The Intersection of Nature and Luxury in the Galapagos
The sleeping baby sea lion doesn’t budge as I take its picture, although its mother raises a wary eye. A pair of blue-footed boobies shelter their newborn as I pass and, farther down the path, I give a wide berth to bull sea lions fighting for dominance. Welcome to the Galapagos Islands—where up-close encounters with an amazing array of wildlife are a daily occurrence.
Undersea volcanoes formed this isolated string of islands some 600 miles west of Ecuador. Temperatures rarely vary, given that the Galapagos are situated on the equator. The nutrient-rich Humboldt current that flows north from Antarctica during the summer and fall and the warmer Panama current that dominates the climate through May converge here, creating the conditions that support one of the world’s most diverse and unique ecosystems.
The Galapagos are a photographer’s paradise. Made up of 13 major islands, 17 smaller ones and some 40 massive rocks that jut out like garden sculptures from the water, these islands and the surrounding sea are home to some 9,000 animal species. Birds, lizards and sea lions display no fear as humans walk among them. You might see pink flamingos and penguins in the same day, spot fleet-footed Sally Lightfoot crabs scurrying across the sand and male frigate birds that puff up their red breasts to attract females. And of course there are the islands’ famous giant tortoises, the world’s largest. It’s no wonder the Galapagos are a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated as a unique “living museum and showcase of evolution.”
Visiting the Galapagos, you’ll wonder why no country claimed them for centuries. In 1535, the Bishop of Panama described the landscape as “worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass, but only some thistles.” Spain later claimed the islands that, over time, were home to privateers and whalers. Finally, no one raised any real objections when Ecuador laid claim to the archipelago in 1832.
Not long after that, in 1835, Charles Darwin famously visited here and, though he only went ashore four islands for a total of 19 days, the rich samples he collected formed the heart of his theory of evolution. Most visitors today still visit the Galapagos by boat, albeit with far more conveniences and amenities than Darwin ever imagined. The Ecuadorian government created the Galapagos National Park in 1959, and later added the Galapagos Marine Reserve, to avoid overcrowding and overuse. Cruise ships are given permits to visit specific islands and limit the number of people who can go ashore to 11 guests and one naturalist guide. Every ship’s itinerary is designed to reveal a mix of islands, animals and marine life, but larger islands such as Santa Cruz are on almost every ship’s itinerary.
While sailing between islands, you’ll pass smoking volcanoes and watch frigatebirds—sailors call them “pirates” of the sea—dive-bomb to steal fish plucked from the sea by other birds. After a day visiting the islands, you can relax on the deck and watch dolphins and whales cruise by the ship. For adults and children who love animals or just have a zest for learning, the Galapagos Islands are one of the world’s best open-air classrooms. After returning home, many visitors describe their Galapagos cruise as one of the top trips of their lifetime.
The fishing boats are in on Santa Cruz. A knife slashes through a freshly caught fish, cutting off a fillet for the evening meal while a pelican waddles down the gangplank and tumbles into a fishing boat in search of fish scraps. You wander through the fish market on Puerto Ayora’s waterfront, dine in local restaurants, and shop in stalls filled with souvenirs, clothing and swim gear. The village is also home to the Darwin Research Center, where scientists and volunteers conduct research and offer environmental education that encourages conservation. Santa Cruz is a must-stop on the cruise circuit; travelers come to learn about the islands, Darwin’s research and to see Diego, a centenarian giant tortoise from Española who has sired dozens of offspring. An island tour also may include a trip into the island’s interior, where giant tortoises wander freely in the native grasses and lumber past the guayabillo and pega pega trees. So few giant tortoises and turtles are left because their meat was a major part of the diet for pirates, whalers and early residents.
On a Barren Spit of Land Called Bartolomé, you can hike to the tip of a volcanic cone that offers a panoramic view that includes Pinnacle Rock, which U.S. airmen used for target practice during WWII, as well as nearby Santiago and other islands in the distance. Walking up, you pass lava rocks in red, orange and green hues. The black lava is so slick you can almost see your face in it. If you sunbathe on the crescent beaches near Pinnacle Rock, you may share the sand with sea lions. Bartolomé is the mating and nesting site for the green sea turtles between November and January.
Step on Española’s shore and look around the black lava rocks for Christmas iguanas, so nicknamed because their skin takes on a blotchy, reddish tint during mating season. As you walk toward the island’s steep cliffs, don’t be surprised if a brazen hood mockingbird lands on your shoulders in search of food. The blue-footed boobies, with their black faces rimmed in white feathers, might remind you of a mime. When the waved albatross run toward the cliff and leap off, don’t hold your breath wondering if the birds are going to fall into the ocean. It’s just the way these large birds start their flights. Native to Española, the waved albatross abandon the island from January to March, returning in April for the nesting season.
The pink flamingos feeding in the saltwater lagoon on Rabida Island ignore you as they feed on the tiny shrimp larvae that give these birds their color. Rabida is a multicolored island, with a maroon-tinted beach and scarlet cliffs courtesy of the lava that once spewed from a volcano’s spatter cones. High on the cliff, blue-footed and Nazca boobies nest in the cracks in the rocks. While snorkeling, you might see a baby sea lion toss a sea cucumber around just like a youngster throwing a rubber ball up then catching it. You might even see manta rays and sharks.
Seahorse-shaped Isabela Island was formed by the merging of six volcanoes, some of which are still active. When cruising past, watch for fumaroles, or steam vents, rising from the Volcan Chico area on the Sierra Negra volcano. Although there are four permanent settlements on Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago, cruises often stop at one of the secluded coves and beaches. Isabela is a birder’s paradise: Keep an eye out for flightless cormorants, mangrove finches, Galapagos hawks and blue herons, and look for Galapagos penguins bobbing in the water as you kayak through a quiet cove.
At 700,000 years old, Fernandina is the youngest island in the archipelago. One of the calderas on an active volcano blew in 2009 and created pyrotechnic images for people cruising by the island. When you get off the zodiac that ferries you from the cruise ship to shore, step onto the rocks carefully so you don’t hurt those scarlet and yellow Sally Lightfoot crabs scurrying by your feet. Look at the tiny lizard sunbathing as it sleeps on the head of a motionless iguana. In the water, hungry iguanas are swimming, heads bobbing underneath as they find food in the water. With bodies that don’t hold heat well, these marine animals huddle together on the rocks to soak up sun. As you follow a path going higher on the island, your naturalist guide points out the cactus growing in cracks between the pile of lava rocks. Look at the flightless cormorants, birds endemic to Fernandina and Isabela. These birds with scruffy-looking tiny wings can no longer fly, but they’re stellar at swimming and diving for prey.