After spending our first 2 days in Ecuador exploring Quito and its surrounding area, we were finally heading off to the evolutionary wonder of Galapagos. We had a very early start with a pick-up at our hotel in Quito of 4:45am. There was no traffic at this time of the morning and we reached the airport in under 45 minutes, arriving at 5:25am.
Our driver, Tony, parked the car in the outdoor parking lot and helped us with our bags as we walked the short distance to the nearby terminal. The entrance was manned by a security guard who used a handheld digital thermometer to take each of our temperatures before we could continue inside the terminal. Next, we proceeded to a kiosk to purchase a $20 Tourist Card and provide proof of our negative PCR test. The number of required documents to enter Galapagos was the most extensive that we have ever had - partly due to their regular processes and then COVID documentation on top of that. While we were waiting our turn in line at the kiosk, Tony went ahead to do our check-in, printed our boarding passes and luggage tags, then took our bags to be scanned. He stayed with us until our luggage was dropped off at the start of the line for the security check-in.
The domestic terminal at the Quito airport is a new, modern facility that is easy to navigate and well organized. We found a comfortable seating area near the boarding gate where we sat for 2 hours waiting for our scheduled flight to board. Once we were settled onto the plane, we were given a 2nd form which needed to be completed prior to our arrival in Galapagos. After a short 30 minutes flying time, we landed at Gaudaquyil, a major port city on the west coast of Ecuador, where we picked up more passengers and continued on for another 1 1/2 hours to Galapagos. After landing and coming to a stop on the tarmac, the overhead bins were opened and sprayed with a disinfectant before we were allowed to remove our carry on and disembark.
The ecological experience of Galapagos begins at Seymour airport on the island of Baltra. The airport was initially set up as a U.S. Airfield during the 2nd World War to defend the South American coastline against Japanese submarines. A new terminal was built in 2012 and was the first “Green” air terminal in the world. It was built using recycled steel tubes obtained from drilling operations in the Amazon, uses solar and wind power as well as desalineated sea water.
The airport is small and there are no jetways. Our Airbus 319 was parked at the end of a runway near the terminal building and we disembarked using a portable staircase that was brought to the plane. We walked across the hot tarmac to the front of the terminal. Before entering the building, each passenger walked in single file through a canopied “tunnel” about 40 meters in length to be sprayed with a fine disinfectant mist. At the end of the tunnel, a further spray was applied separately to carry on bags and items.
Once inside the terminal, we lined up at the Tourist Desk where we had our temperature taken, submitted our tourist card and presented our customs declaration. We also paid our mandatory $100 park entrance fee. Before proceeding to the baggage pickup, all of our hand luggage was scanned to ensure that we were not bringing any environmentally hazardous items into the Galapagos.
After collecting our luggage we made our way outside the terminal where small groups of travelers were gathering to find their respective transportation to Santa Cruz Island. We found our guide, Jimmy, who was holding a sign for the “Alya”, the luxury catamaran that would be our home for the next 5 nights as we toured the Galapagos Islands. We waited for the rest of our group to be accounted for, then boarded a small bus that drove us the 10 minutes it takes to get from the airport to the Baltra dock where we disembarked and took a ferry across the narrow channel to Santa Cruz Island. We left the ferry and boarded another bus that would drive us 45 minutes south across the entire island to Puerto Ayora.
The drive to Puerto Ayora, despite the relatively short distance (42 kms) was a prelude to the geographic diversity that we would experience over the next several days. As we left from the north at the ferry dock and drove south, we first passed through very dry, desert-like geography with sparse vegetation. After a few miles we passed through the Santa Rosa farming village where there was an abundance of banana plantations. From Santa Rosa to Puerto Ayora, the landscape became less harsh, with mature trees and lush, green vegetation.
We arrived in the once bustling town of Puerto Ayora in early afternoon, but the effects of the pandemic were evident as many of the shops and restaurants that we passed on the way to the dock were closed. Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the Galapagos with a population of approximately 12,000. It is the centre of the Galapagos conservation efforts and as such relies heavily on the eco-tourism industry for its economic and conservation survival.
