Day 7: Adios, Galapagos. Hola Quito (just for a quick minute)!

Our bus driver was at our hostel at 7:00 a.m. to bring us to the airport. The 45-minute drive brought us back to the Itabaca Channel, where we took another short ferry to Baltra Island. There, we started to say our goodbyes to some of those in our travel group.

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My heart strings were tugged one last time as I had a truly epic view of the islands while we were in the air. What an amazing place!

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Shockingly cool in Quito

The return flight to Quito was an easy one. Getting off the plane was a little more challenging as it was cooler and humid, which was a bit shocking after the weather we’d been in for the past week. Quito is the largest city in Ecuador, with 3 million people. It’s spread out over a large area, flanked in the Andes Mountain range, which offered some stunning views along the 45-minute ride into the city from the airport. When we arrived a week prior, it was late, so we couldn’t see anything. Seeing it in the daytimes is nothing short of impressive.

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Together for one Last Supper

After getting dropped off at our hotel (back at the Sierra Madre), our group wanted to enjoy a  traditional Ecuadorian cuisine together. The front desk guy recommended we try Miskay, which was very close to our hotel. It’s located in the bustling Foch Plaza area and was admittedly a little challenging for us to find at first. The external sign is small, and you then need to walk up a few flights of stairs to get to it. The name Miskay is a combination of two words – mikuna and kawsay, which basically mean food and culture. It’s a perfect way to describe this place.

Every bit of effort to find Miskay was worth it; it had really impressive menu. It even accommodates vegetarians – basically, they sub the protein on any plate with a vegetarian protein option. We all tried different things, from beef, to chicken, to fish (and my vegetarian option). The table went silent when we got our food – it was seriously that good. We also enjoyed some pretty amazing dessert. It was a perfect ending to a perfect trip.

Onward to home

We luckily had just enough time to walk back to our hotel and get cleaned up before we needed to head back to the airport. After some big hugs to our new friends, we hopped in our taxi. The $25 tab for a 45-minute ride seems very much worth it. Our flight had a 12:30 a.m. departure time. Exhaustion was completely set in. With any luck, we’ll crash on the flight to Atlanta – hopefully the first class seats will help.

One thing to note: the VIP lounge at UIO airport is stellar. Large, clean, comfortable, with a lot of great snack options. It was a great place to chill before we headed home.

Truly, a “lucky” trip

It was on the charter back to Santa Cruz from Isabel when we realized how genuinely authentic Alex was being about our “luck” throughout our tour. So often he’d exclaim, “We’re so lucky! This is really rare thing to see!” From being able to see vistas from the various highlands, to seeing several animals up so close, he said it so many times that it became a little joke among us on the tour – Sure, Alex. We’re “lucky.” Wink-wink. However, as we left Isabela, the highlands were encased in clouds; it was the same thing as we approached Santa Cruz. And when we saw the bull sharks in Los Tuneles, he about lost his mind with excitement.

So rather than skepticism, I’m buying into everything Alex said – our group experienced some truly rare and amazing things. We lucked out with:

  • Perfect, sunny weather our entire week in the Galapagos
  • Taking in unobstructed views of the Sierra Negra caldera
  • Getting up and close and personal with sharks
  • Swimming with a wild baby sea lion for an hour
  • Witnessing a newborn sea lion go into the water for the first time with its mama
  • Seeing three wild blue footed boobies: A flirty father, an attentive mother with her eggs, and a baby
  • Enjoying the wonderful company of 13 other travel partners from Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway

I’ll be back with a summary of things to know/consider when traveling to the Galapagos.

Day 6: A final, relaxing day on Santa Cruz

Naturally, it was an early morning, this time to take another two-hour speedboat charter back to Santa Cruz, where we’d have a final day in the Galapagos to do some more exploring of Puerto Ayora. It was nice to have the time to kick back and relax.

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An infant sea lion making it’s maiden voyage

As we walked the Puerto Ayora pier to get to shore, we heard a sea lion barking. We also heard a more muted barking sound. That’s when we saw a mother sea lion with her baby. Alex was able to confirm from the locals that the baby was only a few hours old and hadn’t yet been introduced to the water.

