I haven’t had a solid two-week vacation since 2001, so it was wonderful when a longtime client gave my wife and me a 15-day trip to South America from Overseas Adventure Travel, a Massachusetts-based company that conducts small-group tours to off-the-beaten-path destinations for people 50 and older. The package comprised eight days in Ecuador (Quito and the Galápagos Islands) and seven days in Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu). Since in March and April the desert-like Galápagos are warm while mountainous Machu Picchu is chilly, it was like taking two separate vacations. I’ll describe the excursion to the Galápagos here and do a separate post on the mainland portion of our adventure in a later post.
Flying into the Galápagos to start our five-day cruise around the archipelago of volcanic islands that straddle the Equator 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
The islands, famed for their vast number of endemic species, were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, which contributed to his inception of the theory of evolution by natural selection. A province of Ecuador, the Galápagos have about 25,000 permanent inhabitants, 80% of them involved in the tourist industry (which is highly regulated for ecological reasons), although there is some farming and coffee growing. But most of the archipelago and its surrounding waters are a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising a national park and biological marine reserve.
No more than 30 people may enter most nature sites at one time, so our party cruised the Galápagos, which are mostly dry and desertlike, in this pair of small boats that could each accommodate up to 16 passengers.
Upon landing, we made a short bus transfer to the dock, where we boarded our passenger boat for the four-night cruise. As required, not only had our cruising itinerary been filed with the conservation authorities of the Galápagos National Park (park biologists can make changes to plans to minimize their impact on the ecosystems of the islands) but also our trip was led by a certified Galápagos naturalist, from whom we learned a lot.
The typical Galápagos landscape has a rugged and barren beauty.
Our cruise centered on land tours that got us up close to the extraordinary flora and fauna. The birdlife is specially bountiful, the most ethereally beautiful being a subspecies of the Great Blue Heron.
A Great Blue Heron, perhaps the most beautiful of all native Galápagos birds.
The islands’ most famous seabird is the Booby–there are three species on the Galápagos: the Blue-footed Booby, which is the most common; the Red-footed Booby, the only one that nests in trees; and the Nazca Booby, the largest of the three. The the English name “Booby” is thought to originate from “Bobo,” the Spanish word for clown, which was given to the birds due to their comical ungainliness on land.
A Nazca Booby, the largest of the three species found on the Galápagos.
None of the wildlife is afraid of humans so it’s possible to see the various birds, reptiles, and sea mammals up close. The marine iguana, found only on Galápagos Islands, has the ability, unique among modern lizards, to live and forage in the sea. They grow more than five feet long, and look a bit like Godzilla or some other monster, as Charles Darwin evidently thought back in the 19th century when he wrote:
The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2–3 ft), disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. I call them ‘imps of darkness’. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit.
A Galápagos marine iguana, the only lizard that lives and forages in the ocean.
The Galápagos sea lion is another species that exclusively breeds on the islands. Beign numerous and social, they’re often seen sunbathing on sandy beaches and rock outcroppings or gliding gracefully through the surf. Their loud bark, playful nature, and athletic agility in water make them the “welcoming party” of the archipelago.
A colony of Galápagos sea lions enjoying the sun on a sandy island beach.
You don’t always have to trek into the hinterland to encounter the wildlife. Galápagos pelicans and seals gather round the fish market stalls in the harbor towns and are very comical as they scramble for food scraps.
Pelicans and seals in the fish market at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island.
Next up: Our travels in Peru and Ecuador.