Ecuador > The Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands

A very long journey for us indeed — with Malaysia Airlines A380 from Kuala Lumpur to London, then British Airways B747 from London to Miami, followed by American Airlines B757 to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The final leg to the Galápagos is by LAN Ecuador A319.

The Galápagos Islands are actually a volcanic archipelago comprising 21 islands, some one thousand kilometres west of the South American continent, in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The main airport is on Baltra Island (1), while we stay in Puerto Ayora (2) on Santa Cruz Island, and in Puerto Villamil (3) on Isabela Island. The distance between Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil is 80km, traveling on a fast boat.

 

Arrival in Quito — our American Airlines B757 plane from Miami was delayed by two hours due to emergency transport of two engineers and spare parts, to fix a stranded AA plane in Quito. Lost two precious hours, but for a humanitarian mission.

 

In South America finally, with a nice chop and friendly immigration and customs people at the Quito airport to welcome us. A Malaysian passport is quite rare here so they took a really good look at it. 🙂

 

Some 43 hours after leaving our Kuala Lumpur home, we are finally in our comfy hotel in downtown Quito. This is just too far, since we are at the antipode of Kuala Lumpur, right on the opposite side of the Earth!

But first things first — food. This is typically Ecuadorian — rice and glaced banana to eat with fresh seafood in creamy coconut milk gravy. Also some banana or plaintain chips which are tough on the teeth. Weird at first but we dig into it soon enough.

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Cold and wet Quito morning, I still can’t believe we are right on the Equator, but at 2900 metres above sea level you could suffer from altitude sickness.

 

Back at the Quito airport and we are catching the 8.00am LAN flight to Guayaquil, then on to the Galápagos.

 

As the plane swoops in to land, huge expanse of rice-fields can be seen around Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador with 2.7m people. It’s situated on an extensive delta and is the most important commercial centre and seaport in the country. But the flooded fields really surprise me! It’s like landing at Kota Bharu airport in Kelantan state, Malaysia.

 

Guayaquil Airport GYE. A modern airport but smallish, an important hub though.

 

Soon we are 38,000 feet in the air, midway to the Galapagos with LAN Ecuador A319.

 

It’s a 1200-km flight, right into the Pacific Ocean.

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Our plane landed at the main airport of the Galapagos – the Seymour Airport on Baltra Island, code is GPS. We are virtually in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, atop a clump of active volcanoes!

 

All the planes seem to arrive at about the same time, this one from a rival carrier. But they all come from Ecuador, so all flights are regarded as domestic.

 

Inside the terminal, they screen us and our baggage, and check our passports and declaration forms (since it’s a strictly controlled area, due to the fragile ecosystem of the Galápagos).

 

Then we pay a US$100/person ‘visitor fee’, and get our passport stamped with a vanity chop.

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Langkawi versus Galapagos!

(A guy from Prague suddenly asked me in the boat in the middle of the Pacific ocean, are you from Malaysia?
I was dumbfounded, yes, but how do you know?
He replied, the Langkawi hat.)

Thanks to the humble bucket hat, which sometimes travel with me.

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The airport is located on the small barren Baltra Island, and to the south, Santa Cruz Island, where real civilisation is. But first we need to cross this narrow 500-metre straits.

 

A quick gentle crossing full of faith — put all your baggage on the roof, and pray it won’t rain or fall off into the sea.

 

We are spotting interesting wildlife already. I’m excited!

 

We took a pick-up taxi from the ferry point at the northern tip of Santa Cruz Island after the crossing from Baltra Island, and the driver deposited us here at this hospital in Puerto Ayora, the main town of Galapagos, to wait for our boat to Isabela Island, some 80km away. The pier is just a hundred metres away.

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Volcanic rocks, cacti, and the yellow iguana, all icons of the Galápagos are on display near the jetty at Puerto Ayora. It’s a hot muggy afternoon, just like in Malaysia.

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Our long distance fast boat soon arrives. This puppy is going to take us 80km across the open Pacific Ocean to Isabela Island, at a top speed of about 50km/h.

 

What baggage hold? Just dump all the bags at the tail of the boat, great for balancing the vessel too. And yes, pray that none gets wet or fall off into the ocean.

