By Robyn Troob
After visiting the Galapagos Islands for a week, it is clear why they were the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and why he called it “a little world within itself”. The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago that sits on the equator west of Ecuador. The islands are each incredibly unique and beautiful in their own way, each with different landscapes, vegetation and wildlife. In one day we’d travel from the lush mountains of our hotel, to beautiful beaches teeming with wildlife, to volcanic islands that looked like we had stepped into prehistoric times. What was the most incredible thing to us was how the animals all seem to live in harmony, and, as they have no natural predators and are never mistreated by humans, they have no fear of humans. This gave us the opportunity to really be up close and personal with the wildlife and have unforgettable experiences every day. We snorkeled alongside sea turtles and sharks, sunbathed on the beach with sea lions and watched animals mating in front of our eyes. I almost expected the animals to start singing as if I were in a scene from The Little Mermaid. It really feels like you are in another world.
When planning your trip to the Galapagos, the first decision you have to make is whether to stay on land or sea. As some in our family get seasick, a land-based trip was the better option for us. There are plusses and minuses to both. If you stay on a ship, you can see more of the islands, as you travel at night and can travel farther distances. If you stay on land, as we did, you are limited to islands that are within a few hours boat ride from your home base. That being said, we felt as though we saw pretty much everything we wanted to see and don’t feel as if we missed out on anything. We stayed on the island of Santa Cruz, which is where most of the hotels are located, and were able to see all of the islands except those in the far north, which a cruise will generally take you to see.
The only other problem with a land-based trip is that there are not many places to stay so you have to book well in advance. We booked our trip more than a year in advance. We stayed at the Pikaia Lodge, a luxury 14 room eco lodge, in a beautiful remote location on top of a mountain with great views. The website states, it was designed and built for the “environmentally conscious, physically active and adventurous traveler”. The hotel has one restaurant, aptly named “Evolution”, which serves a delicious organic food menu focused on the local fish and meats with vegan and vegetarian options and the menu changes every other day. There is also a spa (2 services per room were included in the package) and a beautiful pool and hot tub (unfortunately it was unusually cold when we were there and, as the pool is solar heated, was not really warm enough to swim.)
Most visitors travel to the Galapagos from mainland Ecuador—either from Guayaquil or Quito. We flew from NY to Quito, stayed overnight in Quito and flew out the next morning from Quito to the Galapagos (about a 2 hr flight). Our friends flew out a day earlier and spent the day in Quito exploring Quito and the Equator Museum and then flew out the next day with us as well. Both coming to the Galapagos and returning generally requires an overnight stay in either Quito or Guayaquil. We stayed in Casa Gangotena in Quito, a beautiful, elegant restored mansion in the heart of Quito.
Although it was a little out of the way (a 45 min cab ride) for our brief overnight stay in Quito and it would have been more convenient to stay in an airport hotel, we were glad to get an excellent meal, a comfortable bed and get a glimpse of Quito as well. The next morning we flew out from Quito to the Galapagos and were excited to start our journey.
We booked a “7 night exploration package” at the Pikaia Lodge. This included a 7 night stay, all inclusive meals and 6 days of exploration, 3 on land and 3 by boat. Basically the hotel had scheduled full days of adventure for every day of our trip. We had to do absolutely no planning. (When we booked our trip it was required to stay the 7 days and do the full package although I think that they changed this requirement)
After arriving at our incredible hotel and settling into our rooms (which were comfortable, spacious and modern) we decided to take a walk and explore the surrounding area. On our walk, we met our first (of many!) giant tortoise sitting on the side of the road and had the chance to explore the beautiful area near the hotel.
We then headed back to the hotel for dinner. As the hotel is small, there were basically 4 or 5 groups of people staying there, most of whom we had met in the Pikaia’s lounge at the airport. We were given a table for the 10 of us (our family of 5 and our friends’ family of 5) that would be our table for the rest of our trip. After a yummy dinner of local specialties like ceviche, grilled fish and local meats, (and delicious chocolate lava cake-yum!!), we went into the movie room to see part one of a 3D documentary on Galapagos filmed by Sir David Attenborough (although I’m sure it was very interesting and informative, we all (except Evan) fell asleep). We were all tired from our travels and went to bed early so we could wake up bright and early for our first day of exploration.
