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The Galapagos May 2019


Fischwife

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Fischwife

This past April and May, my husband and I finally went on a long wished-for trip to the Galapagos Islands, followed by Peru (Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Lima). I will report only on the Ecuador portion here, as the Peru portion was not wildlife focused. (My Peru report is posted at the Rick Steves forums, if anyone is interested. I go by BB there.)

 

I organized the trip myself, after doing a lot of research and getting a few quotes on tours.  I chose a land-based tour, which is not the most popular way to see the Galapagos Islands, but we felt that it suited our needs best. First of all, land-based is less expensive than a cruise.  Second, doing a land-based tour allowed us more choice in our schedule. Third, we felt a land-based tour would be more comfortable. Fourth, as an introvert, I preferred not to spend a week or more on a boat with a group of strangers. Finally, I researched what we would be able to see on a land-based tour and realized that all of the top sights on our list would be accessible to us.  We were really happy with our decision, but others prefer a cruise, which allows one to access more remote islands.

 

We began our trip to the Galapagos Islands by first spending a few days in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador.  Ecuador does not allow international flights directly to the Galapagos Islands. In this way, they can better control what is brought into the islands and protect the flora and fauna there.

 

We landed in Quito very late on the night of April 23, after two flights and a layover in Houston.  We had booked a driver through the hotel, and he was waiting for us.  He took us to the hotel, let us in, and showed us to our room.

 

The next morning, after a wonderful sleep in a cool room with warm covers on the bed, we went downstairs for breakfast and met the manager of the hotel.  He explained about the local foods being served in the breakfast and gave us suggestions for our time in Quito.

 

After breakfast, we walked up the very steep hill from the hotel to the Basílica del Voto Nacional, where we climbed up to the roof and into the towers before taking a break at the  cafe on the sixth floor.  The basilica is adorned with flora and fauna of the Galapagos.  The stained glass rosette depicts the flora, and the gargoyles are Galapagos animals.

 

 

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Note: Quito is very high altitude, and it is not recommended to exert yourself on the first couple of days there.  So, naturally, we ignored this advice and walked up steep hills and stairs the first morning. We were taking altitude medication, which helped, but we still got out of breath easily. We also found ourselves to be very tired in the evening and went to bed early every night that we were there, even though there was only an hour time difference for us.

 

In the afternoon, we walked down to the Centro Historico. On the way, we stopped into a couple of interesting buildings: the Museo Camilo Egas, which showcased the works of this Indigenous artist; and El Antiquo Circulo Militar, which is now a beautiful building used for hosting dignitaries.

 

We walked down to Plaza Granda (aka Plaza de la Independencia).  We spent some time trying to find the visitor centre so that we could book a police tour of the Centro Historico and we booked one for two days later.  We stopped into the gorgeous Catedral and saw a young woman faint in the Iglesia del Sagrario. She was praying, and I’m not sure what made her faint, but I think she may have experienced some kind of ecstatic state.

 

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We had a meat-filled lunch at Juan Fogonero in a nearby courtyard before visiting the Iglesia San Augustin and the Monterio de Santa Catalina.  We walked back uphill to our hotel and took a break. We didn’t want to go far for dinner, so we went across the street to a small crepe restaurant called, “Los Omotos.”  We liked this place so much that we had dinner here the following two evenings, as well.  I loved the coconut lemonade.

 

On our second day, I had booked a tour to the equator and Otavalo market via Tours by Locals.  Our driver, Santiago, picked us up outside our hotel at 8:00 a.m. Quito traffic is very busy during rush hour—in fact, there is a license plate system dictating which days one can drive in the city—but, fortunately, we were going the opposite direction of most of the traffic.

 

We stopped at Mira Largo for a break and a look at the view, where we were surrounded by twelve volcanos.

 

After that, we went to Otavalo Market. We spent a bit of time shopping, and then we met Santiago at the designated time and place to continue on to a weaving demonstration at Artisania El Gran Condor.  We saw the different weaving methods and how the natural dyes are made.

 

We went on from there to Cotacachi, where we had lunch and looked around at the leather goods.  Our lunch was a traditional Ecuadorian lunch, with popcorn drizzled in some kind of sauce for an appetizer, and Locro de Papa soup for a starter.  I loved this soup and had it several times while in Ecuador. It contains potatoes, cheese, and slices of avocado.

