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The Intrigue of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands have always been a mystery to me. I knew the islands were located close to the equator in South America and the animal life unique, but to be honest, that was all I knew! I began researching the Galapagos Islands after I saw a Facebook post of a friend that traveled to the islands last year. I immediately thought...these islands would be great for a wildlife photographer and and an exciting adventure!

Sea Lion on the beach of Playa de Oro, a few minutes from central Puerto Baquerizo Moreno

The Galapagos Islands are made up of 19 islands, also known as an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands are the result of volcanic activity that occurred approximately 5 million years ago. Typically you hear about people vacationing on a cruise ship traveling throughout the islands but my husband will NOT cruise! Therefore, my challenge was to figure out a way to tour the Galapagos; stay on the islands; and sightsee the amazing islands through day tours. Even if you stay on the islands, taking a boat is part of the island way of life so plan to be on the water! Another important thing to plan on...there is a good deal of walking on volcanic rock!

“The Galapagos Islands are magical! The atmosphere is relaxing; the sights are unforgettable; the animals are mesmerizing; and snorkeling with the sea lions, sharks, marine iguanas, and eagle rays are a once in a lifetime experience."
Blue-footed Booby

Traveling to the Galapagos islands is an expensive endeavor. A land-based trip to the Galapagos is lessor expensive than a cruise or boat based tour but much of your time will be spent on a boat even if your trip is land-based. Hotels and bed and breakfast stays can be found on Santa Cruz island in Puerto Ayora; San Cristobal island in the capital city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno; and on Isabella island in Puerto Villamil. Land-based tour provides the opportunity to travel at your own pace, pick and chose the tours you want, and you decide your length of stay on each island. The downside to a land based tour, you must do your own research to determine which tours meet your expectations for the animals and sights you want to see, and you cannot access some of the remote areas that the cruise-based tours reach on their tours. The popularity of land based tours are growing in the Galapagos, therefore, with simple Google searches, you can find all the information you need for hotels and tours based on each of the three islands that are inhabited.

Santa Cruz Island

To travel to the Galapagos, we flew from Chicago O'Hare to Miami and then to Guayaquil, Ecuador. From Guayaquil we took a two-hour flight to Balta Island where the airport is located and access via water ferry to Santa Cruz Island. It took some research and reading to determine the most time effective route to get to our hotel in Puerto Ayora from the Balta airport. As you arrive in the Galapagos, a $100 per person entry fee is required and must be paid in cash. Proof of vaccinations were not required. The fee is paid at customs upon entry. We decided to book a tour with Ecuador Trails to pick up up at the airport, handle our water ferry transfer from Balta airport to Santa Cruz, and to stop at the El Chato Ranch

in the highlands to see the giant tortoises. It was a bright, sunny and hot day when we arrived at the Balta Airport, but when we reached the El Chato Ranch in the highlands, it was downpouring rain. The highlands experience rain year round but more during the summer months in the Galapagos which are the months of December through March. The rain didn't stop the tour...the tour guide outfitted us with rain jackets, rain boots and umbrellas and away we went walking through the trails and fields looking at the gigantic tortoises. The rain doesn't phase the giant tortoises in the least! By the time we arrived at our hotel a couple of hours later in Puerto Ayora, it was hot and sunny again!

After our giant tortoise tour, the guide dropped us off at the Captain Max Bed and Breakfast located in downtown Puerto Ayora. Captain Max was very clean; spacious rooms; had a wonderful location in the downtown; near the main dock; and had a wonderful breakfast every morning. Rates were very affordable and we enjoyed our stay. We could walk to

restaurants, shopping and the port area. The food was very reasonable with a wide variety of eateries. Near the dock area, there is an outdoor amphitheater with music and food stands on the weekends. The fish market is another location just a few blocks from the main docks with many restaurants along the way as well as shopping. It is definitely worth seeing and an easy walk. Since it is a fish market, the sea lions are hanging out as well as the herons and pelicans waiting for fish scraps! One of the charms of the three islands we visited were the abundance of sea lions. The sea lions are not fearful of people, swim in the dock area and lay on the docks and benches making themselves at home. People respect the rules of staying at least 20 feet away from them but sometimes it is difficult as they have no fear in approaching you. The sea lions are playful with each other and are fun to watch!

