When I was six years old, I loved to watch nature documentaries. They were funny educational films with speaking animals, and one of them was about the Galápagos islands. One scene from this movie that still remains very clearly in my mind is a group of marine iguanas taking in the sun on the volcanic rocks of the shore, sneezing at each other because the sea salt was tickling their nooses.
Twelve years later, while walking along the beach of Tortuga Bay, I almost stumble upon a group of these same marine iguanas, mistaking them for rocks at first – that’s how little I expected to see them. Visiting the Galápagos islands has been a childhood dream of mine, and I partly blame this animal documentary for it. Of course I didn’t associate them with Ecuador back then, I only found out later that they are part of the country that I now live in.
When I arrived in Ecuador, I did neither expect nor plan on visiting them either. Even though it’s the same country, a visit is quite costly and I just did not have the resources, so I just banned that thought from even crossing my mind. Then, on my very first night with my host family, we were talking about the different regions of Ecuador. Having freshly arrived and being curious about the country, I asked them how the Oriente (the Amazon) was, the coast, and lastly: how are the Galápagos? My host sister started telling me about her experience, she had been there twice, and suddenly my host father asked: Do you wanna go there? I told them that I’d love to, but it was to expensive for me and thus I wasn’t planning on going. “But you’re so close! You can’t live in Ecuador for 7 months and not visit”, he exclaimed. “It’s almost our duty to take you!”. At the time I thought they were just being nice – I had known them for literally half a day, so I just smiled and shoved the thought away shortly after the conversation. Little did I know that a few weeks later, they were looking into flight dates, asking for my passport to book tickets and then one night, my host mother told me we’d actually going in the end of October. I was just incredibly overwhelmed by their generousness, inviting me, who they had known for such little time, on this amazing trip with them. I am also fully aware that this opportunity was a huge privilege, as definitely not all families in the GCY program have the means for a journey like this, and I am incredibly grateful that this was possible for me.
Like most of my travel adventures, this one also started at a rather inhumane hour. Since we were flying from Guayaquil, which is about a four hours drive from Paute, we had to leave at 4 am in the morning. Thanks to our trip to Guayaquil in September, I was already used to the procedure and even managed to get 5 hours of sleep that night. The drive from Paute to Guayaquil is one of the most beautiful journeys I have ever taken. (To my RCN peeps: it’s comparable to traveling from Bergen to Oslo). After getting to Cuenca, you drive through the Cajas National Park, and the route takes you on winding roads with a breathtaking scenery through the Andes Mountains. At this point it is usually 6 am and I wake up from my semi-successful nap, shivering because the temperature changed with the altitude, and taking in the misty mountain view with sleepy eyes. As we’re descending from the mountains down towards the coast, we dive into a sea of mist, so thick you can’t see further than 5 metres. The sparse vegetation of the Andes suddenly changes into a tropical world with lush green plants and palm trees: we’ve entered the cloud forest. Finally, the ground below us becomes even, and the sides of the street are lined by plantations of cocoa and plantains. The air streaming through the open windows of the car isn’t dry and cold anymore but humid and hot, and I know we’re close to the coast. We enter Guayaquil and get stuck in the busy morning traffic, I notice the fancy buildings along the road and realise that this is a completely different world from the Sierra, and once more I marvel at the diversity of this country.
We arrive at Guayaquil airport timely, treat ourselves for a quick breakfast and then start the procedure of getting permission to enter the Galápagos. If you thought you could just buy a flight ticket and go, you’re wrong. The islands are a very special and fragile ecosystem, and thus there are several security procedures you need to undertake in order to ensure their protection. First of all, one needs to purchase the $ 20 irgendwas card, in which you then fill out all your details, the aim of your trip, the activities you’re planning to do etc. Then, your luggage gets screened by the quarantine department to make sure you’re not bringing any seeds, fruits, vegetables or other agricultural products onto the islands. Foreign invasive species pose one of the biggest risks to the ecosystem of the Galápagos, which is why these restrictions are in place. In order to reduce and prevent plastic pollution on the islands, you also are not allowed to carry plastic bottles, plastic straws or foamy plastic containers with you. How I would find out later however, all these items are used and sold on the islands themselves, which I found a little double-moral.. but ok.
