A deeply tanned woman on the side of a dirt road called out to a pair of bikini-clad tourists pushing bikes. Her voice rose over the slapping waves and hoots of encouragement rising from a nearby slack line.
“Happy hour at 5 o’clock,” said the bar’s husky-voiced proprietress. “We have pina coladas, beer, a bonfire and guitars.”
If we were playing Name That Destination, her shout-out for cheap cocktails, combined with the pool-blue ocean and beachy dress code, would direct most pushpins to Mexico, Belize or Costa Rica. However, the marine iguanas lounging like Sports Illustrated models on volcanic rocks and the sea lions bobbing in the waves divulged the tropical location.
To paraphrase a boozy vacation mantra: Somewhere, even on the Galapagos Islands, it’s 5 o’clock.
In most minds, a trip to Ecuador’s micro-animal kingdom doesn’t typically involve such terrestrial diversions as drinking discounted brews around a fire or tiptoeing on a tightrope. But a “Beach Blanket Bingo” streak runs through the islands, shattering the notion that the Galapagos is all animals and no party.
“Hey, Mark from the dive boat!” an English architect messaged me after a scuba trip off San Cristobal. “The bar is El Barquero. See there you at 9.”
Many travelers tour the area by cruise or expedition ship (about 70 of them ply the waters) and follow a military-strict itinerary. Because of national park regulations and ship constraints, visitors typically spend a predetermined amount of time roaming each island, often under the parental gaze of a guide. The passengers sleep and eat on the vessels and rarely socialize with locals beyond chatting up the crew and park staff. Many tourists don’t even realize that 25,000 people legally reside on the archipelago.
Four of the 19 islands — Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana — are inhabited and rest comfortably on the pillars of tourism. All offer hotels, restaurants, bars, tour outfitters and souvenir shops curtained in blue-footed booby T-shirts and tote bags. In 2007, the Ecuadorian government began to encourage land-based travel. The push is working: A report by the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Galapagos Tourism Observatory discovered that in the first half of 2015, a majority of the 113,613 visitors,stayed on one of the islands, an 8 percent rise from the previous year. For a week in early January 2016, let the records show that our group of four stayed in family-run hotels on Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal; ate at local restaurants serving seafood caught from the front-yard ocean; and traveled between islands via ferry or light aircraft. Our closest encounter with a cruise ship was seeing it from the shoreline.
“I think the land is a thousand times better,” said Claudia Hodari, who runs Casa Rosada on Isabela and advertises her drink specials vocally. “It’s cheaper and more fun. And you see 80 percent of the same animals.” (Note: Some islands, such as Fernandina and Marchena, are accessible only by passenger ship.)
The benefits of land-dwelling are plentiful. You will pay less for more independence. You can participate in the daily rituals of the Galapagos community. Your patronage directly supports the islands and the locals. (Foreign companies own some of the larger ships.) You can avoid the crowds. And, most important, you can swim with the sea lions any time of day — including before, after and during happy hour.
Rubbing shoulders with wildlife
So many mammals.
The dock in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main port town on San Cristobal, was a logjam of bodies and a clamor of sounds. Small motorboats unloaded budget travelers standing at half-mast beneath heavy backpacks. Families and couples costumed in masks and snorkels boarded excursion boats. Surfers hoisting boards threaded through the crowd. Sea lions flopped on wooden benches, squeezing out the two-legged species.
The easternmost island is home to the capital of the Galapagos; the second-largest population (about 6,000 people); one of two main airports (the other is Baltra, a ferry ride from Santa Cruz); and several sea lion colonies. Hence, the animal parade.
You can escape the masses and find a sandy crescent of your own or hide out by the hotel pool. But those who don’t want to retreat like a giant tortoise can easily plunge into the jumble of arms, legs, flippers and fins.
You don’t need a boat, just a couple of U.S. dollars. Nor do you need a set destination, just a delight in ambling. Water taxis hustle through the harbor, picking up and dropping off passengers like public buses.
Driver Jose Bellano set off with two surfers from Russia and a man who needed a lift to an anchored vessel. He wore a walkie-talkie clipped to his orange polo shirt and frequently answered his cellphone, barking Spanish into the receiver. He scooped up an Israeli surfer at a pier, avoiding children in street clothes tumbling off a concrete platform. A few kids in the water clung to the bow. Jose clucked at them as if shooing away pigeons.
His primary customers on that January afternoon were surfers and our quartet of Americans, which included a photographer and two videographers from North Carolina. Daniela, a researcher with the Galapagos Science Center and a surfer, said usually foreigners hail water taxis to the break; locals paddle out from the beach. The waves were supposed to be epic over the next few days. A little climate pattern named El Niño said so.
