Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil, Galapagos

Marie and I fell happily back into our normal Puerto Ayora routine.  Before sunrise I hiked to Tortuga Bay to photograph wildlife in the morning light.  Marie met me a little later, and when the beach started getting crowded we returned to our apartment to escape the midday heat.  Sometimes we made the rounds of local stores to look for eggs, which were in short supply on the island, and when we found some Marie made breakfast.  In the late afternoon we walked to a cafe that overlooked Puerto Ayora’s main pier, where we drank cold Peroni beers while enjoying the views and the breeze coming off the water.


Marine Iguana Sunrise Silhouette


Great Blue Heron Coming in for a Landing at Tortuga Bay


The pier bustled with activity – tourists arriving and departing, water taxis shuttling back and forth, ferry boats being cleaned and repaired, kids and dogs playing in the ocean.  Frigatebirds circled overhead and sea lions napped on the dock.  During our first week in town the area around the pier hosted enthusiastic rallies for a mayoral election, and later in the month crowds celebrated Carnival with a DJ, squirt gun fights, and face paint.


Little Blue Heron in Flight at Tortuga Bay


Great Blue Heron Flipping a White Fish


Strange Crab at Tortuga Bay


Lave Heron in a Tree at Playa Mansa


Back in December I had a chance to photograph a Great Gray Owl near our home in Silver Gate, and I was mostly disappointed with my shots.  In particular I thought I did a poor job of capturing the owl in flight.  So I resolved to do better, and the birds in the Galapagos gave me every opportunity.  I spent many hours photographing Blue-footed Boobies diving into the water for fish, trying my best to catch their aerial acrobatics and the way they streamline their bodies before knifing into the water.


Blue-footed Booby Beginning a Dive at Tortuga Bay


Blue-footed Booby Taking Off at Tortuga Bay


Blue-footed Booby Breaking the Plane


Blue-footed Booby Emerging from a Successful Dive


Blue-footed Booby in Attack Mode


Blue-footed Booby in Mid-Dive at Tortuga Bay


Blue-footed Booby Aerodynamic Dive


We’d been back in Puerto Ayora for about a week when Marie and I decided to spend a couple of days in Puerto Villamil, a town on the southern part of Isabela island.  On a boat trip in 2011 I saw hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies diving in unison at Puerto Villamil, and I hoped it was a common enough occurrence that Marie and I might be treated to a similar show this time.  We headed over on a morning ferry, a ride that was surprisingly uncomfortable but only took a couple of hours.

Overall our visit was a letdown.  Our hotel was right on the beach, which was great, but the water in the swimming pool Marie had been excited to use was the color of toxic sludge, and our room overlooked a soccer field that held loud matches into the wee hours.  Biting flies landed on us whenever we went outside.  I never saw more than a handful of Blue-footed Boobies diving together (not what I hoped for, but still fun to watch).  And on our second day I picked up a case of food poisoning, bad enough that I threw up – for the first time in as long as I can remember – and then battled a wave of fever chills.


Three Blue-footed Boobies Diving by Puerto Villamil


Brown Pelican in Mid-Dive


Yellow-crowned Night Heron Eating a Sally Lightfoot Crab


Pelican Diving at Puerto Villamil


Blue-footed Booby Aerodynamic Dive at Puerto Villamil


Two Pelicans Diving at Puerto Villamil


I’d booked a snorkeling trip to “Los Tuneles” for the morning of our third (and last) day in Puerto Villamil, and I almost bailed out.  Marie hadn’t planned to join anyway, and I still felt bad from the food poisoning.  But the two Montana guys who’d been on our recent boat tour told us that Los Tuneles had been the highlight of their entire trip, so I decided to give it a go.

Our group consisted mostly of older Germans, and at our first snorkeling stop I struggled to stay out of their way.  Many of them had GoPro cameras attached to comically long selfie sticks, and whenever we saw an interesting animal they shoved their cameras right up in its face.  When we returned to the boat our guide realized that someone was missing – a German named Ziggy.  Ziggy had apparently wandered off, and it took our guide almost a half an hour to locate him.  At our second snorkeling stop we found a sea horse, which was very cool to see, but it was tough to get a good look through the palisade of selfie sticks, and the water was so cold it brought back my fever chills.  I think it’s safe to say I didn’t enjoy Los Tuneles as much as the Montana guys.



Back in Puerto Ayora we had drinks and dinner with Melissa, a woman from South Carolina we’d met on our boat trip.  We’d already learned that Melissa took pride in her travel planning skills, so it wasn’t a surprise when she ran us through all the activities she and her dad managed to squeeze in after their time on the boat.

“So what have you guys been up to?” Melissa asked after her recap.

“Well we just got back from Puerto Villamil, but mostly we’ve been hanging out here and going to Tortuga Bay in the mornings.”

Melissa was clearly not impressed with our use of time, and her reaction made me reflect on a classic debate among travelers – is it better to travel fast or slow?  Fast travel generally means taking in the highlights of many places quickly, while slow travel means spending a lot of time getting to know one specific place.  Melissa and her dad had done an impeccable job of seeing as many Galapagos highlights as possible, and if it was our first visit to the islands I would have tried to do the same.  My take is that both travel styles have their merits, and the only mistake is to believe that one approach is inherently better than the other.

