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Galapagos: Sea Lions, Tortoises, and Boobies - Oh my!

Updated: Jul 6

Continuing on from our Galapagos arrival at Seymour airport, we were greeted by Jefferson who welcomed us to the island as if we'd known each other for years. This moment marked the fruition of our pre-planning efforts, which proved immensely advantageous. In my previous blog post, I neglected to mention that the use of drones in the Galapagos Islands is strictly prohibited unless licensed with official permission. Despite bringing my drone on this trip (with only a carry-on as my luggage), I couldn't help but feel a twinge of concern about potentially losing it during airport security checks. Fortunately, I still have my drone to this day, although it did not see the light of day during our time in the Galapagos.


Following Step 7 (paying the $100 USD park entry fee) the crowd piled outside, scrambling for transportation. Because Baltra Island is pretty bare (and the fact there's nowhere to stay) transportation elsewhere is the only option. As you've read in my other blog posts, my obsession with satellite view on Google Maps combined with meticulously planning routes, it was clear that passing by a tour location we intended to visit later made little sense.

Santa Cruz Island
Route to our accommodations with Point A on the way - Photo from Google Maps

I found a pricey tour on Viator which would provide transportation and optimize a visit we couldn't miss during our short stay - El Chato Ranch. With secluded trails, lava tunnels, and unique wildlife, the highlight and purpose of this ranch visit was the breathtaking Giant Tortoises.

Galapagos Tortoise
Tortoises Crossing - January 2, 2023

Before we delve too deeply into the excitement of the Giant Tortoises, let's refocus on the journey!

 

Part 1 - Airport Transfer and Los Gemelos


The pricey Viator tour (at $236.69 per person) was worth every.single.penny. With zero stress, we could optimize our very short time on Santa Cruz Island. Upon our arrival, Jefferson greeted us warmly at the airport and promptly handed us our pre-arranged shuttle tickets. With Jefferson leading the way, conversing effortlessly with his local acquaintances in Spanish, we bypassed the chaotic lines and boarded the shuttle smoothly, much to the curiosity of other travellers.


Inside the shuttle bus from the Seymour Airport - January 2, 2023

As we embarked on our short Baltra Island journey, we absorbed the dry landscape outside while receiving an impromptu guided tour by Jefferson. The fellow passengers aboard the shuttle bus appeared to value my splurge to invest in this private tour guide, as I observed many tuning in to Jefferson's expertise. Here are some fascinating tidbits we picked up along the way:

  • Baltra Island served as a military base from 1942 to 1952 before being abandoned. (You can still spot the overgrown airport remnants on Google Maps satellite view)

  • 97% of the Galapagos archipelago is designated as a National Park.

  • Isabela Island boasts the largest landmass and a population of around 7,000, resembling the shape of a seahorse.

  • Santa Cruz Island exhibits a stark contrast between its dry northern region, devoid of any structures, and its more verdant southern part, home to approximately 30,000 residents.

  • Floreana Island, with a population of just 140, offers a glimpse into a more secluded Galapagos lifestyle.

  • Remarkably, 80% of the people on the Galapagos Islands are visitors, highlighting the area's popularity as a tourist destination.

  • There are no malls, cinemas, factories, or homelessness (Jefferson emphasized on how incredibly safe the Islands are).

  • Buildings are limited to a maximum of four stories.

  • Each island exhibits a distinct age, shaped by volcanic activity. Newer islands range from 300,000 to 500,000 years old, while medium-aged ones vary from 1.5 to 3 million years old. The oldest islands date back 5 to 7 million years.

  • The quality of steaks in the Galapagos is exceptional, as there are no mainland illnesses to contend with.

  • During our visit in January, it was pineapple and watermelon season.

  • Lobsters are exclusively caught during the months of September to December.


Baltra Island landscape (travelling on shuttle from Airport to Ferry Terminal) - January 2, 2023


In no time, we reached the Baltra Ferry Terminal. Despite its grand name, the terminal was quite compact, requiring meticulous maneuvering (what one might compare to a 20-point turn) for the shuttle buses navigating their way back to the airport. The brief wait didn't faze me at all; instead, I was entranced by the breathtaking sight of the vibrant turquoise waters, reminiscent of the stunning images one often comes across when searching for photos of the Galapagos.


Balta Island Ferry Terminal - January 2, 2023

Every day, I find myself gazing at the second photo - it's been my phone wallpaper for over a year!


Thanks to our resourceful friend (or hired acquaintance), Jefferson, we effortlessly secured a spot at the front of the line and boarded the water taxi he arranged for us. A word of caution: If you've brought large luggage, be aware that it will be stored on top of the boat during transport! [As always, you'll find captions beneath the images below. I want to emphasize that the photo of the boat is not mine; it was sourced from Google Maps at the Baltra Ferry Terminal location].

