Today’s Classroom: Galápagos Islands
Office Elevation: sea level, The Equator
Turtles, Penguins, and Sharks… Oh my! Calling all animal lovers, sea creatures, and seekers of biodiversity. The Galápagos Islands is a magical place full of the most mind-blowing arena of multiple climates, terrain, and weather systems. It is the one place in the world where a melting pot of diverse animals exists. By far, these islands are definitely the most untouched wild places I have ever been.
Getting there… There may not be an entrance fee to get into Ecuador, but regardless everyone has to pay the entrance fee upon arrival in order to enter into the Galápagos Islands as it is an international park and World Heritage Site. The entrance for me was $120 U.S. (2015), which is convenient because their currency is officially the U.S. dollar. Before even getting on the plane, however, please make sure to do two things 1) attain the Galápagos Transport Pass $20 U.S. which is at a ticket window before security check and 2) pay the airport tax $3.41 (cash only) before going to your flight gate. These two things almost caused me to miss my flight out of Guayaquil, Ecuador because I was not informed that I needed such tasks before boarding. Warning: one’s eyes may be blinded and in shock at how vibrantly teal the color of sea is. If anything is bluer than the sky, it is the gorgeous water glistening as I waited for the ferry to take us from Isla Baltra 10 minutes across to Isla Santa Cruz. It makes the 2 hour flight from Ecuador and 1 hour bus ride ($2 U.S.) worth the wait. Be mindful that locals may provide mixed change of U.S. dollar coins with their old Ecuadorian coins, which can be confusing. Besides that, enjoy the wildlife views experienced over the next hour bus ride to the opposite of the island to Puerto Ayora. It was unbelievable how the land transformed from dry arid land into humid jungle with dense fog and rain back to tropical beach terrain. At Puerto Ayora there are plenty of options to explore the islands by cruise ship, yet I chose to go about my own exploration backpacking independently catching boat rides ranging from $25-$30 one-way. Isla Santa Cruz is the main port so everywhere from there will be an average 2 hour boat ride in either direction. Carry lots of loose change in U.S. $1 coins! There are several islands one can visit especially the more remote ones, which can be reached by private tours. I spent 2 weeks exploring three islands, so nearly 5 days on each. Here is a break down of my adventures on Isla Santa Cruz, Isla Isabela, and Isla de San Cristóbal.
Isla Santa Cruz
If flying into Baltra, you are bound for Isla Santa Cruz, the main tourist spot but one you should not miss. Please say hello to my friend, Diego, at the Charles Darwin Research Center. Diego, a.k.a. “Super Diego”, spent many years in my hometown of San Diego, CA before returning to the Galápagos to participate in the breeding program. Diego is the cutest tortoise, about 120+ years old, living healthy and mighty. He is still active at his ripe old age despite seeing more than a century of sunrises and sunsets. What I would give to ask him what he has seen over the decades. His story is inspired by Lonesome George, the last tortoise to survive on the island of Pinta, but sadly died, along with him the existence of his subspecies forever. So in order to prevent another extinction, tortoise elders like Diego have been a part of breeding programs on each island to recuperate the population of each subspecies. Follow @lonesomegeorgeco to learn about their recycled clothing products, efforts to bring awareness about the story of Lonesome George, and support their “Agents of Change” campaign. The island also has other gems to experience. Nearby the breeding center is an eclectic ceramic garden, which displays beautiful mosaic artwork in one scene. Then walk down to Tortuga Bay to see swimming marine iguanas! To me they all look like old men, their faces are so human-like! Remember to bring water for the 40min trek down the straight brick-laden path because after leaving the visitor check-in there is no water source available. The path gets a little monotonous because it goes straight for miles with only a slight bend in the path. Talk about following the yellow brick road to Oz! Once I reached the beach, there is snorkeling available at the calm lagoon on the opposite end of the Tortuga Bay. By far my favorite spot was swimming in Las Grietas, a volcanic crack where fresh water and salt water combine in a clear turquoise canyon. Early in the morning I avoided crowds and enjoyed the water with only the canyon wall and blue sky above me. It is accessible by boat taxi less than a dollar across the Puerto Ayora. Also enjoy the delicious food market held nightly filled with tasty cuisine of seafood and lobster.
