I HOPE YOU ENJOY THE ADVENTURE AS MUCH AS I DID! I’m available for any questions you may have. Janet@BiondiArts.com
JAN 26-FEB 23
I just returned from the Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Eastern Pacific, at the equator. I was there for one month this time. It was my second visit to the Galapagos in 5 years. I went in 2014 to volunteer on a sperm whale study with Hal Whitehead, a Canadian cetologist who studies the “culture” of sperm whales. It was a memorable two-week trip at sea with three others. At times we were surrounded by large pods of sperm whales, at other times the days were long and hot with not one whale sighting, only storm petrals and flying fish gliding inches above the glassy ocean. I got off the boat and spent another 6 weeks exploring the islands on a backpacker’s budget. I went to 4 islands and saw all of the animals one would see if they spent thousands on an expensive boat-based tour. I knew that someday I would find my way back to those “Enchanted Islands”. Shellfishing most of this winter on Cape Cod has been amazingly inspiring yet at the same time, the idea of a tropical reprieve lured me. Flights were reasonable to Guayaquil, Ecuador and then over to Baltra, Galapagos, so I booked it and went back.
The Galapagos was always a life dream destination, but they always seemed so unreachable, financially. Now I know how easily accessible and affordable the Galapagos can be. It’s a relatively easy place to get to and Ecuador uses US dollars as their main currency so there is no hassle with money exchange.
This time I went to volunteer for two weeks at Galapagos Horse Rescue and Friends, owned and run by a German woman named Claudia, who is passionate about trying to change the attitude of the local people in their treatment of horses and other introduced animals. It is a huge and maybe impossible job, I must say, but she is at least making a difference in the lives of 12 horses and touching the lives of children who would otherwise never have the opportunity to associate with a horse. She is passionate about teaching the children of the island to respect animals during open house events where the kids get to touch, groom and feed the horses. Because the wildlife of Galapagos is so highly protected, local kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with the indigenous animals. Claudia is helping to fill that gap with horse interactions.
Horses were brought to the islands in the mid 1900’s as a means of transportation and as a work animal. Today, displaced by cars and machinery, the horses are uncared for and many times abandoned, left to fend for themselves. Also, the locals don’t have the funds to castrate stallions, which is causing a population problem. The project is unfortunately under-funded and Claudia is trying her best to get a non-profit status with consistent donors. Recently, the San Francisco zoo took her under their non-profit umbrella to accept donations for the project, which will be helpful.
I went to help train her horses using Natural Horsemanship techniques, which uses the horse’s language, Equis, to teach them basic safe human/horse boundaries and establish the human as the alpha of the herd. You basically play certain “games” with them which horses play with one another to establish their hierarchal status.
It was a good two weeks of training practice and I was able to work with many of the 12 horses and pass along some knowledge to the other volunteers. It was a valuable experience for me to associate with a herd and observe their interactions, always careful to stay in the safe zone.
I found the volunteer project via WorkAway.info which is a website for traveler’s interested in doing work trades in exchange for room and board. I’ve traveled this way to Dominican Republic, Sicily, Tuscany, Africa and now Galapagos. I highly recommend the site if you want to travel on the cheap and really get into the culture of a place. It’s a worldwide network of hosts looking for volunteers to work on farms, hostels, on boats, with horses, etc.
After two weeks on the busy island of Santa Cruz, I left the farm, as planned, and went by ferry to the island of Isabela for my last two weeks, spent purely as vacation time. Isabela is my favorite island with it’s relaxed beach community, sandy roads, small restaurants and family owned hotels. I did lots of snorkeling, a bike trip and hike to the Wall of Tears (a lava stone wall built by Ecuadorian prisoners after WWII) and a lot of hammock and beach time, observing marine iguanas, sea lions, giant tortoise and Galapagos penguins. I mainly cooked my own meals but also enjoyed the local food and practiced my Spanish with the friendly locals. It was fun to run into several locals I had met 5 years ago, make new local friends, and connect with other international travelers. Most people come to the islands for only a few days to a couple of weeks. Because I was there for a month, at times I felt like a camp host, greeting new visitors as they came and left from my beach hotel, offering them tips about tours and where to buy local produce.
I had found the local produce lady in the neighborhood market behind the main town and noticed that as time went on, she kept lowering the prices for me! By the end of my stay I was able to buy a big pineapple, huge papaya and several bananas all for only $2! I hung around that last day conversing as best I could with her and her daughters and grandkids, letting her know it was my last time and that I had to return home the very next day. I felt I had made a new friend.
