Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands
Our flight left at midnight from JFK to GYE airport with LATAM airlines. We slept through a majority of the flight- even missing the meal service- so we felt pretty energized when we landed at the GYE airport early morning Saturday.
Upon landing, we went through customs and proceeded to the floor above for departures. Before checking into the flight, there are two lines requiring attention. First, a bag inspection for anything on the prohibited list when entering the Galapagos and the second line was the application for the Migration card (read What to Expect for full details), which totalled about an hour of waiting before we could access the check-in line. We grabbed a passable breakfast at the gate before boarding our plane to Baltra Island.
An easy two hour flight, we made it through the Baltra airport and met our naturalist guide, Alfredo, who accompanied us to the island of Santa Cruz. First step was a free bus that shuttles people from the airport to the dock. Second step was a boat ride ($1 per person) that transfers from Baltra island to Santa Cruz. A car was waiting for us at the port of Santa Cruz to start our day.
Our first stop was two enormous sinkholes referred to as Los Gemelos, the “Twins”, as they sit on either side of the road in very close proximity. Since all the Galapagos Islands are made from volcanic activity, the presence of sinkholes is not uncommon due to pockets of gas that release over time. These two in particular are frequented by travelers due to their size- I do not think pictures capture the massive size of these sinkholes.
After another 20 minutes of driving, we arrived at Manzanillo Ranch for lunch followed by a stroll through the tortoise reservation. Manzanillo trees produce small apple like fruits that tortoises enjoy eating, however, these trees are extremely dangerous to everyone else. Tortoises have strong stomach acid to combat the toxicity of the fruits. But it is not just the fruits- the tree bark and the leaves contain this toxic acid as well. Besides ingesting the tree, even touching causes skin to turn black and requires medical attention. The entire tree is a hazard, except to tortoises. There are signs throughout the Galapagos Islands warning of these trees but it was one of the first things Alfredo taught us and you should know as well.
Our lunch consisted of ceviche (very popular around the islands), chicken and tuna dishes with potatoes and vegetables, and dessert options of coconut panna cotta or chocolate cake.
The ranch expands for miles with a walking path for visitors, surrounded by opportunities to spot tortoises. We spotted several tortoises out and about walking, grazing, swimming, and relaxing. Alfredo heard a familiar cadence and led us to a mating couple… a large male mounted on a small baby… oops! Males must wait until they are large enough to “pin down” a female so she does not move for mating to be successful so once they are ready to mate, Alfredo mentioned the males can be quite aggressive in their mission. Hope that little tortoise is ok!
We changed into bathing suits before making the drive to our next stop- El Garrapatero Beach. There was a long path from the parking area lined with many cactuses, trees (including Manzanillo), mockingbirds, lizards and (of course) Darwin finches. In addition to the Manzanilla trees, Alfredo also brought our attention to Palo Santo or “holy spirit” trees as the smell emitted from the tree oils is used in burning sticks and incense- a familiar smell from our Catholic upbringing.
Once we emerged from the grove, a beautiful beach revealed itself with colors unlike anything we have seen.
The water was strikingly blue and clear, alternating with bursts of cloudy water as the waves kicked up the sand underneath.
We are used to the slate hues of the Atlantic Ocean and while we have dipped our toes into the Pacific Ocean in northern and southern California, nothing looked like this beach. The sand was white, powdery, and fine as we sunk our toes deep beneath the surface. The water was a comfortable temperature so we swam out, finding it hard to comprehend the amazing view.
Suddenly, situated in between Kevin and I, something swam by, perhaps a foot long. A fish? We followed it a few steps more. Nope – a baby shark. We did not expect our first shark sighting to be so unsupervised!
We walked along the beach spotting more Darwin finches and frigate birds until we got to a large lava rock formation that was speckled with bright red crabs. Known as light-footed crabs, their brilliant color is hard to miss against the dark lava rock. A closer look at these creatures proved a bit challenging as the lava rocks are extremely sharp and painful on the bottoms of your feet.
After an hour or so, we made the way back to our car and Alfredo dropped us off at our hotel, Posada del Mar. Our room was spacious and the hotel owner was very helpful and accomodating. The Wifi (like most of Galapagos from what people told us) was poor in the guest rooms but did work in the lobby.
Ulises from Sharksky met us to discuss the plans for tomorrow and gave us several recommendations for our evening. Nonstop since we landed, we allocated an hour of time for a quick nap before exploring the downtown, Puerto Ayora.
Energized, we began wandering the streets of Puerto Ayora. Only a block over on Binford Street were the famous “kiosks” where the street was already filled with tables prepared for the flood of dinner guests.
