Post Office Bay on Floreana is visited because of its history. Already in 1793 British whalers put up a Post Office Barrel here. At this time the whalers could be on the ship, away from home, for as long as two years. Crew on outbound ships could leave a letter in the barrel and it would be picked up by members on a ship returning home.
This tradition is now continued by tourists who leave postcards without a stamp in the barrel. At the same time they go through the postcards already in the barrel to see if there are any they can bring with them home to deliver. A man in my group found a postcard to someone living near Boston, where he lived. While we were still standing there looking through the postcards a group passed on the path and a woman asked if someone had picked up the card she had just left. It was the postcard the man from Boston had picked up. So he got the woman’s telephone number so he could call before delivering the postcard, and she could prepare coffee. So, if you are mailing a postcard to yourself it can be good to write down your telephone number on it.
I thought the postcards were supposed to be hand delivered, so I didn’t take the postcards in the barrel that were to Sweden, as the persons were living about 500km away from where I live. But yesterday I got the postcard I mailed to myself with the mail, and with a Swedish stamp on it. I have no idea who brought it to Sweden and it would have been nice if the person at least had made a little note on the postcard. It would have been much nicer though to get a hand delivered postcard, its not the same to get it with a Swedish stamp on it. Anyway it took 11,5 weeks for the postcard to reach me and I’m happy I received it.
Santa Cruz, also known as Indefatigable, sits right in the centre of the archipelago. It is has largest human population of any of the islands, and is home to the largest town in the Galápagos , Puerto Ayora, on its southern shore, and to the Charles Darwin Research Station. Unlike the barren volcanic landscapes we had seen elsewhere, its interior is lush and green, with plantations growing all sorts of crops. After five days at sea without seeing a single human habitation, passing these cultivated hillsides, and even more so, walking the streets of the small town, seemed like a return to a different world.
We spent a day here altogether. In the morning we visited the research station, which offers an opportunity to get close to the giant tortoises that they breed here, and to Land iguanas (those these latter are no longer part of a breeding programme as they are no longer considered under any threat in the wild). Although, given the tameness of the wildlife throughout the archipelago, getting close is much less of a bonus here than it would be anywhere else in the world. Nevertheless it was interesting to learn about the important work carried out here, and to see the young tortoises being gradually adapted for release into the wild. But we were sadly too late to see the centre’s former most famous resident, Lonesome George, who had died about five months before our visit.
After our visit to the centre we walked into town and enjoyed the novelties of drinking coffee in a café and shopping for souvenirs. In the afternoon we boarded a small bus, driven by one of the Angelito’s owners, for our journey into the highlands. Here we had the opportunity to learn more about the giant tortoises and to see them in the wild, on one of the reserves where they are protected. Sharing a narrow path with one of these enormous reptiles really does give you a sense of their size and strength!
At the end of our cruise we saw another side of Santa Cruz, with an early morning panga ride in Black Turtle Cove before leaving for Baltra and our flight home. We were lucky enough to see White-tipped Reef Shark and Spotted Eagle rays here, as well as enjoying the beautiful and peaceful backwaters here.
Next tip: ”Española”
We had seen white coral beaches, yellow sand and black lava ones, and now on Rabida we had a landing on a dramatically red one, surrounded by equally red cliffs. The colour is the result of a lot of ferric oxide in the lava that has been emitted from the spatter cones that form much of the island.
Rabida (English name Jervis (after an 18th century British admiral, John Jervis, the Earl of St. Vincent) is one of the smaller islands, at just 4.9 sq km. The one relatively easy trail is just 1km in length, but very varied. After spending a little time on the beach, photographing the sea lions against the strikingly coloured backdrop, we followed the path through the pale palo santo trees and climbed to a point above the beach from where we has a good view of the lagoon that lies just behind it, the red sands, the bay and the Angelito moored just off shore. From here the trail forms a loop, and led us to another even more dramatic viewpoint on the cliffs where the contrasting colours of red rock, green Opuntia , blue sky and turquoise sea made for great photo opportunities. But the highlight of our walk came when we spotted a huge manta ray in the sea directly beneath us. He stayed for a long while, turning languidly in the waves. It was hard to tear ourselves away (not for the first time on this trip) but eventually he left, and so did we.
We returned to the beach with a detour past the lagoon we had looked down on earlier. In the past this has been home to flamingos, but none were to be seen on our visit, and Fabian explained that it was likely that they’d been driven away by the groups of bachelor sea lions who have chosen this spot as a place to chill out, undisturbed by the alpha male who throws his weight around on the beach.
Disappointingly we had no time for swimming or snorkelling here, as the Angelito had to sail that afternoon for Santa Cruz, so we said goodbye to the red cliffs of Rabida and headed for our next island.