I spent precious time on the beautiful and more remote Isla Isabela where plenty of animals roam free everywhere and anywhere. Don’t be surprised to see sea lions and marine iguanas lounging out as soon as you step off Puerto Villamil. Diving and snorkeling is a MUST. The biodiversity is insane and unlike any other place in the world. I happened to bring my snorkel and mask with me so I got a great price for a tour with Tropical Adventures of $80 U.S. to Los Tunéles. It included the boat ride, guide, delicious warm lunch meal with a dessert treat, plus GoPro video and photos disc. Feel free to check out my instagram @wheresmelindanow for the videos of White Tip Sharks, sea turtles, penguins, sting rays, sea horses, seals, and photos from diving. One word to describe the experience… WOW! Besides so many marine animals swimming all around me harmoniously in one area, I was stunned by how turquois the water is. I kept thinking maybe it was a strange trick my mask was causing but it literally is surreal how bright this hue is. This time of year in November is mating season, so many animals were very active and thriving with life. Concha La Perla is another great spot located near the docks at Puerto Villamil, which is a free experience and I went a few times and saw different animals each time. I couldn’t help but feel grateful I got to spend my birthday swimming with the fishes and creatures of the sea.
Now there are a few mistakes and lessons I learned worth sharing while traveling to Isla Isabela. One is be absolutely sure to bring all the cash you plan to spend before reaching this island because there are no ATMs or banks! Forget credit card transactions… it is all cash. I found out the hard way by realizing I had only $20 in cash in my pocket to survive me for the 5 days I had planned to spend on the island. I also had to think about how on earth I was going to pay for my boat ride ticket back, which was at least $25. WHAT A PICKLE I WAS IN! My first thought was that I was totally screwed and I was going to be stuck on the island. In travel, dilemmas will arise where problem-solving skills come quite in handy, so be prepared! It is such a small town that I was surprised I managed to find ONE grocery store that had a card machine so I could take out cash (red shop towards the end of the street near the bike path). Downside is that is cost me a 22% charge, but with no other choice I was happy to know that I would be able to at least buy food. I totally lucked out with finding ONE hotel that allowed credit card payment at Hotel George, with of course 22% charge. It was a lovely place with an amazing fresh cooked breakfast by owner’s daughter. Side note: bring plenty of cash in small denominations because they do not want to break large bills, even $20 bill. Don’t forget to stop by the post office for a passport stamp. Don’t deny this fun souvenir!
Isla Isabela has many free trails and treks to indulge in. I encourage to rent a bike or walk on the Trail of Tears because that is where I saw the most wildlife including Tortoise traffic, flamingos, iguana nesting grounds, pelicans, and viewing the many Darwinian finches amongst the trees. Please don’t touch the tortoises, leave them in their natural habitat and uninterrupted in their daily meanderings. Their habitat has been destroyed for the decades and mass poached for their meat and shells that the least we all could do is leave them alone.
Isla de San Cristóbal
Through Ecuador Volunteers I had the opportunity to stay with a host family and perform conservation work in endemic plant nurseries and ridding of invasive plants. My stay at Hacienda Esperanza was based in the highland hills where me and 6 other German volunteers traded duties cooking and cleaning. I spent Thanksgiving with my new friends and enjoyed outings on our evenings off. The local bakeries in town have tasty treats but I would also consider the tropical flavored popsicles. With weather that never deviates from the 80-90 degree F temperatures all year, a cold indulgence is always welcomed. We hiked to the Museum, Playa de Loberia, and the island’s breeding center as well. Don’t worry about washing clothes since nothing ever dries, the highlands are so humid and it heavily rains at random. If there is time, diving at Kicker Rock is an awesome adventure.
It will take you by surprise how the climate is a vastly different and can downpour despite it being hot dry on the beaches. It is a place where all walks of life thrive together here with little interference from major commercial development and urban jungles. It is the reason why Ecuador is making such an effort to protect these pristine islands in order to preserve the wildlife, existence of true biodiversity, and unique fragile ecosystems. The Galapagos Islands are important keys to evolutionary studies and natural processes of Mother Nature at her finest.