It looked like a small coconut bobbing on the surface of the emerald green sea.
“Look! There’s one!” Skip exclaimed excitedly from the seat behind me in the kayak.
I peered across the bay into the brilliant sunshine. About 15 feet from our boat was the tiny grey face of a giant sea turtle, its eyes glancing toward the sky as it bobbed on the surface to grab a breath and check the horizon for intruders. Seconds later, it sunk back into the Pacific and we caught a glimpse of its huge bevelled shell before it vanished from view. Five minutes later, another one popped its head above the waves and, in the next hour of floating silently in the bay, we saw more tiny faces and huge shells than we could ever have hoped for.
This was Day One in the Galapagos islands and one of my favourite and most memorable moments of the week. While floating on Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz island, we discovered the secret of these magical islands that were created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago: “Go slow. See more.”
So it continued. We’d headed off to Tortuga Beach with our friends, Steve and Jen, after hearing it was beautiful and that there were kayaks. Nothing quite prepared me, though, for how beautiful it really was. How the white sand was as soft as flour and how the crashing waves cascaded over rocks, sending white spray and turquoise water in every direction. Nothing also prepared me for the first sighting of a bulky black shape in the water that turned out to be the first of dozens of the rare dragon-like marine iguana which would soon become commonplace in every location we visited. It was a day filled with magic in this location that I’d dreamed about visiting for more than 30 years.
And, everywhere we went, we took our time.
It had taken dozens of hours of research, reading, online posting and investigating before we’d decided to do it this way, though. “Take a cruise” said most of the agencies and posters. “You’ll see more and go places you can’t go alone”. But we didn’t want to be restricted to a small berth and busy schedule and didn’t want to share our experiences with strangers, so we opted to do it on our own with our friends. No cruise. No schedule. No crowds.
And, while we may have missed out on some places that only cruises can go, we wouldn’t have changed a thing.
We flew into Baltra, a tiny island outside Santa Cruz (one of only two airports in the islands), took a 10-minute ferry ride across to Santa Cruz then hopped into a taxi to our hotel – the funky and fabulous castle-shaped Fortaleza de Haro – and from there figured it out, one day at a time.
Day one was spent at Tortuga Beach, followed by lunch in the pretty little town of Puerto Ayora and a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station and Tortoise Centre where we watched dozens of these huge, lumbering creatures laze in the blistering afternoon sun.
While it was interesting to watch them, it wasn’t half as wonderful as seeing them in the wild when we took a day trip to the highlands the following day. All four of us piled into a taxi, driven by taxi-driver, Ivan (“not Ivan the Terrible,” as he explained), who turned out to be a delightful fellow with a smattering of English. “I like me Chato Farm”, he told us, as he drove up hilly roads to reach the tortoise farm, after stopping at Los Gemelos (two large pit craters caused by the collapse of empty magma chambers, where we walked – in silence – through lush forests replete with Vermillion Flycatchers and other indigenous birds).
The El Chato tortoise reserve turned out to be another of my highlights. Here, in this lush sprawling farm, giant tortoises line the sandy road leading up to the gate and more than 100 of these gentle giants meander across the grass and laze in the shade of the trees. The owner – a hospitable chap named Vico – told us he was born on Santa Cruz and grew up riding the giant tortoises with his toddler friends in the days when activities like that were still permitted. We sat, drank local coffee and soaked up the experience while we watched a tour group hop off their bus, take some photos and head back out again.
Santa Cruz is often the first stop for visitors to the islands since it has an airport and a town and a terrific “walking street” which turns into an al fresco place dining spot at night where fresh fish and enormous lobsters are served at several tiny restaurants with plastic tables and chairs set up along the road.
But we wanted to see more.
We booked a boat to neighbouring Isabela island (a less than pleasant experience of being thrown about on huge churning waves in a small vessel) and, two hours later, hopped onto a beach fringed with towering palm trees, sandy roads, groups of gnarly iguanas sunning themselves on the dock and dozens of doe-eyed seals sprawled on the sand and lounging on benches, gazing at us as we walked by.
We were hooked. Although we’d intended on spending only a couple of days here, we booked ourselves into a hotel and unpacked.
Most days started before the sun peeked above the horizon with a walk to the boat dock for a slow start to the day. Hundreds of blue-footed boobies filled the sky above us, darting sharply into the sea to pick off their morning catch. Pelicans swooped so low that we sometimes had to duck out of the way of their wings and iguanas started to climb from the rocks into the early morning sun. In the evening, we’d often take a walk to the same spot where seals frolicked in the surf, leaping into the air like dolphins as they played with one another and swam in and out of the wooden pilings.
One evening I struck up a conversation with a woman from Cananda. As we talked, she’d occasionally turn to the sea and snap a photo of a seal. I’d do the same.
“How many photos can we have of seals?” we both laughed, admitting we’d taken dozens. And that we’d also shot videos of almost every creature we observed. In the Galapagos, that is what one does.
On Isabela, the pace was slow. Very slow. The main street was a broad, sandy passageway with half a dozen little restaurants and a handful of hotels. We hardly ever saw more than four or five vehicles in town (other than at “rush hour” around sunrise when tourists flocked to the departing 6am ferry). And since we’d come during down season (without realising it), there were very few people. We rented bicycles and rode leisurely along sandy beach roads. Emerald green waves crashed on the shore next to us as we passed tiny lagoons with pink flamingoes and cycled on rocky paths leading to iguana-strewn beaches.
We took a tour to the magnificent Sierra Negra volcano where we clambered over jagged black rocks and gazed across the 10 mile diameter of the crater. We spent a morning on a boat with a guide with a masters degree in marine biology to see white-tipped sharks and blue footed boobies, and to snorkel with sea turtles and exotic fish. Doing it this way made it possible to pick and choose when and where we went as day trips were plentiful, most priced between $35 and $55 per person
We’d hoped to visit some of the other islands and tried to book a flight to San Cristobal but they were all full (and we didn’t want another long bumpy boat ride) so we took it as a sign that we were meant to stay on Isabela. On our last day there, we bumped into a young Austrian couple that we’d met at La Fortaleza who had just completed five days on a cruise. Sunburned and exhausted, they told us they’d seen lots of marine creatures and wildlife but had every minute of every day scheduled with activities so they had little time to relax.
As for us, we watched the sunset every day, with a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn, and gazed across the shimmering sand as the sky became aflame with brilliant shades of scarlet and orange.
And we toasted the day. Every day. Slowly.