 

We then travlled to the Mitad del Mundo—Middle of the World-and Quitsato Sundial, which is the real equator.  There is an “equator” monument in Quito, but it was since discovered that this was off, and the actual equator is outside of Quito.  There, we took the obligatory tourist photos with one foot in each hemisphere.  Santiago took us back to Quito, and when we got to our street, it was extremely busy with traffic heading into Old Town, as it was 6:00 p.m. So, we had him drop us off up the hill from our hotel, so he could turn around, and we just walked down.  It was a long day, and a good one.

 

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On our last day in Quito, we did the police tour of the Centro Historico, where our Tourist Police guide showed us the Grande Plaza and surrounding buildings (including the palacio) and talked about the history of independence before taking us to the Jesuit cathedral of weeping Mary, the San Franciscan cathedral, and La Ronde.

 

Before the tour, on our way to meet the guide, we were stopped and interviewed by several groups of students who were practicing their English. That was fun.

 

In the afternoon, we took a cab to the Teleferico, which is a cable car system that takes people up the Pinchacha volcano.  At this point, we were about 4000 feet above Old Town Quito, at an elevation of about 12000 feet.  It was beautiful up there, and the views were spectacular.

 

We then took a cab to Mama Clorinda’s, which had been recommended by the hotel manager, for lunch.  We decided not to order the cuy (guinea pig). We would probably have tried it, had it not been prepared roasted whole and served with little feet and head intact.

 

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We went back to the hotel for a nap, followed by dinner across the street, and then packed up for our early departure for the Galapagos the next morning.

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Fischwife

We got up early, and our hotel-booked driver was waiting to take us to the airport for our flight to Baltra Island via Guayquil. At the airport, we had to submit our applications for entrance to the Galapagos and submit the $100  US per person fee, and then we were able to go to our gate.  All luggage was checked and x-rayed.  We had beautiful views of the Cotapaxi Volcano as we left the Quito area. When we landed at Baltra, everyone had to stand back while a dog sniffed every piece of luggage. When the dog was done, we were allowed to collect our luggage. We then went to wait for our small plane to Isabela Island.  I had paid a few dollars extra for the front seats, and mine was the copilot’s spot. That was fun, and we had great views of the islands during our brief, half-hour flight. (I had decided to fly instead of taking the ferry, because I was afraid we wouldn't get across the island in time for the afternoon ferry. As it turned out, flying was a fabulous choice, in spite of the cost, because taking the ferry is, em,  challenging. More on that later.)


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In Isabela we landed at a small airstrip and got a taxi (old truck) into Puerto Villamil and our hotel. Puerto Villamil is small, so it didn’t take long before we pulled up to our hotel to check in.  We stayed at La Casa de Marita, and it was wonderful.  Marita, herself, greeted us. We had a room with a balcony and an ocean view, and one of our first sights was of a pelican on the lava rocks at the beach.  We headed to the beach, and sat in one of the little pools created by the lava rock and watched the marine iguanas sunning themselves, the occasional lava lizard, and a baby sea lion fishing in the pool next to ours.  This was our welcome to the Galapagos!

 

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The next morning, we got up early for a tour of Los Tuneles.  This is an area where lava streamed into the sea and cooled faster on the outside than on the inside, creating tunnels. Many of these tunnels collapsed, creating a fabulous landscape/seascape of arches and passages.

 

We got into the shuttle to the dock and met the other tourists—10 of us in all, plus our guide, our captain, and the first mate.

 

It was about a 45 minute boat ride to the mangrove area for snorkelling. Besides many tropical fish, including white banded king angel fish, parrot fish, and concentric puffer fish, we saw numerous sea turtles feeding, with creole fish hanging around many of them.  We were supposed to stay 6 feet from any wildlife, but this was sometimes difficult to do in narrow passageways, especially since the sea creatures seemed to have no fear of us.

 

Our guide stopped us at a cave where we took turns letting him push us down to see the white-tipped reef sharks inside.  I looked twice. Afterwards, we went to the front of the cave, and a couple of the sharks swam out, including a blue shark.  We saw still more turtles, and our guide showed us a large sea horse and some small, purple octopi.  Then, a group of golden cow-nosed rays swam right beside us for a while. it was all very exciting!

