Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Day 1 – Santa Cruz, Las Bachas

At last, we are through customs and are met by our guide-to-be, Fausto, smiley and clearly highly competent and, we will learn, extremely knowledgeable.

Our group eye each other up: cooped up on a boat for 7 nights together, it would be nice if we aresimpatici. First impressions look good, and it turns out we are lucky.

Our first real Galapagos moment comes when our bus has to stop to wait for a land iguana to quit the road. Pelicans sit on the roof of our pier and sea lions on the beams at the waterline. A pair of Zodiac boats gets us to the Beagle. We are introduced to the boat, then We’re Off!

After a shortish cruise along the coast, we anchor off Las Bachas beach, and are back in the Zodiacs and making our first “wet” landing on perfect white beach. A wander along the beach has us inspecting a perfectly intact moulted (not shed, Fausto insists) sally lightfoot crab shell; confronting a prickly pear silhouetted against the sky; watching a tired sea turtle drag herself up the beach to lay her eggs; surveying a lagoon between the beach and the start of an old lava flow where our first marine iguanas lie sunning themselves; and watching a pelican diving for fish in the shallows right beside us as we swim before heading back aboard. Archie and Geordie blissful in that brand new experience, warm water….

Supper on board, then an exhausted (jetlag and 5am start) bed, lights out at 9 and asleep immediately.

Day 2 – Genovese (Tower Island or Bird Island)

It was a long night: I was lucky to have been asleep at 9, as I get 3 hours sleep before we weigh anchor at midnight and head for Genovese in the far north-east. The boat’s rolling once out in deep water makes real sleep impossible for most of us, despite the jetlag and journey exhaustion.

But the view when we blear our way upstairs at 6-ish jolts us wake: we are in a big circular bay surrounded by low cliffs, with headlands coming so close together that it is perilous to enter at night. It was created by the collapse of a volcano into its empty magma chamber, leaving a hole up to 400m deep which has been filled by the sea.

We are making an early start up Prince Philip’s Steps in a fault in the cliffs near the eastern headland, to avoid the mid-morning heat on the lava pavements we are to visit. At the top, we are in the Lost World, met by an immobile marine iguana and a host of red footed and Nasca boobies, who all carry on as if nothing has happened. Fausto starts a longish introduction, after which poor Archie steps back onto the iguana, fortunately not hurting it but distressing him!

We wind through the fascinating low bush, palo santo trees making a remarkable living out of pure rock and a variety of hardscrabble little bushes. Nesting boobies seems completely unfazed as we pass within a metre of their nests.

We emerge onto a huge lava pavement on the sea side of the narrow strip, complete with lava ripples, lava boulders formed round long-diffused gas bubbles and a kilometre-long fissure. A low vine (a lava morning glory) creeps its way across the pavement. Lava cactuses form attractive groups, their shape such as would have been worshipped by early man as fertility symbols. The fissure is a remarkable thing, winding away out of sight in both directions. Some of the lava we have seen frozen into horizontal arabesques came from it, so it isn’t just an accident of land heave or lava cooling: it must have had deep roots.

We see swarms of pterodactyls – I mean frigate birds – circling in the thermals, storm petrels and a short-eared owl which apparently feeds exclusively on the petrels, waiting outside their burrows to pounce on them as they emerge, a riskily narrow speciality, I would think. We find a pathetic little pair of orphan petrel wings, all the owls leave from their meal. Some blue-eye-lined, brown-and-speckled Galapagos doves forage engagingly past us. It is all enthralling, and delightful.

After a break, we go snorkelling along the base of the cliffs. This is the boys’ first time, so we are all excited and a tad trepidatious. All goes well, though, and they take to it naturally, probably because Fausto takes over and Mummy and Daddy are kept out of it. Underwater, beyond a fringe of rock fall debris, the cliffs disappear on down into the sinister depths. It is a perfect introduction, a selection of colourful personages to meet, and they are less timid than they would be elsewhere. We teach the boys to swim quietly, with arms tucked, and to keep an eye open to avoid getting carried onto the rocks. It is hard keeping them focused, and I remember vividly my own thrill at my first dives. A sea lion dives in near me and swims off right under Archie. Marvellous.

