Journey to the Galápagos (My Family Came to Visit!)

I recently got back from the most amazing trip with my family to the Galápagos Islands! My parents and my sister, Claire, came to visit me in Ecuador for a week, and it was so great to have them finally see my second home. We had so much fun during our action-packed vacation, and I’m so glad that we got to spend this time together as a family in one of the most interesting, biodiverse places on Earth! Here’s a summary of our travels.

Day 0:

So the trip didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. Prior to meeting up with my family, I was on a retreat with my program in Tena, a town in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Unfortunately, as my family was flying into Quito, I was camped out on the bathroom floor with food poisoning, vomiting my guts out. After a couple of visits to the local health center, I was given some medication and started to feel better. Luckily, my stomach was almost back to normal by the next day, but boy was I worried for a little bit!

Day 1:

I left Tena at 4:30 A.M. for Quito to meet my family who had arrived the previous night. The shared taxi ride was not the most pleasant, considering I was exhausted and still recovering from food poisoning. (I also had to sit in the middle seat for the four-hour drive!) However, once I arrived to my family’s hotel, the long car ride was completely worth it. I was so elated to see my family after so many months away from home, and I was also extremely excited for what we had in store for the rest of the day.

After a quick breakfast with my U.S. family, we took off for Ibarra to visit my Ecuadorian family. I had been looking forward to showing my U.S. family where I had spent the last six months of my life, but I was also a little nervous because I had no idea what to expect. I couldn’t imagine my two worlds colliding, but I am so happy that they did!

As soon as my two families met (with Claire and I rapidly translating from Spanish to English and English to Spanish), it was like they were old friends. My Ecuadorian family made a huge, delicious lunch, and after eating, we exchanged gifts. The unforgettable afternoon was a true blending of cultures filled with laughter, music, and dancing and was the perfect way to start off the vacation! That night, we returned to Quito, eagerly awaiting our early-morning departure for the Galápagos.

My two families finally meeting! What an awesome day!

Day 2:

Saturday began the adventure of a lifetime! After flying to the island of San Cristobal in the morning, we took a short Zodiac (a small, inflatable boat with a motor) ride to the ship that we would call home for the next week. Once on board, we attended sessions about ship safety and Galápagos National Park rules before heading out for our first hike. This trek took us to the top of Cerro Tijeretas, or Frigate Bird Hill, one of the large hills on San Cristobal. The views of the endless, blue ocean and lush, green cliffside were spectacular. We were also able to have some of our first encounters with the Galápagos wildlife, including finches, warblers, mockingbirds, frigate birds, and lava lizards.

The truly remarkable thing about animals in the Galápagos is that they are seemingly unafraid of humans. Whether in the ocean or on land, the animals are friendly or “ecologically naïve” to use a scientific term. Being able to observe the different species so closely was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip! Additionally, many of the species on the Galápagos are endemic to the islands. This means that we were able to see animals that exist nowhere else in the world!

A bunch of frigate birds resting on a cliffside tree with the beautiful ocean in the background!

Day 3:

On Sunday, we visited the island of Española, one of the smaller members of the Galápagos archipelago. In fact, we were the only people on the entire island during the day! In the morning, we had our first snorkeling excursion. As soon as I plunged into the crystal-clear water, I found myself surrounded by immense schools of fish. The colorful, diverse sea creatures were stunning, and I found myself mesmerized by more fish than I have ever seen in my life! After snorkeling, we went to a beautiful beach; I have never experienced such vibrant, aquamarine water or stood on such fine, white sand. Following such an awe-inspiring morning, I didn’t know what to expect from the afternoon.

After lunch, we embarked for Punta Suarez, or Suarez Point, for another hike. Upon landing on a beach, we were greeted by playful sea lion pups swimming in the ocean. We were also lucky to see the mother sea lions feeding their pups on the beach. (The suckling sound of the pups nursing was so cute!) The hike quickly became rocky, as we came eye-to-eye with marine iguanas, Nazca boobies, Galápagos hawks, and many other types of birds. However, the true climax of the hike came into view as we immerged from the tall grass. When waves crashed against the rocky cliffside, water came rushing through a small hole creating a powerful, blasting blowhole spewing misty fountains high into the air. As I sat on the edge of the cliff with a slight breeze blowing through my hair, I tried to take a permanent mental picture of the incredible sight.

