Category Archives: The Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Part II: Cruising

Note: More pictures on Facebook!
There are no two ways around it.  The best way to see the Galapagos is by boat.  That’s how Darwin did it after all. But today’s experience is much different from the uninhibited five  weeks that Darwin spent exploring the islands in the middle of his 5 year journey aboard The Beagle.  Travelers now explore the more remote islands only by fancy cruise ships, and are restricted to small visitor sites that prohibit off trail travel.
In fact, today’s naturalists would be appalled by the way Darwin explored the Galapagos.  Trampling around the islands he writes of riding giant tortoises and munching on sea turtles.  In his observations of marine iguanas, he would chase them to the shore, pick them up, and launch them into the sea, watching them swim rapidly back to the rocks.  He deems that their “fear” of the water was due to some aggressive sea predator, but it was later realized that marine iguanas need to reach a certain afternoon temperature before diving in.  He also writes of his companion’s experiments to see how long iguanas can survive underwater.  They tied it’s tail to a weight underwater, and an hour later, it was pulled to the surface, alive and healthy.
After a disappointing day tour to the island of Floreana, where more time was spent on the choppy crossing watching foreigners puke over the hull than actually onshore, I was convinced that doing a multi-day cruise would be worth the dollars.  United Statesans and Europeans will typically pay $3000 for an eight-day first-class, and all-inclusive guided cruise of the islands, not quite the price I was looking for.  Already on the main island of Santa Cruz, I capitalized on my unusual “more time than money” status.  I researched the boats, found out who was going where, and how many spaces were available.  I bypassed the agencies and went right to the owners.  Just 2 hours before Yolita II was about to cruise out of the harbor, I showed up, cash in hand with an amount far lower than what the owners were asking for a 4-day cruise.  Knowing that they weren’t going to otherwise fill up their empty cabins on such short notice, they let me hop aboard as long as I vowed not to reveal the price I was paying to the other passengers.  Hanging out for a week in Santa Cruz in the low-season with a guilt-free sense of bargaining…this was the poor man’s ticket to a cruise in the Galapagos.
Yolita II is a small first-class cruise boat, hosting 16 passengers and 10 crew.  Not having been on a cruise boat before, I was shocked by what we were given.  My own room, air-conditioning, private bath with hot water, these were far better conditions than I was used to on land.  The other passengers were good fun, and the food was the best I had in eight months.  Each day, we would boat to two new islands and do some of the best snorkeling in the world.  In just 30 minutes of snorkeling off the coast of Sombrero Chino we encountered sharks, sea turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, manta rays, and diving penguins.  This was the good life…unfortunately it was just 4 days.
Traveling in style, and at a budget price on Yolita II

Traveling in style, and at a budget price on Yolita II

Note: More pictures on Facebook!

There are no two ways around it.  The best way to see the Galapagos is by boat.  That’s how Darwin did it after all. But today’s experience is much different from the uninhibited five  weeks that Darwin spent exploring the islands in the middle of his 5 year journey aboard The Beagle.  Travelers now explore the more remote islands only by fancy cruise ships, and are restricted to small visitor sites that prohibit off trail travel.

In fact, today’s naturalists would be appalled by the way Darwin explored the Galapagos.  Trampling around the islands he writes of riding giant tortoises and munching on sea turtles.  In his observations of marine iguanas, he would chase them to the shore, pick them up, and launch them into the sea, watching them swim rapidly back to the rocks.  He deems that their “fear” of the water was due to some aggressive sea predator, but it was later realized that marine iguanas need to reach a certain afternoon temperature before diving in.  He also writes of his companion’s experiments to see how long iguanas can survive underwater.  They tied it’s tail to a weight underwater, and an hour later, it was pulled to the surface, alive and healthy.

After a disappointing day tour to the island of Floreana, where more time was spent on the choppy crossing watching foreigners puke over the hull than actually onshore, I was convinced that doing a multi-day cruise would be worth the dollars.  United Statesans and Europeans will typically pay $3000 for an eight-day first-class, and all-inclusive guided cruise of the islands, not quite the price I was looking for.  Already on the main island of Santa Cruz, I capitalized on my unusual “more time than money” status.  I researched the boats, found out who was going where, and how many spaces were available.  I bypassed the agencies and went right to the owners.  Just 2 hours before Yolita II was about to cruise out of the harbor, I showed up, cash in hand with an amount far lower than what the owners were asking for a 4-day cruise.  Knowing that they weren’t going to otherwise fill up their empty cabins on such short notice, they let me hop aboard as long as I vowed not to reveal the price I was paying to the other passengers.  Hanging out for a week in Santa Cruz in the low-season with a guilt-free sense of bargaining…this was the poor man’s ticket to a cruise in the Galapagos.