Jose veered as close to the cresting waves as possible, and the surfers hopped out. They negotiated a time for a return ride. He backed up the boat a few yards to avoid getting thwacked by the surf. As we softly bounced in place, he cut up a pineapple and passed around the candy-sweet wedges, using the flat side of the knife as a serving platter. We watched the surfers until Jose got a call for a new job. On the trip back to shore, a seal pup attempted to jump into the boat.
Without a ship to call our own, we had to continue hiring seaworthy vessels on San Cristobal. For a visit to Kicker Rock, the following day, we also needed a guide to accompany us to the snorkel and scuba site (required for protected natural areas), and I personally required a refresher course on diving hand signals. All the better to know what lurked beneath us.
The boat ride took about 45 minutes, but on the open water, I noticed the two volcanic cone formations much sooner. Blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds perched on the rocky ledges zoomed into focus. The ocean was as clear as sea glass, but it wasn’t revealing the identities of its inhabitants.
Inside the cabin, a dive master named Alex offered some clues. He demonstrated the sign for eel (squiggly worm-like motion), sea turtle (lock fingers and flap pinky and thumb), eagle ray (billow arms) and shark (hands in prayer shape on forehead). When Alex placed his fists on the sides of his head a la Princess Leia hair buns, I could almost hear the silent scream underwater: Hammerhead!
For the first dive, we dropped about 50 feet down and hovered over a pair of white-tipped sharks. Alex wiggled his pinky and thumb, and a sea turtle drifted by. A sea lion crashed through the surface of the water, leaving a stream of champagne-like bubbles in its wake. I came mask-to-mug with an eagle ray. All around, jellyfish dangled like translucent party streamers.
On the second dive, we noticed a funnel shape moving slowly through the water like a tornado. Thousands of black-striped salema flashed their silvery scales. Daniela swam into the column, and the fish swallowed her up. I stuck my head into the overcrowded school and the bodies parted, creating a wormhole into another world. I wriggled through and looked back at the portal. It had been sealed shut.
Cruise ships typically travel at night so guests will awaken to a new island. Land-based travelers, however, move by day, because their modes of transportation (ferry, propeller plane) don’t operate in the dark.
The high-speed boat from Santa Cruz to Isabela takes about 21/2 hours, depending on weather and sea conditions. At the embarkation point, customs officials searched bags for contraband that could endanger the fragile ecology. I opened my mouth and swallowed a banana.
On the mid-size watercraft, passengers sat elbow-to-elbow inside the cabin and along an unprotected bench outside. A crew member handed out plastic bags that I assumed were for trash. Not long into the journey, several people started using theirs, and not for empty wrappers. The ride was bumpy and quickly downshifted from joyful to joyless. I kept my contraband down, but I was in the pathway of every pounding wave. I looked as if I had fallen overboard. I only lifted my head when someone spotted dolphins. However, I missed the sighting because salty tears clouded my vision.
When we finally arrived on Isabela, the defeated, seaweed-green passengers wobbled onto the dock and dispersed by foot and in pickup trucks that performed taxi duties. I trundled toward Casa Rosado, where Claudia’s happy hour was in full swing. Meanwhile, in the opposite direction, a sea lion family flippered down the dirt road to the beach for a late afternoon swim.
At the open-air bar, Claudia raised her voice over the din of drinkers and the music of the Iguanamen de Galapagos, a local band who sang what they knew:
Cause in Isabela, life is mighty fine
In Isabela, oh, the sun is going to shine
The Argentine native told me about Gringo Juan Volkes, the group’s American band member who had escaped prison in California and died in the Galapagos in 2008. Friends of the blues singer interred his remains in an iguana pit on the property. He rested in peace until a rogue wave disrupted the sacred site and Claudia had to relocate him to the corner of the bar.
Before darting off to serve her swelling crowd of customers, Claudia encouraged me delve deeper into the islands’ histories and characters.
“The four islands have different cultures, economically and socially,” she said. “The people evolved differently, too, like the tortoises.”
Around the bonfire, I met an unexpected sector of travelers, the budget backpackers. Their common traits: They spend several weeks if not months touring South America, they often decide on a whim to come to the islands and they weigh the expense of land vs. water — with land usually winning. (Wild sun-bleached hair, bohemian clothes and lanky frames inked with tattoos are other telltale marks.) Sophie and Jane, two friends from Australia, told me that a five-day cruise would’ve cost them $200 each per day. On Isabela, however, they saved money by staying in a hostel, booking day trips and drinking happy hour beers.
