The 5th day of the cruise with Cachalote (2011) we visited Floreana, also called Isla Santa Maria. In the morning we visited Punta Cormorant, where you can see the Greater Flamingo, and snorkelled at Devil’s Crown. In the afternoon we visited the Post Office Bay, a place where British whalers in the end of the 18th century placed a post office barrel. We mailed our own post cards there, visited a lava tunnel and snorkelled and relaxed on the beach. It was another great day!
Floreana is one of four inhabited islands in the Galapagos , but it has the smallest settlement. In the village Puerto Velasco Ibarra there are only about 150 inhabitants, and there are two hotels. It is a place we didn’t visit on the cruise and I didn’t have time to go there after the cruise either.
Update 2013: I visited Galapagos Islands again and this time I visited Floreana on a daytrip from Puerto Ayora. During this daytrip we visited Asilo de la Paz in the highlands and Puerto Velasco Ibarra, and we also snorkeled at La Loberia.
Charles Darwin visited Floreana in 1835. At that time the island was a penal colony.
In the 1930s some German immigrants settled on Floreana. There was a Baroness and her three lovers, a Dr. Ritter and his mistress and the Wittmer family. There seemed to be disagreement between the new neighbours and no one really knows what happened, but several people ended up dead or missing. Only the Wittmer’s survived and their descendants now run the hotel and restaurant in Puerto Velasco Ibarra.
Because Floreana has a long history of human presence the damage to the ecosystem has also been significant. For example the Floreana Tortoise has become extinct (but scientists think there might be one on Isla Isabela) and the Floreana Mockingbird endangered, and there is a big presence of introduced animals and plants. However, efforts are made to reduce the presence of introduced species.
In the lush green highlands on Santa Cruz Island, in one of several private reserves one can find the huge Galapagos Tortoises. The area is wet and damp, thus you need to watch carefully where you walk to avoid mud or use a pair of rubber wading boots. Apparently the best time to visit is during the winter months as this is the period the female tortoises return to the Highlands for mating. They lay their eggs much closer to sea level and it takes them several months for the trip.
Up in the Highlands on the Island of Santa Cruz are a number of lava tubes where one can climb down and into a lava tube. The tubes are slightly lit, and the entrance is a little tricky as one must negotiate a relatively steep and slippery rock step to get in and out. A few people lost their footing. I couldn't tell you exactly where on the Island this particular tube was, however, if you take the main road up to the Highlands, there are signs. It does provide one with an understanding of the geological process as the islands developed.
Cerra Brujo on the Island of San Cristobal is a white (coral) sand beach with hundreds of sea lions in various positions of resting yoga. The beach is nice to swim at, with some small breakers allowing for some body surfing. I felt the water was very comfortable without a wetsuit.
A short walk from the town at the base of Tijeretas Hill is the Interpretation Center that provides a history of the Islands, mostly in the context of the human interaction. There are a number of exhibits, but you can get through the entire Center in less than 20 minutes. Much of the exhibit is focused on the preservation of the local environment. There is a large live tortoise in a small pen just outside.
A short walk from the town are trails that lead up to the top of a hill that overlooks several small bays. Off to the side of one of the walks is a large statue of Charles Darwin surrounded by some of the endemic species he studied. While the statue is not all that much, the views are great and it is a great work out climbing the stairs (some broken so watch your step) and walkways to the top.
Located about two hours by boat from San Cristobal island, Kicker Rock is one of the iconic rock formations that make up the Galapagos Archipeligo. In the distance it looks like a rock jutting from the water, but as you get closer it towers 500 feet into the air and with one side split off below the water line allowing for snorklers, divers and kayakers to move betweent he two rocks. Known for the crystal clarity of the water and well populated with sharks, turtles and octopus, this is on many diver's wish list.
