I was long baffled that Steve was never eager to visit the Galápagos. Both natural history and evolutionary biology have always fascinated him. There’s a lot of both in the island chain 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The place intrigued me, but the price of visiting always discouraged both of us. No tourism of any sort existed before the mid-1960s, and then for many years, the only way to see the place was to take the almost two-hour flight out, then board a ship that would likely cost at least $2500 per person for a basic five-day cruise and many thousands more for a longer or posher experience. For that kind of money, we typically cover a lot of ground.
What finally got us there was a combination of factors. The path from Santiago (our gateway to and from the eclipse) to San Diego lies almost directly over Ecuador, a country we had never visited. In early spring, our good friends Doris and Louis spent six weeks there (publishing vivid dispatches in their blog, Louis and Doris Partout.) Privately Doris urged me to consider stopping over in Ecuador on our return north. About the same time, I read a New York Times article about the surge in land-based travel in the Galapagos. This could be accomplished at a fraction of the price of cruising, according to the Times writer. I did a lot of quick, compressed research and we wound up deciding to spend two weeks in Ecuador, sandwiching in a 6-day, 5-night visit to two of the islands.
Now that we’re back on the Ecuadorian mainland, we feel completely satisfied with the way this worked out. We didn’t see as much as we surely would have had we cruised for two weeks and visited 5 or 10 of the islands. We didn’t see every animal visitors try to check off their lists; missed sighting any whales or hammerhead sharks, and never came within sight of a red-footed boobie.
But we did observe a wondrous assortment of creatures: the eponymous giant tortoises and amazing swimming (marine) iguanas.
It was hatching season for the marine iguanas, so we saw hundreds of the babies, like these.
We saw plenty of blue-footed boobies.
Those feet are pretty dashing.
We swam with huge sea turtles and brilliant reef fish and schools of rays and 6-inch-tall seahorses, spotted amidst a seascape studded with starfish and coral and urchins. We hiked to and boated by striking lava formations and came away feeling we’d gotten a good taste of the place.
Doing it on the cheap required that we make all our own arrangements and get ourselves around, but that wasn’t hard. The little hotels where we stayed were clean and comfy enough, if not luxe, and they cost less than $50 a night on average. The food ranged from good to excellent. Our favorite meals included the two we ate on the jolly Santa Cruz street that closes to cars at night. The restaurants set up long wooden tables and chairs at which you can tuck into tasty lobster and fish meals (with beer) for about $50 per couple.In the end, our stay (including the $180 required per person in permits) cost us about $800 each, rather than the $2,500-$5000 per person the cruising probably would have. And we learned a lot.
Here’s my take on the best and worst things about experiencing the islands this way:
We only spent time on two islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela. To get back and forth between them, we took inter-island ferries, which cost $60 per person round-trip. I hated both rides. The ferries are basically speedboats seating around 30 passengers, most of whom can see almost nothing along the way. The vessels blast through the water, rolling and bucking — too rough a ride to do much of anything besides count the minutes (around 120) till the torture ends. Chugging around on a big old yacht would doubtless be far more pleasant. (Some inter-island plane service also exists, but it’s five or six times more expensive than the speedboats.)
Our first morning on Santa Cruz, we hired a local taxi driver to take us around for three and a half hours. We visited the interesting Darwin research center, checked out some of the geological wonders (craters and lava tunnels), and spent at least an hour strolling around a private nature reserve where the giant tortoises are thriving. The San Diego Zoo has a large, old Galapagos tortoise colony, but they live in a sterile enclosure, a universe away from the lush vegetation in the reserve.
It felt magical to come upon the giant reptiles blocking the paths, munching on (non-native) guavas (which eco-volunteers are trying to eradicate), and otherwise looking cranky and enigmatic.
Steve and I also marveled at how chilly the Galapagan waters are, despite the fact that the island chain lies on the equator. The cold nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, which flows north from Antarctica, makes the weather temperate and fosters the abundance of land and sea life. On the days we snorkeled, the water was somewhere around 70, cool enough that, even protected in short wetsuits, we couldn’t stand being in the water for more than about an hour. Still, the beautiful things we saw made the mild discomfort tolerable.
Staying onshore rather than cruising gave us more opportunity to interact with the native humans. Several commented on how relaxed and pleasant life on the islands can be. (Strict laws limit the inflow of mainlanders.) It seems a simpler life. Everywhere the Internet was glacial. Many folks get around on bikes. At our hotel, we asked how we might launder a small pile of dirty clothes. The proprietress pointed us to the bright turquoise house a short distance from her place. If we dropped off our load in the morning, it should be ready to retrieve by evening, she said,
We strolled down the dirt road and peered into the open door of the turquoise house. The front room was filled with a half-dozen washing machines, several dryers heated by bottle gas, and little else. A family member finally noticed our arrival, weighed our bundle, and said it would cost $3 to wash and dry everything.
When I returned hours later to collect it, no one was in the laundry area, so I called out, “Hola!” In the back of the house, I could glimpse a middle-aged man with a large gut, sprawled in a rumpled bed. He collected himself, came to the front, and took my money in exchange for the clean and neatly folded items. He was less exotic than a giant tortoise, but interesting enough that I was glad I hadn’t missed meeting him too.