Where to Swim with Penguins in the Galapagos

Originally published in August 2015. Updated August 10, 2020.

Good morning! Today we set out on our last Galapagos adventure: the largest island of Isabela. If you look at a map, you’ll notice she looks like a seahorse wearing a wedding dress. And there are penguins!

Look at those penguins swimming!
More here: Our Favorite Animals in the Galapagos

Though she’s the largest island, she’s not the most populated. There are five ACTIVE volcanoes on the island and only one town! It’s one of the most active volcanic sites in the world!

But first, we need to get there! Steve and I woke early enough to run around the Darwin Station (where the tortoises are!), eat breakfast and relax until we got picked up at 9:30. Our driver from the first day, Caesar, came to pick us up and take us to the airport. We said our good byes to Joseline, our gracious hostess, and rode to the ferry landing, then took a ferry across the channel to Baltra, then took a bus to the Baltra airport, where Caesar turned us over to someone else who would help us get our tickets to Isabela and take us to the VIP lounge! It’s quite a journey just to get from one island to the other!

The view from the air.
More here: What to Know Before You Visit the Galapagos

Apparently, the Baltra airport is only a year or so old. The VIP lounge is very nice, with lots of open-air seating and some snacks as well! The girl at the lounge must have been quite irritated with us asking so many questions and asking again and again if our flight was boarding. We did not want to miss that flight! But she was kind and helpful every time!

So it was finally time to go to our plane–a 9-seater! It was so little and cute! The Canadian lady sitting in front of us was appalled that there were no air sickness bags aboard. Not something you want to hear just minutes before take-off, but at least we were behind her! She found a small, empty candy bag in her daughter’s backpack, so we were all set. Thank goodness it was only a 30-minute flight!

Our island hopper prop plane.
Be prepared: What to Expect Flying in a Tiny Plane

And we were off! It was a little propeller plane, so it was noisy, but fun! The views of the shoreline and across the water then into Isabela were breath-taking (and distracting enough that our potentially airsick Canadian co-passenger didn’t get sick!), and I got several aerial shots!

Approaching Isabela!
Keep reading: 10 Things to Do in the Galapagos

Our pilot was great. We stuck a perfect landing! The airport on Isabela is by far the smallest one I’ve ever flown into. It’s completely open-air, with no security, windows, or doors, just a guy to check that you are on the list and weigh your bags… He’s also the one who signals to the planes as they land and taxi, so he’s quite the renaissance man! When I asked where the bathroom was, our Galapagos Alternative representative actually just told me to jump the low wall and go in the waiting area! Our representative’s name was Andrea, and she was very helpful! She and a driver took us to our hotel, just a few minutes away, and told us where we could get lunch and that someone would be by to get us in an hour or so to take us to the Tortoise Breeding Center!

We settled our stuff into our room, which we were surprised to find had the most amazing ocean view! And there was a palm tree growing out of our deck! We would be back to enjoy that soon!

Private room with a view!
More here: 10 Reasons to Visit the Galapagos

We found our way back to the main road (which, by the way, is all sand because the town is on the shoreline!), and we stopped at a place for a quick, late lunch. It was your typical Ecuadorean fare: soup, fish, rice, veggies, and dessert. We noticed some bananas floating in our chicken soup, but when we tasted them, they tasted like potatoes! We found out later it was a plantain. One with a potato-y taste!

We made it back to the hotel with plenty of time to meet our next guide, Juan Carlos. He took us to the wetlands via a flamingo lagoon! You know how I love the flamingoes! We stopped off at the tortoise breeding center and learned a bit more about the tortoises’ life cycle and how to tell how old they are. They have rings on their shells like a tree has rings in its trunk. But over time and as the shell is exposed to the elements, the rings fade away. So it’s not a fool-proof way to know! Also, the females are half the size of the males. Looked to me like it was less than half! They are so sweet!

Keep reading: Top 10 Travel Hacks

The little one sort of in the middle is an average size female! Can you see the rings on their shells? That tells their age like the rings on a tree!

From there, we enjoyed a walk through the wetlands. We saw plants that thrive in the saltiness, like the red mangrove trees, and Juan Carlos explained about the plants and animals in much detail. He said he used to bring home animals when he was little, and he had as many as 80 at one time in his family’s small apartment in Quito! He has found the right job as a naturalist. We also saw marine iguanas, birds of many kinds, and my favorite… Flamingoes! I got lots of pictures because these were closer!

Pink is the new elegant.
More here: How to Pack the Perfect Carry-on

He led us through the rest of the wetlands, and we ended up at the beach. He showed us some good places to go along the shoreline, and our hotel wasn’t far, so Steve and I decided to walk back. So romantic!

We relaxed at the hotel a while, then met Andrea around 6:30 for our nightly check-in. We went out for supper afterward and must have gotten in just before the nightly rush. At 7:00, it seemed like everyone was out for supper! We had another typically Ecuadorean meal, and discovered everything is very laid-back on this island, maybe more so than on Santa Cruz or Floreana!

Soup, rice, meat, veggies, and juice.
Still hungry? What to Eat in the Galapagos

We got back to the hotel and pretty much got right to bed. Steve decided to shower, and much to our dismay, the water never warmed up! We always encounter unexpected things like that when we travel, it seems, but we just have to roll with it… or shiver!

