Galapagos was one of the places that I was truly looking forward to seeing. Magical islands full of wild and wonderful creatures, steeped in significant history, and not easily visited. We arrived after a quick 6 day passage from Panama. We had favorable winds and current. Exit Only’s speed soared to 8-9 knots which is practically unheard of. Thankfully, it was a smooth down wind run. About two-thirds of the way to the Galapagos, we marked another cruising milestone … crossing the Equator. All crew members of Exit Only, except for the girls had crossed the Equator already. We all stood around the chart plotter watching the latitude reach 0 degrees! We had planned a special shellback ceremony for the girls while in Panama. We had special treats (rootbeer soda and a crunchy bar), wigs and costumes and certificates for them. Even King Neptune paid us a visit. We were able to stop the boat, as it was a calm day with little current and wind. We bobbed gently on flat seas. David and the girls performed a hilarious ceremony, complete with oath to King Neptune, to commemorate becoming shellbacks. We sealed the deal by jumping into the warm blue, blue ocean altogether! The girls might have had a little hesitation at the thought of jumping into an open ocean, but they both overcame their fears and plunged bravely into the deep. Once swimming in the lovely clear water, it was pure delight! Check out our video of this nautifcal adventure! VIDEO LINK
We planned on a 4-8 week stay in the Galapagos islands. In preparation, we had contacted a local agent, Yacht Gala, to pave the way for our visit. The agent sent us a long to do list in preparation for our stay. The Galapagos is very protective of its delicate ecosystem and world heritage status. Cruisers must have a thoroughly clean boat hull (so as not to import toxic species of marine life). The waste system must be well organized on board the vessel (trash must be labeled and separated). And certain imported nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses are not allowed into the islands. So we beached Exit Only in the Las Perlas islands and gave the hull an amazing scrub. We gave the girls the job of making all our signs for waste bin organization. And we reviewed our pantry supplies again, just hours prior to arrival in San Cristobal. It was only then that we realized that we still had “banned oranges” on board. We quickly munched our citrusy contraband and disposed the evidence. We were Galapagos ready!
We arrived at San Cristobal Island to get checked in to Ecuador. Once anchored in the pretty bay off Puerto Moreno Bazquierzo, we contacted the agent who scheduled all the officials to inspect the boat. First up was the diver who inspected our hull. He arrived in a water taxi all suited up and holding a waterproof Go Pro video camera. If the bottom wasn’t clean enough, it would mean having to leave and go 40 miles off shore and scrub the bottom again. We breathed a sigh of relief when he came up out of the water and proclaimed that we were “limpio” — CLEAN! Next up was customs, immigration, health inspection, parks inspection, and security. We had more than 10 officials crowded on the boat! Thankfully everything seemed to be in order and they all shuffled off the boat about an hour later. We were official!
There was lots to do and see in the Galapagos. We ended up visiting 2 major islands — San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. Because ourfamily is on a budget, we tried to find things to do which were free or relatively inexpensive. Thankfully, we found plenty to do and see for free while in the Galapagos. I’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite things that we saw while in this amazing place.
WILDLIFE — Booby Birds — You hear stories about all the amazing animals in the Galapagos. All you have to do is walk out your front door and there they are! So many of these animals seem very comfortable with humans. It’s as if they know that they are protected and that we mean them no harm. As we neared the waters around the Galapagos islands, we started to see more and more animals. The first animals were Booby birds who decided to make Exit Only their floating life raft. About 2-3 days out from the islands, booby birds would descend on the boat to make their roost on the bows. Now at first, when there was only one bird we thought "how cute and wonderful." David was able to get within 12 inches of some of the birds to get pictures. The birds showed absolutely no fear. But then that one bird, invited all his friends. They would squawk at each other and fight over perches on the lifelines. And the stench of the droppings was just unbelievable! So we decided to chase off the birds and tie plastic bags all over the life lines. The bags scared off the birds as the plastic flapped in the wind. But we sure must have looked like a crazy boat with about 15 red plastic trash bags hanging off the lifelines.
