words | Lewis Stagnetto
Located in the Pacific Ocean about 970 km west of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are most famously associated with 19th century naturalist, Charles Darwin. Made up from 18 islands, this archipelago continues to be constructed by volcanic activity deep within the earth’s crust along the Nazca tectonic plate fault line. These plates are presently being forced apart which generates a massive amount of heat and volcanic activity. The eruptions create volcanoes which form the island archipelago land mass; this is known scientifically as hot spot theory. On average, there are around 13 eruptions every 100 years and the last eruption happened on Fernandina in 2009.
The landscape is dominated by the igneous rock formations associated with volcanism and was once described by a bishop of Panama, Fray Tomás de Barlanga, in a letter to the King of Spain in April 26, 1535 as “the earth that there, is like slag, worthless, because it does not have the virtue to create a little grass…”. But don’t let that put you off going there as he only visited one of the islands after all. A less known fact is that the bishop is responsible for the name Galapagos which means saddle. The bishop used this name with reference to the large tortoise shell and it stuck for the archipelago as a whole.
The archipelago land mass is approximately 7,880 km2 but the entire area is more like 45,000 km2 with the total area being designated as the first UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) in 1978. Of this land mass, 97% is national park with the remaining 3% being made up from the five inhabited islands. Around the islands, a total of 133,000km2 is designated as a marine reserve which achieved the UNESCO WHS in 1998.
Taken from the Spanish empire in 1832, the archipelago officially belongs to Ecuador who subsequently renamed all the islands and gave them their present Spanish names; a cheap price for the wonder they are. The capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, is located on the island of San Cristóbal and has a population of around 6000 residents.
Isabela, is the largest of the islands and Puerto Villamil hosts around 2000 residents. Total population of legal residents on the islands is estimated at around 25,000 making it very comparable to Gibraltar.
The Galapagos have two main seasons; the dry season from June to December and the warm season from December to May. The dry season is typically blue skies and midday showers whilst the warm season is much more tropical with frequent daily showers and cloudy skies. Due to its location on the equator, Galapagos can be visited all year round as the warm temperature only varies between 20-30oC.
An interesting fact is that the archipelago weather is determined directly by oceanic currents. As it’s located on the western Pacific, it is harshly affected by El Niño events which occur roughly once every four years. The winds change direction which alter the flow of the local currents. Upwelling in the region stops completely and as a result the surface waters warm. As the surface waters warm, a thermocline is established and this prevents vertical mixing with the nutrient rich deep water. The lack of these vital nutrients affect the distributions and densities of marine algae and in turn this has hugely detrimental effects on the rest of the food chain. In some of the worst years around 50% of the sea lions in Galapagos starved as a result of this phenomenon.
Most people are aware of the famous Beagle visit to Galapagos in which Darwin was inspired to write his ‘Origin of Species’ paper which broke evolutionary science to the world. As a result, one can expect to see some of the most unique wildlife in the world in a very small area. The most famous of these are the Galapagos Finches which Darwin himself studied. Local Island ecology has shaped the beaks of these birds depending on the food available to them. This genetic isolation has adapted the finches into unique species which are expert foragers on their island.
Finches are not the only birds found on the islands and Galapagos is renowned for its bird life. Black frigate birds, with an impressive 2.3 metre wing span, dominate the skies. During the breeding season, the male puffs up a huge gular pouch which it uses to attract the females. Frigate birds are seasonally monogamous and lay a single egg. The level of parental care is amongst the longest of any other species and this is probably due to the fact that they breed every other season.
Another famous Aves resident is the Blue-footed booby, which, as its name suggests, has distinctly blue feet. However, the name for the booby comes from the Spanish bobo, which means stupid. The birds received this name because of their blue feet and the association with circus clowns. Blue is not a common colouration in nature and the birds achieve this through their fish diet which contains high levels of anti-oxidants. As part of the gannet family, the boobies are impressive fish catchers and plunge dive up to 35 meters under water. They actually flap their wings whilst swimming which has to be seen to be believed.
Marine iguanas litter the coastlines of the islands and are the only swimming iguana in the
world. As with all ectotherms, they need to warm up in order to get their metabolism going. As a result, their skin has a tendency towards dark colours to absorb as much heat as possible from the sun before entering the ocean to feed on green algae on the sea bed. Although one might not expect it, marine iguanas are exceptionally good swimmers using their tails to propel them through the water in a snake like fashion.
Another rare site are the Galapagos penguins which can be seen between the west coast of Isabela and Fernandina. The only penguins that live north of the equator, they nest between May and January. I found the experience of looking out to sea and spotting a penguin leaping out the water to be pretty surreal especially as I was in a t-shirt and shorts!
The iconic Galapagos tortoise is so large it can carry a man and weighs in at around 270 kg.
