reserve. In this trip, we saw giant tortoises in their own natural habitat. We saw them munching on sweet pink guavas. They were so cute with guava smeared on their face! Also, there were few shells of dead tortoises at this reserve. I could easily fit into them!! During the walk in the ecological reserve, we also saw two huge sink holes.

Land iguana
In the afternoon, we visited the Charles Darwin research station and the town of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz island. In the research station, we saw giant tortoises bred in captivity (please do read about Lonesome George). We also saw land iguanas which have been declared an endangered species. They have become extremely rare and hard to find on the islands because poachers kill them for their skin.

Another unique thing we saw at the research station was two giant tortoises mating. Nature is amazing in its design! After this visit, we shopped for a while at Puerto Ayora. There are few restaurants that offer free wi fi in this town and there is also an ATM.

Giant tortoises mating - they put on quite a show :)

Before dinner, there was a nice toast for a safe trip back home and a nice slideshow of photographs captured by the crew over the years.

Day 8 –
After breakfast, we were dropped off at the airport at Baltra. We flew to Guayaquil and back home. It was fantastic trip. We visited 24 points in 10 islands and traveled 534.5 nautical miles. We crossed the equator twice. One night while relaxing in the deck, we saw a shooting star. It was a memorable experience. I will always remember the forget-me-not blue waters, the adorable sea lions, the smug iguanas, the cute giant tortoises, the lovely blue footed boobies and the beautiful penguins! I think my wish to visit Narnia came true with this trip :)

That's my Dawn Treader :)


  1. Super :) Always a pleasure to read your blog posts!

  2. Hi Pavi,
    What a comprehensive article you have written. Read and relived our jaunt on the sea. My happiest experience on foreign land with you and Abi