Gentedimontagna's Pavia Rosati spent a few action-packed days in the nature wonderland that is the Galapagos Islands.
THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS – The Galapagos Islands may be many things, but they weren't what I was expecting. I suppose it's impossible not to bring the mental equivalent of a steamer trunk full of expectations to a land that exists as much as a myth as a real place. After all, it's not hyperbole to say that the Galapagos Islands loom larger than most destinations in humanity's evolutionary history. Literally: It was here that Charles Darwin did his formative revolutionary thinking and theorizing — and maybe even exploiting, depending who you talk to.
Which may be why I was surprised to find that the Galapagos Islands, for all their wonder and magnitude, are kinda sleepy, modest, and unassuming. I arrived expecting a Mother Nature assault on the senses, the eco equivalent of a marching band honky-tonking through forests — banging drums, blowing horns, and generally exhausting me. Instead, the Galapagos Islands were an old guy strumming a banjo on a rocking chair on the porch. Unforgettable and deep, but quietly so.
And, yes, very, very old. Around here, they spend a lot of time talking about millions of geological years and slow-growing volcanic formations. Time stands still in the Galapagos (but more on the tortoises later), even as its movements are sharp and delineated.
Not that it took me a long time to settle into the rhythms of the islands. And for all the stillness I'm talking about, I had an action-packed trip in the few days I was there. Here's what I did.
IGNORE THE CRUMBLING MILITARY CASINO
We take an early LAN Airlines flight from Guayaquil to Baltra Island, which seems to have nothing on it but the Galapagos airport. On the brief drive through the flat and empty landscape, we get a quick overview from Efren Uribe, the Ecuadorian who will be our excellent guide throughout the islands. He introduces himself as "Soto," which is what everyone calls him. Soto points out the remains of a United States military base that the locals call "Little Panama" and explains that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, the Americans needed a Pacific base and made one here for a few years in the 1940s. There's not much left except a few platforms and the external walls of roofless, small structures, one of which, Soto tells us, used to be the casino.
PONDER THE HORROR OF A LAVA RIVER
We cross the bright green waters of the Itabaca Channel to get to Santa Cruz Island. Since 97 percent of the Galapagos Islands is national park, it's only fitting that our first stop in Santa Cruz is a tortoise preserve. The other three percent consists of towns and farms, which primarily grow avocadoes, orchids, coffee, and citrus for local consumption. The population on Santa Cruz, the most inhabited of the islands, is around 18,000, and most of the food residents eat is imported.
Not so the tortoises, who eat the grass underfoot, roaming freely from farm to park and back for the 200 years of their lives. Experts estimate that before humans arrived, the were some 500,000 tortoises throughout the Galapagos Islands. Their ranks have been reduced to about 40,000 today, and 3,000 of them live on Santa Cruz. Attempts are being made to strengthen their numbers with help from tortoises from nearby Isla Pinzon. But it's a slow-going process: Tortoise lay only 5-15 tennis ball-sized eggs per year. Of those, only 65 percent are fertile, and of those, only four percent survive. The rate is so low because other animals (goats, cats, donkeys, and rats) eat the eggs and the babies. Turtles, by way of comparison, lay 80-100 ping-pong ball-sized eggs annually.
In case you're wondering, no, I'm not an amateur ethnobiologist. But it doesn't take long for everyone to become one down here.
And while I'm teaching this nature class, tortoises are the ones on land; turtles are the ones in the water. I had never bothered to learn this either. (Soto really is an excellent guide.)
The government incentivizes farmers to open their lands to tortoises and tourists, which is why we're now here, on this tortoise preserve, getting to know the hundred or so tortoises roaming around. We get really close to them and could probably reach out and pat them on their shells. They wouldn't mind. Animals in the Galapagos Islands never had a reason to fear humans, so, unlike every other animal on the rest of planet earth, they don't run away when you get close.
