Charles Darwin would simultaneously be pleased and horrified by my choice of vacation.
The Galapagos, an island chain that famously inspired Darwin to formulate the theory of natural selection, have become one of the world’s most thrilling tourist traps. More than 275,000 people visited the Galapagos last year, and this humble reporter became another log on the fire over the Easter break in April.
When Darwin went there in 1835, he was standing where few humans had ever stood before. But while the Galapagos were famously remote in his day, they are extremely accessible today.
The archipelago lies more than 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and a quick and reasonably priced flight from Quito can put you in a spot previously reached only by spending months at sea.
That means more people can ponder the meaning of evolution right at the source, but it also means that the primal nature of the islands is slowly adapting to allow for human creature comforts.
Getting to the Galapagos
There are two airports in the Galapagos, but most passengers will touch down on Baltra, a rocky outcropping that today serves as a shuttle station. From the airport, a 10-minute bus ride will take you to the docks, and a five-minute ferry ride will take you across the Itabaca Channel to Santa Cruz.
Down on the docks, as you wait to ferry across, you’ll get your first look at seabirds plummeting into the ocean to find a fresh catch. The anticipation heightens as you ferry across to Santa Cruz, the most populated island (about 12,000 people) in the chain and a centre for many local travel agencies.
Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz, was first settled in 1926 and exists today as a hilly nexus of interlocking roads flush with hotels, restaurants and boutiques. It is an oasis of civilisation in the land that time forgot, and it is the place people use to prepare for and recuperate from their adventure.
I came to Santa Cruz with nine days to see the Galapagos, but half of that time was reserved for a cruise ship that would take me to see the eastern cluster of islands. With that in mind, I set about haggling with travel agents in Puerto Ayora to maximise the time I would spend communing with nature.
There are so many different combinations you can choose to see in the 21 islands of the Galapagos, but I had my heart set on Isabela, home to Sierra Negra, one of the largest volcanic craters in the world.
My first organised activity was the Bay Tour on Santa Cruz that included a hike and a snorkelling encounter that brought us up close and personal with marine turtles. We saw amazing features of the island that included channels cut through rock by lava and erosion, and later we swam in Las Grietas, an incredible bright-water lagoon framed by sheer rock walls and populated by tropically coloured fish.
Everywhere you look, there is an incredible diversity of species. Sea lions and marine iguanas pepper the docks you walk on as you enter and exit your water taxi. Pelicans and blue-footed boobies fish all around you and then rest on the rocks just feet away from gobsmacked tourists.
The elemental truth is obvious to anyone who cares to look: These animals have lived this way for thousands of years, divorced from human encroachment, and with any luck, they’ll continue living exactly this way for as long as human beings allow it.
Travelling to Isabela
To get from Santa Cruz to Isabela, you take a powerboat that ferries you for two hours across turbulent seas. Every few seconds, the boat’s inertia lifts you into the air and then thuds you down on top of the waves, barely giving you a second to inhale before the process starts all over again.
If you don’t have a sturdy stomach, you risk losing your lunch in transit.
But, when you arrive in Isabela, home to around 2,000 people, it is all worth it.
The island was formed around one million years ago by the merging of six shield volcanoes, and its inhabitants have mostly clustered in a small network of muddy streets down near the docks. There is a tortoise breeding and rehabilitation centre on Isabela – one of three I visited during my 10 days in the Galapagos – and the Flamingo Lagoon where you can see the brightly coloured birds in the wild.
We kayaked in Las Tintoteras Inlet, stroking right up to rocks that housed blue-footed boobies and the Galapagos penguin, the only species of penguin found north of the Equator. The penguins are tiny but nimble swimmers that survive on fish. They sun themselves on the rocks before plunging into the water.
The days start early in Isabela – around 6:30am – and they end early too.
There are only a few restaurants in the village of Puerto Villamil, and after eating, most of the tourists file back to their hostel to prepare for the next day of tropical adventure.
I spent my second day on Isabela snorkelling around Los Tuneles, an incredible grouping of rock formations created by a random series of lava flows. Many of these rock bridges have been hollowed out by time, leaving a series of arcs and tunnels that occur both underneath and above the water.
Again, at Los Tuneles, you will be amazed by the variety of species you will encounter. We snorkelled for about an hour and came within two feet of multiple sea turtles and blacktip reef sharks. The water, turquoise and clear, gives you an unrivalled vantage point to see life floating all around you.
When the snorkelling session was over, we walked over some of the land bridges, coming up close enough to see bird nests cut into cactus and the occasional blue-footed booby doing its signature mating dance. Then, we took the boat back to Puerto Villamil and went our separate ways.
The bus to Sierra Negra picked me up promptly at 7:30am the next day, and it wound its way into the highlands of Isabela for about a half-hour before depositing us at the foot of the volcano. Sierra Negra rises to a point of 3,688 feet above sea level, and it erupted as recently as June of last year.
Once you get to Sierra Negra, you hike up a rocky dirt incline for about half an hour, taking brief breaks to look at the views over the side. Eventually, you come to the peak and you begin heading downwards through a debris field that takes you down over old lava paths to Volcan Chico.
Parts of the path here look like another planet. There are brick-red rocks that resemble the surface of Mars and jet-black volcanic flows that seem eerily reminiscent of the moon. Here, lava is frozen in time, and you can see the tubes it travelled through and the waves where it slowed down and stood forever.
Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico are one of the few places in the Galapagos that seem largely lifeless. You will see hummingbirds and spiders, but very little of the diversity seen everywhere else.
Cruising the islands
My four-day ride aboard swanky cruise ship La Pinta began the very next day.
The ship, which holds 48 passengers, collected its motley crew of tourists in the morning and began sailing for the eastern islands immediately. This was my first cruise ship experience, and I was delighted with the experience of meeting new people and the quality of food and accommodations on board.
Every evening, we would sit through a briefing to tell us what to expect the next day. And every morning, we would wake up for an early breakfast and a trip to another exotic island.
Our first stop was South Plaza Island, a tiny rock inhabited only by sea lions, land iguanas and several species of bird. We walked around for an hour, accompanied by a naturalist who could answer our questions, and then we clambered back onto the boat to prepare for the next activity.
The second day brought us to Santa Fe, a desert-like rock which is the only place you can see the sandy-colored Santa Fe Iguana. On Santa Fe, which often goes six months without rain, you can see the way life has adapted, with cactus trees growing taller and elevating their limbs out of reach of hungry iguanas.
Our next stop was San Cristobal, another populated island that houses a highland tortoise breeding centre and a downtown drag full of restaurants and shops. Here, like everywhere else, the sea lions congregate on the docks and on the back decks of ships and anywhere people will let them.
We visited Cerro Brujo and Punta Pitt in San Cristobal, sharing the beaches with sea lions and walking past the nesting sites of blue and red-footed boobies elevated on top of a rocky bluff. In some cases, we saw the boobies guarding their eggs or even crouching over the top of their juvenile young.
But the cruise saved the best for last. Day four brought us to Española, which is believed to be more than four million years old. Española is the southern-most island in the Galapagos chain and it’s also the only place where you can see the waved albatross, a bird that seems to be a seagull on steroids.
These birds weigh about eight pounds, and they have a wingspan of eight feet. They spend months at sea and can live as long as 40 years, but they return every year to rest and raise their young on Española.
Here, dotting the rocky ground, the albatross sit and rest, and they allow humans to come within feet of their roost. If you are lucky enough to see one take off, you will see it rush to a cliff’s edge and then barrel over the edge before the wind catches its wings and allows it to majestically glide over the sea.
Trip of a lifetime
All in all, in nine days, I was lucky enough to visit seven of the 21 islands in the Galapagos chain. I saw 13 of the “Big 15” species, with only the fur seal and the flightless cormorant remaining strangers.
I cavorted on sandy beaches with sea lions and became an amateur birdwatcher, thrilled by the peculiarities of exotic species and the close proximity I shared with them. As the bus headed back to Baltra, before I had even left, I already felt wistful and determined to repeat the experience.
Darwin visited these islands and changed the world and I got to walk in his footsteps.
The world-changing biologist never made it back to the Galapagos, but I have a secret weapon.
I headed home to the Cayman Islands, where there is a breeding colony of red-footed boobies just waiting for my arrival on Little Cayman.