We scurried to get as close as we could to get a view of the mother trying to coax her newborn into the water. She was so patient, first getting in the water to see if it would follow her in, peeking up every few seconds to make sure her baby was okay. Then the back and forth barking began. Eventually, mama had enough and more physically nudged the pup in the water. What a sight!

Finally, some time to relax

If you haven’t noticed, this has been a very on-the-go kind of trip. We haven’t had a lot of time to relax really relax. So we were pretty delighted to hear it was going to be a laid-back day at the beach.

First, we headed to our hostel to drop off our stuff. Hostel Morning Glory is very clean and centrally located, and there are cozy hammocks EVERYWHERE.

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After, we headed to Calle de los Kiosks (kiosk street) to get a traditional Ecuadorian lunch. For just $5 it included a huge bowl of soup, an entree (I opted for shrimp with garlic sauce), and a freshly prepared juice. It was tasty. We then proceeded to the spot next door to get some ice cream as a way to escape the heat.

Alex promised us that Las Grietas (or the Gorge) was something we’d enjoy. First, we took a short, $1 water taxi ride to Finch Bay Hotel Dock, which was the start of the half-mile trail. As we walked, we passed by Playa Punta Estrada Beach, which offered white, sandy beaches and shallow, warm water to wade in. We kept walking and passed pink salt mines before coming to the Gorge, this impressive crevasse that sliced between a lava quarry.

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The Gorge is fed by both the ocean and natural spring, combining to make water consistency known as brackish. I was amazed to learn while swimming that I could open my eyes under water without any pain. The water was cool and clear, and very much welcomed. Afterward, we headed back and hung out on the beach for a couple hours.

Dinner brought us back to Calle de los Kiosks, where we stopped at  TJ’s Restauante, which offered huge portions and 3 for 1s for just $10. I stuck to the 2 for 1 for $7. We were all pretty wiped after and headed back to our hostel for the night. Naturally, we had an early morning ahead of us.

Day 5: Isabela, the land of So.Many.Animals.

Campo Duro is pretty wonderful. It’s clean and comfortable. I can’t decide if it was endearing or annoying to hear the roosters starting their thing at 3:30 a.m. every day. With the remote location in the highlands and clear skies at night, it made for some epic stargazing. And the sunrise was pretty spectacular, too.

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First stop: Tortoise Breeding Center

After a great breakfast that included fresh juice, bread, and scrambled eggs with peppers, onions, and tomatoes in it, we hopped in the truck and headed to the Tortoise Breeding Center. It’s still enjoyable to watch the big, old tortoises move so slowly, while the younger ones scurry around. Something new to us all were the four jars that contained tortoise fetuses in various stages.

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What’s probably the most amazing thing is the size of the egg. They look like ping pong balls, but are a little smaller than the size of a baseball. Apparently, the bigger the egg, the bigger the tortoise will grow to be – and vice versa.

We also got to see some tortoises that hatched just a couple days ago and another bin of tortoises that were less than a month old. They were smaller than the size of my palm.

From there, we took a 15-minute walk through the wetlands to meet our truck. Along the way we saw the tiny fiddler crabs, along with lots of flamingos and iguanas.

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The iguanas could really care less about you; walking over and around them is pretty common in the Galapagos. So it’s pretty easy to snap a photo of them in perfect poses.

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Animals galore while snorkeling at Los Tuneles

Half the group opted to take a 40-minute speedboat to Los Tuneles to do some snorkeling while the other half stayed in Puerto Villamil to explore the small port city.

Along the way, we passed various small islands where we saw several different species of birds (including Galapagos penguins and the blue-footed booby). We even saw a few mantarays jumping out of the water, which are larger versions of stingrays, except these hang out in deeper waters.

The name Los Tuneles (the tunnels) makes complete sense when you get there. It’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of crevices in the water. Alex forewarned us that it was important we stick together and not veer off because it’s easy to get turned around. The water was really clear, making it easy to see all the sea life, which included sea turtles, sea snakes, seahorses, sting rays, various fish, corals, and bull sharks.

True to form, these wild animals ignored us – even the sharks. My heart was definitely beating in a flurry around the sharks, especially when I swam after a pretty large one to get a video of it – and then discovered I had no idea where my group went. Why didn’t I listen to Alex?! Luckily, I found them pretty quickly (and my video is pretty cool), but … yeah, that was dumb.

