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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Marconi Glacier – Day 2

The trip description from Serac Expeditions for the South Patagonia Icefield Trek says this about Day 2:

…we trek up the glacier until nearing the Marconi pass – entrance to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.  This will surely be the Expedition’s toughest day.

This is what had been fueling my fears for months!

We awoke to rain and wind, and had a brief breakfast of cornflakes and tea while still in our sleeping bags.  Although I put it off as long as possible, I did eventually have to emerge, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the rain was not as heavy as it sounded from inside the tent.  We got dressed in our waterproof pants, jackets and gaiters and packed up quickly ensuring, as per Juan’s advice, that our sunglasses, crampons and harness were easy to get to in our packs.

And so began our climb up to the glacier and the entrance to the Icefield.

Trekking companion on the climb to the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

A not-so-steep part at the beginning of our climb to the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier.

Was it as tough as it was made out to be?  

Absolutely!

And this was despite the fact that we had a pretty good day for this part of the trek!  On some expeditions the wind is so strong that they have to stay extra days at Lago 14 waiting for it to abate.

The first 1.5 hours of the climb was essentially straight up a vertical cliff – in many places more like rock-climbing than hiking.  There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. changes in climate over the past few years have made ascending directly via the Marconi Glacier too dangerous.  This new route accesses the Icefield via the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier, whose face is at a higher altitude than the Marconi Glacier. 
  2. we were trekking at the end of Summer.  Earlier in the season this area is covered in snow and you can essentially just snow-shoe your way directly up to the glacier face.
Beautiful light on the mountains - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

At one point Rafa tapped me on my shoulder and said “Mira detrás de ti” (“Look behind you”). The light was truly spectacular, and provided a welcome distraction as we climbed

There were some very tricky parts – particularly for a person with short legs and carrying more than 1/3 of her bodyweight on her back!   One of my favourite images from the entire expedition is the following, which completely encapsulates the challenges of Day 2.

Juan helping Anita on top of a narrow ledge with a steep drop-off to the left - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

An encapsulating moment. Overcoming the third obstacle of the trek, but with the most incredible view

We had already climbed up from below the lake, being careful to brace ourselves against wind gusts and not fall on the slippery, wet rocks.  Juan instructed us to put on our harnesses as we faced our third obstacle of the trek – a “step” that was taller than I was, with a sheer drop-off on the left-hand side.  An attached rope provided the solution as we harnessed ourselves to our guides and used the rope to pull ourselves up onto the 1 metre-wide ledge.  Anita has just executed this maneuver in the image and Juan is unhooking her.

At this point, we found a slightly sheltered place behind a rock for one of our short snack stops.  The food provided by Serac Expeditions for this trek was great, and included Argentinean empanadas for lunch on the first 2 days!  I chose to eat one of these, rather than diving into the chocolate bars, muslei bars, and other snacks – partially to save the others for later when I would be craving something sweet, and partially because they were the heaviest food item I was carrying!  Anything to reduce weight 😀

Argentinean Empanadas for lunch - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Argentinean empanadas for lunch. There was no shortage of food on the expedition

Another obstacle we came across a little later was essentially a rock “chute”, where I had to brace myself against the walls in order to reach the top.  Usually I’m quite coordinated, but on this particular occasion I somehow managed to get myself turned around and wedged pretty tightly in the narrow crack.  I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to get myself out.  But I was determined not to have to ask for assistance, and through sheer force of will I managed to extract myself.

Up, up, up we climbed.  I couldn’t imagine doing this if it had been any windier!

Silhouette of trekking companion climbing toward the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Did I mention it was steep?

Eventually we reached the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier and it was time to affix our crampons.  

Affixing crampons - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I’ve worn crampons before, but each time they are slightly different. Juan affixed them the first time for me. Yes, it was still raining

Then up onto the ice.

The next hour was a steady 30 degree climb up the glacier to the Icefield.  At this time of year all the snow had melted so we were walking on hard ice and had no trouble spotting and avoiding the crevasses.  The views back down the glacier were stunning, though the rise of the glacier itself seemed to be never-ending.

The view behind (top) and in front (bottom) as we climbed the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The view behind and in front as we climbed the steady 30 degree slope of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier

It was a relief to finally reach the Icefield where our trek flattened out.

Looking back across the flat icefield towards where we'd come from - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Looking back across the flat icefield towards where we’d just come from. These two people were the only ones we saw for 6 days, and this was as close as we got to them

Here, the crevasses became wider and deeper, often with small trickles of water falling into the abyss. We also came upon a Moulin – a hole created when melt-water encounters a weak-spot in the ice and, due to the Coriolis effect, begins to boar a narrow vertical shaft into the glacier.  Ultimately, both processes deliver water to the base of the glacier to lubricate its movement, and it is for this reason that glaciers tend to move faster during Summer. 

Crevasses and a moulin - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Learning about Moulins (top) and some of the larger crevasses on our hike to the hut

An hour later, the hut (our home for the next couple of nights) was in sight, though there was one last uphill in order to reach it.

Approach to the Garcia Soto Refugio - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The Refugio Garcia Soto was at the top of this rise on the bare rocky ground. Climbing another hill was the very last thing I wanted to do after scaling what was essentially a cliff to get here

We had crossed the border into Chile at around the point where the glacier flattened out, and arrived for a late lunch at the CONAF hut. 

Exterior of Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The Refugio Garcia Soto – our home for the next two nights

There are usually 3 Chilean Carabineros (police/border guards) stationed here (seriously, you find these poor guys stationed at the most remote outposts of their country) but, given their absence, we had the place to ourselves and quickly settled in.  The hut was not warm (renewed respect for the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut in East Greenland), but we spent a great afternoon drinking tea and chatting around the dining table.

Inside the Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Making ourselves at home at the Refugio Garcia Soto. It was not heated, so was quite cold inside.

We also made several excursions outside to explore our surroundings.  Although the mountains were obscured, we were treated to a bright rainbow arching over the glacier.

Rainbow over the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Rainbow view from the Refugio Garcia Soto

Amazing patterns in the ice.

Ice patterns - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I loved these patterns in the ice, looking towards the Icefield itself

Spectacular vistas over the Icecap (move cursor over the image to scroll the panorama).

