by Lee Foster
A traveler can find many inviting places in the world to see the wonders of nature amply expressed, but there is one place, above all others, where the phenomena of nature had a profound effect on modern intellectual history.
Nature itself can be a moving experience as a traveler encounters the big game of Kenya, the amazing size of the Amazon, the rain forests of Costa Rica, and the vast wilderness of Denali Park, Alaska, to name just a few places.
But the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, offer something beyond an encounter with nature. The Galapagos happened to be where young Charles Darwin did much of his crucial observation of the changes that occurred in finches, mockingbirds, and the shells of giant tortoises in this isolated location. Why did the finches on different islands have slightly different beak size and shape, varying body size, alterations in plumage, and different feeding habits?
Retrospectively, he would ask: could these different species of birds, with their slight variations, have evolved in their island isolation, descending from a single species? The information that Darwin gathered in 1835 in the Galapagos was critical for his seminal theory, which he published much later, in 1859, in The Origin of Species. Darwin’s thinking, which later became characterized as the theory of evolution, markedly changed western thought.
Every visitor going to the Galapagos will have a truly wondrous encounter with wildlife, especially birds, reptiles, and mammals. The experience is made more poignant with the knowledge that Darwin saw these same species on these remote islands in 1835, and his careful observations contributed to a massive shift in western thought. An explorer today also makes the trip just as Darwin did, moving from island to island by small cruise boat or yacht.
Quito: The Ecuador Capital
Enroute to the Galapagos, try to arrange a stay of two days in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. You can spend one day exploring the Spanish colonial cultural treasures of the city. On the other day take a drive through the Andes to witness the fertile highlands and the major Indian craft market at Otavalo. Arrange for a guided tour to do this exploring efficiently.
In Quito, climb the bell tower of La Basilica to get a bird’s eye view of the city, including the Old City, which sits in front of a low mountain, called Panecillo. Then proceed to walk through the Old City, starting at Independence Square. Be sure to see the gold splendor of two colonial churches, the Cathedral and the Jesuit church La Campania. Nowhere does the opulence of the Spanish colonial era show itself more lavishly than in these churches. Nearby, the City Museum shows a visitor life in Quito for each century since its founding in 1534. One new attraction is the Chapel of Man, presenting the works of the noted contemporary Ecuador artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin, whose thematic preoccupation is the oppression of most people. On the ceiling of the main room he symbolized oppression with a mural of the harsh life of the silver miners of Potosi, Bolivia, who fueled the Spanish colonial prosperity.
Quito has some fine restaurants, such as La Querencia and El Galpon, where good choices are the ceviches of shrimp or sea bass, the locro soup of potatoes and cheese, the trout raised in the Andes, and the cornucopia of vegetables and fruits grown in the salubrious equatorial climate.
To see the fertile countryside, unusual because it is fecundity at a high altitude, take a day trip tour to Otavalo. At first you pass a desert terrain, but soon the landscape changes to a lush mountain farming environment, where commercial floriculture flourishes in huge greenhouses. Ecuador’s flowers are flown daily from Quito to markets around the world. After a stop at the Equatorial Marker, where you can literally place one foot in each hemisphere, you reach the remarkable village of Otavalo, with its two markets. The produce market abounds in the grains and fruits that grow so prolifically here. Many types of corn, potatoes, legumes, and berries can be seen at the market. Nearby is the famous craft weaving market, where Otavalo artisans display their fabrics and blankets. The quality is so high that Otavalo citizens sell their crafts all over the world. There is an air of agricultural and craft prosperity in the region. A tour may take you to see weavers at a village, such as Peguche.
The Tame Exotics of the Galapagos
From Quito it is a two-hour flight through Guayaquil to the islands of the Galapagos and their natural wonders.
The most remarkable aspect of the experience with fauna in the Galapagos is that the animals have no fear of human beings and consequently do not seek to flee or fly away. They have not had any adverse experiences with humans or other large predators that would prompt them to escape. Finches and mockingbirds in the bushes seem oblivious to your presence. Sea lions on the beach could not care less about you walking by. The land iguanas in the uplands do not scurry for cover at your approach. Wildlife in the Galapagos can be viewed from a few feet away.
The second most notable aspect of Galapagos wildlife is that it is so fecund and varied. A traveler will see, up close, thousands of sea lions snoozing, plus numerous birds, such as blue-footed boobies, and countless large iguanas, both land iguanas and marine iguanas, the latter swimming to get their food from the sea. The Galapagos is the only place in the world with marine iguanas. The biological richness of the Galapagos is due to the convergence of three nutrient-rich ocean currents–the Panama, Cromwell, and Humboldt currents. The name Galapagos arose from the shape of a certain tortoise shell, which resembled a Spanish horse saddle.
It’s easy to re-create the intellectual excitement that Darwin felt when he saw such variation of species, something that was not supposed to be. Species were supposed to be fixed from the moment of creation, according to the accepted theological and philosophical traditions of western thought.
