Travel - An Eco- Adventure to the Galapagos Islands

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Travel - An Eco- Adventure to the Galapagos Islands. Travel with us for the eco-adventure of a lifetime in the exotic Galapagos islands, a nature photographer's dream.
galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelECUADOR - The Galapagos Islands. The mere name stirs up visions of giant tortoises, strange reptiles and exotic birds. The island's reputation is well deserved, for a visit is much like walking through a cageless zoo, where the animals are not aggressive nor shy.

A myriad of species co-habitate here, but only six mammals are native to the islands. This absence of large predators is what accounts for the other animal's lack of fear toward humans. Needless to say, the Galapagos Islands are paradise for photographers and bird watchers.

Bound for Quito & Guayaquil
Our journey began in the Miami airport where we boarded a Saeta Airlines jet bound for Quito, Ecuador. Videos of tranquil underwater scenes, and soothing new age music greeted travel weary passengers. Some very nice Chilean wines accompanied the inflight meals.

Upon arriving in Quito we were greeted by a Galapagos Network representative who picked up our luggage and brought us to the Hotel Sebastian, a very charming European style lodging.

After an early morning breakfast, the staff carted us back to the airport for our flight to Guayaquil, where we would board yet another plane, bound for San Cristobal, the capital and oldest settlement (population 4000) of the Galapagos Islands.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelThe staff was wonderful, taking care of everything, including transporting and checking our luggage. In the Quito airport we were pointed to the Ecuadorian National Parks office, where we paid the $80.00 Galapagos entrance fee.

Since the islands are an ecological reserve, under the jurisdiction of the parks system, the number of visitors allowed each year is strictly limited. Various government fees and taxes were collected at points along the trip (totaling about $180.00 per person, so be prepared). U.S. currency is accepted for these fees, as it is in most stores and restaurants in Quito, Guayaquil and the islands themselves.

Arrival in San Cristobal
San Cristobal's runway dead ends a few short feet from land's end, making for an exciting landing. After checking through immigration (yes, you will need your passport here, even though it is technically still part of Ecuador), we were bussed to the town's small harbor.

Brilliant turquoise water kissed San Cristobal's shoreline. Sea lions were abundant, either frolicking in the sea or basking on the sun baked shore. Several had invited themselves aboard small dinghies anchored in the harbor, where they settled in for an afternoon siesta.

The tourists were thrilled to already be seeing animals, but our guides assured us that it was only the beginning. (All visitors to the islands must be accompanied by guides, who go through extensive training and have to pass annual qualification exams.)

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelWe soon boarded a small "panga" or dinghy, which whisked us to the MV Corinthian, a 195 foot ship with all the comforts of home. While passengers checked into cabins (which all had private baths and showers) the Corinthian motored to a remote, San Cristobal beach.

The site of the crystal blue water had us as excited as children on the first day of summer. We suited up, boarded the panga and embarked on our first snorkeling adventure of the trip.

Surprisingly, even though the islands are situated on the equator, the water was a bit cool, as was the night air temperature. For swimming, a light wet suit or Lycra suit adds comfort, although it is not a necessity. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the sun here is extremely strong, despite the misleading balmy weather. Sun screen is essential!

{pagebreak} galapagos islands, iguanas, tortoissSwimming With Iguanas
As clear as the water appeared from the boat, visibility while snorkeling was only about twenty to thirty feet. There were a few colorful fish to be seen, but the most interesting part of this experience was swimming along side a marine iguana!

Although fierce looking, this endemic species are gentle vegetarians. Their movement was almost hypnotic as long black tails gently cut through the water like rudders. The iguanas don't swim all that quickly, so keeping pace with the creature was not difficult.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelBack on the beach, a mother sea lion nursed her pup just a few feet in front of photographer's lenses. It was at this moment that we realized that even a rank amateur with nothing but a disposable camera, could still go home with awesome pictures of the trip.

