Galapa-Gone: 5 days, 4 nights in the Galapagos Islands

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It started with the flight attendants spraying the overhead compartments on the airplane. It was clear that 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 fragile and small. This wasn’t going to be like other trips I had been on. Spending five days and four nights on a 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. They’d tell me it was “AMAZING” and say “You have to try and go…” But I couldn’t grasp what was so different and special about the Galapagos. I saw a photo here or there, but nobody wanted to give anything away. One friend refused to show me any photos before I left. She told me, “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, so I began to make moves to ensure that a trip would happen. 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 the opportunity was slipping through my fingers as my time left in Quito dwindled.

View from Isla Espanola. Galapagos.

I tried to accept that maybe I wouldn’t get to go, and yet I didn’t believe it. I had to go. During lunch on my last day at work, I made my way to a travel agency, credit card in hand, ready to give in and buy a spot on a 4 day, 3 night cruise on a boat that resembled the Staten Island Ferry (in a not good way, if that wasn’t clear)… But something in my gut told me not to pull the trigger. The cruise was leaving the next day, so I had to make a decision by 6 pm. I decided to wait out the afternoon, see if the deal I was so desperately waiting for would crop up before 6, and if not, I’d come back after work to secure my spot.

Isla Espanola shore. Glapagos.

At 4:30 pm, thirty minutes before I was going to leave to purchase the very questionable boat tickets, I got the email I had been waiting one month for: a spot had opened up 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 close to free (in exchange for some writing about it). It was unbelievable, unreal, and almost too good to be true.

I could barely comprehend this opportunity. I had to buy the tickets that night. My decision was easily made. 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. I was half an hour away from out of time. 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 — something very far from my reality and yet suddenly so close. I couldn’t get over how grateful I felt… 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 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 harbor. 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 diversity of the Galapagos Islands) so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. When we stepped onto the boat for the first time, I was a little surprised by the amount of swaying. (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 even 10,000 feet up, here in Quito.) A sea lion was perched on the steps — 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 appropriately nicknamed “Iguana” because of his iguana-like profile and spikey gelled hairstyle), 6 hilarious Australians, 1 Norwegian, 4 Americans (including me), an Ecuadorian family, and a Swiss woman. We all began to get to know each other as we settled in and set sail for another island, which would take us all night to get to. 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 catamaran to the shore) and disembarked on the rocky coast of Isla Española just as the sun was rising over the island. Within seconds, 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 light reflected off the crystal clear water like glitter. I could barely believe how much I was already seeing. And it was so quiet. The only sound we could hear was the assortment of bird calls against the swishing of waves.

Crab. Isla Espanola.

As we took a few more steps inland, hundreds of red and black land iguanas grazed the sand, clinging to black rocks and standing guard across the beach. The large iguanas stood confidently on their turf, 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), with our fingers on the triggers of our cameras 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 on the island so early was to see the male boobies doing their little mating dance to impress (and hopefully mate with, echem) 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 (or not — sorry Mr. Boobie). The male boobie does his jig, his blue feet twinkling in anticipation and hope, and the female boobie either determines that his moves are acceptable (aka: sexy), or she rolls her beady eyes and moves on to the next boobie (ouch!). It’s pretty 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. What is so special about these islands? It’s getting to sample a piece of a world that isn’t ours. Spending time there felt like a privilege and a gift; it was like getting VIP access to the only part of the world that remains purely how it was intended to be.

Isla Espanola panorama.

Later that day, we got to visit the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. We traveled on The Nina to Gardner Bay, a white sand beach on the other side of the island. We slowly approached the shore through water so brightly turquoise it was hard for our brains to fully comprehend the colors. The water was completely transparent; you could see almost all the way down to the sand below, even 20 feet down. The only dark blotches that interrupted the sea were rocks, massive sea turtles (of which we saw many), and the occasional shark (sharks!) or 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 with 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 presence. But in the Galapagos, humans are not killing animals, destroying plants or overrunning the land. There, we arrived as peacefully as we could, with hearts full of respect for the wildlife. We accepted the fact that this is their world, and we were lucky that they were 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 makes you realize what a gift our world can be, and how much has been destroyed, and permanently taken away — not just from us, but from them. Even the Galapagos Islands are completely vulnerable. Shoes must be cleaned each time you leave an island so as not to disrupt or transfer any of the endemic flora from one island to another, and the old hiking mantra “leave no trace” is taken very seriously. Many islands don’t even allow shoes on the beaches, and your feet must be thoroughly hosed down with water each time you get back on your boat.

Sea lions along Gardners Bay. Isla Espanola.

When you go through all of 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 must 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, because I’m scared we could lose one of the only unscathed places that we have left. 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. The damage we cause is irreversible, and despite all the efforts of Darwin and his succeeding scientists and naturalists on the islands, our human desire to see and touch what has not yet been touched by our curious hands will only lead to the inevitable sullying of the very thing we cherish so deeply.

Baby sea lion. Galapagos.

Some moments from the trip are very hard to explain. For example, how do you explain what it feels like to look into the eyes of Lonely George, the last turtle of his species who has no interest in mating no matter what scientists try (surrounding him by sexy female tortoises accomplished nothing, and theories that he is gay live on)? Being in the Galapagos, you learn about how many species are facing extinction on the islands. On some islands, there are less than 70 of one species of iguana remaining. Less than 70! Sigh. And there is only one Lonely George.

