Oliver reports from the Galapagos Islands19.01.16 | Oliver Broad
Very few places on Earth give you that feeling of being on the edge of the world, in a land where man is not the primary inhabitant and the natural wildlife rules. The Galapagos Islands offer just that and I was very excited and intrigued at the prospect of travelling somewhere so remote, to see species of wildlife that I wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world. I was transported to another planet and have memories that will stay with me forever.
My journey began in Birmingham flying via Amsterdam which took around 14 hours. Whilst a long journey it was comfortable and I would highly recommend upgrading to business class, at least on the return flight which is overnight. On arrival into Ecuador we spent a few nights in the capital city of Quito where we explored the historical quarter. Our hotel was on the edge of the main square, the perfect spot to soak up the buzzing atmosphere and watch the comings and goings of locals and tourists as they navigate the cobbled streets and admire the restored colonial buildings. There are many legends that surround the monasteries, chapels and churches in Quito which were built centuries ago. One of the highlights was the San Francisco Church and Convent, now called the ‘Escorial of the New World’ it also includes an impressive art museum. It is a great area to wander and explore on foot to soak in the vibrancy of the local culture.
During my 3 night stay in Quito we visited the Equatorial Monument and ventured into the Cloud Forest where we visited a beautiful orchid garden, explored a Butterfly farm and witnessed an amazing array of humming birds. It was nice to get out of the city for a few days and see another side to Ecuador. The trips were perfectly arranged and hosted by local families to offer a more authentic experience. The scenery was stunning and people very warm and friendly. After a beautiful lunch at a traditional countryside Hacienda it was time to depart the mainland for the highlight of our trip, the Galapagos Islands.
I’d heard so much about the islands that I didn’t really know what to expect as every story differed so much. There are a number of islands to explore, each with their own landscape and wildlife. I went with my eyes wide open and it’s safe to say I was suitably impressed both by the array of wildlife and beautiful scenery but also the quality of guides and accommodations onboard.
Arriving into Baltra airport it soon became apparent we were far from the hustle and bustle of Quito, with the small, wooden shack terminal building offering a welcoming hand to the rustic style of the islands. There was an air of excitement as we arrived, surrounded by visitors from all walks of life; backpackers, luxury escorted tours, independent explorers, all eager to see the islands.
After a short bus ride, we boarded our Zodiac which took us to board our home for the next few days. There are a range of boats that sail the Galapagos Islands, each with their own style and personality. Well known cruising names such as Silversea have their own expedition ships, but most are locally owned and run and can be very luxurious indeed. The authorities restrict the number boats allowed to sail the waters to ensure the islands are well protected. Sizes vary from smaller 6 berth to ships which take 50, 100 and more passengers. Ours had 45 passengers which I thought was a nice size as it offered more deck space than the smaller boats making it feel more spacious.
The buzz onboard was felt everywhere as we ventured to our cabins which were spacious and included all the necessities needed to keep fresh for the exploration ahead.
After we had settled we met the crew and the naturalists who would explain our route and what to expect for the next few days. Important practicalities such as what to wear, timings and what to take with you were explained. My top tip; wear layers – the sun may not feel too strong but with little pollution it can certainly burn quickly. At the end of the day we enjoyed our first onboard meal full of local flavours. The boats are only allowed to serve local food and drink which still appealed to a variety of taste buds.
I was a little sceptical about sleeping onboard having only ever done it once before for 1 night on a larger cruise ship. As we were not far out on the open waves, the waters were very calm and in fact I slept like a dream!
A typical day in the Galapagos Islands would see you rise and shine around 0700 with a quick breakfast before your morning departure from the boat to the first island of the day. We would load into the floating zodiac boats with around 10-15 of us sitting on the side with our lifejackets on and cameras around our necks. Fully briefed from the night before we were today introduced to the famous Blue Footed Boobie. Over half of the species choose to mate on the islands even though they can be spotted as far north as California and as far South as Peru.
There are two types of landing from your Zodiac, a wet and dry landing. A wet one would be where the Zodiac would land on the beach and we would jump out with water no higher than our knees. Wearing simple flip flops these landings also allow time to explore the beach, enjoy kayaking or snorkeling. A dry landing would be where the Zodiac has to pull up to a rocky ledge where we would offload with more suitable trainers or walking boots.
After an hour or so of being guided around the island by the expert naturalist learning about the local residents we would enjoy some free time before heading back onboard for lunch. There was time to relax, watching the islands go by as we moved around to another bay or another island. In the afternoon we would make our second visit onto land before returning for what can only be described as some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen! Each island was very different, we visited San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Espanola.
There were a range of age groups on the boat, and walking ability too, all of whom were accommodated very well. Any concerns were voiced the night before and all questions answered thoroughly. The boat even had Wi-Fi so we could post our pictures online and show our friends and family what an amazing experience it was.
The highlight for many is a chance to visit the giant tortoises, so iconic the islands were even named after them. Did you know “galapago” means “tortoise” in Spanish? They live in excess of 170 years and are among the longest living vertebrates and the largest tortoises in the world! Another interesting sight was the Marine Iguana which eats seaweed, expelling salt from its nostrils via its special nasal glands. The most impressive though was a beach full of the Galapagos Sea Lion. They stretched the length of the entire beach, an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity to see such wonderful mammals in their natural habitat.
By the end of my trip it was not difficult to see why Darwin spent so much time in the Galapagos Islands. It was I am sure a remarkable place during his time, and luckily still is to this day.
Via Amsterdam or Madrid or direct from London in 2016, approximately 12-14 hours with optional Business Class upgrade (highly recommended at least for the return journey which is overnight)
- Quito: we know some great traditional properties in the Old Quarter which offer easy access to the mains sights and the opportunity to soak up the local culture.
- Galapagos Islands ships: range from 10 to 100+ people, depending on your preference and budget
- Galapagos Islands land accommodation: not keen on boats? There are a couple of great land options which are increasing in popularity and offer a different experience, why not combine both?
Cost: 10 day tour with 4 nights on the mainland and a 5 night Galapagos Cruise starts from £3,395 per person.
Combinations: The Galapagos Islands combine perfectly with Peru which is just a 2.5 hour flight away. Experience the wonders of Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail and Lake Titicaca before venturing to Ecuador for a relaxing Galapagos Cruise. 21 days from £4,990 per person.
When to go? It is more a case of when to avoid which would be September, the wettest month. You can visit all year round with each month offering a different experience.
Price examples include all flights, comprehensive tour programme, accommodation and some meals, based on 2 people sharing in low season. Subject to availability & conditions, please call for confirmed prices.Explore Galapagos