A voyage through this archipelago is a glimpse into an ancient magical world
Almost 200 years ago, a curious 22-year-old English scientist set foot upon San Cristobal Island, several hundred miles off the shores of Ecuador. Over the next five weeks, he spent his days in awe, studying hordes of black dragons, giant ambling tortoises and tiny finches feasting on prickly pear cactus.
His name was Charles Darwin, and he bounced from island to island aboard the HMS Beagle, filling his notebook with sketches and notes that would eventually become the foundation of his claim to fame, the theory of evolution, The Origin of the Species. He had no idea of his impact on what is now the Galapagos Islands. Almost two centuries later, the locals haven’t forgotten the importance of their tiny town—shops are named after the Beagle, a metal bust of Darwin sits atop a plaque by the ocean, and more than 220,000 tourists make their way to the islands every year. I was one of them, my head filled with romantic ideas of the Enchanted Isles, eager to see the giant land tortoises, blue-footed boobies and Darwin finches renowned the world over. Over the next week, my husband and I joined an international group of 14 travelers to explore the largely uninhabited islands.
Most people agree that there are 13 main islands in the Galapagos (named for Spanish royalty and explorers), with five larger ones open to thousands of human inhabitants. The archipelago is about 700 miles off the coast of Ecuador in a different time zone—and another world away.
After flying into Quito, we made our way to San Cristobal to meet our tour hosts from Ecoventura to begin our journey through the islands. Bed-and-breakfasts were at every street corner, and backpackers strolled the sidewalks. The murals in schoolyards touted messages of conservation, and signs warned visitors not to touch the sea lions who waddled their way onto the pier. In a playground, there were no bouncy horses but metal turtles balanced on a spring.
Donning life vests, we stepped into a blue panga, or dinghy, to take us from the shore to the aptly named Theory, where we would be living for a week. Ecoventura, under the Relais & Chateaux umbrella, offered a luxurious way to experience the Galapagos, from the proffered Champagne upon boarding, to the sundeck with a hot tub and day beds. Below, the 10 seaside cabins were outfitted with twin- and king-sized beds, flat-screen televisions and full bathrooms. Over the next week, housekeeping tidied our room two to three times a day, leaving Ecuadorian chocolates on our bed. Each time, the sweets were accompanied by a notecard with a quote—like this one: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Looking out the window that first day, we watched the docks at San Cristobal give way to the deep blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Modern Day Explorers
Every evening our guides reviewed the next day’s itinerary, showing us photographs on TV of the upcoming island, and the kinds of wildlife we’d be sure to see. As we slept, the captain motored from island to island; at daybreak, we’d gaze through our floor-to-ceiling windows and find ourselves in another world—painted graffiti from sailors 100 years ago on the black rocks of Genovesa, the red sand beaches of Rabia, or the lush landscape of Santa Cruz.
On Genovesa Island, we climbed the Prince Philip Steps (named for the British royal for his support of the islands) and hiked the jagged lava fields. Tendrils of cactus seeped through the cracks, and we kept a lookout for brown owls as they begin their evening hunt. During a hike through Santa Cruz’s Dragon Hill, bright yellow and orange land iguanas meandered through the sand, and on the red island of Rabia, three flamingos sashayed across a lake in search of crustaceans.
We watched baby seals lounging in the tidal pools on the beaches of Santiago as their mothers hunted for their next meal, splashing about in the water, craning their little heads to the sky before plopping onto their sides for another nap. During one of our many snorkeling excursions we were mesmerized watching sea lions dive in above us, trailing a ribbon of bubbles as they circled us again and again.
While riding in the panga through the mangroves of Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz, we tracked sea turtles swimming nonchalantly past stingrays and four dozen white tip reef sharks. On our way back to the yacht, legendary blue-footed boobies bounced from rock to rock, scratching their heads with webbed turquoise feet.
Then someone called out, “penguins!”
And there they were, a raft of tuxedoed birds bobbing their black heads in he water—just miles from the Equator. I leaned over the panga as far as I could, only a few feet away from wild penguins. Below us, sea turtles skimmed the ocean floor and black marine iguanas clung to jagged rocks as they feasted on a rug of algae.
If Noah’s Ark landed anywhere, it was undoubtedly the Galapagos.
Overcoming the Human Factor
Over the centuries we humans have wreaked havoc on the Galapagos ecosystem. There are stories of sailors, including Darwin, riding on giant land tortoises, then bringing them aboard for what seemed like an endless supply of meat (they can go a year without food or water). An estimated 100,000-plus tortoises were killed over the 300 years of exploration in the islands. Other settlers brought goats to the islands, who trampled and ripped up the grass that fed tortoises and land iguanas. Domesticated cats ate baby sea turtles. The islands were devolving into a land destroyed.
But we humans have redeemed ourselves of late. The Ecuadorian government has implemented strict rules on how visitors can experience the Galapagos—every tour boat has to have its itinerary approved, and the amount of time and activities are strictly enforced. On land, guests must stay on makeshift trails through beaches and hillsides, staying six feet away from every animal. When a lazing sea lion decides to take a nap in the middle of the pathway, guides tell you how to gently bypass them.
On Santa Cruz, we passed farmland with cows grazing in the fields, and everywhere you looked, there was the shiny black shell of a giant land tortoise grazing alongside. They’re so protected, in fact, that farmers must make sure the lowest rungs of their barbed wire fences are tall enough to allow tortoises to pass under.
At the nearby Charles Darwin Research Station, there’s the stuffed carcass of one of the most famous tortoises, Lonesome George. He was discovered on Pinta Island in 1971, the last of his kind, and mating attempts to try to create a hybrid breed were unsuccessful. On the other hand, there’s the aptly named Super Diego, who resides at the station—it’s believed that he has fathered more than 800 tortoises, after he was one of just 14 living on Española.
Also on Santa Cruz is the El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve, where you can see the ancient animals in their natural habitat and appreciate their size; when they eat, their long necks extend over a foot from their shells to reach prized fruits and leaves. In the main building of the park, visitors take photos inside empty tortoise shells, and the tallest man in our group easily fit inside.
The result of these efforts? Not only are animal populations thriving, but the visitor experience is that much better. The animals don’t fear us. Iguanas ambled past in the brush, tortoises were unbothered by a group walking past, sea lions danced around swimmers and their GoPros, and cormorants flew alongside our boat.
Toward the end of the trip, during a siesta, I lounged in bed and looked out the window at Rabia island as Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” softly played through the boat’s speakers. While the vessel gently rocked from side to side, I noticed a new quote provided with the afternoon’s chocolates: “The gladdest moment in human life is a departure into unknown lands.”