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Today is our last day with Filipe. We left Isabel for the highlands of Santa Cruz, the third, and final island of our Galapagos archipelago trip. Well actually, we technically see the Island of Baltra because that’s where the airport’s located. You land on Baltra, then take a ferry to Santa Cruz. I’m not sure why it’s set up this way, maybe it gives Baltra something to do?

It isn’t really fair to say that about Baltra because it was Baltra where we saw yet another animal on our list, and another that we didn’t think we’d get to see because there was no specific agenda item to seek them out. I’m talking about the Fredo to the marine iguana’s Michael, the land iguana. Nobody talks about the Galapagos land iguana, which is a real shame. We really wanted to see one, just to compare it with the marine version. So we’re sitting on the bus at the airport waiting to take a ferry to our taxi (besides seeing every conceivably cool animal the Galapagos had to offer, we also used every possible mode of transportation, sometimes in the same day), when super-eyed Filipe says “There!” and darts from the bus telling us to go with him. And there among the construction rubble is a huge, walking yellow land iguana! I have no idea why these don’t get more press (maybe they use the same firm that handles sea lions in the dolphin/sea lion debate) because they are seriously cool. They way I look at it, this is either the iguana that refused to evolve, or the iguana that’s so bad-ass it forced the marine iguana into the sea.

So we ferry over to Santa Cruz where we find a boat called the Sub-Aqua. What makes this story funny to me is that the boat was half-underwater with someone standing on the deck with a power bilge. The poor guy not only had the unfortunate luck to have his boat sink at the marina next to the ferry exit to the most popular island in the Galapagos, but he had the added stink luck to name his boat “Sub-Aqua.” Yet there he was, manning up and trying to salvage a boat I would have denied owning (Like tooting in a plane. Always, always, make a scrunchy face at the person next to you and look disapprovingly at whoever’s sitting in the seat in front of you). Sure there were on lookers, sure they were making jokes, but this guy just stood there bilging out his boat (And yes, I took a picture. I felt bad for the guy, but not that bad).

In Santa Cruz our mission was the highlands, and seeing wild tortoises run free. So we loaded up our truck and hit the road. Here, in the highlands, the misty dampness made sense. It also made sense to put on loaner galoshes at the park center before you head into the national forest to seek out tortoises. And at long last, we saw some wild dome giant tortoises! They’re HUGE up close. They’re so big that when they eat, they just lay there on the ground and chow down on the grass around them. I mean, this is the life, laying face down in pile of food, gorging yourself, and only moving to find the next pile of food, then plopping back down again. Ahhhh, island life.

After lunch at a really neat little restaurant overlooking a valley we begin to leave the prescribed tour route. I found a tree-fort hotel in the highlands and Sander and I were sleeping there for the night rather than stay in the town of Puerto Ayora. So Filipe took us to our tree fort to drop off our bags, before heading into town for a hike to a gorge for some cliff diving and snorkeling, followed by some time in the town for some sight-seeing/touristy stuff.

Once in town we head for the cliff area (I took a picture of the sign so that I wouldn’t forget it, but that picture is on my corrupted camera card, so I’m going to call them Happy Cliffs). It was about a mile walk in, and absolutely worth it. The Happy Cliffs are about 100 yards long with a rock cluster blocking on end and a path to the ocean at the other. Everyone sits on the rocky end and uses it as a staging ground for snorkeling or watching people pitch themselves off the cliffs. Obviously, they would be watching Sander and I making said pitch. We snorkeled around the coldest water yet for about 30 minutes, then it was time to jump.

First, before you even get to the various jumping spots, you have to go rock climbing up a wet, slippery cliff face. For me, this was the scariest part, and I couldn’t figure out why. If you fell while climbing, you’d fall into the very water you were going to jump into once you safely reached the top. I think it has to do with the nature of “falling” vs. “jumping.” It’s all about perspective, you have the feeling of control when you jump, but you’re out of control when you fall. Either way you’re hitting the water, but, as they say, it’s about the journey, not the destination. So we start with the lowest jump, maybe 10’ up. Really fun. We learned that I like to yell, “Wooooooo” on the way down, and Sander likes to count, “One…two…” and then yell, “threeeeeeee” on the way down. After a few times at that height, it was time to go up. Way up. Our next destination was another 10-15’ up and wayyyyyyy scarier. It took Sander a bit to get going (some local types were laughing-more on this in a second), but he did the “one…two…threeeeeeeee” thing and left terra firma for terra aqua and absolutely LOVED it. We did it a few more times and it was starting to get cold so we swam for the rocks. As we were swimming towards the rocks, the local hooligans were swimming for the jump spots. We thought we’d watch them jump so we hung around a bit. Sure enough, those same two guys who were laughing at Sander while he was screwing up his courage, saw the water from up there and had several (and by several, I mean a lot) of false starts. Sander started yelling out, “UNO…DOS…TRES!” which cracked me up and unnerved the boys even more. It took them much longer to work up the nerve to jump than it did Sander, and he knew it. The lesson, again folks, is he who laughs last, laughs best.

Puerto Ayora is definitely the hot-spot of the Galapgos. Where the other towns were dirt roaded, tiny, quaint and quiet, Puerto Ayora was all glitter and lights. The restaurants were different, the shops were definitely upscale (you think I’m kidding here, but one place was selling $20,000 tapestries) and after being so isolated for the last week, it had the feel and scope of New York City. So we walked the streets of the big city, Sander finally found the souvenir set up he was envisioning (he wanted a wooden tortoise and a wooden iguana, with the tortoise standing with its head over the back of the iguana, with both going on his shelf. Very specific I know, but he knew what he wanted). He had to go to two different shops and haggle mightily to be able to afford them both, but he pulled it off. In fact, he was so good that I had him haggle for my wooden iguana box. Yes, you read that right, I bought a box with a marine iguana carved atop it. You don’t understand, I saw the box, laughed it off with a “Who would buy that?” shrug, then over dinner thought, “I would, that’s who!” and became obsessed with it. So much so that I was actually concerned that someone would buy this tacky wooden iguana box before I could get back. The good news is that no one did. The bad news is now I have a tacky wooden iguana box in my house. I figure it’s a good place to store my taste.

Late that evening we said good-bye to Filipe as our time with him was up. I can say unequivocally that Filipe was the best guide we’ve ever had. He knew everything about the islands, the creatures, the geography, the geology you name it, and he was more than happy to share his knowledge with us. Like I said, I’ve never done a full on tour before, preferring to show up and see what happens. I cannot imagine the trip being better without Filipe. He was a crucial and integral part of our visit. If you’re reading this Filipe, thank you from the Elliotts.

So we took our taxi to the tree fort where we had a fantastic dinner and made our way to our fort (after some flashlight exploring, where we saw sleeping tortoises). And this fort was c-double o-l cool. It was up in the tree (hence the name) maybe 15’x15’, two air mattresses and a sink. Almost exactly what you imagined building when you nailed that old piece of plywood to the tree limbs when you were 12. But here was the thing, it lacked indoor plumbing. There was a community bathroom set up off to one side of the complex. Somehow my bladder knew this and I was up so often that night I could have been filming an Avodart commercial. But we were sleeping above the tortoises, in the cool misty air, and we were having fun.

Again, and again, and again we were having fun in the Galapagos.

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