It started with the flight attendants spraying the overhead compartments on the airplane; we were going somewhere different, somewhere unique, somewhere extremely delicate and untouched. They were spraying our luggage to make sure we didn’t bring any foreign species onto the islands, which at the time seemed more like a fragile sick person than a beaming cluster of endemic life. This wasn’t going to be like other trips I had been on. Spending five days and four nights on a luxury catamaran in the Galapagos Islands was going to be special… That, I knew.
The Nina, our catamaran, just off of Gardner Bay, Isla Espanola
Even months before I left, it seemed like everyone who traveled to the Galapagos Islands had taken some sort of vow of secrecy. Friends who had gone would give me short responses when asked to describe the experience, such as, “It was AMAZING” or “You have to try and go,” but I couldn’t get a grasp of what it was actually like. I saw one photo here or one photo there, but nobody wanted to give anything away. My French friend refused to show me any photographs before I left. She said “I don’t want to ruin it, you have to go and find out what it’s like for yourself!” I was running out of time in Ecuador and my waiting for a last-minute deal was becoming desperate and strained, so I began to make moves to ensure a trip would happen. Even if I ended up paying over a thousand dollars (standard) for only three days on a shitty boat I wanted to know what the secret was, I wanted to be a part of the less than 160,000 people who are permitted on the island annually, I wanted to be in the I’ve-been-to-the-Galapagos club… But nothing was popping up.
View from Isla Espanola. Galapagos.
I tried to accept that maybe I wouldn’t get to go, but I didn’t believe it. I had to go. During lunch of my last day at work, I was sitting at a travel agency, credit card in hand, about to buy a spot on a 4 day, 3 night cruise on a mediocre boat… But something in my gut told me not to pull the trigger. It was leaving the next day, so I had to make a decision by 6 pm. I said I wanted to wait out the afternoon, see if the deal I was desperately waiting for would come up, and if not, I’d come back after work and seal the deal.
Isla Espanola shore. Glapagos.
At 4:30 pm, thirty minutes before I was going to leave to purchase the crappy boat tickets, I got the email I had been waiting one month for: there was a spot on The Nina — the #1, nicest, most luxurious boat in the Galapagos Islands — and I was going to be able to get on the 5 day, 4 night cruise, which usually costs $2,700 for for less than 20% of that cost! It was unbelievable, unreal… It was much cheaper than anything that had come up, and it was the BEST.
I could barely comprehend this opportunity. I had to buy the tickets that night. My decision was EASILY made up. THIS was how one should go to the Galapagos. I just didn’t think it was possible: I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford something this nice and I had only one week left in Ecuador — even though every ounce of me believed I would get on this boat, I started to realize it might not happen. BUT IT DID!! I felt like the luckiest girl in Ecuador, and after everything I have been through here, it just seemed right to end my adventure in the lap of luxury. I had earned this, I deserved it, but I still couldn’t get over how grateful I was. I just felt lucky. I still do.
Baby sea lion on Espanola Island.
When we landed on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos, it looked like a desert floating in the Pacific. The air was crisp for what I imagined an island on the equator to feel like, and the vegetation looked dead. This was what all the fuss was about? I knew I just had to be patient.
Our plane had been delayed 3 hrs, so we were all sad to miss a large chunk of our expensive cruise (my first cruise ever, mind you). They apologized profusely for us missing out on some baby turtles in captivity and took us on a boat to the dock where we would board The Nina for the first time. In a stroke of luck, we bumped into the rest of our 16 passenger cruise, and they hadn’t left yet! Because of the 3 hr delay on a 9 am flight (we were supposed to arrive on the boat for lunch), I hadn’t eaten anything all day. We were told we could immediately hop on the bus to see some turtles or get on the boat and relax until dinner. Half the group got on the boat, but my friend Allison and I were not going to miss a thing if we didn’t have to, so we hopped on the bus with our carry-on luggage in tow and stomachs totally empty, and got our empty cameras ready.
Land Iguana clinging to a rock on Isla Espanola.
I was so hungry I could barely function (I don’t skip meals for just anything!), but the first few minutes in the Galapagos proved promising. We saw mostly large oversized flowers, big green leaves, and small groups of locals celebrating around a graveyard, as it was Dia de los Muertos when we arrived.
The truth is, I wasn’t too impressed by the baby turtle farm. I wasn’t interested in seeing a bunch of baby turtles in capitivity with white numbers scribbled on their shells. I wanted the wild side of the islands to come out… And it would.
Sea lion at sunrise on Isla Floreana.
When I could barely keep my eyes open and my body upright from hunger, at around 5:30 pm, it was time to board The Nina for the first time. The catamaran held 16 people, and was much smaller and more luxurious than any of the more wobbly boats and cruise ships floating in the water. I had never been on a cruise (I had never wanted to go on a cruise, but this is the only way to really see the range diversity of the Galapagos Islands) so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. The second I stepped on the boat I was a little surprised by the amount of swaying, even on one of the most stable boats on the water. (Needless to say, everyone turned a bit green at some point, but I made it without ever getting full-blown seasick, although even today – two days later – I still feel myself swaying in the waves up at 10,000 feet in Quito.) A sea lion was perched on the steps — surely an exciting site on day one, but a common occurrence by day five (you see how the Galapagos can spoil you?!).
