SAN CRISTOBAL, GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR — They come. Nikon-necked boobies, Timberland-sandaled grey-bearded enviro cats, North Face-clothed soft-core adventure seekers. They come by the planeload, arriving in greater numbers than ever. And more and more of them come without knowing exactly what they’re in for.
A trip to the Galapagos Islands turned out to be as fascinating and rewarding and fun an adventure as I have ever had. But it was no vacation.
You’re here to learn and the teachers are naturalists fiercely devoted to the islands and the ideal that the word “Galapagos” has come to signify during the past century and a half. You will not be comfortable: the boat will rock, sometimes with enough force to cause your stomach to somersault; the 44-pound luggage limit will mean choosing between packing more pants or more socks and underwear (go with the latter); hikes will sometimes force you over terrain rocky enough to wreck ankles. You will be requested to do feats that will make you frown, if not cringe and swear under your breath: Navy showers (lather up, soak in lukewarm water, shut off the tap, repeat) are supposed to be taken onboard to limit the amount of water used; toilet paper isn’t to be flushed, it’s to be placed in a waste-paper basket for disposal by the housekeeper; wake-up calls can come as early as 5:45 a.m.; depending on the loudness of the motor and the temperament of the waves, sleep may not come at all.
Yet, when the trip is done, you just might walk away thinking you’ve had an experience that tops all others before it. But you have to be curious and you have to know you won’t be lounging on a beach with mojito in hand and a tiki bar within reach. Food isn’t allowed on shore excursions and neither are alcoholic beverages, although there is an ample supply onboard your boat. While the islands are filled with animals that won’t so much as flutter as you approach, the Galapagos isn’t a petting zoo and touching is off-limits.
So, where’s all the fun? Part of it is in the discovery of the place and in the camaraderie you build with the group you discover it with. Part of it is in the enchantment you acquire for the wildlife, whose personalities make you remember childhood and the anthropomorphic qualities we attributed to them. Much of it is simply in the indulgence of being here. The isolation is stark. On many instances, I caught myself listening to the wind, often a bluster that seemed to exist to remind us we were still on earth. The sunsets are special, with the big yellow ball escaping below the wide-open horizon with no land westward until you hit the Hawaiian islands — 7,600 kilometres away. And there’s the real reason why someone should make this trip: The opportunity to be educated.
You’ll learn about our planet and the animals and plants and birds and reptiles that occupy it. You’ll brush up on your Darwin and hook into the environmental importance of the 13 main islands. You’ll learn about the threat humans pose to the ecosystem and the harm we have already inflicted. To some degree or another, coverage of those topics is to be expected. The surprise, though, is the passion with which the naturalists distill the information.
“I know how lucky I am to live in this amazing place,” said Yvonne Mórtola, a resident of the islands who wants to share with the world her love of the Galapagos and all that inhabit it. “Some Ecuadoreans don’t really understand what a true treasure the islands are. It’s really the people from outside the country who are most fascinated by it.”
Mórtola and Cecibel Guerrero were my guides during a trip with Ecoventura, a tour operator based in Guayaquil, the gateway city to the Galapagos. Both guides have achieved top-level naturalist status from the Ecuador National Parks Service and being with them reminded me of a university classroom. Their fascination with their part of the world was so sincere it forced you to stay riveted, no matter how many blue-footed boobies and sea lion colonies we passed.
“My favourite animal is the marine iguana,” said Guerrero straight-faced while she stood on the rugged shore of Fernandina, the youngest of the islands at 500,000 years. “They can teach you so much about evolution.”
She went on in detail explaining why a creature that spits more often than a tobacco-addicted baseball player, leaves long trails of excrement and has a face that James Cameron might dream up is something to adore.
Guerrero, who used to live in Toronto, and Mórtola had a way of making every one of the eight days on the trip delightful, even if some afternoons were long or redundant (the birds and animals on a couple of the islands are very similar, and not one of them is nearly as awe-inspiring as what you would see on an African safari). Wake-up calls were delivered in a gentle voice over the yacht’s speaker system, accompanied by sweet music (“What a Wonderful World,” “Dream a Little Dream”). When we had questions, their answers came with thoughtfulness and often humour. Their shipmates on Ecoventura’s Eric delivered luxury service, including three meals a day, snacks in between and pleasant smiles.
One thing you can’t get on the boat, however, is Internet access. For a few days that was more than fine. In a way, you should be disconnected when you’re here. These islands are spared from the thunder march of time and all the technology, change and disorder it brings. Surfing the web to see what’s happening in another part of the world wouldn’t seem right. The Galapagos, while you’re in them, demands your full attention, which, I think, is what Mórtola and Guerrero were trying to impress upon us the whole time.