Some sea lions lounging around on the beach. I can’t believe that there were so many of them!

A baby sea lion searching for his mother. I’m sure it was pretty hungry!

A territorial battle between a Nazca booby and a Galápagos hawk. The Nazca booby actually won this contest because the Galápagos hawk was only an adolescent! The poor Galápagos hawk had to fly back to its parents ashamed and embarrassed.

The breathtaking blowhole in action!

Day 4:

Overnight, we traveled to another small island named Floreana. We woke up early in the morning to take a walk at Punta Cormorant, or Cormorant Point. On the beach where we landed, we had our first encounter of many with the blue-footed boobies. One juvenile booby was throwing a stick in the air and catching it to help practice capturing prey in the ocean. The next stop on the walk was a large, glassy lagoon teeming with flamingos. The pink birds looked like something out of a fantasy novel, and it was truly amazing to see them take flight. Finally, we ended the walk at another beach where we got to see sea turtles. Sea turtles are one of my favorite animals, so this was definitely a highlight for me!

After breakfast, we had another magnificent snorkeling excursion at Champion Islet before having some time to relax prior to lunch. Then, Claire and I paddleboarded while my parents kayaked at Post Office Bay. For better or for worse, Claire and I did not realize how the long distance was that we would need to paddleboard, so we both definitely got in our workouts for the day! (We both didn’t fall in at all either!)

Lastly, we visited the post barrel. This makeshift post office dates back to the whaling days of the late-1700s. For centuries, visitors of the islands have left postcards in the barrel. The tradition is for new visitors to go through the barrel and to hand-deliver any postcard with an address close to their home. My family left three postcards. I wonder if they will ever get delivered!

The flamingo lagoon with a few of the pink creatures taking flight. The flamingos were surprisingly graceful in the air, considering they don’t even look like they can fly when they’re on the ground!

A sea turtle emerging from the ocean. It’s hard work for this mother to get out of the water in order to lay her eggs!

Claire and I putting our postcards into the post barrel. One of our postcards has actually already been delivered from the Galápagos Islands all the way to Pennsylvania! We couldn’t believe it!

Day 5:

On Tuesday, we traveled to the larger island of Santa Cruz. In the morning, we left the ship to visit the town of Puerto Ayora, or Port Ayora, home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and Tortoise Breeding Center. First, we got to learn a little bit about Darwin’s Theories of Evolution and Natural Selection that he created while exploring the archipelago. Next, we finally got to see giant tortoises at a rehabilitation center! These prehistoric creatures were ginormous and moved incredibly slowly. I can’t imagine living a 150-year life consisting of eating, then walking twenty feet, then eating some more, then resting, then sleeping, then walking twenty more feet, and then eating even more! We also got to see the baby tortoises, which were so cute! One poor little guy got stuck on his back and couldn’t seem to get a friend to help him flip back over. I had been particularly looking forward to this part of the trip, so it was a very special, surreal experience for me.

Later in the morning, we traveled to the highlands of the island to visit a traditional sugar cane mill called El Trapiche, or The Sugar Mill. We got to learn about the process of making various sugar products, and we even received some samples. Let’s just say the sugar cane alcohol was very very very strong! (I can still feel the burn in my throat.) Seeing the various preparation methods was a really awesome cultural experience.

After lunch, we traveled to a large farm to see the giant tortoises in their natural habitat. At the “Chato II” Ranch, we got to see dozens of tortoises roaming around, searching for food. These dinosaur-like animals were quite the sight. At the ranch, we were also able to walk through a huge lava tube. I felt like I was traveling back in time as I tried to imagine the lava flowing through the ground, creating this massive structure.

To finish off the day, dancers came aboard the ship for a performance. The dancers performed routines of various styles from around the Galápagos. There was even a dance from Cayambe, which is only an hour and a half away from where I live here in Ecuador. This tortoise-inspired day was definitely one of my favorites!