Sea Lions — The moment you step onto the docks in San Cristobal you are surrounded by sea lions. These playful creatures swim gracefully in the water, have large expressive brown eyes, and bark at each other like friendly dogs. One of their favorite pastimes seemed to be finding someplace sunny to sleep. We often would hear snuffling under and around the sugar scoops of Exit Only as a inquisitive sea lion would be looking for a place to curl up and sleep. We had to chase off a slumbering sea lion on the sugar scoops, more than once! Their other favorite place to hang out seemed to be on the downtown waterfront walkways and beaches. The sea lions would lazily lounge across the path of incoming tourists and locals … you would just have to walk around them. Once while we were talking with some friends down by the docks, a small "friendly" sea lion decided to approach Zoe and Joss. He had decided that he wanted to be sleeping where the girls were sitting. He scooted closer and closer, sniffing the air around the girls. Zoe and Joss watched him a little apprehensively as he approached and finally decided that he had gotten close enough. As they moved out of his way, the little sea lion plunked down under the table/bench where they had been sitting as if he wanted to join into our conversation.
Great Frigate Birds — called "scissor birds" in Spanish because of their forked tails, circle majestically riding the thermals that come off the ocean and the rocky coastline of the Galapagos. Zoe and I completed an animal report on these amazing creatures. They have a wingspan of close to 7 feet and can fly for hundreds of miles. They will not land on seawater. We made a hike up to Tijeratas Hill on San Cristobal. This was a lovely but hot 2 mile hike to a hill that overlooked cliffs dropping into the Pacific Ocean. There was a well marked trail from the beach which then rounded a point with a large statue of Charles Darwin. Another trail headed down to the water and a favorite snorkel area. And finally a paved trail with over 200 steps up to the top of Frigate Bird Hill. Magnificent views over the Bay of Puerto Moreno Basquierzo. The birds would glide on the updrafts just overhead. Another favorite hang out for the Frigate Birds was at a freshwater caldera which was found on the top of El Junco. El Junco is the extinct volcano on San Cristobal island. We visited the volcano and climbed to the top. The caldera is one of the only sources of fresh water on the island. The birds like to come and clean their wings from all the salt water. Or maybe they just enjoy the view, high above the island where one can see verdant forests and azure blue waters in all directions.
Giant Tortoises — We visited the amazing giant tortoises of the Galapagos on San Cristobal Island. These gentle giants were close to extinction 50 years ago. Aggressive breeding and protection policies have helped save these amazing animals. We visited the Galapaguerra Giant Tortoise preserve up in the highlands of the island. Amazingly, the preserve was free and open to the public. The largest turtles at the preserve were 70-80 years old. We were able to walk through the grounds and see several large tortoises who were at least 200-300 lbs. The tortoises were free to roam anywhere in the preserve. They liked to congregate together around small pools of water. The tortoises would let out a braying hiss if someone would get in their favorite spot. In breeding pens, many smaller tortoises would adorably climb on top of one another. Zoe had read in a book about the Galapagos that Darwin had ridden on the giant tortoises many years ago. She was a little disappointed to find out that tortoise rides were no longer available.
Sharks — we discovered the sharks on Santa Cruz island at Tortuga Bay. This placid bay is a favorite spot of both locals and tourists. It is surrounded by mangroves which is the perfect place for a nursery. Many water animals, use mangroves as a safe place for their young to grow. While wading in the clear water, you would occasionally see a twelve to twenty inch black tip baby shark swim by. Surprisingly, they did not seem to be intimated at all by the swimmers or children splashing in the water. Every time a small share showed up in the water, it was almost immediately surrounded by tourists who wanted to get a picture. We also discovered sharks hanging about the anchorage in Santa Cruz. The baby sharks seemed to enjoy hanging about Exit Only. We would try to have a dip in the water every day during our Galapagos COVID lock down. We quickly discovered that the baby sharks seemed very curious about the jumping and splashing. They must have thought that there was an easy meal waiting for them. Within minutes of getting in the water, we would be surrounded by 5-6 baby sharks. The girls would then shriek and quickly climb out of the water. Every so often, usually in the evening, we would see a 5 foot black tip shark swimming through the anchorage. Even though we know that black tip reef sharks tend to be non aggressive, it always felt a like disconcerting to be swimming with them around the boat. Thankfully, the baby sharks moved on after the first 3 weeks of the lockdown. I am not sure what changed, but it made swimming around the boat easier.
