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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: WHS #646: Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands don’t need a long introduction: they were among the first batch of inscriptions in 1978 (actually it was the very first on record) and they were also a shoo-in at our Top 200 WHS. One can ‘do’ the Galapagos either via an accommodated cruise or a self-arranged land-based alternative, which has become more feasible and popular in the last 10 years. For me the choice was clear quickly: to be ‘locked up’ on a rather small cruise ship for at least a week with strangers did not seem appealing to me at all. Also I am not a fan of daily water based activities like snorkelling and swimming. So I based myself in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, the largest town on the Galapagos Islands.

Giant tortoise couple on the move at Santa Cruz

Puerto Ayora nowadays is a surprisingly touristy and affluent city. It isn’t unlike a Greek harbour town, with tourists milling around in the streets at all hours and daily departures of ferries to other islands. I had planned on taking two organized day tours from here: to North Seymour and Bartolomé. But unfortunately the latter got cancelled because of too few bookings. Instead of Bartolomé I eventually choose Isabela island. I spent the rest of my time on Santa Cruz itself.

Santa Cruz is far from pristine, but a good spot nonetheless to see certain species – in particular the giant tortoise. Probably the first stop for every tourist on Santa Cruz is the Charles Darwin Research Station. It is located a pleasant walk away from the Puerto Ayora town center, and you’ll see mangroves, birds and the tortoise breeding center.

The best place to see giant tortoises in the wild is in the highlands of Santa Cruz – you can already see them in the fields along the road between the ferry to Baltra Airport and Puerto Ayora. I went to look at them more closely in El Chato reserve, but on the way up there we already encountered one in the middle of the road amidst the fairly busy traffic of taxis, buses and trucks. The tortoises at the reserve go about eating their grass quietly, they’re wonderful to watch. They’re not particularly bothered by human visitors though they sometimes stop eating and look up. Also I found one or two hissing, a sign of fear or annoyance?

Blue Footed Booby chick at North Seymour

My first full daytrip went to North Seymour, an uninhabited island about 45 minutes away from the canal between Santa Cruz and Baltra. It's a small and flat lava island, known for nesting birds. Especially the blue-footed booby and frigatebird can be seen in large quantities doing their thing. There’s a 2km trail on the island which we slowly hiked accompanied by a guide. We saw many young chicks of both species, often on nests right beside the path. Of course everyone who visits the Galapagos wants a good picture of a blue-footed booby, and you must be a real bad photographer not to succeed. Especially this species is without any fear of humans and often hops closer to get a better look at the passing tourists. Their fluffy offspring, already quite big actually, did take my heart though.

My other daytrip, to Isabela, first involved a public ‘ferry’ ride of 2 hours (the ferries here are small speedboats that take only some 20 passengers). It’s a very bumpy trip but fortunately I had some seasickness tablets left from my trip earlier this year to the Azores. Isabela is the largest island of the archipelago, but I only had time to check out the area not too far from its port. Sleeping sea lions, occupying the wooden benches that must have been meant for waiting tourists, are a common sight here. I did a short hike on the island near two lagoons with flamingos, and returning to the port via a long stretch of beach home to hundreds of marine iguanas and lava lizards.

Marine iguana at Isabela

Beforehand I had bought the Bradt Galapagos Wildlife guide, and then I was already surprised that all of Galapagos’ flora and fauna fit into a 156 page booklet. Anyone who has seen for example the volume and density of a bird guiding book of let’s say Costa Rica will notice that the diversity of species at the Galapagos Islands is very low. During my short stay I saw almost all species of interest named in the book, many of them in large numbers and at multiple locations. Unfortunate misses included the green sea turtle (was seen by people snorkelling during my day trip to North Seymour), the penguins (due to the cancelled day trip to Bartolomé and me not making a real effort for it at Isabela) and the Galapagos hawk.

Published 7 October 2017

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