Photo of boat - sourced from Google Maps

Making our way to Santa Cruz Ferry Terminal - January 2, 2023


With smiles on our faces and the occasional splash of mist, we set off to Santa Cruz Island, and the realization that we were truly in the Galapagos Islands began to sink in. The brief boat journey whisked us to the bustling Santa Cruz Ferry Terminal, where lines of vehicles awaited tourists and a handful of food vendors set up shop, eager to make some sales. Once again, thanks to our pre-planned tour booking, we bypassed the hustle and bustle, greeted by a private vehicle ready for our departure. Boarding the white pick-up truck without delay, Jefferson seamlessly resumed the guided tour of the Galapagos. We felt momentarily special as he included an additional stop while on route to El Chato Ranch - unsure if this was standard for all tours, we eagerly seized the opportunity to visit a magnificent sinkhole!


We arrived at Los Gemelos; a sink hole formed from the collapse of magma chambers. As someone with a deep appreciation for geology and a keen interest in erosion's significance, this site held a captivating allure for me. Contemplating the remarkable volcanic activity that once shaped the landscape before us truly sparked the imagination. Jefferson provided us with an impromptu dendrology lesson, sharing insights about holistic trees whether they held a minty aroma or known for their use in malaria antibiotics.


Los Gemelos, Santa Cruz Island - January 2, 2023

 

Part 2 - El Chato Ranch


Apart from my strong desire to catch a glimpse of a blue-footed booby, encountering the giant tortoises was undoubtedly a close second in terms of my Galapagos experience and the primary reason for booking this Viator tour. As we veered off the Santa Cruz Highway, the signs for the ranch began to appear. Prior to reaching our intended destination, we saw plenty of towering trees, grazing cows, and finally, our very first sighting of a giant tortoise!


Drive to El Chato Ranch - January 2, 2023


Our first Giant Tortoise sighting! - January 2, 2023


The ranch operates from 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM (be sure to double-check the hours before your visit in case of any changes). Upon arrival, you'll notice a sheltered area serving as a shop, cafe, and mini museum. An entry fee of $10 USD is required, and if you didn't book a tour, you'll need to account for taxi fees for this excursion (again, double check prices before your visit). Fortunately, our entry fees were included in our Viator tour cost, so everything was taken care of upon arrival.


El Chato Ranch - January 2, 2023


We began our stroll along the damp path (make sure to choose appropriate footwear, especially depending on the weather), and Jefferson resumed his guided tour with enthusiasm as we embraced the privilege of being in the presence of numerous giant tortoises. We gained a wealth of new knowledge about the giant tortoises that we hadn't previously known:

  • Spanning across 1000 hectares, 5000 tortoises roam

  • They eat 2 kilograms of grass per day

  • They can go 3-6 months without water!

  • Males weigh around 500-600 pounds and are 3 times bigger than females

  • Females have a flatter shell in the back for mating, along with a straight tail

  • They cannot swim but they can float

  • They cool down in mud pools (see photos)


Giant Tortoises along the trail at El Chato Ranch - January 2, 2023

A female tortoise chomping away at grass - January 2, 2023

The tortoise trail was coming to an end and we reached the lava caves, which were formed by, you guessed it, lava flows! We were also very lucky in getting to see a Galapagos Barn Owl, as Jefferson mentioned that these sightings during the day are by chance.


Lava tunnel walk - January 2, 2023


As our walking tour of El Chato Ranch drew to a close, our visit continued beyond the trails. We went inside to look at souvenirs, old turtle shells, and enjoyed a local beer! Upon buying our beers (and one for Jefferson of course), an unexpected realization struck me while standing at the bar...


El Chato Ranch gift shop and bar - January 2, 2023


Upon arrival to a different country, receiving a passport stamp is customary. However, what came as a delightful surprise was the opportunity to acquire a stamp from El Chato Ranch right at the bar! Though it might be categorized as a tourist stamp, I've never encountered complications with this unique entry in my passport. Nevertheless, proceed at your own risk (which was one I was very willing to take)!!

Galapagos National Park Passport Stamp
Parque Nacional Galapagos Passport Stamp - January 2, 2023

We waved goodbye to El Chato Ranch and its magnificent tortoises as we drove away from what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Driving onward, I spoke with Jefferson to get his insight on what else we should see for the remainder of our stay. "How long are you here for?" he asked and as I replied with "less than 72 hours" his jaw dropped to the floor. Visiting the Galapagos Islands for this length of time was unheard of, and being fully aware of this, I explained my penchant for squeezing every ounce of adventure into my 'vacations'.


Expressing my unwavering desire to witness the captivating blue-footed boobies and swim with sea turtles, I faced the dilemma of their disparate habitats amongst the Islands. We weighed our options: a full-day ocean excursion or a journey to North Seymour Island, renowned for its booby sightings along the rocky coastline. Despite my impulsive suggestion of visiting North Seymour Island the last day before our flight, Jefferson clarified that such an endeavor required a full-day commitment, dashing my hopes of an immediate encounter with the iconic birds. We went with the ocean excursion choice, as this was discussed during trip planning months ago. Jefferson reached out to his sister-in-law, who operated a tour guide company, and a plan was arranged for the next day.


Jefferson and his driver treated us to a brief downtown excursion of Puerto Ayora before escorting us to our lodging, situated north of the city center. With plenty of daylight remaining, we planned to return to explore this vibrant area after dropping off our belongings at the hotel. Upon reaching El Descanso del Guia for check-in, we expressed our heartfelt gratitude to Jefferson and his driver for their hospitality throughout the day before bidding them farewell.