Sea lions cuddling on the shore of Isla Espanola.
Our boat consisted of about 10 crew members (one aptly nicknamed “Iguana” because of his iguana-like profile and spikey gelled hairstyle – hehe), 6 hilarious Australians, 1 Norwegian, 4 Americans (including me), an Ecuadorian family, and a Swiss woman. We began sailing to another island, and the adventure had begun. Just before a delicious dinner, we had a briefing about our itinerary. The wake-up call was going to be at 5:30 am and we were going to Isla Española to see blue footed boobies, other types of boobies, finches, frigate birds, land iguanas and, of course, sea lions. It all sounded great, but I still wasn’t sure how much I was really going to get to see.
Land iguana close-up. Isla Espanola.
Sure enough, at 6 am, we all boarded one of the “zodiacs” (inflatable blue boats that took us from our ship in the sea to the shore) and disembarked on the rocky coast of Isla Española. Immediately, I saw bright orange and red crabs scattered across the rocks, and sea lions napping in the sunrise. The sun sparkled off the sand and the crystal clear water, and I could barely believe how much I was already seeing. The only sound we could hear was the assortment of bird calls against the swishing of waves.
Crab. Isla Espanola.
A few more feet into the island, red and black land iguanas — a hundred or more — grazed the sand, clung to black rocks, and perched themselves across the beach. The iguanas were large and unfazed by our presence. They looked like small colorful dinosaurs, fearless and stoic.
Land Iguanas on Isla Espanola.
A baby sea lion played in the rocks nearby. Crabs scurried and then paused, as if posing for the cameras. We began our walk around the island (most of the islands are quite small), our fingers firing photographs left and right like we were in the middle of a beautiful war zone armed only with cameras.
Blue footed boobie. Isla Espanola.
One of the creatures I was most excited to see on this trip was the blue footed boobie. I can’t really explain it, but I remember studying evolution in a tenth grade biology class and learning about the boobies (yes, I still giggle a little every time I say boobie). When we finally came across one, I was amazed how blue their feet really are. They are funny looking birds, with googley eyes and a long narrow beak. It was almost like they were posing for the camera. Part of the reason we arrived so early was so that we could see the male boobies doing their little dance to impress (and mate with) the female boobies. This is something I wish had been passed to humans. I guess guys do a sort of “dance” to attract females, but I’d like to see some high kicks once in a while!
Blue footed boobie. Galapagos.
The boobie dance goes a little something like this: lift right foot very high. Put it down sloooowly. Nod head a couple times. Puff out chest and spread wings. Then repeat. Of course, each male boobie does his own special dance, but the moves are pretty limited and similar. Meanwhile, the female boobie will stand nearby looking on, and will give some sort of signal as to whether or not she is interested and/or impressed. The male boobie does his gig, his blue feet twinkling in anticipation and hope, and the female boobie either determines that his moves are acceptable, or she rolls her beady eyes and moves on to the next boobie. It’s quite fun to watch.
Blue footed boobie mating dance. Galapagos.
Words can’t really express what it’s like to be surrounded by so much wildlife while wandering around the brilliant cliffs and rocks of a virtually untouched island. When you visit the Galapagos, you realized how trodden our world is — how damaged, how interrupted, and how threatened our ecosystems are. It’s almost heartbreaking to see the contrast, and yet you realize how valued and cherished the Galapagos Islands still are to all who visit.
Isla Espanola panorama.
Later that day, we got to visit the most beautiful beach I have ever seen in my life. Traveling on The Nina to Gardner Bay on the other side of the island, we approached a white sand beach through water so brightly turquoise it was hard for our brains to fully comprehend. The water is so completely transparent that you can see almost all the way down to the sand below. The only dark blotches are rocks or massive sea turtles (of which we saw many), or even the occasional shark and sea lion.
Me lounging with sea lions on Garnders Bay, Isla Espanola.
When we landed on the beach of Gardner Bay, I was overwhelmed by its beauty, and by the string of sea lions lying across the shore as far as the eye could see. With no real predators and humans as non-threats, the sea lions had nothing to fear. That’s one of the most incredible things about being on the Galapagos Islands: we are so used to being scary humans, of being threats to most animals who run away in fear of our very presence. But in the Galapagos, humans are not killing animals, destroying plants, overrunning the land; we come in peace, with hearts full of respect for the wildlife, and we accept and understand that this is their world, we are lucky that they are willing to share it with us. The animals in the Galapagos, luckily, know nothing else of us. But seeing untouched sand on a beach without human footprints of any kind (literal and figurative) makes you realize what a gift our world can be, and how much has been destroyed. Even the Galapagos Islands are completely vulnerable; shoes must be cleaned each time you leave an island so as not to disrupt and transfer any of the endemic flora from one island to another. Many islands didn’t even allow shoes on the beaches, and your feet must be sprayed before you get back on the boat, each time.
Sea lions along Gardners Bay. Isla Espanola.
