In my mind, there are two types of vacations: the “lounging and relaxing” type (not worth going too far from home because you can lounge equally well anywhere), and the “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation” type (anytime you go somewhere new and interesting). A Galapagos vacation clearly fits into the latter category, and my goodness. By day two, I already felt ready for my recovery vacation!

We had another full-day tour, this time sticking a bit closer to “home” and exploring other parts of San Cristobal rather than visiting another island. We were staying in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the largest town on San Cristobal and the capital of the Galapagos. It’s at the western end of the island, and for this tour, we sailed up to explore the northern coast. This boat ride was MUCH smoother than the previous day’s since we stayed near the island rather than crossing open ocean, and I don’t think anyone was upset about that.

For context, this is San Cristobal
We started at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, went up to some spots along the coast south of the circle, and then went to Kicker Rock (in the red circle).
Our first glimpse of Kicker Rock as we headed past on the way to our first stop (warning: this is the first of MANY pictures of this rock)
You didn’t have to wait long for another picture of it… Spot Kicker Rock!
Those are some nice volcano rocks.
We also had a surprise on the way… DOLPHINS!!!! Excuse these terrible pictures but I was caught unprepared and tried my best
Not great, I know.

After about an hour, we made our first stop. The boat dropped anchor off the coast of the island, and we took a dinghy to the shore because the water was too shallow. There, we did our first “wet landing” which means that we had to get our feet wet, hopping out of the dinghy into the waves and walking up through knee-deep water onto the beach.

On the dinghy headed for shore. Are these not the most insane blues??
Site of our wet landing
I liked the color layers in this lava

One of the many cool things about the islands of the Galapagos is that even though they aren’t very big, they have some incredibly diverse landscapes. San Cristobal is less than 200mi2 (500km2), and sometimes it’s a beach, sometimes it’s like a rainforest, and sometimes it’s like the moon (official terminology). This was a moon stop. That is, if the moon was made of lava that flowed and then cooled and still looks like it could have been flowing five seconds ago. Seriously, it’s crazy! It’s not hard to look at the wavy lava formations and imagine it as molten lava because it looks like it was frozen in action. There are also these fantastic cracks in the ground which are almost exactly like how it looks in a cartoon when there’s an earthquake and you think “that’s so unrealistic”.

What the heck is happening with that lava?? It’s so cool. And so weird.
Panorama of the moon
Cartoon cracks
Don’t fall in!

I think the lava shapes are super awesome, and I was also in awe of the colors! There’s iron in the lava, and it oxidizes (like rust) and makes it turn shades of red/orange! Generally, the landscape is pretty barren, and I found it kind of eerie. It’s like looking back in time to a prehistoric age. Or like the moon (basically the same thing). And it was creepy quiet when no one was talking, aside from the sound of the wind and loose lava pieces clinking across the ground anytime someone accidentally kicked one. It sounds almost like if you tapped two pieces of porcelain together. Besides the lava, we saw a few birds and some cacti, but it wasn’t exactly a hot spot for wildlife.

Cacti with some SERIOUS spines
San Cristobal mockingbirds
They’re endemic to (only found on) San Cristobal Island!
Funky lava sculpture
Such cool textures!
These clouds are also fabulous
Lava lizard. He’s maybe about the length of a hand (well, my hand), and different varieties of these little dudes can be found running around most of the islands.
We cruised past these blue-footed boobies on our way to shore! Check out how crazy bright its feet are. They get brighter during mating season.
Cactus with weird red cactus fruits?
I believe that’s a frigatebird
Try to tell me that doesn’t look like the moon

For our next stop, the boat headed west (back in the direction we came) for a few minutes, and then we did the whole dinghy/wet landing deal at a beach, Cerro Brujo or “Witch’s Hill”, named for a craggy ash mountain at the end of the beach that I guess someone thought looked witchy? The guide said it’s one of the best/most beautiful beaches in the world… and then we also heard that said about at least five other beaches in the Galapagos alone. I’m no beach expert, but it seems like a tough call when every beach has the same deep blue waters and powdery white sand. But hey, I’m not complaining!

Wet landing at Cerro Brujo (pic by my uncle)
What do you think? Most beautiful beach in the world? I don’t know…
This feels like a painting

Beach views. And Kicker-Rock-from-a-distance views.