 

Finally, almost 12 hours after leaving Quito, we are in Puerto Villamil of Isabela Island, in the Galápagos Archipelago. It’s 6pm Friday local time now, and it has been a long journey from our Quito hotel – cab, plane, bus, boat, pick-up taxi, speed boat, truck (?). This place has to be worth all the effort! Note the bare street with dusty volcanic ash, and the bust of Charles Darwin, who conducted his seminal “Origin of Species” work here in the 19th century.

 

What a pleasant welcoming sight after a long journey from Quito – the Flamingo Lagoon, our first touristy spot just north of Puerto Villamil.

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The greater flamingo, endemic to the Galapagos. Walks very gracefully.

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We trek into the bush and come across these bathing and grooming greater flamingoes. We spend some time admiring them, simply gorgeous wild creatures.

 

There are five active volcanoes on this Isabela Island. Their frequent eruptions have smothered the land with dark volcanic ash and lava fields, permanent features here. Hopefully no eruptions while we are around.

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Quite a pleasant resting spot next to Mr Darwin in the town square, especially after a hearty dinner. What a quiet desolate place this is, in the middle of the Pacific.

 

A new day and we have decided to do the volcano Sierra Negra trail, and it is rather physical. It’s a very active volcano, so hopefully no shenanigans today.

 

After a 6km trek uphill from 800m to 1100m to the rim of the world’s second largest caldera, we are greeted by this awesome sight. The far side of the rim is 10km away, and the floor is black with solid lava field. The last eruption was in 2005, and it’s still one of the most active in the world.

 

In the extensive lava field of Sierra Negra, life takes root, literally. In 2005, imagine red-hot lava oozing out of the ground down there. Sierra Negra is a shield volcano (like Kilauea in Hawaii), not a strato-volcano with a nice pronounced peak (like Mt Fuji in Japan).

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Something interesting we find during the caldera walk is this wild pink guava along the trail. Apparently it was introduced from the continent a long time ago and has inundated the Galápagos. Generally regarded as a pest, and the whole trail is full of these immigrant guava trees.

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But it’s food to us. Tastes as sweet as ours back home in Malaysia, but the fruit is smaller, with the seeds largish. So we have several guavas for lunch as we trek, much to the bemusement of the others in the group. The guide is cool about it though.

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The huge volcanic vents of Sierra Negra, last in action in 1979 (see climbers on the rim for reference). Volcanic gasses are emitted into the atmosphere through these holes called fumaroles. The red hue is due to oxidation of iron. You fall into the hole, god also cannot help!

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The lava field of volcano Sierra Negra. The reddish bit in the foreground where Sabariah is, is believed to be 5000-10000 years old, while the black stuff at the back is more recent lava, some from the 1970s. Surreal place, indeed.

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I think the famous lava lizards are really cute, and there are plenty of them scurrying around the lava rocks.

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They camouflage well, so you must be observant enough to be able to spot them at all.

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They don’t seem scared of humans (like most creatures on the Galápagos), so you can go pretty close to snap photos.

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Cute female lava lizard.

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Lava rocks may be large, but they are relatively light due to air bubbles and the materials. This one is reddish due to oxidised iron. Suddenly the guide shouts at me from the front, hey put it down, you are not allowed to touch anything in the national park! Yessir, they do take serious care of their natural flora and fauna, and rocks too. Ask for permission even to touch anything here.

 

On the outer side of the caldera rim, we see more extensive lava fields, ancient and recent, from eruptions in the last thousands of years. Some even reached the coastline.

 

We see huge fumaroles as well, some still emitting gases. Hydrogen sulphide is easy to notice, can’t escape the nose.

 

Step back, don’t fall in!

 

Celebrating completion of the strenous 16km trail at volcano Sierra Negra in Isabela Island, the Galápagos. At last Sabariah has conquered an active volcano, which last erupted in 2005. Well done!

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We take a breather here while taking in the views of the plains below and the Pacific, to the east.

 

Time to leave and I gingerly tread the lava rocks on the way down from volcano’s caldera rim. I think I am good for the 5.5-hour hike in the hot sun, but my exposed knees are sunburnt, as red as roast meat. Otherwise all okay.

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We bump into a male yellow warbler, a native of the Galápagos, along the trail. One thing I notice here, the wild animals are not scared of humans. Birds come really close to us. I guess the animals do not see humans as a threat.

 

We are pleasantly surprised by a wild giant tortoise along the trail, one of the five species on Isabela Island. Even the guide is shocked to see it, especially at this high altitude of 1000m. He says in four years of doing the trail, only once before it has happened. Must be our luck.

