So we began our journey by stepping off the edge of the map. That’s really what it feels like to be in the Galapagos, but it doesn’t hit you all at once. It creeps up on you, bit by bit, while your brain is still insisting that you’re on just another island vacation. But you aren’t. This isn’t Hawaii, or the Caribbean, or even Zanzibar (been there, bought the shirt). This is Terra Incognita. This is the frontier. Here there be dragons, and they won’t even get out of the damned road.
Of about thirty or so islands (and 200 “rocks” that don’t merit the title) only four are inhabited. On three of those, “habitation” barely amounts to planting a flag and paving a handful of streets. Ninety-seven percent of the Galapagos are still wild. Lea and I are here in the low season so the archipelago isn’t crawling with hikers, divers, backpackers, and other tourists, but even in the settled areas the wildlife doesn’t seem to care one bit about the invasive hairless apes encroaching on their territory. Marine iguanas and sea lions roam the docks and nature trails as unbothered as sacred cattle in India. Humans have certainly had an impact on the ecosystem – just look at all the strident attempts to bring the Galapagos tortoise back from near extinction – but these islands don’t let you forget that humans are interlopers and the original residents would be perfectly happy if we’d all just bugger off, thank you very much.
The only way to see the majority of the islands is by cruise but that would have blown our budget for the South American mainland, so we opted to take the landlubbers’ tour by visiting two of the port towns, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Villamil on Isabella, staying in hostels instead of resort hotels and taking whatever tours and hikes were available from those two home bases.
Our plane landed on Isla Baltra, which looks like the surface of the moon if Buzz Aldrin had planted a few cacti while he was up there. The airport feels like a National Park entrance somewhere in the American west. As soon as passengers get off the plane they walk across a specially treated bit of astroturf to kill any invasive bugs on the soles of their shoes and then, where the immigration and customs desk would be in an international airport, visitors pay the Galapagos Park Entry Fee to the tune of $100 per person. This is in addition to the Transit Control Card that had to be purchased in Quito or Guayaquil before getting on the flight. (See instructions for that bit of fun.)
A bus ($5 per person) shuttles you across to the other side of Baltra where a ferry ($1 per person) takes you across the narrow strait to Santa Cruz proper where you can either hire a cab, meet up with your tour group, or take the express bus (another $5 per person) to Puerto Ayora.
(Side note: use of the word “ferry” in the above paragraph is generous. If you’re picturing a large flat-bottomed vessel that you could drive a vehicle onto, it’s not that. They have those, but only for tankers and cargo trucks. Even the “ferries” to the other inhabited islands are simply motorboats into which they cram as many passengers as they can before taking off into the wide, choppy Pacific. For shorter hops, such as the Baltra crossing, it’s more like a tender or water taxi – a smallish boat with a canopy and outboard motor. These run $1 – $3 depending where you are and where you’re going, such as crossing a bay to get to a secluded beach or to get from the dock to your inter-island ferry or cruise ship.)
The express bus dumped us off in the middle of town, and Puerto Ayora looks like an island tourist town. Walking in any random direction, you’ll likely stumble into either a hostel, restaurant, or travel agency selling excursions to dive and snorkel sites. However, it’s a much more laid back tourist town than any I’d seen (and only because I hadn’t been to Puerto Villamil yet). There are no aggressive touts shaking you down for souvenirs. The taxi drivers don’t hassle you every five seconds. People are friendly without latching on to you and offering to “help” you buy stuff at all the tourist shops.
Two things on that first day signaled that we’d entered another world. First was the fishing dock and market. The seaside was crawling with crabs and rock-black iguanas so thick we have to watch our feet not to step on them. The fish market was crowded with more seabirds than you’d believe – big birds walking around like they were shopping for dinner – and a sea lion right there among the workers who apparently serves as the fish market’s mascot (and main tourist draw).
The second sign that we weren’t in Kansas anymore was our inability to connect to the Internet from our hostel for any length of time. At first we put it down to irritating problems with the WiFi, the local ISP, or bad weather blocking the island’s satellite signal. Little did we know, but after days we would come to realize that the Galapagos are almost completely cut off from the World Wide Web. You can get a slow connection early in the morning before the islands wake up and start sharing the bandwidth, but by noon any hope of connecting to the outside world is gone.
My god, y’all. Do you have any idea how hard it is to function without the Internet in the 21st century? It’s like having your oxygen taken away. It’s not just that we can’t look at cat pictures on Instagram, it’s that we can’t search for reviews on tour options, check the weather, or confirm our housing arrangements for the next stay on our trip. We were able to get out the occasional message on Facebook, but all connection with the wider world would be confined to the wee hours of the morning or the occasional miraculous mid-afternoon break when a signal would get through.
