Travel Eye: Galápagos

[Extended version of Travel Eye blog, hosted by The Huffington Post UK, June 2013]

 

Travel Eye: Going Wild in Galápagos

I’m sitting on a boat, with the sizzling sun beating down on me. The temperature is about 26 degrees Celsius and the sea water gleaming. A group of ten people on board are darting back and forth, declaring their amazement at the adventure we’ve just been on. 
They are right; it was amazing, but also wonderful, slightly crazy and the ultimate adrenaline rush. We’ve just been swimming with sharks. Real, wild, toothy sharks and neither we, nor the sharks, were in cages. They were swimming freely; so were we. We followed them. Watched them. Counted them. There were hammerheads, black-tips and Galapagos sharks – around 40 of them – and we were in amongst them. 
This has been the lasting memory of my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands. The tour had been organised by a travel company called Contiki who specialise in group itineraries to far-reaching destinations – and this was my first experience on the road (well, in the sea) with them.  
As someone who loves travelling but who doesn’t always have mates who are able to join me, I’ve found the need to think outside the box when it comes to finding travel companions. Previously, I’ve had a couple of great experiences travelling with organised groups – and as Contiki encourages anyone between the ages of 18-35 from all over the world to sign up for their tours, this seemed like an interesting way to meet plenty of like-minded world wanderers. 
And now, here on this boat, over a week into our adventure and we are all getting on brilliantly. In fact, our incredible shared experience in the water with the sharks had only brought us all closer together. What a day!
First stop: Quito
Our Contiki tour kicked off in Ecuador’s sprawling colourful capital, Quito, which is remarkably positioned within the Guayllabamba River Valley and surrounded by the volcanic peaks of the Andes. 
At 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito is the second highest capital city in the world (following the dizzying La Paz in Bolivia at approximately 11,975 feet). Stepping off the plane, I was immediately hit by that familiar burst of humid air, which indicated I’m somewhere far away, exciting and exotic. 
One by one, we all gathered at the Fuente de PiedraHotel in the district of Mariscal – a guesthouse chosen by our Contiki team leader, Tara. As each of us were due to land from our various home countries – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and the UK – over the next 24 hours, there was plenty of exploration time. 
I took an hour’s taxi ride up the incredible Pichincha volcano, where the view of the velvety green crater went on for miles and then stopped off at the La Mitad Del Mundo (‘the middle of the world’ – or, best known to us as ‘the Equator’). It was quite extraordinary to stand at Latitude 0 degrees at a point where the earth is at its greatest velocity and where the northern hemisphere divides from the south. What a remarkable place!
 
 
 
As more people arrived, we began getting to know each other by milling through the overflowing stalls at the local Artisan Market, sipping guanabana juices, dining on traditional South American ceviche (raw seafood marinated in a sublime mix lemon juice, chili peppers and onion), and exploring the beautiful Centro Historico, which offers striking 360-degree vistas over the city. 
Callede las Siete Cruces (the street with the seven crosses) in the old town is the place for architecture lovers, while the 1884-built Basílica is famed for its distinctive 115-metre tall towers and gothic wildlife emblems. On the narrow cobbles of La Ronda Street, we found a group of giggling children playing ‘hula hula’ and with their neighbours – and was told how the street came alive at night as the bar doors opened wide, music played loudly and vendors took to the street to sell their much-loved canelazo (a sugar-cane based alcoholic drink). This was a place that warmed your heart once you got to know it – with its colourful buildings and unexceptional flair for fun – I could feel myself beginning to fall for Quito.