One evening, after an incredible snorkel adventure during which I got to swim with sea lions and sharks (eek!) along a stunning coral-covered wall of a reef in the middle of the freezing ocean, the  young American couple, the 22-year-old Norwegian girl and I decided to take a break. We sat up on the roof deck of the boat, cool in the early evening breeze while The Nina cruised to the next island. We sat outstretched in our chairs, with the seat backs tilted as far back as they could go, and kept our gazes upwards as a show of frigate birds flew overhead. There we sat for hours, completely mesmerized by the mid-air dance of the birds, amazed at how close they would come to us, with dips and dives through the breeze of our boat as we cruised through a sunset that made us forget anywhere else in the world existed. 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. We sat in silence for much of an hour, admiring the world we were a part of, appreciating every detail of its silence and its noise.

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 was a gift. 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 Islands for the people. I didn’t go intending to make new friends. I went because this experiences living in Ecuador has been one of the most challenging of my life, and I wanted to wrap it up with an unforgettable, beautiful adventure. I didn’t think too much about who would be on the boat with me for 5 days and 4 nights. In all honesty, I didn’t really care. But something special happened on this trip – something that can’t be planned.

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 middle-aged woman from Switzerland, 3 Australian couples, a young couple from NJ, a young Norwegian girl and an Ecuadorian/Belgian/American family with two young children spending only 5 days on a catamaran in the Galapagos Islands could become such a family in so little time, but we did. After all, we shared a once in a lifetime experience together. We shared a slice of something special in this world. In an odd way, 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 heartbreaking. Once we arrived back in Quito, we all hugged and some of us got choked up. 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 for me. So many things went wrong, so many things failed me, so many unexpected challenges arose. As I begin to pack for my return to the US, I’m only now beginning to see how many things have gone right. I do know this: being here has been worth every second and every lesson I have learned. I was tired of being sick (damn you, Juan the Amoeba!), tired of people trying to rob me with razor blades, tired of men hissing and making little comments every time I (or my fellow gringas) walked by. I was ready to blend in again. After getting bumped and smacked around by life enough times here, I now realize how much this place and this experience has taught me. I was so ready to take all that I had gotten out of this adventure home with me and call it a done deal. And then, just like, that in my final week here in Ecuador, everything came together.

Me in the sand of Isla Floreana.

Tomorrow, after over 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 been attempted robbed three times, I may have had to deal with a resilient parasite and bacterial infection that put me in the hospital and forced me to curl up into the fetal position (shivering so hard I was scared to chip a tooth!) more times than I want to remember. I may have had to deal with some very difficult and frustrating situations, 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, go to sleep to the sound of machine guns, trudge through rain and mud at 12,000 ft when my body wanted to collapse from months of being sick. I had to give up many little luxuries that I didn’t even realize I had, and lean on new friends when all I wanted was to be strong enough on my own. But I am going home with a newfound love and appreciation of EVERYTHING. I am overwhelmed with gratitude 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.

Like all travel adventures, you can’t predict how you will be challenged or what you will learn, but as long as you’re willing to explore, you can be pretty darn sure that you will come home grateful that you went… wherever the trip took you.

Adios Ecuador. Thank you (for everything). 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:

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9 Comments

Filed under Ecuador, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Galapa-Gone: 5 days, 4 nights in the Galapagos Islands

  1. Pam Rogers

    Rachel – excellent blog post! I loved the photos and your story — not just the story of your fabulous trip but the story of your time away and all that you have endured.

    I think you’ve learned a HUGE life lesson — something I learned too many years ago after a difficult travel/living experience (although not quite as challenging as a military coup!). Everything each of us does in life — good, bad, easy, difficult — becomes a part of what forms us and, if we’re paying attention, we’ll grow from that experience. It seems to me that your stay in Ecuador will become one of those unforgettable times in your life that will stay with you forever.

    Your cruise to the Galapagos Islands was an amazing way to end your six-month journey. Enjoy your return to NYC…looking forward to seeing you in December!

    Love,
    Pam

  2. missy

    why write a long response here when we can catch up in person soon, with croque madames and pots of chai? i’m *so* glad you embarked on this adventure, and i’ll be even more glad to have you home.
    buen viaje, amiga mia…
    here’s to doing the boobie dance upon your return. (think it’ll catch on like the macarena??)
    xo

  3. The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of endemic species (birds, land and sea animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.

  4. Sarah D

    Well that was definitely fate – the reduced ticket, holding on until the last minute before you booked.. brilliant story 🙂

    Thanks for sharing the experience with us so eloquently! I am really delighted to hear that they are taking so many precautions to protect the area and the wildlife. It’s going to be a challenge but as long as people continue to take it seriously and value the opportunity to visit, then hopefully things will stay in balance over there.

    And here’s to the next chapter – keep us updated!

    Sarah

  5. Julie Love

    From this Boobie; Thanks for the blog.. I continue to live for your next post. Greg and I will be practicing the dance until we see you in Dec.

  6. What an amazing experience! I loved reading every word. Your photos are incredible, too.

  7. Great post – and amazing photos. Love the boobies “empty eyes”. Can’t help but laugh to see them.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • travelswithtavel

      Hi Bryan! So glad you enjoyed the post and the photos. Aren’t the boobies hilarious?! We’re two lucky people to have gotten to go to the Galapagos… I’ll never forget it and I’m sure you feel the same.

      Cheers!
      Tavel

  8. Pingback: TwT Highlight Reel | Travels with Tavel

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