Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (5/17-25/2014)

Blue-Footed Boobies Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Blue-Footed Boobies 
- Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
Welcome to a unique travel experience that we are glad we did. The animals, birds, and sea creatures in the Galapagos Islands are not afraid of people. You can walk right up to them without disturbing them so seeing these amazing animals up front is a highlight of visiting the Galapagos. It is not unusual to walk around sleeping sea lions and iguanas – actually, it becomes a standard event.

Wayne dunlap Says Hello to Sea Lion Red Mangrove Lodge Santa Cruz Island galapagos Ecuador
Wayne Says Hello to Sea Lion 
- Red Mangrove Lodge
Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Some of our favorites animals in the Galapagos that we saw up close include the giant tortoises, sea-swimming marine iguanas, sea lions, blue-footed boobies, penguins, sharks, bright red crabs, sea turtles, ocean-diving pelicans, and many other kinds of animals and birds.
Small Penguins Furthest North Galapagos islands Ecuador
Small Penguins (Furthest North of Any)  
- Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
One of the great things about the Galapagos Islands is it is the place where one of the most significant modern scientific revelations occurred. The discoveries and achievements of Charles Darwin are truly amazing. Scientists (even Darwin) believed in the fixed species theory. 

Don't Do This at Home Wayne dunlap with Sea Lyon galapagos islands Ecuador
Don't Do This at Home! 
- Wayne Approached by a Sea Lion
With a tremendous amount of research and thought, Darwin proved to the world that species evolve to better suit their environment. The Galapagos inspired Darwin’s Theory of the Evolution of Species that opened up a new way of thinking about our existence on this wonderful planet.

Kayaking Off Santa Cruz Island Galapagos islands Ecuador
Kayaking Off 
Santa Cruz Island - Galapagos
Interestingly, the Galapagos Islands, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, are located on the equator in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 miles west of Ecuador. The Galapagos islands were once shelter for pirates and whaling ships. Now they are a natural paradise for tourists and scientists. Because of the unique isolation of species and their evolution, British scientist Charles Darwin’s visit in the 19th century put the Galapagos in a whole new category.

Many people choose to visit the Galapagos with a boat trip and/or organized trip normally starting or ending in Quito. Although popular, this is not necessary. Because they have now limited the number of boats (around 84 during our visit) to avoid overcrowding, the cost of boat trips has risen. When planning our trip, we found that even the budget boat trips offering simple accommodations wanted $600 and more per day for the two of us.

Great travel tip... A more affordable way to visit the Galapagos Islands is to fly into the main city of Puerto Ayoro on Santa Cruz Island, where the main airport is located, and arrange day trips around Santa Cruz and to the other islands. If you don’t come during the busy season, you can often find good last minute deals on single or multiple day boat trips – see below for some good suggestions of islands and places to visit.

You should be aware that the day trips typically use smaller boats with very bumpy 2+ hour rides to the outlaying islands. If you are prone to seasickness, this option may not be for you. In any case, take seasick pills about 1 hour before departing.

Around the main port area in Puerto Ayoro, there are many travel agencies to help you book any day trip you want. Book the day trips you are interested in as soon as you can. They do book up and don’t go everyday.

View from Our Hotel Red Mangrove Lodge Santa Cruz Island galapagos islands Ecuador
View from Our Hotel
- Red Mangrove Lodge 
Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
We chose another very enjoyable way for our visit to the Galapagos Islands combining an organized trip staying in nice hotels. The Red Mangrove Lodge has hotels on 3 islands (Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Floreana) offering 6-day trips with expert guided tours to see many of the Galapagos’ main attractions. (Note: fellow travelers who went to Floreana felt that Santa Cruz and Isabela Islands were their favorites). Our trip was just to those 2 islands.

Marine Iguana Isabela Island Galapagos islands Ecuador
Marine Iguana - 
Isabela Island, Galapagos
Important to keep in mind... We liked our visit to the Galapagos very much. We should note that we felt the Galapagos publicity that we have seen for years (i.e. fantastic National Geographic videos, etc.) set our expectations very high. If you plan to visit the Galapagos, you should probably lower your expectations in order to not be a bit disappointed. You will see some pretty wonderful things but not in the way National Geographic photographers captured it waiting weeks to get one shot.