The fish that are targeted don't appreciate the humor that goes with the name of these dive bombing experts. We visited Elizabeth Bay on the western side of Isabela Island. The Bay was teeming with birds, Blue Footed Boobies, wingless Cormorants, Galapagos Penguins and and even Yellow Warblers. The BFB's were entertaining and a flock would cruise about fifty feet over the bay and when one or two sighted fish, they would all turn downward in unison and divebomb the unsuspecting school of fish. When the BFB's hit the water it sounded like small arms fire. Then several moments later the BFB's bobbed to the surface.
The waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands are swarming with Green Sea Turtles. They seem to realize we were not a turtle predator and pretty much ignored us as the munched away at sea week or just floated by.
The two Plaza islands, North and South (of which only Plaza Sur can be visited) lie just off the east coast of Santa Cruz. Both are uplifted islands, and are quite small, with Plaza Sur, the larger of the two, being just 0.13 km sq, and are long and thin in shape, facing each other across the small bay where cruise boats moor. Consequently a walk here gives you a sense of having seen a whole island rather than just a small part of one.
After a dry landing on the last afternoon of our cruise, we followed the relatively easy trail among the brightly coloured vegetation – Galápagos carpet weed (Sesuvium) turned vivid shades of red and green by the arid conditions at the end of the dry season (like an ankle-high New England Fall). We encountered a number of brightly coloured male Land iguanas, the same species of these that we had seen on our first island visit, on North Seymour. The trail climbs slowly and on the far side of the island emerges on top of a cliff. From here we had a wonderful view of the birdlife. Shearwaters were wheeling in the sky, heading straight for the cliffs and veering away each time just before touching them as if they had some sort of built-in radar. Frigatebirds were riding the thermals higher up, and a couple of pelicans dived for fish. But the most exciting for me, because it was my first really good look at one, was the red-billed tropicbird that sailed past our vantage point from time to time. Further along the cliffs we came to the bachelor sea lion colony that is well-established here. The young males climb the rocky cliffs to find refuge from the bossy alpha males and refresh themselves before perhaps trying to fight one of them for the right to rule a beach. We rested here too for a while before following the loop trail back to our starting point, having also seen a yellow warbler, swallow-tailed gulls, ground and cactus finches, and marine iguanas. It had been a lovely walk to mark the end of our time on the islands.
If you would like to read more about the geology and wildlife of these remote islands, please read on, as my “Favourites” tips cover these in more detail.
The first island we visited on our cruise was North Seymour, on the afternoon of our arrival day. Many cruises do this, as it is very near Baltra where most tourist flights arrive. And it’s a great introduction to the Galápagos !
North Seymour is one of the smallest islands, less than 2 square kilometres. It is rather flat and was created by an uplift of land rather than, like many of the larger islands, being the eroded top of a volcano. The landing here is a dry one, on lava rocks dotted with crabs. The loop trail of about 1.5 kilometres is flat but rocky in places. Fabian allowed us plenty of time to enjoy the walk, never rushing us on, so we spent about three hours in total on this trail. We were to find that this would be the pattern everywhere we went, but on this first occasion I was very impressed that the emphasis was so much on discovery rather than covering the ground quickly, and that we had more than enough time both to take photos and also to relax and enjoy being with the animals.
North Seymour is quite arid, and the plant-life here includes the incense tree, yellow cordia and the Opuntia or prickly pear, one of three main cactus species found in the Galápagos . On the rocky shore where we landed we saw, in addition to the crabs, marine iguanas and lava lizards – our first sightings of both of these.
The trail took us first through the area where Blue-footed Boobies nested, and also Magnificent Frigatebirds. I had been looking forward to seeing the former especially, as they seemed to me one of the symbols of the islands, so it was great to see them on this very first landing. But it was the Magnificent Frigatebirds that most attracted my camera – those bulbous red throat displays of the males are pretty hard to ignore! Other birds seen on the trail included Galápagos doves and gulls, and we also saw some Land iguanas here.