Yolita II is a small first-class cruise boat, hosting 16 passengers and 10 crew.  Not having been on a cruise boat before, I was shocked by what we were given.  My own room, air-conditioning, private bath with hot water, these were far better conditions than I was used to on land.  The other passengers were good fun, and the food was the best I had in eight months.  Each day, we would boat to two new islands and do some of the best snorkeling in the world.  In just 30 minutes of snorkeling off the coast of Sombrero Chino we encountered sharks, sea turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, manta rays, and diving penguins.  This was the good life…unfortunately it was just 4 days.

A pirate is someone who steals merchandise from a boat right? In my nine months of travel, this would be my first robbery.  On my last night I realized that my sim card was missing from my cell phone.  Having used it just before departing, I knew it was stolen.  But who would steal a $5 sim card on a boat?  Later that evening, the bartender mysteriously asked if he could borrow my Motorola phone charger (how stupid could you be?).  I soon found out the bartender, who was on a short-term assignment, also cleans the rooms.  I searched the bar and there it was, my sim card.  The captain and I confronted him about stealing it, and though the liar never confessed, I am convinced that I had just met my first pirate.

There are no two ways around it.  The best way to see the Galapagos is by boat.  That’s how Darwin did it after all. But today’s experience is much different from the uninhibited five  weeks that Darwin spent exploring the islands in the middle of his 5 year journey aboard The Beagle.  Travelers now explore the more remote islands only by fancy cruise ships, and are restricted to small visitor sites that prohibit off trail travel.
In fact, today’s naturalists would be appalled by the way Darwin explored the Galapagos.  Trampling around the islands he writes of riding giant tortoises and munching on sea turtles.  In his observations of marine iguanas, he would chase them to the shore, pick them up, and launch them into the sea, watching them swim rapidly back to the rocks.  He deems that their “fear” of the water was due to some aggressive sea predator, but it was later realized that marine iguanas need to reach a certain afternoon temperature before diving in.  He also writes of his companion’s experiments to see how long iguanas can survive underwater.  They tied it’s tail to a weight underwater, and an hour later, it was pulled to the surface, alive and healthy.
After a disappointing day tour to the island of Floreana, where more time was spent on the choppy crossing watching foreigners puke over the hull than actually onshore, I was convinced that doing a multi-day cruise would be worth the dollars.  United Statesans and Europeans will typically pay $3000 for an eight-day first-class, and all-inclusive guided cruise of the islands, not quite the price I was looking for.  Already on the main island of Santa Cruz, I capitalized on my unusual “more time than money” status.  I researched the boats, found out who was going where, and how many spaces were available.  I bypassed the agencies and went right to the owners.  Just 2 hours before Yolita II was about to cruise out of the harbor, I showed up, cash in hand with an amount far lower than what the owners were asking for a 4-day cruise.  Knowing that they weren’t going to otherwise fill up their empty cabins on such short notice, they let me hop aboard as long as I vowed not to reveal the price I was paying to the other passengers.  Hanging out for a week in Santa Cruz in the low-season with a guilt-free sense of bargaining…this was the poor man’s ticket to a cruise in the Galapagos.
Yolita II is a small first-class cruise boat, hosting 16 passengers and 10 crew.  Not having been on a cruise boat before, I was shocked by what we were given.  My own room, air-conditioning, private bath with hot water, these were far better conditions than I was used to on land.  The other passengers were good fun, and the food was the best I had in eight months.  Each day, we would boat to two new islands and do some of the best snorkeling in the world.  In just 30 minutes of snorkeling off the coast of Sombrero Chino we encountered sharks, sea turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, manta rays, and diving penguins.  This was the good life…unfortunately it was just 4 days.
A pirate is someone who steals merchandise from a boat right? In my nine months of travel, this would be my first robbery.  On my last night I realized that my sim card was missing from my cell phone.  Having used it just before departing, I knew it was stolen.  But who would steal a $5 sim card on a boat?  Later that evening, the bartender mysteriously asked if he could borrow my Motorola phone charger (how stupid could you be?).  I soon found out the bartender, who was on a short-term assignment, also cleans the rooms.  I searched the bar and there it was, my sim card.  The captain and I confronted him about stealing it, and though the liar never confessed, I am convinced that I had just met my first pirateNote: More pictures on Facebook!
