Galapagos Islands: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Sea Lions

We are often asked the question, “Of all the places you’re planning to go, which are you most excited about?” For me the answer was consistently “The Galapagos Islands”. An archipeligo of 18 main islands and over a hundered other smaller islands and rocks 563 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are famous for their diverse wildlife. From the three species of boobies (bluefooted, redfooted, Galapagos) to the endemic marine iguanas and Galapagos penguins, the Galapagos Islands are not like any other place on earth. It’s hard to capture the epicness in a blog post, but I think Kyle’s photos do a pretty great job 😉

The most striking thing for me about the Galapagos, and San Cristobal in general, was the relationship of humans and animals. Animals are given the rule of the land here, as evident in the fact that the islands and surrounding waters are made up of mostly protected areas that require the accompaniment of a guide.  Because of this, the animals here are often curious, sometimes indifferent, but rarely fearful. The sealions especially seem to be enjoying their free-reign — I went for an early morning run and found most of the benches lining the dock to be occupied by snoozing sealions.

Of the 18 large-ish islands, only 4 of these can be visited without a multi-day cruise. We opted to focus on just two of those islands, with a quick stop-over on the main island.

Ferry Baltra to Santa Cruz

We arrived at the main airport on Balta island, an old army base from WW2, and took a bus, boat taxi, and public bus to cross over to Santa Cruz, and get to the main town of Puerto Arroyo where we spent our first night. The landscape coming across the island was a bit of a shock — though greener in the highlands, it was much more desert than lush island oasis. We did get to see some really cool cactuses, and the contrast of the bright blue sea against the black volcanic rock was stunning.

Puerto Arroyo turned out to be a fairly large town, and it was obvious that the town’s economy revolved around the tours and cruises that departed from it’s harbor. Every few feet was another tour operator followed by a restaurant that specialized in burgers or pizza. This also meant high prices in town, so we opted for an AirBnb (yes, AirBnb has rooms in the Galapagos!) run by a local couple that was about a kilometer north of the main street. Though not fancy by any means it was more than sufficent for a night’s stay.

The next day we departed for Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal where we had booked a week’s stay at another AirBnb, this one run by a Swiss-Ecuadorian couple. The boat ferry over was smooth and we got to see a couple other islands on the 2.5 hour journey. Upon arrival we were met by more sealions than I’ve ever seen in one place — they covered the docks and played in the water around our boat.

Porto Baquerizo Moreno from Shipwreck Bay

We were happy to find San Cristobal to be a bit smaller than Puerto Arroyo. The second most populous island, it did have it’s own airport and port for cruise ships, but both were on the (much) smaller side. It was a quick 5 minute walk from the dock to the place we were staying, and we were on the outskirts of town again. Everything was in close proximity, including markets, restaurants, and shops.

Though tempted to spend many lazy days in the rooftop hammocks enjoying the island pace of life, we also didn’t want to miss a second of this adventure. For the most part we were up with the sun, and to bed pretty early. The only late night partiers appeared to be the roosters. I had, somewhat ignorantly, assumed that roosters started making noise at daybreak. Wasn’t that what was depicted in movies, TV, and children’s books? Apparently not so with these roosters. Our first night on the island I woke up to such a racket that I convinced myself that it must be sometime after 6 and started the process of waking up, only to look at my phone and see that it was actually 3am.

Noisy party roosters aside, San Cristobal was a unique, beautiful place with kind residents and I hope we can make it back someday. It’s really encouraging to see all of the conservation efforts inplace, though as always there’s room to improve. On our second day one of the huge cargo ships that brings supplies out to the island ran aground off the coast, the third in a year. Officials appeared to be quick to get the proper ropes in place to contain the mess, but it was still disheartening to see this happening in such a fragile environment.

Getting There

When we first began researching the Galapagos I was discouraged by the widely advertised cruises that came with a per-person price tag in the thousands. There’s no way we could afford this without cutting the whole trip short. Additionally, these cruises meant anywhere from 4 – 10 days on a boat in the open ocean. To a traveller prone to seasickness this is basically hell.

After some pretty extensive research we came across some one-off blog posts about people who had visited the Galapagos the way we wanted – on their own, no cruise necessary. One of my good friends had also done a similar trip a few years earlier and assured us that yes, it was totally doable (thanks, Jenny!). So, we booked our roundtrip tickets from Guayaquil, Ecuador!

The tickets were a reasonable $373 each (though we ended up paying a bit more to extend our stay once we were on San Cristobal). Even with the $10 tax and $100 park entrance fee this still felt like a pretty good deal for getting to the coolest place ever.