The Galapagos Islands

Five hours, 1,000kms, an internal flight, one stopover and a ‘Galapagos National Park’ stamp in our passports later, we were welcomed by our local Galakiwi guide, Zambo, to Baltra Island. 
There are over 18 islands in Galapagos, and our itinerary with Contiki was taking us to the best-known ones: Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Aware we needed to make it to our first destination of Isabela Island before dusk, we jumped straight on a 20-minute boat ride to the hub of Santa Cruz Island, before embarking on a further choppy two-hours by sea to Isabela.
As the group’s largest island, I was expecting Isabela to be far more built up and traveller-heavy than it was. Instead it felt the most remote of our three stops. During the day, the wild side of Galapagos came alive here – our first experience was a snorkelling expedition to a nearby bay, where we watched marine iguanas dive into the warm sea as large, elegant green turtles swam by. We were even welcomed by a wild, playful sea lion that performed impressive somersaults in and out of the water. On the rocks, beady-eyed Blue-Footed Boobies watched on as we sailed by, with Galapagos penguins standing alongside them. 
At the volcanic rock isle of Tintoreras, more marine iguanas lazed in the sun beside orange Sally Lightfoot Crabs. Large black boulders filled our views with the beautiful turquoise waters providing the perfect backdrop.  
At night, the gentle rattle of bicycles and the passing hum of mopeds fell silent and locals took to enjoying a beer outside quiet bars. We found ourselves sipping on a ‘coco loco’ (a green coconut filled with juice and rum) while watching over the calm sea at Beto’s Beach Bar. 
Our next stop was Santa Cruz Island, where souvenir shops, travel agents, bars and restaurants lined the beach road. Gift-shopping aside (some of us picked up a bargain bag of freshly ground Galapagos coffee for under $10), we were here to do something really special – meet the endemic giant tortoise. 
Amongst the sandy enclosures and overgrown grass at the (aptly named) Giant Tortoise Sanctuary, we came across our first enormous shelled friend, who quietly munched away on his lunch while a group of curious visitors took pictures. We saw more big fellas around the site, and Zambo was quick to inform us that some were almost 100 years old. In fact, it was here that the famous giant Pinta Island tortoise, Lonesome George, passed away in 2012 at an impressive 100 years old. 
There’s definitely something special radiating out of the Galapagos. Just knowing it was here, in 1835, that Charles Darwin arrived on the Beagle is brilliant. That he eventually put together his theory of evolution by natural selection thanks to his studies on the islands is incredible. Now the beauty of Galapagos lies in local conservation work which blends nicely with the safe, welcoming outdoor life of the people here. One morning, the surfers of the group rose early to take in the waves at the beautiful Tortuga Bay. The journey involved a 10-minute van ride from town and then a 30-minute walk with the surfboards in tow. They each came back gleaming. 
After a final two-hour boat ride across the sea, we arrived at glistening San Cristobal island – oozing with the laid back charm and wildlife we’d come to love about Galapagos. We were greeted at the port by sea lions, who had taken over the benches around the docking area. We later realised these cuties ruled the sands in San Cristobal (although they do whiff) – and could be found everywhere, including on the beach, along the promenade and even enjoying a kids’ water slide. 
Having jumped into a kayak for the afternoon, we became familiar with San Cristobal’s coastline and even spotted some sea turtles, posing penguins and more sea lions. But it was our final – and most incredible – experience with the sharks that was completely mind-blowing. 
The final adventure
As a part of their role in promoting sustainable tourism through travel, Contiki are founding members of the Treadright Foundation, which encourages conservation and marine preservation in Latin America. This year, they had chosen to team up with environmentalist and campaigner Céline Cousteau and a charity called Shark Savers.  Céline is the granddaughter of explorer and SCUBA-developer Jacques, and creates films to support local organisations. We were lucky enough to join both on a shark dive, where we would count the numbers in the area.
Arriving by boat at Kicker Rock, we donned our wetsuits and snorkels, while those who had a PADI qualification were invited to dive. Above us, the rugged rocks towered into the sky and birds circled overhead. It was pretty eerie, but luckily we had our SharksCount Program manager Sam Whitcraft with us – who had not only given us a cheat-sheet with the name and picture of every shark we may possibly see – but she had also promised us we were safe and wouldn’t get eaten.
So, off we went; leaping over the edge of the boat into the water, ready to come face-to-face with some terrifying beasts. And within seconds, we spotted them. Swimming through the channel between the rocks, we counted almost 40 Galapagos sharks, and a handful of black-tips and hammerheads. The hammerheads were particularly astounding to watch as their distinctive three-metre bulks cut dark shadows below us, while the endemic species took the shape of the sharks you’d expect to see on the telly. My mind took a few moments to compute that I didn’t need to swim for my life, and then I ended up swimming through whirling shoals of colourful fish as I watched these magnificent, powerful creatures make their way through the water.
As a couple of slow-moving sea turtles glided by, followed by a line of three eagle rays, I had to collect myself. I was in a beautiful underwater world, in one of the few pristine endemic environments on the planet. 
Visiting Galapagos with Contiki certainly was the trip of a lifetime, one I’d wholeheartedly recommend.
The deal
Contiki’s 11-day Ecuador & Galapagos Island Hopper itinerary is available to anyone aged 18 – 35 years old and costs from £2,045 per person. This price includes two internal flights and transfers, English speaking local guides, hotel accommodation, sightseeing, most meals and an experienced tour manager. External flights are not included. For more information and to book a place on the next trip, visit Contiki.com.

In addition to Latin America, Contiki travellershttp://images.intellitxt.com/ast/adTypes/icon1.png can choose from over 190 itineraries throughout Southeast Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA & Canada.
To find out more about the Treadright Organisation and Contiki’s sustainable tourism projects with Céline Cousteau, visit contiki.com/contikicares/celine-cousteau. Discover more about counting sharks with Shark Savers at https://www.sharksavers.org/en/our-programs/sharkscount/about
STA Travel offerhttp://images.intellitxt.com/ast/adTypes/icon1.png flights with KLM to Quito via Amsterdam from £770. Find a deal at STAtravel.co.uk.
PICTURE CREDIT: KAREN EDWARDS
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