The Galapagos Islands are home to so many unique endemic species and of course was the birthplace of Darwin’s theory of evolution. He noticed the bills of the finches were shaped differently, depending on the food they ate. We think of “Darwin’s finches” as the impetus for his theory, but it was, in fact, the 4 species of mockingbirds on the various islands that sparked his theory. After he left the islands he studied the bird specimens he had collected, and in making his observations, it led him to the idea of natural selection where small, inherited variations of a species increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce, in effect, the concept of survival of the fittest. Other scientists were developing similar concepts and the theory of evolution was born and finally accepted over the course of several years, after the publication of “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. The theory was, and still is, disputed of course. It makes sense to my scientific mind and part of the thrill for me was being in the islands where this theory, in part, was developed on the voyage of the HMS Beagle, the English ship on which Darwin was employed as the ship’s naturalist beginning in 1831. The voyage was a 5 year circumnavigation of the world where Darwin collected plant, animal, and rock specimens.
There’s so much more to write, but…..I’ll let the pictures take the story from here.
I’ve included tips for travelers interested in visiting the Galapagos and included photos with descriptions in hopes to inspire others to see this magical and unique place on Earth. It’s very possible to do land-based tours and see all the animals you would see if you spent thousands for a boat-based tour. The internet typically only advertises expensive Galapagos excursions. I encourage the more adventurous traveler to have the faith to book a couple of nights at a hotel/hostel on Bookings.com, get down there and walk the town looking for various accommodations. Rooms start at $18/night for single rooms at backpacker’s hostels on Bookings.com and go up to the more luxurious hotels in the hundreds.
The herd at Galapagos Horse Rescue & Friends and Claudia Moreno with Destiny, the most recently rescued foal who was found tangled in rope, on her back with no food or water, left to die. She is happily recovering at GHF.
Marine iguanas, endemic to Galapagos, eat only seaweed and algae, swim in the ocean and rear their young on the beaches. They are everywhere and so prehistoric looking!
My friend Junior Torres’ bike and surf shop, Isabela.
Port Villamil, Isabela above and one lonely dog in town, below.
When to go: There are two main seasons at the equator….rainy and dry. I went in February and it’s one of the hottest months. March is worse. April & May are maybe the best, cooler and less rain than Oct-Dec and lower prices. June/July are good and less hot but more expensive since schools are out. August/Sept are on the “cold side” with temps in the low 60’s and very windy and cloudy. Oct/Nov/Dec/Jan are ideal, I’m told. Best to read up on it before you go.
• Flights: I find my flights using Skyscanner.com You can find the cheapest flights there and search entire months for the lowest fare dates then go to the actual airline directly so if you have changes to make later you don’t have to pay Skyscanner’s change fee as well as the airline’s fee. I learned this tip from another traveler. Fly into Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador to access the Galapagos. I find Guayaquil to be a bit less expensive for flights. There are many hotels to choose from near the Guayaquil airport, found on Bookings.com or Hotwire.com.
• Phones: Download the app WhatsApp on your phone and make calls, send pics and texts and do video chats with others with the app via WIFI, for free. Or “unlock” your phone before you go and buy the local sim card to have installed in your phone at any phone card store. iPhone owners can text other iPhone owners for free from anywhere in the world via iMessage, so you can easily get by without an expensive international phone plan from your US provider.
• Fees and transportation: At the Ecuador airport you pay a $20 tax to go to Galapagos before you check your bags. Upon arrival in Galapagos you pay a $100 National Park entrance fee. From there you take a $5 bus ride to the Baltra ferry, a 5 minute/$1.00 ferry across the cut. There you catch another $5 bus to Puerto Ayora, or a more expensive taxi. Upon leaving and retracing this path you can pay for a group taxi ride at Vista al Mar Hostel in Puerto Ayora at the corner of Baltra and Charles Binford Rd. They also offer rooms for $25 pp with air conditioning.
• Inter island ferries between the main island of Santa Cruz and Isabela and Santa Cruz and San Cristobal are $25-$30 depending on what agency you buy from. There are two agencies near the main port of Puerto Ayora who sell them for $25. I made the same mistake this time of buying my return ticket in advance and then ran into a hassle getting on board when I left Isabela, being told I “wasn’t on the list”. Since there are many private boat companies used as ferries, I was later advised to only buy from the actual boat’s office if you are going to pay for both directions upfront. Otherwise, just buy your return ticket a couple days before your return date when you leave Isabela or San Cristobal back to Santa Cruz.
