You can “do” the Galapagos right. Or you can “do” the Galapagos wrong.
We did it wrong.
Which is to say, we did it on the cheap. Ouch! Big mistake. But more of that later.
The Galapagos archipelago is unique. And utterly wonderful.
It consists of 13 major islands that straddle the equator and covers an area of 45,100 sq. km of ocean, 1,000 km west of mainland Ecuador.
The land here is dramatically contoured and relatively young — only 5 million years old. But it is not the raw volcanic beauty of the place that draws the ecotourist legions from around the world. Nor its glorious pristine beaches. It is the wild life.
Here one finds animals, plants, birds and fish that occur nowhere else. All originally came from the American mainland. Some flew. Others, like the giant tortoises, actually floated over. They then evolved to meet the new challenges and opportunities the predator-free islands had to offer.
The marine iguana, for example, discovered an ingenious way of exploiting seaweed. Raw, the stuff is inedible. The iguana’s solution is to swim about, fill its stomach and then haul up on sun-soaked rocks. Its dark body acts as a solar oven. When the seaweed has cooked, digestion commences.
The famous “Darwin finches” that inspired the British naturalist’s theory of evolution all descended from the same species. There are now 13 species, each adapted to eating a particular food, be it seeds, insects or, in the case of the vampire finch, sea lion blood. Two finch species have even developed the knack of tool-use.
|Marine iguanas, above, share a seaside spot alongside a bachelor sea lion, while a land iguana (below) stakes out a perch of its own.|
The Galapagos cormorant arrived by air, but after noticing the super-abundance of fish and bioluminescent squid, decided that flying was a waste of energy. It still has little nubby wings, but there hasn’t been an airborne Galapagos cormorant for millennia.
From the visitor’s perspective one trait shared by virtually all the archipelago’s residents is particularly striking — fearlessness.
The blue-footed booby birds ignore you, the lava lizards couldn’t give a hoot, the islands’ 14 giant tortoise species are massively immune to human presence (if you actually see one move it’s a miracle), and if you fall asleep on a beach you are likely to wake up with sally lightfoot crabs clustering colorfully on your chest.
The seas around the Galapagos are the coldest in the equatorial region due to upwelling currents. Temperatures range between 10 C and 23 C. Snorkeling can be a brisk, shivery affair, but the most extraordinary close encounters of the marine kind more than compensate for one’s goose bumps.
The numerous sea lions are playful and curious and frequently approach swimmers. Be prepared to be dive-bombed by speeding penguins. The Galapagos penguin is the only species of penguin to inhabit the Northern Hemisphere and in the sea around their rookeries they zoom recklessly about, trailing bubbles like sleek torpedoes.
Every visitor to the Galapagos will see sea turtles on the surface, flapping their way through the inter-island channels like fat men doing backstroke. Under the water, by contrast, the turtles are elegance incarnate, as are the huge schools of harmless hammerhead sharks. These fish use their heads as hydroplanes and can turn around within the lengths of their bodies.
Dolphins are abundant here, as are sperm whales.
And here’s the thing. You actually see them! Mind you, you’ll see more of them if you do Galapagos right.
Cheapskates like ourselves take one cursory look at all the boat-based tours and think, “Three grand for 10 days? Gimme a break! What kind of chumps do they take us for?” They then fly half-way around the world to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, confident that they’ll be able to arrange everything themselves at bargain-basement rates.
If they’re really dumb they then time their arrival to coincide with preparations for Quito’s New Year Carnival, when everyone in this beautiful colonial city dons monster masks and goes into a berserk (if good-natured) frenzy.
If they’re extremely lucky, after scouring the streets in search of a travel agent, they’ll find one who isn’t dressed as the devil, hasn’t ingested 10 liters of aguardiente and who can fix them up with the cheapest way of doing the Galapagos: “the land-based tour.”
“Land-based” is right. Thrifty travelers will then find themselves in a hotel in the undistinguished town of Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora is an intriguing place in that it is located at the opposite end of the island to the channel where the tourist boats depart. The road is washboard. And long.
Land-based tourists get to know this road rather well. Another drawback to day trips is that a lot of the Galapagos islands are hundreds of kilometers away.
“What did you do in the Galapagos?” they’ll be asked when they get home.
To which they will reply (if they’re being honest), “A lot of commuting.”
No, go with the boat-based tours. For one thing they do a lot of interisland travel at night. For another, many are accompanied by naturalist guides who can actually speak English and know what they’re talking about.
Choose your boat carefully. Big boats tend to offer more in the way of onboard luxury. Better cuisine. Roses in the dining room. Libraries. Bars.
The trade-off is that there are more people, more logistical faffing around as all the travelers get organized for landings and, of course, more humanity sharing your island once you have landed.
If admiring the courtship throat inflations of a frigate bird in the company of 70 American retirees to the chorus of “Isn’t the little guy tame!” strikes you as the wrong way to do the Galapagos, it might be as well to make discreet inquiries as to your boat’s clientele before making a booking.
Small boats sometimes dispense with frivolities such as laundry service and showers. They are also more intimate. Again this can be good or bad. Check the clientele. Small boats can also land in shallow harbors, and, by popular demand, change itineraries.
Think ahead, shop around, check the activities, be thorough. Don’t blow it.
Galapagos is a place that deserves to be done right!