The Galapagos Island have been a dream destination for me for as long as I can remember. I had this image in my head of remote islands with stunning volcanic landscapes and free-roaming tortoises and giant iguanas. I pictured the islands to be mainly uninhabited, and if there were people living on them, they would be outnumbered by wild creatures.
I knew the best way to see the islands was to take a Galapagos Islands cruise, to sail around the islands for a few days, go on land excursions and snorkeling trips while enjoying life on the water in between. A few weeks ago, I finally boarded a plane to the Galapagos Islands and I was curious to see how the reality of a Galapagos cruise would compare to the picture I had in my head.
After a two-hour flight from Guayaquil, we arrived on the island of Baltra, a small island that, other than being home to one of two airports in the Galapagos, is uninhabited. Flying in, we could see barren reddish ground below us. Baltra is the world’s first “green” airport, which means it is running on renewable energy sources, such as solar energy, wind farms, and seawater desalination.Before we were allowed to leave the airport, we had to pay the $100 National Park fee, and our carry-ons were searched. I quickly learned that it’s not allowed to bring apples onto the islands – or any agriculture goods, for that matter. Later I learned that it is strictly prohibited to bring any food on land with us when we set foot on the islands for land excursions.
From the airport, we took a bus to the ferry pier – everyone who arrives in Baltra has to go to the island of Santa Cruz, the second largest island in the archipelago. Within minutes of having boarded the ferry, we already saw wildlife: a pelican watched us suspiciously as we were boarding the boat, massive crabs crawled around the shore, and a myriad of birds were flying above us. On the short ten minute boat ride to the other island, we passed little mangrove Islands with more birds and a couple of spotted eagle rays swam in the water right next to the boat:
By now, we were on the Galapagos for 45 minutes – and was already completely smitten by the islands.When we arrived in Santa Cruz, we hopped on a bus which took us on our first land excursion, before we even boarded our yacht. We drove towards the center of the island, and as we got further away from the shore, the grey, dry bushes and branches that cover the rocky ground were replaced by a lush green forest. A rainstorm had just passed through the island and the smell of fresh rain mixed with the smell of the flowers and plants was mesmerizing.
Other than the road that cuts through the green in a straight line, there was no sign of human existence anywhere. At some point, we passed through a village. Nothing more than a few little houses, each and every one flanked by banana trees; a donkey standing on the side of the road.
Our destination? Giant tortoises! We were on our way to see tortoises in the wild, and when we turned off the main road onto a dirt road, my excitement grew. I knew that seeing Giant Tortoises would be a highlight of my trip. It didn’t take long until we started seeing giant tortoises in the grass next to us, and several times our bus had to drive around tortoises on the road. Could this place even be real?!
While initially we all let out excited aaahs and ooohs every time we saw one of the distinctive big, unmistakable shells, the tortoise spottings became more and more regular until there were dozens of tortoises everywhere around us.
When we finally reached the end of the road, it felt like we were in tortoise paradise. We were surrounded by tortoises of all sizes who were sitting in the high grass, happily munching away on leaves and straw. They couldn’t care less about us, a group of camera-toting tourists, literally fresh off the boat.
Before we went on a walk around the area, we had lunch at a small restaurant, Rancho Manzanillo, on an open terrace overlooking tortoise territory. As a vegetarian, I am always a bit worried about the available food options, but here, I had nothing to worry about: my vegetarian rice dish was scrumptious.
Bellies full, we all put on wellies and headed down to a pond where the tortoises like to gather.
Our naturalist guide – obligatory on every Galapagos Islands cruise – told us that giant tortoises are the longest-lived of all vertebrate species, easily reaching over 100 years. The oldest on record lived to be 152 years, but it’s not impossible that there’s a tortoise somewhere on the islands that was already alive when Charles Darwin stopped in the Galapagos in 1835.
When Darwin arrived, there were 15 different kinds of tortoises on the islands, now the number is down to 11. Hundreds of thousands of tortoises were killed when whalers and pirates stopped at the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries. They are not on the brink of extinction anymore – but still an endangered species, there are only 15,000 of them left in the Galapagos, which is a tiny number.
We learned that there are only two places in the world where giant tortoises live: in the Galápagos Islands and in the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
And the word ‘giant’ is the perfect word to describe these massive creatures, which often exceed five feet (1.5 meters) in length and reach up to 550 pounds (250 kilograms) in weight.
We spent a couple of hours with tortoises, which let us watch them eat, chill and even mate, and the two hammocks in between a couple of trees provided a perfect place for that.
After saying goodbye to these gentle giants, we made our way to the port of Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora. This town is the most populated urban center (population 12,000) in the Galapagos Islands and this is where the yacht that would take us around the islands over the next few days was waiting for us.
The 16-person aptly named Majestic was amazing: eight cabins for two people each, a gorgeous sun deck with Jacuzzi and sun chairs, and a beautiful dining and lounge area.
