Part 1: Discovering Galapagos

Well, Galapagos did not have it easy… We had lots of expectations before going there. It was the number one must-do destination for me on the whole trip. I have been wanting to go there for so long: Darwin’s paradise! Finally, the day had come.

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We had already done a bit of research of course and knew that Galapagos is not a cheap destination. So we had put some extra money aside for this trip. In the very beginning, we thought about just booking a cruise like most people do. However the cost usually starts at 1500 EUR per person for just 3 or 4 days when you book it abroad before. During our research we came across travel blocks though, where people said you can easily discover the Galapagos on your own by directly going to the main islands and doing day trips from there. Several travelers we had met by then had said the same, so this is what we did in the end. We flew from Guayaquil to the main island Santa Cruz and had 10 days to spend on the Galapagos islands.

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We landed just before lunch and already the landing was spectacular. Just look at the pictures I took from the airplane. The colour of the water, the many different islands in different shapes and sizes. We were excited!! The plane actually lands on Baltra island, which is a small island just 10 minutes ferry ride away from Santa Cruz. So took the small ferry board over to Santa Cruz and we instantly felt like being in a unique paradise. Just on this 10 minutes ride we saw hundreds of small fishes in the shallow water, several pelican birds diving down into the water to feed on them and the some smarter birds trying to steal it from them. We just stood there amazed and watched happily for some minutes until our bus would leave to take us to the main port and town area Puerto Ayora.

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What a start. After a 45 minutes bus ride across the island, we then arrived in Puerto Ayora. It is the main settlement on the Galapagos Islands and the main tourist area with all agencies, restaurants and hostels around. This is where we went out to find our luck, a good deal on day tours or maybe a cruise. I was still a bit torn between just doing day tours and going on a cruise, as I had also read many experiences in the meantime where people said a cruise is the only real way to experience Galapagos. There are in fact quite a few islands that can only be visited on a cruise as they are too far away for the normal ferryboats. And it is indeed these islands, which have no human settlements and are completely untouched. So we spent the day going to several agencies and asking for last minute cruise deals. We had also read that this is normally easy in Puerto Ayora directly, as cruises often have free spaces that want to get sold short notice. So we were kind of expecting to get many different options from economy class ranging up to luxury class. As it turned out though, we had unknowingly picked the carnival weekend in Ecuador to arrive on the Galapagos Islands. So there were many people visiting and there were no spaces free.

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There was only one cruise that was offered to us from every agency, interestingly to a different price every time. So after having spent over 4 hours going to different places we decided to just go for it and book it. The cost was 1000 EUR cheaper per person compared to booking it in Germany, so it was quite a good deal. When we finally went back to the office with the best offer to book it, they told us it was just sold out! A few minutes earlier 4 people in Quito had booked the last spaces. Oh no!!! We ran to the other agencies to see if they had a different answer for us, but they all said the same. Too late now. Oh, I was really disappointed. I had already dreamed about going on this cruise ship and now we missed our chance. So that night we went home, planning our 10 days on Galapagos just doing day tours on the main islands. At the end of the evening we had actually quite a good plan that would allow us to still see most of the unique animals, but we would still miss out on some and could not see all the different terrain that defines some of the remoter islands.

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The next morning we were full of motivation though to start discovering the place around us. We first went to the Darwin Research Centre. On our way there we saw many marine iguanas lying on the sidewalk and small lava lizards curiously looking at us. It was a first impression of what will later become clear anywhere we went: these islands belong to the animals, not to the humans. They own it, it is their home, they do not move and they are not afraid of humans. We are allowed to visit as a guest, but respect their space and home. It really feels like they own this islands. What a beautiful feeling this is!

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The Research Centre was thus a nice start, as it is all about conserving this place. A big team of dedicated scientists and naturalists work to conserve the population of the endangered famous giant tortoises that are endemic to Galapagos. Each year they go out and collect the tortoise eggs from the wild to bring them in and incubate them until they hatch. Once the tortoises are big enough to not get eating by cats, dogs and other introduced animals that do not belong on the Galapagos Islands. It is a very important work and the team has managed to already prevent some species from going extinct. For a few tortoise species however the work was started too late. They also do the same work for all other endangered species on the islands, but the tortoises are the biggest project.

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After that we walked back to the port to book some of our now planned day tours. On the way there we passed the area where the fishermen sell there freshly caught fish to the locals. And what we thought just made us laugh. There were pelicans and sea lions lining up behind the sales person waiting to get some leftovers. How smart these animals are! Another sea lion was waiting in the water directly next to the boat and fighting it out with some more pelicans. Who would get the leftovers first? Well, the sea lion won as far as we could tell ;).