BEACHES — San Cristobal and Santa Cruz
There are a number of beautiful beaches in the Galapagos. I was actually quite surprised to discover this. I had imagined a rocky volcanic coastline which would not allow for water sports or beach days. We visited 4 main beaches … Playa Mann was a popular beach with the locals on San Cristobal island. We could see the beach from the anchorage. Lots of families hanging out and playing. Right off the beach, sea lions would play and occasionally come up to visit beachgoers. And best of all, free fresh water showers to rinse off after a dip! Zoe is always looking for new friends to play with. While we were at Playa Mann, she meet 2 American kids who were visiting the Galapagos. I got to talking with their mom and dad, Mindy and Dan, and discovered that the Slaughter family was taking a year to backpack and travel across the globe. It was cool to connect with another family who was traveling with kids. We really hit it off and ended up spending a few days exploring the Galapagos together. The next day, we headed out to La Loberia which was about 2 miles outside of town. We had heard from a surfer that La Loberia that was a good place for snorkeling. It was a long, hot walk in the midday sun, but the kids were troopers. The formed a line, started singing and playing following the leader. We arrived to the Loberia beach to see amazing surf, marine iguanas, and sea lions. The water was beautiful and inviting. We had brought our snorkels and headed out into the water. There, calmly hanging out on the bottom were 3 large sea turtles. The snorkelers didn't seem to bother them at all.
We visited Playa Chin (China Beach) on the opposite site of San Cristobal island during our overland island tour. We had hired a driver for $40 for a tour into the lush highlands of San Cristobal. The highlands were beautifully green in stark comparison to the dark, dry, and rocky coastline. We first visited the El Junco volcano and then stopped at the Galapaguerra Tortoise reserve. We hadn’t really planned on going to the beach, but our driver convinced us that it was worth the stop. It was a short hike down to white, soft, sand and aqua water with perfect body surfing waves. The girls and David were ready to hit the waves in an instant. We had an awesome time enjoying the warm warm water and friendly surf. Several surfers were out in the waves taking advantage of the conditions. The only, minor irritant to our beach excursion were the sand flies. Absolutely viscious!
The final beach that really stood out on this Galapagos adventure was Tortuga beach on Santa Cruz Island. The girls and I met up once again with our new friends, the Slaughters. It was a hot, hot day and a long walk out to the beach on a well marked, rolling path. Every few minutes it seemed like a child would ask, "Are we there yet?" But it was so worth that long, hot walk! About 30 minutes later, we arrived at the beautiful Tortuga Beach. A wide stretch of soft, cream colored sand meeting with an explosion of clear turquoise water with crashing waves. Absolutely gorgeous and nearly deserted, except for the tribes of marine iguanas that watched us from the shore. Zoe, Joss, Aubrey and Ian played in the sand. Then we all headed into the water for a little swimming and body surfing. Some surfers decided to join us in taming the waves. The water was the perfect temperature. What a great way to cool off! I only wish that David had been with us.