We got a quick introduction to our floating home over a welcome cocktail before we changed for dinner. My cabin wasn’t big, but it didn’t feel crowded. And most importantly: it had a big, comfortable bed. The nights are the time when the boat is moving from one place to the next, so you want to have it comfy.After our first Galápagos sunset and a delicious buffet dinner, we stayed up and chatted for a while, but most people retreated to their cabins around 9pm. It was a long day and we would have an early start the next morning, because a Galapagos Islands cruise isn’t a relaxing cruise – it’s a packed itinerary with lots of excursions and snorkeling stops.
At 6am, I woke up after a mostly well-slept night. I woke up once around 2am, which was when the boat started moving, which made me feel a little seasick. Luckily that feeling passed and I was able to sleep for a few more hours.
After waking up, I headed upstairs to the deck for a quick morning workout, and because I wanted to see where we were anchored. I got up to the deck just in time to see the sunrise. I saw an island to my right and an island to my left, Santiago and Isabela. A bunch of birds were flying right over my head, and they kept flying with the boat the entire morning. A frigate bird watched me from the navigation mast as I did some sit-ups.
I could hardly believe how serene it felt. The Islands seemed uninhabited, there were no other boats. It felt like our boat was the only one cruising around the archipelago, but I knew that there other boats out there, somewhere.
After a generous breakfast buffet of pancakes, eggs, breads, cheese, ham, yogurt, porridge, muesli and fresh fruit, it was time for our first wet landing. This means, taking the dinghy to an island near us and getting wet up to the knees while disembarking the dinghy.
Our first stop of the day was Santiago, which was inhabited by a small colony of fisherman until the 1950s, but has been uninhabited since the last of them left to join a bigger settlement on one of the other islands.
When we jumped out of the dingy and waded through the shallow water onto the beach, I thought to myself, this is how Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panamá, must have felt like when he was blown off course during a voyage to Peru and landed in the Galapagos Islands instead. A deserted beach, lush green vegetation, a volcano looming in the background. The island hasn’t changed much since then.
The beach we landed on is called Espumilla Beach because of the foam (espuma in Spanish) that is created as the waves crash against the shore.
As we walked down the beach, our feet sinking into the soft golden sand, we saw several turtle nests, and several turtles in the ocean, their heads peeking out of the water every now and again. Being able to visit such a remote place made me appreciate the fact that I was on a Galápagos Islands cruise rather than trying to explore the islands from an ‘island base’ – because it’s secluded beaches like this one that you just can’t get to unless you are on a cruise.
We watched the ghost crabs quickly moving into their sand holes every time we got too close, pelicans and blue footed boobies dive bombing for food with a sudden plunge – head first – into the ocean, and an American Oysterhunter enjoying the solitude.
Our second stop for the day: snorkeling! Our first exploration of the underwater world of the Galapagos took place just off the coast of Santiago. As soon as we jumped into the ocean we noticed how clear the water was, and we were surrounded by colorful fish immediately. On this first snorkeling trip we saw a small shark, a sea turtle and a spotted eagle ray. Not bad for a morning of snorkeling!
Next on our agenda was kayaking. We got to see the same coastal area we just explored underwater, except that we are now above water. We kayaked along the rocky cliff side of the island, watched some seals lazing in the sun and some blue footed boobies sunbathing on the rocks. Whenever I turned around, I saw nothing but the open sea. It truly felt like we were the only ones out there. So far, I still had not seen a single other boat.
We got back to the boat and had lunch, and right after we polished off our plates the boat started its engines to bring us to our next stop. While we were cruising, we had time to make use of the sun deck and the Jacuzzi. The luxury yacht is just as much a part of this experience as the landscapes we passed and the wildlife we saw.
A couple of hours later, our stop for the afternoon came into sight: nothing more than a barren rock in the ocean, surrounded by smaller rocks, all bleak, without any sign of life on them. There were, however, four or five other boats anchored here, and we soon learned why: Bartolome Island is home to some spectacular lava formations, the most remarkable one being Pinnacle Rock, a rock formation that rises high into the sky.
The tiny island is said to have some of the most beautiful landscapes of all of the Galapagos Islands, including a tuff cone of an extinct volcano that can be climbed that offers stunning views over Bartolome and the other islands, and a variety of red, orange, green, and black volcanic formations. Sadly, we had frolicked in the water for too long during our morning excursion that we ran out of time to climb the volcano before sunset, but there was still time for another snorkeling session.
What the island lacks in plant and animal life is more than compensated by the surrounding sea. This is a popular spot for Galapagos penguins, and sure enough two playful penguins joined us on our swim for a while. Watching them whiz around us and chase each other was highly entertaining. After they left, we swam slowly along the rocks on the shore and spotted several sharks, spotted eagle rays, star fish and a myriad of colorful fish. We all agreed that this snorkeling session was better than in the morning – and that one had already been amazing!
Back on the boat, we had just enough time to change into some dry clothes before we set off on a short sunset ride in the dinghies to see the penguins again, this time on shore, and take pictures of the lava rock formations.