After lunch and some downtime (lovely snooze), we ride to Bahia Darwin (there is a lot of Darwinnery to come), a gorgeous pocket of white beach sheltered by some rough lava heaps. We are greeted by a couple of snoozing sea lions and a bleached whale backbone, the relic of a stranding some years ago. We stand round one of the sea lions while Fausto talks us through their lives, and she lies placidly surrounded, even touched, by our shadows. She pulls herself off to a patch of particularly warm sand out of the wind behind some rocks, and settles, but a male sea lion is soon dragging himself in from the perfect little beach beyond, sniffing her happy bits and rearing over her. She doesn’t want what he has to offer. Further on, beyond the recent corpse of a young sea lion on that now not quite so perfect little beach, is a shallow, narrow inlet almost cut off from the sea by a bank of black lava. On the inland side, we pick our way over rocks, past mangroves which are also booby havens, as the predatory frigate birds can’t get in through the foliage to bother them. A silly young booby won’t get out of the way, and we can’t pass, as he could peck a nasty punch. Fausto has to chivvy him gently with his camera case, which he grabs and chews at. He does eventually waddle off the path and we edge by. The tide is coming in, bringing fresh water and a young sea lion, who practises his skills chasing a fish around the enclosed space, sufficiently hampered by mangrove roots to give the fish a sporting chance.

Back at the beach, a couple of sea lions bask near their cousin’s corpse, unfazed. At our landing beach, we can’t resist a swim, Geordie alternately on tiptoes on large ribs of sand then lifted out of his depth.

A magical day, distilled happiness.

I now can’t remember supper, but it was good, conversation in our mixed-nationality group convivial.

Day 3 - Puerto Egas, James Bay, Santiago; Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela

We wake to quiet grey early light in James Bay on the northwest of Santiago after another long, rough and sleep deprived crossing. A grey plain streaked with lava flows lies between the high ridges of the interior and the sea, with one volcanic cone called Sugar Loaf sitting in the middle, with what must be superb views from its 400m-ish top. This was a favourite haunt of seafarers and pirates, and was subsequently settled. The settlers are long gone and the island is rewilding, but the population of enormously destructive wild goats eventually required marksmen in helicopters to eradicate them, so difficult is the terrain.

The walk across the headland at Puerto Egas and back along the rocky shore is one of the highlights of our week.

We land on steep black sand, under a low cliff of soft ash. A crowd of bright red sally lightfoot crabs cling to a vertical rock. A path winds across the headland, which still holds the remains of a building and fields of sorts. Mocking birds squabble over territory on the path, oblivious to us standing a few feet away. We reach the sea-filled lava tubes of the outer shore, where sea lions and fur seals bask as marine iguanas saunter right past them. A sea lion shows off something rotten in a rock pool, lazing along on its back and waggling a flipper nonchalently in the air. Heaps of marine iguanas on lava ropes. It is wonderful in the true sense.

A few hours’ roughish crossing gets us to Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela, a geographical marvel, great cliffs around a bay formed by the collapse into the sea of the Ecuador volcano, so named because it is right on the Equator. After lunch, we make a Zodiac tour of the bay, enjoying its lava canals, bright and varied strata and loitering wildlife, from flightless cormorants to clusters of lazing marine iguanas. We then have a miraculous snorkel along the submarine wall of the cliffs, meeting turtles and exploring the entrance of to the sea cave. Then another Zodiac trip to the southerly end of the bay.