Next tip: ”Santa Cruz”
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”
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”
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 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”
Most people that visit the Galapagos Islands do so for a week or less. They fly into Puerto Ayora and hop immediately on the pre-booked cruise. The cruises vary tremendously in price and living standards but while the boats do vary a lot in speed the itineraries do not alter all that much. The four day cruises do the islands south of Santa Cruz and the three days cruises do those north of it. They segue them together into seven day cruises and thus both tours meet on Santa Cruz. Some try and go to the islands without booking only to find that while the prices may be a bit lower, the choices are not generally as great. If your dream is to do a luxury cruise of the Galapagos I would say book it in Quito but if you have time allow yourself some additional time to explore not only a few islands that the cruises do NOT go to but also Santa Cruz itself which is given only cursory time. Yes, what they make it sound like is that the cruises go to all the islands, at least all the “important” ones but that is just not the case.
An alternative is to make a base on one or any combination of the three big islands of Santa Cruz, Isabella, and San Cristóbol and do day trips from them. This works out to be quite a bit cheaper and for those prone to seasickness it allows them to at least sleep on land. My wife falls into the latter category and though we did shop around for an inexpensive cruise while there we found that doing day trips would allow us to see more of what we wanted to see and not be entirely controlled by other's ideas of what that should be. If one wants to do a week cruise AND properly explore the big three islands, I would say two weeks would be an absolute minimum and probably better to allow two and a half to three weeks.
To give you some perspective, we spent about $990 per person in our nine night stay in the Galapagos. That includes our flights which ran $435 AND the $100 entrance fee. Keep in mind you pay that $100 on top of your cruise cost anyway. So, even with a cheap cruise you are looking more than $1500 with you spending less actual time there. As you can see, the islands while more expensive than the mainland are not all that bad. It's the inflated entrance fee and flights along with the big push to do cruises that makes it so.
It was here at Santa Fe that I had two of my most memorable Galápagos experiences. Known also by the English name of Barrington, this is one of the smaller islands at just 24 km sq, and has a single visitor site with a wet landing. Unlike many of the other islands, it is relatively flat, having been formed by an uplift of land rather than a volcanic eruption.
It is known for its own species of land iguana, which is larger than the others and only found here, although we only saw a few of these on our walk. But by that time we had already had our (first) special moment of the morning! Landing early (at 7.00 am, well before those from either of the other two boats moored in the bay), we had been greeted by the sight of a newborn sea lion pup, the mother still blooded and the placenta lying on the sand nearby. As we looked, we saw a couple of juvenile Galápagos hawks in the trees around the site, and more soon arrived. Eventually one dived in to grab this “treat” and they were soon all fighting over it, devouring it with gusto. Watching this from such close range really was just like seeing a wildlife TV documentary, but (literally) in the flesh! After this, our short walk through the Opuntia forest, though pleasant and interesting, was perhaps always going to be something of an anticlimax.
The second part of our morning here was devoted to snorkelling. I had been in two minds whether to join the group, as I was finding getting into the panga afterwards a bit of a challenge, and there was no option here to swim to the beach. But I decided to join the party, and it proved to be a great decision! We were joined in our swim by a group of sea lions, the females happy to play with us while the watchful alpha male who patrolled among them tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun. I was also really pleased to be able to capture some of their antics on my waterproof camera – just before its battery ran out! This was to be our last snorkelling session, and it was a fantastic one to end with.
Next tip: ”Plaza Sur”
Española (English name Hood) lies in the far south east of the Galápagos Islands group and is fairly small, at just 61 sq km. There are two very contrasting visitor sites, both of which we were lucky enough to enjoy. In the morning of our visit we made a wet landing on the beach of Gardner Bay. This is one of the few places where it is permitted for visitors to wander without the close attendance of a guide, so Fabian left us largely to our own devices. We walked along the beach near the water’s edge, where a large number of sea lions had congregated. Several of the females had babies, mostly fairly young. One little pup in particular took an especial interest in us. He came right up to me and tickled my toes with his whiskers! He then gave my trekking pole a curious nibble, and proceeded to follow me along the beach. Lest I get big-headed with all this attention, he switched to another member of our group, Mele, and seemed to adopt her - as you can see in my short video. It wasn’t difficult to see why some tourists are tempted to get over-familiar with these young creatures and I had to resist the temptation to pat him on the head like a puppy!
We also saw a pair of Galápagos hawks here, and one of our number managed to get shots and video footage of them mating. There were yellow warblers, swallows swooping past, and various finches, among other species. Later in the morning we snorkelled here, jumping off a panga near a rock a little off-shore and swimming from there either to the boat or to the beach. I chose the latter, thinking I would encounter sea lions there, but they were mostly very close to the edge where it was both too murky and too shallow to snorkel. But I did enjoy the sight of a sea turtle at the start of my swim, though I missed seeing the stingrays that some of the others spotted.