I spent our free time at the beach walking along the shore and admiring the birds. There wasn’t anything new, but we saw more oystercatchers which was exciting (I felt like such a birder because I knew exactly what they were), plus the usual iguanas and sea lions.

American oystercatcher!
Oystercatcher friends

Marine iguana, wiggling its way along the beach

It’s very entertaining to watch the marine iguanas walking. Plus, when they’re feeling defensive, they do this weird head-shake thing.

Sea lions aren’t the most land-graceful creatures
I guess it’s kind of pretty…
Scoping out my next shot (pic by my uncle)
Another lava lizard

Our final activity of the day was snorkeling at Kicker Rock, aka León Dormido, a formation about three miles (5km) off the coast of San Cristobal. Here’s the extent of my understanding about its formation: hot magma escaped from the sea floor, and when it collided with the cold ocean water, it caused an explosion. This formed a volcanic “tuff cone” (a cone of compacted volcanic ash) that was then eroded for thousands and thousands of years by the sea. Today, there’s a two-peak formation, about 500ft (~150m) tall from the ocean floor with a channel between the two visible rocks that’s about 60ft (19m) deep.

Kicker Rock. You can see the channel super clearly from this angle.
It doesn’t look nearly as intimidating in the sun!

The names are things that people think the rocks look like. Kicker Rock is because someone thought it looks like a boot, and León Dormido, or “Sleeping Lion”, is because someone thought it looks like a sleeping sea lion. I think these “someones” were a little kooky. (Also, there was a beach near where I lived in Peru called León Dormido, and that mountain/rock also looked nothing like a sleeping sea lion. My conclusion is that this is just a default Spanish name for rocks near the sea.)

León Dormido
and León Dormido? I guess I can kind of see it, but no.

Kicker Rock is known for hosting a great diversity of sea life: tropical fish, rays, sea turtles, sometimes sea lions and marine iguanas, and a few varieties of sharks including hammerheads. So, why is this location such a hotspot? It’s a combination of things… the strong currents + the ocean depth + a big, solid structure in the middle of the ocean = a disruption in normal water movement and the stirring up of nutrients that are usually found in the deep sea. The deep-sea nutrients end up closer to the surface and attract sea life.

This provides an especially cool opportunity for snorkelers because it puts some deep-sea diversity within reach and makes it feasible to snorkel somewhat in the open ocean. I was mostly excited about this… but I was also mildly terrified. Okay, confession time. I have an irrational fear of sharks. I mean, it’s semi-rational because yes, sharks can be dangerous, but it’s irrational because I don’t like going in the ocean AT ALL unless the water is clear. And that’s so that I can get myself out of the water ASAP if there’s a shark in sight (yes, in my mind, I can outswim a shark). The concept of WANTING to see a shark while being IN the water is not one that my fear can comprehend. The tour guide said that there are always sharks there, but whether you see them or not depends on the water clarity. I assume other people were excited by the high probability of a shark sighting. I was just anxious, and almost paralyzingly so. But I didn’t want to miss out on something because I was scared, so I told myself that I had to get over it. Did I? Well… get over it? No. Persevere through it? Yes.

Unfortunately for us, the currents were kind of strong, and the water wasn’t especially clear. The boat dropped us near Kicker Rock, and we swam our way around the formation. Visibility was decent for maybe 10 feet, and most of my energy was spent trying to move forward, not get pushed into the rocks, and not get pulled too far away from them. I’m a good swimmer, but it was a lot, especially if you’re also trying to look at things as you go!

Sea turtle!

I didn’t handle the currents nearly as gracefully as this sea turtle…

Since the visibility wasn’t great, I mostly spent my time looking at the little fish and plants and stuff (clearly I’m no marine biologist) that were on the rock. The colors were amazing, and I imagined I was swimming past little fish neighborhoods. I also saw a couple of sea turtles and a faint shadow beneath me that looked like a ray. The worst thing was that there were TONS of tiny jellyfish. I’m 99% sure that the guide told us they didn’t sting, but that was NOT true. It wasn’t super painful, but I kept feeling sharp pinpricks on my face and arms. Wonderful. It also was a little disconcerting to not be able to see the bottom of the ocean (personally not a fan), and it absolutely didn’t help with my shark fear. Focusing on the rock helped me to keep my bearings and feel slightly less adrift.