We booked El Descanso del Guia on Booking.com in late 2022 during trip planning at a rate of $108.63 per night, coming to a grand total of $217.26 CAD for the total duration of our stay. Based on a recent search, these prices have soared since.

 

Part 3 - Las Grietas


Considering the whirlwind of adventures we experienced that day, it seemed as though a full 24 hours had already elapsed. Yet, there was still ample time to embark on another escapade. After swiftly checking in and refreshing at the hotel, a taxi summoned by the hotel awaited us, whisking us back to the city center for just a few US dollars. We made our way to the Gus Angermeyer Pier and Ferry Terminal, where we were greeted by large marine mammals, crustaceans, and reptiles.


Wildlife seen on and from the pier - January 2, 2023


The impromptu decision for our next excursion was done on a whim because time allowed it. Our destination: Las Grietas, an enchanting swimming spot nestled amidst fractured lava rocks, boasting pristine, crystal-clear waters. How did I stumble upon this hidden gem? If you've been keeping up with my blog, you probably already know the answer: Google Maps satellite browsing. Since we successfully navigated to the designated 'check-in' spot, allow me to share a step-by-step guide on how to reach this captivating location! [NOTE: you must bring cash for payment!!]


Step 1 - WATER TAXI: At Gus Angermeyer Pier, a fleet of water taxis awaits, offering not only convenience but also affordability at just $1 USD per person. Hop aboard and within minutes, you'll find yourself whisked away to Angermeyer Point.

Galapagos pier
In our water taxi before departure - January 2, 2023

Take off! - January 2, 2023


Step 2 - THE WALK: For those less inclined to walking, brace yourself for a lengthy stroll ahead. However, as passionate walkers, we relished every step of this journey! Upon disembarking the water taxi, follow a path shaded by a lush tree canopy leading towards Playa los Alemanes beach. Continue along the boardwalk skirting the beach until you encounter another pathway. Look out for the signs directing you to Las Grietas along this route, which eventually culminates at a sheltered bench area.


First path, beach boardwalk, and second path to Las Grietas - January 2, 2023


Ticket purchase / entry area for Las Grietas - January 2, 2023

Las Greitas
Las Grietas sign - January 2, 2023

Step 3 - BOOKING THE TOUR: During our visit, it appeared that tours were available every half hour. However, due to limited space, we had to settle for the 4:30 PM slot as the 4 PM tour was fully booked. I am almost certain that our tour slot was the last of the day. Purchase your tickets for $10 USD each - CASH ONLY. It's important to mention that being accompanied by an authorized tour guide is mandatory in protected areas of the Galapagos National Park. While waiting for our tour, we were advised to explore the salt flat and grab a snack or drink from the small restaurant at the entrance.


Las Grietas ticket (coupons on the back!) - January 2, 2023

Salt Lagoon Le Bistro - January 2, 2023

TIP: Head up the stairs located on the right side of Le Bistro to get a better view of the salt flat!

Stairway and balcony of Le Bistro - January 2, 2023


Step 4 - THE TOUR: And thus commenced our guided tour! Our knowledgeable guide shared insights about the salt flat (and even suggested trying the salt – see below), pointed out the intriguing lava rocks scattered along the path, highlighted the distinctive vegetation, and, of course, spoke about the fascinating wildlife inhabiting the area.

Salt taste test - January 2, 2023

Walk to Las Grietas - January 2, 2023


Step 5 - LAS GRIETAS ARRIVAL: As you approach, your eyes are drawn to a vast fracture in the earth - Las Grietas. Here, you'll have the option to partake in snorkeling, allowing you to leisurely swim and float amidst the crystal-clear waters.

Las Grietas - January 2, 2023

The surroundings at Las Grietas - January 2, 2023


Although cliff jumping is strictly prohibited at Las Grietas, that didn't deter some locals. We witnessed a daring scene as a young kid, appearing like a seasoned pro, prepared to take the plunge. Amid frantic Spanish exchanges between our tour guide and the adventurous youth, gestures toward the ground emphasized the danger. Even as our guide reached for her radio, it was too late...SPLASH. The young jumper defied warnings and leaped, displaying a confidence as if he'd been doing it for years.


Shortly thereafter, I confessed to my partner that I had recorded the entire incident. He expressed frustration at my reluctance to share the video proof, but I argued, "Let the kids live!" With their parents nearby and considering their likely familiarity with the island's activities, cliff jumping might be a tradition for local friends and families that has endured for years.

Cliff jumping at Las Grietas - January 2, 2023
 

The End of Day 1


It was a day brimming with excitement, from getting off the plane to encountering tortoises and exploring lava rocks to marveling at playful sea lions. Regrettably, we didn't spot any blue-footed boobies this time. However, we're determined to try again on our final full day in the Galapagos!

Santa Cruz Galapagos
All smiles after a great 10 hours in the Galapagos! - January 2, 2023

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Guest
Jun 14

Loved reading about your adventure !

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