From a very young age, when perhaps a Cinderella dress would have been more becoming, I lived day in, day out, in an oversized t-shirt (a gift from my Godfather) with a Galápagos Frigate bird plastered across the front. For some time I thought that ‘Galápagos’ was just the name of the bird, so imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered it was actually a group of islands that (for a semi-exorbitant fee) I could see for myself!
Well this week, this long term dream came to fruition. I landed on the totally deserted Isla Baltra and the fun kicked off from there. If you’re willing to throw money at your problems (averaging around £100 a day- eeshk) then here are some of the spectacular delights that await on these volcanic wonders in the Pacific:
Day one: After a bus, a boat, a bus and a cab to get from the airport to my hostel, my day was already cut short. But with not a moment to lose, I convinced a German girl from my hostel, Margrit, to accompany me to Tortuga bay. A half hour walk from any other civilisation (aided by one of the fantastic local fresh fruit ice creams) it was one of the most idyllic and deserted beaches I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The sand was like walking on a Tempur mattress. Whilst the calmer waters of the second bay welcomed swimmers, splashers and waders, the first bay played host almost exclusively to swarms of marine iguanas. Easy to spot as they sprawled, baking on the sand; less easy when amongst the similarly black rocks- I nearly stepped on a fair few!
A perfectly relaxed start to island life, I finished my first day with a gourmet meal upon bumping into some girls I had met in Colombia. Small world indeed.
Day two: Having booked the night before (a trip to the travel agent became a daily evening activity) I was up early for a scuba diving trip to the waters around North Seymour island. Almost immediately upon our descent we spotted a group of white tipped reef sharks. Seemingly menacing, these creatures were surprisingly docile and totally non-plussed by our presence. Other highlights included the electric blue of some starfish and of the King Angel fish. Less glamorous specimens included the rather dowdy giant eel and the creepy sea snakes, that I thought were grass until they peeped in and out of the ground!
Our second dive was slightly less successful; the visibility was appalling and for a while we had to rely solely on the sounds our dive master was making. Not so great for wildlife spotting, but certainly an experience within itself! An abundance of starfish were the stars of this show. Unfortunately we were back in the dingy mere moments before a baby hammerhead swam right past! Can’t have it all I guess!
Inspired by seeing such an abundance of sea life, my Galápagos buddy, Margrit, and I headed out to eat some seafood, in the buzzing (because of its comparative cheapness) pedestrianised street of restaurants set back from the main drag; as they all fight for your business, it becomes the Brick Lane of Santa Cruz.
Day three: An early morning ferry took a boatload of sleeping passengers across to Isla Isabela- the largest by far of the archipelago.
We had mere moments to revel in our posh private cabaña (complete with a new friend, who we allowed to crash in our attic) before being off on a trip to Las Tunneles.
Our speedboat captain was something of a boy racer type: flying over breaking waves and slamming on the brakes when he spotted something exciting. Namely hammerheads and, what I thought were the dorsal fins of yet more sharks turned out to be the flailing tips of a Manta Ray’s wings; at around 5 metres wide, this ray cast an impressive shadow that I wish I could’ve been swimming alongside rather than seeing from above.
The landscape of the lava tunnels was a beautiful sight within itself; yet the highlight of this trip was the snorkelling. Two different sites- rocky crevices followed by mangroves- played host to an enormous variety of exciting swimming buddies.
There was a lot of excitement over some sleeping seahorses, but for me, the curious sea lions made me day; flaccid sausage-like animals on land, once in the water they become balletic and almost teasing as they whizz around you. Some overly casual (particularly huge) sea turtles swam by, Galápagos penguins plunged in from the rocks and thrashed around, reef sharks hid in an underwater cave and Golden rays and, their more glamorously adorned cousins, Eagle rays swam in synchronised troops of around twenty. You couldn’t see more variety of you swam into an aquarium tank.
Not yet satiated with wildlife for the day, we went wandering to the giant tortoise breeding centre. Whilst the elders lounged, with particularly unattractive, scrotal necks, the youngsters had an unexpected level of energy! Just beyond lay several lagoons full of flamingoes. Incredibly hot pink (apart from one pathetically grey one, who I can only assume gets horrifically bullied.)
