Galapagos & Ecuador

Opportunistic sea lions

Floods in central and Northern coasts of Peru swept away bridges and caked towns in mud this April. El Niño was particularly strong this year delivering more rain in a few days than some areas of the arid North have seen in 10 years. Carrie and I were making our way through Chile when the headlines of the flooding hit. Our plan was to slow travel our way from Lima to Piura by bus after spending 11 days around Cusco. We were looking forward to cheaper travel, good people, and I was especially interested in the many surf opportunities. The planed route now had bridges that were impassable and towns hit hard by the flooding. Even if it was passable, traveling through hard hit areas so I can surf and we can be tourists seems disrespectful at best. We explored options to reroute to Bolivia or bounce over early to Europe but settled on heading up to Ecuador. Galapagos has been on our list, but a couple of epic tours in Patagonia and Peruvian Andes set our budget back. We compromised by posting up in the cheaper costal town of Montañita for almost 2 weeks before we made the trek up to Galapagos.

Montañita is known as a party town with a surf problem. We figured if we stayed outside the heart of the town, we could avoid the madness. Turns out, not so much. Montañita is where Ecuadorians and backpackers go to party. Makeshift bartender stalls line the streets, the music goes until 4 in the morning on weekends, and people stay out well after sunrise. Every morning locals clean up best they can, but its a dirty town. Brightside is, there’s a great righthand point break. And just like most party surf towns, the break is empty during dawn patrol. I’d walk out to surf just before 6 and people were still on the beach going strong. I suspect a strong flow of coke kept these revelers going. One morning I was corraled by a group of locals to take photos with a real life surfer dude. They couldn’t believe I was surfing, and I couldn’t believe they were still that fucked up. Like I said, a party town with a surf problem. I went on to surf tasty head high right handers with a Frenchman who had the same plan. Hard to believe, because just the night before this break was packed with 30 - 40 locals. The good times came to a halt when I came down with a nasty little bug that put me on my ass for 4 days. The biggest downside to traveling Peru, Ecuador, and other parts of South America is the unavoidable stomach bugs you get. I’ve had 3 or 4 bouts, but this one was the worst. We couldn’t get to Galapagos fast enough.

Off the plane in San Cristobal felt like pure relief. The town was clean, quiet, and wildlife is everywhere. Sea lions on the park benches, marine iguanas sunning themselves on the sidewalk, and colorful fish surrounded the pier. Sea lions are infinetely entertaining and Carrie was smitten. I’ve read a good bit about Galapagos surf, and best I could tell is that it was fickle. Changing wind and swell patterns can have a big wave break looking like a lake, where around the other side of the island in guys are breaking boards in 8ft surf. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was happy to have brought my own board here. The surf scene in Cristobal is not developed, which adds to the draw. There is a tiny little shop where you can rent some dinged up boards (everybreak is lined with volcanic rock), snorkels, and bikes. Juana who owns the shop told me that Tongo Reef had been popping off, but it was inside the military base. It seems now they were letting surfers in, but it can depend on who is in charge. Next day we made the 45 minute trek to the break. We presented our passports for entry into the base and navigated empty galapagos coasline. As we walked out, there were a group of sea lions surfing. What an incredible place! Surfing in the Galapagos seemed to good to be true. The combination of two awesome things to make a more awesome thing doesn’t always work out so well. Take for example the mullet, el camino, or crispy chicken pizza from Taco Bell. In this case, I could have my cake and eat it too.

Photo Op
Carrie loves the sea lions

How do you describe surfing uncrowded 5 - 9 ft waves in the Galapagos? Curious sea lions playing all around, occasionally dropping in for a party wave, and even biting at your leash as you sit in the water. Sea turtles were just as interested, poking their heads up and hanging out near the break. Colorful parott fish and clownfish swam below. There wasn’t a building in site, and the waves were pumping. You can sit in the advanced break on the outside for a more hallow, but shorter ride potential for a barrel. Or sit inside for a longer ride that connects for 100m on the better waves. Almost all day long the wind is off/side shore. I met an Australian who couldn’t pull himself away from the draw of this break and atmosphere to go diving or other nature-touring. He’s been here for 6 weeks and hasn’t visited the other islands, been diving, or other on day tours. I totally get it.