However, as Darwin later wrote about the Galapagos, “By far the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago is that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings. We never dreamed that islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rock, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted.”
Only a few travelers get to the cluster of islands known as the Galapagos each year. Of the 150,000 annual visitors, some are Ecuadorians visiting their families (about 23,000 people live on the islands) and the rest are foreigners interested in nature-based travel. Many observers feel this is the maximum number that the sensitive ecological system of the Galapagos, a National Park of Ecuador since 1959, can support without being damaged by the visitor. The infrastructure of Galapagos tourism may not develop significantly to accommodate a larger influx of travelers.
How a Traveler Encounters the Galapagos
Galapagos travel is unlike any other adventure a traveler may have had.
The Galapagos travel package should be set up in advance through a travel agent or tour operator to include air, a hotel night to rest in Quito (and, ideally, a couple of days touring this major city), air flights out to the Galapagos and back, and then the most crucial matter, the boat and hotel from which you will see the islands.
From airports on two islands, Baltra and San Cristobal, about 80 boats take visitors around the islands. The boats may be small yachts carrying 8-15 passengers. Larger boats , such as the Santa Cruz, carry more passengers, like a small cruise ship. One dependable lodging is the Finch Bay Hotel on Santa Cruz Island.
The quality of the naturalist leading your hikes from the boat and hotel is critical for your understanding and enjoyment of the Galapagos.
All travel in the Galapagos National Park is conducted with a guide, by law. The guide spends the days on your boat, moving with you from island to island, explaining the fauna and flora. The guide will also accompany you on any hike in the park from a hotel.
Typically, from the Santa Cruz boat you visit Bartolome, James, Tower, North Seymour, and Santa Cruz islands. The visitor sites on each island, the choice wildlife-viewing places, are the highlight of the day. When you go ashore, the guide must go with you. You must stay on carefully-marked trails, which are wide and rocky. But don’t be anxious about any limitations on your freedom. You are assured of seeing all kinds of wildlife. In fact, you must be careful not to step on the wildlife, which is often sitting right in the middle of the trail.
During the day, there is usually a morning nature walk of two to three hour’s duration after breakfast. Then the boat is likely to make a run across the sea to another island for an afternoon walk. Some of the sea crossings occur at night.
The different islands each have their own qualities. For example, sea lions are everywhere, but fur seals can be seen on James Island. Blue-footed boobies are widely distributed, but red-footed boobies are rare, except on bird-rich Tower Island, where there are 140,000 nesting pairs of red-footed boobies. Each island has both its specialties and its reinforcing similarities as you survey the fauna and flora of this semi-arid archipelago.
Of the islands I visited, Darwin also stayed at James for a long time, nine days of his five-week visit. The abundance of wildlife and the general appearance of the island caused Darwin to declare James his favorite island in the Galapagos. The Puerto Egas walk on James Island presents an especially vivid display of wildlife, from Galapagos hawks to fur seals.
Three/four nights on the Santa Cruz boat and three nights at the Finch Bay Hotel are about the right amount of time to allow. A stay at the Finch Bay Hotel after a rigorous boat trip allows time to unwind as well as ample opportunity to view the giant tortoises at the Darwin Research Center. Try to spend a day on Santa Cruz Island searching for giant tortoises in the wild uplands of the national park adjacent to Rancho Primicias. Another day could be devoted to snorkeling, sea kayaking, or mountain biking. On Santa Cruz Island you can also hike at the El Garrapatero visitor site in the national park, where you can see many finches and mockingbirds, plus flamingoes, and a tawny sand beach adjacent to dramatic lava flows.
A stargazer from North America may see the fabled Southern Cross constellation, pointing directly to the south pole, if the night sky is clear. Guides tend to be well versed in reading the sky as well as the landscape.
The Wonders a Traveler Sees
The dazzling experience of the Galapagos is the elaborate encounter with relatively tame (but wild) mammals, birds, and reptiles, plus a perusal of desert-environment plants.
Among the mammals, sea lions lie everywhere and are completely unafraid. You can’t go wrong photographing these large mammals unless your camera totally malfunctions. You literally must walk around them because they are so numerous. July-September is a time of sea lion birthing, so the shores were filled with pups. At James Island, you can snorkel amidst the sleek sea lions, which go zooming past you in the water.
Bird life is abundant. Among land birds, of course, there are the celebrated Darwin finches, some 13 species, all marvelously adapted with beaks to crack seeds or feed in specialized ways. There is even one finch that can use a cactus spine tool to pry insects out of the crevices of opuntia cactus. Other land birds widely seen are the mockingbird, yellow warbler, and hawk. Half of the 58 Galapagos bird species are endemic, meaning found nowhere else. In other words, the birds evolved into new species or subspecies here in relative isolation.