We managed to find the only genuinely cheap meal on the Galápagos (three courses for $7!) and were even lucky enough for the powercut to end in time for some sleepy air con.
Day four: It ceases to count as an ‘early start’ once it’s the same everyday- but this morning’s activity was a hike up the Volcano Sierra Negra.
Luxuriously flat for much of the way, we reached the peak, for views over the vast (6 mile diameter) active caldera. I personally couldn’t marvel at it all too intensely, as the lava forms an apparently moving optical illusion and induced rather a lot of queasiness!
On the other face of the volcano, far from the tropical verdancy we had become accustomed to, lay another world entirely. Lava fields as far as the eye could see, which were unexpectedly beautifully coloured: whilst the most recent eruption left flowing black swathes, the older the rocks, the redder they became. Not a bad view for lunch! (It even made up for the underwhelming sandwiches we were provided!)
A sweaty boat back to Santa Cruz main island and, with our new Isabela buddies in tow, we tested the waters of the Galápagos nightlife. A quiet seaside drink on a balcony escalated quickly when we looked behind us and the indoor area was a heaving dance floor! At first shocked by seeing a club on the island, it all became clear once I assimilated it to observing animal mating rituals; we’re just another species taking advantage of paradise!
Day five: Despite feeling a lot worse for wear, today was my biggest Galápagos day: a trip back to North Seymour, to see Frigates and Blue-footed Boobies!
The island itself is flat, deserted and arid; but the colour is provided by these magnificently bizarre birds.
Female Boobies rested on the rocks at the periphery, whilst males danced around them, showing off quite how blue their feet were, and sexily squawking!
The male frigates meanwhile, rather than making a fool of themselves on the dance floor, overinflated their red balloons and simply sat in a nest of their own making. They desperately made a show of themselves for every female who swooped overhead; but she sassily rejected them all, playing the long game! Whilst I’m not entirely sure why evolution has deemed these balloons a turn on, I can confirm that they are distinctly less attractive when un-inflated!
Washed off my hangover with some peaceful snorkelling and a lie down on a sea turtle nesting beach. The David Attenborough hangover cure.
Day six: Had a bargain basement day planned for the end of my Galápagos sojourn. We stayed on Santa Cruz and headed up into the highlands.
Two enormous craters, Los Gemelos (the twins), looked like something straight out of a film set. But beyond these glorified holes in the ground lay another giant tortoise sanctuary. Free to roam much further here, these famously lazy animals actually gained some serious momentum. We had to run away to avoid breaking the island’s two metre rule!
Beneath the tortoises lay the volcanic lava tunnels. Some were mere archways, slightly elongated caves, whilst another plunged us into pitch blackness and rained groundwater onto us from above.
After yet more of my favourite ice creams, Margrit and I finally parted ways and I headed for one last swim. This time my destination was the unbelievably deep volcanic fissure at Las Grietas. Unfortunately, it seemed that everyone else in the world had the same idea as me and, having become accustomed to blissful isolation amongst nature, the crowds really began to grate on me.
A brief water taxi back to the main port and the chance to watch some dubbed Spanish television- I fear The Simpsons loses a lot in translation, as did Leo DiCaprio’s Oscar acceptance speech! But an extended relaxing sit was necessary to prepare me for the mammoth trip to Bolivia that awaited the following day and to say goodbye to paradise.
I ended up spending over a month’s budget on a week in the Galápagos. Admittedly I could’ve saved money here and there: I didn’t need to drunkenly cover my friend’s drinks bill, I could’ve perhaps survived without a swanky private room on my last night and I certainly should’ve got up in time for the last $2 bus to the airport, instead of a $20 taxi! But hey ho, the whole trip was magical, other worldly, whilst also feeling like a comfortable, homely paradise pretty quickly; on such a small island, you can’t help but bump into everyone you know! Every other penny was well spent- especially in purchasing a new Galápagos t-shirt, in grown up size (this one has Blue-Footed Boobies on the front; I guess frigates were more popular in the 90s?!) Here’s to slumming it for the next few weeks in an attempt to redress the bank balance…