Other photos of the Galapagos



Baltra Island; Darwin Research Station & Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island; Espanola, Santa Maria, Santa Cruz,             

Baltra, Rabida, Fernandina, San Salvador, Isabela, Santa Cruz

May 2004       


The dark shape darted straight at our snorkel masks, veering away at the last possible moment. Here it came again. And again...turning, swerving and passing us just out of reach. A sleek young sea lion was playing with us! To our utter delight, 500 years of human contact haven't been long enough for the creatures of the Galapagos Islands to evolve a fear of humans. 


After last year's disappointing postponement of our South American trip (due to Joan's tuberculosis - contracted on some exotic trip or other), we were so excited to be - at last - in the fabled islands of Charles Darwin's inspiration. But riding from the airport to our Galapagos cruise ship, we thought we'd caught a flight to Hawaii by mistake. The soft air, red dirt and lush vegetation (bananas, hibiscus, crotons, ti and palms) reminded us of the Hawaiian archipelago. At times, we thought we were traveling through lush, upcountry Hawaii and at other times in dry, volcanic Haleakala crater.


Because our ship was being cleaned and re-fueled between cruises, we were taken from the airport straight to the Charles Darwin Research Center. This plan upset one European so much that he loudly demanded to be taken directly to his "luxury cabine" on the boat and not "dragged around on land when he'd paid for a cruise!" The rest of the passengers were quietly appalled at his behavior, but an obliging guide agreed to take him directly to his ship. Later we giggled at the thought that he'd spent the whole afternoon on the boat with the cleaning crew, lifting his feet as they vacuumed. (One of the downsides of travel is encountering the occasional boorish tourist. Fortunately, this guy wasn't on our ship.)
While at the Darwin Center, we met "Lonesome George" - the last of his particular species of giant tortoises. (Galapagos means giant tortoise in Spanish.) His line will go extinct when he dies in some 50 or 60 more years. For now, he's in his prime at about 50. The researchers have done their utmost to breed him, but he has been unwilling to mate with closely-related species. One biologist even flew over from Switzerland and spent three months physically diddling him in an effort to collect sperm for artificial insemination. THEN she found out it wasn't mating season. So she flew back again at the appropriate time and diddled him some more - to the great amusement of her fellow researchers!

Soon we were zooming off with the other passengers on a panga (motorized inflatable boat) to our cruise ship, the Coral, anchored at the mouth of the harbor.


Many of you have said that you'd never want to travel the way we do - in fascinating but often uncomfortable places. Well, this is a trip almost everyone would really enjoy. Anyone who can walk slowly for a couple of miles over rocky terrain can do it -then return to a cruise ship with the comforts of air-conditioning, Western-style food and hot showers! (See DETAILS below)


After stowing our gear away, we joined our fellow passengers for a welcoming drink and briefing in the Coral's teak-paneled lounge. Since May is off-season, there were only 13 of us travelers on a boat that holds 20; we came from the U.S., Australia, England and the Netherlands, After dinner, the Naturalist III guide Hernan described the eight-day cruise in detail and the following day's activities. The Coral motored out of the harbor about 9:30 p.m. and when we awakened the next morning we were anchored off beautiful Espanola Island - the first of the nine islands we would visit. After breakfast, we climbed into pangas for the ten-minute ride to the island - bobbing along over the waves like orange-vested boobies. After disembarking on a stairway of wet black lava crawling with bright red crabs, we climbed a rocky path and came upon a tangle of marine iguanas. These are the only lizards on the planet able to dive and swim.


Marine iguanas captured Joan's heart. These ugly, Godzilla-like creatures are a prime example of outstanding evolutionary accomplishment. Thousands of years ago, green iguanas who lived in fresh water rivers in South American jungles inadvertently floated on logs or tangles of vegetation 600 miles from the mainland to the Galapagos. Finding nothing to eat on the barren volcanic lava of those early islands, in a spectacular bit of adaptation they learned to dive as deeply as 40 feet into salt water and graze on algae along the ocean floor. Over time, they turned black like the lava rocks they live on, to absorb and retain heat after their cold ocean immersion. They have dragon-backs, long toes and extrude salt by sneezing it out their nostrils - and onto their spiky heads, where it forms a weird helmet of salt crystals. (A less admirable aspect of marine iguana behavior: the males do not court the females, but rape them. This must be accomplished quickly, so the males have two penises - one on either side of their long tails.)


On one of our panga rides, Hernan scooped up a young marine iguana struggling in the water. It had been washed off the rocks before it had the strength to swim against the surf and was in danger of dying of hypothermia. Hernan gave it to Joan, who cradled it in her hands for 20 minutes, until was warm enough to be returned to the rocks. Bliss for her!