Day 4 - Punta Espinoza, Fernandina; Tagus Cove/Darwin Lake, Isabela

The next morning finds us again in quiet grey early light at Punta Espinoza on Fernandina, another wonder, and very different. Fernandina is the youngest and the most volcanically active of the main islands, a barren and slightly sinister lava wilderness. But the walk inland on a lava pavement, broken asunder by subsidence, leaving a great fissure along its centre, is stunning. We reach a pool in a collapse in the lava field, which is fed from the sea and contains fish which are now too large to escape. On the way back we admire a Galapagos hawk in a tree and truly uncountable masses of marine iguanas lying in heaps on the rocks by the sea. It is a most lovely spot, with waves washing into sandy little coves among the lava debris. A whale skeleton lies, suspiciously perfect, on the beach.

Darwin Lake

This relatively small caldera (collapsed volcano) sits just in from Darwin (of course) Bay on the west coast of Isabela, a shortish ride from Punta Espinoza. It is a dramatic but slightly eerie place, a deep, roundish hole with a blue lake at its base, surrounded by near-sheer slopes on all sides, other than the low and narrow ridge separating the caldera from the sea.

We land on a rough jetty below low cliffs bearing 150 years' worth of graffiti. Up a gap created by a stream bed, we turn left up a long flight of wooden stairs from the top of which we start to trudge up the ridge above the lake. The view soon becomes exciting, across the deep caldera to our left, and over a valley to the next ridge to our right. It is quiet and dun-coloured, with many trees and shrubs leafless: finches crowd one tree then whirl off as we approach, but we otherwise don't see much wildlife once we leave the shore.

Once on the high ridge, superb views open up across the caldera and back to the sea. Beyond the viewpoint, the path angles away from the rim and heads for the dark piles of lava that typify the interior, which loom mysteriously ahead. We turn back, though, so, even though I sneak off for a few minutes, I don’t get to explore them. I jog after the group to catch them up before my absence is noted.

A gorgeous short walk.


Day 5 – More Isabela

The morning is occupied with two rough but very exciting snorkels in shallows corralled by lava flows and punctuated by heaps of lava rock. We need to be wary of the sharp lava points when we are near the rocks. We swim for a long time just above stately turtles, near enough to stroke their backs. Spotted eagle rays flap elegantly past

Urbina Bay

We land in a pretty sandy cove between rough lava flanks. As soon as we are over the bank of sand by the shore, we are in an area of grass and bush, where we meet giant tortoises, which graze and watch us with their old man’s heads on long stalky necks, before marching methodically away. Further on are tawny dragon-like land iguana. Up a bank are the remains of a coral reef – the area was uplifted for the sea in 1954. Back at the cove, we have the most exciting half hour of a week of wonders. Pelicans are diving for fish in the shallows, so we summon our snorkels and join the underwater action. There in the waist-deep shallows are tens of thousands of little sardine-y fish, which swim gently past in orderly shoals, then suddenly part in a cordon sanitaire as a reef shark the length of my arm patrols quietly past, within touching distance, then makes a sudden, unsuccessful, lunge at the swarming myriads, which vanish to leave a maddening little pocket of empty water. At one point I can see six sleek, deadly little sharks, perfect killing machines. From behind my ear, a penguin zooms past, darting, unbelievably agile, at the little fish. Then another. It is so exciting you can forget to breathe as you lie there motionless, as life-and-death dramas unfold all around you. Amazing.

Day 6- Elizabeth Bay, Punta Moreno, Isabela

Elizabeth Bay

This morning we explore by Zodiac, weaving through the mangrove shallows at Elizabeth Bay. Very different, but fascinating. Flightless cormorants and comical blue-footed boobies preen on rocks in the outer shallows, ‘tree lions’ – sea lions which have somehow clambered onto mangrove branches for a snooze – laze in the shade of the quiet inlets deeper in. Rays flap gracefully in the clear waters below our boat. We nose around shallow waters on the way out, watery fields separated by mangrove hedges and rocky hillocks.

