The world is becoming smaller, and although we are more connected, hidden gems are dwindling and the intimacy of secluded spaces are becoming fewer and fewer. When listing out such destinations, not many pop into my head.
One, however, is so unique that it has sparked my interest for years–The Galapagos Islands. A destination that is so uninhabitable, only the toughest have survived. Thus far, only reptiles and birds have inhabited these magical islands because there is no fresh water, other than the rain that is collected in the highlands, soon decimated by the strong rays of the equator.
There are many ways to explore the Galapagos and although I had heard a cruise through the islands was the best option, diving was the real way I wanted to explore the islands; while the land is home to bizarre creatures with blue feet and red throats, the underwater life is beyond alive.
So, my boyfriend and I booked a stay at the Casa Natura Eco-Lodge, intrigued by their locale in the highlands and their diving itineraries; the perfect way to explore the islands by land and by sea.
Day 1: Charles Darwin Research Center
Animals Spotted: Tortoise, Finch, Sea Iguana, Land Iguana
After a long journey, we landed at Balta International Airport (we were the only airplane at the airport). The landscape was alien-esque. Cacti with tree trunks, rocks, grass and dead looking tree stumps had taken over these volcanic islands like a disease.
We were greeted at the airport by a local guide who would take us around the island for the day. We took the local bus to a small ferry over to Puerto Ayora. From there, we hopped in a Toyota pickup truck, the island’s go-to choice of shuttle vehicle. There is one long, straight, two-laned road that goes from coast-to-coast, passing by everything in between. Within 10 minutes we stopped at two giant sinkholes appearing as massive space craters, while all around us, birds fed on berries and iguanas fed on cacti.
We then made our way to Lava caves where giant 100-year-old tortoises ruled the land; eating around nine kilos of grass each day, it is no wonder why they live so long. After enjoying lunch at the turtle park, we drove 30 minutes to the Charles Darwin Research Center. My inner science nerd was jumping for joy, and while I am not one for guided tours, I learned so many interesting facts about the evolution and adaptation of species living on the island.
For example, Lonesome George, a Pinta Island tortoise roamed alone for nearly 100 years without the ability to reproduce; he was the last of his kind and now his species is extinct. Diego: The playboy of the animal world if you will. Diego single handedly saved the Chelonoidis hoodensis tortoise species by fathering over 800 tortoises. Talk about survival of the fittest.
Day 2: The Dive
Animals seen: Bull sharks, Galapagos Shark, Manta Ray, Sea Turtle, Seals, Fish, Stingrays, jellyfish.
The sun woke us up at the crack of dawn, with the sound of roosters alarming us shortly after. Jose, the house chef, prepared a fruit plate, poached eggs, toast, fried plantains and fresh coffee. Our truck arrived at 7:00 a.m. where we met two fellow travelers, also eager to witness the lush lands of the Galapagos’ underworld.
We met the rest of the group at the pier and took a water taxi to a 68-foot rustic sailing ship. This is the place to note that Galapagos is not for the faint of heart or for those with motion sickness as the seas are incredibly rough. As our group sat out on the deck, sea mist splashed our faces with every crashing wave.
After sailing for 1.5 hours, the mecca of diving was closer than ever at Gordon Rocks. For this hotspot, divers must have 30 logged dives to descend here due to its strong currents, but for our trip, we got dropped off one kilometer away at an alternate scenic drift dive due to our lack of experience.
Within descending five meters, we saw a school of hammerhead sharks pass through as if they were in some sort of rush. The colors were subdued, visibility was mediocre but the wildlife was beyond vibrant. Sea turtles, sea lions and stingrays were aplenty and I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face.
The dive master then took us into the opening of a dark cave where I became somewhat skeptical (we didn’t even have headlamps), but within a couple of minutes I realized we were not going very far. This was the home of a resting manta-ray, its thick tail wrapped around to his near 12-foot body. I was in awe.
After 45 minutes dive, we surfaced far from where we originally started. The dive master blew up the orange floaty to show the zodiac driver where we were, inflated our BCD’s and waited. A school of Galapagos sharks started to circle under us which I couldn’t believe as our zodiac was nowhere to be found. We were drifting further and further away from our pickup point and the swells had grown to at least two meters. Jellyfish were wrapping their tentacles around our wrists, and in my case, over my lip. After 45 minutes, both zodiacs and the sailing boat finally began toward us to take us back to shore.
Day 3 & 4 – Tortuga Bay and Seymour Island
Animals Seen: Nesting Blue-Footed Boobies and Frigatebirds, Colonies of California Sea Lions, Marine Iguanas, Land Iguanas, Swallow-tailed Gulls, Red-billed Tropicbirds and Nazca Boobies
Due to my jellyfish stings, I was not able to dive the next day, therefore, we had a drastic change in plans. We decided to make our way into town and ask what to do–with so much to explore, we seemingly couldn’t go wrong. We were told to head over to Tortuga Bay, a 30-45 minute walk from town down a long path through cacti and desert-like conditions. Once reaching the end of the path, a gorgeous, desolate bay with white sand softer than baby powder and crystal clear waters appeared out of nowhere. The young locals were surfing alongside iguanas and sea turtles, and we walked towards the end of the bay where iguanas soaked up the sun, and sea turtles rode the waves in search of fresh food.
Finches flew on our legs while taking a break, and it was magical to be able to observe nature in such a subdued state.
The next day we made our way to the port where we embarked on a journey to Seymour island; a reserve for some of Galapagos’ most famous inhabitants, the blue footed boobie.
The sun was shining, and the water was a sort of saturated blue that one could only dream of. As we made our way onto this lava island (along with our guide) a narrow path led the way in search of all the animals on the island. Yellow-skinned iguanas paraded through the island as if they were showing off their glorious bodies, baby birds were nesting, and seals were sun-bathing. (Incase you didn’t know, the land animals made it to shore by drifting on debris across the ocean).
After getting back to our boat, we made our way down to a private beach where we would relax in the sun, and snorkel if we wanted to. I was beyond sun-burned at this point, so we cut our snorkel adventure short and wandered around with our hats on.
Day 5: Santa Cruz Island
After Seymour Island we were contemplating going on one more dive, but as we wandered around town we heard there was an island in which one could swim and play with sea lions. As amazing as diving was, this seemed like a very playful and unique thing to do so we decided to book it.
We made our way into town, chose wetsuits and embarked on a fishing vessel called “Bite Me” — the captain was a true Ecuadorian fisherman, and we were soon on our way out to the island. The seas were even rougher than the first day, but that did not alter the mood of the group.
We first stopped at ‘Hidden Beach’ (yes that is the real name) – a desolate and protected bay filled with iguanas, sea turtles, crabs and sea lions. We learned about the mangroves and then were on our way to the first of two snorkel stops.
Snorkeling is an entirely different experience than diving, though, just as interesting. Within seconds, male sea lions hurried to protect the mother lions and cubs as we entered the waters to schools of fish, sharks, sea turtles and stingrays passing by.
After a day by the sea, we made our way to the local streets where plastic chairs and tables showcased the fresh catches of the day. We chose a lobster, specified how we wanted it cooked and a few minutes later, it was served. Our last meal as one of the freshest and the perfect way to round out a journey through Galapagos’ land and sea.