The Galápagos Islands

            Ecuador's most beloved and popular national park lies in splendid isolation about 600 miles off the mainland. Made famous by Charles Darwin, the Galápagos Islands are no less enthralling now than they were a hundred years ago. Every year, over one hundred thousand curious visitors journey to the remote islands to behold the wondrously variegated wildlife that inspired “The Origin of Species”.   The Galápagos Islands and surrounding waters off the Pacific coast of South America have an estimated 1,900 plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet.  

            The Galápagos Islands developed out of the Pacific from a sub oceanic lava vent on the ocean floor. This same process created the Hawaiian Islands and it continues today in both island groups. In the Galápagos, the vent is gradually creeping east with the Nazca plate, forming more islands as it moves. There are currently sixty named islands, the principals being Fernandina, Isabela, Baltra, Santiago, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. 

           The same flora and fauna that inspired Darwin's “The Origin of Species” still blossom on the Galápagos Islands today. Appropriately, ninety-seven percent of the islands have Ecuadorian National Park status. The legendary marine and land iguanas, the giant tortoises, and sea lion colonies of the Galápagos are among nature's most fantastic beings. All of the animal species are highly approachable since their isolated evolution has not hardened them to fear humans. Iguanas and tortoises bask in the sun, just feet away from the photo-snapping tourists.  

            We flew into the Galápagos Islands from Quito via Guayaquil onto the island of Baltra.  The United States built an airfield on Baltra during World War II to protect the Panama Canal and other interests in the region.   Today that is the airport that supports the tourists visiting the Galápagos Islands.   It is a small island adjacent to the much larger Santa Cruz Island which supports a population of approximately 12,000 people including the Charles Darwin research station associated with the national park.    


           A short bus ride from the airport took us to the dock for the panga ride to the boat that would be our home for the next five days.    A panga is an inflatable raft with a solid floor and an outboard motor.  It holds about eight to ten people and we each sit on the inflated edge of the boat and hold on.  Since our group consisted of eighteen people, the two pangas and two guides on the boat worked just perfectly. 

            The ten cabins on the boat, which were setup to hold just twenty guests, were quite small.  The food service and the naturalist guides were excellent.  The crew was completely focused on making our stay enjoyable as well as a successful learning experience.    The guides pushed us quite hard as we had a great deal to accomplish in the time allotted.  

           From the start we were cautioned to listen to the guides, stay on trails, not to touch the animals, not to use camera flash, no food/drink on the islands, not to remove anything form the islands that we did not bring with us,  and finally, to be happy.   Soon after our arrival and getting ourselves established in our cabins, we loaded back into the pangas for a visit tot Santa Cruz Island.   

            A two hour hike over volcanic rock took us up to Dragon Hill.  Along the way we saw both land and water iguanas, red crabs and the sightings of many birds.  This outing gave us our first taste of what was yet to be….. a very intimate relationship with the species of animals and birds, where we could see them close up and readily take pictures .

Galapagos Pelican

Land Iguana


          Early the next day, we had a wet landing on Rabida Island that consisted of a one and one-half hour hike followed by a swim in the ocean.    A wet landing is when the panga cannot completely reach shore and we step out into about twelve to eighteen inches of water.    We would carry our hiking shoes over our shoulder and walk to higher ground before putting them on.  A dry landing is usually when the panga reaches shore, but we often have to make slow progress walking carefully over wet rocks.

       The beach on Rabida Island is dark red sand borne out of the oxidation of the iron rich lava from the volcanoes.  Before landing we rode around in the panga where we were able to see pelicans, manta rays and sea lions.   After our wet landing, we did a ninety minute walk around the island enjoying incredible scenery and watching sea lions play in the ocean.   Then back to the boat via the panga and a great lunch and rest. 

Marine Iguana

Blue Footed Boobie

Sea Lions


         The afternoon hike was to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island.  It was a very wet landing on a black lava beach and we then had to change into our hiking shoes.  There were many sea lions; they differ from seals in that they have ears and walk differently as well. There were also many marine iguanas and red crabs lying all around the shore area.  Along our hike we did see a bird called an American Oyster Catcher.