Over the millenia, the various creatures that washed up on the shores of the Galapagos had to fit themselves into any available biological niche. Green iguanas that arrived too late to find room in the algae beds along the shore hauled themselves several miles up to the hot, dry inland areas - where they evolved into three-foot yellowish land dragons that live on prickly cactus fruit. To escape the heat, they tunnel as much as 18 feet into the ground. (This guy was so curious about the camera that he kept crawling right at Lou, who had to keep backing up to get enough distance for a photo. Nice shirt cuffs, but he needs a nail job.)



Lou's favorite Galapagos experience was swimming with several giant green Pacific sea turtles that flapped gracefully along just below him as he snorkeled. He swam with them for several minutes, watching them munch on algae along the rocky cliffs. These turtles can reach 200 pounds and live as long as 150 years. The females swim around the Pacific Ocean until they reach sexual maturity at 52 years (!), then copulate for up to six hours (!!) The female is larger than the male, as she must swim with him on her back during this long copulation - after which she is often willing to find another male and go at it for six more hours (!!!) (Any account of evolution necessarily includes a lot of sex. Even the cactus look phallic. Our apologies.)


The blue-footed boobies did their charming mating dance right next to us. Necks stretched sky-ward and wings spread, they lift one bright blue foot after another in a stately dance. After mating, the female creates a "virtual" nest on bare ground by shitting guano in a precise circular pattern and the pair takes turns shielding the eggs from the hot sun.


The legendary albatross is exciting to all who have read Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. With a wingspan of seven to eight feet, they are the largest birds in the Galapagos. The albatross spend April to December in the Galapagos for breeding and raising their chicks - we watched parents taking turns incubating an egg near a trail we were on - and live the rest of the year at the South Pole. The fastest long-distance flier of all birds, they can go 8,000 miles in just five days! 

Hernan told us that the Galapagos hawk could read fine newsprint at a distance of 1500 feet - IF he could read. Frigate birds steal their meals from other birds - they were named after pirates' armed frigate ships. The males establish a territory and puff up their red pouch to attract a female. The females in this photo are checking out a male - trying to decide if he's worth the trouble or not.  They don't appear to be very impressed.


The flightless cormorants are partway through an evolutionary process from air to sea. Like ordinary cormorants they still have wings (sort of), but like penguins they've given up flying to become superb swimmers. We couldn't help smiling as we watched them flapping to dry their pathetic feathered appendages.

We snorkeled over a sleeping shark (Hernan calls them "vegetarian" sharks because they don't bother humans), and from our panga watched an incredible school of 60-70 golden manta rays flapping gracefully just beneath the surface of a glassy lagoon. AND we saw a red-lipped batfish. (What more could anyone ask?)

Finally, we visited James Island (below) where the Russell Crowe film Master and Commander was shot, crossed the Equator (but didn't see any line) and happily disembarked after a fine cruise through these "enchanted isles."

Other photos of the Galapagos

From the Galapagos we flew back to Quito, then headed into the jungles of Ecuador: AMAZONIA



CHOOSING A CRUISE SHIP:  When planning this trip, we looked at a lot of boats on the Internet; many were considerably cheaper than the Coral. But this was the trip of a lifetime and the right time to splurge on quality. We'd read too many horror stories of cheaper boats with guides who spoke only Spanish or knew little about the wildlife, of boats where all the passengers got sick from the food, the plumbing quit, the water ran out or the promised itinerary was changed.

In contrast, the Coral lived up to its brochure promises. A classic white motor yacht, it holds 20 passengers, eight crew and two guides. (We had only one guide, since the boat wasn't full.) We were comfortable on this well-appointed, teak-paneled, air-conditioned vessel, ate well, enjoyed the other passengers, went to the best islands, saw everything we wanted to see and had an excellent guide. The best boats carry Naturalist III guides, who must have a university degree in marine biology and speak several languages. Having a really good naturalist to explain the Galapagos is 80% of the reason to pay for a first class boat. Our guide was a professional scuba diver who spoke four languages fluently (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English) and was both charming and very knowledgeable about the creatures, plant life and geology we encountered. The rest of the crew of eight (captain, bar/dining room steward, panga drivers, engine room guys and cabin steward) were friendly, competent - and spoke almost no English. We had fun trying our fractured Spanish on them, which they good-naturedly pretended to understand.

LENGTH OF CRUISE: Take the full 8-day cruise (actually 7 nights) rather than a 3- or 4-day cruise. It doesn't make sense to spend big bucks going all the way down to Ecuador, then paying for a flight to the Galapagos and the park entry fee of $100, only to stop short of taking the full cruise. This is one of those "trips of a lifetime." Go for it!

