The Galápagos Islands are a gigantic national park owned by Ecuador that covers 3,087 square feet! To see all 20 islands you really do need to do a cruise, so the first question is: how much do you really want to see? (BTW, if you want to see all the islands expect to stay for weeks!) In reality, there are a number of islands available from the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabella. Enough for you to get a real sense of the major diversity in this wonderful park.
For me, there are a lot of reasons to choose a land based tour of the Galápagos over a cruise ship.
The Highlands of Santa Cruz Island
On our first day in the Galápagos we did a tour of the highlands of Santa Cruz. This was of course set up by our boutique hotel Semilla Verde, with private driver and a fabulously insightful and intelligent guide named Duncan. Naturalist guides in the Galápagos have to be educated through the Darwin Research Foundation. Not all guides are made equally however. Duncan was educated at the university level as well, and since I am an anthropologist, I was worried a bit about getting basic information. When I told Duncan that I teach in evolutionary biology, his eyes lit up and our conversations went from basic to advanced discussions of geology, natural selection, and bio-diversity. It was wonderful!
We started at the twin craters, which are host to giant forests of the endemic Scalescia tree and many finches. These craters are actually not technically craters. They were once bumps on a much larger volcano that were magma chambers. Eventually they caved in, and developed this appearance of a crater. The geology here is particularly unique, and the finch songs are beautiful!
We then headed to El Chato Reserve, where we met dozens of adult tortoises and learned some freaky but fascinating things. Here are some interesting facts about tortoises:
On this same reserve you can also visit a series of lava tubes. These were tough to get pictures of inside, but imagine large pockets of magma flowing under the earth and leaving giant cavities. They are fantastically bizarre.
The highlands are a do not miss and only take a couple hours to get through. Then we headed down to sea level.
Tortuga Bay is one of the highlights of Santa Cruz Island. The trail starts in the town of Puerto Ayora. It's a 30 minute walk down a brick pathway to the water, then another 15 minutes up the beach. These waters are almost always closed off to swimming. The Galápagos Islands are on the equator, and while the weather is hot, the waters can be cold due to multiple ocean currents. These currents also cause dangerous rip tides and sometimes make island swimming impossible. So, everyone walks beyond the beautiful beach to a much calmer bay, Tortuga Bay.
Once there, Tortuga Bay offers shaded beaches, kayaking (do it!!), and wild life galore. You can rent a kayak for $10 USD per person and they even watch your things. On our kayak visit we met mating sea turtles, reek sharks, TONS of rays, crabs, and lots of birds. When on land expect to see tons of iguanas, finches, and pelicans doing their things.
At the end of the day (up until 5 PM) you can take a water taxi back, and by water taxi I mean a local with a boat who will charge you $10 per person for a ride so you don't have to hike back!
North Seymour Island
This was our first island visit in the Galápagos, aside from Santa Cruz. Semilla Verde set up a fantastic first class catamaran to take about 12 people to this island. The ride was nice, only about 45 minutes. We stopped to snorkel (which was too rough to enjoy) and then made our way to the craziest wet landing ever. The clouds came in and the waves were 12 feet high in some areas, as you can see in the pictures above. When we made it on land the sun came out and I felt like I was on another planet.
On the perimeter of the island are tons of sea lions. This time of year was birthing season, so we got to see tons of little pups being babysat while mom went to get food. They waddled their way around and were just adorable! This is also where you saw lush and rich colored vegetation.
The pathway in takes you to a bizarre landscape just completely covered by bird poop. Here we saw the fabulous mating dance of the male frigate bird, who puffs out his big red throat sac until he woos the ladies. We searched and searched for the blue footed booby, and iconic symbol of this unique area of the world. We had just missed their mating season and thought all was lost until literally the very last 10 feet before we returned home and BAM, there he was. Clearly unaware he was in the wrong spot.
This island was one of the most unique terrains I had ever seen and is my personal favorite from this trip. It's a must do and a very easy ride! Our boat was very comfortable. The chef made a wonderful lunch. It was a fabulous day!
Bartolomé Island, Santiago, & Pinnacle Rock
Now, when we got to North Seymour the day prior I thought to myself, wow this is like Mars. Little did I know I would be on Mars the next day. Getting to Bartolome' Island is not easy. In fact, this was a very rough one for me at the end. Again, Semilla Verde set up a first class yacht that was even nicer than the day before. It takes 2 hours to get to this area. This day trip covers segments of Santiago Island including Bartolome and Pinnacle Rock.
A relatively smooth 2 hour right lead us to Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island, where we saw what could more aptly be referred to as Mars. This bay was essentially one large lava field, with ancient lava dried up in the most fascinating of patterns and shapes. It truly felt like an alien land with little to no life other than grasshoppers and lava lizards.