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All-in-all, we ended up snorkeling for a good 90 minutes or so – there’s just that much to see in Los Tuneles!

Finally – BOOBIES!

After getting back on our boat, The Cactus, we headed to another part of Los Tuneles where we could walk on the lava formations. That’s where we saw the blue footed boobies! First, we saw a very handsome male who posed and let us take lots of pictures of him.

Then we noticed a female (which have even bluer feet) sitting on a nest incubating two eggs.

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We walked around some more and found a three-week old booby who couldn’t yet fly; it’s feathers weren’t yet ready. What was most amazing about it was the same size as the parents, just skinnier and with fluffier feathers. Its feet are still white, which will turn blue by the time it reaches three years old.

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In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s been the joke amongst the entire group about seeing boobies. We yell it often – when we see a bird, when we take a group photo … a lot.

A wonderful last night on Isabela

After picking up the rest of our group at the pier, we headed back to Campo Duro for a night of food, rum, and a lot of laughter and chatter around the bonfire. Most of us tried out the outdoor shower, which was actually pretty awesome.

Mick and Vicki, the Irish couple in our group, got engaged while snorkeling at Los Tuneles. It was adorably cute (Mick asked my travel buddy Kristen to capture it all as it happened), so we definitely celebrated the occasion that night. We all agreed at how lucky we were to have such a fun group. Everyone gets along really well. If you’ve ever toured with a group before, this is not often the case.

Day 4: Adios, Floreana! Helloooo Isabela!

We enjoyed a quick breakfast before heading to the pier to go through baggage inspection, which was required before we could board our water taxi. Baggage check is taken seriously in the Galapagos – they make sure visitors aren’t taking anything organic from the islands and that our hiking shoes don’t have any crud that could contain invasive species on them.

Adios, Floreana …

As we headed to the pier after getting our baggage checked, it was hard to not notice the many pink iguanas. Some were lazily basking in the sun, while one was having a major bout of dominance with another.

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We continued on our way to the end of the pier, where we waited for our water taxi at the Floreana pier. First, we spotted two Galapagos penguins, swimming around. Next, we noticed a young sea lion sitting on a boat, welcoming the newest group of visitors to the island. I don’t think seeing them ever gets old.

 

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Hellllooooooo, Isabel!

It was a relaxing two-hour charter to Isabela Island, the largest of the 15 islands that make up the Galapagos. On the way, we passed by Tortuga Island, where we saw so.many.birds. Alex named so many birds, I couldn’t keep track of them, other than the blue-footed boobies. We were so far away, it was hard to see the blue feet. Oh well. It was nice to get the down time for a couple hours.

The sea lions were in full effect as we approached Puerto Villamil, the main pier on Isabela. Naturally, they were as indifferent to us as ever – so long no one gave them a reason not to be.

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Once we got through the port check-in, the two Norwegian gals who missed their connecting flight were finally able to join us.

Glamping galore

Our group of 14 hopped into the open air truck and headed to the Campo Duro Ecological Lodge, which is located on the base of the Sierra Negra volcano. Campo Duro had lush, green vegetation everywhere, all perfectly manicured. It. Was. Beautiful.

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Our large tents were already set up when we arrived, with large mattresses in them. It was definitely more on the glamping side of things.

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We were given a tour of the grounds, which included two outdoor showers that were surrounded by flower-covered bushes. (They had nice indoor ones, too.) There were fruit groves everywhere, several hammocks, a couple large firepits, and a large space to eat, drink, and most importantly, charge our phones! (I know, I know.) After the treehouse experience, this was definitely a great way to “go backward” from an accommodations standpoint.

A hike to the top of Sierra Negra Volcano

There are five active volcanoes on Isabela, with Sierra Negra being the largest. It last erupted in 2005 and is expected to erupt any time. Getting to the park entrance was a very bumpy ride in our truck, but the views were stunning.

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From there, we took a brisk, 30-minute hike up 4,000 meters in elevation to get to the top of the volcano and take in views of the caldera. The hike up was hot and full of sun, but once we got there – whoa.

