My earliest memory of the Galápagos was grade school, when their famous birds were used as an example of active evolution. I was well into my teens before I consciously realized that the Galápagos was a series of hundreds of islands ranging in size from tiny country to “does it really count?” Also, they’re famous for their barking sea lions.
Saying “YES” to Sea Lions
After learning of their existence, it was also brought to my attention that the islands were technically part of Ecuador, and that you can actually GO there and exist & explore for awhile. But I didn’t think seeing these famed islands was a real possibility until someone asked me seriously— why not? So on July 24th, 2015, I searched low season, ticket prices, and “entrance fees” for the islands, and then booked my tickets.
The island of San Cristobal, the most tranquil and the one on which I stayed, is covered in these lobos marinos (sea lions), which have become the so-called “face” of the island. My time there was constantly haunted by the horrid goat-like retching, cute sneezing, trademark barking, kissy suckling and that one whining noise of sea lions. They seem to only care about sleeping, eating, sneezing and sunning, with some apparent procreation thrown in.
The cute creatures have nailed down eau de wet dog, if it were actually a fish (jury’s still out), and the looks of your grandma if she were actually a puppy. These intriguing creatures appear to be perpetually drunk or sleeping off a hangover. But maybe it’s a cold, because they’re also always sneezing. But I don’t blame them for soaking in so much sun.
The guides on the island are full of little tidbits on the mammals, such as the fact that one bull sea lion can have fifty female mates, and that overall they take care of each other like a community, something you can also observe for yourself. During birthing season in January/February, the male will even charge you, or bite you in the water, if they think you’re threatening their territory.
But since I was there in September, other than one teeny weeny incident, I found that sea lions like to sleep in piles and bother each other until they are allowed to lay in that exact spot… Sometimes biting and laying on top of others to get their way. For the most part, humans are just another prop in the background.
Off to an Iffy Start
Other than the near-constant presence of sea lions, sand in my shoes and snorkeling gear, there was a lot of late-night beach debauchery. Especially from the volunteers living on the island for the moment. I met many of them, along with lots of university students on exchange at La Universidad San Francisco de Quito‘s outpost on San Cristobal (a collaboration with my own university). In fact, each day I made some new ones, starting on Monday when I met my hosts on the island.
Turns out, the couple had hosted a friend of mine a couple of years ago, when she was an exchange student at the university. She even stayed in the room next to mine. We talked for a couple of hours after I first got there, them explaining all about the island and its wildlife and the tours available and how much they love it; me, I mostly just listened.
Connecting with two people who grew up on las islas encantadas and stayed there long after they could have gone exploring elsewhere was relieving, especially since I arrived on a gloomy Monday. It had seemed like nobody smiled anymore. But this conversation led to my start on sunny San Cristobal.
Ecuador’s Promise: The Guyaba Guarantee
Tuesday was a day spent laying on Playa Mann smothered in sunblock. I went people-watching at Las Tijeretas, and wandered around the south side of the island with some students from USFQ. Wednesday I dedicated to La Loberia, lucky for me, a windy beach on the other side of town which is generally covered in sea lions. It did not disappoint. There were lobos marinos on all sides at all times, and the beautiful blue water stretched on seemingly forever.
Thursday’s adventure took some doing, but I went on a boat tour to Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido), where I snorkeled and sunned on a beach, even eating fish for the first time (my occasional tuna sandwiches excluded). It was brilliant, and I hung out with some of the long-term volunteers that night. We saw and defeated a massive flying cockroach.
Friday was a case of sheer luck. I found myself at the other three terrestrial sites of San Cristobal, only accessible by car. A very sweet tour guide took me to see El Junco, a freshwater lake inside a volcano, Puerto Chino, a beautiful beach with lots of available shade, and La Galapguera, the tortoise conservation center on the island. Afterwards he stopped by the side of the road and picked me a guyaba. He said that if I ate one of the island’s guyaba fruits before I left, that I would return, without a doubt. So I ate it, seeds and all. It’s just asmall yellow guava, after all. Everything on our tour was breathtaking, yes, even the tortoises and the thorn scratches on my legs, so this may have been my favorite part of the entire trip.
Saturday was the day I left, but that didn’t stop me from waking up early and going to the beach one last time. It was abandoned. The perfect time to soak it all in before heading to Las Tijeretas to do some snorkeling of my own during low tide. Since I’m afraid of the ocean, but not of making new friends, I asked the only other person there if he’d be willing to snorkel together for a bit. He said yes.
In the water we saw everything I imagine they used as fodder for Finding Nemo.
I discovered snorkeling to be the crackling in your ears, sea turtles— suddenly, a marine iguana!— coral, brightly-colored fish, a wall of rock keeping the heat in; the heat which is not your own, but gifted to you through an agreement between the sun and the ocean. These acute experiences characterized my time exploring tropical paradise In the very near future I’ll return for some more healthy does of happiness.
What experiences have you had while traveling solo?