The Galapagos became famous when Charles Darwin visited in 1835 to conduct his landmark research that led to his revolutionary theories on evolution by natural selection. Nowadays it is one of the most remarkable wildlife adventure travel destinations you will ever visit, the amazingly diverse range of unique land and marine animals and birds that inhabit these seemingly barren islands will astound you and when you get into the water you will understand why it is known as one of the “Seven underwater wonders of the world”
Straddling the equator the Galapagos archipelago is an island group consisting of 13 main islands, and over 100 smaller islands, islets and rocks. The archipelago is located on the Nazca Plate which is moving east diving under the South American Plate at a rate of about 2.5 inches per year. On a place where the Earth’s crust is being melted from below, creating volcanoes. The first islands formed here at least 8 million and possibly up to 90 million years ago. Though the older islands have disappeared below the sea, the youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in April 2009.
Animals such as sea lions, marine iguanas, lava lizards, and different coastal birds like herons, tattlers and plovers can be seen almost anywhere on archipelago, but many of the different islands are known for their specific scenery, vegetation and wildlife. You can walk alongside the endangered giant tortoises that gave the Galapagos Islands their name and visit brightly-coloured blue-footed boobies, scarlet throated frigate birds and many other diverse and fascinating species.
The Galapagos Islands are also perfectly situated so that marine life can take advantage of the Humbolt current bringing the plankton rich cold waters from the Arctic and the ‘El Nino’ current bringing the warm waters from the west giving swimming, snorkelling and diving an almost tropical feel at times. You can swim with the only penguins found north of the equator as well as a huge variety of fish, sharks, rays and even swimming marine iguanas.
Flights from the mainland can arrive at two airports either Isla Baltra just north of Santa Cruz or Isla San Cristóbal. The two major airlines flying to the Galápagos Islands are TAME (Transportes Aereos Militares Ecuatorianos) and Aerogal. They both operate flights daily from Quito via Guayaquil to both the Isla airports. Which airport you fly into depends mainly on where your boat is and what route you will be taking.
My parents spent a day exploring the Ecuadorian capital city of Quito before getting an Aerogal flight the next morning from Quito which connected with me in Guayaquil and landed in Isla Baltra, after paying our conservation fees we were transferred across Itabaca Canal to Santa Cruz Island and on then to the town of Puerto Ayora where we stayed the night before our live-on boat expedition started.
If you are unsure of what type of expedition to do, I can fully recommend a live-on boat based tour as opposed to a land based tour sleeping in hotels on Santa Cruz or San Cristobal each night and getting the very early morning boat rides to the nearby islands.
A live-on boat may not be as spacious as your average hotel room but the huge advantage of a live-on boat expedition is the extra time you have to explore the different islands. You will often cruise for 2 – 4 hours each night, and each morning you awake moored at a new destination with new sights to see and things to explore, it really is the only way to get a proper perspective on what Galapagos really has to offer and you won’t have to spend 2/3 of your holidays daylight hours motoring to and from your hotel room.
The United Nations and the government of Ecuador have both recognized that growing land based tourism is a threat to the islands. But by taking a live-on boat based tour you have a much smaller ecological footprint because you are not contributing to the construction of more and more hotels, bars, restaurants on these fragile islands.
On all boats you have to get used to its rocking motion, and maybe the occasional whiff of diesel. But there are different advantages of exploring on different size boats. My parents and I chose a small, 12 client boat. It did roll a bit in the swell. The engine was directly under my bunk – which made getting off to sleep a little difficult.
But having a smaller boat with less clients on it meant there was only 12 clients for our two guides who really got to know us well and were always on hand to do whatever you were most interested in.
Our guides would be up early each morning to swim me and the rest of the kids pointing out all the amazing marine life, they would then lead fascinating and informative explorations of the island pointing out the different species of plants animals and birds telling us all about their unusual courting, and mating practises and easily answering all the detailed and complex questions posed by the parents. Throughout the day they would hold educational lectures on everything from birds breading to marine forecasting and humans impact on the environment.
There are also much bigger boats, some carrying 300+ clients and almost as many crew who can make your stay aboard ‘5 star’ and almost as comfortable as a hotel. The main down side of a bigger boat is, as on most cruise ships, because there are so many people all wanting to see the same site and the boat has a limited time at each site you are often rushed through it and spend a lot of time waiting for the rest of the group.
Boats need to buy permits for each island you visit and these are valid for specific times on specific days, You will have to book well in advance if you have a particular interest and want to visit a specific island, some wild life photographers chose to spends thousands of dollars on private charter of boats and can easily spend even more than that on island permits.
My parents and I did a seven day tour and visited dozens of different islands on our expedition.
After the boat section of our expedition my parents and I spent an extra two days on Santa Cruz, in a great little hotel near the water front. The next day while my dad when back to the Conservation centre to chat a little longer with Lonesome George and mum went to watch the local fishermen bring in the mornings catch I was strapping on a BCD and enjoying one of the best diving experiences I have ever had.
Scuba Iguana took myself and three other Padi divers to Floreana Island, south of Santa Cruz to dive the Devils Crown. Experienced divers have often told me ‘if you never explore under the sea, then you are going to miss half the life on the planet’ and after this experience I now know they are absolutely right.
If you had the time you can get your full PADI training on the island but most sites around Galapagos are recommended for advanced divers as the currents can be disturbing to new divers, but this makes it absolutely spectacular of the shark diving around the devils crown. The dive master was relaxed, confident and very informative. Up near the surface we had inquisitive seals chasing and playing amongst us, along the dive we spotted rays, eels, crayfish and a whole lot of sharks! We were given bright red gloves to hold onto the rocks when the current got strong you can grab a hold and just chill and watch as the amazing amount of underwater life passes around you. It is an exhilarating experience to be clinging to a rock while dozens of hammer heads cruse above and around you in the current being groomed by smaller fish so close that you could almost touch them.
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About the Author: Owen is Sales & Marketing Executive for Tucan Travel. He has travelled and tour led extensively on Group Tours and independently to South and Central America, Asia, Australia, Western Europe and Africa. You can find him on Google+ or read his other contributions here.