July 10, 2014 Las Islas Encantadas | The Galápagos Islands
I don’t remember when it happened, but I’ve been bitten by the travel bug. I want to collect passports filled with stamps and memories from all over the world. This world is so beautiful, so big (and yet sometimes feels so small), and there’s so much to see. Some time in the last year, Steve and I decided that we needed to visit every continent together, and when it came to figuring out where we wanted to go this year we had narrowed it down to South America and Africa. Having a few friends who had recently gone to Africa, that was high on my list. But thinking about our options further, I thought it would be nice to visit South America and save Africa for another year. There are so many amazing places worthy of visiting in South America, and we started doing our research early this year. Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, they were all on our list. The only reason Brazil wasn’t on the list was because we may travel there for work in 2016, as Rio is hosting the Olympics. Visiting the Galápagos Islands has always been a bucket list item for me, and I never really though it was achievable. I just thought it was going to be too expensive and it would never happen. A some day, a “wouldn’t it be nice”, a probably not, but a hopefully.
I asked a few friends who were well traveled, what they would recommend to do in South America. One of those friends had honeymooned in South America, visiting Machu Picchu, The Galápagos Islands, and Costa Rica. She showed me the pictures from her trip. Machu Picchu was breathtaking, and I was ready to book the trip to go… and then I saw her photos from the Galápagos Islands… and I cried. I knew I needed to go. To be so in tune with nature and so close to so many incredible animals, this was the trip of a lifetime, and I wasn’t going to wait anymore for a someday that may never come. Thankfully, Steve is on board with my powerful need to travel, and it didn’t take much convincing to book what I knew would be the trip of a lifetime.
Yesterday we arrived home after 17 hours of travel from the most amazing trip of my lifetime thus far. We spent 9 days abroad, with 5 days on a cruise through the Galápagos Islands and a day and a half on either side of the trip in Quito, Ecuador. Quito is situated among the Andes mountains, around 9000+ feet above sea level. Surrounded by giant mountains and volcanoes, the views were breathtaking. Although Quito was fun on either side of our stay, this post is going to focus on the magic that is the Galápagos Islands.
I often have far too high expectations when I travel. Hawaii was the first place that I had visited that exceeded those expectations. I knew that the Galápagos would be life changing, and I had every expectation of falling in love with the place and the animals, but I didn’t realize how deep that would go. Photographs and words can only do so much, but I urge any of you, if you can, try to visit the Galápagos Islands. It will change the way you see the world, and you’ll feel inspired to do whatever in your power to conserve this and protect this beautiful world that we’ve been given.
I’m so excited to share this little look into our incredible visit to the Galápagos.
We arrived at the airport on Baltra Island and went through Immigration. I had brought along my book, Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut, because, I can only think of one more book that could be as appropriate (On the Origin of Species… by Charles Darwin) and well, I wanted to read, not sleep. (Sorry Darwin, but it’s a bit dry). As we were in the line to pass through Immigration, it hit me that we were about to get Galápagos National Park stamps in our passport. I decided that I needed to ask for a stamp in my book. I figured it wouldn’t hurt. What’s the worst that would happen? They’d say no… we’d move on, no big deal. Thankfully, the woman at the desk didn’t mind my silly request.
After what ended up being a slightly ridiculous journey to our boat (transfer from hotel to airport, flight with a stop over in Guayaquil, bus to ferry to van to dinghy to boat) we were ready to start the adventure! At the port where we were transferred to The Majestic, our beautiful home for 5 days, I was greeted by the first of many sea lions, hanging out at the dock.
The Majestic was the perfect boat to take on our journey. It’s one of, if not the newest boat in the Galápagos, having taken its maiden voyage last June. The boat can accommodate 16 passengers and 10 crew, and it was the perfect amount of people to share this adventure with. Among our new friends was a family of 8 made of two little girls, age 7 and 9, their parents, two aunts, an uncle and their grandmother. Watching this incredible family travel so well together, with such a vast range in ages was truly inspiring. In addition to the family, we were joined by a couple from Singapore, two sisters from Australia, and two men from New York City. All but the couple from Singapore were on the boat for 8 days, we were replacing a group of four from Israel who joined them for the first four. I’m so happy we had such amazing people to spend this time with, I couldn’t imagine a better group of people to travel with, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little emotional when we all said goodbye.
