Thursday 14 - Thursday 21 September
Flying over Ecuador's capital city Quito, you can't help noticing just how colourful the place is; the smallest house to the tallest high-rise is painted in bright pastel shades giving the place a happy, welcoming aspect.
We'd come to Ecuador with one aim in mind; to make a trip to the legendary Galapagos Islands
Our hostel was located in La Mariscal, a safe, tourist-friendly area of the city and once settled, we began a hasty trawl of the Galapagos tour agencies lining La Mariscal's streets. The website of one particular company -Galaeco- had appealed to us and soon after stepping inside their office, we'd struck a bargain deal for a five-day Galapagos cruise starting on Sunday. Yippee! A quick raid on the nearest cashpoint (Galapagos tours ain't cheap) and we were sorted. We celebrated in customary style (hic!)
Friday 15 and Saturday 16 September
Friday began with a trip to the office of TAME, the airline which would fly us to the Galapagos Islands. Tickets safely in hand, we spent the rest of Friday and Saturday just exploring La Mariscal, taking in such exciting places as the local shopping mall(!), and discovering a particularly good Argentinian Parillada restaurant (a hard habit to break for committed carnivores like us).
Then it was time to stuff our day-sacks with all the stuff we would need over the next five days; clothes, cameras, binoculars, sun-cream, toiletries etc. before grabbing an early Saturday night.
Sunday 17 September
A very early start at Quito's domestic airport soon saw us boarding the plane to Baltra, our starting point in the Galapagos, where we were met by a tiny, enthusiastic dynamo of a tour-guide called Nadine.
Bussed to the harbour, we got our first taste of the Galapagos way of life; a mass of sealions lounged and dozed on the harbour benches, oblivious to the hordes of tourists eagerly snapping away at them.
A small launch took us to our home for the next five days; the yacht Floreana.
Though necessarily small, our cabin was comfy with a miniature en-suite bathroom and the yacht itself was fine, containing a compact dining room, a middle deck, and an upper sun-deck with canopy and loungers - perfect for enjoying sunsets with a cool drink...
Soon we were underway to our first destination, an afternoon on Bachas Beach, a long stretch of white sand punctuated by black, rocky pools which serve as home to hundreds of 'Sally Lightfoot' crabs
After a couple of hours spent just relaxing in the sun or swimming in the crystal waters, Nadine led us off for our first nature walk. Following the dunes away from the beach, we soon spotted turtle tracks - in one case leading to a nest with prospective hatchlings, where a Great Blue Heron patiently awaited for his meal to emerge...
Marvelling at the beauty of our surroundings as we walked further and further from the beach, we didn't notice the sun slipping down the sky
and all too soon we were boarding the Floreana again to be briefed for the following day, enjoy a good evening meal and retire.
Monday 18 September
We had been moored overnight and so sleeping 'at sea' had been no problem. After an early breakfast we sailed north for North Seymour a typically arid islet, home to a wide variety of exotic birds such as the Blue-footed Booby:-
I'm a big fan of Boobies. (Sorry, couldn't resist).
and the Magnificent Frigate Bird - often to be found hovering above our yacht:-
As with most of the islands though, the first creature you encounter is the Sealion. They are everywhere!
Galapagos wildlife is remarkable because none of the animals or birds have learned to fear humans; if you walk up to a Sealion it will just lie at your feet and look up at you questioningly. Unless it's feeling playful, in which case it may chase you... touching the animals is, however, strictly forbidden.
A leisurely two-kilometre walk took us inland and then around to the rocky coastline again giving an opportunity to see a good variety of exotic birdlife.
After lunch on board, we cruised to Santa Fe for the afternoon.
Sante Fe's endemic wildlife suffered at the hands of goats introduced by early farmers, but these intruders were eradicated in 1971 and the native wildlife has bounced back.
Besides the inevitable Sealions, colourful Land Iguanas and Darwin's Finch can be found here.
Tuesday 19 September
Sailing during the night is a different matter... sleep wasn't too bad but the rolling motion of our below-stairs cabin might prove too much for some.
We'd cruised to the beautiful and remote island of Espanola where we would spend the whole day, taking time in the sparkling blue waters and Sealion infested beaches of Gardner Bay
before heading inland to follow a spectacular clifftop path giving further sightings of Boobies (Red-footed, Blue-footed, Hooded and Nazcar), Brown Pelicans, basking Land Iguanas and -amazingly- a close-up audience with a pair of courting Waved Albatrosses.
Here too, we witnesses a spectacular blow-hole formed by the crashing waves being forced upward through a narrow fissure in the rocks.
Just another day in the Galapagos, but for us, awesome.
Wednesday 20 September
Our last full day in the Galapagos was spent visiting the aptly named Floreana. In the morning, those so inclined headed off for a diving expedition to an almost totally submerged volcano; the ring of crater rocks visible above the waterline has earned this site the name "Devil's Crown", and in good conditions it's possible to snorkel with White-tipped and Hammerhead sharks, Tiger-snake eels, Eagle Rays, Sea Turtles and more.
Other than the wildlife (sealions in abundance, naturally) the big attraction of Floreana is Post-Office Bay. Given the lack of human habitation on the majority of the other islands, could there really be a post-office here. Well, no.
In 1793 a whaling captain called James Colnett placed a barrel here into which sailors from the many visiting ships could leave letters to be collected and delivered by other ships sailing to the appropriate destination. The tradition - although not the original barrel - survives today.
"So where do I cash my GIRO?"
Just beyond the post-office lie the remains of a fishing village originally established by a group of Norwegians in 1926. Underestimating the harsh reality of living in the Galapagos, the village was abandoned after only a few years - little evidence now survives.
With the sky darkening it was time to leave the island Floreana to return to the yacht Floreana; a long sail lay ahead of us to Santa Cruz, home to the Charles Darwin Research Station.
For our final night on board, cocktails with the captain and the crew were laid on and we spent the evening chatting with new-found friends.
Thursday 21 September
How quickly five days have passed! After breakfast this morning our bags were taken on deck and we said our fond farewells to the crew of the Floreana before landing on Santa Cruz and jumping in a fleet of Land Rovers to be taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Here we learnt some of the history, both natural and human, of the islands before taking a walk to see some of the Galapagos' best known inhabitants; the Giant Tortoises , including the last surviving tortoise from the island of Pinta - "Lonesome George".
Lonesome George - last of the Pinta tortoises
A Galapago, by the way, is a type of riding saddle, reminiscent in shape of the giant tortoise's shell.
A large part of the work at the station is the breeding and rearing of tortoises, and the stages of the process from incubation to release can be seen here.
Sadly, the visit here was brief - we still had a lengthy bus journey to the airport to meet our midday flight back to Quito. Our time in the Galapagos Islands had come to an end, but like so many of our adventures this year, the memories will last for ever.
"Are you sure these are Dwarf Terrapins, love?"