By Fernando Espinoza
Known as “enchanted isles,” the Galapagos Islands are home to the Galapagos National Park and Galapagos Marine Reserve, and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a biosphere reserve. The area is considered among the world’s 10 best places for scuba divers and naturalists – and it’s easily accessible in just a couple of cruising days from the Panama Canal in the Pacific Ocean.
The equator crosses through the Galapagos Archipelago, 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador. There are 13 major islands and 115 islets. Santa Cruz is the most populated of the four that are inhabited. The National Park Administration Offices and the Charles Darwin Research Station, named for the 19th century naturalist famous for his theories of evolution, are in Santa Cruz. Here, visitors can learn more about the unique ecosystem of these islands, which is greatly influenced by several ocean currents, and about the conservation programs for the land iguanas and giant tortoises.
Facilities for vessels ranging from a small sailboat to the most sophisticated megayacht are available in Academy Bay, Santa Cruz. The following suggested seven-day cruising itinerary will cover most of the islands’ land and marine highlights, making it the cruise of a lifetime.
Day 1: Hood Island
Depart from Academy Bay at midnight (in order to save time for the daily activities) and head southeast to Hood Island, or Española (most of the islands have two or three names). There will be enough time to drop anchor at Punta Suarez bay by early morning.
Hood Island’s Punta Suarez is one of the most popular and attractive sites to visit in the Galapagos. The quantity and variety of wildlife is remarkable. Young sea lions surf the breaking waves, while a few steps inland, groups of the Española variety of iguanas bask in the sun. Farther inland, masked and blue-footed boobies nest almost right on the trail. The trail continues toward the cliffs and the famous blowhole, a fissure in the lava where water spurts high in the air like a geyser and visitors can take a salt-water shower.
The cracks in the rock are home to attractive swallow-tailed gulls and red-billed tropicbirds. Farther up the cliff, in an area of low-lying trees, is the only place on the planet where the waved albatross nests – in fact, the 10,000 to 15,000 pairs of waved albatrosses on Hood Island are the only ones of this species that exist. They perform one of the most spectacular rituals of the animal world. Watching these large birds take off is an unforgettable moment. The albatrosses clumsily wobble to the edge of the cliff and launch themselves against the wind to be transformed into gracious flying creatures.
Gardner Bay offers a great possibility to enjoy some beach time in the Galapagos. Here, the extroverted mockingbirds sit atop visitors’ hats, peck at their feet and investigate their belongings.
Day 2: Floreana Island
Floreana Island, also called Isla Santa Maria and Charles Island, has a colorful history of pirates, whalers, convicts and colonists. In 1793, British whalers set up the post office barrel to send letters to and from England. This tradition continues, and visitors now can post their cards and letters to anywhere in the world.
Punta Cormorant offers two highly contrasting beaches. The landing beach is of volcanic origin and is composed of olivine crystals, giving it a greenish tinge. At the end of a short trail is a carbonate beach of very fine white sand, formed by the erosion of coral skeletons, and a nesting site for green sea turtles. Between these two beaches is a salt lagoon frequented by flamingos, pintails, stilts and other wading birds. An old, eroded volcanic cone called Devil’s Crown is a popular roosting site for seabirds such as boobies, pelicans and frigates, and it is not uncommon to see red-billed tropicbirds in rocky crevices. The center of Devil’s Crown is an outstanding snorkeling spot full of sea lions and colorful fish.
Day 3: Isabela Island
From Floreana, sail to Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, the largest island in the archipelago and one that is inhabited by a small population.This island was formed when six shield volcanoes merged. All but one of these volcanoes (Sierra Negra) remain active, with the latest eruption in 1998, making Isabela one of the most volcanically active places on Earth. its caldera (a large crater which is the second largest in the world), the other volcanoes and the Perry Isthmus beyond. From here A hike to Chico Volcano reveals puffing fumaroles and striking lava formations, examples of the geological events that have formed the Galapagos Islands over millions of years. In the late afternoon, return to Puerto Villamil, where visitors can check out the giant tortoise corrals and enjoy the seafood restaurants.
Day 4: Tagus Cove and Punta Vicente Roca
Sailing around the coastline west of Isabela, on the way to Tagus Cove, the boat will cross Bolivar Channel. These are very productive waters, and whales and dolphins are often seen here. Tagus Cove was historically used as an anchoring site for pirates and whalers. The nature trail is an ascent through the typical dry vegetation zone and offers spectacular views of Darwin Lake, a saltwater crater lake, and the long narrow inlet that appears to connect with it. At the top of the trail, it is possible to observe the different vegetation zones and to catch a glimpse of Darwin and Wolf volcanoes, as well as Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and pelicans.
At Punta Vicente Roca, the remnants of an ancient volcano form two turquoise coves and a bay well-protected from the ocean swells. The spot is a popular anchorage from which to take panga rides along the cliff or explore a partially sunken cave at the water’s edge. Masked and blue-footed boobies sit perched along the point and the sheer cliffs, while flightless cormorants inhabit the shoreline.