Day 2 was a full day boat exploration to North Seymour and Bachas Beach Island. We met our tour guide, Paulina, at 7 AM, who would be our amazing tour guide for the week. We had some coffee and were off to meet our boat, the Pikaia I Yacht, which would be our home on the sea for the rest of the week.
We got on the boat, were each given cabins which would be our cabin all week and then went down to enjoy a full breakfast while the boat made its way to our first stop, North Seymour Island. This small, uninhabited island is one of the best places to see the diverse wildlife of the Galapagos. As we walked along the path that was set for tourists (tourism is highly regulated—the number of tourists is strictly limited and you must have a guide to visit and stay on the paths in certain places–there is never a crowd!!!). We saw abundant birdlife as I have never seen before within feet of us. We watched as blue-footed boobies did their mating dances. We saw frigate birds with their bright red pouches blown up trying to attract the females, and many different species of birds nesting and playing in front of our eyes. There were birds and iguanas and sea lions everywhere!
After our visit to North Seymour we got back on the boat where a buffet lunch was served and we traveled about an hour to Bachas Beach, a beautiful beach surrounded by lava rocks and lava water lagoons. Upon landing we saw tons of Sally Lightfoot crabs sunning on the rocks with the sea lions and the birds. We then walked onto the beautiful beach where we sun bathed with the sea lions and the iguanas, and saw the nests of the sea turtles and their tracks to the sea. We then took a trail to a lagoon where a picture-perfect flamingo was wading in the water.
After exploring the island we got back on the boat, changed into our snorkel gear (the water had not warmed up yet and was cold for December so we had to wear wet suits) and had an amazing snorkel experiences swimming with sharks, sea lions, sea turtles and a multitude of fish.
We then got back on the boat and sailed for home. We arrived back at the hotel at about 5:30, changed for dinner, ate a wonderful dinner and settled in to watch part 2 of the Galapagos documentary (where we all (except for Evan) promptly fell asleep again).
Day 3 was a land exploration day so we got to sleep in a little. Paulina picked us up after breakfast and we went to explore Tortuga Bay Beach, which was on Santa Cruz Island. The beach is a spectacular white sand beach, which is home to many marine iguanas and is also a popular spot for local surfers.
We explored the beach a little, hung out with the local animals, and had the chance to bask in the beautiful Galapagos sun. Although it was cool and cloudy up at the hotel, down at the beach it was warm and sunny. We also had the chance to go kayaking on the bay side of the beach, which was incredible. As we looked down at the water you can see tons of fish under you, as well as what seemed like hundreds of sharks all around the kayak. For some reason in the Galapagos this did not seem scary–even the sharks seem friendly-although we were not quite brave enough to get out and swim with them.
After enjoying a few hours on the beach with our new friends, we headed back to the hotel to relax for awhile and took advantage of the Sumaq Spa, the gym, the hot tub and some sunset cocktails. We also finally learned our lesson and watched Part 3 of the documentary before dinner!! A few of us actually made it through and learned a little about the Galapagos! (Only Evan fell asleep LOL).
Day 4 began with a 5:30 am wakeup. We had a quick coffee at the hotel and then were transported to our boat. We were joined by a third family who had just arrived at the hotel who became our companions for the rest of the trip. We got on board, had breakfast and sailed about 3 hours to Bartolome Island. Arriving on Bartolome was like arriving on another planet or another era. The landscape was incredible.
For an unbelievable view, you can hike up about 300 steps to the top of Pinnacle Rock, a volcanic cone that was formed when magma was expelled from an underwater volcano, the lava was cooled by the sea and then exploded to form this huge rock. We all did the hike and it was well worth it!!!!
After hiking up Pinnacle Rock, we took a short boat ride to Sullivan Bay where we saw more interesting lava formations as well as more wildlife.
