One Week in Galapagos

In June of 1831, Charles Darwin arrived in a small archipelago off the coast of Ecuador looking forward to taking some geologic samples and confirming the emerging theories on plate tectonics. When he left, he had collected hundreds of flora and fauna samples; observed strange and wondrous animals such as the giant tortoise, the marine iguana and the blue-footed booby; and had noticed the peculiar, subtle differences between species of animal from island to island. What would follow would literally change scientific knowledge and cement Darwin as one of the greatest minds the world has ever known.

In June of 2016, Taylor and I arrived in that same archipelago, and said, “Holy crap! We’re in the mother-flippin’ Galapagos Islands!”

Ok, so maybe we weren’t as ambitious as Darwin, but we still found ourselves in one of the world’s most unique and storied locations. Galapagos still inspires as a pristine paradise with dramatic implications for science, ecology and the way we think. And it’s beautiful to boot. However, few visit Galapagos because it had a reputation of being remote and inaccessible.

I’m here to tell you it’s accessible, and it’s not as difficult to see as you might think.

There are two ways to see the islands and its treasures. Most people see Galapagos via cruise. You can make brief stops at multiple islands and truly see a large portion of the archipelago. Heck, that’s how Darwin saw the islands, and it was inspiring enough to prompt his theory of evolution and The Origin of Species. Tickets for these trips tend to be fairly expensive, though, especially when you still have to factor in airfare. We opted for a less expensive, but still awe-inspiring, route. After all, whether by boat or by land, you’re still in Galapagos. Seemingly every square inch of the islands have something incredible worth seeing.

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We planned to spend a week in Galapagos, visiting two of the major islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela. The only way to get to Galapagos is by plane, and you have to fly from mainland Ecuador. Our plane from Quito flew into Baltra, an old U.S. air base from World War II. We spent three days staying in Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement in Galapagos, before taking a ferry to Isabela’s tiny Puerto Villamil for four more days. From both towns you can take day trips to a great variety of excursions and sites. I’ve outlined the highlights of our trip below.

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Dining in Galapagos

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Look tasty?

Maybe if you’re a sea lion or a pelican. Here at the Puerto Ayora fish market, while fishermen and fisherwomen haul in their catches and prep them for sale, those two animals watch closely for any falling fish parts or unattended piles like these. While in town, Taylor and I even watched one young sea lion nudge a woman slicing up fish until she threw him some juicy scraps.

If you’re not into the scaly, raw offerings of Galapagos, don’t worry. The island towns offer a variety of delicious dishes, all of which blend island offerings with the traditional tastes of South America. Taylor and I opted for the land-based method of seeing the Galapagos, so our trip included visits to Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil. It also means that when we weren’t venturing into the highlands in search of giant tortoises or snorkeling volcanic reefs in search of penguins, we were searching for a one-of-a-kind dish. We found a ton of great Galapagos dining, day or night. Below are our recommendations on where to eat and where to skip in two of Galapagos’ largest ports.
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Joel vs The Volcano

On Sierra Negra Volcano in Galapagos

I know what you’re thinking: Is this post just an opportunity for a pun headline referencing a terrible ’90s movie? Yes and no.

On our trip to Galapagos, we saw unique wildlife and had once-in-a-lifetime snorkeling adventures. But the Galapagos Islands exist because of a volcanic hotspot along the Nazca plate, meaning we spent half of our trip sleeping at the base of an active volcano. Did you really think we wouldn’t take a look inside!?

If you want to see a Galapagos volcano, Sierra Negra awaits you. Taylor and I stayed four nights on Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands. Isabela is actually a collection of six still-active volcanoes. Puerto Villamil, it’s largest/only settlement, sits on the southern end of Sierra Negra. The caldera is only about 20 miles from the port, although it rises to about 3600 feet in that short distance. It last erupted in 2005 (video), when it spewed lava and ash for about a week down its northeastern side. It’s also the largest of the Galapagos calderas – 5.7 miles across at its widest. It’s big is what I’m saying.

Our hike lasted about six hours, and while it can’t compare with our trek just a week earlier on a portion of the Inca Trail in Peru, it holds its own wonders for those willing to explore. Dozens of tour companies in Villamil will take you up to Sierra Negra. Our AirBnb hosts also owned their own tour company, so they took care of everything for us, which was nice. At about 6 a.m., a driver picked us up at our house and drove about 30 minutes up the mountainside. At the head of the Sierra Negra trail, we met our tour guide. He gave the tour in both Spanish and English.

Our Sierra Negra hike had two phases – first, we walked along the rim of the caldera, then we traveled down the northeast side into the freshest areas of new lava flow. As you first begin the hike, you might not feel like you’re on an active volcano. One of the most interesting aspects of Galapagos is the incredible variation of climatic zones in such a short distance. From open ocean to shallows to shore to sulfuric desert to grassland to dense jungle to mountaintop, Isabela features so many different environments. The hike starts in the misty forested zone of the island. At first, you’re surrounded by trees, ferns, and wildflowers. However, as you climb up to the rim, the view transforms quickly. As we reached the edge, the dense green gave way to expansive black:

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Tintoreras: Operation Penguin

A Galapagos penguin on Tintoreras

I have to admit that one of the top reasons we wanted to go to Galapagos was to see real, live penguins in the wild. Penguins are my wife’s absolute favorite animal of all time, and Galapagos is the closest place to the United States to see them. Some Galapagos penguins even live north of the equator, the only penguins in the world to do so. After a few days in Peru and a week exploring other areas of Galapagos (including a prehistoric land of giant tortoises), we were determined to meet a tuxedoed ambassador of bird-kind. Commence Operation Penguin.

