Good morning Galapagos!
Shortly after arriving in San Cristobal our agent showed up and went through all the paperwork with us. Our inspection was booked for 3pm so we had a few hours to kill. I asked if we could ‘unofficially’ pop to shore and was told it wouldn’t be an issue.
You can’t use your own dingy here so we took a water taxi to the dock.
Wow. Seal city! They were everywhere. On the jetty where you try and depart the taxi, lined up on the steps, on benches, flopped in the middle of the road. No fear of humans at all. Such an amazing sight that really takes your breath away.
We weaved through the seals and found a nice cafe for some lunch.
The town is a little bit sprawled out covering way too much area. Lots of development work is going on, most seeming to be half-finished backpacker accommodation. Shame there isn’t a little more town planning going on here. Nothing really struck us as Eco built, large concrete structures were everywhere. The seals seemed happy enough though. They are protected near the shore by a large walkway.
We headed back to the boat to do a final clean up ready for our inspection. I was in the middle of washing the decks down when this cheeky fellow decided to pay us a visit. He hung out on the swim platform for a good 30mins before flopping off back into the sea. Seals can be a real problem on boats here so I’m glad we can raise our platform.
No sooner had we finished cleaning then the welcoming committee turned up.
Nine, yes NINE, officials showed up including customs, immigration, two park officials, the harbour master, a random soldier, some guy who dived under the boat to inspect the hull, two environment officials and our agent.
Two people headed below decks with Helen and inspected everything while I was hammered with paperwork and questions from all angles above. It was very full on but they were all very friendly and seemed happy with the drinks and biscuits we’d laid on for them.
We passed with flying colours, handed over a load of cash in fees and they left to visit our Kiwi friends on Matelot who’d only just arrived from Panama.
We decided to just stay on board that night as the drain of the crossing hit us like a brick.
Next day we went into town, did some provisioning, and explored the area more. We also managed to get totally refuelled so we’re ready for the long passage coming up. We joined Pippy and Richard from Matelot with their friends who were visiting and had an amazing seafood meal. Yum!
Day after we headed over to the interpretation centre built just outside the town which went into the history of the islands and the human effects on the environment. Was quite a depressing eyeopener.
Ever since humans discovered the islands the wildlife has suffered greatly. Many species of giant tortoise were lost due to them being used for food and to power streetlights !?!
Whaling wiped out the local numbers, anything that could be used was striped for a long time.
Introduced species are a real problem here as well. Cats and dogs, goats, rats, and many aggressive plants, have all attacked the delicate balance in this unique area with many areas now lost. The locals are fighting hard to protect what’s left but it doesn’t sound hopeful.
The number of tourists visiting is also growing expnentraply, but the money they are willing to spend is shrinking. Backpackers looking for budget accommodation and cheap tours seems to be the way things are heading and the demands on resources can’t keep up.
Wish I had a silver lining to all this but I don’t. We feel very lucky to be able to visit, and totally understand that by being here we are adding to the problem, but unless something changes the Galápagos Islands will become just another screw up in human history. It’s a very tricky issue as people want to visit and experience this amazing place and the money needed for research and protection comes from tourism for the most part. It’s a bit of a catch22.
After the centre we headed down a trail to an amazing cove where you can dive in and snorkel with seals and other sea life.
We couldn’t believe our eyes once underwater. The density of fish in the water was staggering. Then… Whoosh… A huge seal swam just below me scaring me half to death, the fish he was after were probably a little more scared. We followed Mr Seal over to a rocky ledge where loads of his friends were hanging out. We dived around the water and they’d come over and play with us. So cool to be swimming with wild seals, watching them feed and play.
The water here is pretty cold so after 45mins we called it a day and walked back to town with huge smiles on our face.
On the way back we also saw a huge land iguana and lots of small finches that are native to the island.
We went to shore later for one final meal and got an early night ready to depart for our second island tomorrow.
We had a lovely sail between the islands over to Santa Cruz and arrived in good time. The anchorage here is well known for its swell so we wanted to be safely in before dark. We managed to get a good spot at the back of the pack where we noticed other boats nearby had their stern anchors out.
We’d read this can help with the swell here so we decided to give it a try ourselves. We’ve never used a stern anchor so didn’t really know how to set it. I came up with the great idea that I could just swim with the anchor from the boat, take it behind us and then drop it. Helen thought I was nuts and would sink.
Turns out Helen was right (as normal). I did quite well for the first 10secs before noticing that the top of my snorkel was now well underwater and I was sinking like a brick!
Helen pulled me back above water and we decided to go back to the drawing board.
We decided to throw the dingy in the water then throw the anchor in the dingy. I used the line from the anchor to let myself adrift backwards then paddled over to the side a little to give us a good angle then dropped the hook. Helen tightened up the line and I paddled back. On board the boat was now heading nicely into the swell and much more stable. Nice!