The boat itself was stunning. Steve took this gorgeous shot from our dinghy one day using our Go Pro (which will be featured heavily photo wise throughout this post). I didn’t bother to take any photos of the inside of the boat since it was exactly what it looked like on the website. So if you want to see the inside, you can check it out here. Yep, it was that amazing. We had the most amazing chef on board as well. Every single day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all spectacular.
After getting situated on the boat and eating our first meal, we headed back out to Santa Cruz to the Charles Darwin Research center, where we saw giant land tortoises (and learned that tortoises have feet and thus are land animals, turtles have fins and are sea animals), land iguanas, finches, and I got my first taste of co-existing so closely to the Galápagos Sea Lions.
My friend who I mentioned earlier in this post had photos of a sea lion at a fish market. She said that he had sort of been adopted by the people who worked there and would always come begging for scraps. When I saw the fish market from the other side of the street I wondered if he would be there. Sure enough, he was!
Along with a ton of pelicans!
After our visit in Santa Cruz, we headed back to the boat for our briefing and dinner. Unfortunately, I was feeling very sea sick and spent the evening in the cabin. Thankfully one of my new friends on the trip had a motion sickness patch that she offered to me. The combination of the patch, dramamine, and sea bands kept me from getting sick the rest of the trip. Even the following night, which was the roughest night by far, when nearly every single person on the boat was sick, I was actually fine and one of only three people who was well enough to eat dinner.
The next morning, after taking the entire night through rough waters, we arrived at Genovesa Island, where we had our first of many “wet landings”. A wet landing is where we get off the dinghy onto a beach and are anywhere from mid-calf to sometimes mid-thigh deep in the water. I was a little nervous about bringing my good camera along for a wet landing so all of these photos are with the Go Pro. Eventually I learned that I wouldn’t take any photos if I didn’t suck it up and bring it along for wet landings, so the pictures will get better as the post goes along :P
My first time seeing sea lions just laying on the beach and being able to just coexist with them. It was amazing. It never got old, but it did become a running joke by the end. “Oh wow, a sea lion! I’ve never seen one of those before!”
Sea lion from underwater– the Go Pro was amazing for our snorkeling trips… more from those to come.
My favorite part of Genovesa Island, probably surprisingly, was the red-footed boobies. I didn’t expect to love them so much but they are so cute and their coloring so beautiful. I’m so sad I never got a chance to photograph them with my Canon. As are most species on the islands, they are endemic to Galápagos and many to their own specific island. The variations from island to island are incredible.
Red footed boobies have bright red feet (obviously, given the name) and beautiful blue and purple colorings on their faces. The true magic of the Galápagos is how close you can get to these animals. They have no reason to fear us, and so we can get very close. For my photographer friends, the Go Pro is a 2.77mm lens, that’s how close we are here.
Also on Genovesa Island we saw frigate birds, also endemic to the Galápagos. Unfortunately we didn’t get any good close shots since all we had was the GoPro. This shot is of a frigate bird with a baby in the nest.
After our bird watching hike, we had an hour or so to snorkel, swim, or just lie on the beach. I chose the latter.
After lunch, part two of the day was a dry landing. I had meant to bring my camera along, but we missed the call to go to the island (the speaker in our room didn’t work) and had to rush out. Though honestly, this dry landing was scary as all get out so it was probably a good thing, even though it worked out okay.
We took what is called “Prince Phillip’s Steps”. So although this was a dry landing, with the rough seas it was a bit sketchy at best. That being said, I was the first person off the dinghy and everyone got off and back on after the visit safely :)
As you can see here, there are some rocks that we had to get onto from the dinghy and then quickly climb up the steps to make room for everyone else.
The visit to El Barranco, at the top of Prince Phillip’s Steps was much of what we had seen earlier that day, more red footed and Nazca boobies (Nazca boobies shown below), plus a few chance sightings of the Galápagos short ear owl – a day hunter, and another nice hike.
The next day we had yet another wet landing and I had sucked it up and brought my camera along. I took the suggestion of the travel agent and brought gallon heavy duty ziplock bags to keep the lenses and camera in in the backpack in case it got wet. We started the day off at “Chinese Hat” or Sombrero Chino, a little island named for its shape, which you’ll see later from our snorkeling photos across the way.
