The ferry ride from Baltra to Santa Cruz is short, and a few moments after disembarking, we find ourselves following the crowd and jumping on an express bus to the Galapagos capital, Puerto Ayora.
The road through scalesia forest is spectacular. It is like a straight line which we realise when glancing back from one of the highest viewpoints in the landscape. The route across the island goes through several biomes, and as we approach Puerto Ayora, we are thrilled to spot a few stunning highland tortoises by the roadside.
Quite surprised unexpectedly to come across some of the gigantic reptiles, within less than 30 minutes after leaving the airport, we already feel the excitement of arriving in the unique islands – the islands where Charles Darwin did essential field work and research for his book On the Origin of Species.
In Puerto Ayora we are dropped off at the so-called bus station in town – which is actually just a stop on a street corner.
Where to stay in Galapagos? White House Galapagos small family-run hotel with patio/garden & hammocks, Hotel Coloma Galapagos excellent location with garden, Hotel Galapagos Suites B&B 5-minute walk from waterfront with balcony or patio.
We are not the only ones to look a little bit bewildered when the bus leaves us behind. The eyes of another couple flutter just as much as ours, searching for signs that point us in the right direction towards White House Galapagos – a small local family-run hotel a bit off Puerto Ayora’s most touristed streets.
We spend the first day exploring Puerto Ayora, soaking up all first impressions. Soon we recognise that the streets are a bit messy, houses often incomplete and the pavements random and uneven with occasional holes. Construction sites seem to appear here and there, and workers are welding buildings without shields right above our heads when we pass.
Only the visible fronts of the houses are painted, whereas the backs aren’t. We have to admit that what we see slightly differs from our vague ideas of what the town would be like. The picture, we now get, is not quite compatible with the one of orderly streets and houses we had drawn up in our minds, based on knowing that wealthy tourists contribute to the economy by spending a fortune during their holidays on cruising the Galapagos Islands.
Absorbing this, yet we fall in love with the atmosphere, the unknown flavours, the scent of exotic and delectable fruits, the open-air cooking, the ubiquitous animals, people’s joyfulness, the relaxed attitudes and the friendliness. The local market offers a whole range of fruits and vegetables, fruit drinks as well as slaughtered chicken. People are outgoing, straightforward, sit and chat outside, and all contribute to the charm and charisma we experience. The town features a good mixture of local South American and Caribbean ambiance with a touch of the luxury that the tourists also require.
In the afternoon we visit Charles Darwin Research Station which is a foundation with an ambitious tortoise breeding programme to increase the number of giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands and in this way conserve the biodiversity of the archipelago. You can find tortoises of all ages here and you get a lot of useful info about the tortoises and their life in their natural habitat.
Charles Binford Street is the popular restaurant street (‘Los Kioskos’) in Puerto Ayora where people gather in the evening to have lobster, fish or other seafood dishes served by the restaurants. In the evening the street is emptied of traffic and the restaurants fill it with tables instead. Of course we have to try some of the Puerto Ayora specialities here – for instance the delectable scorpion fish! A plate of bananas is brought to our table even before ordering, seemingly replacing the bread we are rather used to at home. Everything here is very reasonably priced and the open-air restaurant in the vibrant Charles Binford Street is an awesome experience!
We notice that plantains (large yellow-orange banana-like fruits that tend to be straight in shape) with their fine, sweet taste are also extremely popular as side dishes in the Ecuadorian cuisine. Ecuador is in fact the largest exporter of bananas in the world with an annual export of a value of 3 billion US$! This corresponds to 25% of total banana exports!
Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos Islands, is a vivid town. At the beginning of the day it may appear quiet and sleepy, seemingly only inhabited by ubiquitous roosters crowing at the break of dawn. This is actually how we are woken up every day.
Returning from the harbour on our morning walk, we have an unusual experience. What we see is a sea lion strutting towards us on the pavement. We are not really prepared for this meeting! However, there is no need to say hello, since the animal continues, completely unconcerned when passing us, leaving a noticeable, wet track behind!
The abundance of wildlife everywhere here inevitably results in animals integrating into the civilisation in town. Sea lions and marine iguanas together with pelicans and frigate birds are exceptionally frequent visitors along the waterfront, around the harbour and at the fish market. It is really a great place both for animal-watching (and people-watching)!
Our hotel hosts have recommended visiting the local lava tubes at the other end of Puerto Ayora. It is an alternative to climbing through the longer lava tubes located elsewhere on Santa Cruz Island, including one at the ranch El Chato. Anyway, if you are not so eager to climb through the muddy tubes in complete darkness, the local lava tubes are a good option to get an impression of this geological phenomenon created by flowing lava millions of years ago – spewed in a gigantic volcano eruption. We climb down without much hesitation since daylight enters the short tunnel a bit further ahead due to an earlier collapse.
The town is multifaceted with its weird, unfinished constructions, laundry hanging on the flat roofs, roosters walking around in the streets, local habits, genuine atmosphere as well as kind and helpful people, and we love it!