All too soon it was time to return to the Corinthian for dinner and a slide presentation about the upcoming day's activities. These nightly talks served several purposes. First they got everyone excited about the next day, as if we weren't already. Our naturalist guides gave background information about the area and animals and opened the floor for questions. The talks also prepared us for what we needed to bring along. This varied depending on whether we would have a wet or dry landing, whether we would be swimming and snorkeling and how much hiking would be required.

After the talk, some passengers went happily off to bed, while others lounged on the upper deck chatting and watching the gorgeous full moon over the ocean. At about midnight, the motors started and we began a seven hour journey to Genovesa Island at the northeast portion of the Galapagos. Most nights were spent traveling. I was rocked to sleep with a gentle ocean scented breeze blowing through my open cabin window, and the sound of water rushing against the side of the moving boat.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelRed Balloons on Genovesa Island
After breakfast we boarded the panga and headed for a wet landing at Darwin Bay, named, of course, for Charles Darwin whose experiences here lead to his formulating the Origin Of Species theory.

galapagos islands , eco adventure travelThe site that greeted us was bizarre. At first glance it appeared the terrain was dotted with hundreds of scarlet balloons! At closer glance, we could see that the "balloons" were attached to the chests of giant black birds. Our guide explained that these were Great Frigate Birds, and we had the good fortune to be there during mating season. The males puff out their pouches in order to attract the attention of nearby females. Evidently, size does count, if you're a Frigate Bird.

Another common site were male frigate birds, chests protruding, wings spread, shaking spastically throughout their body. Now, I'm not a female Frigate Bird, but the site was impressive nonetheless.

eco travel, galapagos islandsAlso prevalent on Genovesa Island were Masked and Red Footed Boobies. The exquisite faces of these sea birds reminded me of the make-up of the Chinese Opera. Brilliant colors rim the eyes of the birds who also sport bright red webbed feet. Many were nesting and incubating eggs, mere inches from the hiking trail. Our guide handed a twig to a Red Footed Booby, who clucked in appreciation before calmly adding it to her nest. Although official policy says visitors should remain at least four feet away from animals, this was often impossible as they often lounged right on the trails.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelWe progressed along the Darwin Trail, stopping frequently for the fantastic photo opportunities. Cathy, our guide, was literally a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the islands. She was always able to answer any questions without a moment's hesitation and she was skilled at spotting sites and animals that our untrained eyes would have otherwise missed like the Galapagos Sharks swimming along the shoreline which she spotted from overhead on the high cliff trails.

{pagebreak} galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelAlong the way we passed tide pools dotted by bright orange Sally Lightfoot Crabs. I had previously believed crustaceans only achieved this hue after being cooked, but then, things are different in the Galapagos. The crabs were to become a common site, decorating the otherwise rocky volcanic coastlines.

After the hike, we made our way back to the coral beach for more snorkeling. A few marine iguanas graced the rocks, and small but colorful lava lizards basked in the sunshine. Several sea lions lounged about, but didn't pay us much attention.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelAs we lunched, the Corinthian made it's way to another part of Genovesa Island -- Prince Phillips Steps.

The panga took us along the rocky coastline where Fur Seals peered out from the rocks and Blue Herons stared down at us with the posture and expressions of grumpy old men.

The landing here is rocky, but dry. The steps make it possible to climb the steep rock wall to several hiking trails and a large open nesting area for Masked Boobies and Great Frigate Birds.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelBoxing Boobies!
On this hike we witnessed a couple of young Masked Boobies aggressively fighting, one's beak shoved all the way down the throat of the other. Cathy explained to us that this is quite rare. Red Footed Boobies, the only web footed bird capable of perching, calmly observed us and the squabbling youngsters from the branches of Dwarfed Palso Santo Trees.

Although we searched in earnest, we were never able to spot the well camouflaged Short Eared Owl, one of the few types that are not nocturnal.

Speaking of meals, after a full day of swimming, hiking and sightseeing, it was time to head back to the Corinthian for dinner. We learned that next day would take us southwest to Santiago and Bartolome Islands, where many new adventures awaited us.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelThe fog draped view of Bartolome Island greeted us on Saturday morning. After a quick breakfast, we boarded the pangas and headed for the rocky shore.