 

And to top it all off, a platter of peanuts, olives, cheese, salami and crackers on one of our “tea-breaks” back inside the hut!  Heaven!

Luxury snacks on Day 2 of the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Luxury snacks! The food provided by Serac Expeditions was fantastic, and this was a real treat to celebrate the end of the hardest day of the expedition. No wonder our guides were carrying 26kg!

We finished the day with a beautiful sunset that promised better weather tomorrow, and headed to bed early due to tiredness and the fact that we had to wake up at 5am for our ascent of Gorra Blanca.

Sunset from the Refugio Garcia Soto - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Sunset over the Fitzroy range from the Refugio Garcia Soto

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 5.5 hours
  • Distance Covered: 8.3km
  • Altitude:  +818m, -22m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El Chaltén to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to Bahía Témpanos
  • Day 8 – Bahía Tempanos to El Chaltén
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Río Eléctrico – Day 1

I slept surprisingly well despite my nervousness about the trek, and was at the office of Serac Expeditions just before 8am.  There we added 1/2 of a tent (the tents were shared) and our specialised equipment for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition (crampons and harness) to our packs, as well as food for the next 6 days.  

Inside Serac Expeditions with the guides packing the last of the gear

The last of the gear to be packed for the expedition. The entire floor was covered when we first started

Everything was divided evenly and, in the end, each of our packs weighed around 21kg (the guides were carrying 26kg).  I was the smallest person in the group, and this was more than 1/3 of my body-weight.  Lifting it from a standing start was challenging to say the least!

Packing and ready to go on the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Final packing for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition. My backpack (hired from Serac Expeditions) is the one in the middle

Once we had all the equipment and food packed, we bundled into a minivan for the 40 minute drive along a bumpy gravel road to the Río Eléctrico – the starting point of our expedition.

Trekking companions walking past sign to Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Leaving the parking lot at the Río Eléctrico to head toward Piedra del Fraile

The first few hours were nice and flat and followed the river through the Lenga trees to the Refugio Los Troncos at Piedra del Fraile. However, to make it a little more challenging, Juan and Rafa set a cracking pace, which meant I was almost running to keep up as I tried to stop and take photographs along the way.

Valle Eléctrico and Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Hiking through the Lenga forest (top) to reach the Refugio Los Troncos at Piedra del Fraile (bottom)

We stopped at the Refugio for about 1/2 hour for a snack and a rest and to admire the incredible surrounds, before loading up again and continuing past the “point of no return”…

Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Views from Piedra del Fraile (top and middle) and the sign indicating the point of no return (bottom)

From there we entered a wide glacial valley surrounded by impressive peaks

Trekking companions in the wide glacial valley after Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Glacial valleys tend to be wider than river valleys, and U-shaped rather than V-shaped

and eventually reached the Lago Eléctrico, which we skirted around for the next hour or so.

Lago Eléctrico - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The turquoise waters of Lago Eléctrico

About 1/2-way around the lake, we encountered our first major obstacle of the expedition – the Pollone River.  It was time to change from our hiking boots into our river-crossing shoes. 

Trekking companions changing shoes - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Prepping for the river crossing

Just like the rivers in East Greenland, the Pollone River originates from a glacier and is absolutely freezing cold.  Unfortunately, I still don’t own neoprene socks, so by the time I slowly negotiated the deep and very swiftly flowing river (there were a few hairy moments, even with the aid of my trekking poles), my feet were once again in agony from the chill.  

Crossing the Pollone River with Cerro Fitzroy in the background

We continued following the shore of Lago Eléctrico to reach the scheduled campsite at La Playita but, as agreed with Juan at the briefing the night before, we did not actually make camp there. 

Looking back towards the lake and La Playita - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

The end of Lago Eléctrico and La Playita campsite

The idea was to hike an extra 1.5 hours on this “easy” first day, to make the “very hard” second day a little less difficult.  Seemed like a very good idea, so we started our ascent toward the alternate campsite at Lago 14.

Trekking companions ascending towards Lago 14 - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

A little further on, we encountered our second obstacle of the trek – the raging Río Eléctrico Superior.  This was a huge amount of water flowing down a very narrow channel in the rocks and, in order to cross, we had to use a zipline!  So this is why we were carrying harnesses 🙂

Rafa and Juan setting up the zipline - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Juan and Rafa on either end of the zipline. Juan helped us hook up, and Rafa helped pull us across and disengage us at the other end

I went across first with my 21kg backpack dangling between my legs.  The line was angled slightly up so we actually had to pull ourselves across – thank goodness Rafa was helping out!

Obstacle number 2 out of the way, we continued our climb to Lago 14.  We were hiking against a pretty stiff wind at this point and I was very tired when we finally arrived, but you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful campsite!

Campsite at Lago 14 - - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Campsite at Lago 14 – an absolutely stunning location

Juan and Rafa showed us how to pitch the tents and we settled in before it started drizzling.  The views to Cerro Fitzroy were absolutely stunning, and it was clear why it is often called “the smoking mountain”.

Cerro Fitzroy - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Views of Cerro Fitzroy – the “smoking mountain” – from Lago 14

Unlike in Greenland, we had no communal dining tent on this trek.  Juan and Rafa would boil water for tea and cook our dinner, and shuttle-run between the tents to deliver thermoses of hot water and our meals.  I have to admit I felt sorry for them being out in the cold, but very thankful at the same time that I didn’t have to go out there in it!  Although I love the idea of being a trekking guide, I’m not sure I’d really enjoy the reality of it.

Dinner on the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

While camping, Juan and Rafa would deliver our meals to our tents. Yes – our plate was a tupperware bowl

After Jan and I finished our in-tent/in-sleeping-bag dinner, Juan appeared with the map and explained the plan for Day 2.  An early start for the very steep climb up onto the Marconi Glacier and the Icefield itself.  This is the day I’ve been worried about…

Juan explaining the plan for Day 2 in our tent - - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Juan explaining the plan for Day 2, armed with a map and the weather forecast

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 7 hours
  • Distance Covered: 8.3km
  • Altitude:  +500m, -185m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El Chaltén to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to Bahía Témpanos
  • Day 8 – Bahía Tempanos to El Chaltén
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Prelude

In 2015, I did the 7-day Torres del Paine Circuit trek with Swoop Patagonia.  Although I had hiked most of the trails of the Torres del Paine National Park in my 3 previous visits (it really is one of the most spectacular places on the planet), I specifically wanted to do the Circuit for the moment when you reach the top of the John Garner Pass and have the South Patagonia Icefield stretched out before you.