PACKAGE TOURS: We didn't take the all-inclusive tour (transportation, hotel before and after in Quito) but traveled independently - booking the Coral  through efficient and friendly Adventure Life, which (incongruously) is located in Missoula, Montana.  www.adventure-life.com/galapagos/yachts/corals.html  Because we were traveling in low season (May 1-June 15), we paid a reduce rate and the airfare from Quito to the Galapagos was also less expensive. Our cabin (#9) was one of the smaller cabins; it had comfortable bunk beds, a built-in dresser and a small private bathroom with hot shower. The cabin was big enough to hold our backpacks and still leave room for one of us to get dressed - sufficient space because we weren't there much. You also can book a complete tour package on the Coral or several other first-class ships through Adventure Life.

If you are 50 or over, you can take an eight-day tour on the Coral with Eldertreks, which is not connected with Elder Hostel, but a friendly, well-run Canadian company specializing in small group adventure tours for older travelers:  www.eldertreks.com 

SIDE EXCURSION:  Some package tours to the Galapagos offer an optional add-on tour to Peru’s famed Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. If you have the time and money, be sure to do this. The ruins are easily reached by train from Cusco and are accessible to almost all, regardless of fitness level. The more energetic can make a four-day trek to the ruins (30 days advance registration required.) Whether going by train or on foot, independent travelers can arrange tours through Cusco-based Enigma:   www.enigmaperu.com/english

HOTEL:  Most tours of the Galapagos leave from Quito, Ecuador. Cafe Cultura is a charming, secure mid-range hotel in this city. www.cafecultura.com  A less expensive option is clean, comfortable Casa Helbling:  www.casahelbling.de  Both hotels have English speaking staff.

SAFETY:  The Galapagos Islands of Ecuador have to be one of the world's safest places to visit. The only potential difficulty is getting to the Galapagos, since it involves going through Quito, Ecuador where the high level of poverty has raised the level of crime. While travelers should be alert for potential pickpockets and bag-snatchers and use caution in big cities such as Quito at night (i.e., take radio taxis rather than walk), most tourists don’t have problems. By reserving a Quito hotel room in advance and arranging for the hotel to send someone to meet you at the airport, you can minimize potential difficulties. If you go to the Galapagos on a package tour, a guide will meet you when you arrive in Quito airport. See SAFETY

WHEN TO GO:  The weather was a pleasant surprise - the temperature was mostly in the mid-70s when we were there in early May. While the Galapagos can be visited at any time, high and low seasons affect both prices and comfort. High season is November 1-April 30 and June 15-September 14. December through April can be very hot and there is a possibility of heavy showers, but the water will be warm for snorkeling and the sky clear for photos. During low seasons (May 1-June 15) and September 15-October 31), prices are lower, the water colder, the sky is often overcast and it may drizzle – and the temperatures are better for walking around on the shade-less islands.

WHAT TO PACK:  Sunscreen (30 SPF or higher), hat, sunglasses, swimsuit, waterproof sandals, shorts, t-shirts, waterproof parka, long-sleeved shirt or two, long pants, (both shirt and pants preferably should be quick-dry, such as ExOfficio or Royal Robbins), journal and pen, a book, playing cards, a knapsack for going ashore, camera, lots of film if you don't have a digital camera (the boat carries film, but it's expensive), perhaps a disposable underwater camera, water bottle, and US dollars (the official Ecuadorian currency!) to pay tips to the guide and crew at the end of the tour. Tips are discretionary, but typically total $15-20 per day, per person, for guide and crew. Major credit cards can be used aboard to pay bar bills and rent wet suits and snorkel gear. (No need to rent wet suits ahead of time in Puerto Ayora, as we did, unless you prefer full-length suits to the short wetsuits available aboard ship.)

GUIDEBOOKS:  Ecuador (Footprint Handbooks); Ecuador (Lonely Planet)

TRAVELER'S GUIDE: This travel writer's site lists mistakes to avoid in planning a trip to the Galapagos.  www.hillmanwonders.com/galapagos/index.htm#_vtop

Charles Darwin:Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place by Janet Browne (a magnificent two-part, award-winning biography.) Browne has a Ph.D. in the history of science, and brings the 19th century scientific community into fascinating focus, as well as making Darwin vividly, charmingly human. The first volume covers his early life up through the five-year voyage of the Beagle (when he was only 22-26), including his five weeks in the Galapagos. The second volume begins with a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace containing a similar theory, which shocked Darwin into making public what he had known for 20 years.
(NOTE: Amazon Books reports that some fifty percent of Americans say they don't believe the theory of evolution. This would be laughable if it weren't so appalling. Even the Catholic Pope says he accepts Darwin's theory - showing that science and religion need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps the more open-minded of doubters would be convinced by the following book.)
The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner (this book won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.) For more than thirty years, Peter and Rosemary Grant have spent several months a year camped on the small, barren island of Daphne Major - which we could see from the airport when we landed at Galapagos. The Grants have captured, banded and compiled data on every finch on the island through many generations, returning to Princeton University to run the statistics through sophisticated computer programs. Darwin thought that evolution was too slow a process to ever be proven. The Grants' patient research and use of modern technology has proven him wrong in this - and right about his great theory.



Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net