Exploring Darwin’s Playground

Our journey down the Pan American Highway has already been an amazing adventure, and holds promise for even more incredible places as we continue south. Thus, the unexpected opportunity to visit the Galápagos Islands was not just like icing on the cake, it was like the sparkly candles stuck into the icing, which keep sparking back to life to spread more cheer even after you blow them out. As nature lovers, animal enthusiasts, and self-acknowledged science nerds, being able to explore the famous islands that gave Charles Darwin so much inspiration was a wonderful and unique experience.

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Marine iguana catching some rays at Tortuga Bay.

We had read that the most affordable way to visit the Galápagos is to book everything last minute, so we did just that. We flew from Guayaquil to the small island of San Cristobal without a single tour or hotel booked in advance. It turns out that it was easy to arrange everything as you go, especially during the low tourist season, and we were able to find great deals. We spent our first two days on San Cristobal, taking a great snorkeling tour to the towering rock island of Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion), as it’s known to the Spanish-speakers, or Kicker Rock to the Englishickly-inclined.

Tim checking out the surf break off the point on San Cristobal.

Tim checking out the surf break off the point on San Cristobal.

Surfers and boogie boarders braved this wave, which broke onto some gnarly rocks. Sadly we didn't bring our boards.

Surfers and boogie boarders braved this wave, which broke onto some gnarly rocks. Sadly we didn’t bring our boards.

Happy sea lion catching some late afternoon rays.

Happy sea lion catching some late afternoon rays.

Friendly little yellow bird. As with most of the wildlife, this bird had almost no fear of humans.

Friendly little yellow bird. As with most of the wildlife, this bird had almost no fear of humans.

Leon Dormido at sunset.

Leon Dormido at sunset.

Emily fell in love with this baby sea lion.

Emily fell in love with this baby sea lion.

Leon Dormido.

Leon Dormido.

On our second morning we took the ferry speed boat over to Santa Cruz island, where we walked out to gorgeous Tortuga Bay.

Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Marine iguanas soaking up the sun, Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Marine iguanas soaking up the sun, Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Spread eagle.

Spread eagle. Despite their fierce look, these vegetarian lizards are actually quite docile.

Emily doing the marine iguana pose.

Emily doing the marine iguana pose.

Tiny colorful lizard.

Marine iguana, Tortuga Bay.

Tim versus the lazy marine iguana, Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Tim and a lazy marine iguana, Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

These cactus trees were so strange and beautiful, the tops were spiky cactus leaves, but the thick trunks  had bark like pine trees.

These cactus trees are so strange and beautiful, the tops mare made up of spiky cactus leaves, but the thick trunks have bark like pine trees.

Nosy pelican at the small fish market in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.

Nosy pelican at the small fish market in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.

Fish market in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.

Fish market in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.

This pushy sea lion stuck his head up right under the counter as the vendors cleaned fish and gobbled up all of the scraps.

This pushy sea lion stuck his head up right under the counter and gobbled up all of the scraps as the vendors cleaned fish.

Baby tortoise at the breeding center in the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.

Baby tortoise at the breeding center in the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.

Captive tortoise at the breeding center in the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.

Captive tortoise at the breeding center in the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.

One type of Darwin's finches.

One type of Darwin’s finches.

Colorful land iguana.

Colorful land iguana.

Captive tortoise at the breeding center in the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.

Captive tortoise at the breeding center in the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.

The next morning we crossed Santa Cruz island via taxi, bus, and ferry and boarded a small yacht. Our vessel was the King of the Seas which, despite its elegant name, was a budget class boat. This meant cramped, tiny little cabins with bunk beds. But for us, after living in a van for seven months, the cabin was cozy, and we even had our own bathroom with a shower! Overall the yacht was quite comfortable with three excellent meals cooked daily by Chef Cesar, and a very kind and helpful captain and crew.

King of the Seas.

King of the Seas.

Every tour must be accompanied by a National Park guide, so we were lead by Leo, who was very friendly and knowledgeable. Only once did our overeducated scientific minds get offended by Leo’s facts, and that was when he was discussing the ages of the volcanic flows on the islands and then offhandedly claimed that the Earth was around 300 million years old. Emily practically scoffed out loud when she heard that and just couldn’t hold her tongue, so she politely informed the group that in fact the Earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old, and when pressed further by the scientifically-curious members of the group, went into nerdy detail about meteorites, lunar rocks, and zircon crystals. Despite that minor (ok, very major!) error, Leo was a great guide, always able to identify and offer interesting facts about the flora and fauna, both on land and in the sea.

Leo sharing his knowledge.

Leo sharing his knowledge.

Our tour group in Leo's eyes.

Our tour group in Leo’s eyes.