Jellyfish! These were not very big… maybe about 3″ long (8cm)
Turtles are friends.
Oh to have an underwater camera! (I had my phone in a waterproof case. And I was also nervous that I was going to drop it to the bottom of the deep blue sea, never to be seen again. Even though it was attached to me by a lanyard. And my hand’s death grip.)

Here’s some footage of the fish neighborhoods!

These look like they’re just bubbles, but I’m almost positive that they were little fish. I called them bubble fish. (I’m a GREAT namer, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Not super clear, but these were my favorite little fish. Not the one that’s most obvious in this picture, but if you go up a little, you’ll see a smaller fish with similar-ish coloring (blue head to yellow, orange, and a pink tail).

When we were nearly all the way around the formation, the guide delivered the “good news” that the currents weren’t too strong to keep us from swimming through the channel. Oh, goody. Did I mention? The channel is where the sharks like to hang out. Thought stream: “EEEE! Deep breath. Stay with the group. No sharks want to eat you. Go for the eyes and gills. You can swim faster than most of these people. You’re okay. Don’t think don’t think don’t think.” I did it. It was not great. I couldn’t see anything which made it infinitely worse because there were almost definitely sharks, they almost definitely knew where I was, and I had no clue where they were. Nope nope nope. Not my favorite experience. The good news is that I didn’t get attacked by a shark, so at least my irrational fear took a slight hit (it likes to tell me that if there is a shark in the area, it WILL attack me. Now we’re down to “it MIGHT attack me”).

Anyway, after we swam through the channel, the boat picked us up on the other side. My nerves were about spent by that point, and I couldn’t get out of the water fast enough. Plus, I was tired of getting zapped by jellyfish. And just tired. Everyone seemed to be on the same page because we rode back to town in near silence, and after we got back, I sat around like a potato until deciding on an early bedtime.

With our guide after getting back (pic by my uncle)

Related Posts

Welcome to the Galapagos – learn more about the islands’ formation

Española Island – explore another Galapagos-ian island with a completely different landscape

Diamond Beach, Iceland – compare the white sands of Playa Cerro Brujo to the black sand beaches of Iceland!

Ada Foah, Ghana – lounge around in the Ghanaian beach paradise of Ada Foah

Batumi, Georgia – I can’t talk about beaches without mentioning my favorite pebble beaches of Batumi!

The morning after my short day in Guayaquil, I met my aunt, uncle, and cousins at the airport for our flight to San Cristóbal, our first stop in the Galapagos! I was really excited that it worked out for me to travel with their family because while I do love to travel alone, there are some destinations that are even better with travel companions. To me, the Galapagos is one of those (because you need someone to share your disbelief with! It’s a place like none other).

Cousins! (pic by my uncle)

Since the Galapagos Islands are protected, there are lots of hoops to jump through on your way there. We needed to provide all sorts of information about where we were staying and what we were doing, they scanned our luggage to make sure we weren’t bringing any organic materials with us (because non-native seeds and such can really mess things up), and when that whole process was finished, we were off!


No trip is without its drama, and this time, there was some seat assignment debacle happening. I don’t know exactly what it was all about, but I stepped onto the plane and immediately regretted it. Chaos. People were standing in the aisle and yelling at the flight attendants who were frantically looking at papers and passing them back and forth and yelling across the plane. I managed to scoot past the mess and into my seat, but there was still no resolution in sight. The departure time came and went. Tensions were rising. Finally, a man a few rows in front of me stood up and said, “Okay, so whatever happened to mess this up, it doesn’t matter anymore. The flight is only 2 hours long. Can we all just agree to sit in whatever seats are available so that we can get out of here?” A voice of reason. The plane breathed a collective sigh of relief. The problem passengers sat down. We took off. That man was a hero.

Now that we’re airborne, let’s get some Galapagos backstory. The Galapagos Islands are a volcanically formed archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator about 560 miles (900km) west of Ecuador. There’s a hot spot beneath the earth’s crust, and sometimes, an eruption pierces the crust and sends out a flood of lava that accumulates and cools into an island. Since the earth’s crust is made of tectonic plates, giant areas of crust that are constantly moving, these newly formed islands slowly move away from their source hot spot which remains stationary. The Galapagos are on the Nazca Plate which is moving east towards South America at a rate of about ~1.2”/year (3cm). That may seem slow, but over 50 years, that’s nearly 5 feet (1.5m)! Over millions of years, a group of islands is formed. The oldest Galapagos Islands are on the eastern side, estimated to be 3 million years old. The newer ones to the west are young… more like 50,000 years.