Our hotel owner suggested a stand, Williams, for their coconut sauce so we followed down Binford Street past the numerous displays of fresh fish and vendors vying for our business. There we split a dish with fish swimming in a coconut sauce, and a heaping serving of rice that separated the beans.
Our hotel owner was right- this coconut sauce was delicious! A guy from New York joined our table and shared his previous ten day experience traveling the Galapagos Island. As he was finishing his trip, we had everything in front of us.
We walked down to the pier where several docks taxied people throughout the bay. The bright lights around the base of the walkway beams exposed numerous baby sharks hanging out below. We spotted at least several dozen so it is hard to image how many were in the waters around us unseen.
Continuing along the harbour, we passed bustling restaurants, vibrant bars, store fronts filled with endemic animal paraphernalia, and the occasional sleeping pelican.
I had read that OMG coffee was the place in Santa Cruz to get your coffee fix so we were disappointed it was closed but the time we reached it. Across the street was 1835 Coffee Lab so we took our chances there. Kevin ordered a cold brew coffee and it was presented in a plastic soda bottle- an interesting to-go vessel! It was a large portion for a coffee, it is unlike Kevin to not finish his coffee, so a good value for this beverage.
Before turning in for bed, we went to Galapagos Deli for our favorite vacation tradition, ice cream!
Our hotel stay included breakfast at the Galapagos Deli next door. We woke early (our sun protection routine took about 20 minutes) for 7AM breakfast with a lovely spread to fuel our morning.
A half hour walk lead us to the entrance of Tortuga Bay, which was filled with mockingbirds and Darwin finches that distracted us from our normal fast stride- it was impossible to not pause and take everything in.
After what felt like an eternal walk, the walkway opened up onto a gorgeous white sanded beach with blue waves smashing into black lava rock transforming the water into white foam before retracting back into the ocean for another round.
This first beach to known for having strong currents and is generally not recommended for swimming, though we did see some surfers attempt to catch the aggressive waves. There is a bay farther down where the waters are calm and perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. The walk tot he bay was filled with marine iguanas, some over four feet long, just sunbathing on the sand.
We were amazed at each prehistoric looking iguana every time we passed one. We found an alcove to the left that perched on top of lava rock with a sweeping view of the ocean. Several pelicans were trying their luck diving for breakfast and slowly, we began to spot little black heads floating in the ocean. The marine iguanas were making their way out into the ocean for their algae meal. It was incredible to witness them embarking on this seemingly impossible task swimming against the waves and current out and then riding the ocean back while navigating the lava rocks.
The bay area finally revealed itself past a line of cacti with a small beach area and lava rock cliff. While we were anxious to explore, we were distracted by rapid movement at our feet. We looked down to small holes, but nothing around. Crouching down, unmoving, we waited to find out who lived inside. Slowly, the tiniest crabs began to peek out using an oversized claw as a walking stick. Known as fiddler crabs, hundreds emerged mimicked the same motion but quickly retreated when they sensed movement.
Before going towards the beach area, we decided to climb the lava rock formation that protected the bay area, giving it the calm and clear water.
While the bugs certainly tested our cool (with high stakes, as losing one’s cool meant falling on to lava rock or a cactus!), we found light-footed crabs and baby marine iguanas all over this small area.
A quick stroll around the bay area and it was time for us to start heading back. On the way, we noticed more marine iguanas lounging in the sun with the periodic sound of projectile snot. The marine iguanas detox themselves of the salty water by blowing it out their nose. By now the number of pelicans diving had also increased so it made for an entertaining walk.
We stopped by our hotel to shower and pack up, grabbing lunch nearby on Binford Street at Sazon Manabita for rice, fish, and beans, and some sort of mystery meat.
With some time to spare before our journey to the next island, we sat at the pier and planned on taking in the atmosphere. Soon we became very attached to a bird that dove from extreme heights in hopes of catching the fish below. The bird finally dove close enough that we identified those iconic blue feet- a blue footed booby! We cheered our new friend on for over an hour.
Leaving the pier, we got our first “up close” encounter with a sea lion nestled right under a bench completey indifferent to the noise of the boats and people around it.
It was time for us to grab our boat transfer to San Cristobal. Make sure when transferring islands to leave at least a half hour before your scheduled departure as a bag check is performed and typically a water taxi is needed to get to your boat. Several people mentioned that this luxury boat was a smooth trip between the islands so I opted against the sea sickness medication. What a mistake. The two hour boat ride was so nauseating we could not imagine what the non-luxury boat was like, my head would have popped off. Lesson learned here!
