Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Immediately upon arrival in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galápagos, I spent two hours inquiring at every single agency down the main thoroughfare. I beat my previous time, found a reasonable price and a desirable itinerary, played hardball and negotiated a better deal, and I did it all entirely in Spanish. Allow me to toot my own horn here, cause I’m a little proud of myself!

What previous time? Well, the three hours I spent in Ushuaia arranging a last-minute cruise to Antarctica 10 years ago. This time, it’s a last-minute cruise around the Galápagos, a place I would have loved to visit 10 years ago but didn’t have the budget for, naturally, after that rather large expenditure.

So. While I wait for departure, what now? After all, in the Galápagos, it’s all about seeing the animals here, and that can seem somewhat inaccessible.

Cruises aren’t cheap. Unfortunately, that puts them mostly in the realm of foreign visitors — yet to my pleasant surprise, the Galápagos is teeming with domestic visitors from mainland Ecuador. Even without hopping on a cruise, there seems to be plenty of places to go and activities. From the pier in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, boats depart multiple times a day to the other inhabited islands of the Galápagos — Isabela, Cristóbal, Floreana. As much as I’d have liked to stay on those islands, absorbing the slower pace of local life, and making day trips on short tours, I simply didn’t have the time, though I would have done so had I not found a cruise.

Instead, staying local to the surprisingly busy and upscale Puerto Ayora and surrounded by mainlanders, I enjoyed a brief visit to the stunning Tortuga Bay beach, a swim through the canyon of Las Grietas, enjoying some low-key Carnaval celebrations, a scuba dive an hour and a half north of town at Daphne Rock, and of course, a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station, home to a nursery for giant Galápagos tortoises.

Puerto Ayora’s likely gentrified significantly in the last decade or two as a result of the tourism boom — considering current circumstances, it’s still packed full of foreigners, and I’m told that this is half of their normal crowd. Restaurants and bars cater to international tastes and are priced accordingly. Despite that, there’s still very much a local vibe coexisting here: the fish market may attract as many tourists as it does wild sea lions and pelicans, but it’s where the locals still buy their fish. Further away from the water, the streets are quieter and the shops and restaurants more humble; and if that’s not enough, locals move up to the towns in the highlands. But hey, the animals are locals too! Sea lions take up benches, iguanas laze around in piles, sharks enjoy the lit-up dock at night, crabs hug the shoreline, and further up the road, it’s not uncommon to hear of giant tortoise-induced traffic jams.

For a visitor not taking a cruise, honestly, everything above already sounds pretty cool! But the cruise, boy am I glad I had the opportunity of a lifetime here, because that was a whole other level. (And boy am I glad the whole last-minute thing wasn’t a scam: dropping a ton of money in cash only to get a paper receipt scrawled with spelling errors, little to no instructions, a broken promise of transport from town to the rendezvous point, no idea who or what to look for, and not a single identity or receipt check even as we boarded a dinghy that took us to the cruise certainly made me and everyone else who went the last-minute route quite nervous, until we each got our room assignments! Looks like all of this chaos is the norm.)

Over four and a half days, with our guide Oswaldo and 13 other fellow passengers with whom we all bonded quickly, we set off for the far north of Isabela, Fernandina, and Santiago Islands, most days packed full with two two-hour landings and two hour-plus snorkeling trips each! Every single excursion had something exciting, only to be usurped by the next one in some way.

First time snorkeling, bam, sea turtle in 10 seconds. Seventh time snorkeling, you’re surrounded by eight large sea turtles, struggling not to accidentally kick another one (yes I kicked one) when the current pushes all of them and you around unpredictably. First time you see a marine iguana sneeze out seawater on land, you’re fascinated. Then you go to Fernandina Island, where the BBC’s probably filmed plenty of Planet Earth-adjacent content, and there are thousands piled on top of each other. I can hear David Attenborough’s voice narrating in my head as they fight, flirt, play, and dig nests, and as I make up imaginary stories about their situation. Then you go underwater, and they’re casually swimming around, munching on algae, and even grabbing a fellow cruise passenger’s back when the current sweeps them.

With the constant sensory overload, the stops all blurred together. But many simply unforgettable moments stand out, even if I can’t place where they happened: when a giant manta ray swam right underneath me, causing me to inhale a mouthful of seawater by accident. When a flightless cormorant flapped its pathetic little wings in front of me for the first time. When a sea lion swam right up to my face. When we took turns diving under to swim amongst the dozens of reef sharks instead of above them.

