The Galapagos Islands are paradise for nature lovers.
Most people who visit the Galapagos are crazy for wildlife, and everybody has their favorite animal. On a cruise in late January, our group quickly made individual preferences known. One young woman desired nothing more than to swim with sea turtles. Another was nuts about sea lions, while several visitors couldn’t wait to see the courtship dance of the blue-footed boobies. Me, I was all about the iguanas. Before the trip, I was eager to see the marine iguanas, but it turned out the land iguanas were just as fascinating. At least, to me. Nobody has yet sat through my 400-iguana slideshow.
The activities on these islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador are actually pretty limited. Visitors are rule-bound by the Galapagos National Park Service and its mission to minimize impact on the islands. But people who like swimming, snorkeling, slow hikes while gawking at wildlife, eating good food on the boat, napping, then doing it all over again will be very happy cruising the Galapagos.
A Typical Day: Hiking, Snorkeling, Wildlife
Visitors can choose to stay in one of the few inhabited parts of the Galapagos—97 % is national park—or to take a cruise of the islands. If you stay on land, you’ll need to book day cruises to see the other islands. But if you stay on a boat, you’ll travel at night and wake up in a new place. This way, you can go farther and see more.
Boats stick to tight schedules, minimizing impact and maximizing visitor experience by not letting any site get too crowded. Our 20-passenger boat, the Letty, was operated by the Ecuadorian company Ecoventura. Every morning our wake-up call came at 7:00 a.m., usually a song about the Galapagos as paradise written and performed by Ivan Lopez, one of our two naturalist guides. We all had the song stuck in our head for days. It was a pleasant way to wake up, despite the early hour.
We breakfasted at 7:30 a.m. and had to be ready to leave the boat for our first shore visit at 8:15. Zodiac boats ferried us between the Letty and islands. Sometimes we had a dry landing, meaning we got off on solid ground. Often, we had a wet landing, jumping into waves and getting wet up to our thighs. This is definitely a trip for able-bodied folks who are comfortable jumping out of a lurching Zodiac boat.
Each island was different. We divided into two groups and stayed with Ivan or our other naturalist, Orlando Romero. Both were extremely knowledgeable about the islands and animals. Slowly we’d hike about 10 feet, stop to take 50 pictures and listen to many flora and fauna facts, then repeat the process again.
Every once in a while we got on a trail where spaces grew between us. On one hike at Punta Pitt on the island of San Cristóbal, I meandered through small boulders down a stretch of trail where I saw no one and heard nothing but the gentle crashing of waves and cries of gulls. The sun beat down on the dry terrain, with nobody, but an occasional lava lizard to keep me company. For a couple of minutes, I could imagine how the uninhabited islands felt to early visitors.
The morning expedition usually lasted two to three hours. Then the Zodiacs returned us to the Letty, where we changed into swimming gear and grabbed our snorkels, masks and flippers. Ecoventura provided the gear, and also loaned us wetsuits. If you’re new to wetsuits, beware. They’re tight, hard to pull on and tend to run small. While I wear a women’s medium in ordinary clothes, I had to use a men’s size 16 wetsuit. Some of the larger passengers found they were completely out of luck in the wetsuit department, especially tall men. Larger folks might want to bring their own wetsuit.
The snorkeling was fantastic. Depending on the place, we’d walk in from the beach or jump off the Zodiac into deep water. Note: Practice your swimming before you go. Non-swimmers will miss out.
We saw sea turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, marble rays, giant sea stars, Galapagos penguins and enormous schools of tropical fish, sometimes swimming inches below us. Occasionally a sea lion torpedoed by, much faster than I expected after watching them laze on beaches.
After snorkeling, we returned to the Letty and put on dry clothes for a buffet lunch. The chef made huge fresh salads as well as hot dishes, and there was always a platter of fresh tropical fruit.
After a leisurely meal, it was siesta time. Sometimes we’d stay anchored, other times we’d navigate to a new spot. The chaise lounges on the sun deck were wildly popular, but we’d all vie for the shady ones. The equatorial sun is strong! And sunscreen is insanely expensive in the few inhabited places, so stock up before your trip.
The afternoon excursion was much like the morning. Again, we’d have some combination of hiking, wildlife-watching, swimming and/or snorkeling. Then back to the ship, cleaning up and meeting for the evening briefing. At this time, the naturalists gave us a lesson on the history, flora, fauna and geology of the islands and told us what to expect the next day. Then came dinner, followed by socializing, stargazing, or retreating to our cabins.
Highlights: Iguanas, Frigates, Boobies
It’s hard to keep places straight in the Galapagos, for several reasons. One is that everywhere has at least two names—English names from early settlers, and Spanish names given by Ecuador after it annexed the Galapagos in 1832. Also, whenever the boat moved somewhere new, we’d get confused whether we were arriving at a new island or another part of the same one.
Some places are easier to remember than others. For example, Chinese Hat is a small island that looks like a Chinese Hat. And Kicker Rock resembles a giant shoe. But often we had to ask the naturalists, which island had the green and red marine iguanas? Where were the flamingoes?
South Plazas was one of my favorite islands. January had been atypically dry, so the ice plant had turned bright red, which created the perfect backdrop for the golden and crimson land iguanas. We watched one stand on his hind legs, repeatedly falling over as he tried again and again to pluck a fruit from a prickly pear cactus before finally triumphing. I watched another land iguana claw its way into a burrow. I was so close it kicked a dirt clod on me.
North Seymour Island, with its populations of frigate birds and blue-footed boobies, was another highlight. We saw the mating rituals of both species. The male frigate birds puff out their red throats like enormous balloons to attract a mate.
The boobies dance, lifting one foot at a time and waving it around to show off its sexy hue. When both boobies are feeling romantic, they wind their necks around each other and sky point, lifting all their pointy parts—beaks, wing tips and tail feathers—toward heaven.
the island of Santa Cruz, we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and learned about its breeding endangered giant tortoise program. Scientists have successfully raised the number of tortoises back to about 25,000, a healthy population for the islands.
We also took a bus to the Santa Cruz highlands, where we saw the huge reptiles in the wild. Weighing up to 500 pounds, they spend their time eating grass, wallowing in muddy ponds and tolerating many a portrait with visitors.
In one week in the Galapagos, I got close to animals I’d never seen and watched them live their daily lives. But people who spend a lot of time here see even more marvelous things. Our naturalist, Orlando Romero, came to the Galapagos from mainland Ecuador in 1974. Now officially retired, he frequently returns to guide tours. He told me some of his most cherished Galapagos memories: In the most recent major eruption on the island of Fernandina in 2009, he was within 50 yards of flowing lava. In 1998, darkness descended at noon and lasted 10 minutes during a solar eclipse. He saw Haley’s comet with his naked eye. Once he watched a lava gull fight with a snake for an hour before the gull won and ate the snake. He’s seen humpback whales mating, and 15 killer whales accompany a Zodiac full of visitors.
No wonder he keeps coming out of retirement. And no wonder I miss the islands already.
– Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Contributor