Continue reading for San Cristobal.
Days Monday and Tuesday were on San Cristobal.
Days Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were on Isabela.
I was not going to make the same mistake with another two hours boat ride ahead of us. About an hour before our departure in the afternoon, we took meclizine 25mg (and it was chewable!) in hopes we would have a more pleasant experience. Thankfully, the medication did its job and worked well for us as we enjoyed an easy ride back to Santa Cruz.
A familiar pier, we knew the way to our hotel, Posada del Mar. We watched a beautiful sunset from our room before heading out for dinner.
Finally having the urge to eat (spoiler alert for those that didn’t read San Cristobal yet!), I refused to return to the kiosks and wanted something very streamline. We passed by The Rock when we were at Santa Cruz before and mounds of regret built up – perhaps if we ate here before, I would not have gotten sick. Not making the same mistake, we grabbed a table and enjoyed a great meal of seafood ceviche and carbonara pasta with mushrooms (self declared off the BRAT diet with this meal). We even got dessert – a chocolate banana bread cake.
Strolling around the crowded streets, trying to suck every last bit out of our final evening on the islands, we slowly made our way to bed.
We woke up early to make the half hour journey to the Darwin Research Center for 7:30AM opening. On the way, the plan was to grab a snack and coffee at OMG coffee since it was closed earlier in the trip. Unfortunately, it was once again closed. A bit of deja vu, 1835 Coffee Lab was once again open so Kevin ordered an iced latte to enjoy on the final minutes of our walk. Upon reaching the center, the signs all indicated an 8AM opening- bad intel! So we sat for the time being until it opened. After finishing his iced latte, Kevin claims best it as the best he ever had- high praise!
Once opened, we made our way through the exhibits. It did not consume as much time as other travelers mentioned but I think it is because we skipped the tortoise reserve since we already visited one on Islabela.
Kevin enjoyed the ice latte so much that he got another one on the way back and bought a bag of their coffee beans- our only souvenir. Thank you for his amazing coffee experience!
We stopped by Galapagos Grill for our included breakfast, Kevin ordering the traditional breakfast spread we become accustomed to and I got the fruit bowl with yogurt and granola.
Recalling our arrival, we reversed the journey starting with a car ride to the dock, passing by Manzanillo Ranch and the “Twins” sinkholes. It felt like a lifetime ago we were just starting our trip with these destinations. Then, boarding the boat ($1 per person) for transport from Santa Cruz to the Baltra Island and getting on a bus (free!) that goes straight to the airport.
An easy time at check-in and security (do not forget your Migration Card!), we waved goodbye to the beautiful Galapagos Islands knowing that one day in the future, we would return (we ate the guava after all!).
We arrived at the Guayaquil airport in the late afternoon and walked to our hotel for the evening, a Holiday Inn. With no time to see the city, this certainly gave us comfort and convenience as our flight out was first thing in the morning. After check-in, we sat at the bar area enjoying time to digest everything we just experienced in the past week over a lovely meal and a bottle of wine.
Our flight to JFK was at 9AM and we were home later that night by 7PM.
|Friday||Night||Flight from JFK to GYE|
|Saturday||Morning||Flight GYE to Baltra
Arrival at Baltra Island
Transfer to Santa Cruz Island
El Garrapatero beach
|Lunch at Manzanillo Ranch|
|Evening||Walked around Puerto Ayora||Kiosks on Binford- Williams
1835 Coffee Lab
Galapagos Grill- Ice Cream
|Sunday||Morning||Tortuga Bay||Galapagos Grill|
|Afternoon||Boat from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal||Kiosks on Binford- Sazon Manabita|
|Friday||Afternoon||Boat from Isabela to Santa Cruz|
|Evening||Walked around Puerto Ayora||The Rock|
|Saturday||Morning||Darwin Research Center||Galapagos Grill|
|Afternoon||Transfer to Baltra Island
Flight from Baltra to GYE
|Evening||Restaurant at Holiday Inn|
|Sunday||Morning||Flight from GYE to JFK|
What we missed on Santa Cruz:
- Las Grietas– a popular snorkeling location between two rocks with plenty of fish to observe. Must take a water taxi to get to the location then walk until you reach the crevices.
- Las Ninfas– a lagoon where seawater and freshwater for sighting of fish and birds.
- Fish Market at Pelican Bay– we passed this several times but never when it was open, which is mornings or afternoons, except on Sunday. Here, sea lions and pelicans wait for leftover fish for an easy meal which is apparently a very entertaining show.
Make sure to read what to expect, what to pack (including this packing video), and our full itinerary.
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