 

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We got back on the boat after about an hour and 20 minutes of snorkelling. The captain took us to some rocks where there were Galapagos penguins and blue-footed boobies.  There were a couple of boats there already, so we were going to leave, but then the boats left, and we were the only group there. We put our snorkelling equipment back on and jumped into the water.  We were able to swim up close to the rocks and get a good look at the birds.  One of the young men and I swam over to where the boobies were to look at them and take photos, and then the penguins started jumping into the water and swimming near us.  Shortly after that, a couple of sea lions came along. One was circling me, and seemed to be trying to get me to play.  My mask was getting water in it, so I surfaced to clear it, and the sea lion popped his head up, too, just a few feet away from me. He looked right at me, huffed, and then swam away.  I got the impression that he was unimpressed with my swimming abilities.

 

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After about 30 minutes, we got back into the boat and went to another section of Los Tuneles where we were able to go ashore.  We saw one blue-footed boobie near where we docked and a mating pair farther along.  We also saw a cactus finch and a cactus finch nest.  We also saw brown noddy terns there, and some turtles in the water and sea lions in the water and in a shallow cave.

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During the ride back to the dock at Isabela, we saw manta rays and sharks in the water, and then we went past Union Rock where we saw Nazca Boobies.  Then, some of us took turns riding on the bow of the boat while it went fast. This was really fun.

 

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As we came into port, we passed a buoy with several sea lions sunning themselves on it. On top was a pelican.  There were a number of manta rays in the harbour, and about a dozen sea lions snoozing on the dock.  There was even a nursing pup, slurping and smacking loudly as he drank.

 

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We went back to the hotel and changed and then went for lunch in town. We spent the afternoon relaxing at the hotel, as we had had enough sun for the day.  We went back into town for dinner that evening, and then went to bed, as we had another tour booked for the next morning.

 

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To be continued....

 

Edited by Fischwife
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Zubbie15

Very interesting start, I have to admit I thought you could only really see the Galapagos by cruise, so it'll be interesting to see how you did being land based. 

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Atravelynn

Do share your itinerary.  The landlubbers, especially will be interested.  Great photo with the Galapagos Penguin!

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Fischwife

Our itinerary in the Galapagos consisted of spending 2 days and two 1/2 days (3 nights) on Isla Isabela, with tours to Los Tuneles and Las Tintoreras (both on, or just off of, Isabela).  Then we spent 5 nights, 4 1/2 days on Isla Santa Cruz, with tours to the highlands (and tortoise habitat), North Seymour Island, and Bartolome Island.  There is another island people can stay on--San Cristobal, but we didn't stay there, as we were also fitting Peru/Machu Picchu into our vacation.

We didn't do an organized tour. I booked everything myself, with the exception of our boat tours, which I booked through Book-ec. (I was very happy with this.)  The Galapagos Islands are about 97% national park, and any areas within the national park cannot be visited on your own. You must be accompanied by a naturalist guide.

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Fischwife

On our third day on Isla Isabela, we had a tour booked to Las Tintoreras. This is located across the bay from Puerto Villamil, and this tour focused on penguins and sharks. Sharks rest in a narrow channel between islets there, and the area is also a prime nesting habitat for marine iguanas.  The terrain is rocky lava with white and copper coloured lichens on the  rock. After a short snorkel, which wasn’t as much fun as snorkelling in Los Tuneles had been—there wasn’t as much to see, and the guide went too fast—we went to spend time with the penguins.  I jumped in the water there and swam with the penguins, and one swam close to me, turned on its side, and started grooming itself. It looked like it was waving at me.  There were a couple of sea lions trying to play tag with us there, too.

 

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When we got back to the dock, my husband and I felt like snorkelling some more, so we walked to the nearby Concha de Perla—a lagoon where people are allowed to snorkel without a naturalist guide, and we saw more fish and interesting coral.  On the boardwalk, and on the steps leading into the lagoon, we had to dodge around, and even step over, sea lions and marine iguanas. After snorkelling, we walked from the port into town for lunch, and then walked along the beach back to the hotel.
 

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Later in the day, we walked along the mangrove boardwalk on the other end of town to see flamingos. There were just a few, but there were also whitecheeked pintail ducks there, as well as some Galapagos finches.