In the afternoon we landed on the other side of the island, at Punta Suarez. Here we did one of the longest, and certainly the hardest, of the week’s trails. At 3 km and very rocky, this tested my dodgy knee and was tiring for several of us, but we all agreed it was more than worth the effort. There were a number of highlights, including a species of marine iguana endemic to this island, with red and at times green colouring – leading to the nickname of “Christmas” marine iguana. But the stars of Española, if you visit at the right time of the year as we did (late March to December) are the awe-inspiring waved albatross. My first sight of an albatross chick, five months old and already enormous, was one of the most memorable of the week.
It was here that Fabian’s relaxed approach to these excursions really paid off, as he gave us plenty of time to appreciate all that we saw. We sat and watched this chick for some time (as he sat there watching us too!) We then moved on to an open area of jumbled lava rocks, on the far side of which there were a large number of albatross, and spent considerable time here too, watching all the activity. We also had a lengthy pause when we reached the cliffs at the far point of the trail, sitting and watching the albatross and frigates flying past us and the waves crashing on the rocks below. A short walk along the cliffs brought us to another viewing point with a dramatic blow-hole beneath us.
All this meant that as we neared the end of the path back to the landing point (stopping for more albatross photos on the way, and some Blue-footed Boobies), Fabian realised that we were at risk of being still on the island after 18.15, when no one is permitted to be on shore in the Galápagos (other than the populated areas, naturally). He urged us on, and the last of our group boarded the panga with five minutes to spare after a truly thrilling afternoon!
Next tip: ”Santa Fe”
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”
If you see a small bright yellow bird on the Galápagos Islands it will be a Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia). The Yellow Warbler can be found all over Galápagos Islands and in all habitats.
The male has a bright yellow breast with reddish streaks, and the upper part is more yellow-green. On top of the head there is a reddish patch. The females are usually paler than the males and they don’t have the reddish patch on the head. Juveniles are greyer and only have a little yellow in their plumage.
The Yellow Warbler feeds on insects which it finds in vegetation or on ground. It is nesting between December - May.
When I was on the Volcán Sierra Negra tour and we had stopped at one of the picnic areas, the Yellow Warbler in the first photo stayed close to us for long and I tried to take many photos, but as soon as I pressed the button he moved and the photo got blurred. The Yellow Warbler is not sill for long.
The beautiful Sally Lightfoot crabs (Grapsus grapsus) can be seen all over the shores of the Galapagos Islands. With its bright orange colour it stands out from the black lava rocks where you often see them. The young ones are dark in colour though, and this make them well camouflaged on the rocks. The adult crabs can be as big as 20cm. Sally Lightfoot crabs eat algae and small animals. Like other crabs they are moving fast and will run away if you come too close.
The Sally Lightfoot crabs are not only found on Galapagos Islands, but can be found along the American Pacific coast from Peru in the south to Mexico in the north.
As if the beach was not enough of an attraction, after a nice longish walk along it, you come to Turtle Bay. It is framed by some nice mangrove forest and if you continue straight you'll find yourself on small trail that traverses a lava rock outcropping with beautiful ocean views. The terrain is interesting in itself but if you look a bit closer you'll realize that not all that black gunk is lava rock. No, the ones moving are marine iguanas. We weren't really looking all that close but heard a spitting sound and quickly realized we were nearly on top of a huge group of them. The sound was them expelling salt water from their nostrils. These marine iguanas are also know as Galapagos iguanas as they can only be found on the islands. They are also the only modern lizard that spend time in the water purposely for feeding and getting from one place to another. The different subspecies vary greatly in size. Darwin was none too fond of what he called “disgusting and clumsy” lizards!
Espanola island is the southernmost island of the Galapagos. It is actually now an extinct volcano as through millions of years of island formations it has moved away from the hotspot. The island has two visitor sites: Punta Suarez and Gardner Bay. Punta Suarez is where the seabird colonies are whilst Gardner Bay is a stunning beach which is a 'free area' where you are allowed to roam around without a guide.
Due to its relative remoteness, the species living on this island have evolved a bit differently than from the rest of the other islands. The classical examples are the marine iguanas that change colours in the breeding season as well as the endemic Hood Mockingbird.
Other wildlife highlights include the star of the show and one of the highlights of the whole of the Galapagos - the Waved Albatross, other seabird colonies, sea lions, sally lightfoot crabs, the galapagos hawk and lava lizards amongst others.
The best time to visit the island is from April-June to take advantage of both the good weather and the presence of the Waved Albatross. Visits between December and March will not yield sightings of the Albatross and July-December is the cold, dry windy season (which is still fine to visit the Galapagos - just not ideal)
Puerto Villamil, Isabela Galapagos Islands, , Ecuador
Good for: Solo
Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
Good for: Business
Isla Isabela, , Puerto Villamil, Galapagos
Good for: Business