I always know we’ve found somewhere special when I don’t want to leave. It’s not that I don’t enjoy other places, but our full schedule and list of awe-inspiring destinations usually keeps me focused on moving forward and it’s only those truly amazing spots that leave me wanting to linger. I consider missing the flight, rearranging our plans and remaining where I am until the fun (or the funds) runs out. And that’s exactly the feeling I had as we were heading towards the airport after ten amazing days in The Galápagos Islands.
We arrived on the island of Santa Cruz, the main island of The Galápagos filled with hotels, eager tourist agencies and delicious seafood street foods. It was here where we got our bearings, figuring out how we were going to tackle these amazing islands. We ultimately opted out of the typical boat tour of the islands largely due to the fact that they were breathtakingly expensive despite the last minute discounts encouragingly offered at the travel agencies around town. Instead, we opted to explore the three main islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabel on our own, allowing us to enjoy a more relaxed pace and strike a balance between explore the islands on foot and diving into the chilly waters surrounding.
Our first few days took us to the main sightseeing spots on Santa Cruz; enjoying slow walks with giant tortoises at El Chato, rocky hikes to La Grietas through volcanic rock fields and educational visits to the Charles Darwin Research Centre where we were quickly distracted by the marine iguanas warming themselves lazily on the black rocks that lined the beach coves along the trail. We spent afternoons swimming (or standing knee-deep, goading each other to go further in) at Tortuga Bay and Playa de la Estación before stuffing ourselves on all kinds of seafoods on the aptly nicknamed ‘Kiosk Street’ each evening. In short, it was heaven.
Eager to explore further afield, we went our separate ways for a day, Rod doing some diving in North Seymour while I snorkelled lazily at Pinzon. Our reunion started with each of us exclaiming how f@&ing cold the water had been (it was 18 degrees that day and, well, we’re wimps) before quickly turning into a competition to find out who saw more on their adventures underwater. Around North Seymour Rod dived with Golden and Manta rays, hammerhead sharks and schools of giant fish while everywhere I turned in Pinzon, the sea seemed to be filled with green sea turtles, black tipped reef sharks and playful sea lions floating gracefully alongside us with the current.
The next day, we jumped on a boat to Isabela island, the largest in The Galápagos distinct for its seahorse shape and spectacular marine life. Somewhat nervously we signed ourselves up for two more days of snorkelling, exploring Los Tintoreras and Los Tūneles, two spots known for amazing sights and even chillier waters.
First we headed to the Arnaldo Tupiza Breeding Centre to check out some tiny tortoises which would eventually grow to giants over the next 100 years or so. We marvelled at the hand-sized babies and the slightly larger teenagers kept safe in the centre until they were large enough to be let loose in the wild. A short walk took us through some mangroves where we spotted a handful of bright pink flamingos perched daintily on one leg while they snoozed in small patches of water before we arrived at the gorgeous white sand beach of Playa Grande.
From there we headed back to the port to jump on the boat that would take us to Los Tintoreras, a volcanic rocky outcrop that was home to a huge variety of sea life. Here we spotted our first boobies (and made all the required jokes) and marvelled at the tiny marine iguanas which called these safe shores home until they could tackle the seas to make it to the mainland. Our guide weaved through the sharp rocks to show us a hidden crevice that was home to tens of Tintoreras, or white-tipped reef sharks which gave the area its name and we watched nervously at these unique sharks resting on the sandy sea floor, occasionally shifting and twisting to cast a cold black eye at their audience.
Finally we donned wetsuits and snorkels, hesitating above the cold water until we worked up the nerve to throw ourselves in. Surprisingly warmer than our previous experiences, we were happy to paddle around the rock-bound cove and marvel at the sea turtles and other sea life swimming ambivalently past us. Our guide then took a few of us back towards the shore to visit with the rays that call the shallow bay home. We swam with eagle rays and stingrays, mirroring their graceful curves through the water and matching our pace to their own. Rod even managed to get up close to a curious penguin who swam right up to say hello before resuming his perch on the shore.
