“Nothing gets lost, nothing gets created, everything transforms” – Lavoisier
Galapagos. A mysterious and desolate archipelago, which holds the answers to the past and future. A place I have only dreamed about for as long as I remember and which I have been so god damn lucky to finally visit. When my brother called me and told me ‘get ready we are going to the Galapagos’ I couldn’t believe, I just couldn’t. A place I only heard about in books and documentaries now becoming my reality. Hell yeah..
Since it’s creation in 1968, the Galapagos National Park has been considered by UNESCO one of the jewels of the planet. The archipelago is made up of 19 islands and 42 islets. San Cristobal, the easternmost island of the Galapagos group lies about 1,100 kilometres west of the mother country, Ecuador, on the South American mainland. Isabela, the largest island, has an area of 4600 kilometres followed by Santa Cruz, the most central and developed one. The islands are purely oceanic, which means that they have never been connected to the mainland. The climate on the Galapagos is classified as subtropical due to oceanic currents and trade winds and it is split into 2 seasons: the garua or the dry season and the hot season or wet season. Galapagos has been confronted along the time with a lot of challenges weather wise and probably one of the most famous phenomena worth mentioning is El Nino followed by the La Nina phenomenon. In 1982-83, the El Nino phenomenon brought 9 months of continuous rain, suffocating heat and a sea surface temperature of 30 degrees, followed by tremendous animal mortality. The El Nino phenomenon was already mentioned in the old scriptures of Peru in 1525. Incas knew about its existence and built their villages on hilltops. Scientists even found geological proof of Ninos that occurred 13,000 years ago. The cold period that follows every Nino has been named La Nina (the small girl).Fortunately, the marine life, which suffers greatly during the Nino years (death of marine iguanas, sea lions, fish disappear), regenerates amazingly with the arrival of La Nina. Cold waters rich in plankton and various organisms.
There are so many interesting facts about the geology and formation of the archipelago, so many stories about pirates, expeditions and so on that my article would easily transform into a book and that’s not my intention, at least not now. I will just state some of the most important of them hoping that I will keep your interest up just as I did when I documented myself about it. It is said that well before the Incas, the first visitors to the islands were Indians who came from Ecuador on balsa rafts. Around 1485, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, a prince from Cuzco (Peru) built a fleet of balsa equipped with sails. The expedition was gone for nine months to a year. They returned with gold, a bronze seat, and the skin and jaws of a ‘horse’ which in fact was a male sea lion. These trophies were kept in the fortress of Cuzco until the arrival of the Spaniards. But the one who is thought to be the official discoverer of the islands was in fact the archbishop of Panama – Fray Tomas de Berlanga. In 1535, he was given a mission by King Charles V, to report on the anarchic situation in Peru. After 7 days of navigation the wind dropped for 6 days and the vessel drifted 800 kilometres west into the Pacific Ocean. Fray Tomas officially discovered the Galapagos on the 10th of March 1535, when he wrote to the bishop describing the giant tortoises, the iguanas, and the tameness of the birds, stating that the islands appeared very inhospitable.
After the discovery, the islands remained without a name until the 16th century when they got their first name from navigators who named them Islas Encantadas or the Enchanted Islands.
In the 17th century, English, French and Dutch pirates started to appear on the island who were fighting against the Spanish and using the Galapagos as a refuge. There, they would collect water, wood and giant tortoises. The unfortunate reptiles that were pilled on the boats could survive a year without drinking water. Between 1780 and 1860, Galapagos became the favourite place for British and American whalers. During the 19th century, thousands of fur sea lions were butchered.
The first man to live in the archipelago was Irish. He survived by growing vegetables and traded them for rum with the passing whalers. His name was Patrick Watkins and lived there since 1807. After Watkins, the islands were more or less uninhabited until 1832 when Ecuadorian General Jose Villamil founded a prosperous colony on Floreana, a small island on the archipelago. The population was mainly composed of convicts, political prisoners and other unwanted people, who traded meat and vegetables with the whalers.
During the Second World War, an American Air Force base was built on the strategic island of Baltra (north of Santa Cruz Island) from where it was possible to defend the Panama Canal. Nowadays Floreana and Isabela islands are inhabited and bigger communities have been established on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.
