Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston explored the eastern Pacific before cruising the Galápagos to find enchanting Islands on their way to New Zealand

The sound of bubbles playing over the hull woke us – a soft whoosh that felt at once mellow and playful. The source of the bubbles was soon discovered: two sea lion pups, swimming around the boat in joyful loops and spirals.

We had dropped the hook in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on Isla San Cristóbal, the day before and the famed natural world of Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands was immediately surrounding us.

We had arrived aboard Wild Rye, our 1971 Wauquiez Centurion 32, after a 10-day, 1,000-mile passage from Panama. In an attempt to avoid the worst of the doldrums, we had set a southerly course out of Panama City to take advantage of the strong northerlies that funnelled across the isthmus, motoring through two days of flat calm as we approached Ecuador, then we tacked and headed straight west, reaching along on the light south-easterlies that rolled off the coast of South America.

It was an easy passage, if slower than we would have liked; our drifter pulled us along at a mellow pace of three to four knots most of the time. The most difficult part was jumping in the water for a three-hour, hull-scrubbing marathon when we were 100 miles out from Isla San Cristóbal. (It’s important to show up with a clean hull – we’d heard multiple stories of cruisers being told to sail 50 miles back out to sea and get the barnacles off before being allowed to anchor.)

Sailing towards San Cristóbal after our longest passage to date was immensely satisfying. We passed under Roca León Dormido (sleeping lion rock), its square shoulders towering 150 metres above the water, and nosed carefully into the harbour of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Wild Rye and crew departing the Galápago

Wild Rye and crew depart the Galápagos Islands, bound for French Polynesia. Photo: Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston

The busy little anchorage felt overwhelming after 1,000 miles of wide open horizon, but we were immediately flagged down by a water taxi driver who pointed us towards a good place to anchor. We had just enough time to set the hook and make a pot of coffee before our new friend returned, his water taxi laden with about 10 strict-looking uniformed officials.

The unique beauty of the Galápagos is protected in large part by stringent regulations on entry. For cruisers, the list of requirements is a long and expensive one. You need an AIS transponder so the Ecuadorian Navy can track your vessel for the duration of your visit; you need an expensive agent, who will ask for a list of paperwork as long as your arm, and you need to be prepared for your boat to be thoroughly inspected upon arrival, above and below the waterline.

The fees stack up fast, and can easily amount to more than $2,000 USD. Once you arrive, your movements are restricted to three harbours. Visits to other islands, or to protected areas on those three islands, require a guided tour or a hired parks guide onboard your own vessel.

diving with sealions

Playful and engaging sea lions are masters of their marine world. Photo: Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston

We had read numerous reviews saying that the only way to properly experience the Galápagos was to join a multi-day cruise on a charter boat. For anyone on a tight budget, this option is unlikely to be an option.

For cruisers who value the freedom of unrestricted movement and choice that life on a boat usually entails, the highly regulated environment may seem like it’s not worth the trouble.

We had almost bypassed the area ourselves – the cost of entry was well outside our standard budget and at first glance the regulations on yacht travel seemed overly limiting. From the moment we awoke
to the sight and sound of those playful sea lions, though, we were so glad we’d decided to stop.

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It didn’t matter that we were confined to only a handful of ports – the surreal beauty of the Galápagos came right to our doorstep.

We loved Puerto Baquerizo Moreno instantly. There were endless interesting things to see and do that we could access by foot or bike from the colourful little town, and with a 60-day visa we had no shortage of time to explore them at our own speed.

After spending months in the humid jungle of Central America’s Pacific coast, the sparse desert and cool, dry winds on Isla San Cristóbal were a welcome change. Happy to stretch our legs after 10 days at sea, we walked miles over dusty red earth and volcanic rock that scorched our feet, picking our way around the hundreds of marine iguanas that lay sunning themselves on the trails.

Galápagos finches flitted through bleached, leafless shrubs, their cotton fluff nests perched in the protective arms of prickly pear cacti. We rented mountain bikes for a day and pedalled through the misty highland hills to the Galapaguera, a breeding centre for the giant tortoises that give the Galápagos their name.

surfers share the waves with the wildlife i nthe Ga;lapagos

On Isla San Cristóbal, surfers share the waves with the wildlife. Photo: Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston

I watched with envy as a tortoise walked right up to Liam and sat with him, nose-to-nose, for the better part of a minute. When the glowing heat of the sun felt oppressive, we took to the sea, Liam with his surfboard and me with my snorkelling kit, to escape into the crisp, cold waters brought by the Humboldt and Cromwell Currents.

Every day brought something new in that colourful underwater world: sea turtles sat placidly on the seafloor to be cleaned by tiny, jewel-like fish; eagle rays glided by close enough to touch; playful sea lion pups spiralled through the water, tickling us with their whiskers and letting us peer into their luminous, intelligent eyes.

The surfing scene was a pleasant surprise: Liam found a community of local surfers who were friendly and open, and by the end of our first week in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno it felt like he knew half the town. The waves were shared between locals, tourists, and – this being the Galápagos – wildlife.

Sea lions shot through the swell, sleek and powerful, and Liam often came home with stories of near collisions between surfers and sea turtles. He developed a particular friendship with one local surfer who built sailing dinghies in his free time; the two of them spent many mornings together discussing sailing and surfing in a fluid blend of English, Spanish and hand signs.

Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston in the Galapagos

On Isla Isabela, lava flows and tunnels form a sculpted, surreal landscape. Photo: Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston

After several weeks we bid a regretful farewell to Isla San Cristóbal and set sail for Isla Isabela. We planned for our usual relaxed speed of four knots, and left in the late morning to sail the 80-mile distance overnight.

We forgot to account for the power of the current, however, and found ourselves hauling along at seven knots, a speed that Rye stubbornly maintained no matter how much we reduced sail. By the evening it was obvious that if we held our course we were going to arrive hours earlier than expected – and hours before the sun rose. We debated: heave to, or continue on?

With a bright full moon rising in a cloudless sky, we decided to continue. We picked our way carefully into the narrow harbour of Puerto Villamil around 0300, Liam steering towards the scattered anchor lights in the inner harbour while I navigated us around the rocks marked on our charts. The air and water were completely still and the harbour entrance, although rocky, felt straightforward.

The hook set instantly and we went to bed feeling happily exhausted. Our first real look at the anchorage later that morning was instantly humbling: the scattered rocks that had looked safely distant on the chart seemed, in the light of day, ominously close to the route we had taken through the entrance. Torn between gratitude and embarrassment, we agreed that next time we would wait for a daylight arrival.

Aerial view of the sandy Cerro Brujo Beach at the north-western coast of San Cristóbal Island. Photo: Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston

We didn’t find the same sense of friendly community in the sleepy port town of Puerto Villamil as we had in Baquerizo Moreno, but the island was gorgeous and intriguing. One of the youngest islands of the group, Isabela was formed by the merging of six volcanoes, five of which are still active.

A visit to the highlands feels like a journey to another planet: a sculpted world of lava flows, frozen in time. We hiked across rippling slabs and jagged spikes to the rim of the Sierra Negra Volcano and felt heat rising up through the many cracks and crevices in the rock. Another day we joined a day tour to Los Tuneles, where we snorkelled through a network of underwater lava tunnels.

As on Isla San Cristóbal, on most days we explored by foot or rental bike and found no shortage of things to see and do. We spent many afternoons wandering the network of sandy trails on the edge of town: giant tortoises snoozed in the dappled shade, flamingos posed, motionless, in the shallow lagoons, and along the shore the mangroves hid shady secret passages and cool, clear freshwater streams in which tourists, sea lions and iguanas could hide from the fierce sun.

A face-to-face encounter with the world’s largest tortoises is an experience not to be missed. Photo: Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston

Where the streams met the sea we often stopped to watch the blue-footed boobies fishing, diving like torpedos and egging each other on with high, fluting whistles. The anchorage was quieter and smaller than Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and ringed by a line of scraggy low-lying islets, home to colonies of penguins and boobies. We spent hours rowing and snorkelling along the
edge of the islets, trying to catch a glimpse of the sleek little penguins before they darted out of sight.

On our last day we biked to the end of Isabela’s trail network, where el Muro de las Lágrimas (the Wall of Tears) stands tall and imposing. Built by inmates of the penal colony that existed here briefly in the mid 20th century, it is a completely pointless structure – a wall from nowhere, to nowhere – and a testament to the cruelty and suffering experienced by the prisoners at the time.

There have been many attempts at settlement in the Galápagos since Fray Tomás de Berlanga drifted onto the islands by chance in 1535, his ship becalmed and in the grip of the South Equatorial Current. Prior to the advent of ecotourism, most of them were short lived.

Whalers and pirates used the islands as a provisioning base, harvesting tortoises by the thousands as well as water and firewood. But most human settlements, such as the penal colonies and plantations, eventually failed. Ecotourism provides a formula that allows for the protection of the natural wonders of the region, as well as a sustainable human community.

Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is a stunning vision of azure and blue. Photo: Hilary Thomson and Liam Johnston

As cruisers we have become used to unrestricted access to new places. But if this formula – the high cost of entry, the tight control of where we are allowed to go – helps to protect the fragile balance of the island’s human and non-human populations, it’s a price that we are happy to pay.

Cruising the Galapagos tips

Know the entry requirements

A good agent will make clearing in and moving between the main ports quite straightforward. We hired Seamasters Galápagos and paid $1,400 USD total for two people and our 10-metre boat. The paperwork took five weeks to process.

We do not recommend making an unplanned stop; in all likelihood you will be required to pay the entry fees anyway, and sent packing immediately afterwards. We DO recommend looking carefully at the list of entry requirements that your agent gives you, and following them to the letter.

Anchorages and ports

Cruisers can anchor in three main ports: Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (Isla San Cristóbal), Puerto Villamil (Isla Isabela), and Puerto Ayora (Isla Santa Cruz). To explore further afield you need to join a tour or pay for a licensed guide to join you on your boat. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno will likely be your first port of call


Provisioning was easy, if somewhat limited, in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. We had water delivered to us at anchor. Diesel can be purchased in large quantities through an agent; we bought 40L directly from a water taxi driver. There are no haul-out facilities, but there is an excellent machine shop
in town.

The seasons

December to May is the warm, rainy season. June to November is the “garúa” season: cooler, drier and often misty. The windiest months are June through August, when the southeast trades are at their peak, but average wind speed rarely exceeds 10 knots.

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