SAN CRISTOBAL TOWN — Puerto Basquierzo Moreno
In the 2 weeks that we spent at San Cristobal Island, we had the chance to explore the streets. The town feels well lived in. That is to say, that although there were a fair number of business who worked with tourists (hostels, dive shops, tour groups, restaurants), the locals were well represented. There was a lovely waterfront with artwork, benches, and lots of public playgrounds. We saw many families with their kids in the parks and beaches. We discovered the local farmer’s market or "mercado municipal" where local farmers sold their produce at small stalls … stacks of papayas and bananas, lovely tomatos and potatoes. I think some of the tastiest bananas I ever ate were in the Galapagos! We scoped out the many small tiendas in our search for ice cream and discovered some new favorite cold treats. One of the gems that we found in San Cristobal was a lovely bakery. Donna and Dave discovered the bakery on one of their walks through town. Fresh baked goods were wonderfully presented in baskets and they tasted even better! The bakery also had a small cafe set up. The girls would have happily visited there every day for their bread and pastry creations. One fun experience that we had was enjoying a typical Ecuadorian lunch special, called “comida corrida”. This is a set menu for a low price. We were walking around town with our new friends, the Slaughter family, and getting hungrier by the minute. The typical touristy places had higher prices, so we opted to find a local hangout. We walked past a tiny door and saw a few tables inside with locals eating. Hmm, any good or too risky? A customer inside said that the food was great and beckoned us to come in … $4 for the lunch special, including soup/salad, main course of fish or beef with rice, fresh squeezed juice, and desert. We decided to give it a try. The kids were excited to have their own table and shooed the parents off. The old man who ran the little restaurant was surprised to have a group of 8 Americans frequent his little place. We could watch him working right out of his own home kitchen. It’s always an adventure to try the local cuisine. Our meal was delicious!
LAS GRIETAS — One of our favorite places in the Galapagos was Las Grietas on Santa Cruz Island. This may have been one of the Galapagos’ well kept secrets ten years ago, but now it seems that the masses have discovered Las Grietas. We hopped into one of the local water taxis go pop the anchorage. We walked for about 30 minutes past restaurants and hotels, across beaches and salt ponds. Finally, we reached a rocky trail which led up to a park ranger station. As you looked down, a small canyon cut through steep rocky cliffs. The canyon was filled with water and swimmers. Las Grietas literally means, a “crack in the rocks”. We were hot, sticky and sweaty after our walk, so the water looked like pure paradise. Tourists were everywhere with their snorkels and towels, crowded into a small space around the swim platform. Tour guides called out for their groups. Thankfully once you got in the water, there was room for everyone. We quickly made our way down to the swimming platform and took the plunge. Brr, it was some chilly water but so refreshing. Crystal clear water filled the canyon and as you looked below, several large fish could be seen calmly swimming. It seems that this crack in the rocks is connected to the ocean. The canyon itself was about half a football field long. Our friends the Slaughters arrived about 30 minutes later. The girls were super excited to hang out with their friends, Aubrey and Ian. The Slaughters had already visited Las Grietas once and told us about a cool tunnel that one could swim through. We swam the length of the canyon, scrabbled over rocks, swam through tunnels …. David even scaled part way up one of the canyon walls to make a fun jump into the water. After an hour of exploring the canyon, it was time to head back to the city. We said goodbye to our friends who were flying out to mainland Ecuador and from there Peru. What a pleasure to meet new people in new places and have adventures!
CHARLES DARWIN RESEARCH CENTER — Last on my list is the Charles Darwin Center on Santa Cruz Island. The Galapagos is probably best known for scientist Charles Darwin and his development of the theory of evolution. In the Darwin Center, science continues. They study the environment, ecosystem, and animals of the Galapagos. Over the years, so much of the Galapagos has been developed. Many animal species have become threatened and endangered. New plant species (like the blackberry bush) have become invasive. They have a breeding program for the giant tortoises. We walked around the tortoise pens and read informative plaques. There is even a a climate controlled room with a stuffed, preserved giant tortoise -- Lonely George. He was the last of the Giant Tortoises from Pinta Island. Scientists attempted to have him breed with another tortoise of a different species, but this was not successful. He died in 2012 at over 100 years of age. Some people believe that Lonesome George may have even been alive in the time of Darwin. The girls were fascinated by all the research which was being performed at the center. Their visitor’s center was a lot of fun for the girls with a large whale skeleton, giant tortoise shell to crawl under, and free ecards to send our families.