When we arrived back at the agency who had made us the best price the day before. Once we walked in the lady had a big surprise for us though. The 4 people who had booked the cruise had cancelled that morning again and they now had space for us. It did not take long to make a decision and we booked it on the spot. WOW! How lucky and what a chance in our plans. The cruise would leave the next day already!

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So we had to change our plans again and hurry to still see a few things we wanted on Santa Cruz. We directly went into the highlands then to see the giant tortoises in the wild. It was nice to see them in the research centre already, but seeing them in the wild enjoying the grass on the farm lands was just a different thing altogether. It was obviously paradise for them, as it is an all-you-can-eat buffet where they do not need to move around much ;). And they are so big!

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Next we walked to Tortuga Bay, which we read is the most beautiful beach on the Galapagos and by chance situated on the main island Santa Cruz. The tourist guide did not exaggerate. We suddenly found ourselves on a white paradise beach, which again the animals claimed their own. There were marine iguanas swimming in the ocean or sunbathing on the shore, pelican birds and herons where fishing, a sea lion was swimming with the tourists, sally crabs were eating their dinner and we even saw baby sharks swimming around our feet. It was almost too much to take in. So much untouched beauty and no food stalls, vendors or anything else around that you normally find on paradise beaches by now. We were really touched deeply and felt so thankful to have been able to see this place. We went home with a big smile on our face and packed our bags. It was time to go on a cruise!

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The cruise boat we went on was called Aida Maria and was classified as a tourist superior class. We spent 4 days and 3 nights on the boat, visiting the islands Genovesa, Bartolome, Santiago and some remote protected areas in the north of Santa Cruz. I already knew that I would probably get seasick from our sailing experience in Australia. So I had bought a pack of motion sickness pills and had already taken two before we even went on the boat. It did not take long so after we started cruising and I could tell this is not going to be a worry free cruise for me. I started feeling a bit sick already. Without going into too much detail, I basically felt sick every single day on this cruise, despite taking sometimes the maximum of six tablets a day.

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The first 2 nights were the worst, where we cruised for 7 hours to the remote island of Genovesa. The boat was shaking so much and I felt so sick, I did not sleep at all, while Mathias was happily dreaming of the next day. Luckily the tablets at least prevented me from throwing up. Another girl on the cruise was not so lucky. She was hugging the toilet all night long. Anyway, I was happy every time we left the boat to go on land or go snorkelling and the beauty of the islands and underwater world made more than up for all the trouble. I would do it again anytime!

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Every day would consist of a few snorkelling trips and some land walking tours. The first day we stopped at Bachas Beach on the north side of Santa Cruz. It was another beautiful beach that is used by sea turtles for nesting. We could see the big wholes the turtles had made for their nests and we could see traces of the turtles walking from the wholes back to the water. Unfortunately at the time we were there they were all out in the water somewhere. As we walked further along the island a bit we saw some more marine iguanas and crabs, a lagoon with flamingos and herons, and other beautiful birds.

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Afterwards we went snorkelling by the beach, but could not see much. The weather had been rough and the water was not clear at all. So we stopped after a short while and this is when it happened! Or rather, realized what had happened. I broke our camera, on the second day on Galapagos!!! Oh no!! It was an underwater camera as you know and I had taken it into the water for the snorkelling trip. Somehow the secure lock to seal it waterproof must not have been in place properly, as water had gotten into the camera. And it did not turn on anymore. I was devastated for that day. Mathias did not know how to cheer me up. We were on Galapagos, and now had no camera anymore!! Let alone an underwater camera for all the snorkelling activities!! Oh… it hurt! It took me all night to get over it and only accepted the next morning that we now had to make do with our camera on the tablet without zoom and ask people from the cruise with underwater cameras to give us some pictures later. This is why you will notice different colour tones in the pictures sometimes. They are a collection of probably five different cameras. Luckily on land we could manage with the tablet quite well, as the animals were often just an arm length away and did not move.

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Thus, when we left for our first trip on the second day, I was full of excitement for the day ahead again. It was the highlight of the cruise trip: a visit to the remote Genovesa island. The island occupies about 14 square kilometres and has a volcanic caldera whose wall has collapsed, forming the Great Darwin Bay, surrounded by cliffs. This island is known as Bird Island, because of the large and varied bird colonies which nest here. Thus, Mathias as a newly discovered birder by now, was really excited. So was I though. I could not wait to see the famous red-footed Boobies!! I just love these birds with their blue beak and red feet. And the magnificent frigate birds with their red gular pouch.