But the rule on the Galapagos is to keep a three- to four-foot distance from the animals at all times, so we keep a respectful perimeter, waiting for them to notice us and lift their dinosaur-like heads to pose for a picture. Here, I'll say it: They look exactly like E. T. Totally silly, totally cute.
A farmer has hand-painted a sign indicating the location of an underground tunnel where a lava river once flowed. A rickety staircase leads the way to the dark tunnel about as wide as the two-lane Holland Tunnel (a comparison I don't make at the time). The walls of the cave show the damage that hot lava can do, and we don't venture too far past the areas illuminated by overhead lights. Remarkably, small plants peek through the dank walls, a small example of how nature, left to her own devices, always finds a way.
More on volcanoes, because they're a big deal around here. The Galapagos Islands consist of three groupings of sixteen islands (only five of which are inhabited) formed by volcanic eruptions that occurred as the Nasca tectonic plate moved east against the South American tectonic plate moving west. This collision formed the Andes Mountains on the continent and the islands I'm now standing on. San Cristobal, the largest of the easternmost islands, was formed five million years ago. Santa Cruz, Santiago, and Floreana in the middle were formed three million years ago. Newcomer Isabella, by far the largest island, is merely one million years old. It is shaped like a seahorse and still has live volcanoes. I can't tell which of those two facts is more fascinating.
KAYAK INTO THE SUNSET
The main town town at the end of Santa Cruz Island is Puerto Ayora, and it's from the dock that we take a small taxi to Finch Bay Eco Hotel, a slow, five-minute cruise away. This is our base for the trip, and it's easily the nicest place to stay on the islands. We pass black iguanas hanging out in a big pile on the wall at the property's entrance. For the next three days, I swear they never move.
My garden-view room has two single beds with cheery orange bedspreads. The decor is minimalist wood furniture, nothing fancy but all very functional and, as billed, eco-friendly. This is not a luxurious hotel, but I'm not here for that. I'm here to be outside, so I go.
It's late afternoon and overcast, which is a bummer. I'm reading in the open-air lobby when a tall man walks by and asks, "Are you happy?" And I answer, "Well, obviously." I'm in the middle of a conversation with the fun front desk staff about local attractions when the tall guy comes back and insists that nearby Tortuga Bay is "the most beautiful beach in the world."
"In the WHOLE WORLD?" I ask.
"Yes," he promises. "And you'll have to go while you're here. Do you want to go sea kayaking now?"
"Well, obviously," I reply.
My new friend is Xavier Burbano de Lara, the general manager of Finch Bay. He stops for our kayak at the hotel's sports center on the beach and we slide out into the ocean. We see sea lions sleeping on rocks, blue-footed boobies perching overhead, and a lot of guano (bird shit) on the dark rocks. I want to go into a tunnel but Xavier says, "We don't want to bother the sharks."
Everything is so serene, the oncoming sunset so cloudy and dark. We paddle pretty far out into the sea and stop to wait for the moonrise. It's a fool's errand given the cloud cover, but then it happens. For one split second, I see the big moon through a slit in the sky. It's enough.
RESIST THE MATING CALL OF THE FRIGATE BIRD
The next morning, we make our way to North Seymour Island, which my information packet tells me was "lifted from the ocean floor by a seismic event," which explains its low, flat profile. Crowd control is carefully managed on the Galapagos Islands. You can't really just show up and wing it. You have to be on a boat, usually with a guide, to get around. I'm on a trip that's been organized by Metropolitan Touring, so I don't have to make any arrangements. It's really nice to have a guide as informative as Soto, who brings colorful context to what I'm seeing. We anchor offshore and take a dinghy to the island for our morning walkabout. Frigate birds are everywhere, and they're funny things. The babies are big white puffballs. The adult males are sleek and black, with massive red gullets that they inflate when they're trying to attract a mate. They perch there, showing off their two-meter wingspan and puffed necks, waiting for action. It's late in the mating seasons so the remaining single females are picky, though with good reason. The male frigates preening on nestles branches are known in birdland to be the cheaters. The females move on.
