I landed in Lima alone and with no fixed plan. Back home, I’d toyed with the idea of heading to the Galapagos Islands but remained undecided about the ethics of my impact on such a fragile ecosystem. It only took a few days amid the exotic chaos of the Peruvian capital, however, to realign my perspective back to that of a seasoned traveller. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit my most revered destination. I finally decided that I would go to that mystical wildlife utopia, to see what Charles Darwin witnessed almost 200 years ago during the fateful second voyage of HMS Beagle.
Heading north to Guayaquil – Ecuador’s largest city and the nearest place from which to fly out to the Galapagos – I battled with my not-so-inner cynic, who had almost dismissed the idea of responsible tourism as a contradiction in terms. In the end, the week that followed was so enchanting, exciting and ephemeral that it seemed impossible to imagine denying myself the experience.
With no reservation to speak of, I chose to stay at the beautiful Dreamkapture Hostel in Guayaquil, with its convenient on-site travel agency specializing in boat tours of the Galapagos. Thankfully, I arrived in November, just before the Christmas rush, and as a lone traveller was able to book a tour departing the next day.
Boat tours are by far the best way to see all the richness and diversity the islands have to offer, mainly because of the heavy access restrictions in place to protect the wildlife. The Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I was impressed at how seriously the issue of conservation is taken by authorities, businesses, and visitors alike. Unfortunately, but perhaps necessarily, trips are expensive. I paid around US $1000 for a four day tour, which did not include return flights or the US $100 Galapagos National Park entrance fee. That said, the experience was actually great value for money, and included a high standard of accommodation aboard an excellent boat, along with all meals.
Landing at Baltra, I was lucky enough – given my geekiness – to have been allocated the spare cabin of The Daphne with a group of ecology students and their professor from Boston University. Despite turning up half way through their week-long adventure, I was welcomed warmly by the group along with our guide, whose laugh was as infectious as his passion, knowledge and respect for the area. There was barely time to dump my bag in my cabin before we set of for the next stop on the tour – El Chato. The highlands of Santa Cruz island provided the backdrop for my first of countless jaw-dropping, breathtaking moments that filled those four days from start to finish. How fitting, then, that my fist encounter was with the islands’ mascot. The Galapagos tortoise is the world’s largest living species of tortoise, and the 16th century explorers who discovered the islands named them after an old Spanish word for saddle, galapago, because the large Galapagos tortoises had shells which they thought resembled saddles. This magnificent creature has to be seen – in all its grotesque proportions and dawdling mannerisms – to be believed.
Next, it was back to the boat to Punta Carrion, on the northeast tip of Santa Cruz, for some snorkeling where we met manta rays, Galapagos sharks and even the odd, eerie silhouette of a hammerhead shark that sent ripples through the depths and tingles down our spines. It was nothing so dramatic as these awesome predators that cut short our submarine session that day, however, as one by one we were hauled onto the dinghies with painful stings that could only mean one thing: a shoal of jellyfish. Apparently, there are no deadly jellyfish native to the Galapagos, but that didn’t stop me panicking as the pain spread slowly but surely from my right hand, up to my shoulder, across my chest and towards my heart. Thankfully, it was just a mild allergic reaction, from which I made a quick and full recovery, and despite snorkeling every day we had no more trouble from the invisible invertebrates.
As we finished another hearty meal and settled down for the daily debrief, the sun setting over dreamy Galapagos skies, our boat headed for Espanola, also known as Hood Island. The next morning, we walked among some of the most spectacular bird life on the planet, most of whom seemed to enjoy posing fearlessly for our lenses. Blue and red-footed boobies, nazca boobies, Galapagos mockingbirds, great frigatebirds and countless more showed off their unique evolutionary wonders with barely concealed pride. Then it was across to San Cristobal, an old volcano and the easternmost of the islands, where hopelessly cute seal cubs and marine iguanas basked in the sun.
We sailed through the night as the choppy waves rocked me to sleep, and as morning broke we arrived at our final stop, which turned out to be as iconic as the first. Bartolome is the most visited and photographed of the Galapagos Islands, its most famous feature being Pinnacle Rock, an allochroous extinct volcano. After a climb to the summit, there was just enough time for a final dip in that irresistible turquoise sea, and an encounter with the world’s only equatorial penguin species – you guessed it: the Galapagos penguin.
As the day drew to a close I packed my bags, ready for a swift departure to the airport the next morning. Time had flown by but not a second was wasted. I still believe sustainable tourism to be oxymoronic to an extent – after all, we use tonnes of fossil fuels to get places. In addition, despite the painstaking lengths our guide went to in the name of sustainability, there is no way to ensure that others are not damaging the ecosystem, through carelessness or malice. Unless we decide not to go, all we can do is try to ensure that our contribution is as positive as possible by being informed, intelligent and considerate travelers. My trip to the Galapagos inspired these qualities – among many others – in me, and for this experience and opportunity I am incorrigibly grateful.
Natalie is British but has been living in Berlin since 2009 where she works as a writer. With degrees in Social Anthropology and Environment & Development, she is passionate about sustainable travel and in her spare time enjoys learning German, ornithology, and photography.