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Genovesa is one of the few islands, where these two specific birds can be found nesting. There are also an abundance of Nazca Boobies (Mathias´favorites), Swallow-tailed Gulls, tropicbirds, Darwin´s finches and Galapagos Mockingbirds. We saw them all, most of them just an arm length away. They were sitting on the branches or in their nests, not impressed by us all and not moving. We saw adults and young chicks in their nest. It was fabulous. And when we landed on the island we were greeted by some sea lions sleeping in the sun and a two young baby sea lions lying around and playing with the crabs. It was so peaceful!

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Afterwards, we went snorkelling right there and had our first swim with a sea lion! Yes, you read correctly. They jumped into the water and had fun swimming around us as we snorkelled and were probably laughing at our poor swimming skills :). Watch the video that we uploaded to the website as well.

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After lunch we went to another part of the island called Prince Philip’s Steps. It is an extraordinary steep path that leads through a seabird colony full of life, up to cliffs that are 25m high. At the top, the trail continues inland, passing more seabird colonies in a thin palo santo forest. The trail also provides overviews of a rocky plain. It is also home to the only Galapagos owl (apart from the barn owl). They are hard to spot as they blend in perfectly with the terrain. Luckily our guide found one lonely owl for us. It was simply an amazing day, and worth all the trouble of another 7 hours of night cruising and no sleep for me. 😉

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On the third day we visited Bartolome and Santiago island. Bartolome is a volcanic islet just off the east coast of Santiago Island. It is one of the younger islands in the Galápagos archipelago and offers some of the most beautiful landscapes. The island consists of an extinct volcano and a variety of red, orange, green, and glistening black volcanic formations. It is famous for its Pinnacle Rock, which is the distinctive characteristic of this island, and the most representative landmark of the Galápagos. So of course, we got our photo taken there as well!

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Around the landing area we also saw some Galapagos penguins swimming, but unfortunately they were too quick for the camera there. However we also went snorkelling around Bartolome and not only swam with sea lions again, but also swam with penguins this time. They are so fast though. They shoot past you like a rocket! Watch the video to see for yourself. And we also saw the cute little fur seals sleeping on the rocks nearby. They are also a unique and unfortunately endangered species to the Galapagos Islands. Their beautiful fur has been very famous and got sold for lots of money in the past. They are protected now, but the population is low.

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Afterwards we visited a lava field on Santiago island which is only about 20 years old. It was very interesting to see the lava formations and how it folded in or cracked getting cold.

On the fourth and last day of our cruise we visited the Black Turtle Cove on the northern side of Santa Cruz Island. We left in the early morning ours on the zodiacs amd drove to the cove. The area looks actually a bit like the Everglades with mongroves everywhere. It is a famous spot for sea turtles and we saw many swimming around in the cove. We even saw them mating in the water!

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But not only turtles, also rays and sharks swam around our boats. It was a wonderful morning trip and so peaceful. It is a protected area and it is not allowed to snorkel or dive there. So we just spent an hour on the zodiacs there and later went to another area to go snorkelling again. Next to lots of colourful tropical fish, we saw rays, sea lions and sharks this time. All allowing us to swim with them, as if we are just another fish in the ocean. Afterwards we went back to the boat to cruise 4 hours to our next destination. For me that meant, back to bed to close my eyes and survive the trip again ;).

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Our next stop was Dragon’s Hill. It is another remote area on Santa Cruz that can only be reached by boat. It got its name from the many marine iguanas and also land iguanas that live there. We had seen many marine iguanas by then, but had only seen the colourful yellow land iguanas in the Research Centre so far. Our guide proofed to be perfect for the job to spot them. We walked around the island looking for the land iguanas and he found them for us hiding under bushes not making a single sound. We would have walked past every single one if he had not pointed them out to us. We also saw many Darwin finches on this island. Mathias especially had fun identifying the different species together with Cliff, a passionate birder and naturalist who came to the Island with a long list of birds he wanted to identify. I think he managed to see around 60 birds from a list of 75 or so. Not bad, he? Unfortunately the finches where often to quick for the camera, so we only have very few pictures of them.

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And this was our last trip on the cruise. Afterwards the boat went back to Puerto Ayora where we and some others went off the boat. The next morning new passengers would arrive and the boat would continue cruising to other islands. For us it was worth every penny and we were so happy to have gotten the chance to do it. Despite all the sea sickness problems, it was one of the most incredible trips we have done. Seeing this untouched nature was simply priceless. It was a fantastic first half of our time on the Galapagos Islands. The second part will follow soon.

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