The Galapagos Islands

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When I think about the number of words and photos I have to describe my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, it’s daunting. I could write an entire book…there’s just so much to say and show.

So I’m going to approach this as minimalist reporting, and even then it might get long. Sorry about that.

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I flew to the Galapagos Islands – the airport on Baltra Island, to be exact – as part of a group of 17 Iowa State travelers, plus a guide, on Nov. 4. (We had been in Peru and Ecuador since Oct. 27 visiting, among other sights, Machu Picchu, which I’ll write about another day.) From our little landing-strip airport on Baltra, we boarded small panga boats (motorized dinghies that would be our mode of transportation off and on for the next five days) that took us to our ship, the Coral II (below).

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I never knew whether to call the Coral II a ship or a boat. It was really small for a ship. The maximum number of guests was 20, plus a crew of about 10. It definitely wasn’t a cruise ship in the sense that you’re thinking: there’s no spacious dining room, no grand staircase, no swanky staterooms or swimming pools or theaters. This ship had a very small gathering area around a tiny bar. That’s where we had our evening updates and ordered local beers and glasses of Chilean wine and watched a television series about the Galapagos produced by the BBC.

There were four comfortable booths where we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a small space for the food to be served buffet-style. There were 11 guest rooms, some of them below deck (where mine was) with only tiny portal windows that were too high to actually look through; other rooms had real windows, but nothing fancy. The top “sky deck” had a few comfortable lounge chairs where we could read or watch the world go by when we weren’t out on one of the islands. One night, the chef served a special dinner on the sky deck.

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So that was our home for five days and four nights. It was small but cozy and secure. The crew was gracious and hard-working. We had two naturalist guides with our group (because we were in two separate pangas) on each of our outings from the ship to the islands. Each day we had at least two outings, plus time for snorkeling.

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The Galapagos Islands lie nearly 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador. There are a dozen or so islands, all created by volcanic activity in the Pacific. The islands are famous for their importance to Charles Darwin (or “Chuckie D” as one of our guides, Gabriel, casually referred to him) and his theory of evolution by natural selection – the islands were the origin of his Origin of Species, according to the BBC series (and I can still hear Tilda Swinton’s voice saying this) and for their vast number of unique, endemic species of animals.

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The largest of the islands is Isabella. As viewed from above, the island is the shape of a seahorse. We visited Isabella’s lovely bays and coves several times. We also traveled around the northern side of the island (the head of the seahorse, as it were), crossing over the equator four times, but, in my mind more importantly, experiencing the roughest seas of our entire journey. I liked the coves better…they were not so sloshy.

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Anyway, we also visited the islands of Santa Cruz, Fernandina, and Santiago. (Each tour follows a slightly different itinerary.) To give us some idea of the area of land and sea we would cover on our Galapagos tour, we asked one of our guides and he said from west to east, the islands cover about 180 miles, and from north to south about 100 miles. I don’t know how totally accurate this is, but it gave me some idea of the scope of the area.

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Our very first afternoon aboard Coral II, after our mandatory safety drill (I felt better knowing I had a gigantic life vest underneath my bed during the choppy nights) we had our first experience getting from the ship to the pangas and viewing the cliffs of Eden Islet on Santa Cruz. That afternoon we didn’t get out of the small boats; there was no place to land, but plenty to see: blue-footed boobies, colorful crabs, sea lions, frigate birds, pelicans, rays, marine iguanas, and more. It was breathtaking. And that night we saw what was the most spectacular sunset of the trip. Here are some photos from that first day:

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After that day, we settled in to our routine: Breakfast (and wonderful coffee) at 7:30 a.m. (often after taking showers on a still-moving ship), and piling into the pangas for either wet or dry landing on one of the islands. These landings are what you’d expect: the occasional dry landing meant the boat could get close enough to some rocks to let us out on land, but most of the “landings” were not landings at all, but just the boat getting close enough to shore that we could hop out and (with any luck) not be in water up to our necks. Mostly the water was knee-deep, but the waves made it tricky. I saw some people who were wet to the waist. (Getting out of the boat wasn’t bad; getting back in was tough!)

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But being on those islands was unbelievably wonderful. We hiked, we saw lots of different landforms and plants, and we saw literally thousands of animals. I fell in love with the iguanas. I know, they’re not too lovable-looking, but they’re survivors, and they live a tough life. I also went crazy for the crabs; they look like they’ve been painted by an artist, each one just a little different.

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And the sea lions! The pups are especially friendly, but they’re all sweet and tame and adorable. We saw sea turtles and penguins (below) and flightless cormorants, Nazca boobies, land iguanas (below), and hawks. We walked on fresh lava fields and sailed into small caves. The snorkelers in our group reported seeing colorful fish, sea turtles, sharks, and rays. (I will save myself the anguish of writing about my one and only attempt to snorkel. I’ll just say it didn’t end well.)

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But I digress. Back to the daily routine: After our morning excursion, usually about two hours long, we’d come back to the ship for lunch, followed by a siesta. (The first day I actually slept, because I was seasick at that point, but other days I enjoyed the siesta time to sit on the sky deck and read.) Sometimes after siesta there would be time for deep-water snorkeling; other days we’d just pile back in the pangas and head off on another shore excursion.

 

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And then, back on the ship, we’d have a little time to relax (or have a drink in the bar area) and change out of our sweaty, grubby clothes before dinner, and then watch some BBC or read or just relax before bedtime. It was a nice mix of activity and relaxation, and I grew to enjoy it…although there were a few times when people were snorkeling that I longed to be on land.

One morning we awoke to three sea lions sunning themselves on the back deck of our ship. Another day we had a friendly hawk sitting on a ledge of the sky deck. And throughout our trip we had friendly frigate birds following us from island to island.

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And we saw giant tortoises! Of course we did. These enormous creatures are sort of the poster animals of the Galapagos. We saw a few of them near the beaches, but many more in the highlands on our last day.

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TRIP DETAILS: This was part of a 15-day ISU Alumni Association tour (this is the organization I work for; I was actually a host for this trip), which worked through Odysseys Unlimited, in my experience the BEST tour company there is (with destinations all over the world). For this Galapagos leg of our South American journey, Odysseys contracted with Klein Tours, a company that specializes in Galapagos cruise tours. Besides Coral II, Klein also has the Coral I (our slightly larger sister ship that stayed with us during the entire trip) and Galapagos Legend, a considerably larger ship with a 100-passenger capacity.

To get there, we flew from Quito, Ecuador, to Baltra Island on Avianca Airlines. By the way, if you’re curious, like I was, to know if there are humans who inhabit the Galapagos islands, the answer is yes, there are towns on several of the islands. (About 97 percent of the archipelago is national park land; the other 3 percent is privately owned and inhabited.) So, yes, there are actual hotels and B&Bs available if you don’t want to sleep on board a ship.

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