Just 10 minutes later we arrive at Bartolome, which is the iconic view if you Google the word Galápagos! This hike is a set of 374 steps with several platforms along the way to stop at. In the equatorial sun this is honestly a bit brutal, and the wind is not forgiving. However, the absolutely brilliance of the colors is worth all the difficulty. We didn't see much life here either, aside from the Galápagos shark and lots of crabs!
This is probably why they take you right to Pinnacle Rock to snorkel. I have to admit, the water was COLD. We wore full wet suits and were fine however. This was the most exciting part of the trip for me thus far because the elusive equatorial penguins were supposed to be here. All we had to do, they said, was snorkel all the way around Pinnacle Rock. So that's what we did. On the way you see star fish, TONS of unique schools of fish, and other interesting bits. But we wanted the penguins, which were no where to be found at first until one of our crew members spotted him.
He was so handsome! He was also SO un-phased by our presence there. He sat on this rock and as we got closer the waves washed us up and down, on and off the rocks. In the Galápagos, you must stay at least 6 feet away, but also not make sudden movements if the animals approach you closer than that. We definitely got as close as was acceptable, and he didn't mind. Eventually we saw all three, a little band of amigos swimming around and playing in the water! It was a truly amazing experience, one we will likely never have again!
The ride home however, is truly something I would never like to experience again. As expected, the waves are always worst later in the day. The 2 hour boat ride home was very rough, and I was extremely sick the whole time. I leaned over the edge of the boat to let the water splash on me for 2 hours and ended up with hypothermia. The point? Be prepared for this one! Go on an earlier tour if you can and expect to get a little sick on the way home.
Charles Darwin Research Station, Puerto Ayora, & Las Grietas
Staying on Santa Cruz Island means you have a ton of different landscapes to explore. By this point we had already visited the highlands (this is in fact where our hotel Semilla Verde was) and taken the hike to La Tortuga. The town of Puerto Ayora had so many more hidden treasures and popular spots to offer.
A must is the Charles Darwin Research Station. This station runs most of the scientific conservation projects on the islands and is almost completely dependent on donations. To support them, make sure you find THEIR social media @DarwinFound. Other organizations use similar symbols and are often mistaken. This research station is huge and has a great information house filled with bones and all sorts of scientific knowledge. Then there are paths to visit baby tortoises and gardens. It's a must do and you can take as long as you'd like to explore!
On the way back from the Charles Darwin Research Station we found some beautiful murals covering the walls of a cemetery. Apparently, locals use these murals to help instill the values of conservation in their children. The local art here is absolutely beautiful and well maintained. You can also find little hidden beach outlets that are quiet and peaceful, plus shaded, which is an extra bonus!
Eventually you make it to the port, where you can grab a water taxi to various hotels and restaurants, as well as a popular destination called Las Grietas. You get to cross paths with a small fish market, where the locals interact pretty closely with animals hoping to steal a bite. It's adorable to watch! Then you almost always run into sea lions resting on the docks, and in our case, milking their pups.
From here you take a water taxi for 80 centavos per person across the water and follow a 20 minute clearly marked path to Las Grietas. Las Grietas is a must do with pros and cons.
Pros: This is an incredible unique and fun spot. It's both salt and fresh water, with fresh water on the top and salt on the bottom due to its interaction with the ocean. Yet it's extremely calm and absolutely perfect for snorkeling. We met HUGE and little fish here, and sometimes even white tipped sharks. Everyone was climbing up and jumping into the water, and there are little under water tunnels to explore.
Cons: This was the only place on our trip that wasn't regulated. There was no one really there watching, so it's the ONLY place we saw garbage. The tourists were a bit out of control here and by the time we left (2 PM), it was extremely crowded. Also, the water is CHILLY, so bring a wet suit for maximum comfort.
We stayed 5 nights in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, which we explored to the fullest over the course of about 2 days. We did two all day boat trips to visit local islands. In terms of cost, we definitely go our money's worth. While one boat trip did give me severe motion sickness, everything else was very smooth.
Our choice to stay on land was absolutely perfect for us. We used the night time to stroll the paths of our boutique hotel Semilla Verde, accompanied by the resident sweetheart, Sava. The food was incredible and the trips were fantastic. We may have been able to see one more island on a cruise, we also could have done that if we wanted to on our trip. We chose to take days off from boat trips because this is not a vacation. I repeat, THIS IS NOT A RELAXING VACATION!
The Galápagos Islands are a place you come to when you want adventure, to track wildlife, and to explore. There's not many beaches to lay out on, the hikes are intense under the equatorial sun, and the waters are a bit frigid. However, with the right accommodations, a full belly, and realistic expectations you will have the most amazing and unique experience of your life.
Want help planning your own Galápagos trip? Feel free to reach out to Sash@Wanderingsash.com