It's disconcerting heading out west from the coast of Ecuador into the vast Pacific. All the more so when your destination is a tiny cluster of islands, mere pinpricks in this huge expanse of ocean. When Darwin arrived here after months of voyaging it must have truly felt like the edge of the world. Now it's merely a two hour flight before the islands come into view, although you would be forgiven for being unimpressed. I'm not sure what I should have expected but had in mind a towering tropical paradise replete with abundant flora and fauna. Instead our plane approached the runway across a windswept beach and unassuming scrub that from our vantage point appeared lifeless.
The main airport is on the island of Santa Cruz and after a connecting ferry and bus through the misty and forested highlands we arrived in the small town of Puerto Ayora. It was Sunday and almost everywhere was shut but our guide led us to a small cafe for a simple but tasty set lunch. All food here is imported so be warned if you're used to Western portion sizes! It was just as well as we didn't have long and by 2pm we were already leaving the island. Our destination for the night was the more remote island of Isabela to the west and its small port of Puerto Villamil. The Galapagos is an archipelago of about half a dozen main islands and numerous smaller and uninhabited ones. Connection between them is straightforward with an efficient system of high speed ferry boats. Equipped with huge outboards these vessels can take upto fifty passengers and whisk you across the blue water crossings in a choppy couple of hours.
On Isabela we pulled into a sheltered cove and used water taxis to make our way to the local pier where we saw our first wildlife. Sea lions across the Galapagos are particularly fond of park benches and no amount of persuasion will shift them. Our guide asked us if wanted to take a swim and donned with masks we took the plunge. Within seconds the sea lions were surrounding us, darting at speed before a final and elegant swerve, as if to show us just how inept our swimming was by comparison. Afterwards we sat on the pier and watched as flocks of blue fitted boobies circled and dived every few minutes looking for their supper. (see video below)
Isabela's big attraction is an impressive caldera, a stark reminder that this island is barely a million years old. Here on the west of the archipelago the islands have only recently drifted across the geological hotspot that led to their volcanic formation. Further east the islands are older, the soils more developed and consequently the flora and fauna have had more time to establish. None of this was lost on Darwin, who appreciated that despite the abundance of wildlife the breadth of species was very narrow indeed. He knew he was witnessing the birth of not one but several ecosystems each working inexorably to adapt to its own environment. The caldera of Sierra Negra erupted most recently in 2005 and we hiked and traversed the eastern edge before reaching the lava fields on the northern side. This is a truly primeval landscape and for the first time on the islands we felt we were visiting somewhere unique.
The following morning we checked out of our simple hostel and caught the boat back to Santa Cruz. Here we spent the next couple of days visiting the world renowned Darwin centre as well as the idyllic and protected Tortuga Bay. Here you have to hike half an hour to reach a windswept beach and the determined press on even further to emerge into a sheltered and picture postcard bay. We spent the day watching the marine iguanas and in the shallow waters spotted numerous stingrays gliding effortlessly across the sea bottom.
With an abrupt change from wildlife spotting, we took a trip to a coffee plantation up in the highlands. This was an unexpected delight as we witnessed the entire process from the raw bean to roasting across an open fire and took a taste of the local moonshine. Here too were the enormous tortoises that epitomise these islands. After centuries of decline thanks to whalers who prized their meat, their numbers are at last recovering thanks to protection.
I thought there couldn't be much more to see but with our third island we had saved the best till last. On San Cristobal we snorkelled in the finest spot yet, with turtles and rays in abundance and all the while frigate birds and lava gulls circling above from their breeding grounds. This was one of the least populated islands and even the beach in the main town is protected for the sea lions. Again they make liberal use of the town benches and even the children's water slide has a permanent resident.
There's so much more to do in Galapagos and many tourists opt for the self-contained cruise option, which if you're also into your diving must be a very special experience. Nonetheless, any confident swimmer with snorkelling kit (I recommend bringing your own) can see first hand what these amazing islands have to offer. I also enjoyed the interior of the islands the hikes to the remoter spots. Group travel is probably easier than trying to be independent as a guide is mandatory for some of the reserves and it would be hard to know where to go otherwise.
I'm sure to be back, hopefully with the family. This is an amazing and educationally inspiring place to bring teenagers especially. As part of a longer trip it makes sense to combine it with Ecuador and a rainforest expedition; expensive I know but this is one of the world's very special places. If you are lucky enough to make it do read up more than I did before departure. I highly recommend the two books below which were a mine of information. Do check out the video as well at the bottom of this post which also features some views of Quito. Comments and suggestions are always welcome...