Stay

We used AirBnb for our stay on both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. It was fantastic. Both rooms averaged well below local hotel costs, and sometimes hostels as well. Plus, it’s a really great way to support local families. In both cases we had a clean, private room with private bathroom. 
 
Our hosts in San Cristobal were especially great. Silvia and Jose were both incredibly kind people. They even let us use their coffee grinder, kitchen, and even their emergency backup wifi to contact our bank when it shut off our debit card for the second time while the power was out (a story for another time). 

Do / See

There is SO MUCH to do on San Cristobal. And for the most part it isn’t even necessary to take tours — we were able to explore a lot of the beaches and wildlife just by following the marked hiking paths. We liked it here so much that we even added on an extra day.

Isla Lobos

The first Blue Footed Boobie

Isla Lobos (lobos = sealions in Spanish) is a small island off the coast of San Cristobal. It is often passed over for the much acclaimed diving and snorkeling at nearby kicker rock. But, at almost half the price, we found it to be a great deal and a fun way to spend a morning. Our boat left from the main pier around 8am and passed by a couple areas for photos en route to Lobos. We saw sealions sunning themselves on a floating dock, the beaches, the pier, unoccupied boats…pretty much anywhere they could lay down for a sunny snooze. We also saw our first blue footed boobies on the rocks near San Cristobal’s beaches a little ways out of town! 

Wonderfully colored crabs
Wonderfully colored crabs

Once the boat arrived at Isla Lobos we all got out and our tour guide brought us around to a few different areas. We saw hundreds of crabs, tons of sealions swimming in the water and napping under mangroves, marina iguanas, blue footed boobies, and frigate birds (the males have bright red sacks at their necks that puff out when mating). Our tourguide had made friends with a baby bluefooted booby over the last 6 months and it eagerly walked up to greet him, following his hand motions with it’s beak, and even showing off a bit.

After the on-island portion of the tour we got in the water for a 45 minute snorkel where we saw lots of fish, a stingray, and more bluefooted boobies hanging out of the cliffs. The highlight was a swim in one of the shallow pools with sealion pups. They were so playful and curious! You’re instructed to keep your distance, of course, but many would come right up to you. At one point our whole group was watching a few playing to our right, and I turned around to find another pup staring me in the face! We stayed until one of the male lions got agitated and started barking. Time to go!

Full Island Tour

We debated quite a bit on our second tour. We knew we wanted to snorkel, and really wanted to get to the north side of the island that was only accessible by boat. But most of the tours headed that way only made a couple stops and were on the more expensive side. After talking to a few tour companies, we found one that offered an around-the-island tour. It circled the entire island, making a few snorkel stops along the way. Perfect!

We set off early, around 7:30am in a small fishing boat with 4 other passengers, our captain, and our guide. As we set out around the east side of the island we quickly learned why this was the only tour that circled the whole way around — while the west side is fairly protected by the archipeligo, the east side is nothing but open ocean. I popped a couple dramamine and hoped that our little boat was up for the challenge!

The scenery around the island was spectacular and well-worth the bumpy ride. We saw lush, green mountains that ended in vertical black-rock cliffs, waterfalls pouring out of the cliffs into the ocean, and pristine white-sand beaches.  Our first stop was at Blanco beach, known for it’s marine turtles. Here, we snorkeled in a secluded lagoon with three giant (seriously, the biggest was at least 6 feet!) turtles, and explored the beach where we were the only people for miles. We did not see any of the tintoreras (harmless sharks without teeth), but I did come across a sea turtle snacking on sea grass. Their jaws are massive!

Kicker Rock through the key

 

Kicker Rock up close

After this we headed up to Punta Pitt, the only place on the island where you can see the redfooted and Galapagos boobies. Tours destined only for Punta Pitt allowed visitors to hike up the cliffs to get closer, but as we had a full day ahead we just took our photos from the boat. We also stopped for another snorkel here, where we encountered tons of brightly colored fish, and a playful sealion that swam up to us as soon as we jumped in and stuck with our group the entire time, swimming close, and mimicking us as we swam down and around.

Continuing on to the east side of the island we circled Kicker Rock for some photos (we couldn’t snorkel here because it requires a special permit and specific tour only for this spot), then headed on past Isla Lobos to one of the beaches we had stopped at after our Lobos tour. I was pretty cold and snorkeled out at this point, but Kyle went out and expolored the surrounding rocks that were full of…you guessed it…more fish! Overall, a fantastic day.

