As the plane touched down in Isla Baltra from the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, I already knew that I had arrived in a special place. Imagine being in an equatorial, tropical island, but in place of coconut palms, you are surrounded with an arid landscape punctuated with cacti. I had not even left the plane when I spotted my first land animal: an iguana. As we walked through the tarmac, numerous birds hovered above. It must have been the same sight that greeted young Charles Darwin, who, aboard the HMS Beagle, traveled to these islands in 1835.
In the past, cruises were the only way to visit the Galapagos, and while they are still available today, they remain very expensive; a week-long cruise can cost USD 4,000 or more. Going by land limits the places you can visit and the time you can visit them—but it is much cheaper and still allows you to witness the highlights of Galapagos’ biodiversity and geology, while being able to meet more locals and fellow travelers.
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A bus, then a ferry, then another bus, took me from Isla Baltra to the much-larger island of Isla Santa Cruz, all the way to Puerto Ayora, Galapagos’ major town and visitor hub. Though the whole trip took just over an hour, it passed through different landscapes, from the arid coast through the mist-covered mountainous interior to, finally, the inhabited slopes leading to Puerto Ayora. There, to my initial surprise, giant tortoise casually wander like chickens back home.
The adventure begins
Puerto Ayora is an attraction in itself. Its dedicated bike lanes and walkable streets take you to charming cafes, craft beer places, restaurants—just look where you step as sea lions and iguanas lounge all around. Instantly, my favorite hangout place became 1835 Coffee Lab, along Avenida Charles Darwin, which serves coffee from the islands themselves and other Ecuadorian regions. Langosta (lobster, not locust) was a delicacy, and I made sure to try it in the excellent La Garrapata restaurant on my first night.
But of course, one does not go all the way to the Galapagos to eat. So after dropping my backpack in the hotel, I walked over to Charles Darwin Research Station, just 15 minutes’ walk to the town’s northeast. Run by the Charles Darwin Foundation that was founded in 1959, the Station has served as venue for the work largely responsible for the conservation of the islands and its many species. The station features various species of giant tortoise and iguanas, as well as a sampling of the islands’ distinctive flora, from mangroves to cacti. Watch out for Darwin’s finches along the way, unbothered by human presence!
The following day, I joined my first day cruise, to Isla Seymour Norte just north of Isla Baltra. Together with several other travelers, I headed back to the same pier where the boats from the airport land, and we went aboard the M/V Galapagos Shark II, our base for the day, to travel just north of Isla Baltra.
Seymour Norte would prove to be one of the highlights of the entire visit. Although it only has a land area of 1.9 square kilometers, it is home to a large population of giant birds like the blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, and magnificent frigatebirds, many of which have their nests on the ground or on the low bushes. The magnificence of the frigatebirds lie on their males’ red throat pouches that are inflated to attract the females. Meanwhile, beyond the blue feet, the boobies walk in a funny, fascinating way. Just observing those birds—found nowhere else in the world—was a rewarding experience in itself.
Next up, in between a night of Puerto Ayora’s comforts, was another trip on the M/V Galapagos Shark II. This time, we were going to the much-farther Isla Bartolome, northwest of Isla Santa Cruz and just off Isla Santiago. A tiny island like Seymour Norte with just a land area of 1.2 square kilometres, Isla Bartolome is volcanic, has little vegetation, and devoid of spectacular species. But what it lacks in fauna it more than makes up for with its stunning landscape, reachable with a short hike that takes you to the island’s highest point. There, one can behold Isla Bartolome’s two bays, the isthmus that separates them, and Isla Isabela’s volcanic cones at the background.
After the short hike we proceeded to the coast of Isla Isabela to do some snorkeling. Luckily, within a few minutes of taking to the water we spotted a Galapagos penguin! Seas were rough that day and I actually didn’t see much else afterward, but even before the snorkel session I felt that it was another rewarding day.
A walk along the crater
After the two long days to Islas Seymour Norte and Bartolome, I took a more restful day dedicated to taking the two-hour boat trip to Puerto Villamil in Isla Isabela. It is the largest island in all of the Galapagos, and, being further to the west, even more pristine than Santa Cruz. Puerto Villamil was much smaller than Puerto Ayora, with fewer shops and eating places, but it hosted one of the islands’ best restaurants: Coco Surf, which serves an amazing seafood dish with crispy rice!
From Puerto Villamil, I headed to the tortoise breeding center, which is connected to the town via a very nice foot trail where one case pass through some lagoons that reliably features at least a couple of flamingos. The highlight of my visit, however, required another boat ride, this time to the "Los Tuneles," also known as Cabo Rosa, another otherworldly islet with lava rock tunnels forming canals. There, you can literally see giant tortoise and manta rays passing through in the crystal clear waters. We saw more blue-footed boobies, iguanas. A memorable snorkel run in nearly "Los Finados" was equally productive, with sightings of manta rays, seahorses, and white-tipped sharks!
Although the land option is much cheaper than going on a cruise, Galapagos is quite expensive, and I had limited time. Ultimately I decided to skip the other major island, San Cristobal, preferring to divide my time between Santa Cruz and Isabela. (The boat trips can also be exhausting.) Still, I wasn’t leaving the islands without hiking one of its volcanoes. On my last full day, I went up Volcan Sierra Negra in Isabela, right before heading back to Puerto Ayora.
At 1,124 meters, Volcan Sierra Negra is not a tall volcano (Ecuador's Chimborazo rises to a lofty height of 6268 meters) but being located in an island, it is a towering presence in its own right, joining five other volcanoes in making up Isabela's rugged terrain. It is also an active volcano, having just erupted in June 2018. Joining a guided tour, I beheld Sierra Negra’s vast caldera before trekking to Volcan Chico, one of the volcanic edifices, rising above a sea of black sand and lava tunnels; a constantly changing landscape, geologists say, reflect the broader process of creating the islands themselves.
In the land that inspired the theory of evolution, I saw the workings of an unfathomable power.