Santa Cruz Island

Yellow Warbler Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador islands
Yellow Warbler - 
Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Santa Cruz Island is in the center of the Galapagos Islands and the second largest island after Isabela. The main town (Puerto Ayora) of the Galapagos is located on Santa Cruz and the Galapagos’ main airport (Baltra) is next to Santa Cruz (see below for traveling tips to the Galapagos). With about 20,000 people (around half of the Galapagos’ total population), Puerto Ayora is by far the most populated city in the islands. There are some other small villages on Santa Cruz, whose inhabitants work in agriculture and cattle raising.

Many of the Galapagos’ major attractions can be seen with trips from Puerto Ayora. Some of the best things to do on Santa Cruz are:

Giant Galapagos Tortoise Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
My Dream! - Giant Galapagos Tortoise 
- Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Pat dunlap Enjoying Hike El Chato Tortoise Reserve santa cruz island galapagos islands
Pat Enjoying Hike - 
El Chato Tortoise Reserve
A highlight of our visit to the Galapagos was the El Chato Tortoise Reserve to see the giant Galapagos tortoises. Visiting this reserve is a highlight of many of the people who visit to the Galapagos and should not be missed. Since I was a small boy, I have been infatuated with tortoises and turtles. It’s been my dream since childhood to see the giant Galapagos tortoises in the wild. I was watching one large male eating when he decided to start walking and passed a few feet from me (see photo). I could reach out and touch him and he did not care. I got to look eye-to-eye with a giant Galapagos tortoise in their native territory – a thrill for me and all those around us.

Giant Galapagos tortoise islands
Giant Galapagos Tortoise
The giant Galapagos tortoise is a very interesting creature. They live to 150 years and males grow to be over 500 pounds. The species dates back millions of years. Valued for their meat and high fat content for lantern oil, whalers and other sailors hunted them greatly reducing their numbers. Also, the introduction of animals such as goats, who eat all the vegetation, and rats, who eat their eggs, have further reduced their numbers to extinction in the case of one of the seven sub-species. Today, with protection, captive breeding programs, and elimination of goats, the giant Galapagos tortoise population is increasing and now estimated to be around 40,000.

Sea Lions Take Over the Deck at Red Mangrove Lodge Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Sea Lions Take Over the Deck 
at Red Mangrove Lodge
Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
Santa Cruz Island is a large dormant volcano with the last eruptions estimated to occur about a million and a half years ago. If you are interested in volcanoes, there is a large illuminated lava tunnel near the village of Santa Rosa that is about a half mile long that you can visit and walk through. Also somewhat interesting, there are two big holes (Los Gemelos, or "The Twins") formed by the collapse of a lava chamber.

Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island

Lots of 'Customers' at the Fish Market Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Lots of 'Customers' at the Fish Market 
- Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
School Children in Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz Island ecuador
School Children - 
Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz Island
We spent a couple of extra days in the town of Puerto Ayora and were glad we did. The town is easy to walk around and enjoy. There are many nice restaurants along the main road (Avenue Charles Darwin – they love that guy here), especially towards the northern end of town. If you like fresh fish and lobster, head over to the more funky area along Charles Binford street, a couple of blocks north of the main port, where the close they street at night and many restaurants offer lobster, fish, and other meals.

Pat & Wayne at Puerto Ayora Harbor at Abgerneyer Point Restaurant ecuador galapagos islands
Pat & Wayne at Puerto Ayora Harbor
Most of Puerto Ayora’s main tourist areas are close enough to walk everywhere. You can head to a nice beach on the island using a water taxi costing $.60 cents (see below) or take taxis for the longer rides ($1-2 around town – more for longer trips).