Recommended tours and self-guided things to do on Santa Cruz:
• Darwin Center is a self-guided tour. It has a Galapagos Tortoise breeding program and you can walk through and see all the different sizes of tortoise they raise for their release program. Lots of information about the habitat and animals of the Galapagos and the tomb of “Lonesome George”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lonesome_George
• Las Greitas is self-guided. It is a clear, cool brackish water swimming experience. Take the .80 water taxi from the main pier and ask for Las Greitas. Follow the path and signs. There are now stairs down to the water. Las Greitas is a large crevice in the lava rocks. At certain times there are large tropical fish and marine iguanas hang out on the far end. I was told later you can walk across the lava rocks at the back and get to another even better swimming spot with more fish.
• Tortuga Bay is accessed by a long board walk through cactus. Ask anyone how to find the trail head from Puerto Ayora town. It’s about a 45 minute walk in the heat so bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat and food. The beach is run by the National Park and you need to sign in after you get up the steps to the boardwalk. There is a small store with ice cream and other snacks, great for upon return. Tortuga Bay has a very long stretch of open white sandy beach with waves. There is no shade but if you walk all the way to the right you will find a large calm swimming lagoon with shade trees. You will find many marine iguanas flopping down the beach, sea turtles in the water, pelicans and blue-footed boobies diving for fish. They clear and close down the beach at 5:30 pm in order to let the sea turtles come in to lay eggs.
• Highland tours to see wild Galapagos Tortoise and farm tours, including coffee plantations. Check at any tour agency.
• Pinzon Island snorkel tour. $90-$120. I hear this is a very good tour where you can swim with sea lions and harmless sharks, sea turtles and colorful fish.
• GALAPAGOS HORSE RESCUE & FRIENDS by donation. This is where I did my 2 week volunteer work. You can call ahead and arrange a tour. Claudia Moreno is the owner. Claudia is rescuing abandoned/abused horses on Santa Cruz. She is trying to educate the locals about respectful care. You can take the Santa Clara bus for $1.00 and tell the driver you want to get off at Finca de Caballos. (farm of horses). It’s right after the Palm Resort on right, about 30 minutes into the bus ride if you want to watch for it. Call or write to Claudia at +593 99-413-5896 on WhatsApp or find them on FaceBook at the above name. Check pricing before you go.
• Diving in the Galapagos can be great with sightings of Galapagos sharks, white and black-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, and whale sharks at certain times of the year. If you are not an advanced diver go to North Seymour. If more advanced with at least 25 dives under your belt go to Gordon Rock or Kicker Rock. There is a heavy current there. One warning is that diving is not as regulated in Ecuador as it is in other countries. There is a very good company which was recommended to me called Albatros Diving near the main port and another owned by an Australian guy near the Darwin Center. (sorry, don’t have the name). Most companies allow first time divers to do a “discovery dive”, an open water dive with absolutely no previous experience! They just have the person watch a video on the way out! To me, this is insane and very dangerous! Last time I was there I went diving and they brought a first time diver to 70 ft! He was thrilled but he really had no idea how he had endangered his life. Proceed with caution!
Supermarket and produce markets:
• The main supermarket is right down by the docks to the right. It is well stocked with just about anything you want, except for lots of fruits and veggies! There are some but not many. They also have a second floor with home goods and a third floor with a cafe and open windows for a cool ocean breeze where you can order coffee, juice and other food. You can sit there for hours doing computer work overlooking the main harbor. There is also an ATM outside.
• For local fruit and veggies and meat head up the main road, Baltra, and several blocks up where the road flattens out at a main intersection. There is a produce market on the right. It’s an open public market with many vendors and public bathrooms. It’s the main produce market and on Saturday mornings there is a huge farmer’s market near there. Just ask.
• Fresh fish can be bought at the produce market but I like to get it at the open fish market on Darwin Road, the main road that winds along the water towards the Darwin Center. It’s there every morning and they cut you fish steaks or sell you a whole fish. Tuna is only $3.50/lb! It’s also a cool place to see sea lions, pelicans, and great blue herons waiting for hand outs from the vendor. Magnificent frigate birds, blue-footed boobies and pelicans dive and chase each other along the water’s edge. It’s a great place to just sit and watch all the activities of the local fauna, including people! There is a bank and ATM across the street.
• Accommodations. Galapagos Hotel/ Bar de Beto on Isabela offers rooms for $35/night with AC, including tax. They have a small kitchen for guests to use if they want to cook for themselves. This is where I stayed this time. Edith and Betos own and run the place and are super nice. They also own Beto’s Beach Bar across the street, where guests of Galapagos Hotel can hang out in hammocks, meet other travelers and it is the main night life spot at that end of town with dancing and music till 3 am on Friday and Saturday. I went to bed when the party started at 9! You can find them on Face Book at Bar de Beto.