If you take the land-based approach to seeing Galapagos like we did, your best bet to see a penguin sits right off the southern coast of Isabela, the archipelago’s largest island, in Las Tintoreras.

Just about a half-mile from Puerto Villamil, Las Tintoreras is an irregular group of low volcanic rocks surrounded by shallow coves. The area makes an ideal nesting ground for the Galapagos penguins, because they can nest among the rocks and swim around safely in the relatively calm waters. Las Tintoreras host much more than penguins, however. There are so many unique species to see in Galapagos (view a slideshow here), and this atoll of volcanic rock serves as a home and nesting ground for dozens of them, including boobies, frigate birds, herons, marine iguanas, sea lions, and the namesake of the area – las tintoreras, the white-tipped sharks that are endemic in these waters.

Las Tintoreras provides one of the best diving areas in all of Galapagos, too. Beneath the shallow waters among the cracked and craggy rocks, you can see all sorts of wonders – rainbow fish, sea cucumbers, rays, sharks, sea turtles, marine iguanas, and, yes, penguins.

Toward the tail-end of our trip, we took a tour of Las Tintoreras, which consisted of three parts, a boat tour, a walking tour and a diving session. I had bought a cheap HD underwater camera specifically for this excursion – in no reality would I leaving Galapagos without a picture of Taylor meeting a Galapagos penguin.

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Reserva El Chato is Jurassic Park

You know that scene in Jurassic Park? The one where the jeeps stop, and Sam Neill, hands shaking, pulls off his sunglasses and first lays eyes on a living, snorting brontosaurus? That’s how it feels to walk into Reserva El Chato.

Our visit unfolded in much the same way. Our taxi driver parked his truck in a gravel parking lot and pointed out the front windshield to something. Not seeing what he was gesturing toward, and neither us nor him speaking much of the other’s language, he motioned for us to get out and follow him. We did, and not 100 feet into the park’s low trees and grassland, two Galapagos giant tortoises lay bathing in a pool of mud.

For the tortoises, we probably served as another daily annoyance standing in their sunlight, as their resting tortoise faces betrayed. But for me, having arrived on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos just hours earlier, it finally dawned that I was standing in the Land that Time Forgot. There’s nothing like a staring contest with a 120-year-old reptile to make you feel like you’ve reached the end of the earth.

Reserva El Chato is one of the most spectacular reserves I’ll probably ever see. Located on Santa Cruz, the large island in the middle of the volcanic Galapagos archipelago, El Chato is a nature reserve for the island’s famous giant tortoises. For the ridiculously underpriced entrance fee of $3 per person, you can spend an entire day walking among the forest, watering holes and grasslands where these living legends lumber.

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20 Animals You’ll See in Galapagos

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What other reason is there to visit the Galapagos Islands if not to see the incredible diversity of wildlife that lives on this one-of-a-kind archipelago. Taylor and I went in search of tortoises, penguins, sea turtles, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and more, and frankly, they weren’t too hard to find.

In Galapagos, unique wildlife can be found behind seemingly every lava rock, cactus, reef or mangrove. Here’s a slideshow of some of the best Galapagos wildlife photos we took on our trip in May 2016. If you go, you could see these animals and more! Click below to see the slideshow:

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Crashing Corpus Christi in Cusco

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On our final day in Cusco – May 26, 2016 – Taylor and I wanted to see some of the attractions around town: Sacsayhuaman, Qorikancha and the Inca History Museum. Since our AirBnb was just a block away from Mercado de San Pedro, we decided to start our morning at the market. Maybe we could snag a fresh snack for breakfast.

As we got to the end of our street, we saw the market in full swing – and do I mean full. The narrow sidewalks were packed shoulder to shoulder with shoppers and merchants. Well, for me, mostly elbow to shoulder with short, unstoppable Peruvian grandmas. All around sellers yelled to passers-by, holding out pomegranates, trays of chica, buckets of indistinguishable fish parts, and laminated posters of Jean Claude van Damme(???). Holy cow, I thought, this is a hoppin’ market!

But as we shoved our way through the crowd to the next plaza, we saw an even more expansive sea of Cusquenos, this time surrounded by booths, speakers blaring dance music, and street performers. Clearly this wasn’t a regular day at the market.

We continued to push our way through the throngs until we arrived at the southwestern corner of Plaza de Armas. When we arrived, we found the streets crammed with people, parade floats and stages set up outside the two churches, complete choirs and marching bands.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it to the tourist sites,” I said to my wife.

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Machu Picchu

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After a day in Cusco, a day hiking the Inca Trail, and a night in Aguas Calientes at the bottom of the Sacred Valley, my wife and I reached the culmination of our Peruvian expedition with a visit to Machu Picchu.