Abgerneyer Point Restaurant Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Abgerneyer Point Restaurant
Santa Cruz Island
The Charles Darwin Research Station located at the north end of town is an interesting place to visit. You can see the baby tortoise captive breeding program and other things. Having a naturalist guide with you will help you enjoy and appreciate the efforts here and you will learn much more about the uniqueness of the Galapagos Islands.

Beach In Front of Finch Bay Hotel Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Beach In Front of Finch Bay Hotel 
- Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
At the southern end of town you will find the main port area where for $.60 you can take a ride to a nice beach for a swim in the ocean in front of the Finch Bay Hotel located about a 20-minute walk from the dock next to the Abgerneyer Point restaurant.

Tortuga Bay Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Tortuga Bay - 
Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
A half hour walk from center of Puerto Ayora along a nicely paved path, Tortuga Bay is one of the best beaches in the Galapagos (see photo). You can view marine iguanas, birds, Galapagos crabs, and natural mangrove where you can spot white tip reef sharks. The first part of the beach is not recommended for swimming because of the jellyfish and currents.

Beautiful Path to Tortuga Bay Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Beautiful Path to Tortuga Bay
The beautiful path to Tortuga Bay from the city through an interesting cactus tree forest (see photo) takes about 30 minutes to walk. Then walk to the right another 15 minutes along the long beach to a beautiful swimming area (see photo). As a reminder that we are visitors here, I got nipped on the toe by Damsel fish. They are small blue fish with yellow fins and quite territorial. It was more like a poke than a bite and did not hurt.

Las Grietas Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Las Grietas - Santa Cruz Island
Las Grietas (see photo) is a popular swimming place for locals where they climb the rock sides and jump in. In our opinion, it makes for a just OK excursion. It’s a bit of a hike and we thought the beaches mentioned above were more fun. Directions: To reach Las Grietas, you can take a water taxi ($.60) from the main dock to the Abgerneyer Point restaurant. Then follow the signs to the Finch Bay Hotel located about 10 minutes easy walk away. The beach here is one of the nicest beaches close to Puerto Ayora and you may want to stay here.

The walk to Las Grietas is about 20 more minutes along a somewhat changeling lava rock path. Those who do not like hiking on uneven paths may want to pass on this – definitely bring good shoes. This is best done when the tide is lower to avoid some awkward wading.

Local Art Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Local Art - Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
North Seymour Island is a nice day trip from Puerto Ayora giving you a chance to see bird colonies of blue-footed Boobies and Herons combined with snorkeling. A scuba dive trip to Gordon Rocks is good to see the fascinating hammerhead sharks along with marine turtles, manta rays, and large fish.

Another popular day trip from Santa Cruz is to Bartolome Island for its great views and snorkeling. Multiple day boat trips can be arranged to Isabela Island to hike to the Volcan Sierra Negra volcano and our favorite, Las Tintoreras (see more on these below).

Isabela Island

Marine Iguanas Las Tintoreras Isabela Island Galapagos Ecuador
Marine Iguanas - Las Tintoreras
on Isabela Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
Isabela Island is the largest island of the Galapagos with an area of 1,790 square miles, and 62 miles long - almost four times the size of Santa Cruz. It was named after Spain’s Queen Isabella.

Tour Guide Wayne dunlap Takes a Nap Galapagos Islands
Tour Guide Wayne Takes a Nap - 
Galapagos Islands
Isabela Island is also interesting for its relatively new lava fields that have not developed the sufficient soils required to support the diverse life zones found on other Galapagos Islands. Many people enjoy the rather steep and changeling hike to the top of the massive Volcan Sierra Negra volcano that last erupted in 2005. About 4 miles across, it is considered the second biggest active crater in the world. The view can be spectacular and you can often see many Galapagos birds along the way. A guided tour is best because the top is often foggy and you can get lost. It can be pretty muddy during the rainy season.