There are many other places to stay on Isabela. Neptuno Hostel for $20 with a kitchen, Posada Rosada, next to Betos , Volcano House (high end), Drake Inn, Coral Blanco and Hotel Janet are a few I would recommend. All, except Neptuno are at the far western, more quiet end of town where the beach is very accessible and a short walk to many good restaurants in the center of town.
• Concha y Perla for snorkeling. Self-guided. The path is right up from the ferry port at Villamil on the right before the bag check station. On my first visit in 2014 I was lucky enough to swim with and photograph a Galapagos penguin who was pecking on my GoPro camera underwater! If you go early in the morning you are more likely to swim with playful, curious sea lions. They are typically sleeping under the benches and along the boardwalk in the middle of the day. Yes, you actually have to step over sea lions and marine iguanas to get to the end of the boardwalk! They don’t seem to be a problem but I hear some people have gotten bitten. It’s very illegal to touch the wildlife, as tempting as it is. Since the wildlife isn’t hunted, none of the animals seem to fear humans. Their safety bubble is very small and they don’t really move much when approached. This is one of the magical aspects of the Galapagos!
• Biking. $3/hr or $15-20/day. On Isabela, there are many bike rental companies. I told my friend Junior Torres who owns Galapagos Bike & Surf, that I would help promote his business, via my blog. So here it is…..and pictures above. Junior is an Ecuadorian surf champion and gives surfing lessons and rents boards. He and his wife opened their successful shop a few years ago. They have the best bikes around and will set you up with a high quality mountain bike, helmet, lock and their bikes have self sealing gel tires for those heavy cactus thorns.
• Centro de Crianza “Arnaldo Tupiza Tortoise Breeding Center. Self-guided. Walk to the west side of town and keep going about 1 mile on the main sandy/gravel road or better yet take a right turn at the board walk past a few hotels on the right, just past Iguana Crossing/Posada Rosada (the bright pink hotel on left), You’ll see the flamingo lagoon and walk through the woods and cactus fields to get to the breeding center. Many sizes of tortoise are seen grazing and lazing around or walking REALLY slowly. Fascinating to see all the different sizes.
• Swimming and observing sea lions, marine iguanas, penguins at the main port of Villamil on Isabela Island. Self-guided. You cannot snorkel here but you can swim. I found out the hard way and got called back by a National Park guide. Woops! I think he said because of the boats there and also because it is considered a sanctuary for the wildlife so they don’t want snorkelers. You can sit around on the beach and watch the hilarious antics of the MANY lounging adult and nursing pup sea lions as they mingle in the shade of the trees. Don’t expect to sit on the many benches because they are usually occupied by sleeping sea lions! There are lots of lounging marine iguanas on the beach as well and if you are lucky you will see feeding Galapagos penguins in the shallow waters or at low tide you’ll find them standing on the rocks out in the water.
• Wall of Tears. Self-guided. The lava rock wall was built by Ecuadorian prisoners as a way to decrease the jail population on the mainland. Prisoners were made to work for hours with little food or water and many succumbed to the challenging conditions. The wall is the only remaining reminder of that brutal punishment. It’s best to rent a bike as it would be a long hot walk. Go early in the day as it gets VERY hot. You can do it with a 4 hour bike rental. There is a steep uphill hike at the end of the wall which brings you out to a 360 degree overlook. If you go early you will have a very good chance of seeing several Galapagos tortoise along the roadway. On the way back be sure to check out Estero beach. It’s one of the well marked turn-offs and worth seeing. After a very hot tour you can swim there in the crystal, cool lagoon in the mangroves. Beautiful turquoise fresh water mixing with salty ocean water.
• Sierra Negra volcano tour. $45.00 I didn’t go on the 4 hour hiking tour but I am told it’s spectacular. Sierra Negra is the third largest volcanic crater on Earth, first being Yellowstone and second being Ngorogoro in the Serengeti. Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos islands, is shaped like a seahorse and has 7 volcanos. Sierra Negra volcano erupted with flowing lava only six months ago.
• Tuneles snorkeling tour. $90-$120 depending on the tour agent. I went on the less expensive tour with Isabela Tours. You get what you pay for. Others I spoke with had a much better lunch but basically everyone sees the same sights. They stop for a snorkel tour on the way to the lava tunnels. You’ll see giant green sea turtles up-close and personal and foot long seahorses!!! I wouldn’t recommend diving with Isabela Tours. They are the only diving outfit on Isabela and I was told by locals that the owner LOST a diver recently….as in, LOST TRACK of one of his clients…never to be seen again! GONE, lost at sea!! Because of lack of regulations he is still in operation. I recommend sticking with the snorkeling tour on Isabela!
• Highland tours to see wild tortoise and local organic coffee and produce farms. Not sure on pricing.