Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect

When I set foot on Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, it was like entering an alternate universe governed only by those with flippers. A world away from the fervor of Ecuador’s capital, the islands are Ecuador’s wildlife wonder on the west coast, a peaceful paradise of volcanic isles and the home to beautiful and exotic animals who seem to be supplanted straight from a David Attenborough documentary.

One night I returned to my hotel in Isabela to a very strange roommate indeed. I switched on the light to a large and scaly lizard reclined nonchalantly on my suitcase. It looked at me and blinked once as if to say, “What?” After a while it got bored and slunk slowly out of the room, and I swear it would have rolled its eyes if it could have.

While my expectations for the Galapagos Islands were most definitely exceeded by the beauty, the animals, the food, and the fun being more than I could have imagined, this animal boldness was something I didn’t expect. Other things I couldn’t have prepared for include:

Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect

1. To have a swimming race with a giant turtle

Visiting Los Tuneles is one of the most worthwhile things you can do whilst on the islands. It’s a spot where ancient arches formed from hardened lava meet the turquoise ocean in picturesque snapshots. Snorkeling is the activity of choice here, as the place is home to an eclectic array of sea life. I dove in and was not disappointed. Baby seals darted energetically to and fro as if playing a game of tag, their bodies, heavy and bulky on land, able to twist and turn in the water as if they were made of jelly.

Giant manta rays cruised coolly by the bottom of the seabed, invading the water’s surface with huge diamond-shaped shadows, a sight met with delighted exclamations from sightseers left on the boat. I was lucky enough to spot both Nemo and Dory, and just before our time was up, a ginormous and imposing sea turtle sailed slowly past me, its scaly skin, rock-like shell, and searching eyes about three inches from my captivated, goggle-clad face. I dove forward in an effort to get ahead, but was left trailing after the creature, which, despite being over five feet wide and the size of a small car, could still swim faster than me. I lost the race.

Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect

Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect
A giant sea turtle!

Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect

2. To get bitten by a sea lion (almost)

Here, sea lions – from the cute and whiskery to the squirmy and sandy – are the ones who matter. Enjoying lazy siestas on the decks of sea-worn boats, squiggling and stretching on the sand, snuggling and spooning each other on the rocks, and staring uninterestedly at camera-clad tourists as if to say, “Move along, human,” it’s clear that this is their routine you’re interrupting, if you don’t mind.

They are also overwhelmingly cute. Their playful honks sound like the hearty laugh of humans. The way they nuzzle into each other in the sun reminds me of couples cuddling after a long day. They flick the sand from their whiskers with their little flippers and look like they’re about to sneeze. All of this is just too much for a girl who loves all animals and babies to resist. After one of our snorkeling trips, I saw a woman posing for a Kodak advert-worthy photo. She, smiling joyfully, beach swept and serene, sat on a bench where a sea lion was lazily reclining. I wanted to be close to the cute seal too. Bad decision. As soon as I perched on the edge, the creature growled the same growl my Border collie makes when she sees our postman and snapped its big jaws at me with a THWACK! I translated this from seal speak as, “Leave me alone silly human – I’m napping!”

Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect

5 Things I Didn’t Expect in the Galapagos Islands
Gal·pagos sea lion: mother with pup; photo by Derek Keats (Creative Commons)

3. To stick my head into the sleeping cave of sharks

Yes, that’s right. During my time in the Galapagos my fuzzy head came closer to a shark’s jaws than I ever thought or hoped it would. The instructor was rather enthusiastic, waving his GoPro around frantically and signaling for me to let him push my head under the water. I looked at him and wondered whether he’d still be so excited if I wanted to push his head into a gloomy cavern where there lay who knew how many fangs. These were white-tipped reef sharks, so okay, not the kind of 20-foot monstrosities that would surge out of the water Jaws-style, but it was still a cave full of sharks. I dove in and saw about six of the fellas asleep for about seven seconds, and that was enough for me. And hey, at least I have a great “never have I ever” to use with my friends back home.

Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect

5 Things I Didn’t Expect in the Galapagos Islands
Sharks in the Galapagos Islands; photo by Clifton Beard (Creative Commons)

4. To fall in love with fish tacos

The Galapagos Islands boast a wonderful selection of food choices, from scrumptious smoothies to many flavorful fish dishes. And now you may ask what I have been doing with my life, but although an enthusiastic and excessive taco consumer, I had never actually sampled one of the seafood variety until I was in the Galapagos. Officially converted after my first bite, I had a total of eight before I got on the plane back to Quito. I ate at a great place called The Booby Trap, home not only to excellent tacos but also a mouthwatering homemade pineapple juice. The place overlooks the golden sands of Isabela beach, an ideal place to relax and enjoy the beauty of the Islands, whilst, of course, eating fish tacos.

5. To learn about the “other side” of the Galapagos

Unbeknownst to me when I planned my Galapagos adventure, a project fuelled mainly by my visions of me sunbathing and posing with tortoises, the Galapagos Islands are actually not solely about tourists and traveling. On San Cristóbal Island, I volunteered at the Jatun Sacha Biological Station, a place where I learned of the widespread environmental issues posing a threat to the prosperity of the islands. The work I undertook really was worthwhile and had the aim of significantly improving the surrounding environment. A team and I worked to remove invasive species of mora from the nearby area in an effort to increase the fertilization of plants more beneficial to the habitat.

All creatures great and small across the land display a sense of fearlessness and indifference to humans. Fluorescent crabs jitter about on the rocks, blue-footed boobies dive determinedly into the sea, majestic gulls spread their wings and soar into the horizon, all without batting a single eyelid at the ruckus of camera flashes and stupefied gasps interfering with their day.

This indifference to humans means that The Galapagos rightly deserves to be crowned one of the best wildlife spots in the world, where one can witness exotic and unusual creatures as they truly live in the wild.

Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect

5 Things I Didn’t Expect in the Galapagos Islands
San Cristobal; photo by Peri Apex (Creative Commons)

Galapagos Travel: 5 Things I Didn’t Expect

About Aine Stott

Aine StottI am a travel and food junkie, my most recent bizarre meal choice being a tasty alligator sausage in New Orleans. My bucket list is to visit every country in South America whilst in my twenties, something I have made a start on by currently working as a journalist in the bustling Ecuadorian capital of Quito. I am an English Literature graduate from Newcastle University, and a die-hard Benedict Cumberbatch fan. I earnestly aspire to be a salsa-ing Spanish speaking goddess, and I am currently slowly attempting to learn both.

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