A sea lion taking a nap on a bench by the pier. Who said this seat was only for humans? On the islands, the sea lions rule! (You can also see one of the Zodiacs in the background.)

Claire and I by the Galápagos National Park sign. We were both clearly very excited to see some tortoises!

Some baby tortoises meandering around the rehabilitation center, exploring their new surroundings. I can’t believe that these cute little guys turn into the giant tortoises that the Galápagos are known for around the world!

Me inside of the lava tube!

My family and I with a giant tortoise at the ranch. He was a hungry little fella!

Claire and I joking around in some giant tortoise shells. Let’s just say the process of getting in and out was not the most graceful!

Day 6:

We didn’t have to travel far because we spent this day on the other side of Santa Cruz. After waking up early, we disembarked for our hike around Cerro Dragón, or Dragon Hill. At this location, we were once again greeted with an abundance of wildlife, including land iguanas, great blue herons, the ever-present Galapagos pelicans, and many other species of birds. We also got to see blue-footed boobies diving into the ocean to catch sardines to eat. The blue-footed birds would fly high into the air, close their wings, and then plunge into the water at high speeds to capture their prey. (They actually have a sac of air in their heads to protect their brains from the high impact!)

After the hike, we went out for another snorkeling expedition at the Guy Fawkes Islets where we were greeted by humongous stingrays! It was truly a breathtaking experience. Next, following a quick lunch, we headed out for a rainy Zodiac ride to a coastal part of the island called “El Edén”, or “Eden”. The boat weaved in and out of small mangrove inlets, and we were able to see baby white-tipped reef sharks. Even with the rain, the scenic views were serene and beautiful. Additionally, on the way back to the ship, the driver let Claire and I try to drive the Zodiac. Let’s just say we need some more lessons. (The other passengers on the Zodiac clapped for us when we finished driving, not because we were good, but because we were done!)

Later in the afternoon, the ship brought aboard local artisans from the Galápagos to sell their artwork. We were able to see immaculate woodworking and beautiful jewelry made out of paper beads, as well as sample the famous chocolate of the islands. It was an amazing opportunity to meet so many interesting people and to pick up a few souvenirs! To end the day, we spent the evening on the observation deck of the ship as it circled the islet, Daphne Major. My family and I enjoyed the ocean breeze and extraordinary sunset. What a way to finish off another incredible day!

A stellar shot of a blue-footed booby. The florescent blue feet are truly an incredible sight! They don’t even look real!

Lunchtime for an adolescent blue-footed booby. Yum, regurgitated sardines!

The progression of a blue-footed booby diving into the ocean to catch its prey. I hope it caught some tasty sardines!

A gorgeous, glassy lake near Dragon Hill. The beauty of the clouds reflecting off the crystal-clear water makes this one of my favorite photos that I took throughout the entire trip! You can even catch a yellow butterfly fluttering by the peaceful landscape!

A land iguana posing for the camera. It was close to mating season, so this macho dude was most likely actually trying to attract a female!

Day 7:

For Valentine’s Day, we navigated to the islet of Bartolomé. This land formation was completely different than any of the other islands we had previously visited. The green vegetation was replaced by a rocky, barren landscape, and there were practically no animals. In the morning, we embarked on an early hike to the top of the Bartolomé Islet. After climbing 374 steps, we reached an overlook that is home to one of the most iconic and beautiful views in all of the Galápagos. I’ll let the photos do the talking!

This day, we were lucky enough to have two snorkeling trips! The first was off the coast of the island of Santiago, and the second was around the little inlet, Sombrero Chino, or Chinese Hat. (It is named for its volcanic cone shape.) This was by far my favorite day of snorkeling. We got to swim with huge numbers of fish, gardens of starfish, ginormous stingrays, slithering eels, stealthy white-tipped reef sharks, and most importantly, GALÁPAGOS PENGUINS! I had been waiting all week to see a penguin, and the time had finally come. They were so cute and fast in the water. This truly made the trip for me! To cap off the day, we had a barbeque dinner on the observation deck and enjoyed a concert by none other than the captain of the ship.