For this trip Marie and I wanted to spend several weeks in one spot, and I couldn’t have been happier that we did.  Each visit to Tortuga Bay was a fun experience by itself, but becoming familiar with the place over time was genuinely special.  Going there so often revealed details and rhythms I never would have noticed otherwise.  The Great Blue Heron I saw on my first visit turned out to have a mate, and sometimes they’d fly to a nest made of twigs in a nearby mangrove tree.  One particular marine iguana always began its morning soaking up the sun, but after a while it would shuffle over to a specific location by a bench in the shade, even if it had to scramble over my foot to get there.  Several pelicans were nesting in a mangrove tree by a big tidepool at the end of Playa Brava, and on most mornings they would return to the tree to feed their four snow-white babies (which began to turn from white to gray as the days went on).  In the calm early-morning surf at Playa Mansa I almost always found baby blacktip and hammerhead sharks – sometimes more than 30 of them – and once a large Galapagos shark appeared along the edge of a wave.


Blue Heron Sunrise at Tortuga Bay


Baby Hammerhead Shark in the Surf at Playa Mansa


Baby Pelican at Tortuga Bay


Blue-footed Booby Flying While Eating


Cattle Egret Taking Off



We met several travelers who’d visited Tortuga Bay and weren’t impressed.  They’d gone in the afternoon, when it’s hot and crowded and the wildlife is less active.  “Fair enough,” I’d say, trying not to sound defensive.  I wanted to explain that Tortuga Bay has most of the iconic wildlife people come to the Galapagos to see, and that in the early morning you can have the place almost entirely to yourself.  You’re free to explore without having to follow a guide, and you’re not limited to the hour or two you usually have on the island walks that are part of a tour.  All of that makes a big difference for photography, where it helps immensely to be able to take whatever time you need to capture good light and interesting behaviors.


Great Blue Heron with a Big Catch


Lava Heron Sunrise at Tortuga Bay


Blue-footed Booby Changing Direction for a Dive


Stingray in the Surf at Playa Mansa


Hazy Sunrise at Tortuga Bay


Marie was amused one morning when she walked over to Tortuga Bay and discovered me sitting next to a sea lion in the big tidepool at the end of Playa Brava, with pelicans squawking in the mangrove trees behind me, marine iguanas and a lava gull to the right, and a baby shark swimming around somewhere in the water.


Rob and a Sea Lion in a Tortuga Bay Tidepool (photo by Marie)


One our second-to-last full day in Puerto Ayora I headed to Tortuga Bay before dawn, as usual, but a security guard at the gate to the trail made me wait – something that had only happened once before.  Slightly frustrated, I walked faster than usual when the guard finally let me pass, not wanting to miss sunrise at the beach.  After only a few minutes on the trail something relatively large flew past me and landed on a tree branch.  I realized it was a Galapagos barn owl, one of only two owl species found on the islands, a nocturnal hunter that’s very rarely seen.  The owl paused just long enough for me to dig my camera out of my backpack and take a few shots in the dim pre-dawn light.  What luck!  If the guard hadn’t delayed me I would have missed it.


Barn Owl Before Dawn on the Path to Tortuga Bay


I felt a little wistful the next morning as I made my final pilgrimage to Tortuga Bay.  No owl met me this time, but as I walked along the surf at Playa Brava I noticed an odd bulge in the sand – a small Galapagos octopus, its body no bigger than a ping-pong ball.  Earlier in the month I’d seen a Lava Gull catch and eat an octopus, and – while I appreciated the photo opportunity – I felt terrible for that poor little cephalopod.  Octopuses have been getting a lot of attention lately as we learn more about their remarkable intelligence – including the fact that each of their eight limbs apparently has its own cognition, which is fascinating – and I keenly wanted to help this one if I could.


Galapagos Octopus on the Sand


The octopus appeared to be stranded in the sand, and with the tide receding it wouldn’t be long before a bird turned my new friend into a meal.  But in trying to help would I do more harm than good?  I pushed my index finger into the sand underneath the octopus, raised it up, and carried the little guy over to the surf.  Initially the octopus refused to let go.  Its tiny suction cups clung to my finger, forcing me to very gently brush it loose.  I hoped the octopus would swim away in the water, but within a minute it washed back up on the sand.  I picked it up again and decided to take it to a large tidepool that had a channel to the ocean.  I set the octopus down in the water on top of a medium-sized rock, and almost immediately it seemed to come to life.  Its coloring shifted slightly to better match the new environment, and all eight limbs sprung into action as the octopus worked its way down the side of the rock and vanished underneath.  I have no idea if I helped or not, but I hope I at least improved its odds of surviving a little longer.


Galapagos Octopus Camouflage


Blue-footed Booby Taking Off in Morning Light


The next morning Marie and I made our way to the airport for our long journey back to Montana.  We loved our time in the Galapagos but felt ready to be home again.  After extended layovers in Quito and Houston we finally made it to Denver, where we met my mom and were reunited with our little white dog.  We’d planned to stay in Denver for a couple of days, but we had to take off early when we received an alert that the furnace in our house wasn’t working right – not ideal when the temperature might drop into the negative double-digits.  Thankfully a neighbor was able to fix what turned out to be a relatively minor problem, and the road conditions for our drive home were MUCH better than they’d been for our drive to Denver a month earlier.

On our first morning in Silver Gate I headed right into Yellowstone, worn out but excited to be in the park again.  I drove to Tower Junction without seeing anything unusual, but on my way back I noticed some movement in the Lamar River – two otters had popped out of the water.  They ran along the ice for a while before disappearing back into the river.  A perfect welcome home from some of my favorite animals.


Two Otters Running on Lamar River Ice in March

3 thoughts on “Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil, Galapagos

  1. Another delightfully informative interlude into our more mundane existence. Thanks again for sharing. I like your observations about lingering vs. more frantic see-it-all visits. Will be adopting more of the former in my senior years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I appreciate that! Different situations call for different approaches, but as I get older I’m finding the slower approach often feels more meaningful


  2. Another delightfully informative interlude into our more mundane existence. Thanks again for sharing. I like your observations about lingering vs. more frantic see-it-all visits. Will be adopting more of the former in my senior years.


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