Bartolome is home of Pinnacle Rock, an eroded tuff cone and one of the most photographed sites in the Galapagos. Much of this island resembles a lunarscape, complete with craters. The terrain is rocky and a monochromatic rust color, the desolate landscape consisting of lava formations - splatter cones and lava tubes.

Geological History Comes To Life
galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelThe highlight of the morning's jaunt to Bartolome was the summit of a once active volcano, which offered a breathtaking panoramic view of Sullivan Bay. From this vista we could view both sides of the island, the craggy shore below with it's volcanic craters quickly filling with the incoming tide and the nearby Santiago Island. The thirty minute climb to this spectacular view consisted of a seemingly unending path of wooden stairs. This was the only really physically challenging part of the trip, and guides were patient about letting people go at their own pace. However, if you have physical limitations that prevent you from climbing stairs, you might want to sit this part out.

The islands were formed over ten million years ago by raging volcanoes. On Bartolome Island one can really get a feel for geological history that is still in the making (there have been eruptions within the last ten years). The rocks on Bartolome made it easy to see the various layers and formations and our guide filled in the rest, making the evolution of the islands come to life in front of our eyes.

{pagebreak} galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelIn Search Of Penguins
After a leisurely stroll back to the panga, we set out along the shores of Bartolome Island in search of a creature that many of us never realized existed in warm waters: The Galapagos Penguin. We were not disappointed. Perched on the black lava was the object of our search. Like other Galapagos animals, the penguin stood calmly watching as the panga came within six feet of shore for photo opportunities.

We spotted another penguin on our way to our afternoon snorkeling location. A bit shyer than the first, he jumped into the water for a swim. In the water the penguin could easily be mistaken for a duck, but we knew better.

As monochromatic as the terrain on Bartolome was, the underwater scene was much brighter. Colorful coral walls lined the cove and Marine Iguanas were once again plentiful.

Santiago Island
galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelAfter lunch on the Corinthian, we boarded the pangas and set out for an extensive hike on Santiago Island. The remains of a now defunct fish drying enterprise greeted us but then gave way to the beauty of nature.

The black lava coated coastline was dotted with thousands of bright Sally Lightfoot Crabs. Multitudes of Marine Iguanas stared silently out to sea like statues. Fur Seals and Sea Lions darted in and out of the surf. Great Blue Herons perched on the rocks, observed our progress from above.

Although we didn't actually see any, Santiago is also the home of feral goats and wild pigs, which were introduced by man. There are other Galapagos Islands inhabited by these creatures as well as wild dogs. The non indigenous animals have wreaked havoc on the delicate eco-system and efforts are underway to eliminate their presence from the islands.

Swimming With Sea Lions
Following our hike, we again entered the water for some more snorkeling. A multitude of Sea Lions dotted the beach and leaped and played in the water, but we were surprised when it became apparent that they wanted to play with the snorkelers!

A young pup suddenly "whooshed" past my mask, mere inches in front of my face. I was startled, awe struck and just a little bit frightened. Soon this pup was joined by about six or eight others and I was joined by other snorkelers, anxious for a close encounter of their own.

Our guides explained that the sea lions merely wanted to play and that it was perfectly safe. The only time it would be necessary to get out of the water was if the mother sea lion started barking. That would be a warning that she was getting concerned about her children. That event never happened, and humans and sea lions happily played together until it was time to leave. As we reluctantly trudged on to the beach, our friends followed, as if to say "don't leave, come back, come back."

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelSanta Fe Island
The following morning we set out for the desert-like Santa Fe Island. The beach at Santa Fe was full of more Sea Lions than we had ever dreamed imaginable in one place, and it had the aroma to prove it!.

As the panga approached, they swam out to greet us and kept pace with the small boat, arching gracefully in and out of the water.