 

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We had dinner at a restaurant on the pier near our hotel and then walked back along the beach again. By this time, the stars were out, and they were spectacular. Because we were so close to the equator, we could see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross in the same sky.

 

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Our last morning on Isla Isabela, we decided to visit the giant tortoises at the research centre. So, we walked back along the same boardwalk as the evening before to the Centre for Tortoises.  There were numerous tortoises there, some of them mating, as well as shelters with baby tortoises, protected by chicken wire to keep predators out.   

 

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That afternoon, we went to the dock to catch the ferry to Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz.

To be continued...

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Fischwife

At the ferry dock, we were taken by small boats to the ferries. Although we were on the first boat, ours took a little detour, and we ended up being the last group to board the ferry. I had read advice to sit outside, but we did not have that option.  My husband is prone to motion sickness and took Gravol. I am not, but took half a Gravol as a precaution, since I had heard the trip could be rough. I did not imagine, though, how rough it could be. We both ended up taking more Gravol after about an hour.

 

The seas were not rough at the time of year we were there, but the ferry—which is more like a big speedboat than the type of ferries one sees elsewhere—went very fast, hitting every wave broadside, and causing us to be repeatedly lifted off the bench seats and slammed back down in a way that jarred our spines and really hurt. In addition, it was about 38 degrees celsius (approximately 100 Farenheit) and very humid outside. Inside, there was no air flow, and it was even hotter. We were forced to wear lifejackets, which made the temperature unbearable.  It wasn’t long before some people had chosen to slide down to the floor and lie there in misery. One woman (who we later learned was from the Czech Republic) was sweating and moaning. Nobody vomited, fortunately, but I’ve read this is not uncommon.  The trip took 2 and a half hours. It felt like 10.  At one point, the captain veered to dodge an animal—maybe a turtle or a sea lion—and the boat listed almost onto its side. People screamed and fell out of their seats. It was a truly horrible experience—the worst I’ve had in any of my travels.

 

We finally docked at Puerto Ayora, and we took a cab to our accommodation: La Fortaleza de Haro. We were sweating, shaken, disheveled and disgruntled.  La Fortaleza de Haro has a wall around it. When the owner opened the heavy gate to admit us, we stepped into an oasis. There was shade, birds were singing, and the little pool sparkled invitingly. Shortly after we arrived, the Czech woman arrived with her husband. We were all telling the owner about our ferry experience—the Czech woman called it a “nightmare,” and the owner told us that those ferry captains were awful. She said they didn’t care at all about the passengers or the sea life and would race one another, going as fast as they could. She said the Galapagos authorities were going to be clamping down on them. That can’t come soon enough.

 

After giving us water and an orientation, the owner showed us to our room—a huge room with a tower and two terraces! We quickly showered, put on our swimsuits, and went and sat in the pool for about an hour. We finally felt refreshed and relaxed and could start enjoying our trip once again.  We are very glad that we didn’t take the ferry on our initial arrival to Isabela. It would have started our Galapagos visit off on a very sour note.

 

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We walked into the centre of town for dinner and a bit of a look around before settling into our lovely room for the night.  Note: Our hotel bordered the national park and in our room, we saw a couple of Hunstman spiders. A note in the room asked us not to kill them, as they are beneficial.  I’m insect phobic, but I tried not to mind them, and I didn’t, as long as they stayed in their spots on the wall. However, when one decided to visit the ceiling above our bed, that was too much for us. My husband tried to get it to move, and it dropped down to the floor, so he smushed it.  Sorry/not sorry.

 

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We didn’t have any boat tours booked for the next day, but, after a delicious breakfast overlooking the pool and supervised by numerous birds, we hired a cab to take us to the Santa Cruz highlands.

First, we stopped at Los Gemelos—a pair of collapsed craters that are 80-120 feet deep. Then, we went on to El Chato Ranch Ecological Reserve, where giant tortoises live in their natural habitat.  We
started our visit by climbing through a lava tube there, and then we walked through the landscape, seeing many tortoises.  Note: Apparently, tortoises don't have ears and don't vocalize, but the males do make a grunting sound when mating, and the sound of the shells scraping and clattering together is loud.  Also, there is a hissing sound when tortoises retreat into their shells; this is caused by air being expelled. 