Arriving back on the island, we explored the nearby Concha y Perla, zigzagging our way along the short boardwalk to avoid the many dozing sea lions who seem to have claimed the path for their own. Some eyed us curiously while others ignored us completely, even while we joined the groups of visitors with their iPhones trying to capture the scene.
We’d been told Los Tintoreras was the warmup for Isabela’s main aquatic attraction, Los Tūneles so the next day we woke early and joined a group heading along the coast for more snorkelling and, hopefully, more sea life. Among the mangroves we spotted seahorses, schools of king angelfish, lazy green sea turtles, more graceful eagle rays and sharks playing a game of spotlight, darting quickly here and there before stopping just as fast.
We dried off on the rocky outcrop of miniature islands in Los Tūneles, admiring the arches and dips of the unique rock formations as well as the turtles we could spot through the crystal clear water below.
Eventually it was time to leave Los Tūneles and Isla Isabela so we reluctantly headed back to shore and on towards Isla San Cristobal.
I’m sure there’s plenty to do in San Cristobal but we quickly narrowed down our itinerary to one thing: sea lions. Arriving at the port we were happily greeted by sea lions EVERYWHERE. Snoozing on the seats that lined our path, playing in the water just below us and patrolling the shores while others lounged lazily on the sand. Our three days on San Cristobal ended up being a study in sea lions as we swam with them, played with them and watched them doze on the beaches that line San Cristobal’s shore.
Playa Mann was our first stop on our tour of the island’s animal population where we admired the many mother sea lions and their tiny pups. A bull sea lion patrolled the shore possessively and barked his disapproval if anyone dared get too close for that perfect sea lion selfie. But the curious and playful youngsters were eager to greet visitors and happily surfed their way in to shore whenever someone dared take a dip.
The next day we ventured further to Playa Punta Carola somewhat dubiously, both of us assuming we’d be quickly heading back to Playa Mann in search of sea lions. But when we emerged from the scrubby path onto the shelly sand of Punta Carola we were greeted by the sight of at least thirty sea lions going about their day (which seems to be filled with laying on the sand, rolling in the sand, maybe a quick swim and then more sleeping on the sand). We camped here for most of the day, taking turns to swim amongst the youngsters and admire them from shore, even glimpsing a handful of sea turtles riding the waves back and forth, closer and farther away from the beach.
Our third day, we came prepared with snorkels and flippers to really get up close with our newfound friends. We headed to Cerro Tijeratas, or frigate bird hill where we didn’t manage to spot any of the iconic red-necked birds but we did manage to find, you guessed it, more sea lions. We made our way down to the rocky cove where Rod bravely dove (more like edged reluctantly) into the sapphire sharp waters towards the rocks where more sea lions snoozed. When the last sea lion had left its perch to head on to task two of the day, relax on sand, we headed back to Playa Punto Carola to warm up (Rod) and wade into the waves in search of some sea lion friends (me).
Our move paid off and again we were greeted by playful pup surfing his way to shore before leaping this way and that back out to sea. We watched tiny pups, surely only months old, splash playfully in the pools formed among the rocks by the outgoing tide and laughed at sea lions determined to sleep where another was already positioned, just clambering over and flopping down. We saw mothers nuzzling babies and heard the tiny squeaks from pups paired with the deeper growls of response as mother and child identified each other among the huddles of brown and caramel bodies while older sea lions left the pack to explore only to return later for a cuddle, not grown up and ready to leave their mum just yet.
The list of things to do in San Cristobal was long, but we were content whiling away our days on these few beaches, getting to know these sea lions better as the days passed.
Regretfully, our days in The Galápagos were finally up, so we made our way back to Santa Cruz for one last lobster dinner on Kiosk Street ahead of an early morning flight back to Quito. As we packed our bags for the millionth time, I seriously considered refusing to go, maybe making a new career admiring sea lions but Colombia calls and who knows? Maybe we’ll want to stay there too.