The next morning, we got up before our alarm–a regular occurrence on this trip–and readied for the day! Part of that readying time was spent just looking at the ocean from our bed! It was so beautiful!

Never stayed this close to the ocean before!
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Breakfast was buffet-style, with all the options we had at the other hotels, and more! The hotel’s restaurant was on the third floor, with an incredible view of the sea! We chose a table that allowed us both to look out the windows.

This morning’s scheduled activity was Las Tintoreras, where we would be swimming with penguins! We sat outside to wait for our pick up. And waited… And waited a bit more. Finally someone came for us, but it all seemed a little unorganized. I think that’s just island life, though–very laid back and they get there when they get there on Ecuadorean time.

Anyway, we got in the truck that came for us and headed out to the pier! And there we were again on a tiny-little boat. Fortunately, we weren’t going far! We speeded away to see… Penguins! They and a flock of blue-footed boobies were just standing around on the rocks, looking adorable, living together in harmony!

I spot penguins!
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We made a dry-landing at Las Tintoreras island to see the protected Marine Iguana nesting areas first. As a bonus, we also saw white-tipped sharks! There were three of them down in a crevice, just hangin’ out! Apparently, they are the only sharks that can breathe without moving. I didn’t know any sharks were required to move in order to breathe. You learn something new every day!

After walking around there a while, we got back into the boat to go for a dip… With penguins and sea lions! They were so cute! The company we were on the boat with provided snorkel gear and fins. As we learned, I’m not a good snorkeler, but I used the fins for some extra help.

Look! It’s a blue-footed Whitney!
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The animals are not afraid of people. They’ll just come right up and swim next to you, even show off from time to time! Juan Carlos told us the day before that this is how the researchers know fear is learned, not innate. The animals here, most of which never saw humans until less than a century ago, are not afraid of people at all. They learn to be afraid if something hurts them, then the fear response becomes genetic. Or something like that. The point is, they came to play with us! And apparently, these tiny penguins are like little torpedoes in the water. They can swim up to 40 kilometers per hour! They’re faster than the seals! And they look like ducks a little bit, too.

Swimming Penguin Alert!
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After a while, it was time to head back to shore. My waterproof camera’s battery had died, and we still had more to do! We said goodbye to our new friends and got dropped off at our hotel, then it was time for our last Galapagos run!

Our goal was to make it to the Wall of Tears, about 7 km (4 or so miles) away. We ran the first part of the way, about 4.5 km, and walked the rest. And we happened upon some tortoises along the way!

Tortoise sighting in the wild!
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The Wall of Tears was constructed by prisoners when Isabela was a penal colony in the 1940s and 1950s. Now it’s a monument to humanity’s inhumanity to other humans. But in my mind, if these were the worst of the worst criminals–rapists, murderers, etc., why not punish them with manual labor on a deserted island if you don’t want to give them the death penalty? Maybe I didn’t get the whole story. Some things maybe got lost in translation.

The view from the top of the Wall of Tears.
Taking in the view.
More here: The Ultimate List of Hiking Tips

Moving on. We made it! It rained on us during the run, the rest of the walk was long, and the stairs up to the lookout point above it were steep, but it was completely worth it! And actually, the walk back was even prettier! The sun came out, and we had no idea on the way up that there were such views of the ocean behind us, and we stopped at several lookout points and beaches, taking our time on the walk back. Steve even took a plunge at Lover’s Beach (Playa de Amor)! I took pictures.

Taken just seconds before a wave came and crashed into my Love!
Keep reading: 5 Essentials for International Travel

By the time we did get back to town, we were pooped, our feet hurt (my feet hurt anyway!), and we were ready to sit and simply watch the sea! We stopped at a couple of souvenir shops, but they were closed. Then we stopped by Andrea’s office to do our check-in so she wouldn’t have to come to the hotel later, but no one was there. So we stopped at a coconut stand and got fresh coconut water for rehydration!

That “just opened” coconut feeling.
More here: What to Eat in the Galapagos

Back at the hotel, we took our shoes off and propped our feet up! It was about 2:30 or so by now, and we were hungry, but didn’t feel like going back out. We snacked on some of the food we’d packed and picked up along the way. We did end up getting ahold of Andrea, so she came to the hotel sooner to check in with us and give us our check-out time for the next day–checking out at 8:00 for an 8:30 flight!

Then we did something neither of us has ever, ever done before. We ordered room service! It wasn’t that expensive–about the same as we’d pay going out somewhere, but we got to enjoy our view of the beach! And the sunset! Wow! It was amazing! Best room ever–except for the hot water situation!

Sunset from our room.
Read on: How to Practice Self Care on Travel

Thursday morning, we woke with the sunrise creeping across the waves, which seemed much calmer today! I could wake up to that view every morning and never tire of it! We got ready for breakfast and enjoyed our buffet again. I will miss the coffee the most!

Sure enough, a driver came to pick us up just after 8:00 to take us to the tiny airport. Andrea helped us check in, and about 8:45, we boarded! I got to sit in the front!

And then we waited in the VIP lounge, and then we boarded our plane to the mainland about 3 hours later, which made for a bit of a long day, but better safe than sorry! Next stop: Quito! And then, the Volcano of Doom.

Want all our Galapagos adventures? You’ll find them on my Ecuador Page!

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