Santa Cruz is even bigger than San Cristobal. An old salt we got the water taxi in with from another boat said he couldn’t believe it. He visited 15 years ago and said there were only one or two restaurants and bars back then. There must be 50 times that now. These towns aren’t really what we expected. There must be over a hundred places selling the same tours.
We visited one to book a visit up to the highland area the next day then walked over to the Darwin centre where good work is being done to breed and reintroduce Giant Tortoises back into the wild. The size of these creatures is amazing. They live over 200 years and can weigh over 200kgs. I bet a few of the older ones must wonder what the hell is going on as they have watched explorers come and go and then towns built smack in the middle of their lands.
The tour up into the highlands the next day was great. Seeing the Giant Tortoises in the wild rather than breeding pens was amazing and we also visited huge lava tunnels and volcanoes.
There isn’t much (hopefully) on our final Island, Isabela, so we needed to visit the main market to reprovision for our huge passage over to French Polynesia. When we did the Atlantic crossing this was easy… pop into a huge supermarket and buy whatever you want and they delivered to the boat. Here we had to get to the weekly market (fresh produce gets delivered to the island once per week) early and fight over the best items with the locals. Was a great experience but there’s only so much you can carry and we fear a lot of the produce won’t keep. We’re not worried though. The huge number of fish we’ll catch will ensure we don’t starve. Yeah right.
We caught up with the guys from Matelot who were also a little so-so of the places visited so far. We decided to leave the next day and head for Isabela which we hoped was still unspoilt.
We sailed over with Matelot and pulled into the anchorage at Isabella where we instantly knew this was what we’d been waiting for. The anchorage is surrounded by a reef where birds by the 1000’s were nesting. Scores of blue footed boobies were dive bombing the waters just behind us, more seals came to inspect our boat (one scaring me half to death as he swam under me while I checked the anchor had set), white tipped sharks glided through the waters, penguins waddled about on the rocks, and huge iguanas sunned themselves in the warm sun. Oh, and not a tour operator or hostel in sight.
After a few hours we got a shout from Matelot to head over for some beers so we rowed the huge distance (about 20m) and caught up with everyone. Was a fun night and we decided to head into the little town about 1km away to book a guide to see more of the island the next day.
Next morning we took a long dingy ride ashore. Long due to the reef surrounding the anchorage, you have to take a huge arc round to get to shore safely.
Ashore we found the dingy dock to be a seal stronghold. It’s so funny here how so many structures built have been only to be taken over by the seals. All the seats were claimed and boards put up to keep them taking over more areas. I guess they aren’t taking over, humans have built on their habitats so fairs fair.
The walk into town is down a small road that’s about to become a very big one. Yep, the early signs of development were to be seen here as well sadly. Boards lined the trees and scrubland to either side of the road offering land for sale. Why the hell isn’t all this national parkland and protected?! The road was due to be replaced by a huge two-lane highway linking the (currently) small town with the (currently) small dock. Give it a few years and Isabela will have gone the same way as the other islands. Get there quick!
Luckily the town was still lovely, much smaller and more basic than the others we’d visited. We had breakfast and bumped into Josh who had taken a ferry over to the other islands to do some exploring. He gave us the low down on the area and what tours to visit. I should explain this ‘tour’ thing. You have to visit most areas on the islands with a guide so small tours are provided. It keeps humans confined to set areas which can only be a good thing.
We thanked Josh and headed straight over to book a tour of the volcanic areas. We also needed to visit immigration and customs (again) to let them know we’d arrived. Honestly the whole visa in and out for each island is starting to get a little annoying. No one seems to know the rules, it takes ages getting the agent to smooth things over, etc. I really don’t mind but if you’re going to put complex requirements and red tape in place at least inform your officials how they are meant to work.
After a few phone calls, lots of form filling, and good old Google translate, we were cleared in and able to explore a little more. The town is really cool actually. It’s how I imagine the others would have been ten years ago. A lot more laid back, slower paced, and not full of endless shops selling the same ten t-shirts.
After a slow lazy day hanging out in the town and checking out the amazing beach in front of it we headed back aboard as our volcano trip kicked off at 7am.
Fully rested we were picked up from the dock the next morning. A 4×4 drove us up to base of the Volcano and then we were on foot for the 14km hike around the area. The guys from Matelot joined us and it was good chatting and getting to know them more as we ascended. If was quite misty for the first few hours and one of the main viewpoints looking out over the huge crater was totally greyed out. Was quite funny having our guide explaining and bigging it up when all we could see was cloud. Could have been a massive industrial estate there for all we knew.