Later the trail emerged onto the beach, and we spent some time here, photographing the sea lions and discovering just how close we could get to them! As we did so the sun started to sink and we enjoyed some beautiful light for these last photos, and a lovely sunset over the neighbouring island of Daphne Major. What a wonderful start to our explorations!
Next tip: ”Sombrero Chino”
Early in the morning after our first night at sea, at about 4.00, the Angelito left the sheltered spot where she had been anchored and headed for Sombrero Chino or Chinese Hat, where we arrived at 6.20. After an early breakfast we landed on the island, after a short cruise in the dinghies along the shore of Santiago which it lies very near to.
Sombrero Chino takes its name from its appearance – the profile of the island when viewed from the sea is very like a hat. The landing is a wet one, on a small white sand beach, and the trail is short (around 400 metres) and easy, mainly following the coast of the island. The first sight that greeted us here was a mother sea lion and her newborn pup, which Fabian estimated was just a few hours old. There were quite a few other mothers and babies too. We watched one youngster as he struggled to reach his mother from his position on the rocks (see my little video, and had to resist the temptation to help him! The same mother then took exception to the newborn, who seemed to confuse her for his own mum (who was by now in the sea, washing herself clean after the birth) and got a bit too close for her liking. We were really concerned for his safety for a while, so Fabian made a bit of noise to try to distract her, but eventually she focused again on her own offspring and left the newcomer alone.
We then followed the trail past lots of Sally Lightfoot crabs, with their distinctive red and pale blue colouring, and then crossed some lava rocks to a point where the waves were crashing against it. Here there were more crabs and some lava lizards. We then returned the way we had come, and back to the boat, as it was time for our first snorkelling trip off nearby Santiago.
Next tip: ”Bartolomé”
Bartolomé was one of the islands I had most wanted to include in our itinerary, as it is generally recognised as having the best views in the archipelago. This view from the top of its peak is the must-have shot. However in the end it proved not to be one of my favourite islands, though that is not to say it isn’t well worth visiting – there are no bad destinations in the Galápagos ! But a combination of a relative lack of wildlife with which to interact, and relatively dull weather which failed to bring out the perspectives of this striking landscape, meant that Bartolomé didn’t make my “top five” list after all.
The landing here is a dry one, and as you can see in photo two, we had someone to meet us as we set foot on the island! The visitor trail is all on a boardwalk and wooden steps, 375 in total, that lead to the highest point and the classic Galápagos view. As you climb you will see lava lizards sunning themselves on the hot boards or on nearby outcrops of lava, but few other land animals are attracted to live in this barren landscape. The main interest for visitors is the story of the volcanic activity that shaped this and the other islands, as demonstrated vividly in the spatter cones and other formations around you.
The other main interest is the view, and it certainly rewards your climb. From this high point you can see Pinnacle Rock, Bartolomé’s “trademark”, immediately below you, and beyond it, Santiago and some other smaller islands. The contrast of white sand beach, green scrub-land behind it, volcanic island and blue sea is dramatic and memorable. It looked great even on a dull day, and photos I have seen show that on a bright one it is spectacular!
After our climb we returned to the Angelito and had a choice of snorkelling around Pinnacle Rock, swimming or spending time on the small beach. We chose the latter, along with two others of our group, and Fabian came along with us as tourists aren’t allowed here (or on most other visitor sites) other than in the company of a guide. We had an enjoyable and relaxing time spotting a number of bird species, including a Galápagos penguin that swam up and down, parallel to the beach, right opposite where we were sitting. Other sightings included a great blue heron, pelican, yellow warbler, and a booby diving repeatedly for fish in their distinctively direct fashion. The snorkelers enjoyed themselves too, though reported less clear water than we’d had that morning when snorkelling off Santiago.
So that was our Bartolomé – a small gem of lava edged with white sand.
