Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

If we’d been asked what we thought the Galapagos Islands were like before we arrived, we might have mentioned Attenborough picking his way across exta-terrestrial terrain to shoot the breeze with Lonesome George, Darwin desperately trying to stop his crew from eating all the delicious turtules, or expensive cruises full of retirees in khaki cargo pants and fanny packs. For us it seemed unlikely we’d make it that far, what with our dwindling savings and time.

We knew the only way we could do it would be by ourselves, and had been lucky to find flights from Quito for $300 less than we’d seen elsewhere. Some trawling through travel blogs had given us a rough itinerary, and for once, we booked everything we could in advance so we had an idea of what we were going to do. But nothing could have prepared us for what it was actually like.

We set down in Baltra and after a short boat ride were soon driving through hot, flat desert towards Santa Cruz, the biggest island on the archipelago. By the time we arrived, a thick sea haar had rolled in but, undeterred, we set out for the famous Darwin Station. It wasn’t long until we were in amongst the wildlife: sun-baked sea iguanas that chose to sleep anywhere they pleased, trees full of pelicans, radioactive red crabs scuttling across black lava rock. At the station we met the great, giant tortoises, as well as startling gold land iguanas, fatter and far more regal than their sea-faring cousins.

Golden land iguana, Galapagos

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Determined to make the most of our time we set daily alarms to be up around dawn. The following morning we headed out or a days’ kayaking, packing breakfast and the ever-necessary sun block. With rough directions we made it across the busy boat thoroughfare and the worst of the waves, and were soon tying our kayak to the nearest pier. It was here we encountered our first animal intervention – a large, slumbering sea lion that blocked us from climbing the steps out of the water. In due respect to the native residents we scrabbled up the rocks instead, tiny red crabs disappearing into holes around our feet.

Gate keeper

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We took the short path away from the pier and emerged at Playa de Los Perros, a stretch of rocky beach and black lava outcrop. There were no other people in sight, but as we set down for our basic breakfast (bread, cream cheese, water) we were soon being eye-balled by great male sea iguanas as they ambled towards the shore. Once fed we took the path back to the pier and dug out the snorkels, following snaking lines of fish along the waters’ edge and encountering our first lazy green turtles, chewing on sea grass a few feet away.

On our way back we took a detour into a small inlet, paddling alongside busy iguanas crossing the water, and a solitary blue-footed boobie sitting on the surface. Soon the tell-tale splashes around us revealed two young sea lions, apparently keen to show off their best Eskimo rolls. Tackling the stretch across to the main pier proved trickier this time around, but properly soaked and seriously sun-baked, we pulled ourselves ashore.

Boobie

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The following day brought an early-morning dive, our group heading out to a crop of smaller islands on an impressive sailing boat. There wasn’t time to hang about  – the choppy sea and strong currents meant we had to descend as soon as we were in the water – but once submerged, the setting was altogether calmer. Minutes in, we saw what we’d come for: two huge hammerhead sharks an arms’ length from us. Later, the current would pick up and sling-shot us across the water; while I tried to remain roughly horizontal, Chris decided it was the optimum time to make the waggley-antennae sign for “lobster”. Needless to say, while travelling at 100 miles an hour upside-down underwater, I didn’t see it.

A 2 hour, bumpy boat ride took us across to Isabella island the following day. Once properly orientated we went to the local snorkelling spot, an inlet surrounded on one side by mangroves, and a working pier on the other. After picking our way past the obligatory iguanas and sea lions, we jumped in. At first swimming around great groups of flailing tourists, we soon found dark corners filled with fish, and a solitary ray. Aware of excitement across the bay, we set off at speed, stopping in our tracks and spluttering a gargled “look!” when two tiny Galapagos penguins dove past us at great pace.

Next we hired two old mountain bikes and made for the Wall of Tears, a monument-cum-torture instrument built by prisoners in the late 1940s. En route we were required to slow down for haphazardly stationed giant tortoises, enjoying the foliage along the path. As we turned back towards home we stopped at various signposted lakes and beaches, emerging from amongst the mangroves to spot blue-footed boobies, fluorescent pink flamingos, and a breeding centre filled with tortoises ranging from tiny to tremendous.

Thursday.

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Our final day on Isabella was spent heading out to Las Tintoreras, a volcanic island a short boat ride away. From there we could spot grey herons shielding young chicks from the spray, erratically tufted baby penguins and imperious pelicans dotted along the shore. Further in there were piles upon piles of baby sea iguanas basking on the rocks, as well as a sharp-eyed lava heron desperately seeking the magically camouflaged octopus below it. Later we made for the best snorkelling spots, swimming alongside great green turtles and giant parrot fish. Alone with just our guide, we spotted something to our left: a huge alpha male sea lion swimming directly beneath us, its face turned up to contemplate us as it passed.

Coming to the end of our trip, we took another bumpy boat to San Cristobal, an island famed for its preponderance of sea lions. Pavements, park benches, car parks and fountains were all fair game and our time there was accompanied by a symphony of barks, sneezes and grunts from our flippered friends. From here we set out for Kickers Rock, a well-known dive spot set into a natural slice between two rocks in the middle of the ocean. Once again the current was fierce, forcing us to grip on to the sea floor to keep from shooting backwards. Though visibility was poor, our second dive would bring an awesome sight: a wall of fish, more than 15ft tall, that would shift and glisten and envelop us to the point where, for a second, we couldn’t see our fellow divers any more.

Yesterday's dive site – Kicker's Rock

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Back on dry land we took a taxi to Loberia Beach, aptly named for its popularity with ‘lobo marinos’, the ever-present sea lions. In a small rock pool four babies played; keeping our distance, we sat a few feet away, though close enough for the bravest to have a sniff at our toes. As the day progressed the larger females returned from the sea. This being mating season, they were on the warpath – quickly discovered as one particularly grumpy female charged straight at me as I innocently sat on the beach.

Finally back where we started, we waved a sad goodbye as our plane headed back to the mainland. The following days would be spent on day-long buses travelling through busy urban centres – a stark contrast to the beauty and stunning diversity of the Galapagos, and much the worse for the lack of sea lions promenading down the motorway.

Baby sea lions, Loberia Beach

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