There are two ways to see the Galapagos islands, by organized cruise or independent travel island by island (or I guess a combo of both is possible). Almost everyone who goes does organized cruises, and trying to find information on how to experience the islands without booking a cruise is difficult. There is not much solid information and to be honest, I think the big companies want you to go on cruises, they cost a lot more than traveling independently to the islands.
I was not super keen on the idea of a cruise. I get extremely seasick, and September is when the seas start to get very rough in the Galapagos, so the idea of living on a boat in large swells sounded like a bad idea. We decided to take a chance and visit the islands without going on a cruise, and if we felt like we were “missing out” we could always book a last minute cruise on Santa Cruz island.
There are two airports you can fly into the Galapagos, Baltra Island (near Santa Cruz) and San Cristobal Island. We chose to fly into San Cristobal because the airport is only a five minute drive to town, which would make our transition into island life easier than flying into Baltra, where it takes almost one and a half hours of boats, buses and taxis to get to Santa Cruz Island.
San Cristobal Island
San Cristobal is a perfect first island to visit on a trip to the Galapagos because you will be immediately surrounded by wildlife along the towns charming waterfront area. It also has a sleepy, untouristed feel to it. After finding a cheap, ocean front hotel, we went out to the pier and got our first taste of the Galapagos. There were a ton of sea lions everywhere with no fear of humans, marine iguanas, colorful crabs, pelicans and crystal clear blue water. Just walking along that ocean front area took away any doubt about if visiting was the right decision. The magic of the Galapagos was already taking ahold of us. There was just this feeling like we were in a really special, unique place.
Our second day in San Cristobal was spent exploring the hiking trails and beaches near the interpretation center. We packed up our snorkel gear and headed out along the miles of black lava covered trails, stopping at beaches to snorkel. The first time I went into the water, I was shocked and thrilled by how fearless the sea lions were. As soon as I was in the water they were swimming all around me, coming up to my mask, circling me so fast I could no keep track of them. They are fast and graceful in the water even though the larger ones are slightly intimidating. As I was swimming with the sea lions I came across five huge sea turtles and was able to float right next to them as they ate seaweed off rocks. As I was floating, I would keep getting surprised by the young sea lions darting around me. We were alone on this beach aside from the animals, and the experience I had swimming with these creatures just overwhelmed me. I remember getting out of the water and telling Sam how grateful I was that there are places still like this on our planet. There were many moments in the Galapagos where I just felt stripped of words and full of emotion. It is the kind of place that just hits you in your core with its purity and beauty.
Our third day on San Cristobal we booked an all day snorkeling trip to Kicker rock also called Leon Dormido and Five Fingers. Basically it is a huge rock formation in the ocean that is swarming with marine life, most notably three different kind of sharks: hammer heads, galapagos sharks and reef sharks. Sam and I have been diving all over the world, but just snorkeling here I saw things that were making me scream with joy into my snorkel. Unfortunately, our Nikon Coolpix underwater camera broke (black screen of death) our second day in the Galapagos, so we have very few underwater pictures. At kicker rock Sam borrowed Ralph’s (Ralph was a great German guy we traveled with for a few days) camera for the video we took below. Unfortunately, since we have no pictures, I will just have to describe the things that we saw.
Giant chocolate chip cookie star fish (that is the real name), colonies of purple sea urchins the size of basketballs (40-50 at a time), lots of white tip reef sharks swimming below us, a giant sun fish, some of the largest schools of fish I have ever seen with bull sea lions hunting through them (in video). The only negative is we were in the Galapagos when the cold water currents come replace the warm water ones, and the water was VERY cold. We were all literally shaking when we got into the boat and my fingers were blue after an hour in the water. After this snorkel, we always got full wet suits, the shorties were not enough for the icy water.
After our snorkel at Kicker rock the boat headed over to Cerro Brujo, a beach that Sam and I both agreed was one of the prettiest we have ever been on. EVER. White sand that was powder soft, aqua blue water and black lava rocks. Since the beach is restricted under the national park system, we had to swim from our boat, so the only picture we have is one Ralph took. This beach was spectacular and had great snorkeling. Each day in the Galapagos just keeps getting better.
Our last beach of the day was Puerto Grande. After Cerro Brujo it was a nice beach, but lacked the wow factor. However, we saw a ton of wildlife here including black tip reef sharks, manta rays and our first blue footed booby hunting fish.
The following day a group of us hired a taxi to take us into the highlands to the tortoise breading center and to visit some other beaches and fresh water highland lakes.
Tortoise Breeding Center
Unfortunately on all of the Galapagos islands, the giant land tortoises were almost wiped out by people hunting them, so the large islands all have programs to breed these magnificent creatures that can live for over 375 years! The good thing about the center at San Cristobal, is there is a large area you hike through (acres) where the giant tortoises live, so it does not feel like a zoo. Only the tiny ones are in cages until they are old enough to survive on their own.
Our final evening on San Cristobal was spent at a beach famous for its surfing waves. It was a beautiful final night surrounded by crashing waves and families of lazy sea lions.
Onto Isabela the largest island in the Galapagos famous for its beaches, penguins and lava tunnels for snorkeling in the next post!