 

Sabariah and a very shy tortuga of Sierra Negra volcano, a species only found at this spot.

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Back in Puerto Villamil, we just had dinner along this main street again, virtually the only settlement on Isabela Island, with 2000 people. The streets are not tarred, but compacted volcanic ash. It can be dusty at times, very quaint nevertheless. And there are very few cars too.

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Just opposite our eatery, there’s a small park with the bust of Charles Darwin, who did his seminal work on evolution theory here in Sep-Oct, 1835.

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Another beautiful morning and today, we have more wildlife spotting to do.

 

First a stop at the giant tortoise breeding centre, the most famous animal in the Galapagos. The tortoises arrived here about 2-3 million years ago from continental South America, and had evolved into 15 different species. Now only 10 species are left with an estimated total population of 20,000, spread across the archipelago.

 

Isabela Island alone has five species of the giant tortoises — all evolved due to geographical separation caused by the inaccesible lava fields of the five active volcanoes. Just imagine, lengthy separation of a single tortoise population by the lava fields of the volcanoes has caused them to evolve into five pockets of different species. This is the core of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” theory.

 

Youngsters, kids in fact, about 4-6 years old, and the carapaces are still soft, so they can’t be released in the wild yet. These critters can live to more than a century.

 

Busy at work — a 7F/2M session in progress but no harm done, it’s the lucky guys’ job at this breeding centre for two of the most threatened giant tortoise species of Isabela Island.

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Mealtime and they are racing (in slo-mo) to get fed first!

Well, these youngsters are one of the five species on Isabela Island. This particular species inhabits the southern part of the island, around volcano Sierra Negra, and is under threat, hence this breeding centre. We bumped into an adult one in the wild during the hike yesterday.

 

And this is their (tasty) chow — a type of yam.

 

Grunting slo-mo mating tortoises done, we head for the sea. A playful sea-lion, which likes to jump out of the water like a dolphin, follows our boat as we explore islands off Puerto Villamil.

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This one island is virtually a marine iguana sanctuary. They quickly give way to Sabariah as she bravely moves forward. No need to be squeamish, it’s too late!

 

A couple of sally lightfood crab, atop an iguana, hunting mites and ticks. Symbiotic relationship.

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The iguanas are everywhere on this island, but are nonchalant as we stroll past.

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The marine iguana in the Galápagos is the only lizard in the world that can live on land and forage at sea. It is endemic to the Galápagos.

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This fella seems to be moulting, looking like a zombie.

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Up close and they really look like those spiky ugly monsters in horror movies. In real-life they are quite small, and ready to scoot off at the slightest human intrusion. Harmless guys really.

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Father and Son.

 

You wouldn’t want to bump into these fellas in any dark alley anywhere!

 

A marine iguana swimming. Evolution has made its tail long and flat to enable it to swim like a crocodile. Nice movement to watch.

 

And the ever-fluorescent sally lightfoot crab.

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This can only happen in the Galápagos. Our boat stopped here to let us off,  and now we are back to find this sea lion parking himself on the bench at the jetty for a nap! Not too bothered is he?

 

Back on the boat and we spot two ray species in a bay just off Puerto Villamil — spotted eagle ray & the smaller golden ray. There is also the manta ray around, which has not appeared.

 

There’s an abandoned fishing boat in the bay, and a bunch of sea-lions have taken over for sunbathing.

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We can also tick off another icon of the Galápagos — the blue-footed booby. We are out on a boat in the bay, and the afternoon sun is so strong, that the birds are nowhere to be seen. Suddenly Sabariah blurts out, look, the birds with blue feet! Yes, that famous booby.

 

We are back on land at idyllic Puerto Villamil.

 

Even the cat is so colourful!

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What a laid-back place to live in. But not all is peaceful since volcano Sierra Negra is nearby and tends to cause alarms once in a while.

 

We are at a small beach just next to the main street, as the sun sets behind volcano Cerro Azul, and dark clouds gather above volcano Sierra Negra. These are two of the five volcanoes of Isabela Island, all very active. What a surreal landscape, even more so if both volcanoes are erupting, I guess.

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Nearby a bunch of marine iguanas are watching the sunset too. Final day on wondrous Isabela Island for us, as we are catching a boat back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island at dawn tomorrow — another 80km of bumpy, noisy and wet boat-ride in the open sea!