Tongo Reef
Making my bottom turn

There is, however, more to the Galapagos than surf. Carrie and I hadn’t been diving since our trip to Cozumel some 5 or 6 years ago, but the wildlife here isn’t to be missed. A chance to see schools of hammerheads, Galapagos/Blacktip/Whitetip sharks, sea lions, a bazzilion different fish, eels, manta rays, and if you’re lucky a Mola Mola or Whale Shark. We got to see a great deal underwater which you can see here (be sure to view the videos). We popped over to Santa Cruz via 2 hour ferry (40 ft modified fishing boat) from Cristobal. In total we took the ferry 4 times between the islands, and couldn’t believe how many people got sea sick. One one trip, half the boat got sick. Like the pie eating scene from Stand By Me, watching people get loose their lunch is apparently contagious. We managed to avoid vomit crossfire and catching getting sick ourselves, but Carrie did have to look after a local 8 year old traveling solo. Not a peep out of this one before or after spewing chunks for 45 minutes. What a trooper.

Sea Turtle
Manta Ray
Sargeant Fish
Hammerhead

Santa Cruz has the most options for diving, and we went twice from there and once from Cristobal. We learned on this trip that you can see 90% of things in the Galapagos by staying on the islands and doing day trips vs expensive liveaboards. There are a couple of places that you can only see while doing a longer liveaboard (7+ days), but the access to everything from the main islands vastly outweighs the extra cost. Diving in Wolf and Darwin islands is likely the biggest miss, but during the season we were there diving in Gordon Rocks (accessible from Santa Cruz) offers similar chances. Access to Española has opened up last fall from the mainland, which previously was only accessed by liveaboard. In short, you can have an amazing trip at a 25 - 50% savings when you stay on the islands.

After some diving and a short trip to Darwin Research Center, we made our way to Isla Isabella. Another 2 - 3 hour ferry from Santa Cruz to this sleepy and under developed tourism town. Isabella had the least hospitible locals, but our favorite day trips. Waiters, water taxis, or other locals employed in tourism seemed indifferent or contemptous of visitors. Service was subpar for many places we went. Alot of locals jackup prices on you and make you feel like you’re the asshole for making them work. However, our guides on the day trips were very professional and helpful. Our trips to Tintereras and Los Tuneless were the highlight of the trip. These tours offered a bit of trekking and lots of snorkeling and we saw plenty of wildlife on both trips. In Tintereras we spotted a fresh hatch of baby marine iguanas and a hungry heron waiting for an opportunity to snag a snack as soon as they left sanctuary. Shortly after that we were snorkeling above 9ft reef sharks in a small channel wondering if we were too close. Los Tuneless was an all day excursion. 30 minutes into the boat ride around the island, I see what looks like to be an excellent right hand point break that nobody is on. I asked the guide, and sure enough, its a local spot. I’m as excited as a kid at Christmas. I’ve suspected that Galapagos is peppered with ‘secret spots’, and I think I just stumbled upon one. First part of the tour we snorkeled around the lava tunnels and caves. After 40 minutes in the water, the guide tells us there are sharks in one of the caves 10 feet below. From above, all you could see was shadow, you had to poke your head into the cave to see a small pack of sharks circuling a few feet from your face. Guide says, “here, poke your head in this dark shark cave”. This video captures it.

Reef sharks

We went on to see small school of golden rays and lots of sea turtles in the bay. After lunch we moved deeper into the tunnels by boat to snorkel more. Just before we were done snorkeling a sea lion came to check us out. A few flips underwater and he was ready to play with the group. I’d go under water, flip twice, and he would follow right alongside micking me. He played with the us for over 30 minutes, it was really one of the most unique experiences of our entire trip. After the snorkeling, we walked around the tunnels getting a good glimpse of the odd looking Blue Footed Boobies. All in all a great day.

Carrie playing with the sea lion
Boobie of the Blue Footed variety

Walking down the dusty main road of Isabella on day 2, I noticed a couple across the street staring at us funny. For a second, I thought they were happy to see other Americans, but then I realized that we knew them. Way down south in Chile, we met Wouter and Franka at our first refugio in Torres del Paine. At that point we’d both managed to find drinks and the nearest fire to reward ourself for the day’s hike. We talked for hours about global politics. Then again in Puerto Notales, we bumped into them, though not nearly as suprising since Notales is the launchpad for TDP. But here we were over 3000 miles away in the sparsely populated Isabella and there they were. A welcome friendly face after nearly 4 months of travel. More spirits were consumed and they regaled us of their travels. These Danes know how to travel!

Friends from Holland

Finishing this post I feel like I left a few things out: mountain biking with tortoises in Isabella, the leaping mantas in Cristobal, penguins…I could go on. Part of our penance for not blogging in awhile. But also, Galapagos offers up a healthy serving of pretty unique experiences. I don’t think this is the last time I’ll visit. I managed to convince the Aussie I met in the water to check out Isabella. Hopefully he’ll tell me that secret right is as good as I think it is.

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