The Galapagos Islands. There are some smaller islands that don’t show in this picture, but these are the major ones that people visit/know about.

The new islands, as nothing more than mountains of cooled lava, are completely devoid of life and rather inhospitable places. Slowly “pioneer species” make their way there, starting with things like cacti and lichens (fungus algae) that don’t need much to survive. Their seeds come to the islands via winds or tides, a few eventually land in places where they manage to germinate and grow, and slowly, they spread. Saltwater-resistant coastal plants, like mangroves, have a better shot than those requiring fresh water.

This is a good place to explain that one of the reasons why the Galapagos are so unique is because of their location. There are three different currents that converge on the islands: the warm Panama Current from the northeast, the cold Humboldt Current from the southeast, and the Cromwell Current, an upswell current from the west which brings cold water from the ocean depths. In essence, all ocean roads lead to the Galapagos, making them an incredible site for marine diversity, including marine mammals that also spend time on land, like penguins and sea lions.

Sally Lightfoot crab. The name origin is debated, but some say it’s named after a Caribbean dancer because of its speed and agility. For an idea of scale, this guy is maybe like 6″ wide?
Sea lions!

Okay, now we have some basic plant life and marine life… so how did the land animals arrive? Vegetation rafts (floating masses of vegetation) and other large, floating objects like tree trunks sometimes carry animals as well as plants. From the continent, in favorable conditions, it takes about two weeks to float out to the islands which means that any animal capable of surviving two weeks without freshwater and in the hot sun had a chance to make the Galapagos home. Not surprisingly, this mostly limited the land-dwellers to reptiles, mainly tortoises and land iguanas, that thrived in the absence of predators and competitors.

Land iguanas
This guy has some pretty colors!

Finally, the easiest path was taken by sea birds who simply flew to the islands. Many species nest on the various islands, probably attracted in part by the lack of major predators, making the Galapagos an especially famous destination for birders.

Great blue heron (not a great picture, but hey, baby steps)

Everything that came to the Galapagos had to either quickly adapt to the environment or perish, and the plants and animals that live there today sometimes look very different from their mainland ancestors. One famous example is the Galapagos finches. The thirteen species of finch are differentiated by their beak shapes, each best suited to accessing a particular food source. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos, and his observations of the finches helped to form his theory of evolution.

The islands have two seasons: hot and garúa (drizzle). Hot is from December-May when the warm NE winds are strongest, and rainfall is abundant. Garúa is June-November when the SE and W winds are strongest. Temperatures are cooler with a persistent garúa.

In the lowlands of the islands, the climate is arid. Some of the larger islands have highland areas as well. Their climates transition from arid lowlands around the coast to almost rainforest-like vegetation (and weather!) in the highlands toward the center. It’s very strange. You can have a bright, sunny day on the coast, but a rainy day is just a quick drive into the highlands away.

Can you see the little crabs? They have one GIANT claw. These are actually so teeny that I couldn’t tell what they were from where I was standing. I saw hints of movement, and, curious, I took a picture with my camera zoomed in all the way and then zoomed in on the picture. Only then could I see the claws.
Get ready for post after post of me obsessing over how pretty the water is.

Okay, now I’m going to zoom through the human history of the islands because it’s far less interesting and mostly involves lots of bad decisions, people dying, and destruction and exploitation of the islands. Some evidence has been found to suggest that pre-colonial people made it to the islands, likely on large rafts that were driven by the winds and currents. The first written account of their existence is from 1535 by a Spanish missionary named Fray Tomás. A few days after his ship’s departure from Panama, the wind disappeared, and they were left to the mercy of the currents. By the time the ship reached the islands, its passengers were in desperate need of water. It took three days and two islands before they found freshwater pools which they used to refill their stores before heading back to the mainland. Fray Tomás wrote of “sea lions and turtles and tortoises so large that each could carry a man on top of itself, and many iguanas that are like serpents” and said that there were “many birds like those from Spain, but so silly that they didn’t know how to flee, and many were caught by hand”.