Without any doubt, the most famous visitor to the Galapagos is Charles Darwin. His short stay in the archipelago has proved enormously significant. As he observed the fauna in the archipelago, one of Darwin’s major discoveries was to realise that the species were not unchangeable but that they were exposed to the irreversible process of evolution. Natural selection, adaptation to the environment and genetic mutation, became keywords that helped him to elaborate the celebrated theory of ‘The Origin of the Species’.
The fauna of the Galapagos is diverse and unique. Nowhere else on this planet live these species. Your eyes will be delighted right from the arrival and you will encounter the most unbelievable birds,marine and land iguanas, giant land and marine turtles, penguins and sea lions. They are well distributed on the archipelago and each island has it’s own specific fauna and vegetation.
There are 2 airports on the Galapagos. The biggest one is on Baltra, on Santa Cruz island and the other one on San Cristobal. We chose Baltra as we wanted to explore more Santa Cruz. From the airport there is a special boat that makes the connection to the mainland. From there, there is a bus that goes to Puerto Ayora, the touristic village of the island.
There are lots of hostals and rental houses where you can stay and most of them are located very well, very close to the centre of Puerto Ayora. They are quite expensive and with very basic facilities but hey, welcome to the Galapagos. Also, upon arrival you will have to pay 100$ which is the entry fee to the Natural Park.
The food provided by restaurants is also pricey. That’s why we looked for different options. Paying 50$ every day for a meal for 2 was not really our aim. Therefore, we found a very nice restaurant called Cafe del Mar, right on an the main street, where the chef would cook any food for us for only 10$. Sounded like a great deal so what we did was buying fresh fish from the market everyday and going to the restaurant to have it prepared. The variety of fish you will find there is just amazing. The quality? probably the best fish you’ve ever eaten in your life. At the fish market there are all types of clients. Humans, sea lions, pelicans, albatrosses and other types of birds.
There we met Selena, the most adorable sea lion ever, who would wait with her humid eyes until the fishermen would give her some fish. Then, at night, she would sleep on the ground, under the vending stalls.
As nowhere else in the world, you can only be astonished how close you can get to these beautiful creatures that surprisingly are not scared away by human beings.
There are tones of iguanas lying on the lava fields or right next to the table you’re having your coffee. Pelicans almost everywhere you look, crabs walking on the stones and cormorants making their timely appearance are only a few things that are part of the daily decor which you will witness right from the very first day.
There are plenty of things which you can do for free in Santa Cruz. One of them is the Charles Darwin Research Station located just 10 minutes walking distance from the fish market. Over there, scientists from all over the world, work on research and projects for conservation of the Galapagos terrestrial and marine ecosystems. It has been founded in the 60s and mainly served as a breeding centre for giant tortoises which were an endangered extinct species. On June 24, 2012, the world famous giant tortoise known as ‘Lonsome George’ passed away. He was the last surviving land tortoise from Pinta Island, one of the northern islands in the Galapagos. Thought to be 100 years old, Lonsome George lived at the Charles Darwin station since he was found in 1971. For more than 3 decades, the Galapagos National Park tried to save the Pinta subspecies by finding George a mate. Unfortunately they did not succeed. Sadly, with Lonsome George’s passing, there will be no more Pinta Island tortoises. At the moment there are some other types of giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Station which you are allowed to watch and photograph.
Another species thought to be endangered is the Galapagos Land Iguana originating from the archipelago. In the early 1800s, when whalers and settlers came to the Galapagos, they ate land iguanas as well, but the most serious problem they caused resulted from the introduction, both accidental and deliberate, of predators such as cats and dogs and domestic animals such as goats and pigs. Introduced animals are still the main threat facing this species today.
On your way to the Charles Darwin Research Station you will pass by a tiny charming beach, Playa de la Estacion, where you can snorkel or enjoy a beautiful sunset.
Tortuga Bay makes the headline for me though. A beautiful long beach with the finest sand ever, with the purest and bluest water that will soon give you the impression that you’re in a different world.
The beach is divided into 2 parts. The first is the most beautiful and the most dangerous due to the currents. The waves creating are big enough for surfing so that’s what you’re mainly going to see in the first part of the beach. Surfers and iguanas swimming in the water.
