Sailing the Galapagos Islands

written by | Posted on March 29th, 2012

Sea lions make themselves at home on almost every island in the Galapagos.

The Galapagos, forever linked to Charles Darwin for better or worse, shines like a glittering orb at the top of virtually every traveler’s bucket list—a magical almost mythical destination and one of the few places in the world where wildlife actually commune with humans in a Disney-esque fantasy that’s almost mind-boggling.

From the first moment you arrive at the Galapagos island of San Cristobel from Guayaquil on the mainland of Ecuador and head for the gangway to climb aboard the Zodiacs for the transfer to Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic Endeavour anchored out in the harbor, the magic begins.

Almost as if they’re welcoming these lumbering newcomers to come and enjoy their home, you get your first taste of the abundant wildlife you’re going to experience as you gape at the numerous sea lions cavorting among the rocks in the inlet and plunging playfully into the water not more than a few feet from the gangway, while sea birds soar overhead seemingly in a welcoming ceremony.

This is a scene that plays over and over as we make our way from one island to the other over the next week, mesmerized by the beauty of the varied landscapes and never tiring of the myriad creatures that appear to be just as interested in the human interlopers as we are of them, or at the very least, grudgingly tolerant of these strange-looking creatures who have invaded their turf.

onboard
The ship itself is a marvel of efficiency, but at the same time exudes the kind of intimacy that encourages social mixing early on with no fixed seating, almost nonstop group activities with multiple daily excursions to the various islands we’re about to visit and a genuinely warm and friendly staff and group of naturalists who lead us on the daily tours. The cabin is roomy and comfortable, and there’s a spacious and well-appointed library on the third deck for quiet getaways with a collection of books that can help inform you on virtually every aspect of Galapagos wildlife, conservation efforts and history. In addition, there’s a small gym and a wellness area where guests can enjoy various massage therapies, including a unique massage experience where one lies face down on a glass-bottom floating massage station on the water where guests can enjoy the real underwater world during their massages.

The heart of the ship, though, has to be the large passenger lounge and bar where daily videos and lectures are held explaining the history and various attractions on the islands you’re visiting or about to visit. Just off the lounge is a pool deck with a small pool and comfortable deck chairs for lounging and relaxation. The ship supplies passengers with kayaks, wet suits, snorkeling gear, even rubber boots for hiking in bad weather.

island-hopping
We begin our islands exploration with a stop at Espanola Island where the National Geographic Endeavour anchors off Gardner Bay with its dazzling white sandy beach, populated by sea lions romping in the surf or sunning and dozing on the beach. The Zodiacs make their rounds to the beach, running back and forth all morning, dropping off and picking up passengers as they come and go from the activities on the island. Later in the afternoon, we make a dry landing at Punta Suarez, reputed to be one of the richest wildlife locations in the Galapagos. You no sooner arrive than you’re surrounded by sea lions and seabirds, all seemingly being studied by a virtual army of colorful marine iguanas, crawling over the rocks.

We head off, hopping over boulders and rocks. Hiking from the beach and up to the edge of a cliff, you can watch a fascinating air show as shallow-tailed gulls and the majestic albatross swoop and glide across the skies. Here, too, are the beautiful blue-footed and Nazca boobies, nestled along the rocky shoreline.

Next stop is Floreana Island, one of the oldest islands in the Galapagos and where ancient, extinct volcanoes eroded, leaving minerals and nutrients soaked into the soil, making it rich in plant life. The day starts off with an early morning wet landing at Punta Cormorant, on a green-tinted beach made up of olivine sand, which are actually iron crystals. From there, it’s a short walk to another sugar-white sand beach leading to the crystal waters at the base of the beach. Here, too, is a large salt pond, a favorite of flamingos, pintail ducks and sea birds.

Next, the ship repositions itself off Champion Inlet, the only place where the nearly-extinct Floreana mockingbird still exists. The rest of the morning is devoted to snorkeling, glass-bottom boat excursions and Zodiac rides along the islet’s rocky shores photographing sea lions, sea birds and searching for the elusive Floreana mockingbird. Then the ships hauls anchor and heads for Post Office Bay.