Anyway, back to the islands. Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora are pretty well developed as things go. It’s easy to catch a ride, groceries are readily available, and the street food is fantastic. Why go to some pricey restaurant when the lady at the market two blocks from our hostel is handing out beef, cheese, and chicken empanadas for $1 each? Then again, there’s something to be said for two-for-$8 caipirinhas and mojitos from an ocean view table.
We took a taxi to Los Gemelos, a pair of giant volcanic sinkholes, and El Chato Tortoise Reserve. For a $3.20 water taxi ride we hiked to snorkel at Las Grietas and picnicked at La Playa de las Allemanes, and after a very long walk we made our way down to the Darwin Research Station (which was infested with small, screaming children, not really worth the effort, and necessitated the caipirinhas and mojitos mentioned above).
It wasn’t until we took the choppy, bouncy, water-flume ride to Isabella, the Galapagos’ largest island, that we realized how far into the wilderness we really were.
Despite the palm trees and crystal clear waters, Isabella’s lone village of Puerto Villamil is nothing like an overdeveloped island resort town. It tries to be, with a seaside street of tourist-catering restaurants and dive shops, but it feels like a precarious illusion. One reason is because it’s so cold. This time of year the Humboldt Current sweeps up from Antarctica bringing cold water and chilly air. There is misting rain every morning and evening, with the sun only breaking free in the afternoon. The temperature hovers between the upper 60s and lower 70s. While strolling along the beach you would never expect to see a giant cruise ship appear over the horizon. An 18th century British whaler would be far more likely.
Despite the impression that the whole town might slide off into the Pacific or be swallowed by one of the nearby volcanoes, I love Puerto Villamil. The town is so quiet and easy. When it comes to a laid-back atmosphere, Jamaica’s got nothing on Isabella. Lea says she could imagine coming back here and teaching English for a month or two, but not staying any longer than that. Me, I’m not sure. Were I to, say, become a bestselling novelist and take up the Ian Fleming lifestyle, I could imagine building my Goldeneye right here.
In Villamil there is snorkeling in abundance so snorkel we did. We took two trips from Pahoehoe Galapagos Tours, one to an islet called Las Tintoreras and the other to a volcanic formation called Los Túneles, and Lea went snorkeling off a pier at a spot called Concha de Perla, where she saw some fantastic starfish.
The tour to Las Tintoreras was somewhat spoiled by a bunch of Germans who thought that snorkeling was about flailing their arms violently, treading water in giant flippers, kicking their legs like five-year-olds learning to dog paddle, knocking their neighbors in the head, and stirring up so much sand and muck from the seabed that no one could see anything. Seriously, who thought letting Germans in the water was a good idea?
The trip to Los Túneles, though, was hands-down the best snorkeling experience I’ve had in my life. The thing about snorkeling and diving is that once you’re in the water and the sounds of the upper world fade away it truly becomes an otherworldly environment. Also, from an intellectual standpoint, any time you go into the ocean you’re entering the realm of creatures that wouldn’t mind eating you, much more than on any well-trodden nature hike on land.
Previously I’ve snorkeled off Mexico, the Bahamas, Caribbean islands, the Red Sea, and Zanzibar, seen beautiful coral and colorful reef fish. Next to the Galapagos, those other sites seem completely domesticated. Here we saw sharks, three whitetips and a baby blacktip. We saw sea horses sleeping with their tails curled around an underwater log. We saw manta rays, a spotted ray, and a flight of five golden rays swimming in formation. We saw giant sea turtles minding their own business while surrounded by a school of neoprene-clad sea monkeys from the surface world.
One of the turtles swam right by me so close I could easily have reached my hand out and touched his shell. Instead I kept my arms to my side, didn’t move or breathe, and let him glide on by me. Mis amigos, sharing space with one of the most beautiful and majestic creatures I’ve ever seen is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a genuine spiritual experience. Now I know how Darwin must have felt being here.
It was hard for me to leave Isabella. It’s harder still to come back to the world of pavement, skyscrapers, obnoxious taxi drivers, and crowds and crowds of sweaty humans. Not that human civilization doesn’t have its charms, but having been to the Galapagos and getting a glimpse of what the world would be if we’d just leave it the hell alone, I’m not going to feel so bad the next time I see an abandoned shopping mall being slowly reclaimed by nature.
Still, like salmon returning to their home stream, Lea and I returned to the world of fast WiFi, personal automobiles, and regular bus schedules. Our plane landed in Quito, and we were completely unprepared for what we would stumble into that first night back in the World.
But that is another story…