Exploring the Galapagos is like safari at sea. But unlike an elusive cheetah or lioness in the tall grasses of the savanna, the Galapagos wildlife don’t shy away…they are equally curious about you. Playful sea lions swim up to snorkelers, penguins do laps around kayakers, and iguanas sunbathe alongside you. Many of the animals you see can only be found in this 20-island archipelago and the species differences from isle to isle served as the groundwork for Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Since the islands are 97% National Park and highly regulated by UNESCO, the Ecuadorian government, and the global scientific community, it’s not a place you can roam about on your own. To maximize our time and increase our access to this one-of-a-kind habitat we called on Active Adventures, a leader in Galapagos sustainable tourism and an outfitter that lives up to its adventurous name. With their help, we packed dozens of unforgettable activities into 10 days—from biking to scuba diving to kayaking to hiking to snorkeling to volcano trekking to island hopping–with incredible wildlife sightings the whole way through. Get ready for Part #1 of our epic Galapagos adventure…
In the weeks before our departure, the Active Adventures team was so helpful providing packing lists, information about the required trip insurance, and all the ways to prepare for such a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Then the day came to meet our fellow Active Adventurers at Hotel Sebastian in Quito for a debriefing and a fun team dinner. Bright and early the next day we flew 563 miles from the mainland to San Cristóbal Island, the first of four Galapagos islands on the trip. (This is also where Darwin started his trip to the Galapagos in 1835.)
Our incredible local guide, Jessica, picked us up at the airport and took us straight to our beachfront hotel and within the hour we were on our first excursion. We set off into the highlands with our bicycles and coasted seven miles passed coffee plantations and groves of tropical fruits with a midway stop at the Casa del Ceibo, Jessica’s family tree house. It was her dad’s childhood dream to have a tree house, so for his own kids he decided to go big…like the biggest kapok tree in South America at 25-feet in diameter with a suspension bridge, spiral staircase, bedroom, bathroom, basement in the roots and, of course, arope swing.
The bike ride ended at La Loberia, aka sea lion beach. We were in awe of the dozens of sea lions napping and waddling around, little did we know this was the “pequeno loberia.” An even bigger colony hangs out at the beach in the center of town, including the pier, park benches, and really anywhere they please. Seeing the way the Galapagueño locals and the sea lions cohabitate is beyond impressive. Just imagine a Sunday picnic at the beach, and the family that sets up next to you are furry and flippered…strange but normal in the Galapagos.
Galapagos scuba diving is said to be among the best in the world. Not only are their seas teeming with the ever-fabulous sharks, rays, sea lions and turtles but over 2,900 other marine organisms were discovered in the Galapagos. We rounded the coast of San Cristóbal, and the foreboding Kicker Rock or León Dormido appears (FYI nearly every location in the Galapagos has two or three names due to the Brits and Spaniards early mapping). The canyon through the middle of this underwater volcano is a veritable fish highway and we were about to take a ride in the fast lane.
Marine life of countless varieties — hammerhead sharks, scorpion fish, Pacific green sea turtles, white tip sharks, sea lions blew our mind on this dive. Words can not describe the volume and beauty of marine life we saw on our two dives at Kicker Rock. Watch for yourselves…
Back on land, we had a date at the Interpretation Center to learn more about the geology, biology, history, and current affairs in the Galapagos. The museum is excellent, only enhanced by Jessica’s extensive knowledge of the islands. From the museum the path diverges towards Frigate Hill, a lookout point to see these pterodactyl-like birds soar over the coastline and Charles Darwin immortalized in statue form.
We said farewell to San Cristóbal and boarded Active Adventures’ private speed boat to Floreana Island. Let’s just say if you think of this three-hour ride as an ocean roller coaster, you’ll really enjoy it…especially if you see dolphins along the way. Lucky for us this Flipper pod was one heck of a diversion.
All the islands have fascinating biological and geological tales, but Floreana takes the cake for human interest. Pirates, whalers, and marooned sailors marauded the island for centuries…then a “baroness,” her three lovers, and the Wittmer family arrived in the 1930s. The story of this love triangle didn’t end well (shipwrecks, shootings, and poison all had a role) but the Wittmers have carried on five generations later. We even had the Wittmer great grandson on our boat from San Cristóbal and spent the night at the family’s fabulous hotel on the beach.
The Galapagos Giant Tortoises had been extinct on Floreana until the Wittmers received a pair of tortoises as a gift from a sea captain. Eighty years later there is a population of 40+ living in the highlands. We took a stroll around the tortoise sanctuary and learned these amazing creatures that can live to 150 years old, and never stop growing…some over 600 pounds! You can tell this guy is “middle aged” by his relatively small size and the distance of the rings on his shell (the smoother the center, the older the tortoise).
Just beyond the sanctuary and the island’s only a water source (a trickle from a cliff-side, which explains why Floreana only has population of 100 people), are the Pirate Caves. English swashbucklers loved this highland area as a hideaway from the Spanish galleons and as a lookout point for incoming ships. We wandered this rocky swath of jungle, finding caves carved with beds and shelves for storing their booty.
After hiking, snorkeling, stargazing, and eating three delicious meals, we headed back to the pier…but our nature expedition wasn’t over. Upwards of 100 marine iguanas were sunbathing on the rocks. These reptiles are endemic and are the only iguana species on the planet that swims. They look ferocious with their claws and spikes, but they’re basically lazy bums and the worst they’d do is sneeze on you (this is how they dispel salt from their oceanic diet).