Grey sand and looming cacti weren’t the welcome I pictured upon my arrival into the Galapagos, but I was far from disappointed. If anything, that welcome made it apparent that the Galapagos were more than the stereotypical islands with white sand beaches and palm trees – they were unique.
I arrived at the islands via the Baltra airport, which meant a ferry ride across a small channel to neighboring Santa Cruz, the tourist capitol of the archipelago. On the short ride I managed to see my first marine iguana, sea turtle, and multiple sleepy sea lions!
After taking a bus across the island to Puerto Ayora, the other students and I were immediately ushered out of our hotel and to the Charles Darwin Research Center. Finches, land iguanas, and many many tortoises later we were given time to grab an ice cream and relax downtown.
The next day I went on the best snorkeling trip of my life. Within the first hour I had swum with sea lions, sharks (white tip reef sharks and a Galapagos shark), and a fearless turtle. There is also the chance that I saw a rare endemic fish species, but since the tour guide sent us off to look for it without any English description I will never know.
By Thursday the other students and I were pretty exhausted from going going going, but none of us wanted to waste a second. We woke up early on our own accord to go visit Tortuga Bay. Our initiative was rewarded by spectacular up-close views of the wildlife. It was a great opportunity to get artsy with iguana and finch pictures. Though I didn’t go snorkeling, from the shore I was able to see a small white-tip reef shark in the surf.
That afternoon we headed up to the highlands to a finca that had transitioned from raising cattle to providing tourists with an opportunity to see wild tortoises. The change in climate from lowlands to highlands was instantaneous. One second we were in a dry near-desert ecosystem with cacti, the next we were surrounded by tall trees decked with moss and lichen. From a vermilion flycatcher sighting at the beginning of our trip to barn owls roosting in a lava tube, the farm was beautiful and thrumming with life. Our tour ended with a fascinating question and answer session with the finca’s owner, complete with home-grown lemon grass tea and a heart stopping view of rolling hills dotted with grazing tortoises.
That night all the students were bused into the middle of nowhere to camp under the stars. The camping side of things weren’t great – the field was marshy and someone had decided that 15 people could easily fit within three small tents – but the stars made up for everything. I hadn’t seen such great stars since I was in Namibia last summer. Seeing them shoot across the sky was the perfect ending to my time in Santa Cruz. Tomorrow I would travel to Isabela, my home for the next three months.