When you go through all these steps, you realize how easily life can be destroyed, and how easily these unique islands can be damaged forever. As much as I want to tell everyone they HAVE to go to the Galapagos Islands, I really don’t want any of you to go. Or, I should say, I don’t want too many people to visit them because I’m scared we could lose one of the only unscathed places that we have left in the world. And surely, we eventually will, even with the Galapagos’ attempts at capping the amount of boats and the amount of tourists allowed on the island every year. It’s incredibly sad but true; damage is irreversible, and despite all the efforts of Darwin and his succeeding scientists and naturalists on the islands, our human hunger to see what has not yet been damaged and destroyed will only lead to the inevitable destruction of pure, undisturbed, innocent life.
Baby sea lion. Galapagos.
Some moments from the trip are very hard to explain. For example, looking into the eyes of Lonely George — the last turtle of his species who has no interest in mating, no matter what scientists try, you realize how many species are facing extinction on the island. On some islands, there are less than 70 types of one species of iguana, for example. Less than 70! Sigh. And only one Lonely George.
At one point, after an incredible snorkel adventure during which I got to swim with sea lions (and sharks — eek!), and hug the coral-covered wall of a reef in extremely cold water, the young American couple, the 22-year-old Norwegian girl and I sat up on the roof deck of the boat, cool in the early evening breeze while The Nina cruised to the next island, staring at a show of frigate birds flying overhead. We were entertained for hours by the birds, amazed at how close they would come to us while hovering over the boat. We took such an interest in the birds, and watched their every move, because in the Galapagos every single creature is appreciated for all that it is. We watched the males fight in the sky for the attention of the females, and we learned how their feathers flared and constricted to catch the fresh wind in all the right ways.
Frigate female flying overhead. Galapagos.
On a turtle plantation, we got to sit beside giant tortoises as they roamed the grassy fields. They had nothing to fear as we got closer to them and they allowed us to take photos of their ancient looking faces and dinosaur-looking feet. Every island we visited in the Galapagos had something different to show us, to teach us. The birds, the plants, the sand, the sea lions, the crabs, the turtles, the iguanas and everything in between were a gift to see. I feel privileged to have gotten this glimpse into such a rare and beautiful world. And yet I feel almost guilty for allowing my footsteps to make impressions in the sand at all.
Green sand beach, Isla Floreana.
Close up of the sand, with olivine minerals that give it its unique green sparkle.
Me with a giant tortoise. Galapagos.
And then there are the people with whom I shared this experience. I didn’t go to the Galapagos to make new friends. I didn’t think too much about who would be on the boat with me for 5 days. In all honesty, I didn’t really care. But something special happened on this trip.
Somehow, I related to this guy. Giant tortoise. Isla Santa Cruz.
I never imagined that an Arizona girl who doesn’t “believe in evolution” (yes, we had some pretty intense and interesting discussions on our boat!), a stylish woman from Switzerland, 3 Australian couples, a young couple from the tri-state region, a young Norwegian girl and an Ecuadorian/Belgian/American family with two young children spending 5 days on a luxury catamaran in the Galapagos Islands could become such a family in so little time, but we did. Afterall, we shared a once in a lifetime experience together. I felt closer to those people after five days than I feel to some people I’ve known for much longer, and saying goodbye was surprisingly sad. Most of us didn’t even exchange contact information. It’s like our friendships were endemic (yes, they like that word) to the Galapagos along with everything else!
Waiting for stingrays at sunrise. Isla Floreana.
You can’t plan the experiences when everything just clicks. Trust me, I’ve tried. You could say this adventure in Ecuador never fully clicked, but it was worth every second and every lesson I learned. I was ready to count my blessings and go home. After getting smacked around by life, I realized how much I have grown here and how ready I am to take all that I have gotten out of this experience along for the next one. And then, just like that in my final week here in Ecuador, it all came together.
Me in the sand of Isla Floreana.
Tomorrow, after six wild months in Ecuador, I am going back to New York City. I am finally going HOME. But looking back, this whole experience in Ecuador was absolutely WONDERFUL. I may have had three bags slashed, a resilient parasite and bacterial infection that put me in the hospital and forced me onto three rounds of Cipro and numerous other drugs that failed to kill the beast and only made me sicker, I may have had to deal with some very difficult and frustrating people, and re-evaluate a lot of things I have clung to… I had to let go, hold on, get my ass kicked, experience a coup attempt, trudge through mud, and give up many little luxuries that I didn’t even realize I had, but I am going home with a newfound love for EVERYTHING. I am overwhelmed with happiness for what I have had the pleasure of experiencing here in this beautiful and unpredictable country, and excitement for all I can experience with a refreshed soul when I get home. I love my friends, I love my family, and I love this world more than ever.
Isla Floreana. Galapagos.
Frigate bird. North Seymour Island.
You never know what an adventure will bring with it, but sometimes you have to clear the rough waters to know you were always on the right boat.
Adios Ecuador. New York City, I’m coming home.
Last morning in the Galapagos. North Seymour Island at 6am.
Here is a short YouTube video I created from the trip. I’m new at this, but enjoy: