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The Galapagos Islands With Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn

I think my passion for travel started in grade school.

I remember seeing pictures of the marine iguana in the Galápagos way back when. I thought they looked like dragons, and I knew there would be a time when I would make a trip to Ecuador to see them for myself.

Fast forward to February of this year, and I was chatting with my good friend R.D. on Instagram about spectacular photos he had just shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Somehow, the conversation wrapped with an official invite for me to join him and a few other like-minded, camera-carrying adventurers on a seven-day trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos Archipelagos.

Getting to the islands was much easier than one might expect. In fact, it was spectacularly easy. I took a direct flight from the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport to Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito, Ecuador. It was late when I arrived and got in to a hotel in Quito that was a four-iron swing from the front doors of the airport. I over-nighted in Quito and the next morning got back to the airport and flew to San Cristobal, the town from where most Galápagos expeditions launch.

The flights were easy, and finding the appropriate tickets and permits to hike through the Galápagos was painless as well. My adventure was organized by the fine people of Guy Harvey Outpost, and the lead photographer on the adventure was Sports Illustrated staff superstar Ron Modra, one of the most genuinely nice and humble guys you’ll ever meet. He has more than 70 SI covers, so the guy knows how to shoot a picture.

San Cristobal is alive with local flavor, sea lions, great food and a smattering of tourists. Local craftsmen work on the repairs of a 45-foot-long fishing boat that sits on the beach in front of the marina. The boat repairs are done by small power and hand tools, and the craftsmen say the repairs will take more than a year before the boat is back on the water catching fish.

Modra and I have a close friend we all call R.D. (the guy who got me locked into the trip). “R.D.” is short for Ronnie Dunn, who is better known as half of the country music super duo Brooks & Dunn. Aside from being a music legend, R.D. is quite an accomplished photographer as well.

And We’re Off …

After we got through the airport and into our hotel, we spent only a few minutes gathering our cameras before loading into a van and heading up to the top of some of the mountains outside of San Cristobal Island, where lunch was served at a tortoise rehabilitation center. There were eight of us in our group of photographers, and we were able to hang with some of the 100-year-old tortoises the Galápagos is well known for. After our tour and turns at taking photos of the giant reptiles, we loaded back in to the van and headed down to one of San Cristobal’s well-known beaches.

Loberia Beach is just 10 minutes outside of town, and it’s where I first got to see the iconic marine iguana that I remember reading about as a child. Seeing them was spectacular, though I admit as a youth I imagined them to be the size of Godzilla. They weren’t. The largest ones I encountered were about 3 feet long, which is still a big lizard—and not one you’d want to mess with.

galapagos islands
Blue-footed boobies are a species only seen in the Galápagos Archipelagos.

At the beach our crew made the first of many strenuous hikes in the hills of San Cristobal, climbing in an area called Cerro Las Negritas, which translates to “The Black Mountains.” We walked and climbed for a couple of hours to get up to a ridge filled with nesting frigate birds, which are among the species that are only found in the Galápagos Islands.

The lava rock-covered path to the ridge was strenuous, carrying bulky camera bags and water while hiking vertically over basketball- to boulder-sized black lava rock was a challenge, but the view at the end was worth the sweat and swearing.

Of Lost Gear, Sea Lions and Blue-Footed Boobies

On day two, R.D., Modra and our scrum of lensmen headed out to Isla Lobos, where we were greeted by a dozen vocal sea lions splashing in the surf, and from there it was an easy hike to capture images of frigate birds against a mountainous landscape.

We had one major mishap on this day when Diana Calleja, one of the photographers in our group, had a piece of gear break, which resulted in her $5,000 camera resting on the ocean bottom. Juan, our boat’s first mate, was able to retrieve it from a depth of about 25 feet, but the camera couldn’t be revived. Our group was able to outfit her with another set-up so that she could still shoot for the rest of the trip, but we were reminded of a good rule to follow on that day: double-check everything regularly, and have backup gear for a rare and unfortunate accident.

When we concluded our hike, we took to the water, spending about three hours snorkeling around Isla Lobos. It was one of my most amazing snorkeling adventures I’ve ever taken. There were only a couple of us in the water, and we captured the attention of the sea lion pups while they played to the cameras. They were as captivated by us as we were by them.

Galápagos marine iguana

Day three started with hotel breakfast, then a five-minute walk to the main pier in town where we jumped on a charter boat and headed to Española Island.  Española is the southernmost island in the archipelago, known for a drier climate and the nesting majestic waved albatross. It was on Española that we added to our band of merry travelers. Marzia Antonelli, a veterinary doctor from Brazil, was touring the Galápagos and was adopted quickly into our group.

We hiked to the plateaus of Española Island (also known as the “Albatross Airport”), where we were able to photograph nesting albatross, blue-footed boobies and dozens of other frigate birds, along with hundreds—if not thousands—of marine iguanas up and down the rocky cliffs and shoreline.

Kicker Rock and Bird Nirvana

The crew, and our newest member, Antonelli, only snorkeled in and around the giant rock formation accessible by boat. A couple guys on the boat dove and reported back about the beauty at 40 feet under. From the surface we saw hundreds of tropical fish, sea turtles, eagle rays and hammerhead sharks.

A popular cafe and pizzeria frequented by locals and tourists alike in San Cristobal.

Day five was a big day for birders. The seas were glass on the boat ride to Punta Pit, and we hiked up a slot canyon to the ridgeline. When the trail opened up, we were witness to dozens of blue-footed boobies, both nesting and with hatchlings. The photographers in our group who specialized in bird images were beside themselves. It was, quite literally, bird photographer nirvana.

Winding Down, New Scenery

After five days of strenuous hiking, we all decided to head back to the hotel after Punta Pit and unwind. But, as any group of wary travelers does, we rallied and quickly took off again from the hotel to jump on water taxis, zip around the marina and photograph street life in San Cristobal.

The images we made included sea lions sunning themselves on dilapidated boats, an older man named Fernando using a hammer and chisel to repair the woodwork of a 45-foot fishing vessel, cafe life, and tourist and sea lion interactions, which are always interesting.

It wasn’t just about the iconic wildlife images we’d been making all week, but it was about the slice of life you get when you take the time to explore.

Later that evening, a few group members and I took to the streets in search of the best off-the-grid dining we could find, and we happened upon a house with tables in the driveway, serving empanadas. I love eating new foods, and these empanadas were out of this world. With a couple of Cokes and chicken, shrimp and cheese for all five of us, our bill was less than $20 for food so perfectly done the 200-percent tip was the least we could do.

It was so good that, on the next evening, Modra and I searched out the little house for round two.

Sea lion pups playing in about 10 feet of water

On day six, I wandered into town for breakfast. I got in early enough to watch the harbor front shops open up and see things come alive.

These are not the kinds of moments photographers dream of, but drinking coffee and having pastries while overlooking the harbor and relaxing is exquisite and a true understated highlight of trips like these.

Later in the day, we boarded a bus and headed to the highlands and a restaurant called Otoy, where we dined on a grilled lobster lunch at the organic farm-to-table restaurant overlooking Junco Lagoon.

Then it was time to go, back to Quito and eventually the States. The Guy Harvey Outpost experience was amazing—and it was my first such photo expedition when travel was designed around making great photos.

And make great photos we did.