Next tip: ”Genovesea”
The journey to Genovesa is a long one, and consequently it is less visited than some of the other islands. The small engines of some of the cheaper cruise boats cannot reach it in a comfortable amount of time, and the larger boats (over 40 passengers) are not able to enter the natural harbour formed by its caldera. But if you find an itinerary that includes this remote spot, go for it! This was one of my favourite islands and is a must for bird-lovers and keen photographers especially.
The downside of a visit here is that long voyage. The Angelito sailed here overnight from Bartolomé, a journey of around seven hours, and the return trip to St James’ Bay, Santiago, was eight hours. The sea between the southerly islands and Genovesa is more open and exposed, and therefore can be rougher. We had been warned to expect this and to take seasickness precautions. I did take a pill before going to bed on both these nights, and whether because of this, or because it was not as choppy as it can get, had no problems at all – indeed, I rather enjoyed the rocking of the little boat when I woke in the night. Others in our group did suffer a bit however, so if you are prone to seasickness (I am not, thankfully), you will need to decide if the attraction of Genovesa outweighs the risk. I believe even the queasiest of our party felt that it was!
There are two visitor sites here so we spent most of the day, apart from lunch, on the island. In the morning we had a wet landing on the white sand of Darwin Bay, at the heart of the caldera. The 1.5 km trail here is at first sandy and later over rocky lava. The first part was especially awesome – lined with red mangrove trees, in every one of which (or so it seemed to me) several Red-footed Boobies were nesting, and (again, so it seemed) posing for our cameras. We also saw some Nazca Boobies, mockingbirds, various finches, swallow-tailed gulls, yellow-crowned night herons and some Great Frigatebirds (mainly juveniles).
Our afternoon landing was at Prince Philip Steps or El Barranco, where a steep but short climb leads to a trail of a little under 2km across the cliffs. Here it was the Nazca Boobies that most engaged my photographic efforts, as many of them had chicks of different ages, from scrawny new-borns to larger balls of fluff. Other pairs were yet to produce their young, and were either guarding eggs or even still in the courtship stage, building their nests. We also saw more Red-footed Boobies and juvenile Great Frigatebirds here, but perhaps most notable were the short-eared owls. Owls on the Galápagos Islands are not nocturnal so it is not unusual to see them in broad daylight like this, but for us it was amazing to watch them not just sitting on the ground but even hunting in the middle of the afternoon! Truly Genovesa is a birdwatcher’s paradise, but also a paradise for us all!
Next tip: ”Santiago”
We saw quite a lot of Santiago (or St James) as in addition to a landing here on the fourth morning of our cruise, we also snorkelled and had a dinghy ride along its south east shore when moored between here and Sombrero Chino on the second morning. But it was our wet landing on the black volcanic sands of James Bay (Puerto Egas) that was to be one of my favourite island visits. The easy 2km trail through the Opuntia and scrubby plants (such colourful beach morning glory and the bright red twigs of the altenantera) gave us our first sighting of a Galápagos hawk and our only one of a Galápagos scorpion, which Fabian found under a rock by the path.
The trail then emerged onto an area of black lava, much of it twisted into weird shapes the formation known as “pahoehoe”. This has an undulating, or ropy surface, caused by the movement of very fluid lava under a congealing surface crust. Unlike the “a’a” lava found elsewhere on the islands, which is loose and broken, pahoehoe makes for interesting photos and a relatively smooth walking surface. We spent some time here, exploring the rock pools and the larger crevices, in one of which three sea lions were playfully enjoying the in-rushing sea water. There were lots of marine iguanas posing for our cameras too, as well as a pretty yellow warbler and plenty of colourful Sally lightfoot crabs. I would happily have stayed here even longer than we did, but snorkelling was on our agenda that morning too, so it was back to the boat to prepare for that. That snorkelling session was to be the first on which I would see a sea lion under water – a super end to our time here!
Next tip: ”Rabida”
Puerto Villamil, Isabela Galapagos Islands, , Ecuador
Good for: Solo
Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
Good for: Business
Charles Darwin St, San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Ecuador
Satisfaction: Very Good
Good for: Solo