There are no two ways around it.  The best way to see the Galapagos is by boat.  That’s how Darwin did it after all. But today’s experience is much different from the uninhibited five  weeks that Darwin spent exploring the islands in the middle of his 5 year journey aboard The Beagle.  Travelers now explore the more remote islands only by fancy cruise ships, and are restricted to small visitor sites that prohibit off trail travel.
In fact, today’s naturalists would be appalled by the way Darwin explored the Galapagos.  Trampling around the islands he writes of riding giant tortoises and munching on sea turtles.  In his observations of marine iguanas, he would chase them to the shore, pick them up, and launch them into the sea, watching them swim rapidly back to the rocks.  He deems that their “fear” of the water was due to some aggressive sea predator, but it was later realized that marine iguanas need to reach a certain afternoon temperature before diving in.  He also writes of his companion’s experiments to see how long iguanas can survive underwater.  They tied it’s tail to a weight underwater, and an hour later, it was pulled to the surface, alive and healthy.
After a disappointing day tour to the island of Floreana, where more time was spent on the choppy crossing watching foreigners puke over the hull than actually onshore, I was convinced that doing a multi-day cruise would be worth the dollars.  United Statesans and Europeans will typically pay $3000 for an eight-day first-class, and all-inclusive guided cruise of the islands, not quite the price I was looking for.  Already on the main island of Santa Cruz, I capitalized on my unusual “more time than money” status.  I researched the boats, found out who was going where, and how many spaces were available.  I bypassed the agencies and went right to the owners.  Just 2 hours before Yolita II was about to cruise out of the harbor, I showed up, cash in hand with an amount far lower than what the owners were asking for a 4-day cruise.  Knowing that they weren’t going to otherwise fill up their empty cabins on such short notice, they let me hop aboard as long as I vowed not to reveal the price I was paying to the other passengers.  Hanging out for a week in Santa Cruz in the low-season with a guilt-free sense of bargaining…this was the poor man’s ticket to a cruise in the Galapagos.
Yolita II is a small first-class cruise boat, hosting 16 passengers and 10 crew.  Not having been on a cruise boat before, I was shocked by what we were given.  My own room, air-conditioning, private bath with hot water, these were far better conditions than I was used to on land.  The other passengers were good fun, and the food was the best I had in eight months.  Each day, we would boat to two new islands and do some of the best snorkeling in the world.  In just 30 minutes of snorkeling off the coast of Sombrero Chino we encountered sharks, sea turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, manta rays, and diving penguins.  This was the good life…unfortunately it was just 4 days.
A pirate is someone who steals merchandise from a boat right? In my nine months of travel, this would be my first robbery.  On my last night I realized that my sim card was missing from my cell phone.  Having used it just before departing, I knew it was stolen.  But who would steal a $5 sim card on a boat?  Later that evening, the bartender mysteriously asked if he could borrow my Motorola phone charger (how stupid could you be?).  I soon found out the bartender, who was on a short-term assignment, also cleans the rooms.  I searched the bar and there it was, my sim card.  The captain and I confronted him about stealing it, and though the liar never confessed, I am convinced that I had just met my first pirate.
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Galapagos Islands, Part I

Lonesome George, the last turtle subspecies of Isla Pinta, is checking me out at the Charles Darwin Research Center.  Apparently George is a bit to picky when it comes to finding a mate.  We had a lot in common and hit it off well.

Lonesome George, the last turtle subspecies of Isla Pinta, is checking me out at the Charles Darwin Research Center. Apparently George is a bit to picky when it comes to finding a mate. We had a lot in common and hit it off well.

The Galapagos Islands are not on most shoestring backpackers’ budgets.  Just to get here from Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador requires a $350 flight plus a $100 park entrance fee. On top of that, accommodations and food are expensive (an imported snickers bar is $2.50), guides are necessary to explore the islands, and most travelers opt for a yacht tour which will run you up to 400 dollars a day.  Consequently there are a lot more suitcase-clad Florida retirees than there are folks like me down here.  But the island habitats and scuba diving, I was told, was unlike anywhere in the world.  I figured $450 would seem insignificant when I’m on my deathbed, reflecting on life adventures, so I bit the bullet, bought a ticket, and would improvise accommodations and tours once I arrived.