Jesus Rises From the Galapagos Cristo Salvador Church Puerto Villamil Isabela Island Galapagos Ecuador
Jesus Rises From the Galapagos
- Cristo Salvador Church,
Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island
One of our favorite excursions we did in the Galapagos was to Las Tintoreras, just a few minutes from the main town on Isabela Island. Seeing the marine life on this jagged lava field is very interesting. Even more fun for us was the excellent snorkeling in the small Las Tijeretas bay where we swam with sea turtles and saw blue and yellow starfish and lots of other interesting fish. It’s a good chance you will see blue-footed boobies, Galapagos penguins, nesting marine iguanas and sea lions, and resting white-tipped reef sharks (in season).



Swimming Marine Iguana Galapagos Ecuador
Swimming Marine Iguana - 
Galapagos, Ecuador
We had an experience at Las Tintorereas we will never forget. While snorkeling, about a dozen large marine iguanas swam by just a few feet from us to get the exposed algea during low tide at the other end of the lagoon. Viewing swimming iguanas right in front of us is a unique travel experience we will never forget! These amazing reptiles can hold their breath for an hour while they eat algae.

Pat Enjoying Our Hotel Red Mangrove Lodge on Playa de Puerto Villamil Isabela Island galapagos ecuador
Pat Enjoying Our Hotel
Red Mangrove Lodge 
 on Playa de Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island
You can stay on Isabela Island in the town of Puerto Villamil. The town itself has an ugly main square and is very ‘sleepy’ (nice word for dead) but it located right on a very nice beach. Day trips from here are easy to arrange. We very much enjoyed spending time in the white sand beach and swimming in the ocean at the very pretty Playa de Puerto Villamil beach in front of our hotel, the Red Mangrove Lodge (see photo).

Just behind the town is the Villamil Lagoon with interestedly trails and the tortoise breeding center, Centro de Crianza de Tortugas, where you see baby giant Galapagos tortoises and learn more the efforts to restore the population.

Travel tip: If visiting Isabela from Santa Cruz, take seasick pills and watch the horizon. It is a long 2-3 hour boat ride that can be very bumpy. Many people get sick.

Galapagos Crab 
-  Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
Another popular Galapagos island is San Cristobal Island where you can stay in the capital of the Galapagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, with its new attractive malecon. At San Cristobal, people visit La Loberia, a coral sandy beach with boobies, sea lions, marine iguanas, frigates, pelicans, and finches. Snorkeling is possible, even a chance with hammerhead sharks at Kicker Rock. There is a good Interpretation Center that shows the history, geography, and biology of the Galapagos. People also visit Floreana Island but we discovered it was not the favorite of many we spoke to.

Best time to visit the Galapagos Islands... Because the Galapagos Islands are located on the equator, they enjoy a moderate temperature most the year with December to February with the most rain.

Peligans at Concha Perla Santa Cruz Island Galapagos Ecuador
Peligans at Concha Perla, 
Santa Cruz Island
Traveling to the Galapagos Islands... You should plan on round trip flight costs (around $500) to Baltra Airport from Guayaquil on Ecuador’s coast, plus $100 Galapagos entrance fee paid at the airport (have this ready in U.S. dollars). Trips to the Galapagos usually include a visit to Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, which we highly recommend. From Quito, flight costs will probably cost a little more. There is another $10 fee for a card that you should purchase at the airport before flying to Baltra.

Getting from Baltra Airport to the main town of Santa Cruz Island (Puerto Ayora) was a bit interesting – organized chaos might be the best description. A guide will probably meet you if you have planned an organized trip. If not, this may help... Baltra Airport is located on a small island (North Seymour) just north of Santa Cruz Island so you need to take a bus to the ferry crossing, then take a ferry, and then get to Puerto Ayora.

Get on one of the free buses outside the airport to the ferry. After you hand over your luggage to the guys on top of the ferry, board the ferry on the ramp to the left. It’s a $.80 boat ride to Santa Cruz Island. After that you can wait for a public bus that we never saw (timetable not strictly adhered to) or approach one of the many pick up truck drivers in the parking lot. They use trucks for taxis on Santa Cruz. Our truck driver told us it was $18 for the 45-minute ride to Puerto Ayora. We joined up with 2 other travelers and split the fare 4 ways.

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