Exploring the Galapagos Islands

Even though I knew that we could expect to see tons of wildlife in the Galapagos, I didn’t expect to feel the magic I felt as we snorkeled between two tall cliffs at Kicker Rock, surrounded by sea lions, reef sharks, and rays. This pristine environment is truly something unique, and there is intangible energy in the air when you’re amid so many species of animals in one place. This is what we came to the Galapagos in hopes of seeing, thinking we’d be lucky to find these animals, not realizing that the wildlife was so abundant here that we’d eventually come to treat the barks of sea lions as mere ambient background noise and not a novelty. 

The Galapagos Islands, 1000km off the coast of Ecuador, are truly like no other place in the world. Half of the land species and a fifth of the marine species are endemic to the islands – meaning they exist NOWHERE ELSE on earth.

Blue-footed booby!

Itinerary: 

  • Day 1 – Arrive in Quito
  • Days 2-3 – Explore Quito
  • Day 4 – Fly to San Cristobal
  • Day 5 – Snorkeling and hiking on San Cristobal
  • Day 6 – Boat to Floreana Island and Isabela Island
  • Day 7-8 – Explore Isabela Island
  • Day 9 – Boat to Isla Santa Cruz
  • Day 10 – Explore Isla Santa Cruz
  • Day 11 – Return to Quito
  • Day 12 – Fly to Colombia

Dates: April 23 – May 4, 2019

Our Odyssey: 

Day 1 – Quito

Our journey to the Galapagos Islands began in Ecuador’s capital city of Quito, where we redeemed Marriott points to stay at a luxury hotel downtown. We arrived a day later than originally planned, thanks to unexpected airline troubles en route from Lima. It’s a long story, but basically the airline with whom we’d booked had gone out of business and shut down since our booking, meaning there was no such flight to board when we arrived at Lima’s airport. 

That said, we were still able to see and do everything we wanted in Quito and were able to spend our first day just getting settled in. 

Days 2-3 – Exploring Quito

The next day, we set out to visit a few of the famous cathedrals and churches around Quito. By far the highlight was the Basilica del Voto in Quito. The church features a viewpoint at the top of one of the neogothic cathedral’s spires, where you can see the whole city and its surrounding mountains sprawling out below you. To get to this spire, you even cross through what is basically an attic above the sanctuary and climb up two steep ladders. You can also climb up the clock towers and see the clocks from inside. It’s a unique experience unlike any other we’ve had in a church because it had an element of “hiking” and exploration! 

We left the basilica just in time to make a free walking tour, which helped introduce us to more of the history and significance of different neighborhoods in the city.

The next day, we met up with our Intrepid tour group (with whom we’d booked our land-based tour of the Galapagos Islands) and had another guided tour of the city. We actually returned to the Basilica we’d climbed the day before and got to climb up again! We didn’t mind the repetition, because going on our own the day before allowed us to spend more time leisurely exploring. Aside from that, the other highlight was getting to try locally made ice cream from a street vendor and ending with dinner at a local restaurant. 

Day 4 – Fly to San Cristobal 

The next morning, we flew from Quito to the island of San Cristobal with our group. Once we landed, we met up with our guide for the week, Isabela. Once we got to our hotel Casa de Nelly and checked in, we wasted no time as we already had our first snorkeling excursion that afternoon at La Loberia. Right away, we saw a sea turtle, an eel, and lots of fish. We even saw a few sea lions and iguanas on the shore and trail leading to the snorkeling spot. I was thrilled that we’d only been in the Galapagos for a few hours and were already seeing so many animals! 

That night I joined the group for dinner at a local sushi place. Tim stayed in because he wasn’t feeling well. On the walk back to the hotel after dinner, we saw tons of sea lions out as they found their sleeping spots on the sand for the night. While watching them play and fight over space, I realized for the first time not only how loud they are, but also how potently they stink. Stinky and loud though they may, they are still absolutely awesome. 

Day 5 – Snorkeling and Exploring San Cristobal

The next morning, we took a boat out to Kicker Rock to snorkel. Along the way to our boat, we saw our first blue-footed booby and tons of sea lions. While snorkeling at the rocks, we saw a white-tipped reef shark, two rays, turtles, and sea lions. Swimming with the sea lions was really incredible. While they look, smell, and sound awkward on land, in the water they are like graceful ballerinas twirling and gliding effortlessly. Being able to see them this way is something I will always cherish. 

After an hour or so of snorkeling, we got back on the boat and motored to a remote beach to relax before lunch. 

In the afternoon, back on San Cristobal Island, we went to the Interpretation Center where we learned about the human history of the island and conservation efforts to prevent detrimental human impact.