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Alex said we were incredibly lucky – usually, it’s overcast and misty, but for us, it was a beautifully clear, sunny day. The massiveness of it was pretty awesome. Thankfully, and as expected, the hike down was much easier, but still challenging, as there were sharp rocks everywhere.

Beach time and a tasty dinner

We were all pretty warm after the hike and were looking forward to some down time to lay on the beach and relax. This beach was a little farther away from the pier, but had everything we could want – cool aqua blue water, a nice breeze, hammocks, and a couple restaurants to choose from. There were quite a few waves, and we even tried to body surf, with no success.

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We stayed just long enough for a lovely sunset before heading to the beachside restaurant Booby Trap for dinner.

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Booby Trap had a nice sized menu of to choose from. I opted for the camaraones con salsa de ajo (shrimp with garlic sauce). Most others either got fajitas (which was more like a big taco) or pizzas. It was really tasty and the portions were shockingly big. After a very busy day, it was a quiet truck ride back to the camp; we were unanimously exhausted.

Day 3: Dancing with a baby sea lion on Floreana

We slept hard after the long, exciting day before. Since the tide was low in the morning on Floreana, we had another early start to the morning. After breakfast, we went on a half hour hike to Loberia Beach, where we were going snorkeling.

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Alex said we’d likely see a lot of sea turtles and fish there. He also forewarned us that there was a large bull sea lion on the other side of the point. This meant we should stay in the water and avoid going on shore, otherwise, it might try to bite – or mate with – us! NOTED … stay in the water.

Loving life with a baby sea lion

The waves at Loberia were quite strong, making the water a bit murky with sediment since it’s just off shore. We were swimming and floating around with the sea turtles for a half hour or so when a sea lion decided to join us. Alex confirmed it was a female and just a few months old. She was SO playful, getting so close that I even touched one of her back flippers. One of the cutest things … she kept finding shells and coral on the bottom of the ocean floor and would chew and play with it like it was her own toy. It reminded me of my dogs; the behavior was so similar.

We played around with her for a good hour before eventually heading back to shore. She followed us all the way, seeming disappointed we were ending play time so early. Kajsa, one of the Swedish gals in our group, were the last to get to shore. As we did, our new friend swam between us and hopped up on a rock. She barked her goodbye to everyone before hopping back in the water. This is indisputably the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced. Playing in the ocean with a wild, baby sea lion!

Views from the highlands

We were all pretty intoxicated from our snorkeling adventure the entire walk back to our guesthouses. We had an hour to rest before lunch, which like the night before, consisted of a vegetable soup starter, and a main of rice, veggies, and grilled protein. Afterwards, our truck picked us up and brought us to the highlands, which were noticeably much cooler.

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Once up in the highlands, we saw a few more land tortoises and listened as Alex talked about how the island first became inhabited in the 1800s. The views were really lovely. It was a nice, easy ending to a busy, adrenaline-filled morning.

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A rum-filled sunset

We had a few hours to do our thing after the highlands. Since we needed to leave early the next morning, we went back to pack up our stuff, clean up, and catch a cat nap before heading back to Black Beach to catch another sunset.

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A group of us agreed to go in on a bottle of rum (it was a steal at $15 compared to everything else) so we could enjoy some more Cuba Libres as we watched the sunset. One bottle turned into two, so we had a nice buzz by the time we got to dinner.

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Dinner was similar to the night before – soup starter with rice, veggies, and grilled protein for dinner. I had visions of the dancing baby sea lion in my head as I nodded off to sleep that night.

Day 2: Amazing animals on Santa Cruz … and onward to Floreana

Sleeping in the tent was nice and cool, dry, and comfortable. The exhaustion from the night before set in; I slept through the entire night. It was a little fun to be woken by roosters – the reserve is near a lot of farmland.

More tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station

After an early breakfast, we took a 45-minute bus ride to Puerto Ayora, the biggest city on Santa Cruz Island. We made our way by foot to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where environmentalists are helping ensure the once nearly-extinct giant land tortoises can again thrive. We saw tortoises ranging from 1 to 120 years old. The young tortoises were adorable, moving much more quickly than their older family counterparts. It was truly fantastic.

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At just 5 years old, they were about the size of a gallon milk jug

There we even saw two old guys fighting. Granted, it only lasted about 15 seconds, and it just involved them hissing and extending their necks as high as possible – and one snap to show who was more dominant, it was pretty cool to watch!