We spent four days aboard the King of Seas and enjoyed every minute of it, despite the rough passages. Our days consisted of walking on one or two different islands, one or two snorkels along the rocks and reefs, then cruising at night. As duly noted by Darwin, each island varies in its plant and animal species, even if only slightly. We were overwhelmed by the abundance and beauty of the animals and couldn’t help snapping hundreds of photos, at least on land. We didn’t have an underwater camera with us, so you’ll just have to imagine all of the incredible colorful fish, different types of sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, rays, and sea lions that we saw during our snorkeling expeditions.

Giant tortoise in its natural habitat.

Giant tortoise in its natural habitat.

Tim and a hungry tortoise.

Tim and a hungry tortoise.

Ever wondered what a giant tortoise turd looks like? This is a small one compared to some of the ones we carefully avoided. Tim's boot for scale.

Ever wondered what a giant tortoise turd looks like? This is a small one compared to some of the ones we carefully avoided. Tim’s boot for scale.

Tortoise bath.

Tortoise bath.

On the move.

On the move.

Island colors in the early morning.

Island colors in the early morning.

Gull.

Gull gracing a sign.

Gulls with amazing red eyes.

Gulls with amazing red eyes.

Nesting gull.

Nesting gull.

We were lucky to be able to see a newborn sea lion pup, likely less than an hour old.

We were lucky to be able to see a newborn sea lion pup, likely less than an hour old.

Land iguana.

Land iguana.

Colors of the Galápagos.

Colors of the Galápagos.

Tim in his natural habitat.

Tim in his natural habitat.

Mom and baby.

Mom and baby.

Land iguana skull. We were repeatedly reminded of the cycle of life and death by the abundant skeletons, many of them baby sea lions.

Land iguana skull. We were repeatedly reminded of the cycle of life and death by the abundant skeletons, many of them baby sea lions.

Happy on one of the many incredible hikes.

Happy on one of the many incredible hikes.

Colors.

Colors.

Marine iguana.

Marine iguana.

Sneaky lizard on a sleeping sea lion.

Sneaky lizard on a sleeping sea lion.

Snoozing.

Snoozing.

Nazca Booby.

Nazca Booby.

Land iguana.

Land iguana.

One of the many incredible experiences we had on the journey was when we were again approaching Leon Dormido and suddenly the sea exploded with dolphins. There were hundreds of them swimming along with the boat, playing in the waves, and showing off by jumping and twisting more than ten feet in the air. We immediately grabbed our wetsuits and snorkeling gear and jumped in to the dinghy, but it seemed that the dolphins only wanted to show off for us, not play with us, and scattered as soon as we got into the water. We did get a few close passes by the braver ones and got to hear their cheerful clicking conversations in the water. This was one of those experiences better enjoyed in the moment than behind the lens, so again you’ll have to just imagine the huge pod of happy dolphins.

Frigates often flew alongside the boat, almost close enough to touch.

Frigates often flew alongside the boat, almost close enough to touch.

Magnificent frigate.

Magnificent frigate.

Frigates.

Frigates.

Seascape.

Seascape.

Sea lion cuddle piles dotted most of the shores that we saw. We often thought they looked like Hobie when he lazes around.

Sea lion cuddle piles dotted most of the shores that we saw. We often thought they looked like Hobie when he lazes around.

Macho.

Macho.

Awwww. These adorable fuzzy little ones wiggled and waggled all over the beaches, and made quite a racket calling to their moms.

Awwww. These adorable fuzzy little ones wiggled and waggled all over the beaches, and made quite a racket calling to their moms.

These vibrant crabs skittered over the basalt on the edges of every island.

These vibrant crabs skittered over the basalt on the edges of every island.

Cangrejo rojo.

Cangrejo rojo.

Red-footed booby.

Red-footed booby.

Red-footed booby.

Red-footed booby.

Blue-footed booby.

Blue-footed booby.

Trying to look serious.

Trying to look serious.

Niiiiice feet!

Niiiiice feet!

Blue-footed booby and chick.

Blue-footed booby and chick.

Blue-footed flirting

Blue-footed flirting.

Here’s a short movie of a blue-footed booby mating display:

We spent our last afternoon in the islands walking out to Darwin’s Bay, where the Beagle first set anchor. As a biologist and geologist, Emily has a strong appreciation for Darwin and his work, she also happens to share his birthday.

Emily and Darwin.

Emily and Darwin.

Emily admiring Darwin's Bay.

Emily admiring Darwin’s Bay.

We owe a huge thanks to Josh and Shannon for making our Galápagos trip possible. They’re the ones that contacted us and proposed a dog exchange while we took turns going to the islands, and they took such great care of Hobie while we were gone that we didn’t have to worry about him for a second. We are very grateful and feel so lucky that we got the chance to visit such a special place.

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