Highlands

I had read a few blog posts about travellers renting a taxi for the day to explore the highlands of San Cristobal. This usually included a trip through El Progreso, a small farming community, a hike to the only fresh-water lake on the island – in the top of a crater, a tortoise breeding center, and supposedly the best beach on the island. The draw of these places was enough to eventually overcome my trepidation of negotiating all of this, for a reasonable rate, in Spanish, with one of the pickup truck drivers that are the island’s taxis.

Luckily it turned out to be easier than we had expected. We flaggged down a woman cab driver named Isabel who was patient with our less-than-perfect Spanish and told us a little about the island on the way. She was super nice, and even gave us a couple bananas from a tree at her home to snack on along the way.

The lake, El Junco was pretty awesome. We hit it on a rare clear day, and we could see the landscape perfectly reflected in it. As the only freshwater lake on the island, many of the seabirds come here to rinse their features and it was cool to see them one after the next dive headfirst into the lake.

At our next stop, The Galapaguera, we arrived around feeding time, and were greeted by a giant (4 ft long) tortoise snacking on some leaves right next to the entrance. Walking along the paths we saw other equally massive tortoises. We also checked out the breeding center — the central purpose of this facility. Giant tortoises were hunted almost to extinction in the earlier part of the 20th century, and invasive species continue to be a threat to their eggs. This center, and others like it on Isabella and Santa Cruz, works to ensure that as many tortoises as possible survive and can be released back into the greater park lands.  The workers collect the eggs, taking care not to reposition them, then go through a tedious process to ensure that the baby tortoises have a similar experience to the wild where they spend about 30 days in total darkness digging themselves out. After this, the tortoises are separated into areas based on their age until they are old enough to raom the whole facility.

Punto Chino by land

The last stop was Punto Chino, a soft, white-sand beach on the east side of the island. It’s protected by a cove so the water never gets too rough. Here we found more of the striped fish from earlier and tons of tiny finches scavenging on lunch scraps —  right out of our hands!

Interpretation Center & Frigatebird Hill

In spite of it’s completely ambiguous name, the Interpretation Center was actually really interesting. It has a comprehensive history of the islands through present-day. Just past the Center was the path to Frigatebird Hill. It’s a rather steep but well-maintained trail through the volcanic rock desert landscape. At the top are two viewing platforms, great for watching the sun set and (you guessed it!) bird watching. There’s also a path down to another beach on the backside of the hill that we didn’t make it to. We got distracted along the way by this guy:

Beaches

San Cristobal is full of gorgeous beaches – all that’s needed is a wetsuit and snorkel to enjoy! We rented wetsuits for the week so we could explore on our own, and it ended up being a great decision. We used them almost every day and it was fantastic being able to go out on our own schedule.

Aside from our tours, we went to three other beaches on our own: Lover’s beach tucked back behind the Interpretation center, La Loberia about 1 km north of the airport, and the beach closest to town. The first two were the best, more secluded by their distance from the town. Kyle saw his first sea turtle at Lover’s Beach, along with the usual fish and sea lions. There were sea lion pups everywhere — one we came back to our stuff to find a pup passed out next to my Nikes.
 

 

Lover's Beach before sunset
Lover’s Beach before sunset

Lover’s beach was especially picturesque at sunset. We decided to adventure up to the abandoned lighthouse to get some photos from a higher vantage point. After traversing the rocks and marine iguanas we encountered a family of sealions camped at the entrance. We had come this far, so we gave them a wide berth and snuck in around behind them. What we didn’t anticipate was the sealion pup that decided to follow us inside while we were up at the top. We came down the stairs to find him camped out under the bottom one, blocking our only exit! After trying to coax him to move to no avail we were left with one option: leap over the little guy and be on our way before the bigger ones got angry.

 

La Loberia was a much longer trek, but equally worth it. The beach itself was nice, the water was warm, and I encountered my first sea turtle. He let me follow him around for awhile until I got tired and turned back. On the way back to the beach we also encountered a massive Stingray that emerged from the sand right beneath us!
 

Eat

The food on San Cristobal was mostly underwhelming, but you don’t come to the Galapagos for the food, right?

Bomb food and amazing service!
Bomb food and amazing service!

For the most part we stopped by the local bakery for breakfast pastries and had Almuerzos for lunch ($3-5 for a 2-course meal plus juice). Our favorite dinner spot was this little pirate-themed seafood restaurant a couple blocks from our AirBnB. We watched the Super Bowl here with another American and a handful of Europeans.