Looking down on the Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Icecap from John Garner Pass on the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Looking down on the Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Icecap from John Garner Pass on the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

I fell in love with long-distance trekking on that trip.

A rainy dawn at the Torres del Paine National Park

A gorgeous sunrise over Los Cuernos in the Torres del Paine National Park meant walking in rain for the rest of the day on the Circuit Trek

From there, I crossed the border into Argentina, re-visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate

Perito Moreno Glacier

The face of the Perito Moreno Glacier – one of the most impressive glaciers I’ve ever seen.

and exploring for the first time around El Chaltén – Argentina’s (then largely unknown) mecca for hiking.   

Approaching El Chaltén and the Fitzroy massif

Approaching El Chaltén and the Fitzroy massif

It was there that I first learned about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition, in which you spend several days trekking on the Icecap itself.  Guess what replaced the Torres del Paine Circuit on my bucket-list?

Fast-forward to 2017.

One of the friends I made while on the Unplugged Wilderness Trek in East Greenland told me she was traveling to Patagonia in early 2018.  While helping her plan her trip, I suddenly remembered the Icecap Expedition and went searching for it on the internet.  After the 12-day trek in Greenland, the 10-day Huayhuash Circuit Trek in Peru, and the 7-day Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile, I was looking for a new challenge and, having re-read the description, it sounded like the perfect trek to tackle next.  I contacted Swoop Patagonia (they were amazing last time) and signed up for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition with their Argentinean partner company Serac Expeditions.

Storefront of Serac Expeditions in El Chaltén - Argentina

Storefront of Serac Expeditions in El Chaltén

The website makes it very clear that this is a strenuous trek with an intermediate technical difficulty.  While the distance didn’t phase me at all, I have to admit I was a little nervous about the cold, and that fact that I’d have to carry a full backpack for the first time in 20 years.  On my other long-distance treks I only had to carry a day-pack, as the rest was schlepped by porters or donkeys or boats. 

Due to the nature of the trek, both Swoop Patagonia and Serac Expeditions screen potential clients for suitable previous experience and, fortunately, I passed the grade.  But I still had several months to stew on the question of the cold and carrying the weight of the backpack…

It was almost a relief when, the day before the expedition started, the group met at the wonderful Patagonia Travelers Hostel in El Chaltén (I highly recommend it as a place to stay) for a briefing with Juan, our guide, and Rafa, our assistant guide.   There were 4 of us in total – Anita and Reto from Switzerland, Jan from Czech Republic, and me, and this get-together was to make sure that we each had everything we needed to be safe and relatively comfortable on the trek.   

Rafa went through all my gear with me, item by item, and gave me the tick of approval.  Then we all gathered around the map as Juan explained the plan for the next 8-9 days.  

Our trekking route for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

The thick lines highlight our actual trekking route for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition as recorded by Reto and his fancy watch. This was exactly the plan that Juan suggested at this briefing

Despite my fears, it sounded incredibly awesome, and I was really looking forward to getting started.

The last part of the briefing was to take us to the police station to register our trek and get stamped out of Argentina (we would spend several days trekking in Chile), and I decided to have an early night in anticipation.

Sign to the police station in El Chalten

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El Chaltén to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to Bahía Témpanos
  • Day 8 – Bahía Tempanos to El Chaltén
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Hiking Ecuador – Volcán Ilaló

A quick half-day hike just outside of Quito is to the cross on Volcán Ilaló.  And, unlike most of the hikes in this hiking mecca of a country, you can actually get to the trail-head on public transport!

However, it turns out that I didn’t need to worry about that as my friends Suzi and Marcelo were also interested in climbing to the viewpoint.  They picked me and two more of their friends up at around 8am and off we set to the Chapel in San Pedro del Tingo – the starting point for the hike.

Already from the Chapel, you have nice views over parts of Quito and out to the surrounding mountains.

Vista from the start of the trail up Volcán Ilaló

The vista from the start of the trail up Volcán Ilaló

But if you are keen – you can also do the climb.  

I have to admit, this was the least interesting hike I’ve done in Ecuador ☹ 

Because it is so close to Quito and so easy to get to, it is extremely popular.   The trail is very obvious, but is in really bad shape, mostly I suspect due to the off-road motorcyclists who also attempt to do the climb while trying to avoid hikers.   On this day, there was a group of 4 of them catch up to us, which was really frustrating because of the noise and also the fact that they kept blocking the path (they were having a lot of trouble getting the bikes up the trail and resorted on several occasions to using ropes to pull the bikes up).

Partially destroyed hiking trail up Volcán Ilaló

Its no wonder the trail looks like this when off-road motorcyclists also attempt the climb

The hike is surprisingly steep – a 30-ish degree grade that doesn’t let up for about 2 hours!  And this is one of the easier hikes in Ecuador! 

A less-steep part of the trail up Volcán Ilaló

This is actually one of the less-steep sections, quite close to the end of the trail

There are several small crosses along the way,  but unfortunately I couldn’t find any information about why they are there.

Cross overlooking the outskirts of Quito on the trail up A less-steep part of the trail up Volcán Ilaló

One of the many small crosses that lined the path up Volcán Ilaló

And the main event – the big cross – which is not actually at the summit of the volcano, that’s another 40 minute hike away.

The Cruz de Ilaló

The Cruz de Ilaló

But the views from here were lovely, and would be truly spectacular if it were completely clear, as Volcán Cotopaxi would loom large on the horizon.

View from the The Cruz de Ilaló

View from the The Cruz de Ilaló

Recommendation

If you don’t have a lot of time and would like to do a relatively “easy” hike around Quito, Volcán Ilaló might be a good option – especially if you are starting your acclimatization for hikes at greater altitude.   Personally, I’d recommend going to Otavalo and doing the Laguna Cuicocha rim hike as a much more beautiful option, but it depends on your timing and route.

