Province: The Galapagos Islands
Type: Volcanic archipelago
Time: GMT – 6hrs
Currency: US Dollars $
Exchange rate: €1 = $ 1.10
Number of days: 9
Accommodation: Budget hotels
Average daily temperature: 24°C
Average sea temperature: 18°C
Arriving in a place you’ve seen so well covered and narrated by David Attenborough creates a strange feeling, everything is completely new and yet somewhat familiar at the same time. The result being you’re still not prepared for what you experience and it feels overwhelmingly surreal to actually be there.
We flew from Quito with Tame airlines and landed on the island of San Cristobal, the inner most of the islands in the archipelago. We walked from the airport to the town, a short 15 minute stroll along the port, home for the first 3 days of this adventure. The only thing that creates a feeling of laid-backness more than being able to walk from an aeroplane to your hotel room, is a welcome party of sleeping sea lions lining the boardwalk en route.
Getting acquainted with our intrepid group
We met our naturalist guide, Paco, and were introduced to the rest of our group who had just arrived from Quito. The group was a mix of British, Australian and Polish and was made up of newlyweds, backpackers, vacationers and retirees. We couldn’t have asked for a better company for the week.
Directly after the welcome lunch we walked over to the dive shop to rent our wetsuits and head off for the first of many snorkels. A sure sign that this was going to be a full-on week.
Intentionally, our guide left us unprepared for what we were about to experience in the water. He also informed us he wouldn’t be joining us for this snorkel as it was a bit too cold for him. The sun had retreated behind heavy clouds and admittedly the water having turned a shade closer to the gray we’re familiar with from the Atlantic ocean didn’t look all that tempting. With our wetsuits on however, we were ready to look for some fish. What greeted us however, was a family of Galapagos sea turtles and playful sea lions just metres after wading into the water.
Discovering another world beneath the surface of the sea
We snorkeled almost every day and were joined by more life than we could have possibly imagined would reside in one place. Sea lions, marine iguanas, turtles, manta rays, giant starfish and thousands of other fish. It felt like we’d been thrown into a giant artificial fish tank.
The highlight of our snorkeling was a trip to kicker rock. This open water snorkel did not feel like a fish tank. Even though we knew what was in the water this time, I don’t think anything could have prepared us for what we were about to see.
Kicker rock is a volcanic cone located about a 1.5 hour boat ride from San Cristobal. It towers up 150m above the Pacific Ocean, and splits into two structures. Above the surface, it’s home to many birds including blue-footed boobies, frigates, pelicans and also of course plenty of sea lions.
But it’s the underwater world that makes Kicker Rock so memorable. Because the currents and ocean depth here come into contact with a sudden, solid structure, you get great conditions for nutrient-rich waters close to the surface which attract hungry sea life.
The huge schools of sardines and deep blue colour of the water made it very unlike snorkeling close to the shore and it was these conditions which meant we were fortunate enough to spot a shark almost the moment we dropped into the water and a few more as we swam around the rock.
Our guide spotted a hammerhead which neither of us managed to catch a glimpse of unfortunately, but they were swimming close by too.
Wander for wildlife
Our tour included a few walks around the bays and a moderate hike to break up the snorkelling activities and offer some insight into the geography formation of the islands, as well as offering opportunities for some great bird and reptile spotting and some stunning views of the islands.
Getting up close and personal with Isabel’s active volcano
Our longest hike was a 14km loop around Sierra Negra. Volcan Chico had erupted as recently as last year and the most recent lava rivers created contrasting colours making it easy to see how the rock formations have formed over the years, constantly changing the landscape. It also offered another opportunity for Paco to deep dive into the Leaving Cert geography syllabus and tell us about how the islands had formed.
In search of Penguins
In order to get a close up of the fairly elusive Galapagos penguin, the only penguin found north of the equator, we took kayaks around the bay, spotting plenty more in between. Sea lions followed our kayaks playfully around the bay for the most of the morning.
A walk in the highlands
Our last activity of the week was a trip up to the highlands of Santa Cruz to see giant tortoises in their natural habitat. The giant tortoises are endemic to the Galapagos but the climate and conditions suggest they might be happy enough in the Irish midlands. It was cloudy, drizzling, fierce mild, green and muddier than a county final.
We visited a farm nearby which suggested there’s likely a bit more going on here in the soil and with the climate however. They grow and sell coffee and sugar cane which is used to make a thick sugar syrup and an alcohol called aguardiente, all of which we got to try before buying some as a souvenir. There was also papayas, avocados, bananas, pineapples, oranges growing about the place which didn’t even get a mention.
In spite of all the documentaries watched and pictures seen, there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the sheer amount of wildlife at every turn, and how fearless and curious they all are around human contact. Add in pristine beaches, crystal clear water, beautiful sunsets and a great group of people to experience it with and we probably have our trip highlight.