One of the things that was great about the Galapagos is how we were able to tie in so much of what we learned into homeschool opportunities. Zoe and I learned about tectonic plates, earthquakes, and volcanos. We talked about how geological forces helped to create the Galapagos. Then we climbed an actual volcano on San Cristobal Island -- El Junco. We learned about so many of the special animals that live in the Galapagos. Every week, we researched and put together an animal report. Just stepping off the boat often led to an encounter with animals -- sea lions, Darwin's finches, booby birds, giant tortoises, and sea turtles! We learned about animal habitats, ecosystems, and food chains. Hard to beat this educational experience!
There are so many more things that we loved about the Galapagos and so many more places that we wish we could have visited. Unfortunately, our exploration of the Galapagos was rudely interrupted by the COVID outbreak. After just a few days in Santa Cruz, the islands were shut down to tourism. COVID had reportedly appeared on the islands. Tourists were sent home as quickly as possible. Some of the unlucky ones got stuck in the Galapagos waiting for flights. We would see them lined up by the dozens outside the travel agents' offices. The towns were on lock down with only essential stores remaining open. A curfew was enforced from 2pm until 5 am daily. The police would travel around town blaring on speakers that residents were to stay in their homes. Street cleaners were sent out and sprayed sanitizer on the streets and sidewalks. Residents were instructed to wear masks. We remained on Exit Only for 40 days during the lock down. The only person to get off the boat was David, in order to minimize any possible exposure to COVID. David gallantly did our shopping and procured us with fresh produce and ice cream every few days. We celebrated 3 birthdays while on lock down. Zoe turned 9 years old, Joss turned 6 years old, and I turned ... A good time was had by all despite being confined to the boat.
Several other cruising boats were in the anchorage with us. Everyone had to make a decision where to go. COVID had a big impact on cruising plans. French Polynesia, all the South Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia had closed their borders to any tourism and/or sailboats. Mainland Ecuador was having a significant outbreak of COVID. We didn’t really want to go back to Panama. And hurricane season was coming. We decided to watch and wait for a few weeks before making a decision. The cruisers who were left in Santa Cruz banded together and formed a What’s App group to stay informed and get to know one another better. We had boats from Australia, the UK, France, and the US in the anchorage. Once a week, we passed the time by playing inventive word games via What’s App … fun was had by all and a real sense of comraderie developed. One by one, our friends made their decisions …. Stay Calm headed to San Diego, Lucid and Tintamarre headed for the Marquesas, Askari headed for Australia (a 2 month sail), and we decided to head for Mexico. We were unsure about heading to the South Pacific when so many places had closed borders. All the usual places that a cruiser might go were “closed”. Local populations are isolated and without significant infrastructure if there was a significant COVID outbreak. We felt that we would just be a burden to their already precarious position. With the South Pacific closed, there would be no chance to visit beautiful places like the Tuamotos, the Marquesas, the Cook Islands, Tonga, and Figi. The thought of sailing to New Zealand or Australia directly from the Galapagos was daunting. And even they were not accepting new boats. We began to consider Mexico as a more viable option. The Sea of Cortez is lightly populated and has some beautiful cruising grounds. We hypothesized that this could be a relatively safe place to ride out the worst of the COVID pandemic. And if needed, we could easily pop up to Arizona where Dave and Donna have a home. Additionally, we had a few friends who were already in the Sea of Cortez and who had the similar plans to self isolate. As hurricane season neared, we knew that a decision had to be made. In the end, we decided to head to Mexico to explore the Sea of Cortez. The South Pacfic will have to wait for now.
We left from the Galapagos on April 28 and 22 days later, we arrived in La Paz, Mexico. A new adventure is about to begin!