The second part is the lagoon part, with its water coming from the ocean too, mainly recommended for swimming. Over there you can snorkel, rent a kayak or just rest under one of the mangrove trees populating this area, just make sure you are dressed up adequately because the sun is fierce!
We rented a kayak and went up to explore hoping to see some marine iguanas nesting.
Unfortunately we haven’t seen any but we were delighted to see sea lions swimming next to us culminating with a blue footed booby that was hiding on a rock! What a beautiful bird, omg! It’s not very common to see the blue footed booby so close to the shore so I guess we were really lucky.
The huge gigantic cactuses – Opuntia Echios are all over the place too and if you are lucky enough you will see tortoises eating their leaves!
For the next day we chose another great spot on Santa Cruz – Playa Las Grietas. From the main port you have to take a water taxi for $0,80 cents and then walk for 15 minutes, passing by the Playa de Los Alemanes which is the first and the only sandy beach in the area. After passing by that beach, you will reach Las Salinas, a very beautiful place used for salt extraction. It is said that the salt extracted from this area is one of the finest in the world and I bet it is.
Arriving at Las Grietas and we are amazed by the strangeness and amazingness of this place. It is not less than expected. The crater is formed by fissures of the lava that form two giant walls crossed by brackish water that mixes with the sea water in the higher part. I put on my snorkelling mask and jumped into the blue water!
The water temperature is lower than on other beaches making it the perfect place to go on a hot summer day. Although there is not much to see underwater at las Grietas, as it just has small openings for water to filter through, the view is spectacular: like swimming in a secret cove, in a Jurassic Park scene, or Never Never land!
El Garapaterro is another beautiful beach where you can go by car. You can just take a cab from the street, it’s up to you how much you can negotiate with the driver. We paid 35$ for a round trip and the journey takes around half an hour. It’s a fantastic place where you can even see flamingos and of course the usual> marine iguanas and all kinds of birds flying around, including Darwin’s finches.
The highlight of this journey though was our trip to the Santa Fe island. Located in the southern part of Santa Cruz, Santa Fe is only reachable through organised tours. I suggest that you go and ask more tour agencies on Santa Cruz (there’s plenty of them) as some of them have lower prices. The first agency we’ve been to asked us for $135/person whilst the last one offered us a price of $90/person. We left the main port at 7 in the morning, on a small speed boat. In about 1h we reached our first snorkelling spot, right on Santa Fe island. First we have been welcomed by a blue footed boobies colony which was lying on the rocks. Then we put on our snorkelling equipment and dived in. For some reason I wasn’t next to the group, I guess I wanted to explore a bit on my own. The very first thing I’ve seen when I dived in was nothing else but the famous marine turtle. What a memory! Nature’s gift, for sure something I will never forget. I wanted to tell somebody what I saw but the others were far away and couldn’t hear me. I swum with the turtle for a good while and then my next encounter was with a sea lion. I was already in heaven. Then more sea lions joined and then I realised I was getting too far away from my group so I swum backwards to them.
We then reached another point where was a huge sea lion colony.
So many sea lions, oh my god, and all of them so adorable. It is advised to keep a 2 metres distance from all the animals, especially when encountering male sea lions which are known to be very territorial and can turn aggressive. The underwater world was something I cannot put into words. So many colourful fish, stingrays, little sharks, corals, and sea lions, it’s just unbelievable. It’s a completely different world that lives under the water and this is something you can experience only in the Galapagos, I bet! Our next stop on the tour was La Playa Escondida which is a beautiful deserted beach right in the middle of the ocean.
There we saw a lot of iguanas, many of them nesting, others waiting for people to photograph them.
We anchored our boat there and had lunch on the boat, consisting of fresh fish from the ocean. After spending a good while there, we put our hats on and drove back to Santa Cruz. I look around and I am so connected to everything I see. I acknowledge the present moment and I thank the mother nature for allowing me to delight with her treasures. What a beautiful trip. Something I will never forget.
It would require too many pages to describe this unforgettable experience. Sufficient to say that the Galapagos are a true paradise, where you shall discover animals and sea creatures you have never seen before and where you may enter into a state of deep meditation. Exploring Galapagos, in sum, is a privilege that you ought to enjoy at least once in your lifetime.