At the dock, we waited for the pangas (zodiacs) to take us to the Alya which was moored several hundred metres out in the harbour. The harbour was dotted with moored fishing boats, sail boats as well as the catamarans and yachts that are normally making excursions around the islands. At this time, there were only 2 catamarans (the Alya and its sister ship Galaxy II) and four diving boats that were actively providing tours. None of the other dozens of tourist boats were sailing.
As we waited for the pangas to arrive, we peered into the shallow waters near the dock and observed sea turtles, sharks and sea lions, along with a large number of sea birds diving into the water for fish. Several sea lions were scattered along the dock, some lounging lazily on the wooden benches that lined the pier.
When our pangas arrived, we made the short journey to the awaiting Alya, where we boarded the luxurious vessel that had 8 staterooms on 2 decks with a capacity of 16 guests. Our stateroom was on the main floor, just in front of the lounge and dining area which was at the aft of the ship. Our room was bright and spacious, with ample storage space and 3 large windows that looked out onto our private balcony.
We had lunch in the dining area that consisted of 2 long tables with room for 8 guests each. While in normal times, lunch and breakfast were served buffet style, pandemic protocols meant that all meals were plated and served to guests at the table. As well as this safety measure, masks were mandatory in all public parts of the ship, except while dining. Today’s lunch consisted of fish, rice and salad.
During our first lunch on board we met the rest of the passengers that would be joining us on the trip. Of the total 15 guests aboard this particular cruise, 11 were ex-pat Americans who had taken up residence in Ecuador, 2 were a couple from Ecuador and Kim and I who were the only guests from outside the country. After lunch, we once again boarded the pangas that took us back to the docks at Puerto Ayora. We were about to take our first excursion!
At the dock we boarded our small tour bus and drove out of Puerto Ayora to the highlands just north of the town where we would get a chance to see the Pancita Tunnel Lava Tube. Lava tubes are formed as the result of the outer layer of the lava flow cooling and crusting while the inner layer continues to flow. The result is an underground tunnel that can be up to several kilometers long. The Pancita tunnel lava tube is approximately 400 meters long and is quite large and cavernous at the entrance. We walked down a set of stone steps into the tunnel, which was lighted by a string of incandescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The tunnel curved in snake-like fashion and the walk was relatively easy for the most part. Our guide told us that there are sections of the tunnel that are quite tight and which require crawling on your hands and knees to get through. This is a requirement if you decide to go from the entrance (where we came in) to the exit at the other end. We walked a couple of hundred metres from the entrance and then returned the way we came.
After we exited the lava tunnels, we reboarded our bus and drove a short distance to the neighbouring Rancho Premicias - Giant Tortoise Reserve. From a wildlife perspective, this was one of several highlights of our trip. The reserve is privately owned and protects several dozen of the massive and impressive Giant Tortoises. They are scattered around the wooded reserve and we were free to wander and observe these enormous reptiles as they crawled in apparent slow-motion while as they fed and poked along.
We came across a large group of ten or so that were semi-submerged in a pond of muddy water. We also followed one solitary male who was apparently the largest on the reserve, weighing nearly 500 pounds. We spent more than an hour watching and walking with the tortoises before it was time to head back to Puerto Ayora.
When we arrived in Puerto Ayora we stopped at a Pharmacy in order to stock up on sunscreen and insect repellant as there would not be any facilities once we left the harbour. Kim was suffering from a migraine when we got back on the Alya and elected to skip dinner and go to bed. I ate in the dining room with the other guests and enjoyed a meal of fresh red snapper and casava, a root vegetable similar to potato which was served with a mayonnaise sauce. The chef prepared a small meal for Kim which included soup which I took back to the room. Both of us slept well after a long and exhausting day and we were looking forward to the next part of our trip.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.