Chasing Darwin: Exploring The Galapagos Islands
The zodiac backs its way through the surf to land at shore on the first of our Galapagos Islands stops. We jump into the lapping waves of a caramel-colored sand beach flecked in green crystals. Up ahead, a lazy sea lion pup pauses from nursing and raises its retriever-like face as if to say, “Hey, welcome to the place where animals have no fear of people.”
We wipe sand from our feet and don hiking shoes. A path cuts into a crevasse that looks more like Camelback Mountain in Arizona than the equator, khaki everywhere, river rocks underfoot, large boulders scattered, and walls of stone on both sides. The only life, the only color anywhere, comes from hardscrabble hedges, tangles so thick that they seem to dare a hiker to use them for a handrail.
This island, San Cristóbal, is exactly where Charles Darwin landed 183 years ago. He had few kind words for it, and his journal entries offered little clue that, someday, he would develop his Theory of Evolution in part from this very place. “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance,” Darwin wrote. “A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life.”
It was dead-hot summer when Darwin arrived in September 1835, and so he didn’t spend much time that first day on land. If he had come in fall like us, when the Galapagos temperature is as cool as air conditioning, perhaps he would have climbed, like us, up the side of the volcano above Punta Pitt beach. Up there, exactly what makes this Pacific island chain so special lazes in the sun.
Up top of the hill, the landscape becomes color scattered like a child’s finger painting. Blue and green and yellow plants cling to the lava flow from the dormant volcano. And there, in the trail, nearby on the ridge, just underfoot at almost every minute, is the Galapagos blue-footed booby, named for its clown-like feet the color of a Tiffany’s box. They look up as we pass, cocking their heads curiously toward us. Like nearly every creature on these islands, it has no predators. Biologists call it “ecologically naïve,” an animal that has simply never learned to fear.
It’s the first of many animals we’ll find during a weeklong cruise through the Galapagos, nearly all with that same childlike innocence toward people, some wanting to crawl right in your lap for a scratch on the belly, if the national park rules didn’t forbid touching the animals.
Reaching the island chain isn’t easy. The Galapagos Islands, about 600 miles off South America, remain a difficult place to visit. It’s explored either by day-trippers who stay in one of two small villages in the island chain. Or, like us, they explore different islands from a few small cruise ships and yachts permitted to visit the islands, which are mostly protected national park.
Our ship, the MV Origin, calls itself the most luxurious of Galapagos vessels, just 20 cabins with beds that would seem huge in a standard hotel room, a hot tub, big showers, a bartender who’s forever on call, and three gourmet meals a day. We will make two or more landfalls a day using the zodiacs, sometimes hiking or snorkeling or kayaking. We swim among black rocks that jut up in the middle of the ocean, like Devil’s Crown, and kayak into a cove where juvenile sea lions jump and spin around us and sea turtles drift below.
Darwin definitely didn’t travel as well. On the HMS Beagle, Darwin traversed the world in a near constant state of seasickness. He went ashore as frequently as possible to avoid the waves—and so it’s his weak stomach that perhaps led him to develop his world-changing theory.
Luckily for us, there’s little more than a slow roll to the ocean as we steam overnight to the second spot, Española Island. On board are a couple of naturalists, trained by the Galapagos Islands national park. Galapagos law requires visitors to travel in the park with a trained guide, a way to assure everyone stays on the paths and remains 6 feet from the animals. On our second morning, the guides split us into groups of 10 for a hike up to the top of Española, covered in volcanic rocks the color of roofing tar, with a light coating of drab green vegetation barely higher than ground level. The island ends at a six-story rock face that drops into the ocean below, waves pounding up through blow holes, spraying iguanas that litter the seashore everywhere you look.
Like the islands themselves, Darwin was initially unimpressed by the lizard. “It is a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements,” he wrote. But soon he became fascinated by them. Each island in the chain seemed to feature an iguana of a different type, black and red in one port and yellow and gray at another.
Darwin cut one open and found their bellies full of seaweed. Somehow, perhaps swept to sea from a storm, iguanas from elsewhere washed ashore millennia ago on the Galapagos. Without creatures to eat, they became herbivores, and finding more food in the ocean, they developed into adept swimmers. It was this particularity that fascinated Darwin.