I spot a few blue-footed boobies clinging to the rocks, but I don't find them as intesting as the frigates. People talk a lot about these animals, but maybe it's because they make for kitchy souvenir T-shirts about boobies.
TUMBLE — HARD — FOR THE SEA LIONS
North Seymour Island is covered in a marked path for visitors to follow. It's subtle crowd management, because the "crowd" is no more than a few dozen people on the whole island. And we're easily outnumbered by the sea lions playing on the rocks at the edge of the water. They're the opposite of the aloof frigates, all flippers akimbo and big eyes staring up at you. Everyone who sees them is mesmerized by the overwhelming cuteness. Do you want to play fetch, little guy? Do you want me to pick you up for a cuddle? Or maybe I'll just stand here and snap a million photos while you bark and yip, rolling all over your pals in a splish-splashy pile. Soto points at a duo removed from the rest. "A baby," he says. "You can still see the umbilical cord attached." And so I could — baby nuzzling and mamma patting his little baby head. Reader, yes, you know what happened: My heart melted.
TEACH AN IGUANA A COBRA POSE
We skipper over to Las Bachas, a white coral beach where turtles come to lay eggs and people come to swim and sit on an empty beach. I'm told we're on the northern tip of Santa Cruz but it feels like a deserted island. I see the trails turtles leave to the top of the dunes and the holes they dig for their nests, but I don't see the flamingoes, who, to my total disappointment, have decided to stay home today. I try to console myself by watching the crabs swarming on the rocks, impossibly bright little things in brilliant shades of red, orange, and purple. The animals on the Galapagos aren't shy, but the crabs really don't like to stand still.
Not so the marine iguana I spy at the base at the edge of the water line. He's just sits there doing what iguanas do, baking in the sun. I know this move: He may as well be an old Italian-American guy sitting in a deck chair getting a tan in Boca Raton. I lie down next to him and pretend I'm teaching him the cobra yoga pose. Because I'm so funny, that's why.
SWIM WITH THE SHARKS
The next morning, we head over to Plazas Island and shimmy into wetsuits for an open sea snorkel and, we're promised, sharks. And frankly, I'm skeptical. The fish aren't plentiful, but I'm distracted by the incredibly beautiful little creatures clinging to the rocks in close clusters. They're anemones, and they look like a kaleidoscope of miniature Christmas trees, one-inch in height, purple with pink trim, yellow with blue trim. When I touch them, the snap shut, and a neon yellow tail is all that remains. It is so exquisite, gentle, and stunning. I could stay here for hours. I wish I had an underwater camera. I wish I could draw.
And then I see it, a white-tip shark some 30 feet below me on the ocean floor. Yay, a shark! He's cruising along, and I decide to follow, grateful for the fins I'm wearing. To my great surprise, I keep up with him for a good five minutes. He doesn't do much that's interesting, though after all this time together I think he really should come to surface and introduce himself. He doesn't, but it's okay. We shared a moment.
FLIRT WITH BACHELOR SEA LIONS
The next stop is South Plaza Island on the northeastern coast of Santa Cruz. Incredible views out on the ocean. Underfoot is a dazzling carpet of red vegetation — sesuvium succulents, I will later learn — but everyone is totally distracted by the sea lions. We've walked into a colony of men, angry men who get into territorial battles. Stay away from my shady perch, buddy, they seem to be saying, or suffer the consequences of my loud roar and my fierce flipper upside your face. The sea lions totally ignore each other in loner isolation on the other side of the island, where the bachelors sea lions perch, nap, and presumably dream about the waves crashing below.
The sun is hot and my scarlet skin is starting to match the landscape (travel advisory: SPF 30 is not nearly enough). We walk the entire island, trying to spot the land iguanas that blend into the landscape and red-billed tropicbirds ignoring the rough winds whipping onto their beaks. Many rocks are slick, having been polished by who knows how many centuries of sea lions rubbing their oily bellies as they pass.