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Iguanas. And crabs. And pelicans. And sea lions!

We had a couple hours to walk around and explore Puerto Ayora on our own. We saw a pretty alleyway leading to the bay and went to check it out.

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First off, it was an absolutely gorgeous view of the main bay in Puerto Ayora.

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There in this lovely little nook were marine iguanas and red crabs everywhere. Two large marine iguanas swam toward us; they seem to be just as curious and excited to see us as we are them.

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Alex recommended we stop by the waterfront fish market. “It’s absolutely wonderful! There will be lots of animals there.” Boy, was he right! One hilarious sea lion literally had his head on the hips of the women working. How they ignored him, I don’t know.

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There were also several pelicans and iguanas hanging out, waiting to be thrown some fish parts. We even saw a stingray making several rounds.

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We kept walking and found a place to grab some lunch. I opted for shrimp ceviche and the local beer Endemica, which was a tasty blonde ale. Vicki, one half of the Irish couple, came by and nudged me to walk across the street to see the sea lions. I was expecting them to be swimming in the water or resting on a pier. Nope! Four adult sea lions were on the sidewalk sleeping. I was able to lay and sit next to ones; they didn’t move a muscle. The experience had us all giggling like little kids.

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Onward to Floreana Island

After getting our giggle on over the sea lions, our group headed to the main pier to pass through baggage check. We then hopped on a quick water taxi to our speedboat that was waiting to take us on our two-hour trip to Floreana Island. Only about 150 people live on Floreana, and you can only get there with a guided tour. Once we arrived, sea lion fever kicked in again – they were everywhere, along with more pink iguanas. Before we got too excited about the animals, we quickly checked in with the port guard before spastically getting back to snapping photos of the remarkably indifferent animals.

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We took a quick pitstop at the small shop to pick up our snorkeling gear before getting dropped off at our guesthouses. Tourism is minimal on Floreana, so they don’t have any single accommodation spot that can accommodate our full group. As we arrived at our place with Mick and Vicki, Alex, our CEO said, “Don’t tell anyone, but you guys have the nicest place.” He wasn’t kidding. We stayed at Artesanias Proano, which was basically a luxury treehouse. Talk about an upgrade from my youth – It. Was. Awesome!

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Our tree house included unobstructed ocean views, comfortable beds, and our own private bathroom.

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The soft, quiet Black Beach

After getting settled, we headed to Black Beach, which was just a two-minute walk from our treehouse. The name is apropos – the island was formed millions of years ago from lava eruptions, so the terrain is black, making the sand black – and remarkably soft.

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We dipped our feet in the cool ocean water and watched others from our tour go snorkeling. Once we heard them start screaming about the sea turtles, we quickly headed back to our guesthouse and changed. (Talk about major FOMO!) To our delight, there were still many sea turtles swimming around. I squealed with delight when I first saw one. We snorkeled for about a hour before heading back to shore to enjoy the sunset.

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A relaxing end to the night

For dinner, our group headed to the Devil’s Nest. There, the restaurant owner served us a three-course meal, which was really tasty. First course was a vegetable pureed soup; we were given popcorn and plantain chips to top it. (This led to a funny discussion about beer cheese soup – which no one else in the group had heard of and couldn’t quite imagine a soup that was based on beer and cheese.) The next course was served family style: mashed potatoes, rice, lentils, grilled tuna, and ají, a terrific red onion based sauce that resembles pico de gallo. The last course was dessert, which consisted of sliced pineapple. After dinner we enjoyed happy hour around the campfire. Happy hour only offered Cuba Libres – 1 for $5 or 2 for $10. Rum and cokes aren’t usually my thing, but hey, when in Rome.

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Sleepiness definitely settled in, so we headed back to the treehouse with very happy souls before crashing for the night.

 

Day 1(ish): Getting to the Galapagos Islands

After a longer than expected layover in Atlanta, we arrived safely at the very clean and equally as modern UIO (Mariscal Sucre International) Airport airport 13 hours after we left Minneapolis. We lucked out with a wonderfully speedy taxi driver who, for $25, got us to our Quito hotel in 45 minutes, arriving around 1:00 a.m. I was upgraded to First Class from Atlanta to Quito and managed to get a little sleep on the plane, so that at least helped a bit.