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San Cristóbal Island – Galapagos

San Cristóbal was the last of the islands I visited on this trip to the Galapagos and, for chilling out, it is by far the best.  There are numerous and different eating options in town (I can highly recommend eating breakfast at the small café outside the Hostal Galapagos, and the Sabor Cuencano Bakery on Av. Alsacio Northia), and it’s a nice level of activity vs chilled-ness.  In fact, it was kind of hard to move from the Hostal Galapagos café each day… 

Given that I was still trying to get over my seeming-never-ending illness, I didn’t actually get up to that much on my three days on the island, but I did do a little exploring.

Playa Mann

This is just on the outskirts of town and a good place for watching the sunset surrounded by lots of sea lions!  I came out here my first night and loved watching all the small sea lion pups playing what looked to be “chase” in the water.   You’d see them rolling and diving in the water, then they’d flop out onto the sand and chase each other up the beach, before returning to the water to do it all over again.   Really magical!   Great pinchos (meat on a stick) just across the road after sunset for US$2.50 as well 😊

Sea lions on Playa Mann - San Cristóbal Island - Galapagos

Sea lions on Playa Mann. The young ones really don’t mind getting very, very sandy

La Lobería

One of the few independent longer excursions you can do on the Island is a visit to La Lobería beach – a breeding ground for sea lions.  It’s only about a 3km walk along 2-sides of the un-fenced airport

San Cristóbal airport - Galapagos

Yes – you see that correctly. It is a gate without any fences on either side of it

before you get to a fairly small beach with some sea lions.  The day I went, there were far fewer sea lions than what I saw at Playa Mann, but that was probably just unlucky.  I did get great views of some of the Galapagos Finches though 🙂

Galapagos Finches at La Lobería - Isla San Cristóbal - Galapagos

Galapagos Finches are not shy at La Lobería

Not being an ocean/beach person, I have to admit that the highlight for me was actually walking out to the cliffs a little further along from the beach.  

Cliffs near La Lobería - Isla San Cristóbal - Galapagos

There you can sit and watch the birds come and go from their cliff-homes while catching a nice cool breeze from the ocean.   The majority of the birds seemed to be a kind of petrel, but there were also some Swallow-Tailed Gulls, a few Blue-footed Boobies, and I even got to see a red-billed tropic bird – a beautiful white bird with a long tail.

Birds nesting on the cliffs near La Lobería - Isla San Cristóbal - Galapagos

Birds and a marine iguana nesting on the cliffs near La Lobería

My favourite moment was when a group of 10 Frigatebirds appeared.  They came right up to where I sat as they soared around the cliff face.  So graceful, even if a little menacing in my mind.  I suspect it is the shape of the wings that make me think this, as they remind me of a vampire for some reason??!!   Unfortunately, they moved on pretty quickly, but I enjoyed another 1.5 hours of solitude and silence watching the other birds.

My focus was on the marine iguanas on my walk back to the beach.  They do this weird head-bobbing thing and then expel salt from their nostrils to clear their system.  I remember this from my first visit to the Galapagos, and it really is bizarre to watch.

Tijeretas

This is a short walk from town through the Interpretation Centre.   There is a path leading to a lookout which has fantastic views over Tijeretas Bay, and it is a great spot to watch the Frigatebirds for which it is named (the spanish name for a Frigatebird is Tijeras).

Path up to the viewpoint of Tijeretas (top) and Tijeretas Bay (bottom) - Isla San Cristóbal - Galapagos

Path up to the viewpoint of Tijeretas (top) and Tijeretas Bay (bottom)

The Bay itself was a fantastic place to snorkel independently, and again, I just followed the Green Sea Turtles for ages, watching them go about their business.

On the way back to town, I made a loop via Playa Punta Carola, which is another fantastic place to watch the sunset and the sea lions.  I actually liked it more than Playa Mann as it felt like you were more in nature and was less crowded with people.  It’s amazing how the young sea lion pups insist on sleeping with their head on a rock.

Sea lion pups resting their head on a rock at Playa Punta Carola - Isla San Cristóbal - Galapagos

How can they sleep like this?

There were quite a few nursing while I was in the Galapagos this time.

Sea lion pups nursing at Playa Punta Carola - Isla San Cristóbal - Galapagos

Recommendation

If you want to chill out – San Cristóbal is definitely the best island for it.  There are handful of independent excursions you can do, but a lot of others as well if you are prepared to fork over the cash.

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Hiking Galapagos – Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico – Isabela Island

Having survived the snorkeling trip to Los Túneles without a relapse in my illness, for Christmas Day I headed out on the second tour I’d organized for Isabela Island – a hiking tour to Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico.

Once again, the day began overcast and, as we bused to the starting point of the trail, we ascended into fog.   We stood in light drizzle as our guide explained it would be a 16km hike, and I almost had to laugh at the enormous groan that went up from the other 12 people in the group.   My reaction was “OK – let’s go”, even with lungs full of fluid from the flu, but clearly I’m starting from a different hiking baseline than the majority of people.

Sign at the start of the Sierra Negra trail - Galapagos

We hiked the first 3km in fog.  It was nice and cool and very enjoyable chatting with a couple of my fellow hiking companions. 

Fellow hikers heading into fog on the Sierra Negra trail on Isla Isabela - Galapagos

I hope it improves!

What wasn’t so nice was that when we got to the first of the viewpoints, we could see absolutely nothing.

Caldera completely obscured by fog

See anything?

Our guide explained that this was common at this time of year when the ocean currents and winds push cloud up against the southern side of the mountain.  He suggested we continue to the next viewpoint and perhaps we’d have better luck there… 

Ummmmm…. Nope.  I didn’t even bother to take a photo.  On to the third viewpoint…

Fortunately, here the fog was starting to clear and we could see part of the second-largest caldera in the world (the largest is Mauna Loa in Hawaii).

Fog lifting over the Sierra Negra caldera - Galapagos

This is looking better

The caldera of Sierra Negra is about 10km wide, and looking out across such an enormous  expanse of flat, black, cooled lava is incredible.   

