San Cristobal, our island of arrival is the fifth largest island of the 19 main islands that make up the Galápagos Islands archipelago, which were discovered accidentally in 1535 and are part of Ecuador. It has the second largest population.
Charles Darwin visited the islands on the Beagle in 1835 and his observations of finches there, influenced his theory of evolution and the origins of species.
The main town in San Cristobal is like most Caribbean towns with a Spanish influence. There is a great market for local produce and plenty of small tiendas for other goods. A good selection of restaurants, our favourite being Galápagos Dreams, which served a great steak and burgers served on a piece of volcanic rock!
There were several small hotels and other accommodation and we were able to buy a local mobile SIM card and data.
The centre for interpretation is well worth a visit, turn left at the end of the ferry pier and follow the walkway around the coast and then the road.
Just past a modern looking university building is the centre. It’s free and provides a good overview of the islands history, biology and development. At the back of the centre is a pathway that you follow up a hill, cerro de las tijeretas, (frigate bird hill) for a good view into the next bay and back to the anchorage. We took our snorkel and fins as further on there are steps into the sea where you can take a swim. There were some fish and sea lions willing to play near the steps but visibility below the water was poor due to the high surf. There were also marina iguanas and a variety of birds, other reptiles and insects. If you take the alternative route back along the beach, playa Baquerizo, you can swim in the bay. This area has iguanas nesting all along the beach and more sea lions and crabs. All this was free!
We took a taxi, a local pickup truck, across the islands to see the tortoise (tortuga, in Spanish) conservation centre and El Junco Lagoon for the volcano crater rim hike. $60. The lagoon is a freshwater lake approximately 700 meters above sea level. The frigate birds were great to watch soaring over the lake. The health of the Miconia bush is an indication of the water retention in the area. Apart from the taxi fare there were no other costs here either.
The tortoise breeding centre opened in 2002 to protect and increase the numbers in the wild. These animals were used as food in the past and their number were greatly reduced to the point of extinction. The breeding centre is repopulating the natural environment in the north of the island. Apparently the tortoises are slightly different on each of the islands.
We took a dive tour to Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock) where there are sharks. Being new to diving Lesley was unsure of how she would feel faced with the sharks but it was worth it to dive and see hammerhead, white tip and Galápagos Sharks. We did this with Wreck Bay dive centre at $150pp which included 2 dives, lunch and a rest/exploring a different beach. We also saw a huge fin whale, more sea lions and a good variety of fish. It was only intimidating when several sharks were swimming towards us in a confined area between the rocks, otherwise an awesome experience.
For those seeking something other than nature viewing, there was also apparently a good beach for surfing on San Cristobal!
We made an early start as it was an 80 NM sail to Isabela. Wreck bay San Cristobal is an easy anchorage to leave in the dark which meant we could arrive in daylight the other end. You still have to check out before leaving, arranged through our agent via email and it cost $8 for the zarpe. It was given to us by the water taxi driver as we returned to our boat, an hour after emailing our agent!
Isabela is the largest island in the archipelago and still has five active super volcanos. Sierra Negra last erupted in 2005. Volcano Wolf is the highest point in the Galápagos at 1707 metres.
The anchorage is protected by a group of rocks known as Torentella, although its really shallow the further you go in at low tide or with a high sun you can see the ‘boomies’ as you nudge your way in. As it was late afternoon we opted for a safer, although rolly, space further out wih the Galápagos cruise ships and a delivery boat from the mainland.
We watched this boat unload its cargo, fresh items first. Then other goods and eventually building supplies. Even new engines for one of the tour boats! Once this was done it started to be reloaded with waste items, rusting metal and an enormous quantity of glass bottles! It took over six days using the barges to transport goods from the boat to the island and looked inefficient, but got the job done.
Unlike in San Cristobal, we were able to use our own dinghy to get ashore and leave it at the dock. The short walk into town revealed a touristy place with a lot of tour operators/booking agents, accommodation and restaurants. We had a quick look at the modern looking church with its stained glass windows depicting Galápagos animals. The beaches are white sand over volcanic black rock and have huge Pacific rollers breaking on the reef and beech. We tested one of the beach bars for a birthday burger for Derek at happy hour, it passed inspection!
We arranged a tour to include a horse ride and hike around the rim of the Sierra Negra Volcano as a birthday treat. It was an early start and after a 30 minute drive to the national park we mounted the horses which we were very glad were doing the uphill climb for us!