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Squeezing in sleep before our tour began

Hotel Sierra Madre is small and basic that includes cozy beds and a nice hot shower. The gentleman working the front desk welcomed us in and quickly checked us into our room so we could get some rest. My soul kinda died a little bit when he told us that our tour group was leaving for the airport at 4:30 a.m. At least we were able to squeeze in a couple hours of sleep.

Carla, our Quito host from G Adventures, promptly arrived at our guesthouse at 4:30 a.m., as promised. Damn! Across the board, it was a very quiet, sleepy ride to the airport.

A not-so-adventurous flight to the Islands

Going in, I knew our flight from Quito to the Galapagos would take about three hours and that we were going to have to stop somewhere along the way for gas. This had me pretty convinced we were in a little puddle jumper. I was admittedly a little nervous about this. A few others on our tour were in the same boat … speculating we were going to be in a very small airplane. I think we were all preparing ourselves for an adventurous flight to the islands, so imagine the disappointment when the plane was completely normal – four leather first class seats in front, two on each side; six leather seats in coach, three on each side. In a nutshell, Avianca Air is a nice, comfortable airline.

From Quito, we had a short layover in Guayaquil to fill up on gas and pick up a bunch of supplies for the island before heading over. (We didn’t even get off the plane.) I managed to take in every opportunity to catch up on sleep that I could during the flight.

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To our delight the weather was sunny and 82 degrees at the airport, which is on Baltra Island. The Galapagos Islands are right on the equator, meaning the sun gets pretty intense. The dry, desolate terrain is definitely reflective of that intense sun and heat.

Once we landed, we went through customs, where we paid a $100 national park entrance fee and $20 transit fee. It was explained to us several times to keep the transit fee card – that it would get collected at customs when we left the islands.

Alex, our chief expedition official (CEO) – or tour guide, met us as we exited baggage claim. From the airport, he led us to airport shuttle, where we took a 10-minute ride to Itabaca Channel. We then took a very short ferry ride across the channel to Santa Cruz Island. (The ferry was included in our tour; given everyone else was paying in change, it was likely only $1.)

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A night of camping on Santa Cruz Island

From the ferry stop, we hopped aboard another bus and took a 45-minute drive through lush, green terrain before we got to the Cerro Mesa Ecological Reserve, where we were camping for the night.

The site had a large eating/social area for us and clean showers with hot water. Each two-person tent was on its own wooden platform to protect the surrounding vegetation. Inside were two four-inch mattresses, a sleeping bag, and a fleece blanket. There was a storage shed nearby for our gear, as it definitely wasn’t fitting in the tent!

Tortoises galore – but first, lava tubes!

Once we were settled, we headed to El Chato Reserve, a perfect place to see the giant land tortoises (or tortugas terrestres) in their natural environments. First we explored the lava tubes, which were formed millions of years ago from the lava that flowed through the once-volcanically active island.

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Alex, our chief expedition official (CEO), talked about how the Galapagos Islands were discovered by accident in the 1500s by a Panamanian Archbishop. It got its name because the explorers who came back talked about these massive creatures that resembled a Galapagos, a type of horse saddle. The creatures were the land tortoises.

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The tortoises (NOT TURTLES) are pretty amazing. And massive. Naturally, they move quite slowly, eat a lot, and are absolutely fantastic to watch. We spent a good hour or so walking around and looking at these ancient beasts; the really big ones are more than 120 years old.

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Epic views before heading to bed

The reserve we’re staying on is near one of the highest points on Santa Cruz Island. Since it was a clear, sunny day (weather in the Galapagos apparently tends to be quite temperamental), Alex had us driven up so we could take in the views. It. Was. Gorgeous.

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Afterward we sat around, played games, and rested. The group includes 12 of us – two couples from Switzerland, another couple from Ireland (who’ve been living in Melbourne and are taking five months to travel before moving back to Ireland), two friends from Sweden, and one Dutch and one Aussie gal. It’s a nice mix of people in their late-20s to late-30s. After a nice dinner, we all sat around the campfire before heading to our tents for the night.