Sea birds flourish in countless numbers. The booby is among the most ubiquitous, notable especially for the color of their feet, which may be blue or red. Frigate birds are the major scavengers. When something dies or is born, the frigates are present. Frigates fight over the placenta at a sea lion birth. While resting on land, the male frigate blows up his large red pouch with the hopes of attracting passing females, who are the mate choosers in this species. Oystercatchers, lava herons, and long-tailed red-billed tropicbirds are other avian pleasures. On Bartolome Island I saw Galapagos penguins, the only penguins north of the equator. With more time, I could have sought out Fernandina Island, which has flightless cormorants, birds whose wings have atrophied because they have no need to fly, a remarkable example of adaptation to environmental conditions. These cormorants do not need wings to get abundant near-shore food. With no predators, they have no need to escape with flight. Consequently, their wings gradually disappeared.
The iguanas of the Galapagos are extraordinary. Land iguanas are large and have colorful necks. Widely distributed also is a marine iguana that swims in the ocean and survives by eating algae. Giant tortoises are also a special feature of the Galapagos.
When you venture into the water with snorkel gear, you see the fecund world of small fish, the food chain basis for the birds. Aside from swimming with sea lions and penguins, the snorkeler sees many of the 360 species of fish found in these waters. Boobies and pelicans can sometimes be seen in feeding frenzies when schools of fish surface. Along the shore, red Sally Lightfoot crabs dart around the rocks, mindful of the lava herons looking for a crab dinner.
Plants on the Galapagos have evolved to become drought tolerant and to avoid being eaten by the land iguanas or tortoises. The tall opuntia cactus is an example. This cactus has grown tall to keep its succulent parts above the reach of the land iguanas and tortoises. Spines also make them difficult to eat. Palo Santo trees drop their leaves in the dry season to conserve moisture. A red groundcover, sesuvium, plus a tall opuntia cactus forest, can combine to present a striking landscape.
Galapagos boasts some lovely sand beaches for swimming and snorkeling, but the more typical impression of the Galapagos is that of a volcanic moonscape. On James Island there is a huge lava flow from as recently as 1897.
Concerns About The Galapagos Environment
Because it is such a valuable biotic domain, concerns about preserving the fauna and flora of the Galapagos Islands are paramount. The National Park concept of 1959 has been broadened to include a Marine Reserve designation (covering 3,500 square miles) and a World Heritage Site status.
As travelers become more sophisticated about ecotourism, the impact of inadvertent destruction from thoughtless practices becomes more minimal. Visitors to the Galapagos learn how to get close to the animals and yet not stress them, especially the nesting birds. Also, the Galapagos National Park leaders are becoming more conscious of the need to address traveler impact conservatively. For example, it was formerly possible to swim with the fur seals at James Island. This practice was later disallowed because the contact appeared to stress the seals.
Past food-gathering and food-raising practices have heavily damaged the environment here.
Whalers and other sailors harvested an estimated 100,000 tortoises as a red meat source over an 80 year period. The tortoises, in the age before refrigeration, could be kept alive on their backs in a ship for almost a year without any food or drink.
Explorers and settlers introduced goats and pigs, which escaped and multiplied. Feral pigs, for example, have decimated the green turtle population by eating the eggs, digging them up on the egg-laying beaches. There are an estimated 150,000 wild goats damaging the terrain, creating an incredible devastation. The rat inevitably arrived on early ships. Feral cats and dogs ravage certain landscapes. The release of all these animals has posed a threat to many species.
At the Charles Darwin Research Station, breeding programs attempt to replenish some species, such as the Espanola tortoise, after their adversaries in the immediate region have been eliminated. Tortoise eggs laid on various islands are brought to the Research Station, hatched successfully, and then the young tortoises are repatriated when they reach a size where survival rates are high.
Hunters also nearly eliminated the fur seal, just as the sea otter populations suffered in North America.
About three percent of the Galapagos is not a National Park, but 97 percent is fully protected by law. Farms and towns occupy that three percent of the land.
Capping the annual traveler impact is an important part of the management strategy. When the visitor sites on some islands become quite congested, the fragile desert flora becomes trampled and the animals are affected, even at the present level of use.
There is some dislike for the Japanese and other Asians among the eco-fans of the Galapagos. A trade in shark fins for shark fin soup has now been outlawed. The slaughter of large numbers of sharks for their fins alone has outraged many observers. The Asian passion for sea cucumbers is a further controversy. For some local fishermen, depleting the resource for their lucrative Asian market has meant a good livelihood. Long-line fishing boats that scour the ocean floor along the edge of the Marine Reserve, capturing everything from sea turtles to diving birds, along with all fish that bite a baited hook or can’t escape a net, are another environmental challenge. An oil spill at San Cristobal Island in 2001 did some damage to the algae that is the food source of the marine iguana.
Traveling through the Galapagos ranks high on many trips-of-a-lifetime lists. The abundance of tame and unusual animals on these remote volcanic islands makes travel here unlike travel anywhere else. The knowledge that Charles Darwin’s observations here were critical for development of the theory of evolution makes an excursion to the Galapagos also an intellectual adventure.
Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands: If You Go
Reliable information comes from the private tour operators who organize the business. One example is Metropolitan Touring, which pioneered Galapagos travel and recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. Their website is www.metropolitan-touring.com.