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Somewhere in Latin America – The Galapagos Islands

Manuela de Mendonça is a 23 year old geographer, traveller, writer and runner currently backpacking through Latin America.
She is documenting her adventures across the continent and sharing her experiences of food, history, culture and nature with us. Expect to read about ancient temples, local restaurants and the best places in the world to go walking.


31 January 2019: Somewhere in Latin America – The Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands, to go or not to go? I get seasick, dislike swimming in the open sea and have a morbid fear of sharks. And for a backpacker with limited funds, it is hugely expensive.

But in January I booked a week’s Galapagos trip on the Fragata, one of the smaller ships travelling to the islands with sixteen passengers in addition to a crew of seven and a naturalist guide, Roberto.

The Galapagos Islands are around 600 miles offshore and can only be reached by plane from the mainland. My journey started at 6.00 am at Quito Airport, mainland Ecuador. My bag was scanned and passed the test for food and other contaminates and then I was on my way. Upon landing, our bags were checked again by an enthusiastic sniffer dog. Security is so high because a high proportion of the wildlife found there is unique to the islands, indeed some species might be unique (endemic) to particular islands, specific forests or even certain caves.

The Galapagos are perhaps most famous for their birds. I’d read about albatrosses in stories when I was young, graduated to National Geographic magazines, then avidly followed every David Attenborough programme I could. The only place they will ever land in their whole lives is the Galapagos. The albatross breeds virtually exclusively on Española Island and in January the last few juveniles were passing their days fishing and sleeping before they depart to spend the next four years at sea. Probably the only other chance you’ll have to see one of these birds in the wild is if you happen to run into one in the middle of the ocean.

If pays to do some research to appreciate just how special the islands are. Charles Darwin pieced together his theory of evolution with the help of Darwin Finches which are perhaps the most well-known, but nothing steals the show quite like a blue-footed booby. Unlike their cousins, the red-footed boobies, whose feet are coral-coloured because of their diet, nobody knows why blue-footed boobies have evolved the way they did from the ankle downwards. Actually, I’m not sure if anyone knows why they’re called boobies either, but the blue is indisputable.

Our group on the Fragata spanned an age range of around 50 years and hailed from four different continents. Every meal, island excursion and snorkelling session was announced by a bell in a carefully organised schedule. We would often sail between islands after dinner. I felt for the bartender who waited night after night for someone to get a life and buy a beer from him, but it never happened. One by one in quick succession everyone on the boat fell into bed and stayed horizontal with their eyes closed until the morning. If we sailed during the day, I would sit on the top deck and watch the horizon with the wind in my hair and frigate birds soaring overhead. Even if feeling slightly queasy, days like that make you feel alive.

Our itinerary was as follows.

Friday am: Arrival at Baltra Airport, transfer to boat.

Friday pm: Bachas Beach
Wildlife: Iguanas, pelicans, rays, turtles.

Saturday am: Prince Phillip’s Steps
Wildlife: Red-footed boobies, storm petrels, Galapagos doves, short-eared owls, sea lions, tropical fish, sea turtles, rays, sharks.

Saturday pm: Darwin Bay
Wildlife: Nazca boobies, red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, rays, reef fish, sharks.

Sunday am: Bartolome Island
Wildlife: Penguins, sea lions.

Sunday pm: Sullivan Bay
Wildlife: Sea lions.

Monday am: South Plaza
Wildlife: Land iguanas, finches, sea lions, swallow-tailed gulls.

Monday pm: Santa Fe Island
Wildlife: Galapagos Hawks, Santa Fe land iguanas, sea lions, green turtles, lava lizards.

Tuesday am: Kicker Rock
Wildlife: Galapagos sharks, hammerhead sharks, tropical fish, turtles, turtles, manta rays, blue footed boobies, nazca boobies, frigate birds.

Tuesday pm: Witch Rock
Wildlife: Sea lions, shore birds, Darwin Finches, mockingbirds, tropical fish, anemones, sponge coral.

Tuesday pm (later): Lobos Islet
Wildlife: Snorkeling with sea lions.

Wednesday am: Suarez Point
Wildlife: Albatrosses, nazca boobies, red billed tropical birds, blue footed boobies, finches, Galapagos doves, marine iguanas.

Wednesday pm: Gardner Bay/Osborn Islet/Gardner Islet
Wildlife: Español mockingbirds, Darwin Finches, sea lions, sea turtles, coral fish.

Thursday am: Punta Cormorant and Devil’s Crown
Wildlife: Flamingos, turtles, white tipped sharks, Galapagos sharks, rays and tropical fish.

Thursday pm: Charles Darwin Research Station
Wildlife: Giant tortoises, land iguanas.

Friday am: Daphne
Wildlife: Frigate birds, red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies.

On Wednesday, we took a slight departure from the schedule. At around 3:30 pm we should have been wrapped in towels, sipping juice and snacking after snorkelling with some baby sea lions. Instead, we were out in the open ocean, with Española around a kilometre away. I was treading water with my snorkel mask on while the dinghy did doughnuts around me. Following the boat, playing in the bubbles, was a pod of seventy-odd dolphins. They were more than happy to be followed by us and play their favourite game of chase-the-boat. There is no evolutionary reason for dolphins to behave in this way, it’s purely for the joy of being alive. To be in the water with a wall of dolphins around you is something that opens happens once in your life if you’re lucky; for our guide Roberto who has lived his whole life in the islands, this was only the fourth time he’d got this close.

Dolphins may have been a dream ticked off the list, but one of the few things in the world I’m truly scared of is sharks. Part of this is down to bad education, and part is because they have too many teeth and are better at swimming than me. I decided to play things by ear and if I was still alive after a few days, I could stop snorkelling if I wanted. On the second day of the trip, I saw my first shark face to face. It drifted past me less than three meters away; I will confess that once it had turned around I swam off as fast as I could. Later, Roberto explained it was actually having a nap and wouldn’t have wanted to eat me even if it had been big enough to, which it wasn’t. Two days later I shadowed a two metre long Galapagos shark back to the Fragata, holding my breath as it drifted beneath me, barely moving its fins. It didn’t seem to care I was there either. By the last day I was following them, swimming against the current to keep them in view for as long as possible. Sharks that small are hardly ever dangerous to humans. Tiger sharks and bull sharks eat seals and sea lions but the Galapagos shark feeds on fish. Besides, swimming in the hunting waters of tiger or bull sharks is prohibited in the Galapagos.

To go or not to go? On balance, my eight-day trip cost the same amount as my budget for the next two months but it was the best week of my life so far, worth every penny and I would encourage anyone to make the same choice. On paper, given my morbid fear of sharks and general dislike of water and everything within it, the Galapagos are far from my ideal type of holiday but I cannot imagine how mind-blowing the experience would be for someone who dives or snorkels regularly. Cost is a main barrier but if I had the chance again, I would move mountains to make my budget work.


Further Information:
A trip to the Galapagos will bring you face to face with some of the most remarkable wildlife on the planet. Revealed Travel books a variety of trips to the Galapagos Islands, from three or four nights to seven nights or longer and on a range of ships, from smaller boats with just 8 cabins for 16 passengers to luxury catamarans and larger cruise ships with up to 100 passengers.

Please see our dedicated website: Ecuador and the Galapagos

Download:   Revealed Travel Newsletter – The Galapagos Islands

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