The process of arriving on Galápagos is an adventure in itself. We flew into Baltra, which is one of the two airports on the islands alongside San Cristobal. Landing on Baltra felt a bit like entering a desert planet: there was nothing but red soil, rocks, cacti and the abandoned remains of a military base. From the plane we just walked out onto this new planet, casually crossing the maneuvering area to enter the actual airport building, which is the first ecological airport in the world and probably also the smallest one I’ve ever seen. Upon arriving on Galápagos, you need to pay the entrance fee to the National Park, which is 100 € for adult foreigners. Your luggage gets checked again to make sure you’re really not bringing anything prohibited in (for the checked luggage,that job is done by dogs, which is really cool to look at), and then you can finally leave the airport. Since we had booked a tour, we were greeted by our guide and led to one of the busses that drive from the airport to the Baltra port. From there, you need to take a small boat over to Santa Cruz, which is the island we would spend the next three days on. Your luggage just gets thrown onto the roof of the boat, which to me looked a bit risky, but it survived the journey. 😉
One thing that surprised me most about Galápagos was the vegetation of the island. In my mind, there was the coast, the beach, the volcanic rocks. I did not, however, expect to drive through a green tropical world with lush meadows and a steady, drizzling rain. Somewhere along the road, our taxi driver just casually commented: “Tortugas”. Instantly, I looked out the window and there they were: Galápagos tortoises! At first sight, they could easily be mistaken for huge, very smooth rocks. Just casually chilling on the meadows.
driving through the “highland” of the island
We arrived in the island’s capital, Puerto Ayora, which surprised me once more. I knew that four of the islands are inhabited, but I never imagined it to be this “normal”, touristy town with “hip” cafés, pizzerias, surfing shops and lobster restaurants. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the busses passing by and the tiendas on the side of the road. They could just as well be from Cuenca. Thus, even though Galápagos is said to be a different world from mainland Ecuador, I could feel the same relaxed-chaotic vibe here, which made me feel right at home.
view of Puerto Ayora from our hotel roof
During our first day on Santa Cruz, we visited the “highland” of the island, a ranch with Galápagos tortoises (where I, to my surprise, had the best empanada of my life), the lava tunnels and the “gemelos” craters formed through volcanic activity. What I really appreciated was that we were part of an all-Ecuadorian tour. I was literally the only non-Ecuadorian person in our group, and it was great! Since everything was in Spanish, I got to practice my language skills, and I also felt that the relationship to the tour guide would probably have been a little less natural and relaxed if it would’ve been a group of “foreign” tourists instead of his fellow nationals.
On our second day, we went for a small hike to visit “playa los alémanes”, the beach of the Germans. As our guide explained, it was named after the Germans who came there to settle during the 1930s to escape the unfolding war in Europe. (If you wanna learn more about the history of Santa Cruz, I found this really interesting document: www.gadsantacruz.gob.ec/info/B_PUERTO_AYORA/PA04_Historia/HISTORIA_SANTA_CRUZ.pdf
– it’s all in Spanish though)
Later in the day, we went swimming in “las grietas”, crevasses filled with seawater, where I met a group of Danish teenagers and was finally able to use my Norwegian again. They were visiting the island with their “høyskule” program and were very surprised that I knew what that was (after living with Skandinavians for 2 years, that happens).
Day three was a bit more relaxed. We spent the morning going on a 1,5 hour walk to “Tortuga Bay” (without seeing any turtles :(() where we also had the opportunity to take a swim in the Pacific Ocean. These are the moments that feel most surreal for me, standing at this huge beach and looking out into the turquoise water, laughing with these people that I’ve only known for two months, who are the only reason this is even possible for me, just feeling genuinely free, happy and deeply grateful.
I think what I appreciated most about this trip is the way I got to bond with my host family. Of course living with each other makes you grow closer, but after a while, you will develop a routine, it just becomes the new normal. I am a firm believer in the theory that traveling together is the ultimate way to test relationships, and if they pass this test, they will be stronger and deeper than before. This turned out to be very true for our Galápagos journey, where I had the opportunity to get to know my family outside of their “everyday” setting, and share new experiences with them. Looking back, it was also vital to bonding with my host brother, who I only used to see working in the restaurant, but who doesn’t live with us in the apartment. Before the trip, we occasionally talked, but we didn’t really know each other. Now, he actually feels like a big brother with whom I can joke, but also talk about my life, which I’m very thankful for. I never had siblings, and I really enjoy getting this experience now, here in Ecuador.
After three and a half days, we took on the journey through the tropical highlands transforming into wide dry space covered in spiky trees once more. We arrived at the ferry port where we saw two last seals dozing in the sun. How they are such a normal a part of everyday life on the islands, how casually they’re napping on the sidewalks, snacking on fish at the markets or chilling at the ports just amazed me so much, and I knew I would miss seeing them the most. We watched as our luggage was thrown onto the roof of the small boat again, took our seats and our life vests and crossed over the canal to Baltra, the desert island where this adventure started.
Muchísimas gracias a mi familia por compartir esta aventura conmigo! <3