The Galapagos Islands are famous the world over for their huge number of endemic species and were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. To be honest, despite my dream to visit this ecological paradise in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador, I harboured some doubts. These doubts rested on the fact that many of these endemic species are so unique and face all sorts of threats. I spoke to a few friends about this, some of whom have been there, and they were (almost) unanimous: go if the opportunity presented itself and see it for myself. And so I did, when Metropolitan Touring and LAN Airlines invited me to go on a tour of Ecuador including a Galapagos Islands cruise. After my first day on the islands, I was really happy that I decided to go. The Galapagos Islands are truly magical – from the pristine beaches and spectacular sunsets to the vast diversity of unique flora and fauna, the islands were simply breathtaking. In addition, it opened my eyes even further to the fragility of our ecosystem and the importance of care and conservation.
A wondrous Galapagos Islands cruise
We flew with LAN Airlines from Quito (via Guayaquil) into San Cristóbal island, the easternmost island of the archipelago, and the first island that Charles Darwin visited in 1835. A gust of fresh ocean air greeted me as I stepped out of the plane. I couldn’t believe it… I was on the Galapagos Islands!
We hopped onto a bus and were driven to the pier to board a zodiac which would take us to Yacht La Pinta, our base for the next four days. At the pier, we had our first taste of what was to come; we had to walk gingerly down the steps to the zodiac to avoid disturbing the sea lions which crowded the steps!
The Yacht la Pinta is a comfortable vessel, with a dining area, a cosy bar/lounge and a roof-top deck with a hot-tub and bar. The yacht accommodates a maximum of 48 guests and is perfect for families as some of the cabins can be connected. The spacious cabins featured en-suite bathrooms and large windows. I walked to the window when I entered my room and the first thing I saw was a giant turtle poking its head out of the water!
That evening, we were welcomed and briefed by the expert crew of conservationists. The presentation about the unique ecology of the islands was very insightful and I appreciated the strict instructions on how to behave on the islands.
San Cristóbal island
The next morning, we woke up to find ourselves at Punta Pitt, the easternmost point of San Cristóbal. A zodiac took us to the island where we hopped off onto the beach. From here, we hiked into the rocky hills where we were treated to beautiful views of the coastline and the ocean. The Galapagos Islands are situated on the Equator, where two ocean currents meet. This time of the year (September/October), both currents jostled for influence, making the weather quite unpredictable. One moment, it was cold and foggy, and another moment it was sunny and warm. Dressing in layers was the way to go.
We soon spotted one of the birds that the Galapagos are most famous for…
We spotted more wildlife as we walked on – there were colonies of Nazca boobies, frigates and the occasional Darwin finch whilst in the ocean, we saw schools of dolphins swim past.
“The most extraordinary meeting in my life”
We headed down to the beach and grabbed our snorkelling gear. What happened next was something I won’t easily forget. As soon as we cleared the beach, a sea lion came to join us, swimming circles around us. It was an unnerving experience to watch a sea lion swim towards me at top speed – I could see his eyes trained on me – before making a swift turn just a foot away from me! I started talking to it and it returned several times. Haha! It certainly was the most extraordinary meeting in my life!
That afternoon, after a sumptuous lunch aboard Yacht La Pinta, we continued to Cerro Brujo (San Cristóbal island) to walk on the same shores that Charles Darwin walked on in September 1835. Cerro Brujo is simply magical, with its pristine white sand beaches, rocky lava outcrops and colonies of Galapagos sea lions. We could observe the sea lions and marine iguanas at a close distance as they didn’t feel threatened by our presence – being this close to the animals was a mind-blowing experience!
That evening, I sat on the deck of Yacht La Pinta with a glass of wine when I heard some skipping noises in the water below. I leaned over the railing and witnessed another mind-blowing scene: the dimmed lights of the yacht had attracted a school of flying fish and chasing after it was a group of sea lions. The fish flew low and fast over the surface desperately trying to escape from the sea lions. Both predator and prey were incredibly swift and I watched this spectacle in complete amazement. At one point, a flying fish barely escaped the jaws of a sea lion by flying high over the water, but a gull swooped in from nowhere to catch the fish in its powerful beak. These gulls are unique to Galapagos as they’re the only ones which hunt at night.
We arrived at Española island the following morning for what was to be the highlight of the cruise. After breakfast, the zodiacs brought us to the shore. As we approached the little pier, we saw many sea lions and a few marine iguanas (the only type of iguana that forages in the sea) swimming in the crystalline water. We hopped off the boat for an unforgettable walk around Punta Suárez.
We continued along the trail and passed sea lions, hundreds of marine iguanas and a variety of bird-life. The scenery along the way of the rugged coastline and shrubby plains was just beautiful. The coastline, with its rocky cliffs and thunderous blowholes, was especially breathtaking.
In the afternoon, we headed to Gardner Bay on the northern coast of Española island. We went snorkelling along the cliffs and saw lots of beautiful corals, tropical fish and some turtles and rays. We then proceeded to what is definitely one of the most gorgeous beaches I’ve ever seen: a broad arc of blinding white sand with crystal-clear turquoise water lapping at its shores.
Santa Cruz island
We woke up the next day to find ourselves moored at Santa Cruz island. It was time to say our goodbyes to the fantastic crew of Yacht La Pinta. They truly were fantastic and their love of the islands shone through: they were a treasure trove of knowledge and ensured the guests had a great time whilst always keeping the importance of the islands’ preservation first and foremost.
We had one more stop: the Charles Darwin Research Station where we were briefed on the ‘rearing in captivity’ programme for giant tortoises. Thanks to these programmes, the giant tortoise population is slowly but surely making a healthy recovery.
It was soon time to leave the Galapagos Islands. It was a short visit (4 days/3 nights) but the experiences I had were absolutely incredible. I’m really glad I decided to go because I learned so much about nature conservation and the intricate balance of our ecosystem. This Galapagos Islands cruise was an eye-opening introduction to the islands and its famed ecology – I hope to return one day and see more of these magical islands.
Note: my trip to Ecuador was a collaboration with Metropolitan Touring and LAN Airlines. All views expressed above are mine, and mine only.