There was plenty of opportunity to stop for photos and to take in the breathtaking view. Guava bushes and walnut trees lined the track initially. Derek was not impressed with the tuna roll for lunch but cheered up when he found I had packed some birthday cake!
The crater is massive – 8 x 12km. We were able to walk through the barren ash/cinder coated areas with our guide close to the rim and where the latest eruption had been.
The ash was from the 2005 eruption and also the solidified lava flow from 2018. It was a well preserved area and was frighteningly large. should the whole thing erupt in the future it would have a devastating effect on South America.
The next day, we went for a snorkel at the Conch de Perla, an area next to the dinghy dock accessed via a wooden broad walk to a lagoon area inside the reef. It’s a lovely protected area and we swam with the marine Iguanas and penguins as well as a sea lion and the usual fish. Unfortunately no sea horses.
The penguins are fun, they and some small black tip sharks swam around the boat as we cleaned the waterline to get rid of the Galápagos beard that had started to grow. Sea lions also had an inquisitive look at us.
There is a small lake behind the town which was a little dried out but we did see one Flamingo in the distance. If we had gone further there is a much larger area where they are supposed to gather.
Talking to some of the other yachts we discovered that someone had managed to arrange fuel so we got the details and did the calculations deciding that it was a bit cheaper to pay slightly more for the fuel to be brought to the boat here rather than going back the 80:NM to San Cristobal. It would also reduce the journey to French Polynesia by half a day and give us more time to explore Isabela and Santa Cruz
After chatting to some of the other cruisers we decided to do one more tour to Snorkel Los Tuneles which is a 40 minute small fast boat ride from Puerto Villamil.
We past union rocks on the way which had penguins, blue footed boobies and a sea lion balanced on a ledge. They really do find all sorts of improbable places to sleep.
The entrance to the tunnels area was expertly driven by the boats captain, negotiating the right wave to surf with and just the right amount of engine power. It made for an exhilarating ride.
The contrast is startling, after a few twists and turns, to then enter the protected and still area beyond the entrance was unreal. The landscape at the tunnels was formed by the very old lava flow.
Two different types of cactus grew with lichen and moss.
The bridges are left after the erosion of the tunnels but you can imagine where they flowed into the sea. Blue footed boobies nest here whilst heron look for any small lizard or fish. The water was amazingly clear and still. This enormous turtle surfaced to say hello.
After a bit of exploring here we moved to a bay around the corner. The visibility was not as good but the marine life was extraordinary. As soon as we were in the water there were many enormous turtles feeding. There were so many throughout the trip you stopped taking photos of them! Watching them feed and surface and dive again, majestic in their underwater environment, utterly amazing.
The snorkel tour took us through the rocks and towards the sea where there was a ledge with a resting white tip shark but the highlight was seeing sea horses. So well camouflaged you would not see them unless they were pointed out to you!
After a quick lunch it was back to the anchorage but not before we had stopped to see some manta rays.
Our final Galapagos destination was Puerto Ayora in Academy Bay on Santa Cruz. It’s a rolly anchorage so its best to tuck as far into the shore as possible and use a stern anchor to hold the boat to the swell.
The town here is one of the larger towns we encountered in the Galapagos and we took the opportunity to re-provision at the handy supermarket just by the dock. On certain evenings one of the side streets is closed off and all the local restaurants spread tables out over the street and created a unique environment, where you could choose your seat then choose your vendor and the food was brought to you. If some of your party wanted food from one restaurant and some from another it was not a problem. We enjoyed a great evening here with friends that had just sailed in from Panama.
We also visited the Charles Darwin research centre which had interesting displays depicting how the islands had changed over time and the contributions that visitors made arriving by different means – air, cruise ship and yacht. They really appeared to be trying to figure out how to make tourism successful and sustainable.
About 30 minutes walk along the coast from the dinghy dock is a canyon carved through the rock many thousand years ago and within it a pool where locals and tourists congregate to swim. It is well advertised so we decided to give it a go.
It was fun, the sights from the top looking down into the canyon were interesting but it was a little busy really for our liking – we get rather spoilt being able to pick and choose our idyllic swimming sites!
It was a fitting end to our trip. An amazing few weeks in a place that is unique. We have been asked by many people whether it was worth the money, with the restrictions on where you can anchor and what you can do. For us the answer was an unmitigated yes. A once in a lifetime visit to a place that is apparently changing fast. Like many of the places we are visiting, tourists like us, are getting more frequent and the islands are having to adapt. We are told the Galapagos is very different to how it was just 20 years ago, so our advice to anyone interested in going there is to do it sooner rather than later. We are certainly glad we didn’t just sail past.