When we got back to the entrance area, we had a snack and posed in the huge, empty tortoise shells there.

 

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After we returned to the hotel, we took a dip in the pool and had a rest, and then we walked into town for lunch. After lunch, we visited the Darwin Research Centre, where we saw more tortoises, a land iguana, and the preserved remains of Lonesome George, the last tortoise of his particular kind. 

 

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Then, we went to the small fish market at the dock and saw all the birds, sea lions, and other creatures hanging around, hoping for scraps as the fishing boats came in.

 

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We had booked massages at a spa we’d seen the evening before, so we went there to have some of our aches from the previous day’s Voyage of the Damned soothed away.

 

We had heard about a street where tables were set out every evening, and one could eat fresh seafood from that day’s catch, so we went looking for it and found it.  The street was packed with tables for a couple of blocks, and one could order from numerous restaurants that lined the street on both sides. Locals and tourists alike were among the crowds enjoying their evening meals there.

 

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After dinner, we went back to La Fortaleza to sleep, as we had a full-day tour to North Seymour Island scheduled for the next day.

To be continued...

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Fischwife

We had a quick breakfast before our early pick up for our tour to North Seymour Island.  The shuttle bus took us to the other side of Santa Cruz island, where the tour boats leave from. Our boat was the Shark II. We first went to Bachas Beach to snorkel for about an hour. We had a wet landing there, taking a dinghy from the Shark II to the beach. Near the beach, we saw trails where turtles had earlier nested. In the water, we saw several turtles and an octopus. After we got back onto Shark II, we were served a wonderful lunch while we travelled to North Seymour. We had  grilled fish, rice, salad, juice and raisin spice cake.  The boat was similar to the nightmare ferry from Isabela, but the ride was much more enjoyable, because we were able to move around and sit outside on the upper deck, and the boat wasn’t being piloted like a bat out of hell.

 

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On North Seymour, we first saw a pair of Blue Footed Boobies doing their funny mating dance. There were also many nesting Blue Footed Boobies, mating and nesting Great Frigate Birds (white throated males and a little smaller) and Magnificent Frigate Birds (red throated males and a little bigger). Some boobies had eggs and some frigates had chicks. Often, the path would take us by trees filled with several frigate birds, or within a few feet of booby “nests” (just spots on the ground, really).  There weren’t just a few birds here. There were countless birds, and they seemed unphased by us. Many of the male Magnificent Frigates were displaying their balloon-like throats and calling. This was an amazing place to visit, and we were happy that we were there during the Magnificent Frigate Bird mating season. We also saw a few land iguanas.

 

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After the hike we returned to the ship and headed back to Santa Cruz and the bus to our hotel, arriving “home” at about 3:30 in the afternoon.

 

We went for a meal near the harbour with the fish market and saw a lot of Sally Lightfoot crabs (we had seen them many other places, including Isabela, also) and sharks in the harbour.

 

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To be continued...

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Fischwife

The next day was our last day in the Galapagos. On this day, we had a tour booked to Isla Bartolomé. We were picked up at 6:00 a.m. and taken across the island once again. We were on the same boat as the day before, and we had the same guide, Johann.  Once we were on the boat, we were served a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs, bologna, cheese, bread, juice, and coffee.  After breakfast, we headed to the upper deck to settle in for the two hour trip.  This day, we were doing the hike first and the snorkelling second, which was better, because then we could cool off from the hike. We needed that, too! It was hot, hot, hot on Bartolomé. This island is barren—not much wildlife to see—and the lava absorbs the sun’s fierce heat.  The hike is uphill, too, to the volcanic peak, to see the view of Pinnacle Rock and the sunken calderas.  The scenery is stark and beautiful. However, I was a bit disappointed to learn that Pinnacle Rock is not natural, but was created by bored US troops dropping bombs while they were stationed in the Galapagos after Pearl Harbour.

 

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Afterward, we went to Sullivan Bay on nearby Santiago Island to snorkel.  We saw sea lions, sea turtles, numerous fish, and a starfish that looked like a cookie. ( Unfortunately, some water had gotten between my camera lens and the fish-eye extension, but I didn’t notice it right away because of the sun’s glare (even through the water), so some of my pictures have a weird streak through them.)