We took one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu, which helped us avoid the massive crowds that come later in the day as the train arrives from Ollantaytambo. As previously mentioned in my post about our Inca Trail hike, we contracted with the Llamapath touring company, so our guide Hever continued on with us for a second day, giving us a two-hour tour of the archaeological site. Frankly, this turned out to be totally not enough time – Machu Picchu is a huge site, and I feel like we barely saw half of it on the tour. Fortunately, we could stay as long as we wanted, and Taylor and I explored the site on our own for about three hours after the tour ended.

Here’s a short (and very amateur) video of our stay in Cusco, or hike on the Inca Trail and our visit to Machu Picchu. All of our footage was shot on our phones and a Canon point-and-shoot – no need for bulky cameras:

The site itself is overwhelming, both in the size and in the history and design. So much of it was built around astronomy. The main temple has two windows – one that aligns with the summer solstice and one for the winter solstice. There’s also a reflecting pool where certain constellations are reflected at specific times of the year. I can’t imagine how many years the city must have taken to build, especially since absolutely everything was made from massive white granite stones.

At the top stands a huge pyramid, on all three sides are gigantic agricultural terraces, and in between all different kinds of two-story houses, store rooms, aqueducts (that are still running, by the way), chambers for nobility and priests, sacred stones and much more. It’s amazing that the side remained hidden until 1911 given its size, and it’s also incredible that a city home to roughly 700 Inca people nearly 500 years ago fell abandoned so quickly. Only one mummy was ever found at the site, and the rest of the human remains found were the very old or very young. No one’s really sure what happened, or even what Machu Picchu is. Three theories exist currently: it was a summer home of Inca emperor Pachacuti, it was an Incan university, or it was some kind of religious site like a monastery or abbey.

However, what really enhanced the experience for me was our guide Hever’s accounts of history that directly challenged many things I had read about Machu Picchu and the Inca.

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On the Inca Trail

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Five hundred years ago, the Inca controlled one of the largest empires in the world, ruling 10 million South American people in a political network that stretched from Quito to Lake Titicaca. Such a massive kingdom required prompt communication and supply lines, and over hundreds of years, the people of South America developed white-knuckle routes through the Andes upon which runners could deliver a message from the north to the south in a matter of days.

Today thousands retrace Inca footsteps along these routes, the most well-known of which begins near the Inca capital of Cusco and snakes through the Andes, ending at the world-famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

My wife Taylor and I decided to see the Inca Trail for ourselves in May 2016. The following recounts some of the highlights and suggestions from our hike. Regardless of what route you take, it’s a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

The full Inca Trail is a four-day, 26-mile hike that passes through nearly a dozen historical Inca sites. The path starts at 9,000 ft., climbs to 13,700 ft., and includes about 10 miles of hiking above 11,000 ft. and three nights sleeping atop the frigid, airless Andes.

While I am certainly up for adventures, I was in no shape for such a trek, and we only had three days in Peru anyway, so we opted for the shorter two-day hike, which is a 10-mile hike that starts around 7,400 ft., climbs to 9,000 and then drops quickly into Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, the small touristy town at the bottom of the valley (6,000 ft.). This trail still goes through three of the major Inca sites, with about three more visible from the trail.

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On the first day, we hiked from the site of Chachabamba – at the bottom of the Sacred Valley near the banks of an Amazonian tributary – to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. From there, you walk down to Aguas Calientes, passing Machu Picchu, to rest and stay the night. The next morning, we caught one of the first buses up to the Machu Picchu site, went on a guided tour for about two hours, then had the rest of our day to explore the ruins and the surrounding area for ourselves. For average hikers like ourselves, this itinerary hit the sweet spot.

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Dining in Cusco

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Does this look appetizing? I turned a corner one afternoon in Cusco and this mouthwatering basket was sitting outside a local restaurant smiling right back at me. It’s one of Peru’s finest delicacies and the crown jewel of fine Cusco dining: roasted Guinea pig. Well, I was hungry.

Guinea pig is prepared for special occasions (like the Corpus Christi festival we stumbled into) and is the Peruvian equivalent of a nice lobster. One of our tour guides was bewlidered to hear that Americans keep Guinea pigs as pets, and when asked what it tastes like, he suggested it tasted most like “cat.” I’m still not sure if he was screwing with us.

Regrettably (?), I did not sample the Guinea pig. For starters, I don’t eat red meat. Also, not sure I’m ready to get into roasted rodents (if I am, the squirrels that keep knocking over my porch plants will be first). But we were fortunate to try many other Peruvian dishes, all of which were fresh, light, delicious and weren’t staring back at me.

Cusco is an incredible place. Our stays in Cusco bookended our trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Therefore, we only had opportunity to visit a few of the local restaurants, so I wanted to make the most of our nights and decided to try new or local foods wherever we went. There were a few places we had hoped to visit but didn’t make, thanks to the Corpus Christi festival. Nevertheless, if you ever find yourself in central Cusco, I recommend trying the following. These might not be the best restaurants in town, but they’re the ones we tried!

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