Punta Morena

The afternoon’s inspection could hardly be more different, a wander into the desolate lava fields of south-western Isabela, a huge plain of flows and crushed lava between the great Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul volcanoes. As with all the Galapagos, it turns out that there is much more going on than might appear. Depressions where the flows have collapsed – many of them large – harbour pools and thick vegetation, so we see birds aplenty as well as the very relaxed sea-lions by the shore. But it is the huge, harsh, dark, plains stretching for miles around to the unforgiving slopes of the volcanoes looming through the haze, peppered with [candelabra] cactuses, which is my abiding memory.

Day 7 – Puerto Villamil, and Sierra Negra, Isabella; Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

Glad to have got through another long night voyage, with the biggest swell yet rolling us about. We are definitely getting used to it, but even so, sleep isn’t great.

We find ourselves lying off Puerto Villamil, a pleasant looking strip of low buildings among shoreline palm trees.

After a prompt start (breakfast at 6) we are off in the Zodiac to the land and the Sierra Negra caldera. Sea lions snooze on the seaside benches by the pier. It is utterly delightful, and I could have lingered long. But we move on and get into a basic bus – benches bolted onto a commercial truck – and trundle through the outskirts of town, past a school with classrooms in separate little capsules. The roads are crushed lava, with a stretch of tarmac, definitely the M1, heading to the mountain.

An interesting drive takes up through a series of biozones, from the domain of lava and cactuses draped in morning glory, a man-brought invader, to ragged banana and guava plantations and pastures of sorts, to cloud forest then cloud scrub, trees draped in moss and bearing a host of parasites, and vivid green ferns.

We alight at the roadhead and set off on a good track up into the clouds and drizzle – oh yes, I forgot to mention, the great volcano is cloud-wrapped, and Fausto had to consider whether it was worth our going. After 10 minutes or so, he stops us in great excitement and gets us crouching. Rooting in the bushes ahead is a Galapagos Rail, a sweet little person the size of a small blackbird but with less wing, with delicately pretty brown and gunmetal colouring and a red eye. We then see it on the track ahead. Fausto can’t believe it hasn’t disappeared, and is ecstatic (“never seen it so well in 24 years of guiding”) when we see it foraging with its chicks.

Further on the track deteriorates to puddles and mud, but always with a firm base below. It feels like this bit goes on too long, but then we are there: the rim of what is said to be the world’s largest active crater, 8km by 7 km of cliffs, draped in lush cloud vegetation on the eastern side and bare rock and ash to the west, falling a couple of hundred metres to a sea of mangled lava and black sand. And we can see none of it, beyond a couple of hundred metres round the rim. You can see Galapagos hawks and short-eared owls as well as those evolutionarily important finches, although they don’t show up for us today.

We give it 10 minutes, then set off back, to look in on the tortoise breeding centre before it closes. I linger another 5 minutes, as it is clearly on the verge of clearing, indeed does so enough for the caldera floor to be darkly immanent far below. Then my time is up and I break free from the tantalizing, and scamper after my companions.

The rest of the day is not especially memorable: our “bus” has a major puncture and we set off down the empty road while reserve transport is called. We have a discussion about which side of the (completely empty) road we should walk on. We are met and taken to the tortoise centre, passing some flamingos in what looks like a town-edge gravel pit with water at the bottom. The Tortoise centre is endearing and interesting, but, viewed en masse, it is hard to sustain my fantasy that they are scaly philosophers.

Back to the boat for lunch, with some more bench-snoozing sea lions to love and photograph on the way.

The afternoon and early evening is spent sailing to Santa Cruz and our final port. Quite a heavy swell, so we retire to our cabins for snoozes and reading, returning to deck for cards and writing-up. Joe spots some dolphins, which play by our prow for a couple of minutes. A belt of rain passes through and we lower the side awnings. Games of Uno with Geordie then computer chess with Archie, then I pop down to the cabin to be sick. I take it cautiously thereafter.

Final drinks and supper are jolly, and a group of us explore the town, quite happy to have given ourselves only an hour, as it isn’t that thrilling, the best part being the sea lions snoozing on the pier by us as we wait for our boat, avoiding the sight and smell of their damp, tawny dung.

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