Marine Iguana

American Oyster Catcher


          There are some animals that are not native to the islands…they were brought there by man many years ago and the result is that these pigs, goats, rats and mules are harmful to the indigenous species that make their home in the Galápagos Island.  

            The following day, our early morning adventure included a panga ride and then a dry landing on Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island.  During the panga ride there were sightings of the very small Galápagos penguins, flightless cormorant birds, sea turtles and blue footed boobies. 


Lava Cactus

Flightless Cormorant


We went ashore walking on slippery black lava rocks, the result of a 500 year old volcanic eruption.  Along our hike we were treated to the sightings of lava lizards, sea lions and many marine iguanas in greater numbers then we had previously seen. They are literally crawling all over each other. Every couple of seconds, one of them spits out excess salt in a squirt from the nostrils.  There were also flightless cormorants, Great Blue Herons and Galapagos hawks.  As we proceeded further we were introduced to the mangroves areas and lava cactus.    

            After a wonderful lunch and a little rest, our afternoon exploration was a panga ride at Punta Vincente Roca on Isabela Island where we saw masked boobies, blue footed boobies, sea turtles, sea lions and more Galápagos penguins all along the shores of the island.  We then rode into a large cave…an awesome sight and sound as the waves resounded loudly against the walls of the cave.   At one point the panga hit a rock and our guide sitting up front was propelled into the water.    He was easily retrieved, but not too happy about his sudden dunking.  


Cave on Isabela Island Great Blue Heron and Red Crabs


           Back on the boat we were scheduled to cross the equator, so we all gathered on the front of the boat, while some of us were on the bridge where we could watch the readings from the navigation satellite receiver approach zero latitude.  We all then celebrated crossing this imaginary line with drinks and appetizers.   

            After a great dinner, a good night’s sleep and breakfast we were all looking forward to our early morning visit to Bartolomé Island via a dry landing.  We could see Pinnacle Rock, the most photographed place in the Galápagos.  We conserved our strength for what was surely a challenging hike, the climbing of the 372 steps along a boardwalk that leads to the summit of the volcano on Bartolomé Island.


Bartolome Island Summit Hike Pinnacle Rock


            And of course the view made it worthwhile, especially Pinnacle Rock.   The inevitable lunar landscape comparisons, the volcanic devastation and desolation, and the postcard view of the scenic beach and rock formation that would be the second part of this visit—all of these made for a memorable climb.  We see lava tubes and lava craters, as well as lava lizards, green and gray plants and lava cactus plants.  From the summit we were able to see many of the other islands.   While some people stayed to swim and snorkel, others made their way back to the boat via a short panga ride.  

            That afternoon we had a panga ride to Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz Island….a tidal lagoon, with a maze-like complex that took us deep into banks of mangroves…white, red and black.   Oysters were clinging to the roots and pelicans perched on the trees.  There were many mullet fish swimming around along with white-tipped baby sharks and marine turtles.


Blue Footed Boobies Brown Pelican


           That night we celebrated our farewell supper…. for tomorrow we would leave the boat and our last panga ride would bring us to Santa Cruz Island.   There we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station in Port Ayora, where the giant tortoises are reared and observed.    The tortoises have different shells that indicate which islands they come from.  This makes them unique with respect to mating. 

We did visit one area where the tortoises are from ninety to 150 years old…the oldest being called Lonesome George.   Young tortoises…those from one to five years of age are held in segregated compounds before being released back to their home islands.   

Our amazing journey to the Galápagos Islands came to an end with a bus trip across Santa Cruz Island, a short ferry ride across the narrow channel to Baltra Island and then to the airport.   The flight back to Quito gave us time to contemplate the amazing sights we had seen over the last five days and the experiences that will live with us for the rest of our lives.  We were very fortunate to be able to be exposed to nature in the same way that Charles Darwin was in 1835.    


Giant Tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station