About a century later, pirates moved in, using the islands as a refuge and hiding place after attacking Spanish ships. The Spanish then took an interest in the islands, gathering as much information about them as possible to try to stop the pirates. The 1800s brought whalers who hunted the whale-rich waters, killed fur seals for their pelts, and took/killed tortoises for their oil which was used in lamps. This also was the beginning of the introduction of non-native species, a huge issue for the Galapagos wildlife that persists to this day as they threaten the native species by eating their food, eggs, etc. As Fray Tomás noticed with the “silly” birds, their lack of exposure to humans kept them from recognizing the risk they posed. The same is true for other animals. The native species have no time to adapt to them and the new threats they bring.

Crystal clear water!

The early attempts to colonize the islands all ended in disaster. The first was in 1832 and included 80 prisoners who were pardoned in exchange for their work in the colony. Within five years, it failed due to a toxic atmosphere between the colonists and criminals. Criminals continued to be sent to the islands, and in 1839, the new governor transformed the colony into a work camp where overseers dealt harshly with laborers until an 1841 revolt put an end to the whole mess. The next had a better leader, but he was idealistic and was murdered by some of the pardoned convicts he sought to reform… who were then killed by some of the workers who were loyal to the leader. Another failure. In 1879, the next guy produced sugar and treated his laborers (a mix of volunteers and convicts) like prisoners, allowing extreme punishments like whipping, banishment to another island, and death. He was killed by his workers in 1904. In 1925, 2000 Norwegian immigrants tried to set up a community, but the environmental conditions were too much, their business plans failed, and people died, leading most to return to Norway within three years, tired and disillusioned. In the 1940s, a penal colony was set up and became famous for the mistreatment of prisoners and abuse by the guards. This lasted 13 years until an uprising where the convicts took control, stole a yacht, and sailed themselves back to the continent.

Understandably, this run of “bad luck” led many people to believe that the islands were cursed. I think it was nature’s way of saying “keep out” and also “stop sending tyrants and convicts to start colonies because it’s never going to work”.

The Galapagos became a national park in 1959, the same year the penal colony was dissolved. This was a great step, but four centuries of exploitation had taken its toll. The wildlife on and around the islands was greatly depleted both from being killed by humans and by damage caused by the introduction of non-native species. Whaling logs from North American whalers alone list a minimum of 100,000 tortoises taken, meaning multiple times that were probably killed in total. Some tortoise species were lost to extinction, and the ones that are still around have been repopulated with great human effort.

We’ll talk more about some of these things later, but there’s a brief, whirlwind history of the Galapagos!

After we landed on San Cristóbal, we dropped off our bags at our apartment and walked down to the coast to check things out. Within two blocks, we were surrounded by sea lions and iguanas and crabs, and that was the end of our exploring. My uncle explained some camera basics to me, and I was happy as a clam (hehe), trying to take better pictures and figuring out the settings (you’ll see my photos gradually get better from this point on). We did eventually make it about two more blocks to a beach where some sea lions were lounging, and that entertained us until dinnertime.

This was where we spent approximately 40 minutes staring at crabs, sea lions, and iguanas. (pic by my uncle)
Another Sally Lightfoot crab
This looks comfortable
Sea lion beach
The little ones are so cute!
Just stretching…
Sea lion tracks
Look at that face

What posture!
My uncle is doing a good job of maintaining the required 2-meter distance between person and wildlife. Also, this is a good depiction of what’s going on behind practically every picture I took in the Galapagos. A crowd of people admiring the celebrity wildlife.

Everyone was exhausted after that. We had a full-day tour the next day, so I went to bed as soon as I could to prepare for our early start!

Related Posts

Iceland History – visit the world’s largest volcanically formed island, Iceland! While Iceland and the Galapagos were formed the same way, you’ll see what a difference location makes!

Macaw Clay Lick – speaking of birds, head to Peru to admire the colorful macaws of the Amazon Rainforest.

Guayaquil – you know those prisoners who “helped” to colonize the islands? They were sent from the prisons of Guayaquil. Doesn’t that explanation make you want to take a walk around Ecuador’s biggest city? No? Well, you should anyway.