The upwelling of cold-water currents in this part of the Galápagos gives rise to an abundance of marine life. That, along with the protection of the coves, makes Punta Vicente Roca one of the archipelago’s most sought-after dive spots. One cove is only accessible from the sea by way of an underwater passage. The passage opens to the calm waters of the hidden cove, where sea lions laze on the beach, having traveled along the underwater route. The entire area of Punta Vicente Roca lies on the flank of the 2,600-foot Volcano Ecuador. This is the island’s sixth largest volcano. Half of Volcano Ecuador slid into the ocean, leaving a spectacular cutaway view of the volcanic caldera.
Day 5: Tower Island
Tower Island, or Genovesa Island, is formed by the remaining edges of a large crater that is now mostly submerged. Known as “Bird Island,” it certainly lives up to its name. Darwin Bay Beach is filled with the bustling activity of frigate birds. Along the trail are pairs of swallow-tailed gulls, the only nocturnal gulls in the world, as well as red-footed boobies, with their contrasting red feet and blue bills.
Lava gulls, pintail ducks, yellow crowned and lava herons, and other birds feed near the shores of a tidal lagoon just beyond the rocky edge that faces the bay. A panga ride along the walls of the crater reveals the variety of animals that find shelter in the ledges and crevices of the lava. Above, the elegant red-billed tropicbirds fly in and out of their nests.
At Prince Philip’s Steps, visitors can climb to a plateau that is part of the stretch of land that surrounds Darwin Bay on its eastern side. Everywhere one looks, there are masked boobies on the ground and red-footed boobies in the trees.
Beyond a broad lava field that extends towards the ocean, thousands of storm petrels flutter like swarms of locusts, and short-eared owls hunt down the more inexperienced ones. Visitors can snorkel at the beach or alongside the cliffs. The water inside the bay is very rich in nutrients, so one never knows what may be encountered. Tower is one of the most fantastic islands because of its animals, its landscape, its remoteness and its unspoiled nature.
Day 6: Santiago Island
On the northwestern side of Santiago Island, also known as San Salvador or James Island, is South James Bay, or Puerto Egas. The landing is on a black beach with eroded rock formations in the background. The trail crosses the dry interior, where the remains of a salt-mining enterprise can still be seen, and then continues along the coast. Intertidal pools are home to a variety of invertebrate organisms. Marine iguanas are scattered around, feeding on exposed algae, while oystercatchers try to capture Sally Lightfoot crabs. The trail then leads to the Fur Seal Grottos, one of the only places in the islands where fur seals can be seen.
On the other side of Santiago Island, at the northeast, is Sullivan Bay. Across a narrow channel from Bartolome Island, this site offers the possibility of seeing a recent pahoehoe (ropy) lava flow, formed about 100 years ago. It is exciting to imagine how this lava flowed down to the sea, engulfing everything in its way. After exploring the lava flow, there is swimming and snorkeling with playful sea lions off two small coraline beaches.
Bartolome Island is famous for its Pinnacle Rock, which is the most representative landmark of the Galapagos. Walking precariously at the base of Pinnacle Rock are Galapagos penguins, the smallest species of penguin and the only one found north of the equator. At the beach on the southern side, across the isthmus of the island, there are sea turtles either nesting, wading in the shallow water near the shore or just resting in the sand, exhausted after swimming a long way to these beaches to lay their eggs. White-tipped reef sharks patrol close to shore. Visitors who climb to the highest point of the island will find an eruption site left untouched, like a museum of volcanology. If it weren’t for the small lava lizards scurrying around and the pioneer mollugo plants, it would be like walking on the surface of the moon.
Day 7: South Plaza
Head south to reach South Plaza, one of the smallest islands at 426 feet wide (130 meters) and just over half a mile (1 kilometer) long. Here, there is a large colony of sea lions – about 1,000 bulls, cows and pups – occupying the smooth rocks. A small cactus forest is populated by land iguanas, which can be seen sunning themselves or feeding on opuntia pads and fruits. Along the cliff edge, nesting swallow-tailed gulls are the predominant seabirds, along with tropicbirds and shearwaters. Generally between January and June, the dormant ground cover undergoes a drastic change: the red sesuvium turns bright green and the leafless evening-blooming portulaca bursts into large yellow flowers relished by the iguanas.
Continue south on the way back to Santa Cruz to find Santa Fe Island, also called Barrington Island. Santa Fe has a protected turquoise lagoon that is one of the most beautiful coves in the Galapagos. Santa Fe is an island that was not formed by a volcanic eruption (it does not have the typical cone shape), but by an uplift that was the result of tectonic activity.
An ascending trail takes visitors to the peak of a precipice where the Santa Fe species of land iguana can be seen – they are a brighter yellow and have uncommonly large spikes on their spine.
After a long hike, there is nothing better than a swim in the calm waters of the bay or snorkeling in the company of sea lions at the base of the rocks.
For more information on the Galapagos read, “Know-before-you-go Galapagos Islands Yacht Guide” published in March 2017 in The Triton. https://www.the-triton.com/2017/04/cruising-grounds-know-before-you-go-galapagos-islands-yacht-guide/
Fernando Espinoza has worked as a yacht agent in the Galapagos Islands with Galapagos Yacht Agency (galapagosyachtagency.com) since 1997. Currently based in Miramar, Florida, he is a dive master with 30 years of experience as a naturalist dive guide. Comments are welcome below.