I had first seen the pair at Concha de Perla, a secluded inlet near the dock. We had all risen early for the same purpose — to water aerobicize with the sea lions. But only one participant showed up, and he quit early, barking at a marine iguana to get off his rock.
The duo then pedaled off to the beach and ditched their bikes at La Playita. In the water, they were surprised to have company, including sea lions, sharks and birds that Jane said, “I thought were ducks.” But these birds didn’t quack or fly.
I rented a bike and added the beach to my planned route, hoping for a similar play group. Jorge, my guide, and I coasted along a wide, empty road that eventually slammed into the active Sierra Negra volcano. We looped back after a few miles and headed for a lagoon flecked with the cotton-candy pink of flamingos. We stopped at the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, where the hard-shelled residents — from newly hatched to fertile adults — tottered around outdoor enclosures.
“This is where they make babies,” Jorge said.
I finished the ride at La Playita for a sunset dip. Hoisting my bike over a marine iguana blocking the path, I padded down to the shoreline. Reef sharks formed a shifting carpet on the sand, and pelicans swooped down in search of dinner. I dove into the water and joined the romping sea lions. We arched and twisted and twirled until the day’s curtain fell.
The following morning, I returned to the beach and noticed several small birds bouncing on the waves. They looked like ducks and acted like penguins.
I eased into the ocean, not wishing to spook the normally shy birds. They darted like rockets underwater, gaining enough speed to porpoise through the air. I attempted my best penguin impression. I bolted up toward the surface and nearly knocked over a penguin floating above my head. After that near-accident, I tamed my wild side.
We didn’t leave Isabela the same way we came. Instead of taking the ferry, we flew in a fairy-size plane run by Emetebe, the inter-island airline. The pilot taxied down the runway, halted and turned around. An inspector riding shotgun had noticed a sickly sound in one of the engines and deemed the plane unsafe for travel. Compounding the problem: There was only one pilot and two planes — one on Isabela, the other on San Cristobal.
We debated our options. Ferry back to Santa Cruz and then onward to San Cristobal (grim expressions all around). Charter a boat (gritted teeth). Let the pilot ferry to Santa Cruz and San Cristobal and pick up the spare aircraft (sheepish smiles). We left the airport under a cloud of question marks.
During lunch, we heard the rumble of a propeller overhead. Daniela received a call. The pilot was going to attempt to fly to San Cristobal and swap aircraft. A few hours later, we received another call. He had returned safely in the inspector-approved plane.
We boarded the plane once again. No one handed out plastic bags.
One of the greatest perks of staying on land are the casual run-ins with wildlife. On Santa Cruz, I spotted giant tortoises grazing in the grass on the way to the ferry. On supermarket runs in Puerto Ayora, the island’s main town, I would pass a statue-still marine iguana basking on the curb. All around, finches flit about my head like the enchanted forest scene in “Snow White.”
At the fish market on Santa Cruz, humans, sea lions and pelicans all vie for the same prize. The cash-carrying kind typically receive preferential treatment, though the fishermen, faking irritation, often share a piece of their catch with the pesky beggars.
“He’s just like a dog,” an English tourist said about a sea lion holding vigil under the filleting table.
Throughout the islands, enclosures are rare, an arrangement that encourages close encounters. (The few exceptions: the Charles Darwin Research Center, former home of Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta subspecies who died in 2012, and some tortoise breeding centers.) At El Chato , a tortoise sanctuary in Santa Cruz’s Highlands region, the slow crawlers wander in and out of the nature reserve, indifferent to the admission fee visitors pay to see them. Most, however, don’t venture too far.
“That’s Ingrid,” a guide said about a grande dame resting in a hole. “She’s 80 years old.”
In response to the sudden attention, she retracted her head into her shell, releasing a whoosh of air that sounded like an angry hiss. Across the way, a 150-year-oldster luxuriated in a mud pit as raindrops splashed on his roof.
On occasion, the entire animal kingdom will share a singular moment.
One starry night on Puerto Ayora’s waterfront, couples held hands and sea lions spooned on the wharf. Romance was in the air for all species.
More from Travel:
Where to stay
Tomas de Berlanga and Islas Plazas, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
Simple but pleasant budget hotel with free (but squirrely) WiFi, a central location in the commercial district and a relaxing lobby with hammocks and a cat. From $30 a night.
Hotel Blue Marlin
Avenue Alsacio Northia, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal
Hotel Casa Sol Isabela
Malecón de Capitania, Puerto Villamil, Isabela
What to do
Planet Ocean Dive Shop
Barrio Central, San Cristóbal
Dive or snorkel Kicker Rock, with a beach (plus wildlife) visit on the return. Lunch and gear included. From $180 each for up to three people.