It started with a conversation over a few pints: “How are we going to celebrate our … birthdays?”… “Let’s take a trip,” I suggested.
After intense negotiations – hiking in Bolivia (too much work), sailing the British Virgin Islands (not enough work), a village trek in Scotland (too many hangovers) – five of us settled on the Galapagos Islands: home of my only travel regret.
Several years earlier, I was in Ecuador for a rain-forest excursion and had plenty of time to explore the site of Charles Darwin’s famous observations, which culminated in the classic On The Origin of Species. Lacking the benefit of hindsight and a comfort level with debt, I declined the opportunity, believing the cost to be extravagant. I have regretted it ever since.
The Galapagos Islands, located 1,000 kilometres west of mainland Ecuador, have a long and rich history. The first recorded discovery was in 1535, and in 1570 the 19 islands earned their name after the thousands of giant tortoises that roamed their shores. The islands were used on and off by sailors and pirates, mostly as a stopover to hunt whales and store tortoises for food, until 1832, when the first formal settlement was established.
Then came Darwin in 1835. His visit would lead to a new theory of evolution, and nearly 200 years later, the site continues to draw scientists and curious onlookers to the home of his greatest triumph. …
I felt like I’d really arrived in the Galapagos on the second day of our weeklong boat cruise. After flying from Quito to San Cristobal island a day earlier, we boarded our 20-passenger ship, the Letty, and took a quick cruise around a dramatic formation called Kicker Rock. But a cancelled swim with sea lions because of stormy seas had dampened our spirits.
Then the events of Day 2 more than made up for the disappointment. We woke up on the shores of Genovesa Island, having travelled overnight. After breakfast, we donned wetsuits and snorkel gear, and plunged into the cool waters, where we swam with an array of tropical fish, coral, colourful starfish and sea urchins. The water was stunningly clear, with new sights everywhere you looked, and our guides, Jeanette and “Pepe” (his nickname was his preference), got their first taste of our reluctance to get back in the dinghies.
We went ashore later that morning and out came the cameras. … Up “Prince Philip’s Steps” we went (he had visited the site in the 1960s). What we saw at the top made my jaw drop: birds. We were practically surrounded. The famous red-footed boobies – yes, I’ve heard them all – and Nazca boobies. It wasn’t just their strange, otherworldly looks that captured my attention, it was the fact they just sat there next to the hiking trails as our group walked by that amazed me.
I’d heard all the stories about the wildlife of the Galapagos, and the complete lack of fear of humans. But it’s one thing to hear about, another to experience. The birds stared intently at us, as though we were the first people they had ever encountered. We were able to crouch next to them, observe them closely, take their pictures, examine their nests, even catch glimpses of their eggs when they stood up to stretch. “This is incredible,” I kept repeating. …
There’s nothing quite like snorkelling in the ocean, watching rays “float” below you, while you’re surrounded by schools of angelfish and parrotfish, when out of nowhere, a sea lion swims toward you and stares you down, face to face mask. …
The most spectacular swim of the trip took place off the shore of Isabela Island on Day 3, when within a one-hour period we saw sea turtles, sea horses, sea lions, bull-headed sharks, chocolate-chip starfish (yellow with black spots) and cormorants and Galapagos penguins taking a dip. To top the day off, as we sailed toward Santiago Island, the sun was setting in spectacular fashion as a school of minke whales broke the surface next to the ship.
It was a week of daily wonders: barren, beautiful landscapes; stunning vistas; naturally formed lava tunnels; blowholes spraying water 15 metres into the air; marine iguanas, often in packs of hundreds, spitting out excess salt; red crabs scampering along rocky shorelines; white-tipped reef sharks; huge marble stingrays and albatrosses performing their mating rituals.
The list seems endless. It was everything I expected from a visit to the Galapagos, and more.”