The Galapagos Islands are a mythical land. Even when I was literally sitting inches away from prehistoric looking marine iguanas or rolling in the waves with sea lions or being pecked in the knee by a Blue-Footed Booby, I still wondered, “Is this real? Is the world still this wild?” [sidebar]
Perhaps it’s because visiting the Galapagos is the stuff bucket lists are made of. Or perhaps it’s because it’s hard to imagine there’s anything left that is truly untamed.
Yet, there I was aboard the Letty, one of three yachts owned by Ecoventura—an environmentally-minded tour company that takes visitors through the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean some 500 miles off the mainland of Equator. The islands, which famously inspired naturalist Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species after he visited in 1835, is home to some of the rarest species on Earth.
In 1978, UNESCO designated the Galapagos as a World Heritage Site and over the years the growth of tourism has been threatening this fragile environment. Tourists are allowed to visit but must abide by strict rules.
Visitors to the Galapagos can stay in hotels or resorts –and even camp, but one of the best ways to explore the Galapagos is on registered boats, with registered guides. The goal is to keep the destination in as close to its natural state as possible while still allowing visitors to explore.
Ecoventura’s boats only have 10 cabins, making for a more intimate experience. I traveled with 17 other people and we all cringed when we happened upon other tour groups from boats carrying 50 to 100 people.
Traveling the Galapagos is the hardest vacation you’ll ever love. It’s a highly logistical trip, and with too many people or less than top-notch guides, things could very quickly go very badly. Each day’s itinerary includes a series of visits and activities, each requiring panga rides (a small transport boat) and a variety of equipment, both personal and from the ship. Snorkeling gear, fresh drinking water, and towels are provided.
I’m telling you, it is no messing around.
Ecoventura guests typically cruise for seven nights. The company alternates between two routes in an effort to preserve the islands, so some guests stick around for a full 14 nights.
On the late January cruise I was on, we visited Cerro Colorado, Punta Pitt, and Cerro Brujo, all on San Cristobal; Punta Suarez and Gardner Bay on Espanola; Punta Cormorant, Devil’s Crown, and Post Office Bay on Floreana; Darwin Station, El Chato (the highlands), and Los Gemalos on Santa Cruz; Sombrero Chino; South Plaza Island; North Seymour; and the Interpretation Center on San Cristobal.
To do it all in the span of one week is a lot of ground (and water) to cover. Daily itineraries –which begin at 7 am and end at 9.30—include island visits, snorkeling trips, briefings and thankfully some siestas.
When the trip began, I wondered what I would do at night. There were no evening activities planned, no board games or collections of DVDS. But after the first night I realized why. Our days were so full that walking back to the cabin after dinner was the only activity I could manage before being rocked to sleep by the sea beneath us.
But, trust me, it’s worth every intense minute of it. There was so much to see. The islands themselves are wild, the animals are wild, and the experience traveling there is certainly wild.
Everyday was an adventure filled with exploration. I communed with sally lightfoot crabs. I had a staring contest with a blue-footed booby. (He won.) I snorkeled with a shark, a sea lion, a turtle, a school of brilliantly colored fish, and forests of coral in a variety of colors that only a giant jar of mixed jellybean flavors could match. I watched baby sea lions nurse.
Some days, when during the hour or two siesta in the afternoon we remained anchored in one spot at sea, I would marvel at the islands by which I was encircled; islands whose proximity to one another was a close as their vegetation and landscape were different, from volcanic rock to dense brush and from chandelier cacti to low lying succulents.
On Floreana Island’s Post Office Bay, under the hot sun, I left postcards for friends and family in a barrel in hopes that other guests to the island would pick them up and hand deliver them for me, something that people have been doing for one another since the whalers began the practice back in the 18th century. I also wandered down into a cave until I was chest high in the freezing water and marveled at the contrasting temperatures that nature could provide just steps apart from one another.
From the deck of the boat, I saw a flock of frigates try to steal a sea lion’s catch and a solo flyer try to steal what the chef was cooking by an open window for my own dinner. And I don’t think the frigates saw any difference between the two plots.
That was the thing about the Galapagos--the boundaries are blurred. The wildlife was unafraid of the human visitors and the only rules were to walk within the gently marked bounds designed to keep our footprint to a minimum lest this all disappear.
The trip left me feeling that there is still some magic in the world—and that wasn’t limited to our wildlife excursions. Our guide Ivan Lopez sang us awake over the intercom each morning and rocked out with his onboard band for our listening pleasure at night. Another guide, Orlando Romero, who has been part of Galgapagos tourism for so long that he himself marked out many of the trails we hiked, daily imparted his vast knowledge.
It can be easy to get jaded in our see-it-all, do-it-all, have-it-all world. The Galapagos Islands are a reminder of what life once was, what life in some places still is, and what always should be—wild.