We even got to see one of the famous Galapagos penguins-a definite highlight!!!
After seeing the penguin our day was complete! We headed back to the boat for our journey home where we all promptly fell asleep in the sun on deck (and got a lot of sunburns!!!)
On Day 5 we explored the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. First we went to explore the Los Gemelos Sinkholes and Scalesia Forest. The sinkholes were created when the volcanic roof of empty magma chambers collapsed. It was hard to capture the sinkhole in my camera but it was huge. The forest is home to many native trees (the Scalesia) and many bird species.
After the sinkholes and walking around the forest, we went to the Giant Tortoise Farm and lava tunnels. It was really awesome to see giant tortoises EVERYWHERE!!!
After the Tortoise Farm we returned to the hotel for an afternoon of leisure. Doug and the girls went down to a nearby beach. Amy, Evan, Oren and I stayed back and hung out at the hotel.
Day 6 we again explored Santa Cruz. We went into town and to the Darwin Scientific Research Center. At the research center, we learned all about the incredible conservation efforts in the Galapagos. The most interesting part was seeing the tortoise-breeding program. You see everything from the tortoise eggs in the incubators, to newborn tortoises, to tortoises at every age until they are released into the wild. There is also a display of “Lonesome George”, the famous tortoise that passed away in 2012 that was the last of his species. We also saw the famous Diego, an approximately 130 year old male tortoise, who is said to have fathered approximately 800 offspring and saved his species of tortoise from extinction. Needless to say, he looked a little tired. 🙂
After visiting the Darwin Center, we walked around the town of Puerto Ayora. We purchased some souvenirs, drank amazing coffee at OMG! Galapagos (the best coffee we had on the whole trip!), and went into a little chocolate shop where that had every flavor of chocolate turtle imaginable from passion fruit, to salted caramel to oreo. Yum!!! We got them as gifts to bring home, but they never made it!
We then walked around town and went to the fish market and docks where we saw the fishermen bringing in their catches and selling them. It was also a favorite hangout for the birds and the sea lions! One enjoyed napping on the platform and another preferred the bench!!!
[During Day 6, Evan and Ella took advantage of the amazing scuba diving so did not join us in town. For anyone interested in scuba diving, it is supposedly an incredible experience. Their underwater videos are amazing.]
Our last day, Day 7, was another full day of exploration on the boat. We were picked up at 6 am and headed to the boat to begin our journey to South Plaza and Santa Fe Islands.
We arrived at South Plaza Island, the most colorful island, at about 10am. First, we walked around on the rocks and saw lots of crabs, birds, iguanas and colonies of sea lions soaking up the sun. As we continued walking past the beach, the plants on the island formed a reddish carpet on top of the lava formations, which made the island really colorful and different than the other islands we had visited.
After exploring the island, we got back on the boat and headed toward Santa Fe Island. When we got off the boat there were hordes of sea lions sunning on the beach awaiting our arrival. We walked around, and took some photos with our new friends. The kids begged to take home a new pet, but unfortunately that’s not allowed.
Finally we returned to the boat for our last snorkeling trip, which turned out to be incredible. We again snorkeled with sharks, sea lions and sea turtles and lots of fish. It was a great way to end our sea adventures!
Since our last day was New Years Eve, we also had the opportunity to witness many unique Ecuadorean New Yeas Eve customs and traditions. On the way back to our hotel, we drove through town and were accosted by many men dressed in women’s clothes, begging for money, apparently an Ecuadorean New Years eve tradition. This was our first glimpse into New Years Eve in Ecuador. Later, at the hotel, we partook in another Ecuadorean New Years Eve tradition called “los anos viejos”. People make large scarecrow-like effigies, often of famous people or people they know, and at midnight, they light them on fire. The symbolic meaning is the forgetting of the bad of the past year and hoping the New Year will be better. Each guest room was given its own effigy to throw into the fire pit at the hotel after dinner. It was a little creepy to us, but when in Ecuador….