Panorama of the caldera of Sierra Negra - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Different patterns in the lava of the floor of the caldera told the story of its formation – if only I could have interpreted it.  I keep coming back to the idea that I should have continued my studies in Geology…

Patterns in the solidified lava of the floor of the Sierra Negra caldera - Galapagos

We spent about 20 minutes admiring the view, then hiked a further 2km to Volcán Chico

Approaching Volcán Chico - Sierra Negra hiking trail - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Approaching Volcán Chico across the lava field

With the fog gone, the equatorial sun beat down savagely and this last part of the hike quickly became very hot.  To distract us, our guide highlighted the features of the volcanic landscape we were walking through (until this point we’d been walking along what was effectively a road).  He pointed out lava tunnels and areas where small explosions had occurred, and explained the differences between a’a and pahoehoe lava.

Images of volcanic lava features on the hike to Volcán Chico - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Different lava features including a small lava tunnel (middle), pahoehoe lava (bottom left) and a’a lava (bottom right)

The views from Volcán Chico (not actually a separate volcano, simply the most active part of Sierra Negra) were fantastic, and would have been really incredible on a clearer day. Again – being able to see the vast, barren lava plains of Isabela Island is amazing.  I think it is the flatness and the complete lack of vegetation that makes it really capture my attention.  

Volcán Chico details - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Volcán Chico is very colourful (top and middle) with an incredible view over the lava fields of Isla Isabela (bottom)

We spent about ½ hour at Volcán Chico before starting the return journey. The final viewpoint of the caldera was even clearer this time and I managed to steal about 10 minutes there by myself just admiring the view and relishing the silence.

Sierra Negra caldera from the third viewpoint - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Finally, a clear view of the entire caldera of Sierra Negra

I walked most of the way back by myself noticing the different types of flowers that grew every now and then along the side of the road (I was too busy talking to notice them on the way up).  As the fog closed in around me offering some cool relief, I was a very happy camper having had the opportunity to see the caldera. 

Recommendation

This is a great day trip on Isabela Island if you are prepared to walk 16km.  It is not a difficult hike, though the sun can be very strong and hot, making it feel more difficult.  Bring loads of sun protection (hat, sunscreen, sunglasses) even if the day looks like it is going to be rubbish.

Time: About 7 hours in total

Cost:  $30 includes transport, boxed lunch, guide

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Los Túneles – Isabela Island – Galapagos

The Galapagos is a mecca for snorkeling and diving.  And while I haven’t taken up the latter (I already have waaaaaay too many expensive hobbies), one of my favourite memories of my last trip here was snorkeling with the Green Sea turtles.  I knew I wanted to do at least one snorkeling excursion while in the Galapagos, and opted for one of the longer trips – Los Túneles – on Isabela Island.

I had spent the entire day before in bed with flu symptoms and, on the morning of the trip, still felt like crap at 4am.   However, it’s amazing what your subconscious and mind-over-matter can do for you, and when I awoke again at 6am I actually didn’t feel too bad!  During that 2 hours of sleep, my body seemed to have convinced itself that it wasn’t sick after all, and that I shouldn’t miss the excursion. 

Cold and flu tablets

I was feeling so terrible, I even resorted to heading to the pharmacy for some medicine

When I booked the trip, I was told we would meet at the office at 7:15am.  I was there early (as usual), and promptly laid down on a bench to conserve energy and wait for the actual departure – this is Latin America after all. We finally left at about 7:45am and headed to the dock and our open-sided boat.

Our boat to Los Túneles was an open-sided affair

Our boat to Los Túneles was an open-sided affair

On the 45 minute boat ride to Cabo Rosa, we swung by Roca Unión – a large rock in the middle of nowhere with Nazcar boobies and sea lions perched just out of reach of the pounding waves.

Views Roca Unión with Nazcar boobies and sea lions

Roca Unión sits alone off the shore of Isla Isabela and was host to plenty of Nazcar boobies and sea lions on the day we passed by

When we arrived at our snorkeling spot, our guide was very excited because the level of the tide was such that it might be possible to see seahorses.   To avoid stirring up the silty bottom and reducing visibility, he instructed us to not use our fins and just float, but it is surprising how many people either a) don’t listen, b) ignore or forget instructions as soon as they are given, and/or c) simply have no idea of where their body is!

Yes we found the seahorses – and they were quite big actually!   Probably about 25cm long.  But unfortunately I only got murky views due to the fact that everyone else had kicked up the bottom with their fins…   *sigh*

From there, we followed our guide through the shallow rocky area looking for whatever else we could see.  There were only 10 of us plus the guide, but it is amazing how pushy and inconsiderate people are in these circumstances – there were times when it felt like an all-in-brawl!   We spotted some octopus, a tiger snake eel (it is actually an eel, not a snake), some stingrays, and white tip sharks sleeping in the caves formed in the lava. 

But, once again, the highlight for me was snorkeling with the Green Sea turtles.   It was a standout memory from my last trip to the Galapagos, and did not disappoint this time either. These creatures are very large (at least 2m across), and just so placid and graceful.   And curious!   If you stay still and float (as the guide suggested), they come right up to you to say hello, and then narrowly miss you as they make their way to wherever they’ve decided to head.  I LOVE LOVE LOVE snorkeling with the Green Sea Turtles!  It was one of the main reasons I wanted to return to the Galapagos.

The only problem with snorkeling in the Galapagos (at least at this time of year) is that the water is cold!  Even with an (admittedly ill-fitting) wetsuit, I was shivering and numb by the time we finished snorkeling about 1.5hrs later.  If the guide hadn’t headed back to the boat when he did, I would have had to have headed back myself – I was so cold!

Once everyone was back on board, we motored around to the area of Los Túneles itself – a maze of volcanic outcrops.  Given that it is a key breeding ground for the Green Sea turtles, access to this area is very restricted with only 5 boats of 10 visitors allowed during the morning and another 5 boats during the afternoon.  Only the local fishermen have permits to enter the area and, fortunately, our captain was one of them!

Approaching Los Túneles

Approaching Los Túneles

This place was amazingly beautiful (the photos don’t do it justice) and it was seriously impressive to watch the captain of our boat maneuver through the very narrow passages to arrive at a point where we could disembark.

Our boat docked in the middle of the lava labyrinth that is Los Túneles

Our boat driver negotiated passages only millimetres wider than the boat itself to arrive at the point for us to disembark at Los Túneles

We spent about 45 minutes exploring a fairly small area – but the colours and structures were amazing.