After a few more k’s we made it above the clouds and entered into a surreal volcanic landscape that could have been on Mars. It was fascinating learning from our guide how the area had been destroyed by a recent eruption. Really amazing to see the world turned inside out as all the minerals were belched from below. The colours and textures of this barren landscape became more intense as we walked higher where we ended up looking out over Isabela while we had lunch and took it all in.
We then had to walk back but was lucky that the mists had cleared so all the lower views opened up, for the record there wasn’t an industrial estate. It took a few more hours to get back to the base by which point people were starting to fade. A massive hike, but one of our favs, and well worth a few blisters. Even the ride back to town was fun. All the seats In the 4×4’s were all full (no idea where the extra people came from?!) so we were lobbed in the back bouncing around- loved it!
Once back in town we pressed on. Had a lovely walk over to another tortoise breeding centre. This one was way better than the first one we visited with all the major species from the different islands represented. Once past a certain age they are reintroduced back to their native islands. One guy was well grumpy though- what a face on him!
By this point we’d climbed / hiked / walked enough so headed to the beach for a quick dip and then lazed in a cool beach bar with some ice cold beers.
We met a very inspirational women who was traveling South America so shared stories and some more beers with her for a few hours then braved the reefs in pitch dark in the dingy back to the boat.
Next day we were up and at ‘um early again. We heard there was a good cycle route away from town so picked up some bikes and headed out. The route led us a good few k’s out into some stunning woodlands. It’s amazing how quickly the landscapes here change. At the end of the route stood the ‘Wall of tears’. Some genius around WW2 times decided to teach some prisoners a lesson by forcing them to stand in the blistering heat and build a wall. The wall serves no point. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just in the middle of nowhere. It’s huge and the area has a bad vibe to it. I hate to think how badly they were treated. This pointlessness was designed to break the poor sods out there in the sun. I bet he didn’t even give them suncream to wear.
Can’t help but think this workforce couldn’t have been put to better use. You know, like building schools or a hospital. Humans. Mad as hatters.
After leaving the wall we started back down the route towards town. We raced to the end on the way out but stopped in some places on the way back including an amazing lava pool where we took a dip and watched the iguanas, crabs, and huge pelicans doing their thing then cycled to another spot where we climbed up to some lookouts to get a view from up high. A cycle down the beach was amazing also, but hard bloody work!
Once back in town we booked another tour for the following day and headed back to the boat to rest.
Next morning we joined up with a few others for a tour of the lava tunnels. A speedboat took us about two hours down the coast to an amazing spot where lava had washed into the sea and cooled creating tunnels and bridges above and below the ocean. In this area the lava had cooled to form a reef of sorts so you were protected from the swell. We popped on our snorkels and jumped into the water to explore.
Below the surface was amazing. Tunnels you could dive through. Fish everywhere. Our guide took us over to some caves where we watched some white tip sharks resting in the shade. Then onto a lagoon where a sea lion came right up to us and decided he wanted to play. Helen and I were just diving and spinning under the water and he was copying our moves then showing off with his own. After our guide tore us away from this (I could swim with sea lions for days and not get bored). He showed us where the sea turtles hung out. We’ve seen loads of turtles on this trip but these fellas were super-sized. Absolutely huge things and like all creatures on the island couldn’t care less we were there.
It was a magical few hours and such an amazing highlight of our time here.
Back in town we headed to the Port Captain to clear out which resulted in us ended up in the back of a police car being questioned. Long story short the Port Captain said we needed to visit the police station to get our passports stamped. Fair enough. We went there and all hell broke loose as they couldn’t understand we were on a boat and we’re just trying to clear out. Five guys and two hours later we ended up in the back of the police wagon with some official who’d been yelling at the Port Captain driving us back to him. We went back in to see the Port Captain who stamped our passports right away?! No idea what that was all about but we hope we haven’t caused any internal deputes. Oops.
At the dock we met up with everyone off Matelot who were heading out for drinks and a meal so we rushed back into town and helped celebrate Pippy’s birthday. We’re going to be buddy boating with Matelot for the little 3000 mile passage to French Polynesia so it was good to chat about our options and plans for the crossing with them. Pippy and Richard’s friends Brenda and Andy were leaving the next day so a few goodbye drinks were had with them as well. Lovely bunch of people and a great final night in Isabela.
Next morning was a bit of a rush to get the boat ready and the we were off. Next bit of land is maybe 3-4 weeks and 3000 miles away! Gulp!
Have to say the Galápagos Islands really were a highlight of the trip so far. But mostly the last island, Isabela. It’s still undeveloped enough to blend in with the surroundings rather than dominate them, the wildlife and scenery really is breathtaking and we’ll never forget how lucky we were to spend some time hanging out in this unique part of the world.
If you have ever thought of going do it now. Not sure it’ll be the same in a few years which is really sad to say as we both loved it exactly as it is.