After our sunset excursion, we had our nightly briefing for the next day and were told that we’d have breakfast at 6am. Another early start, and since we had such an action-packed day, everyone retreated to their cabins as soon as we finished another scrumptious dinner.
When my alarm went off at 5.30am the next morning, I was everything but ready to get up. My skin burned from too much sun and too little sunscreen the previous day. We fueled ourselves with a filling breakfast and at 6.30am we were already on our way to our first stop of the day: Las Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island.
Again, we arrived on a completely deserted beach, the only sign of life were the fresh traces of sea turtles who came onto the shore to make their nests in the sand. Looking at the traces, our guide commented that we must have just missed them, that’s how fresh the tracks were.
The only ones who joined us on our morning beach walk were the hundreds of Sally Lightfoot Crabs that move quickly on the rocks along the shore, already visible from far away, thanks to their bright orange/red bodies. These agile little crabs were supposedly named after a Caribbean dancer, and the way they can climb up rocks on vertical slopes and run in four directions, I can see why someone said they resembled a dancer.
We walked over to a little lagoon which is known to be a popular feeding place for flamingos. When we got there, we saw only one lone flamingo marching around the muddy water, but the flamingo population on the Galapagos is only 600, so even seeing just one of these distinctively colored birds felt special.
Afterwards, it was time for another snorkeling session. This time, we got to swim with turtles! Even though I’ve swam with turtles in the Philippines and in Mexico, it never loses its magic for me.
The species of turtles we swam with, the Green Sea Turtle, is the only kind of sea turtle that nests on the Galapagos Islands. Like many species of sea turtles, the Green Sea Turtle is an endangered species, their nests often destroyed by other animals, and the tiny hatchlings being eaten by birds before they can even reach the ocean.
We followed these majestic creatures around the coral for a while, watching them feed on sea grass and going up to the water surface to get air every once in a while. For me, it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday morning.
We returned to the boat where, as always when coming back from an excursion, we were greeted with fresh fruit juice and snacks. We spent the rest of the morning on board, enjoying the sun deck, reading a book, or just gazing out at the ocean.
One thing I loved about my Galapagos Islands cruise was how well we ate on the ship. Sometimes it felt like all we did was eat – especially that morning. In between our post-snorkel snack and noon we got to try another tasty snack of cheese filled plantains and then it was already time for lunch. Lunch was always served buffet-style, including vegetables, rice, some kind of meat and a fresh salad. For me as a vegetarian our chefs prepared a special dish for each meal, including vegetarian ceviche (the rest of our group got ‘real’ ceviche).
After a couple more hours on the boat we reached Santa Cruz where we got off the boat to spend the afternoon in the small town of Puerto Ayoro, to buy some souvenirs, have a drink, or to check our emails (there was no Wi-Fi on board). We all loved the sea lions that seemed to have taken over the town – they were lounging on an otherwise empty dock, frolicking in the water, and stretching out on some benches along the pier.
Getting a glimpse of small town life on the Galápagos Islands was fascinating – can you imagine growing up in a place that remote? The town didn’t have much more than a bunch of souvenir shops and restaurants, a few small hotels and a big playground for kids to play.
We got back to the boat just in time for another beautiful sunset, and then it was already time for our Farewell Dinner and Farewell cocktail. The days on the boat had gone by way too fast!
My Galapagos Islands cruise was not quite over yet though: On our last morning, we got up early for one last sunrise snorkeling session around Kicker Rock, a rock in the middle of the ocean that is popular with hammerhead sharks. And yes, it didn’t take long until we spotted the first shark! In addition to sharks, we were joined by a group of sea lions, a lonesome turtle and again, hundreds of colorful fish. A memorable end to our four-day cruise.
After breakfast, we disembarked in San Cristobal where we were once again entertained by the local sea lions who take up every single free spot around the pier. One last moment with these adorable creatures, and then we were off to the airport, where one last adventure awaited us.
Since our cruise ended in a different island than we departed from, we got to take a tiny 8-seater plane back to the main airport in Baltra. I ended up in the co-pilot seat, terrified at first, but quickly easing into the experience and enjoying the vast ocean views with a little island coming into view every once in a while. This was my first time in such a tiny aircraft, and having a front row seat for it made it even more exceptional than it already was.
As we approached the airport in Baltra, where our connecting flight to Guayaquil was waiting, I felt the strong urge to skip the flight and stay longer in the Galapagos. I was not ready to get back to the mainland, where emails, work and deadlines were awaiting me. I wished I had more time in this remote paradise – the Galapagos Islands had captivated me in a way no other place has had a grip on me in a long time.
I am not sure if I’ll ever get to return to the Galápagos Islands, but if I do, I’ll make sure to spend more than four days there – I already missed the Majestic, which we had left only a couple of hours before, and I wanted to explore the islands we didn’t get to see on our cruise – like Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island or the beaches of San Cristobal Island.