We then walked up to a viewpoint called Cerro Tijeretas and to a small cove nearby where we watched sea lions playing and people snorkeling. 

Our day ended with a lovely sunset and juice on the beach before dinner at a restaurant on the water where we were able to enjoy watching dozens of sea lions just below us.

Day 6 – Floreana Island and Isabela Island

The next morning, we took a speed boat to Floreana Island where we snorkeled at another place called La Loberia. We saw several sea turtles and a very playful sea lion who hung around our group for a while. This place was particularly special because we got to witness a sea lion and a turtle swimming together in close proximity to us. Swimming among these animals feels intimate in a way I cannot quite explain. Being in the water, we’ve removed ourselves from a bit of our human-ness. We are more like them, breathing and swimming under the sea. 

After snorkeling (which was hard to stop doing with so much going on!), we had a delicious local fish lunch at Lelia’s Restaurant. She even had a homemade chocolate cake and coffee ice cream for dessert! 

After lunch, we had some free time so we walked to a post box Isabela had told us about where people drop off and pick up postcards to mail to people all around the world. The idea is that if you see a card addressed to someone in your city, you pick it up and hand-deliver it when you get home. 

After spending the day on Floreana Island, we continued by boat to Isabela Island. After checking into Hotel San Vicente and a short orientation walk, the group enjoyed dinner at Turtle Pizzeria.

Days 7-8 – Exploring Isabela Island

On our first full day on Isla Isabela, we started with a morning boat ride into the bay where we saw many blue-footed boobies and penguins! We even saw some turtles from the boat. Then we visited Shark Alley, which is a spot between two lava tubes where sharks frequent. We saw a few white-tipped reef sharks and Isabela explained the unique volcanic geology to us. 

Shortly after, we snorkeled around the lave tubes and saw lots of parrotfish, a few sharks, and a yellow-backed green turtle. We snorkeled between two lava tubes in hopes of seeing more sharks but didn’t come across any. That said, snorkeling between the lava tubes was cool in and of itself. 

Afterward, we had lunch at a local spot and then visited the Tortoise Breeding center in the afternoon. Sadly, newborn tortoises rarely survive in the wild because of predator invasive species like pigs, cows, rats, and even dogs. That’s why breeding centers like this are crucial to the species’ survival.

From the breeding center, we walked to a lagoon where we saw several vibrant flamingos. We ended on the beach where we saw dozens of iguanas and enjoyed a fresh coconut before happy hour at the cute Pink House (Casa Rosada) and dinner nearby.

The next day, Tim, Chloe, and I hiked along the rim of the Sierra Negra volcano, which is the second-largest caldera in the world (the first is Yellowstone). We had a great trail dog named Toby who actually works with the rangers of the national park to hunt invasive species. Though the hike was hot and muggy in the forest, it became hotter and dryer as we increased altitude. Isabela told us we were lucky with our weather because we had rare cloudless views of the caldera. 

Because not all of our group hiked, we were able to move pretty efficiently and even got to hike to Chico Volcano, a parasitic volcano, meaning that it’s actually just part of Sierra Negra itself. The landscape was bizarre, with black lava rocks from the most recent eruption in 2018, and older red rocks from the one before that in 2005. We also saw lava tubes and the cone of Chico itself. I thought that the cacti scattered among this place were particularly weird. I’d never seen cacti (or much life at all) on volcanic terrain before.

After our 10 mile hike, we returned to our hotel for a short rest before joining the rest of the group to snorkel at Concha de Perla. We saw a sea turtle, a shark, and some in our group even saw rays. 

Day 9 – Boat to Isla Santa Cruz

The next morning, we ended our time on Isabela with a short kayak to see penguins, boobies, and even a group of golden rays. 

Afterward, we journeyed by boat to Isla Santa Cruz, where we immediately headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station. This was a great opportunity to learn more about conservation efforts to preserve the unique ecosystems of the Galapagos, as well as see more giant tortoises!

That night, most of our group met up for a night out at bars. We ended up singing karaoke and dancing until late before drunkenly making our way back to our hotel. 

Day 10 – Explore Santa Cruz

The next morning, Tim and I were a bit hungover and opted out of a hike to a nearby beach. 

That afternoon we visited Rancho de Manzanillo, which is a sugar cane plantation and also home to many wild Galapagos tortoises. They freely, and slowly, meander the highlands of this island and cross through the plantation grounds frequently.

Day 11- Return to Quito

The next day, we had to say farewell to the Galapagos and return to Quito. After a week of exploring the islands underwater and on land and observing all of the unique and beautiful wildlife that live there, it was hard to leave. Tim and I were already talking about what a future trip would look like and which other islands we would want to see. For now, though, it was time to make our way to our next country – Colombia. 

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