When our snorkeling guide popped up to yell “hammerhead,” my question was, do I swim towards him or away? Unfortunately, I didn’t see the 15-foot shark underneath my flippers, but was pleased to know we shared space in the pristine waters of the Galápagos Islands.
“They’re shy,” the guide said when we were safely back in the zodiac. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to the sight of a sea creature longer than our rubber raft, but I was thrilled nonetheless. My desire to have close encounters with the animal kingdom was fulfilled each day as I met the unique wildlife of this magical archipelago “face to face.” I swam with curious sea turtles who posed for my underwater camera, frolicked underwater with a family of sea lions, hiked over volcanic rock to bask in the sun with lazy iguanas, and kayaked below steep cliffs where blue-footed boobies nest. One of the most spectacular moments I experienced was when a gang of rare Galápagos penguins chased a school of panicky fish right beneath my snorkel mask.
For adventure travelers, environmentalists and animal lovers, the Galápagos are a dream destination. Although tourism is heavily regulated, visitors may book travel by land or sea. The Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation work together to safeguard the more than 200 islands and islets. They limit visitors by ship to 150,000 annually. For our adventure, my husband and I chose a 95-passenger vessel, The Silver Galapagos.
Our journey began at 9,350 feet in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We toured the city’s Old Town, a UNESCO cultural heritage site, and enjoyed a symphonic performance at la Compañía, the Spanish Baroque church that glitters with seven tons of gold. Other attractions included a shopping trip to the Mariscal Aristan Market, a visit to the Museo Guayasamín, home of the legendary painter Oswaldo Guayasamín, and an afternoon at the Middle of the World Monument where we straddled the equator, one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern.
In Quito, we dined on local specialties such as ceviche, empanadas, fritadas, and tres leches cake, but didn’t have the courage to try the local specialty “cuy” or guinea pig.
And then it was time to enter the magical world of the Galápagos. After flights to Guayaquil and on to San Cristobal Island, we boarded the ship and sailed away. I learned quickly this was not be a stereotypical cruise with lounge singers, spa treatments or casinos. It felt more like a week at summer camp. Up early to catch a zodiac to the first hike of the day, back to change into a wetsuit for a morning snorkel, back shipside for a seafood lunch on deck, back out for the afternoon’s nature walk, then back on board for dinner under the stars; no time for bingo or cabaret shows. One memorable evening’s entertainment featured a well-choreographed ballet of sharks and sea lions chasing flying fish illuminated by the ship’s running lights.
Between daily tours, expert guides lectured passengers on the natural, human, and wildlife history of this protected area. They spoke of the islands’ geology, Charles Darwin’s famous voyage on the HMS Beagle, and the theory of evolution. To read about a Darwin finch is one thing, to see one in the wild makes natural selection come alive.
On the island of Bartholome, we trekked up to the summit of a volcanic mountain past lava tubes and lazy lizards. Our guide pointed out a snake trail that was visible for weeks because these islands remain basically untouched. Footprints are known to last up to five years. He also mentioned that scenes from the movie Master and Commander were filmed in the bay below our majestic vista.
Before we stopped on the island of Floreana, we watched another movie, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. This melodrama complete with a German baroness and her three lovers documented murder, sex and mayhem in 1920s Galápagos.
When we reached Floreana, our guide took us to the Post Office Barrel, a makeshift wooden mailbox constructed in the late eighteenth century. Homesick sailors put their missives in the barrel and hoped the next ship would pick up and deliver them. To recreate this clever postal system, we left postcards addressed to our family in Colorado and retrieved those left from the previous ship. It worked.
On the island of Santa Cruz, we visited the Llerena Breeding and Interpretation Center and Giant Tortoise Ecological Reserve. We walked alongside giant tortoises that lumbered freely through the tropical terrain, munched on juicy guava fruit, and cooled themselves in algae-covered ponds.
A short walk to the town of Puerto Ayora brought us to the Charles Darwin Research Center where scientists, educators, and volunteers from all over the world work to conserve, restore and sustain the archipelago. Here, we learned how baby tortoises are raised, protected from predators, and later repatriated to their island of origin. The exhibit that moved me most was a glass enclosure that held the body of “Lonesome George,” a Pinta Island Tortoise who died at just over 100 years old. The last of his species, George is a stark reminder of the urgent need for environmental protection.
Charles Darwin called the Galápagos “a little world within itself.” For those fortunate to visit, this world leaves a lasting impression.
January to June: 70 to 80F
July to December: from 65 to 75F
Dry Season: from June to December with cooler temperatures
Wet Season: from December to May with warmer temperatures
11 species of giant tortoises
3 species of large lizards
85 species of birds
26 endemic species among the islands including Darwin’s finches, Galápagos giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and Galápagos penguins. This is the only place on earth to see these animals in their natural habitat.
Required travel documents (as of 2017)
Round trip airline ticket form either Quito or Guayaquil
Hotel, land tour, or cruise reservations matching dates of flight
Passport valid for at least six months after return date
Transit Control Card issued by the Counsil of the Government of the Galápagos Regime (acquired in either Quito or Guayaquil Airports)
Galápagos National Park Rules for visitors
Use only authorized tour operators and/or boats
Visitors must use naturalist guides authorized by the Galápagos National Park Directorate
Do not introduce any foreign elements into the ecosystem
Do not feed the wildlife
Keep a distance of at least six feet away from the wildlife
Do not remove any elements from the ecosystem
Do not buy products or souvenirs made from local flora or fauna
Dispose of all trash and/or recyclable waste in designated containers
Camping allowed only in designated areas
Smoking and fires are strictly prohibited
Motorized or aquatic recreational vehicles are not allowed
No drone or flash photography
Stay within marked trails at all times
What to pack
Light-colored, loose-fitting clothing
Reef walker shoes
Camera with extra memory cards
What to read before you go
Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner
Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut
The Galápagos: A Natural History by Henry Nicholls
What to watch before you go
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013) starring Kate Blanchett
Freelance writer Joey Porcelli lives in Golden, when she’s not travelling the world looking for adventure. Author of two dining guides and a history of the Denver Film Festival, Porcelli teaches memoir at the Arvada Center for the Arts & Humanities. She is working on her second novel.
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