On the way to the island, we spotted Galápagos Penguins! Another species endemic to the islands, only able to survive because of the arctic currents and cool water temperatures.
What’s truly most fascinating about the islands is that they really don’t have much to them. They’re very desolate. Being fairly young, geologically speaking, being formed within only the last 3-5 million years (to put it into perspective, the islands of Hawaii were formed 95 million years ago) the islands are very rough and on the surface, truly show their volcanic origins. The islands were “born of fire” and tempered by the salt water, making them an incredibly interesting spot to observe evolution and adaptations of new species first hand. And of course, watching sea lions play :)
There were sea lions everywhere along the beach. Sleeping on land, or playing in the water.
Baby sea lions were seen on this island quite a bit despite it not being their birthing/mating season!
I love this one on the right of baby and mommy holding flippers. The baby sea lion was probably no more than a few days old.
And this is in my top two of favorite photos from the trip!
I love this GoPro shot that Steve got of the Marine Iguanas snuggling. It seemed that the Chinese Hat Island was the island of cuddles. Lots of sea lions cuddling, marine iguanas cuddling, everyone was buddies. It was adorable.
See? More cuddles.
After our visit on the Chinese Hat Island, it was time for a quick break to snorkel! I’m so so glad we had the GoPro to capture these amazing underwater photos! We swam with penguins, PENGUINS, people!
This photo is of Billy, our guide, coaxing a reef shark out from under the rocks and getting a GoPro photo of his own.
And the Chinese Hat — with a Marine Iguana just hanging out in the water.
Wrapping up our already amazing day, we visited Mosquera Islet, where there were dozens of sea lions greeting us in the water for our “wet landing” from the dinghy.
And the resulting photos:
To the left of this photo you can see one little sea lion going for something…
Someone lost a shoe from their bag… and one of our companions tried to take it away from the sea lion. For the sake of not interfering with nature and whatnot. Well our little buddy wasn’t having it, and chased him!
Then he was distracted by dress worn by one of the women in our group. He bit the dress, and even gave her ankle a little nibble – which she said didn’t hurt, and then moved on to go join his friends again. It was a pretty entertaining little encounter, and J handled it like a champ.
I went a little sea lion photo crazy…
We found a full whale skeleton. The girls had fun piecing it together for this photo.
A beautiful sunset on a perfect day.
Our final full day was at the top of San Cristobal island, at Witch’s Hill, and ended by an amazing snorkeling trip around Kicker’s Rock. Before making our landing at Witch’s Hill, we took an incredible dinghy ride around the island. I got pretty ballsy by this point and was even using my camera on the dinghy.
This was the biggest Marine Iguana I saw on the trip, I love his colorings.
The crabs we saw along the Galápagos were mostly red, here we see some juveniles, soft shell crabs still, with a darker coloring. As they age and their shell hardens they turn red as they no longer need the camouflage protection. You’ll see a photo of one of the dinghies, we always took two out at a time to fit everyone comfortably and safely.
The pelicans were gorgeous and huge!
An amazing view of Kicker Rock, also known as Leon Dormido, or “Sleeping Lion” based on its shape. There’s nowhere to land at Kicker Rock, but it’s a very popular snorkeling and diving spot.
I love love love this one. It’s my current desktop background on my computer.
Once on land, we had our first and only truly free morning to explore. We could snorkel, swim, hike the trails, or just relax on the beach. I chose the latter two, Steve did all of the above :)
Per the usual, there were many sea lions, but I was on a mission to find a blue-footed booby. Our friends on the trip had seen them in the days before we had joined, and I had seen one or two flying by from a distance, but I had never gotten to see one close up. I would be devastated if we went to the Galápagos and I never got to see the famous blue footed booby. Obviously, given the cover photo of this post, you know how it ended, but I’ll continue on anyway.
We hiked around the beach. Saw lots of buddies snoozing…
… playing in the water…
… completely covered in sand… you know, doing what sea lions do.
As I was telling Steve how disappointed I was that I hadn’t seen a blue footed booby yet, he noticed a bird perched on the rocks in the distance and said “I wonder if that’s one?”