Santa Fe Island is home of the Santa Fe Land Iguana. Much different than their marine cousins, the creatures' sandy color almost blended in to the dry soil. As we walked through a forest of giant Optunia Cactus, we saw several of the large Land Iguanas nestled among the rocks and desert plants. Like most animals here, the Land Iguanas too, seemed more than willing to sit still and pose for photographs.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelAfter hiking Santa Fe, we headed back to the Corinthian to pick up our snorkeling equipment for one last swim. Santa Fe's rocky coast was home to more Sea Lions who seemed happy to have new playmates in the water. We also swam with some large Sea Turtles, their graceful underwater movement resembling flying.

{pagebreak} galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelSanta Cruz Island & the Galapagos Tortoises
After lunch we made our way to Santa Cruz Island, home of the Charles Darwin Research Center and the Galapagos National Park Headquarters.

The Research Center is the headquarters for conservation and research efforts, and the only chance to see the famous Galapagos Tortoises. The tortoises were dangerously close to extinction (in fact that unfortunately was the fate of several species), but the research center has a hatchery and breeding program for these amazing creatures.

The efforts here are saving several races of tortoises and re-introducing them back into the wild. This was brought painfully to life by "Lonesome George" (Solitario Jorge). George, a giant tortoise, is the last of his species. An exact DNA match was found between George and a female of another species, but unfortunately, mating did not occur. It's believed that seventy five year old George is past his breeding years.

galapagos islands ,eco adventure travelAs sad as it to realize that Lonesome George is the last of his race, it is encouraging to see the many other tortoises that have been saved. Visitors are able to see the hatchery and breeding grounds and stroll among the gentle giants.

There are many other exhibits at the Darwin Station which tell the history of the islands, their plants and animals and the efforts being taken to maintain their natural beauty.

A short walk from the research center is the small seaside town of Puerto Ayora (population 8,000), which is a good place to have lunch or a snack, send postcards and buy souvenirs. There are tons of the obligatory vacation T-shirts to choose from.

The following morning, we set sail for San Cristobal Island, where we had a short while to visit the small town there before leaving for our flight back to Guayaquil. There were more islands to see, but time didn't permit it this trip.

Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, is a bustling metropolis. This is a great place to shop for souvenirs and prices (by U.S. standards) are very cheap. If you have time, go to the Mercado, a large collection of vendor's stalls selling everything from native crafts, leather goods, and alpaca sweaters to jewelry. Even if you don't have time to visit the Mercado the prices at the hotel gift shops are still very reasonable.

After a terrific seafood dinner in town with our new friend Abdul, a candy importer from Kuwait who we met on the Corinthian, and a good night's sleep, we boarded our plane for Miami. Our Galapagos adventure had come to end for now, but we dreamed of returning someday to explore the rest of these exotic islands.

galapagos islandsPracticalities
Galapagos Network
- A Miami based, full service tour company that can take care of your entire trip including air transportation, transfers, hotels, side trips and the actual tour of the islands themselves. 800-633-7972 (US) or 305-592-2294.

Ecoventura S.A. Galapagos - The South American branch of Galapagos Network with offices in Quito and Guayaquil. Call here if you're already in South America and want to journey to the Galapagos Islands. Visit their website at www.ecoventura.com.ec or call
Quito - (5932) 507-408
Guayaquil - (5935) 206-748

What to bring:

  • Sunscreen
  • Cameras
  • Lots of film (bring more than you'll think you'll need)
  • Snorkeling equipment if you have it (it is available for rent on board as well)
  • Snacks (we personally found the food on the Corinthian to be acceptable, but not great, and snacks were sparse)
  • Sun Hat

Electrical adapters are not necessary for those coming from the U.S. When traveling from the United States (as of this writing), passports are required, but not visas. US currency is accepted at most hotels, restaurants and shops.

Saeta Airlines - 800-827-2382 (US)

For those on their own in Quito or Guayaquil we found the following hotels to be very nice:
Quito

  • Hotel Sebastian (5932) 222300
  • Hotel Oro Verde - 02-566-497

Guayaquil

  • Grand Hotel Guayaquil (5934) 329690
  • Hotel Oro Verde - 04-327-999

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