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Explorer’s Journal: Cruising the Galapagos with Destination Expert Hayley

In this edition of our Explorer’s Journal, Destination Expert Hayley Ward cruises the Galapagos Islands through San Cristobal, Española, Floreana, and Santa Cruz aboard the Galapagos Legend. Follow along as she roams this mesmerizing wonderland of endemic wildlife.

Hi everyone! This is SA’s Destination Expert, Hayley, reporting from the Galapagos!

I recently visited the Galapagos Islands with my husband and one year old son on a 5-day cruise, plus a bit of extra exploration on the island of Santa Cruz. Tune in this week as I share this epic adventure around the archipelago.

Upon arrival to Guayaquil, the economic capital of Ecuador with a population of 4 million people, we were picked up by our lovely guide (who even brought a car seat for the little one!), and headed into Santa Ana, the first founded neighborhood in Guayaquil. We stayed a quick night at Wyndham Santa Ana set on the banks of the Guayas River before departure to the Galapagos Islands the following morning.

San Cristobal Island: Love at first sight

The next day, we flew 600 miles west to the Galapagos Archipelago! At the airport, they checked our luggage to make sure we weren’t bringing any seeds or other materials that shouldn’t be brought to the islands, to protect the fragile ecosystem, and we were on our way!

Arriving at San Cristobal we connected with our guides of the Galapagos Legend. After a short bus ride and walk to the pier, we began our family´s love affair with sea lions! Here, we learned that the animals in the Galapagos are not afraid of humans after evolving in isolation and many years of protection. It’s incredible how close you can get!

Sea lion and Hayley Ward SA Expeditions Destination Expert family at the Galapagos Islands cruise, Ecuador
It is National Park protocol to maintain 2 meters or 6 feet distance to respect and protect the wildlife. (Photo: Hayley Ward)

After a short zodiac ride, we boarded the Galapagos Legend, a remodeled 1960s German ship. We got settled into our Balcony Suite, had a welcome briefing, went through a safety drill, and headed back to San Cristobal to the Interpretation Center to learn more about the history of the Galapagos. The islands are volcanic and have been formed over a hot spot in the Pacific Ocean. Because of subduction of the Nazca plate under the South American continent, the islands are moving 2 inches every year closer to the mainland!

Española Island: Seeing the Galapagos’ iconic wildlife

The next morning, we woke up to sunshine! We lathered on sunscreen and headed out to our morning activity at Gardner Bay where the sea lions are friendly, and we had our first sighting of a sea turtle in the glass bottom boat! Others on the ship chose to deep water snorkel.

Marine iguanas huddling at the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
You’ll often find marine iguanas basking in the sun and huddled together to conserve heat in their exothermic bodies. (Photo: Hayley Ward)

After lunch and a nap, we got back on the zodiacs and zipped out to Punta Suarez for a hike. Here we had an up-close and personal encounter with the marine iguanas. These magical reptiles are only found in the Galapagos Islands and have evolved to forage for algae under water. They have a special gland in their head that filters out the salt from the sea water which they expel through sneezing – bless you!

Hiking further inland we came across nesting and mating ground of the Galapagos albatross, only to be found on Española Island. We were lucky enough to enjoy the eccentric mating dance show. These large birds have evolved a special gland that produces oil in their feathers, so they don’t get wet while fishing in the cold ocean currents. We also enjoyed our first sighting of the blue-footed and Nazca boobies.

Albatross birds mating dance at the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galapagos albatross courtship dance is definitely a spectacle to be seen! (Photo: Hayley Ward)

Floreana Island: Post Office Bay & Punta Cormorant, Devil’s Crown

Located on Floreana Island, Post Office Bay originally served as a pit stop for 18th-century whalers. A barrel was erected and the sailors would leave letters for other sailors to find and deliver. Nowadays, the post office barrel is a replica, filled with postcards from all the tourists who visit the island. After leaving our postcards, we took some time to sift through and see if there were any that we could take and deliver, following the rule of no stamps, hand delivery only!

Blue footed booby at the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
A blue-footed booby greets us upon arrival to Post Office Bay. (Photo: Hayley Ward)

Next, we had the opportunity to deep water snorkel at Devil’s Crown, one of the most popular snorkel and dive sites in the archipelago. Note to self: Test your underwater camera ahead of time! On the way back to land at Punta Cormorant, we were visited by a rare friend, the Galapagos dolphin. Our zodiac was the only one to cross these majestic creatures. What a special treat!

Santa Cruz Island: Land iguanas & flamingos

Cruising overnight to Santa Cruz Island, we ventured out to Dragon Hill to see if we would find the elusive and endangered Galapagos land iguana. These creatures are threatened by domestic animals that dig up their nests. Thankfully, due to major efforts by the Charles Darwin Research Center and the National Park Service, these reptiles are increasing in numbers once again.

Along the hiking loop, we found some Galapagos flamingos, searching for food in the mud of the salty lake. Their feathers are pink due to the shrimp they eat in the mud; the more shrimp, the darker the pink color.

With more sunshine, the Punta Bowditch beach feels like you are in the Caribbean! A sea turtle was kind enough to let us snap a few shots with her, and then move on to enjoy some sun and sand.

Land iguana and Hayley Ward SA Expeditions Destination Expert family with sea turtle at the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Spotting a land iguana (left) and sea turtle (right) at Santa Cruz. (Photo: Hayley Ward)

Santa Cruz Highlands: The emblematic giant tortoise

On our last morning onboard, we spotted a Galapagos shark right from our balcony, swimming by to send us off! These are the largest species of shark found in the archipelago and can reach up to 3 meters (9.8 ft) in length.

After a farewell to our crew and the Galapagos Legend ship, we headed up to the highlands of Santa Cruz to visit the giant tortoises. There are 15 subspecies of these tortoises, found on many of the islands throughout the archipelago, each with adaptive traits to their specific environments (longer necks, different shaped shells, etc.).

Hayley Ward SA Expeditions Destination Expert family with giant tortoise at Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
These massive creatures can weigh up to 400 kg (880 lbs)!

“Galopear” in Spanish means to galop, like when riding a horse; there is a tale that says the Galapagos Islands were named by the Spanish after seeing these animals, with shells shaped like saddles and large enough to ride like a horse.

We visited “Los Gemelos” twin collapsed craters, the Fausto Llerena Rearing Center, and the Charles Darwin Research Station where we learned about the extensive efforts made to protect and replenish the damaged population of these magnificent creatures. We even got to meet the late “Lonesome George” who was taxidermized by his large fan-base. He was the last of his subspecies, the La Pinta giant Galapagos tortoise, befriended by Fausto Llerena.

On our last day, we visited Tortuga Bay and were given a magical farewell by a school of sting rays!

Lonesome George at the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
In Lonesome George’s last years, he was known as the rarest creature in the world. (Photo: Hayley Ward)

Feeling inspired? You can explore the Galapagos Islands too – via cruise OR land-based tour! You can even spruce up your trip by adding Machu Picchu or the Amazon to your adventure. Contact a Destination Expert to start customizing your journey.

About the author: Raised among the pine forests of southern Oregon, it was Hayley’s calling to take her passion in Latin American culture and outdoor adventure, and set off on a journey through South America. Now based in Peru for over a decade, Hayley holds an inspiring life story that taught her the transformative power of travel. As a Destination Expert, she relishes helping others to experience it for themselves.

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