Touring the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

If you are going to come all the way to the Galapagos Islands, you had better like nature. And hiking. And climbing over fields of lava rock. And sea lions, iguana, sea turtles and tortoises. And weird and interesting landscapes. You should not come here if you are looking for the amenities of civilization, like lots of fancy ethnic eating, dance clubs, Starbucks and skyscrapers.

They do try to cater to our tastes but it’s not the same. I ordered pizza for dinner the other night. The sausage was unspiced, the pepperoni uninspiring, the sauce nothing to brag about. There is “Tex-Mex” food which is pretty good. Just don’t expect much in the way of other types of cuisine. You can get sushi, but most other ethnic food except for Ecuadorian food is not available.

If you know anything about the Galapagos Islands, you will know that it is largely uninhabited. This is by design but it’s also something of a necessity, as it doesn’t make a great place for human habitation. Just 35,000 people live here in the Galapagos in three “port” cities, the biggest of which we are in at the moment: Puerto Ayora, on the south side of Isle Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is roughly equivalent to Oahu without of many of its amenities, except for palm trees and volcanos. Puerto Ayora has 12,000 of the islands’ 35,000 people. This makes it roughly as big as the village I live in (Florence, Massachusetts), and the population of the entire Galapagos Islands roughly the size of the city of Northampton, Massachusetts in which my village resides.

Puerto Ayora tries its best to compensate. It has a beautiful marina, and the streets are lined with tourist related businesses. There are many shops selling day trips to the islands. There are also a decent number of restaurants. Without the tourist trade, it would be economically devastated. It’s mostly Americanos who come here, but many from mainland Ecuador come here too, as it is their primary place of escape.

It’s pretty easy to transact commerce even without knowing a word of Spanish. The merchants at least know just enough to get by, and since it usually involves dickering over price, they will often use a calculator to show their asking price. You might as well dicker over the price. It is generally expected, except at restaurants. There are some bars and nightclubs here too, but not too many as not too many are needed. You got to get away from the marina to find things like grocery stores and pharmacies.

If for some reason you want to move here, that’s virtually impossible. Even mainland Ecuadorians can’t move here. They want to keep the islands as natural as possible and really these islands would have a hard time supporting much more of a population. Your only hope is to marry a native Galapagos Islands resident. And then you would have to be temperamentally disposed to live around here without most of the amenities you may be used to. Moreover, prices are often high here. A pair of Levi jeans will cost you more than $100, a bottle of sunscreen more than $25. So a lot of residents wait for trips to the mainland or to the United States to stock up on these essentials, bringing back with them much more than they left with. The only bargain I found here so far was a local laundry service, found behind a small gate along a cinder block lined pathway. Total cost to clean nine days of sweaty clothes: $7.90.

So enjoy your time in the Galapagos Islands, just remember it will be short lived. There are always other islands to visit and hike, but many are far away and hard to get to. So instead take advantage of the nature close at hand, which includes a lot of sea lions. It’s hard not to find them as they will often be lounging on wharfs, beaches and rocks along the coast. They are certainly cute to look at with their tiny ears and big eyes, even if they are often in your way when you want to go somewhere.

Sailing the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

The good and predominantly Mormon citizens of Utah (or more specifically, its politicians) are doing their best to tear up the state, replacing bucolic vistas of cacti, mesa and desert flora with strip mines, particularly near national monuments like Bears Ears. This is an obscenity, but Utah is hardly alone among red states. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration seems determined to kill nature and thus kill all of us by opening up federal lands to private interests and putting more pollutants into the air … part of its “culture of life”, I suppose.

So perhaps it’s not surprising then that we are seeking out what nature is left, the more natural, the better. Specifically we are sailing among the Galapagos Islands, which are a few hundred miles west of Ecuador on the equator.  Around the time I was born, Ecuador decided to turn these islands into a giant ecological preserve and national park. They were betting that leaving it unadulterated was smarter than populating and exploiting it. Maybe before it’s gone, the citizens of Utah will also realize to leave well enough alone too.

Isabela Island, the Galapagos
Isabela Island, the Galapagos

Utah has one advantage the Galapagos do not: it’s easier and cheaper for tourists to get to. You have to really really want to visit the Galapagos Islands to go there.  Ecuador deliberately makes visting these islands hard. There are no international flights here, so you must connect through Ecuador’s international airports. You also need a tourist pass, which costs $100 per person and there are often other fees as well. Cruise ships don’t come here; Ecuador won’t allow them. So to see the islands you have to find a licensed tour operator. There aren’t many, which makes it a pricey vacation.