We buy our breakfast at the local bakery and at the local market a few streets behind our accommodation in Puerto Ayora. Bananas and thick-skinned plantains dominate the market street. They come in all sizes, shapes and shades of yellow and green and play an important role in nutrition here. For cooking, for eating uncooked as a tasty snack, as salted banana chips or with the meal. We have them every day for breakfast here – and our favorite snack soon becomes the chifles, the thinly sliced and deep-fried crisps.
Today we have planned to hike to Tortuga Bay – a dream of a beach located near Puerto Ayora. It is a 45-minute hike from Puerto Ayora through the cactus forest with lots of interesting vegetation. Just before arriving at the beach we pass through a mangrove area. Finally, we catch sight of the impressive beach with pristine, white sand. However, the first beach is not a beach for swimming since the currents are strong here. Instead we continue to the next beach which is a lagoon with drawing turquoise water. Tortuga Beach is said to be among the most beautiful beaches in the world, and we can only agree!
A few hours after arriving we observe a group of white tip reef sharks coming in at high tide. It is crazy to swim with them in the lagoon – but they are too small to pose any danger to humans! We spend the afternoon swimming, sunbathing and observing marine life in the lagoon. In particular we enjoy watching the marine iguanas resting at a part of the beach which seem to be theirs! We even get a chance to see tiny baby marine iguanas on some lava rocks nearby – it is an awesome experience!
Back in Puerto Ayora we need to try the empanadas at the local market recommended by our host family. Every evening you can get the most delicious deep-fried empanadas at the stalls in the market square which again at night turns into a vibrant gathering point (like in the morning)! The empanadas are only 1 dollar each and you can choose between savoury beef, chicken and cheese.
‘Local Hotel on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos’
Today we take one of the public water taxis to the Angemeyer Point on the other side of the bay. From here there is only a short walk to Playa de los Alemanes which is a popular snorkelling beach. Moreover, there are lots of interesting corals and a vivid marine life in the swallow water.
From the beach we continue past the old pink salt lagoons to Las Grietas, a breathtaking crevice in the volcanic rocks with crystal clear and turquoise water. Earlier, people used to jump into the water from the rocks, but this is no longer allowed. Instead you can use the platform to enter the water which is a mixture of saltwater and fresh water coming from both a river and the nearby sea. At moments when the crevice is less crowded, you can observe beautiful colourful fish and other marine life inside it. We spend a lovely afternoon here before heading back towards Puerto Ayora.
At the end of the day we stroll over to Laguna de Las Ninfas, a lagoon with similar special conditions of salt and fresh water creating a particular wildlife of both birds and fish such as for instance spotted eagle rays. Apparently it is the young people’s favourite place to come in the evening and make themselves comfortable on the boardwalk with music and a drink.
In the late afternoon and in particular in the evening the town increasingly wakes up. The noise and the jumble of activities culminate at night where the town is seething with people to an extent that we are wondering where they were all during the quiet day.
We pass an old-fashioned sewing room with six people sitting in the tiny room, sewing on each their outdated sewing machine and only having the most basic gear around. The door and the windows are wide-open, allowing us to observe how they are working.
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In the morning we set off for a highland tour – by taxi. An acquaintance of our host is a taxi driver, and he is willing to take us to the ranch El Chato where we can see the giant tortoises that roam there. On the way we will make a first stop at Los Gemelos, the twin craters once resulting from collapsed volcanic magma chambers. It is also an area of endangered scalesia forest where fascinating mosses grow on the trees and orchids thrive. The scalesia forest is endemic to the Galapagos Islands and consists of a large number of species and subspecies.
Afterwards, we continue to El Chato where our driver leaves us to explore the area – after paying a small entrance fee to the property owner. Within a short time we spot the first giant tortoise – and more tortoises follow. The large animals are awe-inspiring! We make sure to stay at a proper distance not to disturb the solid giants. The naturalist Charles Darwin came to study the tortoises on his HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836, and he made the remarkable observations and theory that the creatures varied in shape depending on which of the Galapagos Island they belonged to.
On the way back to Puerto Ayora the driver suggests that he can also take us to the secluded and popular beach Playa El Garrapatero for the afternoon.
Our last day in Puerto Ayora is perfect for a bay tour around Academy Bay. We book seats for the boat tour in one of the local shops in Puerto Ayora.
First stop is the sea lion island, Caamaño Islet, in the middle of the bay. Fortunately, the boat ride is short as the waves are larger than we have imagined – even if still being close to the coast! Once there we spot a few sea lions playing in the water. A young one repeatedly climbs a rock and then jumps into the water with a loud splash!
Next stop is a great snorkelling site where we can swim with sea turtles and tropical reef fish. Snorkelling gear is available for all passengers in the boat and included in the ticket price. Finally, we stop near the coast where we get extremely close to watch three blue-footed boobies sitting on a rock. This is precisely what we had hoped to see since these birds are so special. Anyway, there was no guarantee to see them on the tour today – so we feel quite lucky.
The tour now takes us through arid cactus forest and volcanic landscape to Playa de los Perros, a natural beach with plentiful orange Sally Lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas within sight, before we once again pass the pink salt lagoons, Las Salinas, and enjoy the scenic views at Las Grietas.
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