None of the animals are afraid of people, and most of them are not only fairly large, but very numerous. Sea lions waddle up to you on land and swim around you playfully underwater – even three at a time. Same goes for penguins — penguins! I never thought I’d get as close to one as I did in Antarctica, and yet here they are, swimming and staring at me in the face both under and over water. Giant tortoises (from which the islands get their name) are chill and up for selfies… or maybe they aren’t because they’re too old and slow (I mean, they live up to 150 years, and many that we saw were likely over 100!), but they seemed chill. Male blue-footed boobies march and male frigates blow up their weird red neck pouch like a balloon to mate…and neither seem to mind when we walk right by, even when the minimum two-metre “social distancing” isn’t possible due to narrow paths.

It’s a credit to conservation efforts then, that animals haven’t had the reason to develop fear of humans. Sure, the tortoise and crab populations have been severely reduced due to previous hunting, much of the vegetation was affected by the introduction of goats, cows, and other livestock; and illegal fishing is still a problem (which increased during the height of the pandemic as tourism dried up) that authorities are tackling, but wildlife and nature are generally recovering. Visitors do behave for the most part and all stay within marked areas, but there is the question of whether it’s still too much of a footprint to be sustainable: there’s the rare but occasional piece of litter, there’s noise and inevitable pollutants from the boats, there’s constant people traffic on the trails as groups alternate their excursions. I fully recognise my own complicity here. I was surprised at how many boats were around even at the most isolated stops on our trip, and again despite this being 50% of normal.

While we ran into a lot of people, we did had plenty of moments of solitude as well, both while on the water and on land. The islands themselves are volcanic (indeed, Volcán Wolf was erupting, its lava flow visibly glowing at night), and landscapes are almost as varied as the wildlife: tidepools, weird tall cacti, steep rock walls, strange formations, perfect white and black sand beaches, brackish lakes. Indeed, we also had a chance to see the Galápagos as Charles Darwin had, with a stop at Tagus Cove, one of the places he landed at in 1835 on his brief five-week expedition to find evidence for his theory of evolution.

While it’s still somewhat speculative how animals even got to the Galápagos in the first place, being so far in the middle of the ocean, the animals do share characteristics with their mainland relatives. But what Darwin saw, as we could as well, were the notable differences of animals between islands of the Galápagos: marine iguanas versus land iguanas, the latter living near volcanoes, having developed a yellow colour to better camouflage with sulphur. Various types of Galápagos tortoises, the domed shell ones having adapted to lower vegetation and saddleback ones able to raise their necks and eat things higher off the ground. (Even the cacti have adapted to this, with cactus trees on islands with less lower vegetation growing a tall trunk with bark instead of leaves closer to the ground, to avoid being eaten by tortoises.) The flightless cormorant, having so much food readily available by diving into the water that their wings to travel eventually became useless. And the finches: over a dozen different species with different beak shapes depending on their food source, while having more in common with mainland American finches than ones living in similar geographic conditions like far-off Cape Verde.

That all of this could happen undisturbed by humans for centuries is something special, the islands having been only been seriously visited starting in the 1790s by sailors who harvested tortoises for long voyages and greatly reduced their population. As I found out though, the human history on the islands is itself stranger than fiction. After the annexation of the islands by Ecuador in 1832, it had trouble getting anyone interested in settling on desolate islands with no infrastructure, until it began encouraging European settlers in the early 1900s with the promise of free land use. Most who took up this offer were probably your loner eccentric hippie types, but some of their descendants remain on the islands to this day.

The first human settlers on Floreana Island in the 1930s included a cheating German couple who left their spouses, moved across the world in search of utopia, removed all their teeth, and walked around naked; another couple who invited themselves in while four months pregnant and needing care, and a polyamorous land-grabbing baroness who disappeared with one of her two lovers, in a possible escape, suicide, or murder. Everyone had contradicting accounts — even now there are only theories and speculation as to what happened — and four of the eight adults wound up dead or gone. (There’s a film about all of this. It’s out there online, and it’s a fascinating watch.)

Various islands were used as penal colonies on and off until the 1950s, where rampant prisoner abuse included the arduous construction of a heavy stone wall for no reason other than punishment, and an eventual revolt of 26 prisoners led to a massacre of guards and destruction of a neighbouring village, an attempted escape on a US Navy ship, a manhunt that ended in Panama, and a resulting political scandal. Whew. That I can barely find any information on this online, having learned this from our guide who grew up in the Galápagos, really shows just how much more there is to this place.

A week was not enough: there’s always more weird stories, more islands to visit, more animals to see. (I missed out on the hammerheads and whale sharks!) And yet it was already almost too much: while beyond what I could have ever imagined, what I thought would be a relaxing cruise turned out to be the most physically intense portion of my entire trip, which was already jam-packed. I’m exhausted! But what a high note to end on — something incredibly fulfilling, engrossing, and with so much more to keep me guessing. It took me 10 years to keep a promise to myself to visit. I’m not making any more promises this time, but I wonder where another 10 years will lead me.

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