Sunday 9 February 2014

Motorcycle not included, a post about the Galapagos from Heather

I'm usually pretty adamant about just contributing photos to this blog but seeing as Oli wasn't around for the Galapagos bit I'll do the writing thing too. Hear it goes...


Knowing I'd be in the right part of the world to visit these islands it had been at the back of my mind to try and get there during the trip. But since it's such an expensive place to go and our trip isn't exactly a brief one I assumed it wouldn't happen. When Oli announced his ideas to rebuild Janelle's engine in Quito himself, the idea of waiting in a hostel room for that to happen immediately sent me to the travel agents.

The money involved was still a worry. At this point it would be the difference between going home with some level of financial independence or going home flat broke to live with the parents indefinitely. So being a biologist and it being the Galapagos I obviously opted for the latter (hi mum).

I'll tell you how I did the trip and then give you some top tips for things I hadn't considered when doing the Galapagos on a budget. After asking around numerous travel agents I came to the consensus that they do generally all offer the same things. it's always worth asking around a few but there was no huge variation. I wanted a trip that would leave within the week and be a budget option. All travel agents came back to me with the same boat tour options and hotels for the same price so it was just a case of choosing the people I liked best. I chose Shine Galapagos, a small company with two very nice ladies sat in a office doing all their work over the phone rather than online. I don't know why but I found them endearing and they clearly wanted to find the best trip for me.

On the Tuesday I went shopping for a holiday, booked on Wednesday and left on Friday. I would say that in general it rarely pays to book in advance in Latin America. We've never been unable to do an activity because it's been overbooked but we have met people who have payed up to double the price for booking in advance. That being said if you have a limited time on holiday you're quite right to get your time organised in advance.

I booked a 5 day tour on a small boat (10 passengers) called The Flamingo. Flights to the Galapagos from Quito are a standard $480 for foreigners (cheaper for citizens of Ecuador) and the park entrance fee is $100. So before you leave the airport you've spent $600 that can't be avoided. The 5 day boat tour with meals included set me back another $700.
Escaping the mechanical worries
On arrival in San Cristobal it turns out the airport hasn't actually been built yet, so after showing my passport to a nice man sat on a bench and handing over my $100 entrance fee I was greeted by Alfonso, The Flamingo's tour guide. We went quickly to the boat where the rest of the passengers were waiting, on the way passing about 20 sea lions lounging around on steps/boats/pavements in the harbor area. I was utterly amazed by what nobody else batted an eye to.
Chillin' on the boat

We boarded the Flamingo, a modest sized boat but with well kept cabins for 10 and a tiny kitchen that the chef managed to dish 3 full meals a day out of (lunch and dinner being 3 courses) despite the fact that he himself was about the width of the kitchen. I was instantly impressed with the friendly service and also enjoying the company of the other passengers on the boat. We were a very international group coming from Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and the UK and instantly got on well (half of us as it turns out were biology graduates!). Following lunch we set sail for Kicker Rock, a renowned spot for snorkeling with hammerheads. After about a 3 hour boat ride we were ready to get in the water having donned our snorkel gear and hopped on to the small dingy. We arrived before other boat groups and so at first had the place to ourselves. We all jumped in to the water and were first in shock from the cold and then from the sheer number of sharks swimming below us! It was an incredible view of reef sharks and fish swimming through the channel created by the rock formation. we followed them through and were greeted on the other side by sea turtles! Just hanging out and floating around not going anywhere. After about half an hour I was shivering pretty badly and even the sharks couldn't distract me anymore so I got back on the dinghy and we drove a bit further round the rock. I said if anyone saw a hammerhead I'd be straight back in and sure enough just I was warming up I heard the call and got straight back in. Five hammerheads at about two metres a piece swam directly below us. SO COOL!

To finish off the day we took a sunset tour around Isla lobo (sea lion island) and saw the colonies and pups as the sun set. It was hard to believe that morning I'd been in Quito.
Sunset on Isla Lobos

The next morning we headed onto Santa Fe to walk among yet more sea lions and take a tour spotting my first blue footed boobies, iguanas, frigates and Galapagon hawks. Having worked with seabirds previously I was blown away with how tame everything was! The zoom on my camera is pants so any close up photos I took are testament to how unbothered all the animals were to our presence. After lunch we set out for some more snorkeling, this time close to sea lion colonies. Under the instruction from Alfonso to blow bubbles for the sea lions we had a few playful encounters.

My new puppy

Chillin' on the beach

Star of the show

Each day followed the same general pattern of onshore exploration in the morning followed by snorkeling in the afternoon. More sea lions, sharks, frigates, flamingos, boobies, turtles and the occasional stingray entertained us each day. It's hard to get bored of these close encounters but after 5 days I was definitely tired. I particularly suffered from the cold water more than the others in the group and had to remind myself not to push it for the sake of a sea lion, even though i was tempted!
Blue Footed Booby (stop giggling Oliver)
Iguana and Flamingos

Hawk, needs no introduction
A Frigate feeding its young

A marine Iguana poses for the camera

Flamingos, they're pink from something in the water


The last night we spent near shore. Chef cooked us an amazing chocolate cake wishing us happy travels and the boat crew were allowed a night on land to stay with their families. Early the next morning we headed to the Charles Darwin research station to see the giant land Tortoises. Sadly lonesome George is no more after his passing in 2012 but the new guy on the block is "Super Diego", a tortoise with over 80 descendants who frequently tries to procreate with anything and everything including the males in his enclosure and rocks. So no way he's gonna let his species die out. It was a miserable rainy morning and soon we were saying our farewells and I was back on a plane to Quito.
Giant Tortoise survival meeting
Everyone from the boat

I absolutely loved my short trip to the Galapagos and it is something I will remember for a long time to come. If you want to visit the islands but aren't Angelina Jolie or Bradd Pitt who recently visited, here are some money saving tips:

1. Fly from Guayaquil.
Flights from Quito are about $200 more expensive so if your travel plans take you to Guayaquil, it's worth flying from there.

2. Book a cruise when you get to the Galapagos.
Don't be afraid to fly to the Galapagos without having booked a boat trip. Others on my cruise had done just this and it turns out there are very reasonable hostels on the Galapagos (some for $10) so not only will you get to explore the islands at your own pace but also you can get better boat trip deals from within the islands.

3. GO NOW!
I went in October 2013 when flights from Quito are $500 and the park entrance fee is $100. Both are set to go up, according to Alfonso they want to double the park entrance fee this year.  Also there is increasing pressure from the 'galapagon mafia' to do away with small affordable tour boats and just allow the wealthy Jacuzzi clad cruise ships permission to tour the islands. It would be a shame to limit this amazing place to the wealthy retired and Hollywood superstars but that is the direction it's heading with full support of the people with power on the Galapagos.

I hope you have enjoyed my brief detour from the mechanical turmoils of motorcycle travel, I certainly did!


Lynda said...

Nice to hear the details of your trip Heather. It was an opportunity you may not get again so it was a good call in spite of the cost. You'll always remember it. I'm sooooh envious! xxx

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