Exploring the Galápagos Islands

The Woodbury clan poses behind one of the famed Galápagos tortoises.

The Woodbury clan poses behind one of the famed Galápagos tortoises.

Traveling to the Galápagos Islands has been a dream of mine ever since I learned about Charles Darwin and the unique wildlife he studied nearly 200 years ago. Now that our three children are aged 9 to 13, my wife and I decided it was the perfect time to visit this exotic ecosystem.

The Galápagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands located 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador. They became part of the Republic of Ecuador in 1832, just three years before Darwin’s famous visit, and since the islands are a national park and World Heritage Site, all tours to protected areas must be led by a park-certified guide.

I wanted to find a tour with activities that could engage the kids as well as the adults, and also provide accommodations for my C5 quadriplegia. We wanted to swim, hike, snorkel and sea kayak to fully immerse ourselves in the assortment of natural habitats that the Galápagos offers. I found the exact experience I was searching for with Adventure Unbound, an ecotour group that specializes in customized active travel. After weeks of correspondence in which I described my access needs and activity interests, they organized a nine-day Galápagos tour that included lodging, transportation and most meals, leaving me only the responsibility of getting us to and from Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

Adventure Unbound employs GalaKiwi, the premier land-based tour operator in the Galápagos Islands. The warmth, friendliness and can-do attitude of the guides and staff from GalaKiwi elevated our trip from being simply memorable to the experience of a lifetime.

San Cristobal Island

If you’re planning to visit the Galápagos, be prepared for a series of flights. All tours to the islands begin with a flight from Quito, which is located in the Andes at an elevation of 9,350 feet above sea level. There are direct flights to Quito from Atlanta, New York City and Miami. From Quito, all flights to the islands make a quick stop in the coastal city of Guayaquil before embarking on the less-than-two-hour flight to the islands. There are two major airports in the archipelago, one located on San Cristobal and the other on Baltra.

To give us a well-rounded understanding of the islands, our ecotour consisted of spending three days each on three different islands. We began in San Cristobal, the easternmost and geologically oldest of the Galápagos archipelago. When we first arrived, our guides presented me with a modified off-road wheelchair that had two removable poles coming off the front, rickshaw style. Because this beast of a chair didn’t have push rims attached to the wheels, it was difficult to navigate independently. It was easy enough to stay in my everyday chair for many of the activities but I found the off-road chair was essential for exploring some of the harder-to-reach spots.

After checking into the picturesque Casa Playa Mann hotel, we began our first afternoon at the San Cristobal Interpretation Center. This was a great way for us to get our bearings and learn about the unique wind and ocean currents of the area.

There are three powerful currents that are responsible the amazing diversity of life found in the Galápagos. The Humboldt current brings cold water from the south that joins with warmer waters brought by the Panama Current that comes from the north and heads west along the equator form the mainland. A third equatorial counter current, called the Cromwell, heads east to the Galápagos, bringing with it marine life from the deep waters of the Pacific seafloor.

After learning more history of the islands, we followed an accessible hard-surface trail constructed of sliced lava rock to the bay where Charles Darwin first visited, unofficially called Darwin Bay. Directly next to the water is the basalt cliff of Cerro Tijeretas, or Frigatebird Hill, where not only did we see many of these fork-tailed pirate birds, but a full rainbow appeared for our viewing pleasure. We then continued to Carola Beach, where we enjoyed our first encounters with sea lions and marine iguanas and watched some of the biggest wave breaks on the islands. It was our daughter’s birthday, and she celebrated it with an unforgettable swim with sea lions.

We started our second day early by getting fitted for wetsuits and hopping on a charter boat. Our guides helped us find the best fit, plus they actually assisted me in and out of the snug neoprene gear. On the two-hour boat ride to Kicker Rock, we saw mating sea turtles and a 2-day-old dolphin swimming close to its mother. Kicker Rock, also known as León Dormido, is the remains of a volcanic cone that stands 500 feet above the water. Because the National Park regulates visits to Kicker Rock, our group was able to enjoy snorkeling near the channel between two rocks without other crowds of boats and snorkelers. It was my first chance to be in the water and see the colorful fish, graceful sea turtles and even a Galápagos shark swimming below.

Our guides, both nicknamed Peluche, meaning Teddy Bear, were conscientious and helpful, getting me safely in and out of the water despite the steady wind and noticeable current. One of the guides carried an orange flotation ring for me to hold onto, solving stability issues for me in the open water and giving everyone else a chance to catch their breath and fix their mask and snorkel. After nearly an hour in the water at Kicker Rock, we headed over to a beautiful isolated beach to anchor, have some lunch, and enjoy the wildlife before returning back to Casa Playa Mann.

On day three on San Cristobal, we headed toward the highlands to visit La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a reserve to protect the island’s vulnerable tortoise population. The giant tortoises of the Galápagos are the largest and longest-living vertebrates in the world, with lifespans averaging over 100 years. Only 10 of the original 15 species of Galápagos giant tortoises remain, each endemic to their unique volcano. The reserve runs a breeding program that releases them back to the wild after they’ve reached sexual maturity. Since it was a feeding day, our first encounter with the tortoises included two adults fighting over a large elephant’s ear plant, one of their major food sources. The tortoises were certainly not fast movers, and by the end of our visit, each one was given a nickname by the kids for their unique styles and personalities.

