Visiting the Galapagos Islands
Traveling really helps you to appreciate the small things in life. For example, in our hostel in Quito, the hot water was not exactly…hot. Small thing, but it has a big impact on your quality of life. It may sound strange, but I was also struck by what a gift writing is to our civilization while on my flight to the Galapagos. Before visiting the Galapagos Islands, I got a subscription to Audible.com, and I’d downloaded Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle before I left. What an incredible experience it was, after having flown for 2 hours, to see the first lonely volcanic patches jutting up from the ocean as I listened to Darwin’s own thoughts on first encountering the islands. Maybe I should be marveling about the smartphone that allowed me to listen to a book being read, but it was his words themselves – like a distant echo through time, whispering in my ear – that really struck me as the true gift.
It turns out that, despite the role that they played in his theory of evolution, the Galapagos Islands only occupied a very small proportion of Darwin’s trip. (In fact, he only spent five weeks on the islands out of the whole five year Beagle voyage!) And yet, now that I’ve seen them for myself, I can totally understand how, out of all the places he visited, it was the Galapagos that really got him thinking about the strange way nature evolves.
We landed on the small island of Baltra and immediately got into a bus to take us to a port to take us to a boat to take us to – another island. Yep, island-hopping already! Luckily it was just a short 10 minute ride across a very narrow, calm straight that separated Baltra from Santa Cruz Island. Once back on solid land, we were picked up by our guide and began the hour-long journey across the island, from the north where the port is to the south where the city is.
It must be said that each island in the Galapagos is unique in topography – and thus resulting flora and fauna, by Darwin’s logic. Santa Cruz’s distinguishing feature was its highlands. The northern port, at sea level, is in a desert area where only rocks and strange tree-like cacti with woody trunks meet the eye. But as we headed south, we climbed up the island’s spine, and as the altitude rose, so did a curious phenomenon – the air became a mist-like cloud and green plants appeared. We began to see agriculture, and the strangest sight met our eyes – pastures that were dotted with both cattle and giant tortoises! Very strange bedfellows indeed…
The town at the southern port of Santa Cruz on the surface might have seemed like any other costal pacific town, but everywhere you turn, incredible critters meet your eyes – and sometimes impede your footfall. We found sea lions lounging everywhere, from the beach to sidewalks to even park benches. These lovable lazy lugs seemed to take no heed of all the people who were obliged to step over them constantly. The other usual suspect – iguanas – piled up on each other near the coast in grey heaps, looking like miniature sunbathing dinosaurs. Occasionally they would raise their heads up to spit (a way of expelling sea salt from their bodies) and then go back to their naps. I’m informed by my friend Bob that such piles of iguanas are properly known as ‘murders’ – new counter word for me.
On the second day, we island hopped again, but this time it was a much longer boat ride – 2.5 hours over to the largest island, Isabella. (If you are thinking of going, note my tips on seasickness at the end!) The island is shaped like a giant sea horse, with active volcanoes comprising its long back. We hiked up one of these, most recently active in 2005, and it was interesting to see the tunnels created by the flowing lava just a decade ago. Mist poured over the southern edge of the caldera, almost as if they were going to turn the dormant crater into a cloud lake.
In Darwin’s time, the main fare was giant tortoise in many guises – soup, steak, dried meat, etc. Sailors found that, if stacked upside down, tortoises could be kept alive for up to a year. As a result, ships began hunting them in earnest. Darwin noted that in one day approximately 500 were captured or killed on the island he was staying on. He surprised me by surmising that at that rate, there would be no tortoises left in a generation or two. Turns out, he was quite right to be concerned; given their utter lack of defences, it’s no wonder that they became endangered.
Thankfully now these gentle giants are protected, but it wasn’t soon enough for the Pinta Island species. In 2014, the last remaining representative of his breed, Lonesome George, died, aged over 100, leaving behind no descendants (despite valiant efforts to find him a suitable girlfriend from another island). Thanks to the wonders of taxidermy, I got to visit George at the Charles Darwin Research Center in Puerto Ayora. The center now happily has a breeding program for all varieties of tortoise in the hopes that there won’t be another Lonesome George again. It was so cute to watch all the little hatchlings crawling over each other in a low-speed clamor, the number of their island written on the top of their shell.
Having now been to the Galapagos, though I’m by no means an expert, but I would offer the following thoughts if you’re thinking of going…
Kelly’s Top Tips for Visiting the Galapagos Islands:
- If you’re on a budget, don’t do a tour! The tour operators seem to outsource everything to other operators, who outsource again – meaning that there’s an entire ecosystem of middlemen between you and the activities you actually want to do. Far easier / economical would be to just get to Santa Cruz (via Baltra), land there, get your feet on the ground, and figure out what you want to do there. This way, you can put your budget towards better accommodation / food and not to feeding various middlemen.
- Many of the activities that are included in tours you can do on your own, often for free. For example, in our tour, we had snorkelling in Isabella and swimming at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz – all things that were free and that we could have organized ourselves. We also went to the Darwin Center, which was a short walk from our hotel. If we hadn’t been on a tour, we could have enjoyed it at a more leisurely pace.
- Get prescription seasickness patches! These are little band-aid like patches that you put behind your ear that apparently work way better than Dramamine / pills. We struggled in vain to find a pharmacy in Ecuador that would sell one, so this is something you need to procure before you go. The speedboats between the islands provide 2.5 hours or more of an incredibly choppy ride that has even the heartiest of travellers feeling very green by the end…
- Spend at least a week there. It’s a long way to go, and you probably won’t get back anytime soon. There’s a ton to see there even just on one island, and odds are that you’ll want to hop betw