What to Expect on a 6-Day Cruise in the Western Galapagos
Sea lions and giant tortoises and marine iguanas, oh my! The Galapagos conjures images of bizarre creatures and windswept volcanic shores. It is this and so much more. As the archipelago is a protected national park, the best way to explore is to take a small ship cruise with a naturalist guide. In July ’23 I took a 6-day cruise on the EcoGalaxy, a first-class 16 passenger catamaran.
Exiting the plane, I was welcomed by a substantial land iguana chilling in the shade with scaley golden skin drooping off it, like a suit that was 5 sizes too big. After going through customs, the EcoGalaxy’s bilingual naturalist guide Gustavo Muñoz met a group of us arriving at the Baltra Airport, off the island of Santa Cruz. He helped us make the trek from bus to ferry to private van, which carried us to Puerto Ayora, where the EcoGalaxy was anchored.
A hefty sea lion blissfully slept on the pier as we hopped in a Zodiac and clambered aboard our home for the next 5 nights. Onboard the EcoGalaxy were guests that had arrived a day earlier and stayed in Puerto Ayora. (I would recommend staying at the Ikala Hotel if this is what you decide to do.) We had an introduction amongst the passengers, a debrief on safety protocols, and a rundown of the afternoon’s itinerary. Afterward, we got settled in our cabins and had our first of many delicious meals on the EcoGalaxy – the cuisine had a focus on local ingredients and recipes, mixed with international fare. Sometimes, the thought of a buffet or cruise food does not sound particularly mouthwatering; however, I was pleasantly surprised.
After lunch, we jumped back in the Zodiacs and went to check out the Charles Darwin Research Station. Learning about the conservation efforts and the tortoise breeding center is a perfect way to kick off any Galapagos cruise. We got up close to some giant tortoises, and Gustavo was knowledgeable and energetically informative about the island’s unique evolution and history.
We had time to meander back to the harbor and snap shots of marine iguanas and sea lions hanging out along the shore, giving us a glimpse as to what was in store. The main street in Puerto Ayora is a ramshackle assortment of restaurants and tourist shops where you can buy souvenirs (or last-minute overpriced supplies).
After dinner, the captain took off into the dark choppy waters toward Isabela Island. I was happy to have earplugs to block out the sounds of the engines and the settling of the furniture in my cabin. Word to the wise: Put your belongings securely away, as things will get flung about your room if not tucked in before nights on the move.
Puerto Ayora had felt vaguely familiar in that way of port towns the world over. Now, looking out my window at the dawn, I felt like we had sailed off the map of civilization. An ashy green volcano hulked in the distance on Moreno Point. I groggily got dressed and went in search of coffee. I was tired, but giddy to see what creatures we would encounter, a feeling akin to when I was 8 years old on my way to meet Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.
After breakfast, on our way ashore, we spied our first penguin hanging out on a rock with dozens of marine iguanas. The one little penguin looked content, yet kind of like it had crashed a lizard party. We went for a walk on top of black cracked lava flows, the earth rippling in mesmerizing folds. The Equatorial sun hammered down on us as we gathered around Gustavo to hear about Sierra Negra’s volcanic activity and what life could survive in this harsh terrain. There was a lagoon where some elusive flamingos feed from time to time, but today it was empty. Just us and the sound of the wind through some gangly Opuntia, or prickly pear cactus spines.
That afternoon we went snorkeling. I love snorkeling, but have full-on shark phobia. However, there was safety in numbers, and a wonderful family with brave kids aged 10 and 7 helped me find the courage to dive into the water and out of my comfort zone. I was calmed when I came across some gloriously grand sea turtles. Something about their entire essence really is as Zen as it gets. A sneaky sea lion almost gave me a heart attack though, it came up inches to my face! I shrieked and it swam away, and I was informed that they are doglike, curious, and like to play.
In the evening we returned to the Zodiacs and went looking for spotted manta rays in a mangrove forest at Elizabeth Bay. We found quite a few of various sizes, and on our way back to the EcoGalaxy we passed a rock with a wacky collection of fauna. If the one penguin had crashed a lizard rock party that morning, this party rock was one where everyone was invited: flightless cormorants, cobalt blue-footed boobies, penguins, pelicans, vermillion red and robin’s egg blue Sally lightfoot crabs, even a sleepy sea lion. As the sun set, the verdant golden hills turned into a watercolor landscape, surreal and spectacular.
Onboard the EcoGalaxy again, the attentive bilingual bartender Jorge mixed up yummy cocktails (with a virgin option as well) so that we could have a cheers with the captain and crew.
The next morning, we all woke up much better rested, as we’d stayed anchored overnight. We were instructed not to wear yellow and to use bug spray to protect against invasive yellow jackets on our morning’s walk at Urbina Bay. None of us got stung, and we viewed many large land iguanas and giant tortoises in their natural habitat. Gustavo said that the tortoises were “the architects of the islands” as their movements carried seeds and planted forests from their droppings, which in turn attracted birds, and more life sprung forth from this inhospitable land. These lumbering curiosities that can live upwards of 200 years old are so impressive, the islands they inhabit were named after them.