 

Another day in the Galápagos and we are back at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. This is ‘Gabi’, the speedboat which brought us here from Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island. With two Yamaha 200 engines, its average speed was 35km/h, and the journey in the open sea took 2 hours 45 minutes. Had to wear noise-cancelling headphones to reduce engine drone.

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Just north of downtown Puerto Ayora, we find the UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque for the Galápagos. A very worthy honour indeed.

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And further up the road, the famous research centre, where they are doing great work to breed the endangered giant tortoises of the Galápagos, all ten surviving species of them.

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It is so sad that five species have gone extinct. In fact the very last member of the species only found on Pinta Island died here only in June 2012 — poor Lonesome George, he was called, of the species Geochelone abingdoni.

 

A baby of a species from Floreana Island.

 

The research centre is also breeding the yellow iguana, this one is an endemic land species from Baltra Island. Simply gorgeous in glorious orange and yellow.

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Apart from this species, there are two other species — one found on Santa Fe Island, and another one (pink in colour) found just recently in 1986 around volcano Wolf in northern Isabela Island.

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After the research centre visit, we stroll back to downtown Puerto Ayora to find this amazing sight along the way. Obviously no cats dare to come to this fish market.

 

Pelicans are milling around for hand-outs, politely waiting in a rather loose queue.

 

You don’t have cissy cats waiting for freebies in Puerto Ayora’s fish market by the sea. And this guy is obviously in charge.

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Patiently waiting for his turn.

“Oh oh, my turn, ummm … can I have them all? … dang, where is my wallet!?”

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Having lunch while feeding this finch which suddenly landed on our table. It virtually pecks the rice off our hands. Tame but wild.

 

Schoolgirls in Puerto Ayora and I’m not sure why they like the brown colour so much.

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We got into a bus and somewhere in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island our transport has to stop to allow a giant tortoise to cross. Luckily the critter is fast, relatively.

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We stop at a property at the edge of the forest reserve in the highlands, where wild giant tortoises sometimes come out to forage. And we are excited to catch this 150-year-old guy who has been dipping in the mud! Remember, just watch, no touching.

 

Of course the property owner also collects carapaces of dead tortoises … especially for curious visitors like us. That thing is huge!

 

We also manage to see the so-called ‘Galapagos Duck’, real name white-cheeked pintail, also known as the Bahama pintail. Cute smallish ducks.

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Showing off foraging skills.

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These are three of the fifteen ‘Darwin Finches’ endemic species which Charles Darwin studied extensively (in Sep-Oct 1835), especially the beaks, in order to argue for his evolution theory. Google ‘Darwin Finches’ for some good read.

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Notice the colour of the plumage and the shape of the beak.

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The beaks of the fifteen finch species have subtle differences — outcomes of evolution corresponding to their varied diets and foraging styles. Amazing observations by Charles Darwin.

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At sundown we are in the forest and I probably make Galápagos birding event with these pictures. These are male and female vermillion flycatcher subspecies, endemic to this particular island.

The story is, we are trekking the forest of central Santa Cruz Island, when guide Daniel says, hey that’s a female vermillion flycatcher! If there’s a female, the male should be nearby. Sure enough, the colourful male companion suddenly appears and I start to snap pics. Apparently this subspecies has not been seen for ten years and researchers think it has gone extinct. So now a photographic evidence!

The less glamorous female vermilion flycatcher.

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Alas, final day in the Galápagos, and we are catching the noon flight back to Quito.

The Santa Cruz Highway, the only road across Santa Cruz Island, links Puerto Ayora on the south coast, and the airport on Baltra Island to the north. Busy only when there are flights, with vehicles plying the road cutting through the huge swathe of scalesia forest, a plant species endemic to this island.

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Arrival at Baltra Island after crossing the 500m straits, Santa Cruz Island is on the other side.

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A long walk in the hot sun to board our LAN flight back to Quito.

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Another Airbus A319, a shorter version of the A320.

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That’s the Ecuadorian flag with plane’s registration — HC-CPY.

 

Farewell to the Galápagos!

Would we return? Maybe, but there are so many other places to see in this wide world. Nevertheless the Galapagos is definitely highly recommended to all travellers! A most memorable outing for us, indeed.

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> THE END (02/15)

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