The main form of transportation on Santa Cruz Island are taxis, motorcycles, or mopeds. Very few people own their own vehicle and renting a vehicle does not make any sense. Taxis are reasonable, quick, and there are very few roads to drive on. There is no need to rent a vehicle or motor bike. There are plenty of great restaurants within walking distance of the hotels. Captain Max prepared a hot breakfast for us daily with omelets and toast. The boat tours feed you snacks and lunch so we only had to eat out once a day in the evening.

Santa Cruz Island, from the arrival at Balta Airport to the sea lions at Puerta Ayora.

Prior to arriving to Santa Cruz, we decided on the day trips based from the island. Our first full-day on Santa Cruz, we decided to explore the island on our own and took a water taxi across Academy Bay from the main port and tell the water taxi you want to disembark at Finch Bay. You follow trail past the Finch Bay Hotel. You’ll see a beach, a lava field, a cactus forest, and some abandoned salt mines. At the entry of Las Grietas, you will pay a $10 per person fee and will have to join a guided tour. The trail with the tour guide is hot, rocky and uphill. I didn't enjoy the trail walk at all! But once we arrived at Las Grietas, it is a beautiful inland stretch of crystal pure emerald green water located at the bottom of an earth fissure. The water was amazing but cold. There are approximately 150 steps down to the water but there is a platform to leave your water shoes and towel. Personally, this is a tour I could have skipped. Other than the amazing view from the top of the hillside, the snorkeling was cold and we only saw a few fish. While beautiful, I wouldn't do that day trip again. There is a wonderful beach, Playa de Los Alemanes, that you reach just before the hike to Las Grietas. The beach is worth a stop to snorkel but there are not many shade trees in the vicinity. This is where we saw our first swimming black iguana.

Finch Bay Hotel dock, Las Grietas, and Playa de Los Alemanes

Later in the day, after our hike to Las Grietas, we were able to get on an afternoon tour from Academy Bay port area to a beautiful white sand beach, Tortuga Bay Beach. It is only a 10 minute boat ride from the port but you can also walk there with a 45 minute hike. After ouyr last hike, we chose the boat! Tickets are necessary for the boat ride since the water taxis

do not make the trip. The cost $10 per person and the boats make the trip every two hours. You can purchase them in advance. The boat ride is beautiful and the beach is a beautiful white sand beach gorgeous palm trees. This is also the location where we saw a baby Hammerhead Shark in knee deep water! Other than the shark, the snorkeling is not good at this beach unless you snorkel near the rocks. There are sharks along the rocks and we saw them when the boat was docking. Without a snorkel guide, we opted to not snorkel over to the rocks.

My favorite trip from Santa Cruz was a day trip we booked through Ecuador Trails that took us to Pinzon Island for the day. They picked us up by taxi from Captain Max, dropped us at the water taxi stand at the port, and guided us to our boat for the day. The entire day was perfect. The boat ride to the island is about 40 minutes each way. The waters are crystal clear for snorkeling and the underwater views were incredible. The underwater animals were abundant from sea lions swimming close to you, to sharks, sea turtles, underwater iguanas, and beautiful colorful fish, there was plenty to see! The water during February is warm, around 75 to 76 degrees and the air temperature is 85 to 90 degrees daily. The tour included lunch and non-alcoholic drinks. I would highly recommend this day tour that we booked through Ecuador Trails. Below are a few underwater photos of our snorkeling trip to Pinzon. Also pictured are a few of the famous Blue-footed Boobies. They are an amazing sight and make the entire trip worth the time and adventure. The feet and beak are a bright turquoise blue!

Isabella Island

We also booked in advance a day trip to Isabella. I booked the trip through a different company, not Ecuador Trials and it was not as well planned and we were not as fortunate. It is a two our boat ride to Isabella from Santa Cruz and half way through the trip, the boat broke down! One of the three engines failed. They were able to get us to Isabella on two engines but it was a slow go! By the time we arrived our snorkel tour had already left and we had to join a different snorkel tour. We had booked an English speaking tour but we were the only people that spoke English. We were fortunate our snorkel tour guide was bilingual. The rest of the day went well with a trip to the turtle ranch on Isabella and for lunch at the ranch. We also toured a look out point on the island with a beautiful view of the entire landscape.