Views of Los Túneles

Los Túneles is absolutely gorgeous and a fascinating place to explore. It is also a breeding ground for Green Sea Turtles, which you can see swimming in the super-clear water.

We also got to see some more Blue-footed Boobies, including one with a 6-week old chick!

Images of a Blue-footed Boobie at Los Túneles, and a fluffy chick

I can never get enough of the Blue-footed Boobies. Amazing to see how fluffy their chicks are as well!

What drove me insane here was yet another demonstration that people either a) don’t listen to instructions or b) purposefully ignore them. Time and time again, our guide reminded the group not to get too close to the animals.  But in their efforts to get a selfie with the Blue-footed Boobie, several of the passengers were sidling right up to the poor creature – and it was very, very clear that the bird was a little nervous about this.  

Now the incredible thing about the Galapagos is that you can get about 2m away from a bird and it really won’t be fussed.  This is the distance that the guides try to enforce, but so many visitors push the limit and just don’t seem to realise, or perhaps simply don’t care, that the bird is becoming distressed.  They just want that picture!   If I had been our guide, I would have been much more forceful about telling people to pull their head in about this.   In my opinion, they are not strict enough with their clients 🙁 

On the way back to Puerto Villamil we passed a Green Sea turtle sunning itself on a rock, saw a huge Manta Ray on the surface of the ocean, and finally caught a glimpse of a Galapagos Penguin on the way into the harbor.

A Green Sea turtle sunning itself on a rock, and the fin of a sting ray - both seen on the way back to the harbour.

A Green Sea Turtle sunning itself on a rock (top) and the fin of a sting-ray

Recommendation

This is a great day trip and a good opportunity to see a variety of marine life.  Make sure you go with an operator who can enter into the labyrinth of Los Túneles though!

Time:  5 hours

Cost:  I paid USD$100, though had been quoted $120 at other places for the same tour.  Price included the hire of a wetsuit, guide, transport, boxed lunch.

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Hiking Galapagos – Muro de las Lágrimas on Isabela Island

In order to protect the environment and the animals, the number of excursions you can undertake independently in the Galapagos is quite limited.  One of the longer ones is the ~15km return journey out to the Muro de las Lágrimas (Wall of Tears) on Isla Isabela.  

Sign explaining the Muro de las Lagrimas complex and route

Almost everyone does this on a bike (and that’s certainly what the tourist agencies encourage you to do), but I decided I’d hike it instead.

It’s a very easy hike – the main difficulties being the heat and, if you aren’t used to it, the distance.  However,  there are plenty of points along the way for small detours and rest stops.   For example, I was lucky enough to be passing “El Estero” at low tide – the only time possible to visit.  It was an interesting little detour with mangroves and even a few Blue-footed boobies in the distance!

Some of the stopping off points along the road to the Muro de las L

Some of the stopping off points along the road to the Muro de las Lágrimas – El Estero and a Blue-footed Boobie (top), lava tunnel (bottom left) and Los Tunos (bottom right)

Galapagos Giant Land Tortoises

One of the key highlights of this excursion is “The Tortoise Way” – a section of road along which giant land tortoises are usually found.

Sign by side of road explaining not to touch the tortoises

The need for signs explaining not to touch the animals never ceases to amaze me. A sad indictment on the behaviour of a surprisingly large number of travelers

I got super-lucky and came across 8 of these amazing creatures within a 2km stretch!  I love their pigeon toes and wizened faces.

Closeup of the face and front legs of a Galapagos Giant Land Tortoise - hiking along the Tortoise Way in Isla Isabela

This tortoise was one of the shy ones. He stayed retracted into his shell for the duration of my visit

None of them was as big as I remember from last time I was in the Galapagos and, according to a sign, they were bred at the local tortoise centre.  They are the descendants of tortoises that used to live on the slopes of the Sierra Negra volcano, and were released into the wild once they were big enough to survive – so were most likely juveniles.

Front view of a giant land tortoise with neck extended, as well as details in the shell and the legs

The faces of the giant land tortoises are incredible – I would watch them all day! And the detail in the shell and their skin is fascinating

That being said – they were still enormous!  And it was a beautiful experience to come across so many of them in the wild.  On my last visit, there were very few outside of the Charles Darwin and other breeding centres. 

Cyclist passing a Galapagos giant land tortoise along the Tortoise Way on Isla Isabela

On my hike, I came across 8 tortoises enjoying the relative freedom of movement the edges of the road offered

They are fascinating creatures to watch, and I spent some time with pretty much all of them. I watched this guy eating for quite a long time … he didn’t seem to care.  But watching his struggle to strip the leaves of the small plants really makes you appreciate having hands and opposable thumbs!

This looks frustrating

And when they move, your heart really goes out to them. Every time, they would let out an “old-man-sigh” from the effort involved.  Though I guess I would too if I had to carry around such a heavy shell!  If they only want to move a short distance, they tend to half-lift, half-scrape themselves across the ground – the effort seemingly too great to lift themselves all the way up.

This looks like hard work and a lot of effort!

They only bother if they really want to cover some ground.

The Muro de las Lágrimas

Leaving my tortoise friends, I climbed to the top of the first lookout at Mirador Cerro Orchilla to survey the dry scrubby surroundings,

The view from Mirador Cerro Orchilla

The dry scrub that makes up Isla Isabela and the brilliant blue ocean from Mirador Cerro Orchilla

and then finally made it to the Wall of Tears. 

Approaching the Muro de las Lágrimas

Approaching the Muro de las Lágrimas

This ~25m high construction was built by prisoners between 1946 And 1959 when Isabela Island was used as a penitentiary. An interpretive sign explains:

This futile construction is preserved in memory of those hardships endured by those forced to build it

Indeed it would have been a horrible labour under the strong equatorial sun!  And some locals believe it is haunted, with stories of wailing and moaning being heard at the site.

Different views of the Muro de las Lágrimas

The Muro de las Lágrimas – an enormous amount of work to build a pointless construction

Leaving this stark reminder of a darker period in the history of the Galapagos, I climbed to “The Radar” viewpoint – one of 3 old radar stations established in the Galapagos by the US.