There are some myths about the Galapagos Islands that should be clarified.  #1 People actually do live here.  It’s not just turtles and finches who roam these remote islands. On the contrary, there are several towns on the two main islands that support a total population over 19,000 (according to a 2006 census).  In Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, from where I write at this very moment, some 12,000 people are living their lives just as we do, going to Ecuadorian schools, attending farmer’s markets on Saturday mornings, making babies, and working nine to five jobs (most of which are tourism-based).  There are two airports that bring in hordes of tourists each day, and some ex-pats who manage to hang around by volunteering in English classes or in local dive shops, but if you walk just a few blocks from the touristy Charles Darwin Avenue, you’d feel like you were in just another small town in Ecuador.

When there´s a big catch at the local fishing market, EVERYONE wants a piece of it!

When there´s a big catch at the local fishing market, EVERYONE wants a piece of it!

Thus my first objective in this visit was to get to know the people of the Galapagos.  I set up contacts with the family of my friend, Lore, from Ecuador, and luckily managed to find free accommodation on couchsurfing.org with my new friend, Catalina.  Catalina is super sweet, and thanks to her, I’m currently sitting in my private hotel-like room, beside the water, unstressed about money, and getting a glimpse as to what it is like to live here.  I love it already.  On my first night, I went to a birthday celebration for her mother, which unsurprisingly included lots of family, a midnight dinner, and dancing all night.  The people I have met are quite relaxed, pleasant, and content to be here.  They don’t feel isolated, nor like they are missing the action on the mainland, and they mostly have positive relationships with the internationals who travel through (no gringo hostility!).

Antonio, lava tuber extraordinaire!

Antonio, lava tuber extraordinaire!

On day two, I rented a bicycle to tour the interior highlands of Santa Cruz Island.  After cruising through the tiny village of Bellavista, past the Amazonas night club and several small farms, I arrived at Los Tuneles de Gallardo.  I was told I had to come here by my friend Fernando in Quito to visit his uncle and explore his underground lava tubes (caves which were once underground channels of lava).  Antonio was his name and having come to Santa Cruz in 1948 he was one of the early inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands.  He discovered several kilometers of these tubes some fifty years ago, and it wasn’t for another decade when a European geology expedition came to inform him of what he had found.  Antonio was an absolute hoot, and we spent the afternoon munching on fruit, touring his property, and sharing stories.  Each year on September 21, International Peace Day, Antonio drapes banners across the roads and hosts a small fiesta to celebrate the event, and he was busy at working preparing for the upcoming day.  Thanks to a small connection among friends, I had a great afternoon.

The playful Galapagos sea lions own this place!

The playful Galapagos sea lions own this place!

The following day I was getting the wildlife itch, and had to splurge on a scuba diving tour of nearby Seymor Island.  Although I lack the funds to use it frequently, I got my scuba diving license for the sake of moments like these, when you come across a place where the most spectacular sights are underwater.  Spending the day on the boat and 2 hours in the water, I discovered the fallacy of Galapogos Myth #2.  The Galapagos Islands, though located on the equator, are not a warm tropical paradise.  Cool Pacific currents moderate island temperatures and require thick wetsuits for diving and snorkeling.  As we dove to depths of 25 meters, the cold headaches that I encountered were quickly distracted by the wildlife that accompanied frigid currents. In our first dive, we encountered and swam along no fewer than fifty manta rays, who moseyed by at a turtle-like pace (this was convenient because we were swimming with a sea turtle as well), not seeming to mind at all that we were along for the ride.  On dive #2 we swam into a congregation of Galapagos and white-finned sharks, measuring up to fifteen feet in length.  Any fear I had of these creatures was soon decimated as the occasional sea lion would butt heads and scare the sharks away.  The sea lions were a special treat to swim with.  As if they knew you had paid a big price to be there, they would put on a show when you came near, which included underwater back flips, twists, and dives through submarine tunnels.

A sea of manta rays

A sea of manta rays

White-tip, Hammerhead, Galapagos Sharks everywhere.  And they would come up to you close enough to touch them!

White-tip, Hammerhead, Galapagos Sharks everywhere. And they would come up to you close enough to touch them!