Yep, going back for another round was greedy.
I’d already collected more than my fair share of trips to the Galapagos Islands – with visits in 2001, 2008, and 2011 – but I can’t seem to get enough. And this time it would be different. My previous trips were solo, but now I’d get to experience the islands with Marie and her 16-year-old son Aidan. Also we planned to spend a few nights on land, which I’d never done before, and our boat tour would take us to Fernandina, an island I’d never seen.
Total travel time from the Bay Area to San Cristobal, our first destination, clocked it at over 30 hours, with an interminable layover in the dreary Mexico City airport and a short stop in Quito. But stepping from the plane into the soft tropical salt air and bright mid-day sun made it easy to put the flights behind us and start enjoying the Galapagos.
Our hotel was a stone’s throw from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno’s main pier, where we had our first encounters with the island’s ubiquitous sea lions, marine iguanas, and pelicans. I’m endlessly delighted by the way the animals in the Galapagos generally have no fear of people. Later at nearby Playa Mann a sea lion decided to settle down for a nap on top of some tourist’s belongings, and when the woman tried to pry loose her hat and towel the sea lion grunted irritably at the disturbance.
San Cristobal was a perfect place to unwind for a couple days before starting our boat tour. At Playa Mann I had my first chance to snorkel with sea lions, one of my favorite parts of visiting the Galapagos. Occasionally a sea lion in the mood to play might swim around you in circles, or mirror whatever you’re doing, or dart right at you before turning away at the last second. They look and act so much like dogs I have to be careful not to reach out and pet them.
On our third morning we boarded our boat, the Aida Maria, for a week-long tour. I kept my fingers crossed for a good group. The boat had room for 16 people (in addition to the crew), and it makes a big difference if the other passengers are friendly, active, and low-maintenance.
Just before lunch we met our guide, Felipe, and the nine other passengers that would be starting the tour with us: Eki and Ena, a middle-aged German couple, three solo travelers on long trips – Yvonne, a nurse from Holland; Paul, a soft-spoken Brit; and Marek, a Polish guy who seemed as focused on photography as I am – and an older couple from the US, Terry and Renee, along with their son Alexander and his French husband Nikolas.
Our initial impressions were mixed. Everyone seemed nice enough, but very reserved. Eki and Ena spoke almost no English (or Spanish). Paul spoke so quietly that we could hardly hear him. At our first few meals I tried to overcome my own introversion and draw people out, but I failed to get much going. It turned out we just needed to give it some time. The group gradually relaxed and began to warm up.
Any concern I had about the group paled in comparison to the alarm I felt when, at our first lunch on the boat, I bit into a mouthful of rice and realized that something had gone very wrong with my bottom-left molar. I’d been feeling pain there for months, and my dentist had tried to find the problem, but we weren’t exactly sure what was going on. It turns out a hairline crack in my molar had split, and a chunk of the tooth was now only loosely attached. As long as I wasn’t chewing it didn’t hurt, but I worried that things back there would get even worse when we were a long way away from any kind of dental care. It also meant that for the rest of the trip I’d have to chew my food on the far right of my mouth like a lop-sided chipmunk.
I love getting into the boat routine in the Galapagos. After breakfast we usually took the dinghy to one of the islands for a hike, followed by snorkeling, lunch, another hike, and another round of snorkeling. After dinner our guide outlined the schedule for the next day, and then overnight the captain would usually move our boat to a different island or a new location. Our itinerary took us from San Cristobal to Santa Fe, South Plaza, Santa Cruz, Isabela, the infrequently-visited Fernandina, Santiago, Rabida, North Seymour, and finally Baltra, where we would catch our plane back home.
Not too long into the tour we had our first great sea lion experience. Off the coast of Santa Fe island we found a couple of sea lions in a playful mood, and for almost twenty minutes they swam with me, Aidan, and Marie (who isn’t a big fan of snorkeling with unpredictable marine creatures but managed to overcome her reservations). The sea lions shot around us in circles, tugged on our flippers, and imitated our movements. One of them touched its whiskered nose to my forehead, and at one point it tried to start a game of fetch with the GoPro I was holding out in front of me.
I loved every second of it. I’m sure sea lions act similarly in other places, but I’ve never been able to have that kind of experience anywhere except the Galapagos.
During another snorkeling outing I was following a couple of sea turtles when I noticed some webbed feet paddling nearby – a flightless cormorant, which I’d never seen underwater before. The cormorant completely ignored me for several minutes while I watched it methodically hunt for small creatures hiding among mossy rocks near the shore of Isabela.
After a few days we started referring to Aidan as the Mayor. His social skills far outshone mine and Marie’s, he appeared to be completely at home on the boat, and the other passengers seemed to really enjoy getting to know him. Eventually Aidan had some competition when four more people joined us: Janice and Franco, an American couple on their honeymoon; and Alla and Daniel, a Russian mother and son who have been living in Canada. Janice and Franco brought some very welcome energy and personality, and if Janice had more time she definitely would have challenged Aidan for the Mayorship.
On the fifth day of our tour we reached Fernandina, geologically the youngest island in the Galapagos, and out-of-the-way enough that few tourists get to visit. As soon as we stepped on the island from the dinghy we came across a dense cluster of over 100 marine iguanas huddling together for warmth – a phenomenon I’d never seen before. The island was packed full of lizards.
One afternoon off the coast of Isabela, as we motored to our next destination, someone spotted a whale near the boat. From the front deck we watched as the whale spouted and eventually dove, leaving us with a good look at its tail.
Proving yet again that it’s a small, small world, I learned I shared some surprising connections with a few of the other passengers. Renee and Terry grew up around the same part of Kansas City as I did, and Renee and I discovered that as students we’d participated in the same volunteer program – Amigos de las Americas – where we’d been trained by the same nun – Sister Mildred. Janice and Franco also grew up near Kansas City and went to my high school, Shawnee Mission East, graduating many years after I did but overlapping with some of the same teachers.
“Did you ever hear about the time someone at our school drew a Mercedes logo on a banner instead of a peace sign?” Janice asked.
“Not only did I hear about it,” I laughed, “the person who did it is a good friend of mine, and I can’t wait to tell her I ran into someone who asked about it on a boat in the Galapagos Islands thirty years after it happened.”
Towards the end of our trip I took a punch to the gut when Marek showed me some of the photos he’d captured. “Oh man, those are better than mine!” I said, hating to admit it. I comforted myself with the idea that Marek took his best shots when he left our group to photograph sunset on Isabela and ended up catching some great light, but regardless it was a slap-in-the-face reminder that I need to pick up my game.
None of us wanted the trip to end. Marie, Aidan and I were dreading our marathon flights back home, which – thanks to an 11-hour layover in Quito – would take even longer than our flights to the islands. I was extremely thankful, however, that the trip worked out so well, and that my broken tooth didn’t go completely off the rails while we were in the middle of the Pacific.
As incredible a time as we had, I must confess that I feel just as greedy as ever. I’m still nowhere close to having my fill of the Galapagos. How long until I can go back for visit number five?