Winter in Silver Gate lasts six months. From November through April it’s usually cold and snowy at our place, sometimes bitterly cold and extremely snowy.
This year Marie and I decided to break up our winter marathon with a month-long escape to somewhere warm. We considered a bunch of destinations before agreeing on the Galapagos Islands. A beautiful beach is enough to keep Marie happy for an extended period of time, but I get antsy pretty quickly without some kind of activity. Galapagos threads that needle by combining beautiful beaches with endlessly fascinating wildlife to photograph.
Getting from Montana to a volcanic archipelago 600 hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador took some effort. Step one was to drive to Denver, where we’d leave our little white dog to be spoiled by my mom for a month (hopefully not irreparably). And on the way to Denver we needed to drop off Marie’s son Aidan in Bozeman, where he was joining the Air Force and would be shipped off to Texas for basic training.
Snow fell before we left, followed by a dramatic drop in temperature. My car’s thermometer read -20F when we pulled out of our driveway before dawn and started driving through Yellowstone. At first light the clear, frigid air created a spectacularly complete sun dog.
The roads were not awful up to Livingston, but the stretch from Livingston to Bozeman was as icy and hazardous as we’d ever seen it. My car slid and skidded, even at painfully slow speeds. Eventually we made it to Bozeman and delivered Aidan to the beginning of his big new adventure. “My baby boy,” Marie said wistfully as we fishtailed our way back to the highway.
“The roads have to get better at some point,” we assured ourselves, but conditions remained terrible. By the time we crossed into Wyoming we’d lost count of the number of spun-out vehicles we passed. As darkness fell we were still in the middle of Wyoming. I’m usually not one to bail out before reaching our intended destination, but driving at night on icy roads through one of the most deserted parts of the country in life-threatening temperatures didn’t strike either of us as a great idea. We pulled off at Casper and found a hotel.
The next morning my car almost failed to start. At one point just after sunrise the dashboard said it was -37F outside. Only when we reached the Colorado border did the roads finally improve. After a day and a half of white-knuckle driving we could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The next morning my mom gave us a ride to the airport, and the following morning we stepped out of a plane into the hot, humid air of the Galapagos. It felt incredible. The contrast with Silver Gate couldn’t have been more stark. We’d gone from an icebox to an oven.
This was Marie’s second time in the Galapagos and my fifth. We’d last visited – along with Aidan – in 2019, and during that trip we spent a few nights on the island of San Cristobal, my first time staying on land (instead of a boat). For this visit our home base would be Puerto Ayora, the largest city in the Galapagos, on the island of Santa Cruz. Marie found a great little airbnb apartment that was surprisingly affordable to rent for a month. A big part of the apartment’s appeal was its location, right by the start of a trail that leads to Tortuga Bay, a half-mile stretch of white sandy beach within the borders of Galapagos National Park.
The trail to Tortuga Bay was closed during our first two days in Puerto Ayora, so it wasn’t until our third day that we were able to make the 1.5-mile walk for our first in-person look. We loved it immediately. A wide ribbon of powder-soft sand stretched to the horizon. Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans and Blue-footed Boobies soared overhead, herons hunted from small patches of lava rocks, and countless shore birds darted energetically in the surf. Small dark shapes dotting the beach turned out to be marine iguanas, some slowly shuffling their way through the wet sand, others using their long tails to propel themselves through the water.
We’d been told the currents at Tortuga Bay’s main beach (Playa Brava) were dangerous but that at the western edge there was a calm lagoon (Playa Mansa) that’s perfect for swimming. Snorkeling in the lagoon turned out to be a mixed bag. There was an amazing concentration of marine life, but visibility was awful. On my first snorkeling outing I came across a group of whitetip reef sharks, but the water was too murky to see them clearly. I enjoyed the snorkeling but much preferred walking around taking photos.
The next morning I hiked back to Tortuga Bay before dawn, establishing a pattern that lasted our entire trip. I’d leave our apartment at about 5:40am, timing it so that I arrived at the beach just before sunrise. Marie would sleep a little more before heading over to meet me, and then when the beach began to get hot and crowded we’d walk back to our (air conditioned) apartment together. In the early morning I sometimes had Tortuga Bay entirely to myself, which felt magical. But by about 9am throngs of people would begin to pour in and break the spell.
It surprised me that Tortuga Bay – just that single area – had such a high percentage of the iconic wildlife that people come to the Galapagos to see. Blue-footed Boobies and Brown Pelicans fished just offshore. Frigatebirds hovered overhead, waiting for an opportunity to steal a catch. Lava Gulls, Lava Herons, Great Blue Herons, Whimbrels, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and Sally Lightfoot crabs patrolled the surf. Marine iguanas, lava lizards, sea lions, and hermit crabs sunned themselves on the sand. In the water we saw adult whitetip reef sharks, baby blacktip reef sharks, baby hammerhead sharks, stingrays, spotted eagle rays, eels, and sea turtles. One morning on our way back from the beach we came across a giant tortoise, and several times we saw a Galapagos snake on the path. I felt happily overwhelmed.
During our first few days in Puerto Ayora we also stopped by some travel agencies to ask about last-minute deals on a boat tour. When a boat doesn’t sell all of its cabins or has a cancellation, they sometimes offer a steep discount to people who are able to leave on short notice. Pretty quickly we found an opening on a week-long boat tour that would be going to two of the less-commonly-visited islands, Genovesa and Fernandina, which seemed like an ideal itinerary. We hadn’t planned on leaving Puerto Ayora quite so soon, but after some hand-wringing we decided to take the deal and spend our second week in the Galapagos out on the water.
9 thoughts on “Puerto Ayora, Galapagos”
Rob, every time I see your photos, I am more amazed. What a wonderful gift you have!
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I really appreciate that, thanks Ken, hope all is well!
Beautiful pictures and wonderful story. You are indeed blessed with talent and fantastic opportunities for many great adventures. Thanks for sharing them with us.
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Thank you, I really appreciate that!
Rob, so great to see you on the Road Again. What an incredible place the Galápagos Islands are, especially for a person with talent as a nature photographer – like yourself. Enjoyed your story line and of course the amazing photos. Lance
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Thanks Lance, I appreciate that!