Following Darwin, we head next to Floreana, landing on a beach where trees cast reflections in the waves rolling slowly up the beach. We make our way along a path heading off from the beach. We find pink flamingoes wading in brackish pools, and as Darwin noted in his journal, they are one of the rare animals here afraid of people, something perhaps they learned before migrating to the islands.
On Santa Cruz the next day, we take the zodiacs to the chain’s largest city with a population of 22,000, and there’s a strange feeling about seeing so many people and buildings and vehicles again. We board a tour bus and head into the cloud-socked highlands. Here we find another of Darwin’s fascinations, the great Galapagos tortoise. After it arrived here, the tortoise found its favorite food was the fruit of the cactus. As it reached for the fruit over the centuries, its neck would grow, and its shell would develop an opening so it could stretch, creating a creature found nowhere else.
In Darwin’s time, sailors and locals fed on the tortoises, and he noted that one ship had hauled away 200 of them, although it took six men to lift just one. They developed a fear of men from those hunts, and so now tourists must approach them slowly, posing for photos behind them as they munch messily on guava fruit.
We head the next day to Bartolomé Island and then South Plaza Island, both uninhabited, like 97 percent of the Galapagos. When we make landfall, we are the only people in sight. As we travel from one port to the next, miles of untouched beaches and hardened volcanic ash and black boulders of petrified lava roll by, looking just as it all did when Darwin arrived.
Our days become a routine of breakfast buffets, a landing on some curious port for a hike or snorkeling trip, followed by a buffet lunch headlined by grilled lobster tails or Ecuadorian soup. Another landing in the afternoon, or perhaps two, comes before happy hour and a formal, four-course dinner. The yacht travels overnight, the calm rolling waves of the Galapagos rocking us to sleep. In the morning, the cruise director gives us a sing-song wakeup call and we peer out floor-to-ceiling windows at ocean waves striking some rock formation that looks out of a sci-fi movie, before the adventures begin again.
By the end of Darwin’s trip, he was on his way to the thought process that would bring him to evolution, to quite literally, changing everything about the way we think of the creation of the world.
There’s something about a visit to these islands, sprung up from the ocean 5 million years ago, and then inhabited slowly by creatures that are so different from anywhere else. You leave understanding how Darwin came to his thinking, in this land where most animals have no fear, where tourists go home two centuries later, understanding a little more about how it all works.
Sitting 600 miles off the South American coast, a trip to the Galapagos begins with a flight first to Ecuador, which owns the island chain. American is among the airlines that flies directly to Guayaquil, where another hour-plus flight awaits to San Cristóbal.
Hotel del Parque
In Guayaquil, the finest accommodations are found at this former nunnery-turned-boutique hotel. A recent renovation to the 44-room hotel means modern accommodations, with showers as big as a Manhattan apartment, courtyards with large water features, and a waterfront restaurant specializing in Ecuadorian-meets-European cuisine. From $259, worldhotels.com/hotel/hotel-del-parque, 800.223.5652
Since 1990, Ecoventura has been landing yachts in the Galapagos, and now the company operates three ships. The three typically travel together, but the most luxurious way to hit the islands is on the Origin, a 142-foot yacht launched in 2016. Seven-night cruises visit either the south or north islands in the archipelago, or stay on board for two weeks for the full itinerary. From $15,000/cabin, which can accommodate two to three people, ecoventura.com, 800.633.7972
Among the most experienced guides in the Galapagos, naturalist Freddy Vargas grew up on the islands. His father arrived there 60 years ago while serving in the Ecuadorian army. Vargas recalls riding in donkey carts to reach the village and, at 8 years old, drinking his first cold Coke from a fridge powered by the island’s first electric generator. Hippies were the first regular tourist in the 1960s, and they came back with tales of untouched islands of abnormally friendly animals. Documentaries in the 1980s put the Galapagos on the bucket lists of Americans. Ecuador has since put in place strict rules regarding the islands, cutting the number of tourists a year to 200,000 and requiring naturalist guides like Vargas to accompany all visitors into the protected areas. The rules have helped locals like Vargas, whose son is now training to follow his father into the naturalist trade.