The iconic Galápagos view I was talking about. The rock formations are truly awe-inspiring!

My family and I at the top of the Bartolomé Islet. Nothing like an early morning climb to wake you up and get the blood pumping!

A giant school of razor surgeonfish that swam by us while we were snorkeling. These guys were not afraid of us at all, and I quickly found myself completely surrounded by them! (One fish doesn’t look like the rest because it is actually a species of parrotfish!)

Some more colorful fish from the snorkeling excursion!

This fish was a little odd-looking, but its vibrant blue coloring was mesmerizing! Quite the forehead if you ask me!

A garden of bright red sea stars. There were so many of them!

A giant stingray that we came across while snorkeling. I was a little scared of its stinger, so I kept my distance!

A white-tipped reef shark that we befriended during our snorkeling expedition. These creatures were surprisingly friendly!

A cute, little Galápagos penguin! If only I could sneak one back to the U.S. with me!

Day 8:

For our last real day of the trip, we traveled to the little island of Genovesa. It was a privilege to visit this island because access is heavily restricted. Once again, we were the only people on the entire island for the day! Additionally, we were in one of the few places on Earth where you are actually inside the caldera of a volcano. After breakfast, we departed to visit the sandy trail of Darwin Bay. This island has been taken over by birds! They were everywhere! From swallow-tailed gulls to frigate birds and so many more. We were also finally able to see the third type of booby, the red-footed booby. The contrast between the vibrant blue beaks and the piercing red feet of these birds is a gorgeous combination. Lastly, we had a chance encounter with a baby stingray, which was super cute.

Right before lunch, we had our final snorkeling session, where we got to see a bunch of sea creatures for the last time. In the afternoon, Claire and I went kayaking with our parents. We have definitely found another thing that Claire and I need to practice a little mroe. (We almost tipped over a few times!) Nevertheless, it was cool to explore the ridges of the caldera, and we saw a ton of animals, such as sea lions, just chillaxing on the rocks.

At the end of the day, we voyaged to Prince Philip’s Steps. Once you climbed the rather precarious set of cliffside stairs, you were transported to a plateau with more birds than I have ever seen in my life. You could not walk three paces without literally almost stepping on another bird, and hundreds of our winged friends flew around overhead. (I was a little afraid a bird was going to poop on me!) While exploring this rocky landscape, we came across the rare Galápagos short-eared owl, which was a special treat. As we took a Zodiac ride back to the ship for the final time, we enjoyed one last sunset on the islands.

Two red-footed boobies building their nest. We definitely witnessed quite a few marital disputes throughout the day! Nest building is serious stuff!

A mother Nazca booby with her two eggs. Sadly, a Nazca booby will always lay two eggs as an insurance policy. However, only the first chick to hatch will survive and will actually commit siblicide, killing its younger sibling! Now that’s survival of the fittest for ya!

A mother Nazca booby with her cute, fluffy child. Unfortunately, we now know what happened to the unlucky brother or sister! Watch your step!

A male frigate bird about to take flight. His red pouch is inflated in the hopes of attracting a mate! It actually takes him more than fifteen minutes to blow up his pouch!

A Galápagos short-eared owl trying to cool off in the shade. Its tiny legs look strangely human to me, but it makes me laugh!

My mom, Claire, and I enjoying our last sunset together on a Zodiac. Don’t we rock the orange life jackets?

Day 9:

This was a bittersweet day because it was the final day of our family vacation. I had to say goodbye to my parents and my sister, as well as to the ship that had become my home over the last week. As we walked through the island of Baltra to the airport shuttle, I saw two marine iguanas meandering along and a sea lion lounging by a small snack stand, and I wanted to stay in the Galápagos forever. This was truly one of the most magical places that I have ever visited, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to travel to this paradise on Earth. I will never forget the amazing memories that I made with my family, but I am ready to finish off my gap year with a strong final push now that I have returned to my home in Ibarra! I can’t believe that I only have one month left in Ecuador, but I know that I’m going to make the most of it!