Our plane touched down an hour late on Baltra – one of 14 major islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago. The Baltra landing strip was built by the United States during World War II, and now serves as the primary means for visitors to arrive on and depart from the islands. We paid our entrance fee into Galapagos National Park, and soon we were on our way to meet our boat, the Monserrat. Our crew greeted us with smiles, Pisco Sours, and took our luggage to our cabins. While we ate a late lunch, the boat began our week long cruise.
The Galapagos Islands are owned by Ecuador and straddle the equator 600 miles west of the mainland of South America. Each island is an exposed volcanic mountaintop –older ones being relatively flatter due to wind and water erosion. Newer islands are mountainous, with some volcanoes still erupting periodically. When Charles Darwin spent a month here in 1835, he wrote that from the water the land looked most uninviting, but the ever-curious Darwin explored four of the islands during the voyage of the HMS Beagle. He discovered that each island was home to many unique plants and animals. Not only were most different from those found on the mainland, but many were even different from one island to the next. In some cases, they are in view of one another. This seemed strange indeed, and although Darwin did not come up with his theory of natural selection during the voyage, as is widely believed, it is obvious from his notes that he suspected the islands might provide answers as to how new species are created. How was it, he wondered, that populations of mocking birds, finches, and giant tortoises could differ so much from island to island? They were obviously related, but different enough on some islands to be considered a separate race or species. Two years after his five year voyage his ideas began to coalesce, which led to his revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species in 1859.
And now, our group of nineteen people from Pennsylvania and Delaware found itself retracing some of Darwin’s footsteps. We visited two islands each day and saw wild roaming 500-pound tortoises, land iguanas, marine iguanas, lava lizards, sea lions, tropic birds, hawks, boobies, and a myriad of other species. Snorkelers swam with white-tipped sharks, green sea turtles, and untold numbers of beautiful tropical fish.
The islands are hot and usually covered with volcanic cinders or rocks. On many islands we went ashore on, there were magnificent beaches with sands that ranged in color from black to green to white. Plant life is fragile; rules about where visitors may walk were strictly enforced, but there was never a need to leave the path to see animals. They’re everywhere, often lying or nesting immediately on the path at your feet.
Due to the heat, hikes were taken at a slow pace. Our knowledgeable guides interpreted the natural history and answered questions. After we completed our walk, we loaded back into our dingy (called a panga), which motored us back to the Monserrat for lunch/dinner.
The food aboard the Monserrat was well presented and delicious. There was fish, poultry, beef, and fresh fruit dishes that concluded with wonderful desserts. The crew catered to our every need. Evenings were spent over wine, beer, mixed drinks, word games, and good conversation. The only near disaster occurred when our group discovered we had wiped out the boat’s supply of cabernet halfway through the cruise! The solution was near at hand: a National Geographic boat anchored next to the Monseratt had an extra supply, so our group abandoned any immediate thoughts of mutiny.
We returned to the wonderful Mercure hotel in Quito where we had started our adventure ten days earlier. From there, it was back to Dulles Airport, and then home.
I have led groups of visitors to the archipelago eight times over the past 20+ years, but I have never tired of this magical place. In fact, I have another trip planned for late February 2014. Hope you join me.