After a few hours of this, we sail back down to Puerto Ayora, a three-hour journey that I pass pretending I'm a sea lion, napping in the windy sunshine.
SLURP THE CEVICHE
My friend Gaby had been here a few months earlier. She knows how I feel about food, so she tells me I have to go find Domingo, the man who runs a small ceviche shack in Puerto Ayora. Xavier also knows him and asks me to try to bring him back to Finch Bay for dinner.
The directions are perfectly small-town sketchy: Go down the street near the port with a souvenir shop on the right. Domingo is on the left. But I find him easily and we spend an hour together. A former businessman from a town north of Quito, Ecuador, Domingo came to trade in the Galapagos forty years ago, when no one really lived here. After four visits, he settled down, and has since been making his incredible wahoo ceviche every morning, letting it sit for four hours before serving it. He's the father of eight. The oldest is 53 and the youngest is 20, a student in Costa Rica. He's not interested in coming to Finch Bay, he tells me. "Too fancy for me."
JUMP OFF A CLIFF
I go back to Finch Bay with a few hours of daylight left and an itch to do something more. My final expedition is to Las Grietas, another tip from Gaby. The only thing I know is that it's a gap in the rocks about a mile away from Finch Bay and that it's pretty. I put on my bathing suit, thinking I might want to jump in the pool on my return. And it's a good thing I did: Las Grietas turned out to be a swimming hole formed between two rock formations, and I would have kicked myself forever had I not gone into the water here.
I follow the path past a salt farm where I stop to play with a ridiculously cute German shepherd puppy who slobbers all over me. It's getting dark, and that's the only reason I'm not still sitting there with the pooch. When I get to Las Grietas, I clamber down into the gulch and befriend the group of twentysomethings who are there: a local kid called Juan, two Australian college guys, and two American girls who produce concerts. The guys are on the rocks at the base, one of the girls is in the water, and the other is standing on the jumping platform midway up the rock face, back plastered against the wall. She's scared to jump in, but, having climbed up this high, she has no choice: There's no other way down. Everyone is trying to give her a pep talk, but she's having none of it. Juan probably doesn't help matters by climbing to the top of the cliff and diving from double the height. I take off my shorts and get into the water, ready for the challenge.
And it's a challenge all right: I have to scale a slippery rock face with no ropes and bare feet, wearing nothing but a bikini. I make it to the platform, if we can call a tiny base a platform, and tell the girl that the anxiety that she's putting herself through is so much worse than the jump will be.
Still, I look down. I'm at least twenty feet from the water below, and that water is dark. I try not to consider the fact that: a. I've never jumped off a cliff, b. that the nearest hospital is hours away, and c. that I'm walking around without ID, money, or anything other than a camera and an iPhone. But it's okay, I tell myself, because the travel gods live to take care of people in moments like this. I ask the guys if they'd be nice enough to take a picture, and they offer to take photos and a video of my jump. The kindness of strangers: Just like that, I have a whole video team.
"Hold on to your boobs," the girl in the water tells me. "Or it will sting like hell when you land."
The jump was a thrill and the water felt amazing. I'm glad I have the pictures, but they don't do the experience justice. It's getting dark. The scared girl finally jumps and we all set back together, comparing Galapagos notes, the guys trying to figure out if they haggled enough for the tour they were going on the following day. "You're staying here?" one of the guys says when we get to Finch Bay. "Damn. Can I stay over? We're at the hostel in town." This is the conversation I had every day when I backpacked around Europe when I was 20 and unfortunately never have anymore.
SAVE SOMETHING FOR NEXT TIME
I never made it to Tortuga Bay. I ran out of time. But it's important not to exhaust the options when you travel. You need something to come back for.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Fly: I flew into tiny Seymour Airport (GPS) on LAN Airlines, connecting from Quito to Guayaquil.
Galapagos Logistics: It's really nice to have your guide and transportation taken care of. Metropolitan Touring can make all the arrangements.