We went for a snorkel from the beach and saw more of the Zenned-out sea turtles. They were so abundant I lost count.
Next stop Tagus Cove, with pirate graffiti and more recent political slogans carved into the cliffs. I opted to paddleboard as others kayaked alongside penguins, boobies, and pelicans. After a spin around the bay above water, we went for a snorkel, and I swear it was like swimming in an aquarium. There was such varied life, from sea urchins and anemone to spotted rays and schools of yellowtail surgeon fish. It was a cool perspective to have an activity above the water and then swim with all the life below.
We dried off and went for a hike up 150+ steps to overlook Darwin Lake. This stunning caldera lake was a wonderful place for sunset. The Darwin finch flitted about on skeletal palo santo trees dormant in the dry La Niña season. I went to sleep that night with a smile on my face and “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong on loop in my head.
In the morning, we made the short jaunt across the strait from Tagus Cove to Espinoza Point on Fernandina Island, the youngest and westernmost island of the Galapagos. Just past our landing in the shade of mangroves we saw a lounge (the real name for a group of lizards!) of tar-black marine iguanas basking in the sun. There were so many of them it looked like the ground itself was made of these dragonesque critters. A cute baby seal played alone in a shallow pool as Sally lightfoot crabs skittered around. Yet another volcano almost too vast for my brain to fully comprehend set the stage for the dramatic backdrop.
We hurried back to the Zodiacs to time our morning’s snorkel for when the marine iguanas got too hot and went for a dip to cool off and look for a snack. We had so many iguanas join us in the waters off Fernandina that my head spun just trying to take them all in!
After lunch, we went back to Isabela Island for another snorkel at Vincente Roca Point. At this point I was super content with everything I’d seen, but I was missing snorkeling with penguins. I was starting to think it might not happen. We jumped in the emerald waters and, fortuitously, several penguins darted past. As awkward as these flightless birds are on land, they are graceful and impressively fast in the water. We saw more mellow sea turtles, and sea lions that did not give me a jump scare this time. In fact, the more time I spent in the water the less I felt afraid, especially with the support and sheer joy of sharing these extraordinary experiences with my new ship companions. Although swimming in sharky waters was on the next day’s itinerary, I decided to cross that bridge when I got to it.
That evening we went into a volcanic cave in the bay, and then checked out a colony of small brown furry seals. At sunset back on board the EcoGalaxy, we went to the captain’s deck as we crossed the equator. The crew even threw a little dance party dressed as pirates in celebration of this aquatic achievement!
After traveling through the night, we awoke with Santiago Island in front of us. Here, we went for a stroll at Egas Port, where we saw hawks and other birds in the brush and trees. Glimmering turquoise pools gave refuge to sea lions as pinkish marine iguanas lay on the shores while a myriad of flashy Sally lightfoot crabs crawled about.
Here we took off from the shore to snorkel, looking for sharks. I stayed close to my newfound friends and asked the kids to help keep me safe. White tipped reef sharks lurked on the sea floor, and I was surprisingly ok with them. They were smaller than me and I could totally take one of those guys out if I had to. Plus, they were far away and not interested in us at all. However, the Galapagos shark I saw on the way back to the shore was bigger and closer, and not something I was sure I could win a fight with if it came down to it… I paddled and kicked as fast as I could to get out of dodge.
After the morning’s harrowing (for me) adventure and realizing that swimming with sharks is something not always terrifying, we headed over to Rabida Island. Some magnificent frigate birds hitched a ride in the updraft of our ship and a handful of us sat on the top deck marveling at their massive wingspans. The next and last snorkel was in crystal clear waters where I seemed to have let go of my fear and just enjoyed every single second of being in the waters of the Enchanted Isles.
We went for a walk, and at long last we caught sight of a flamboyance of flamingos in a lagoon off red sand shores. These coral pink creatures have such a delicate appearance it is truly absurd to me that they exist in this beautifully bleak terrain. David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” came to mind as I observed the elegance of these wonderfully ridiculous birds.
We had an early start, with our bags packed and ready to go before our 6 a.m. excursion, followed by breakfast. The 7 a.m. breakfast and 8 a.m. excursion departures had been nice in comparison (you can tell I’m not a morning person). But it was our last excursion, and it was lovely to see the early morning activity of flocks of crane birds in the mangroves at Black Turtle Cove. We explored the cove from the Zodiacs and saw a bunch of baby sharks and spotted rays along with a farewell from blue-footed boobies. Their funny faces and beguiling blue feet really are a special treat to see.
Gustavo accompanied us to the Baltra airport, where we gave heartfelt hugs and said our goodbyes to our fellow shipmates. Part of me was sad that the adventure had come to an end. I would have preferred an 8-day cruise! But this trip really did encompass the best of what the Galapagos has to offer, and I didn’t feel like I had missed out on anything at all. Of course, the animal experience depends on the season, and nothing is ever guaranteed. However, the fauna on my trip inspired child-like wonder and left me gob-smacked by this wild and wonderful world of ours.