If adventure travel to remote locales is for you then the Galápagos Islands is a must for your bucket list. If, on the other hand, you enjoy cruising, then the Galápagos should still be on your list. How you see it is up to you, but seeing it, is a must.
I flew from Quito to Baltra, the airport island which is two hours away, and wondered if I could spend an entire week in such a remote place. I had planned to go to certain islands, some not accessible by cruise ships, so I stayed at a 3 unit motel (Focus on Scugog, October, 2009) and, by small boat, visited a different island each day.
The Galápagos Islands were formed when two tectonic plates collided and crumbled to form the minuscule land masses in the middle of the Pacific. They were so remote that species of wildlife mutated to adapt to the climate and terrain. Of course these islands were the centre of controversy when Charles Darwin stopped there and began to study the habitation, eventually creating his controversial, Origin of the Species.
Each of the 19 islands is unique. The inhabitants and Eco system is so sensitive that the government takes extreme precaution in keeping it as pristine as possible. When you board the plane in Quito, Ecuador, they check your belongings and tell you not to take any food with you. When you land they check you again and any food products, no matter how well they are packaged are tossed. If you are caught breaking any rules, such as straying off paths, littering, feeding or touching the wildlife you will be asked to leave and banned from future visits and your guide can lose their license.
No one in their right mind would want to pet an iguana, but these creates are without natural predators so they simply sit and wait for you to step over them or snap their photos. Birds are just as tame and stepping over various species, nesting on the ground, is quite an experience.
I stayed on Santa Cruz, a sizeable island with about 20,000 inhabitants. Each morning at dawn I left my motel and met the ship’s captain for the day's adventure. I say ship, but please appreciate it held at most five or six people and was no more than 10 metres (30 feet) long and was quite small amid the three to five meter swells (fortunately we did not encounter any storms).
The trip I took was one of the best I have been on and I cannot begin to share all the sights I experienced. There were marine iguanas, which had evolved over time with webbed feet and an ability to hold their breath for great lengths of time. Lying on the ground face to face with these mammals will assure you top quality photos, and it is sometimes difficult to remember they are wild and may snap at you without warning.
Sea lions are also a species which is abundant in the Galápagos. When you are snorkeling you will be tempted to grab one by the fin and go for a ride, but I would not recommend it. One thing you will quickly get used to (or not) is the stench of hundreds of sea lions basking on the warm rocks (sea lions have ears, seals don’t… who knew?).
Turtles and tortoises have inhabited these islands for millions of years (turtles go in the water whereas tortoises live on land). In the days of pirates these mammals were nearly hunted to extinction, as they possess a unique ability to live six months or more when confined to the hull of a ship. Having them on board would ensure sailors were always guaranteed fresh meat. Fortunately the species has made a comeback and is starting to thrive once again.
The Darwin Centre is located on Santa Cruz Island and is a refuge and sanctuary for creatures that make their home on the Galápagos Islands. Until recently it was also the home of 'George' a 150 year old turtle who was the last of his species. A $10,000 reward was offered by the Centre to any organization, country or person who could find a successful mate for George, but, alas, none was found and when George passed on last year, so did his bloodline.
I had the pleasure of visiting Daphne Island. There are only ten trips per year and they have to be groups of 5 or less. After circling the island several times in an effort to find a place to land, the captain finally launched a small dingy and we paddled our way to the shore. The sight of the shark fins in the water was shocking, but quickly overcome by the two meter slopes we had to climb to get onto the island. It was an adventure, but one well worth the effort.
Daphne Island is covered in masked Boobie birds, which simply sit on the ground and stare at you with a 'what on earth are you doing here?' expression. The island is also the nesting ground for the red throated frigate bird. The climb was steep and the crushed lava made walking treacherous, but it was all worthwhile, with memories to cherish forever.
The longest trip I took was three and a half hours to San Cristóbal Island. The waves were a good 5 to 6 meters high, but the visit was amazing. Unique rock formations and hundreds of marine mammals made this a paradise, a meaningful visit.
I seldom promote personal accomplishments in this column, but for those who are interested I have published a 60 page colour book with the story of the Galapagos as well as dozens of my photographs. I mention this because a portion of the profit goes to the Darwin centre. For more information please email me at email@example.com.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com