 
 

Drink

No drinking recommendations, sorry! Aside from a couple beers while watching the Super Bowl, we were on a much needed detox following Bocas.
Current location: Cusco, Peru

Boquete, Panama

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Boquete Panama was our second stop on our tour of Panama, and it did not disappoint.
Getting there:
Getting from Panama City to Boquete was a fun and adventure by bus. We woke up early and headed off to the Albrook Terminal after a quick breakfast and arrived around 7:30am. There is not a lot of information on bus schedules online and you can’t buy your tickets online, so we went and hoped for the best. We got tickets onto the 8:35am bus to David. The bus was a standard double decker tour bus with big comfy leather seats and never-ending A/C. About halfway through our 9 hour trip to David, we stopped at a cafeteria style lunch spot with bathrooms. To our surprise the food here was quite delicious, authentic Panamian and cheap; we both ate a full meal for $8 total. The bus rolled up hills and was a certain reminder of the little engine that could on some of them.
Once in David, we got our backpacks from under the bus and after getting our bearings a little bit found the local bus up to Boquete. This was a converted school bus, and Kim and I just caught it before it left so we didn’t get to sit together. The seats were so close together that my short legs didn’t fit well and we were certainly the only gringo’s on the bus. That said it was fast, safe and got us where we needed to be for $2 each. This was a great start to us getting used to traveling foreign countries by bus.
Once in Boquete’s main square where the bus dropped us off, it was only a short walk to our AirBnB.
Our place:
DSC_3989
The place we stayed in Boquete was lovely downstairs apartment of two people who owned a coffee farm in the hills. Unfortunately, they were away while we stayed in their home, but the guest hosts (Luanne and Robert) were super friendly, Americans (from Mendocino) and a lot of help. We spent a few hours and a bottle of wine with them our last night, and it was great!
The apartment had a big comfy bed, clean spacious bathroom and a small but usable kitchen area with a small fridge and 2 burner electric cook top, which I made full use of.
Outside, was a beautifully kept garden with more flowers than I could name and a nice sitting area with table and chairs. The apartment was about 3 blocks from the main town on a quiet safe street and made us feel right at ease.
DSC_3986
To Do:
We only spent 2 full days in Boquete, which in hindsight was a little short. The town was really cute and we had showed up right in the middle of their Flower and Coffee festival. We spent one of our days in town, going out for a nice breakfast at a cafe called Sugar and Spice. Boquete is the heart of Panama’s coffee region and as such everywhere has coffee good enough to give SF’s best roasters a run for their money. Oddly though, as we would later find out, it is hard to buy coffee beans there.
We spent the morning meandering around and taking in the small town. Then we decided to give a place called Mangoes a try as we heard great things from everyone. The menu looked great, though pricier than we had expected, and we decided on spitting a few items since the heat was holding back our appetite. We both had refreshing salads that left neither of us wanting and split a side of curried carrots. I’m not sure what exactly was on those carrots but they were delicious.
For dinner, we decided to go to the local grocery market and I would cook. We got some fish fillets, rice and few veggies and made a simple meal: Corn meal crusted white fish with buttered rice tossed with carrots, sun dried tomatoes and beets. It came out well all things considered and both of us had leftovers.
Day 2: We got up, ate some breakfast at the apartment with some of Finca Dos Jefes coffee then hit the streets for what was to be an epic walk. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had a small map of some of the places to walk in Boquete and decided on one of the longer walks along Volcancito road. This hike walked along the side of the road up through the coffee farms out of town towards Volcan Baru. We got to see some amazing vistas, the gorgeous coffee farms that reminded me of some of the more quaint hillside vineyards in Sonoma.
The walk up hill on the northside, was temperate with a light mist every once in a while. Once on the southern side of the hill, it become a different place. The sun was hotter and the mist was gone, but the views were stunning. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbout halfway around this side of the hill was when Kim and I both realized that we may have bitten off more than we expected for the day… we had been hiking for about 4 hours and still no where near back to town. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe finally made it down the hillside to the Tourism Office on the main road just outside of town and breathed a sigh of relief, we could see “home”. We got back tired and our feet a little aching, but satisfied and took a few hours of down time to get our transfer to Bocas booked, eat some food and get some much needed sunscreen.
That night we had a lovely evening getting to know our hosts over a glass (or two) of wine. They are a lovely couple that lives part time in Boquete and part time in Mendocino, so we had a lot to discuss and they certainly made us feel at home. They gave us lots of tips about our upcoming adventures (they had traveled a bit themselves) and we greatly enjoyed talking to other people in English.
The following morning we packed up early and headed to the square to catch our shuttle to Bocas, and off to the next chapter.

Written from a table at Manso Boutique in Guayaquil, Ecuador.