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Galapagos Islands: Walking in the Footsteps of Darwin

Galapagos Islands

Surely, most people, who are aware of the Galapagos Islands, have placed it on their travel bucket list. A volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, made famous by Charles Darwin who visited the islands for five weeks in 1835 and whose notes, samples, and experiences lead him to develop the theory of evolution. The opportunity to visit these spectacular islands and wonder in their uniqueness firsthand is once in a lifetime.

Most of the Galapagos Islands are fiercely protected and not open to visitors. They are unlike any other area on this earth, with plants and animals found nowhere else, and researchers are learning more every day. Some islands are inaccessible or only accessible by helicopter. Other islands are dedicated to scientific research and of the few that allow tourists, most require guide accompaniment and have a time limit. For what we were looking to experience, a scheduled cruise appeared to be the best option. Not wanting to get lost in the shuffle of excess, we opted for a luxury yacht with a minimal passenger list.

Previously, in our research, we discovered that some, unaccustomed to the high altitude of Ecuador, were victims of altitude sickness. We decided to acclimatize by spending two days in Quito before and after the trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Islands
Galapagos Islands

Santa Cruz Island

From Quito we flew early morning, stopping in the beach city of Guayaquil to pick up additional passengers, landing on Baltra Island. Upon arrival, to protect the vulnerable and unique flora and fauna of the islandsthe authorities thoroughly check all luggage and spray for any non-native plant and animal species. From the airport, we hopped on a ferry to Santa Cruz Island. There we met up with a driver who escorted us to Puerto Ayora and the yacht. In the early afternoon on that same day, we were off on our first stop to The Charles Darwin Research Station.

is a research station, inaugurated in 1964, whose objective is conservation, restoration and sustainable development projects for the archipelago. It is home to one of three Tortoise Breeding Centres formed to help save the endangered species from extinction. I had contacted the CDRS before arrival about planting a tree in honour of my late father. As it happened, a new restoration project was being launched to allow the adoption of indigenous plants, and they were thrilled to present me with a certificate of dedication. The staff escorted us through the premises. They introduced us to members of the team, and gave us a small presentation on the preservation efforts they were making on the islands. Even if you can never make it to Galapagos, consider donating to their wonderful efforts.

beach

Isabela Island

Each night on the yacht, the Naturalist Guide would gather us on the main level. There he gave us for a brief explanation of what to expect the next day. From Santa Cruz Island, we anchored off Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago, the merger of six different volcanoes. The first stop was Las Tintoreras Islet on Puerto Villamil. There we walked alongside (and sometimes over) dozens of marine iguanas. Found only in the Galapagos, these iguanas have adapted to the sea, and dive underwater to forage on algae. Once you see them as tiny wrestlers in luchador masks, it’s difficult to see anything else. 

The animals in the Galapagos evolved without many (if any) predators. They are relatively unfamiliar with humans, so they are, mostly, unafraid. As a result, it is very easy to experience close encounters with the wildlife, although you cannot touch them (forbidden). Humans carry bacteria and viruses that the local wildlife cannot defend against.

Along with other sites on Isabela, we hiked up the side of the Sierra Negra volcano. It has the second-largest crater in the world and crossed the lava fields of Punta Moreno, where the landscape reflects the sun and intensifies the heat, but somehow life survives. On this surreal island, where cacti grow in large bunches through the sharp rock, small bodies of water house, schools of fish, and feed flocks of flamingos. Though we arrived very early in the morning, it quickly felt as if the world suddenly became an intense outdoor sauna, with nothing but thick, hot air to breathe and wade through.

Galapagos Islands

Fernandina Island

On Fernandina Island, the youngest in the archipelago, we came face to face with more marine iguanas and witnessed flightless cormorants stretching and drying their wings. the young sea lions barked at them waiting for the return of their mothers. The next day, we landed on Espumilla Beach on Santiago Island.At that moment as an exhausted sea turtle finished laying and burying her eggs. We watched her slowly make her way back to the water and let the tide carry her away. At times littered with sea turtles, the beach that day was empty, save for the one lone turtle, our small group, and a few boobies diving like torpedoes into the ocean.

Throughout the trip, apart from our island excursions, we had many opportunities for snorkelling in the surrounding waters of any island we happened to visit. We swam next to playful sea lions, Galapagos penguins, sea turtles and sea iguanas (not to mention the abundance of marine life). Once, we came across a marine iguana feasting on moss underwater. He did not notice us much, but quickly swam to the surface. Their ability to withstand cold water is limited to a maximum of one hour and leaves them exhausted. As he swam to the surface, his limbs resembled those of a rubber toy.

Lobos Island in San Cristobal

On our last morning, we landed on Lobos Island, in San Cristobal. Here we stood inches away from the turquoise boobies and had the unique opportunity to watch their bizarre mating ritual. The little male was waving his bright blue legs in front of an older female, the deeper the blue, the more attractive the match. He then gave her gifts of stone and wood (to show his ability to build nests) until she finally accepted him and they went to the bushes together. On the same island we came across the frigate birds with their inflated red pouches and the sea lions nestling in the sun. Every day, every experience ignited our minds.

Having said all that, one’s experience is very subjective. Some tourists appear bored and unimpressed when surrounded by the same beauty that leaves others in awe. We had difficulty finding specific information on the itineraries, which we now understand is due to the regulated schedule of visits to the islands. We expected to be amazed by our experiences, and we were. What we didn’t expect was how fast-paced and jam-packed the daily itineraries would be. Perhaps it was the preparations, the dingy rides, the (sometimes) hard land and water landings, or just the intense and concentrated heat, that caused our fatigue but at the same time a lot of happiness.

Galapagos islands
Galapagos Islands

Tips

Take your time, know your limits and move at your own pace. No matter the expectations or the comparable achievements of others, heat and altitude affect different people in different ways. So make sure to listen to your body.

Do your research. Learn as much as possible about animals and their unique properties before you arrive. Limiting yourself to the information provided by the Science Guide will inevitably leave you frustrated. They can only provide snippets and are in charge of informing everyone on the team.

In short, if you want to know more about the tips and travel experiences of the authors of the article, look at Make Them All Trips of a Lifetime.

However, if you want to know more about the culture of other countries, look at outr Blog. 

Authors: D.Marino & J. Malley (Make Them All Trips of a Lifetime)

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