 

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On our way back, we had another fish lunch. One tourist was celebrating a birthday, and the crew brought out a birthday cake for our dessert.  After lunch, we went to our upper deck perch and twice saw huge manta rays jumping high out of the ocean. I hadn't known that rays did that!

 

We travelled back to the hotel, arriving about 5 pm. After a rest, we walked to Darwin Avenue, the main downtown street, for dinner. Darwin Avenue was closed to traffic for the evening, and the restaurant had a live singer. We sat at a table on the sidewalk. Local families and children were everywhere, some kids on skateboards, scooters, or bicycles, and, after dinner, we saw youth performing traditional dances at the fish market. 

 

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We headed back to our hotel, tired and happy, to pack for our morning departure from the Galapagos Islands. We were completely satisfied with our Galapagos adventures (except for the ferry ride), and looking forward to the new adventures that awaited us in Peru.

 

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Fischwife

If anyone is considering a trip to the Galapagos and is wondering if a land-based tour would be right for you, or, if doing a cruise, which route would be best for you, I found this page helpful. It contains a chart that lists which wildlife can be seen where. So, what I did was to make a list of what we most wished to see, and then I consulted the chart to see if a land-based tour would allow us to fulfill our wishes.

https://www.galapagosislands.com/nature/wildlife/

 

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Zubbie15

Thanks for sharing, you really had a good time in spite of the crazy ferry captain! 

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Fischwife
15 hours ago, Zubbie15 said:

Thanks for sharing, you really had a good time in spite of the crazy ferry captain! 

 

We had a wonderful time. We rate this trip in our top 3.

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Thank you for an excellent report. I didn’t know you can do a land based tour.

Your photos are all really good, but I know how hard it is taking underwater photos. What camera did you use for these.

The pictures of the Rays are beautiful 

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Fischwife
On 12/22/2019 at 1:05 PM, TonyQ said:

Thank you for an excellent report. I didn’t know you can do a land based tour.

Your photos are all really good, but I know how hard it is taking underwater photos. What camera did you use for these.

The pictures of the Rays are beautiful 
 

 

Thank you.

I used an Olympus Tough TG-3 (bought second hand). Sometimes I used a fisheye lens attachment, and sometimes I didn't.  The hardest part was that one is not permitted to use any kind of flash or light on wildlife in the Galapagos. I have a ring light, but didn't use it, and some of my photos could have benefitted from it. Of course, the rules are there for a reason, and I wouldn't want to do anything that's harmful to the wildlife just to get a good shot.

For some of the non-underwater photos, I used a Panasonic Lumix FZ300. For some of them, I just used the Olympus.

Edited by Fischwife
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Excellent TR, it was the first I ever read of a land-based Galapagos trip. You got to see a lot, and I'm sure, at the fraction of the cost of a cruise. Thanks for sharing!

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Atravelynn

Mating tortoises is quite a find.  Loved the drinking one as well.  And you do a mean tortoise imitation I might add. Nice that the frigate birds were displaying.  Sorry about the ferry ride.  Nothing worse than being seasick as the minutes tick on.  You spared the majority of the Hunstman spiders, good for you.

 

You saw the Galapagos Biggies without the confinement or cost of a cruise.  Well done!

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  • 2 weeks later...
michael-ibk

Very interesting and enjoyable report, thank you for sharing! Like you I´m not particularly keen on cruisers, so your land-based trip is a very interesting alternative. Many great sightings! The ferry thing, though, sounds really awful, sorry you had to experience that.

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  • 8 months later...

Thank you so much for writing this report! I loved all of the info and your pics!

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Soukous

Somehow I missed your TR first time around, so very happy it popped up again.

Thanks for the link to the website as well. It is a big help for planning.

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I love the photo of the Frigate bird with the baby peeking out!

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I just read this TR also. Very interested because I am planning on going there next year. From my itinerary it looks like I am supposed to take that same ferry plus another 2.5 hr speed boat trip to another island as well. Oh no!! I really do want to go there though.

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AfricIan

Another one who is very late to the party :( @Fischwife

 

We'd always discounted a trip to the Galapagos as the thought of a week+ on a boat would be my version of hell so, nightmare on the ferry notwithstanding, your TR has made us realise that once the current Corvid "situation" moderates there may be another way.  Thanks very much for taking us with you and for all the excellent photos.

Edited by AfricIan
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