I’d always dreamed of visiting the Galápagos Islands since my first visit to Ecuador in 1980, at the ripe old age of twelve. More than twenty years ago my grandparents had spent a week on a cruise and talked about how amazing the islands were, but during both of my previous visits they had managed to avoid me! Andrea and I knew we wanted to do an eight day cruise with an additional week spent on land-based tours and scuba diving.
After finding and booking the cruise, we reserved our flights giving us a full week prior and a couple of days after to dive and explore by ourselves, and for Andrea to work – that was assuming our two planned island stopovers of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz had adequate Internet connectivity.
San Cristobal Island
Barely two hours of flying time and we were disembarking the AeroGal flight in San Cristobal, the political seat of the Galápagos. This is the most easterly island of the Pacific archipelago, located 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coastline. The heat hit us immediately and we both agreed we had over-packed! The first three nights were spent at Hospedaje Nathaly,a small family run establishment close to everything we needed in the island’s only town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
Even with humanity present we were blown away by how tame the wildlife was. There were Galápagos sea lions going up and down the pier steps to get on land, sleeping on the public seating along the waterfront, and completely blocking wooden walkways meant for us! They were everywhere. A short walk from town took us along one of the National Park’s lava trails where we ended up so close to a small colony of amazing blue-footed boobies – we probably could have touched them. We saw sally lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas that glanced at us and went straight back to their business, not even phased or bothered by our presence. This was our first partial day and we were already on a high!
It seemed like the main attraction close to the island was Kicker Rock, rising some 500 feet out of the ocean and less than an hour away by boat. This was pelagic territory, with hammerheads, Galápagos, black and white-tip sharks cruising through the ten meter wide cut in the rock, paying little attention to the divers down below nor the snorkelers peering down through the limited visibility. For some reason it was impossible for us to get on a dive trip, so we opted for the next best thing and snorkeled with other tourists – after only minutes we had seen the first hammerhead sharks of our Galápagos adventure, closely followed by Galápagos sharks, rays and curious sea lions. This definitely went down as one of the best snorkel trips we had ever been on!
Our land based excursions took us to La Lobería, a secluded sea lion swimming area thirty minutes walk from town, and the Interpretation Center, providing a lot of history and information on the islands, with walking trails, snorkeling areas and golden sandy beaches.
Being the first to arrive at La Lobería meant we had at least six Pacific green sea turtles all to ourselves and a very inquisitive lone sea lion checking us out. On another occasion I took the lava trail leading farther along the coast to arrive on top of a cliff full of swallow-tailed gulls, boobies, and many other seabirds diving for fish – it is hard to understand how the animals in the Galapagos are so unafraid of humans. The birds, iguanas, turtles, and sea lions we’ve seen so far have barely even flinched in our presence.
A few minutes walk from town was the Interpretation Center with its very informative exhibits and island history. From there the National Park trails took us to Punta Carola, Playa Cabo de Horno, and a couple of golden sandy beaches and calm bays – great for snorkeling with sea lions, rays and turtles. The mirador of Cerro de las Tijeretas provided us fantastic views of Kicker Rock and the surrounding landscape. All around us were the sounds of endemic finches and mockingbirds, iguanas soaking up as much sun as possible, boobies and frigate birds searching for mates and precision diving for fish, and sea lion pups playing in the surf. The archipelago was beginning to show us it’s colors and we were very excited for the things to come.
San Cristobal has much more to offer visitors but with only three nights and an upcoming cruise we didn’t have time nor feel the need to go too far out of the main town. Most of the other attractions are farther afield and require boats or taxis to get to.
Next port of call for us was Santa Cruz, a two hour speedboat ride away for $30 per person.
Santa Cruz Island
Puerto Ayora, the island’s busy southern town, was definitely going to offer us more options for dining, shopping, and diving than San Cristobal. With a late afternoon arrival in the main tourist town of the Galápagos we were met by a staff member from Galapagos Dreams, our hostal for the next 4 nights – we had underestimated how difficult it would be to find reasonably priced accommodation, and pretty much the day before we had nothing arranged, other than one night here and another night there. Fortunately not all hotels put all of their available rooms on booking.com and a quick phone call to Galápagos Dreams secured us a matrimonial room for all four nights. I hoped booking scuba diving day trips would be easier!
The first thing on my agenda was heading to Scuba Iguana, reputably the best dive center on the island. I was lucky as there was a single space left for the North Seymour/ Mosquera and Bartolome/ Cousins Rock dive. At this point I didn’t feel comfortable signing up for the renowned Gordon Rocks dive, or more appropriately called the “washing machine”, as the currents, including up and down currents, can be pretty horrendous. Andrea and I would do that together after our cruise.
As well as two days of diving there were a couple of places close to town that we wanted to visit, namely Tortuga Bay with its picturesque beach, and Las Grietas, a water filled ravine where locals bravely throw themselves off of the highest points. The beach was probably one of the best beaches I’ve ever visited, immaculately clean with golden sand, basking marine iguanas, pelicans, rays, and baby black tip sharks swimming in the pools and shallow mangroves. With an early arrival to beat the crowds, it was a perfect place for both relaxing and kayaking.
Diving the Galápagos had been on my agenda for many years, although not the easiest diving, it offers some of the most amazing pelagic species on the planet. The more remote islands and rocks, including Wolf and Darwin, require a dive liveaboard, but the rewards of being underwater with hundreds of hammerhead sharks, manta rays and whale sharks could well justify it – next time! This time around I made do with daily diving around the central islands of Seymour, Bartolome and Santa Cruz, courtesy of Scuba Iguana. With a maximum of ten divers and 2-3 guides/ instructors on their boat the comfort and safety level was always high.
After a forty minute drive across the island we arrived at Itabaca Channel in the north of Santa Cruz, where we joined the spacious dive boat for the days two tank dives. The folk that hadn’t previously dived with the company were required to do basic regulator retrieval and mask clearing before beginning the dive proper. Now it was fun time!
Very soon after entering the water close to Seymour we had the privilege of passing hammerheads, and on one occasion around a dozen swam right by us. This was spectacular diving! The visibility and current were pretty good by Galapagos standards so I think we definitely lucked out on dive number one. Over the next two days we got to see four species of shark, shawls of up to a hundred cow-nose rays, stunning spotted eagle rays, curious sea lions, various eels, and a multitude of colorful fish.
Not sure anything could top what I had seen on previous dives, nor what Andrea and I had seen whilst snorkeling during our Galapagos cruise, but the Gordon Rocks dive that we got to do together was probably the best either of us had ever been on. We expected poor conditions, just like our first dive of the day at Daphne Minor, which threw at us poor visibility, and a harsh surge, but what we dropped down into was zero current, beautiful blue water, and a bunch of menacing looking hammerhead sharks – this was the Galapagos that is enticing us back for a liveaboard dive trip next year!
March 14th – March 30th 2014