The path up to El Radar and the concrete slab where the radar was positioned

The path up to El Radar. There’s not a lot left of the radar apart from a concrete slab

I stayed up here for about 1.5 hours enjoying the shade and the breeze, and soaking in the incredible view over the ocean and the island itself.   I didn’t see a single other person.

Viewpoint from El Radar on Isla Isabela - Galapagos Islands - Ecuador

El Radar has a wonderful view over Isla Isabela

I was constantly amazed on this excursion how those on bikes didn’t seem to stop off at any of the side-“attractions” along the way, including the two prominent viewpoints.   Why?  If you are going to make the excursion, make the whole excursion!

Galapagos Flamingos

Eventually, I re-traced my steps all the way back to Puerto Villamil, but decided to make a detour at the entrance to the town to visit the Flamingo estuary.  It didn’t take long to spot several flamingos – their bright pink feathers highlighting them against the dull shrubbery and green brackish water. 

Flamingos at the estuary just outside of town

Its not often you get this close to flamingos

It’s rare to be able to get so close to a flamingo, and fascinating to see how they filter feed.  Who knew they were such noisy eaters? 

Recommendation

The Muro de las Lágrimas is an amazing day (or 1/2-day on a bike) excursion on Isla Isabela.  I enjoyed hiking it so I could take my time and explore everything along the way.  Even if you rent a bike, I would still encourage you to take your time and do this, as there is a lot to be seen.

Cost:  Free, if you hike

Time:  I took about 7 hours to hike there and back.  However, I did take it VERY slowly, stopped off at every location, spent a lot of time with my tortoise friends, and spent a lot of time chilling out at the viewpoints.

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A Day Trip to North Seymour Island – Galapagos

When I arrived in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, a quick stroll down the main street showed me that all of the day-trips to the different islands were incredibly expensive.  While it may be a lot cheap-er to travel to the Galapagos independently rather than on a cruise, it is still certainly not cheap!   For this reason, I decided that I would only do one or two day-trips, and asked around which were the best islands for seeing the endemic wildlife.   Everybody recommended North Seymour Island, so I set about trying to find the best deal, preferably for the next day.

Of course, it was peak season in the Galapagos (mid-Dec – Feb) and almost everything was booked up until after New Year!   In the end, I had to spring for a slightly more expensive boat, but they gave me “mates rates” (it was the last place they had available) and didn’t charge me for the loan of a wetsuit, so it only turned out to be about $5 more 🙂

I was picked up from my hotel at 8am and our group bused across the island to the main dock near the airport.  There we boarded a zodiac to take us out to the AltaMar, which was anchored a little further out.

Fellow passengers climbing onto the AltaMar boat from the zodiac transfer

There were 12 of us on the tour, so the zodiac had to do two trips

The AltaMar is one of the more luxurious boats that do these day-trips (hence why it was more expensive) and I quickly nabbed a perch on the very comfortable padded benches on the top level, with a perfect view in the direction of sail.

View from the upper deck of the Altamar boat heading to North Seymour Island, Galapagos

Oh how I love being on boats!  There is something really relaxing about it (assuming it isn’t too rough) and I can sit for hours just watching the landscape glide by.  Fortunately, I had plenty of time to do just that, as it took us about an hour to reach the landing place on North Seymour Island.

View of Daphne Major Island on the way to North Seymour Island, Galapagos

This is Daphne Major Island – a beautiful landscape feature on the cruise to North Seymour.

North Seymour Island

There, we were greeted by one of my favourite animals in all of the Galapagos – a Blue-footed Boobie 🙂  Interestingly, although these birds are one of the main symbols of the Galapagos, they are not endemic to the Islands.  They can also found along the Pacific Coast of the Americas from California to Peru, but it is thought that more than half of the world’s population lives in the Galapagos. 

Blue-footed bobbie standing on a rock with the ocean in the background on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

I love these guys!

After everyone was ashore, we headed off on our 1.5 hour “hike” (more like very easy stroll) around the set path that has been established on North Seymour Island to try to protect the habitat as much as possible.   These paths were already in existence 14 years ago when I first visited, but have become even more critical with the growing popularity of the Islands as a tourist destination (almost 225,000 people visited the Galapagos in 2015 compared with 75,000 the year of my first visit!).

Landscape and vegetation from the hiking trail on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

North Seymour is very dry.

Everywhere I looked, there were Frigatebirds on their nests – both Majestic and Great – and our guide explained (and then gave us pop-quizzes) about the key differences between the males (red throat-sac), females (white chest) and juveniles (white/rust face and chest, white belly).  

Juvenile and female frigatebirds showing the difference between them, on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

We were lucky enough to see the red throat-sac on a few male Frigatebirds (uninflated, given it wasn’t breeding season)

Male frigatebirds showing the red sac, on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

It would be amazing to see these red sacs inflated during breeding season

and some very fluffy-looking chicks.  Frigatebird nests are always built in bushes or trees so that they are off the ground.

Frigatebird and chick sitting in the nest on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

We also saw Land Iguanas absolutely everywhere, and actually North Seymour Island is one of a few islands in the Galapagos where they can easily be seen in the wild.  They are much larger than the Marine Iguanas, have a rounder tail, and the males are yellow in colour. 

Male land iguana on the hike on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

My first visit to the Galapagos coincided with the breeding season of the Blue-footed Boobies, and my strongest memory from that trip was that there were so many Blue-footed Boobies that you had to really watch where you were walking.  They would sit in the middle of the path and squawk at you to make sure that you stepped over/around them rather than on them.  And the males would be doing their goofy dance in all corners, trying to attract a mate.   It is this goofy dance that so endears these birds to absolutely everyone – and if you get the chance to see it – you must 🙂

Unfortunately, I wasn’t visiting during mating season this year so the boobies were pretty few and far between, and certainly, none were dancing.   Our guide was able to point out the difference between the juveniles and the adults though.  Can you spot the difference in the below?

Adult and juvenile Blue-footed Boobies showing the difference between the two. North Seymour hike, Galapagos

The juveniles don’t have blue feet!  The blue colour is caused by caratenoid pigments from their food, and acquired over time through their diet.  He also explained how, in contrast to the Frigatebirds, the Blue-footed Boobies make their nests on the ground, and you can tell where a Boobie nest was by the ring of white guano surrounding a relatively clean centre.  Yes, they just poo from where they are sitting.