If you want what amounts to a cruise like we do, you end up on a large yacht, in our case the Coral I (which sails with a sister ship, the Coral II). Don’t call the Coral I a cruise ship. It’s less than 130 feet long, and handles just 38 passengers plus a dozen crew. There are no slot machines on board, and no fancy waiters with white linen napkins hanging from their arms either. Instead you get buffet meals and you had better be on time. Breakfast is usually served at 0715, lunch at 1230 and dinner at 1830, generally in the dining room toward the bow of the ship. Ship time amounts to -5 GMT, instead of -6 GMT used in the islands, which allow them to extend daylight into more tourist-friendly hours. There is no evening entertainment except a briefing by one of the naturalists on the next day’s activities. There is a tour or two during the day on one of the islands, and one or more opportunities for snorkeling either over open water or on a beach.

While the crew of the Coral I do their best to give you a good experience, it’s not Royal Caribbean. Cabins are small compared with cruise ships. Keep your expectations modest. It’s what’s outside that you are paying for. I went snorkeling twice in deep water, swam by two famous Galapagos sea turtles and under a pelican’s feet. Once I got on the dinghy just in time to see a shark circling nearby. Fortunately, they don’t bite humans.

Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos
Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos

These islands of course are known for the many uniquely adapted species. The naturalist Charles Darwin posited his famous Theory of Evolution by making careful observations of differences in similar species on different islands. Darwin is a rock star here. He has a volcano and lake named after him and a research institute that we’ll visit later in our tour. Herman Melville, a real life whaler as well as writer found inspiration for Moby Dick here, where whales were plentiful. For a time in the 19th century near Darwin Lake the cliffs ran red with whale blood from all the whale slaughtering. For what looks like a pretty dry, volcanic and arid area, the wildlife is quite abundant. On a hike we had a hard time not stepping on all the iguanas around us. Only here in the Galapagos can they swim and sneeze salt. They have adapted.

I expected these islands to be smallish and kind of squat, but they are not. They have mountains here, if you consider mountains to be a five hundred meters high or so. There are also plentiful sheer cliffs, usually inhabited by creatures in close proximity to each other. I didn’t expect to see a whole lot of green but there is more than I thought, particularly at higher elevations. I did not realize that these islands all have volcanos, and most are have active volcanos. New land is being created every day around here. You don’t see volcano cones, but you do sometimes see fissures on the sides of mountains with steam venting out of them, making them look like clouds. You also see what looks like frozen black rivers falling off cliffs and into the sea: igneous rock that was once lava. There isn’t much in the way of beaches, but those that exist are mostly black sand from all the volcanic activity. It’s not hard to find areas strewn with lava boulders and fissures.

As islands go, the Galapagos Islands are rather new. Volcanic eruptions have joined some of them together over the millennia. Eventually, they will probably become one larger landmass. Unlike Hawaii where land is being created eastward, here they are being created westward. Some of the older eastern islands are slowly disappearing into the sea. It’s a world that is evolving with astonishing speed, in both geological and biological terms.

In mankind’s quest to ruin the planet, we are also destroying species and decimating the population of those species that remain. In my short sixty-something years I have already seen the change: the outside is a quieter place. I am rarely swarmed by insects or have a hard time hearing over the birds chirping anymore. Here in the Galapagos Islands though nature is still abundant, thanks to its isolation and Ecuador’s insistence that it will stay that way.

Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos
Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos

The Galapagos are remote in the best sense of the word and largely unspoiled. The equatorial sun shines intensely all year here. The nights have zero light pollution, making it an excellent place to see stars if clouds disappear. I am unfamiliar with southern constellations. Here you can see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, but not necessarily at the same time.

The wildlife is largely inured to us human visitors. Most have no natural predators, which means they get to live in something of an animal Eden. The many sea lions spend most of their time basking on rocks or diving into shallow pools fed by incoming tides. The sea lions are often playful. We were watched curiously by a young sea lion as we got off our dinghy to walk a path over a boulder strewn beach. You will find blue-footed boobies sitting on a crag of rock next to some vertically hanging crabs, that are adjacent to iguana, penguins (some actually slighlty north of the equator) and sea lions.

Next, four days of day tours from a nice hotel before we fly home. It’s been nice to disconnect from politics for five days. Well, not entirely. I’ve been reading Michele Obama’s biography Becoming and am surprised to find that it’s very well written and quite a page turner. It’s worthy of a future blog post.