After visiting the reserve, we took an excursion to the lovely beach at Puerto Chino where we enjoyed more wildlife and the kids did some bodyboarding. We had lunch at the beautiful Otoy Restaurant, which offered a view of the water and some of the nicest gardens we encountered on any of the islands. After lunch, we headed to El Ceibo Treehouse, a unique site that our guide’s parents had built. A swinging bridge led to a treehouse that was big enough for a couple of beds, a toilet, and a fireman’s pole quick exit. There was even a room below ground inside this massive kapok tree. The treehouse is not wheelchair accessible, but with some assistance I was able to check out the gardens, sculptures and restaurant. After enjoying some local coffee and avocado ice cream, everyone joined in a fun and muddy game of soccer. We all had a laugh when one of our teens lay face-down on the ground while ducks ate grain off of his back, a supposed therapy to help relieve stress. It appeared to work for the entire group because everyone couldn’t keep the smiles off their faces for the rest of the day.

Isabela Island

Because of mechanical issues delaying an early flight to our next island, our “superplan” for day four was quickly adjusted to include a morning snorkel activity. We headed to La Loberia, a protected pool that offers calm waters during low tide. The snorkeling at La Loberia did not disappoint, and was highlighted by friendly sea turtles and a shy blowfish.

Later that day, we took a short propeller flight on an eight-seater plane to Isabela, the largest and geologically youngest island. Shaped like a seahorse, Isabela Island comprises five active shield volcanoes, including Sierra Negra, the most active Galápagos volcano that erupted as recently as the summer of 2018. Of the three islands we visited in the Galápagos, Isabela has the smallest human population, currently approximately 3,000.

After checking into our beach-front accommodations at Hotel Albemarle, we headed to Isabel’s giant tortoise breeding center nearby. We were amazed to learn that 18 giant tortoises were individually evacuated by helicopter from the Cero Azul volcano area during its 1998 eruption. This rescue from their certain demise and subsequent placement in this breeding center illustrates the gallant efforts to prevent the extinction of these amazing creatures. From the original 18, there are now already hundreds of young adult tortoises returning to their original wild habitats near Cero Azul. We returned from the breeding center along a flat path through lagoons, where we enjoyed views of pink flamingos and other migratory birds.

There was a collection of blue-footed boobies sitting at the end of a lava flow. It took three people to get me there, and at times I felt like a king being carried on a throne, but it was incredible to be next to hundreds of these unique creatures.

Day five began with a leisurely sea kayaking trip around the bay adjacent to town. Though I wasn’t able to paddle due to balance issues, I enjoyed views of sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, Sally Lightfoot crabs, rays and frigate birds. After kayaking, we strolled down a wooden planked path through mangrove trees to a beautiful snorkeling spot called Concha de Perla. Though it was complicated getting me down and back up the stairs, the crew made it seem routine. The swimming was wonderfully easy and I rarely needed the orange flotation ring in the calm, protected waters. Swimming through an exposed lava tunnel was a new experience for the whole family.  This was our last snorkeling excursion and not one we’ll soon forget.

Day six was considered a “free day” but was still filled with remarkable experiences. After a relaxing morning of beach volleyball and soccer, the guide told me there was a collection of blue-footed boobies sitting at the end of a lava flow and asked if I was interested in seeing them. I was a bit hesitant as the terrain appeared treacherous but our guide was adamant that the view would be well worth the effort. It took three people to get me there, and at times I felt like a king being carried on a throne, but it was incredible to be next to hundreds of these unique creatures.

I went on a stroll through a path filled with mangroves, majestic candelabra cacti, and another lava tube while the rest of the family took a bike ride up to the Wall of Tears. This historic site was constructed by inmates of a penal colony between the years of 1945 and 1959 and served no purpose but to punish the prisoners, many of whom died while building the structure that rose 65 feet high in places.

We had superb days in Isabela but we were moving to our last island the following day.

Santa Cruz

We woke up early on day seven to take the two-hour ferry boat from Isabela to Santa Cruz, the most populated island of the Galápagos. After arriving in Santa Cruz, we headed up to the highlands to see the giant tortoises living in their natural environment at El Chato Reserve. It was pouring down rain as we headed out to visit these magnificent creatures, giving us the chance to see them in a more active state. After a delicious lunch at the reserve, we headed to El Trapiche to experience some of the cultural aspects of the island. The kids were put to work learning how to operate a mule-driven sugar cane press and techniques to traditionally roast coffee. After demonstrating the distilling process, the adults got to sample some moonshine. We then returned to town for some rest.

Our eighth day began with a visit to the beautiful El Garrapatero beach. The well-constructed path to the water led us through giant prickly pear cacti with trunks as wide as huge mature trees. The waves were calm and I was able to swim independently in the glorious warm water with the kids and sea lions for a couple of hours. After an exceptional lunch at Andrea & Valerio, we enjoyed the walkable waterfront access and souvenir shops before our farewell dinner at the elegant restaurant, Almar.

Our last day consisted of an epic return trip home utilizing multiple modes of transportation including a taxi, ferry boat, bus and multiple airplanes. We were extremely weary after the long hours of travel but grateful for the wonderful adventure we were able to experience.

With Adventure Unbound organizing the logistics of the nine-day tour, I really didn’t have to worry about wheelchair access while on the Galápagos Islands. All of the rooms I stayed in had roll-in showers with handheld shower heads. The guides were there to help if there were any steps at the sites or restaurants. They assisted with every transfer in and out of the taxis, planes, buses and boats, and they made sure I felt safe and comfortable.

What was most remarkable was the ease and confidence every guide demonstrated when faced with accessibility questions. The attitude of inclusion on the islands prevented me from ever feeling that I’d be left behind while the rest of the family went exploring. This attitude freed me from the guilt and resentment I can often feel when traveling with my family and also lifted weight off of my wife, who often feels stranded having to do extra tasks for me when we travel. The entire tour felt effortless and gave us the space to enjoy this unique place in a way we’ve never felt possible before.

** This post was originally published on http://www.newmobility.com/2019/04/galapagos-islands-by-wheelchair/

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