Blue feet of the blue-footed boobie and a nest, on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

You can never get too much of blue feet

On the way back to the AltaMar we managed to spot a few Galapagos Sea Lions

Close up and distant view of Galapagos Sea Lions on North Seymour Island

as well as the Galapagos Brown Pelican (much smaller than an Australian Pelican) and a Swallow-tailed Gull with its characteristic red eye-ring.

Galapagos Brown Pelican and Swallow-tailed Gull on North Seymour Island, Galapagos

Las Bachas Beach – Santa Cruz Island

We had lunch back on board the AltaMar as we sailed around to Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island.   There, we went searching for flamingos, but unfortunately weren’t in luck on this day.

Lagoon with no flamingos under cloudy skies

Nobody home today at the lagoon

We did, however, manage to glimpse the sunken remains of the old US WWII barge for which the beach is named.  The US sank two barges here before leaving, and given that the locals were unfamiliar with the word “barge”, they called it Bachas.

The top of a single rib from the buried US WWII barge at Las Baches beach, Galapagos

Unfortunately we only got to see the top of one rib. It all depends on the tides as to how much you see of these sunken and buried barges

We also went snorkeling here for about an hour, though I have to admit the water was pretty murky and there wasn’t much to be seen beyond some Rainbow fish and a few smaller varieties.   I also realised that I probably should have tried out my fancy snorkel mask that I bought in Europe before wearing it for the first time, and definitely should have read the instruction manual of my cheaper-than-a-Go-Pro action camera before trying to use it.  

From there it was a 40 minute cruise back to the dock and another 45 minutes in the bus to arrive back at Puerto Ayora.

Recommendation

The day-trip to North Seymour Island from Santa Cruz is one of the best for spotting wildlife.   Though try to make your trip to the Galapagos coincide with Blue-Footed Boobie mating season – it really is something extraordinary to behold!

Time: 8 hours, including bus transfers, time on the boat and time on the islands.

Cost:  I paid USD$170, but it really depends on which boat you end up on.  The cheapest price I heard was USD$160.  

Hiking Galapagos – Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz

Most people arrive to the Galapagos Islands via Baltra airport near the island of Santa Cruz.   When I first visited 14 years ago, we essentially went straight from the airport to our cruise boat (it was not possible to travel independently in the Galapagos at that time), and didn’t see anything of Santa Cruz beyond the dock.  This time I planned to spend 3 days on the island, with Tortuga Bay the first stop on the itinerary.

Welcome to Santa Cruz, Galapagos sign

Welcome to Santa Cruz Island!

Before setting out, I took a quick detour to the Laguna de las Ninfas – a small tidal lagoon with red and white mangroves (I learned all about mangroves in Nicaragua last year) and a nice little boardwalk.

Views of Laguna Ninfas, its boardwark and vegetation near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

I loved the different texts that were engraved on the boardwalk

Then started off on the 40 minute hike to Tortuga Bay.  They have built a very solid path all the way there, which takes you through the dry vegetation characteristic of the Galapagos Islands, and giant Opuntia cactus.   Although found on many of the Islands, Santa Cruz has the tallest specimens of this cactus, which are an important food source for iguanas, tortoises and cactus finches.

Path and vegetation that leads the way to Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

The hiking trail to Tortuga Bay is pretty obvious

I found it fascinating how the cactus evolves as it grows larger – something that is clearly seen on this hike. It starts off as discrete pads that stack end-on-end and perpendicular to each other (below left).  Then, as it grows larger, these seem to “fuse” into a more solid-looking trunk covered in spines, with new pads appearing at more random angles in the upper reaches (middle).  And finally, the trunk loses its spines and becomes quite solid and wood-like, with the new pads forming a haphazard jumble at the top (right).

3 stages of evolution of the trunk of an Opuntia cactus, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Evolution of a Galapagos Opuntia Cactus

The texture and patterns in these trunks are amazing!  I had expected it to feel like a paper-bark tree, but no. It is much more solid than that.

Close-up detail of a trunk of a large, mature Opuntia-cactus on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

The hiking path eventually deposits you on the long, white, sandy beach of Tortuga Bay.  It is a beautiful beach, but unfortunately not one they recommend you swim at.

Tortuga Bay beach on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Given that I don’t particularly like swimming anyway, that was fine with me, so I hiked along the beach, stopping to investigate the dark, volcanic rocks along the way. 

It was a thrill to see the Sally-Lightfoot Crabs again

Male and female Sally-Lightfoot Crabs on a rock at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

and the Marine Iguanas of course! The Galapagos Islands are the only place in the world where these iguanas are found, and there is something very special about being able to see these creatures in real life.

Galapagos Marine Iguana on a rock at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Especially in the water, where their flat tail helps them to swim.

Galapagos Marine Iguana swimming at Playa Mansa on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

I was lucky enough to find this guy actually eating something (they usually just lie there expelling salt from their nostrils)

Marine Iguana eating plant material from a rock in Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

And loved watching them walk along on the beach.

Galapagos Marine Iguana walking along the Tortuga Bay beach on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

In order to go swimming or snorkeling, you have to walk all the way to the end of Tortuga Bay and cross over to the far more sheltered Playa Mansa.  

Marina Iguana on Playa Mansa with people in the background - Santa Cruz, Galapagos

A Marine Iguana wondering whether to approach the people on Playa Mansa

Given I’m not much of a beach person, I actually preferred exploring the cliff at the end of the beach, with its volcanic rocks and tall Opuntia cacti.  

Views and vegetation from cliff at the end of Playa Mansa on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

and watching the Frigate birds flying above.

Frigate bird flying over Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos

Note the forked tail on the Frigate bird. They are called Tijeras in Spanish because the tail looks like scissors.

On the hike back to Puerto Ayora, I spent lots of time chasing Galapagos Lava Lizards along the path in an effort to get a good photo, and then headed into town for an icecream – it was a warm walk 🙂

Lava Lizard on a rock, clearly showing the bright orange neck and face. Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos.

Recommendation

This is the main hike that you can do from Puerto Ayora.  And best of all – it is free and you can do it independently.

Time:  I spent about 5 hours on this excursion, but depending on whether you wanted to go swimming/snorkeling at Playa Mansa – you could easily spend the whole day.