In the afternoon, we come in on Zodiacs for a visit to the 250-year-old “post office,” which is actually a barrel used for an old mail system first utilized by whalers. The idea is to put your mail in the barrel and whoever comes by en-route to civilization, picks it up and forwards it on to the addressee. You can still do it today and passengers bring along addressed postcards, and bring back postcards that have been left by earlier travelers.

Our next port of call is Santa Cruz Island, the second largest in the archipelago. We board the Zodiacs and land at the Galapagos National Park Service dock and the nearby town of Puerto Ayora with its shops, restaurants and hotels, and the actual economic hub of the Galapagos.

The first stop here is the Charles Darwin Research Station, headquarters of the Galapagos National Park Service, to get a look into the Galapagos conservation efforts and, most notably, the most significant and successful programs in the ecological restoration of the islands, the giant tortoise breeding program.

After the tour it’s a nice walk into Puerto Ayora, a pleasant little town with reasonable prices for a tourism center, with its main plaza facing the bay. Then, it’s time to board a bus for a 30-minute trip to the Highlands, a landscape of lush, green vegetation and trees. First stop is a sugar cane farm where one can see and enjoy the process of making liquor from the sugar cane. There’s also a stop at a highlands restaurant called Altair, located amidst lush foliage and boasting a large, covered patio, ringed by a small hotel catering to a backpack crowd. After lunch, it’s a visit to Los Gemelos, home to a pair of huge pit craters, surrounded by a forest of scalesia trees where one can take a short trek through hauntingly beautiful surroundings with ferns, orchids and small birds flitting about. Next, it’s a trek along the annual giant tortoise migratory route, where there’s a good number of giant tortoises plodding along, munching happily on the vegetation.

The next day the ship is docked at a different point on Santa Cruz so passengers can visit Cerro Dragon, or Dragon Hill, home to the huge and colorful Galapagos land iguanas. After a dry landing, it’s a fairly long trek with a lot to see—squadrons of sea birds, giant prickly pear cacti and, of course, dozens of land iguanas, hiding under bushes or lying in the sun, oftentimes bursting out of a hiding place at remarkable speed considering the size of some of these little dragons. The hike terminates atop a point overlooking an incredibly beautiful bay, lying like a beautiful turquoise jewel under an azure blue sky.

In the afternoon, the ship weighs anchor once again and heads off to the eastern shore of Santa Cruz, called El Eden. Here, there’s also an opportunity for a Zodiac ride along the shore to take in the incredible beauty of the place, its cliffs riding high over the ocean, before sailing on to the famous Daphne Major Islet, the site of the natural laboratory for two British scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant who have done landmark studies on the ecology of Darwin’s finches.

Early the next morning, there’s a dry landing at Bartolome, a small, volcanic islet off the east coast of Santiago Island and a heart-racing climb up 376 steps for a breathtaking view from the island’s summit. The afternoon includes a cruise along the southeast coast of Santiago and the ship anchors close to Sombrero Chino and the Bainbridge Islets for snorkeling and Zodiac rides along the exotic, volcanic shorelines, lined with the ever-ubiquitous sea lions, penguins and shore birds.

On Friday, the last full day here, it’s a stop at Darwin Bay Beach for a hike across a lava-covered ground that was once a volcano caldera, accompanied by frigate birds, red-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. Then it’s on to the far side of the bay to what’s called Price Phillip’s Steps up through a narrow fissure to the cliff tops where passengers hike through a palo santo forest filled with nesting birds.

All of a sudden, it’s over all too soon and it’s time to head back—a paradise lost, to be sure, but an adventure that won’t fade with time.

getting there
It’s important to keep in mind when booking Galapagos, that the itineraries will vary by expedition dates because only a specific number of persons can visit an island at any one time, in order to maintain the conservation efforts of the Galapagos National Park Service personnel, although all are 7-day itineraries. For clients with more time, Lindblad Expeditions has a unique program that combines the Galapagos with a 1-week stay in Peru that includes Lima, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Cusco and an overnight stay in Machu Picchu—a perfect combination of spectacular wildlife viewing and the historical and archaeological attractions of Peru. Lindblad utilizes a Friday evening flight aboard American Airlines from Miami to Guayaquil, Ecuador, with a Saturday morning connection to the Galapagos and an overnight at the Hilton Colon Guayaquil.

contact information
Lindblad Expeditions: (800) 397-3348; expeditions.com