I took a photo with my 70-200 and zoomed in. I saw the blue feet. I yelled an expletive, and we booked it towards him, taking photos along the way just in case he decided to fly away before we got there. Thankfully, he stayed put… I swear he doesn’t even look real!
Here’s the photo from a distance:
It’s a little shaky and he’s not in focus, but since the point wasn’t to get HIM but rather to see if he was what I thought he was, I’ll share the zoomed in version anyway. See those bright blue feet in contrast with the dark rock?!
I snapped a few photos as we went along, but he stayed put for me to get close enough to do it right.
He looks like he’s a computer animation, but I promise you, this is a true photograph.
After I had accomplished my mission, the trip was so perfect and I was 100% happy and could go home without seeing anything else new. So I enjoyed the now ‘typical’ view of my furry sea friends.
I laid on the beach for a while and there was a cute little sea lion who kept inching towards me, laying down, inching a little closer, laying down. It was adorable. Then he ended up going closer to the water. It’s so amazing being so close to such incredible creatures with absolutely no fear of one to the other. They’re truly beautiful.
And although seeing them became common, it never, ever got old.
After lunch we had our final snorkeling venture, to Kicker Rock. I was greatly looking forward to this, knowing that this is one of a few spots in the Galápagos where it’s possible to see Hammerhead sharks. On our first day, we had to cancel a snorkeling trip where we would have almost certainly seen them due to rough conditions and murky waters, but I was looking forward to the possibility here. We never did see any (just a reason to go back!) but it was still the greatest snorkeling experience of my life!
We were dropped off at one side of Kicker Rock where the gap was between the rocks, we swam through, and turned the corner going to one side. We were then picked back up by the dinghy and did the same thing, but turned the other corner. We never saw the hammerheads, but we saw two different types of sharks, many spotted eagle rays, sea turtles, fish galore, a playful sea lion and even ended the trip with an unexpected surprise! Steve and I were pretty spread out for most of this, unfortunately there were a few times that I saw things worth photographing as well but didn’t have the GoPro. I guess we need a second one for future trips ;)
The water here was pretty deep and so the photos are pretty dark. You still get the idea though, pretty amazing!
And the fun surprise! As I got into the dinghy, finished with snorkeling, I had completed the amount of people Miguel (one of the dinghy drivers) needed to head back to the boat. Several others were still in the water, Steve included, so Jesús and the other dinghy stayed for them. We started driving off and I heard Miguel yell “DOLPHINS!” We drove around in circles following them, they were everywhere. Steve and the others still in the water heard the commotion and quickly got on the other dinghy so they could follow the dolphins as well. It was the perfect unexpected ending to our last full day on our incredible trip!
That night we had the most incredible meal of the trip, and the only one I could remember to photograph (they were so good they got eaten before it ever occurred to me). Raul truly outdid himself. This photo was taken with an iPad. I generally have a rule to not take photos with iPads, both because it looks silly, and because the photos aren’t that good, but this food was too good to wait any longer and everything else was down in our cabin!
At the end of our last day, the entire crew came out dressed to the nines and we had our farewell toast and thanked them for allowing us to have a beautiful experience. There was a touching moment where one of the women on the boat thanked them for everything and another one of our new friends translated her speech – Steve and I both had tears in our eyes. It was an incredible experience and everything about it (save for small bouts of seasickness) was perfect.
As I said before, I would highly recommend visiting the Galápagos Islands to everyone and anyone. The Spanish name for the islands is Las Islas Encantadas, or the Enchanted Islands. I couldn’t think of a better name. Magical is the best word I can think of to describe it, and you’ll never know the feeling until you experience it yourself. So much fun, adventure, education, and on top of all that– just a really humbling experience to realize how small our place is in the world, and yet how big our impact can be.
And to end what’s already become my most wordy post in this blog’s history– two photos from our final morning in the Islands on San Cristobal before heading back to Quito.
A statue of Charles Darwin- the caption roughly translated as saying: Charles Darwin, who came to San Cristobal on September 17, 1835. His experience in the Galápagos Islands, allowed him to formulate the Theory of Natural Selection and Evolution of Species, which caused a radical change in our conception of the world.
Finally on the right, more sea lions doing what they do best, on a bench that says it all. ¡Conservemos, lo nuestro! Preserve what’s ours.