They have a lifespan of around 120 years and it is said that many still remember the buccaneers which used to take them as food. Consequently, they are not very comfortable around people but they are very safe to watch from a distance. Darwin discovered that each island has its own species which can be differentiated from the pattern of the animal’s carapace. Of all the species of tortoise, the most famous is called Lonesome George. George was the last surviving member of his species and attempts to breed him with other females failed. On the 24th June 2012 the world lost another species and George was no more.
The volcanic landscape does not allow much flora the chance to develop and as one might expect, it is dominated by desert specialists. There are some interesting differences that have developed in these plants which underpins exactly why Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis was born here. Many species of cacti are preyed upon by the land iguanas that inhabit the various islands. As members of the succulent plants, the cacti are filled with water and a natural food item for the iguanas. Here comes the special bit; as with any arms race between predator and prey, the cacti have started developing differences from its relatives on the mainland. For a start, it has developed a long trunk to raise it from the ground. The longer the trunk, the less chance there is of a hungry iguana eating it. The iguanas have responded in turn by tending to grow to larger which is the opposite of what one would expect from island dwellers.
For those with a more adventurous disposition, a dive trip out to Gordon Rocks is recommended. At this location, the currents are strong due to a geological formation which squeezes water through a narrow channel. It therefore becomes a bottleneck for marine life wishing to pass from one side to the other. Naturally, where there is prey, there are predators, lots of predators! Gordon Rocks boasts one of the largest known schools of hammerhead sharks and as a diver, you get to see them up close and personal.
Travelling and trips
One can only reach the islands via a short internal flight from within Ecuador. Quito and Guayaquil airports, service both Baltra and San Cristóbal with the former requiring an additional boat trip to the island of Santa Cruz as there is no settlement on it. Flights are typically between $500-600 and are subject to change at a moment’s notice reflecting the informal nature of arrangements in the region.
Some people prefer island hopping between Isabela, San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz and Floreana, as accommodation can be found on all and this avoids the potential sea sickness issues associated with the cruises. Accommodation can be obtained relatively cheaply starting from about $15 a room per night. This figure will rise depending on how much you require your creature comforts but the entry level should be sufficient for most people.
The downside of island hopping is that not all of the 18 islands have settlements and you will be missing out on some of the most unique wildlife that Galapagos has to offer. Private boat trips can be chartered for the day but this option will prove to become increasingly expensive if you want to visit various islands. Each day trip will cost you around £150 per person and some of the remotest islands cannot be visited.
Charters of four, five and eight days are available and can be booked prior to you even leaving home. In my experience, arranging it in this way can be expensive, circa £1400 per person, and you run the risk of not liking the boat you end up in, as the pictures do not always measure up. I was able to negotiate an eight day trip on the dock side and had the advantage of physically being able to see what I was signing up for, at a fraction of the price. All the charters try to leave with a full boat so you might grab yourself a bargain. This option does come with its risks, as travellers tight on time might not have the flexibility to sit and wait on the dockside, especially with young children.
Once on a cruise, your food and accommodation is covered in the price you pay. The vessel will have a route it sticks to, generally, you visit a different island each day, and it comes with its own naturalist who guides you around the marked paths on the islands. Due to the UNESCO WHO and the nature reserve, travellers are not allowed to stray from the marked paths and repeated offenders will be prevented from making landfall on future island reserves throughout their cruise. In some extreme cases, a fine might also be imposed.
The Galapagos trips are not only focused at nature lovers as they also have a strong family theme. The “Treasure Chaser” cruise is designed especially for our young ones. The trip is pirate orientated with a focus on pirate history and their buried treasures, all whilst sailing in picturesque pirate territory. Whilst on board, there are whale watching excursions and even swimming with the wild sea lions to be experienced. On land, there are caves to be explored, volcanoes to be walked across and lava tunnels to crawl through. Rest assured they will drop like lead at the end of each day!
Another notable mention goes to the Charles Darwin Research Station located on Santa Cruz. The research centre has a tortoise conservation project taking place. The centre hatches and grows the different island species until they are large enough to be re-patriated to their respective islands. Visitors are able to enjoy viewing these magnificent creatures in the closest proximity although, as with most things on Galapagos, look but don’t touch!
Food and Drink
All of the major settlements have a wide range of restaurants catering to various culinary and dietary requirements. As one would expect, there is a clear tendency towards seafood and this is always fresh and cheap as it’s caught locally by specially licenced fishermen. Fish is always a good option here as it is plentiful and very tasty. The only word of caution is that Pacific fish are not just different in name to the eastern Atlantic species we are used to. The flavour of the fish is also pretty distinct which will not be a problem if you are a seafood lover but, might pose an issue if you are particular.
However, there are restaurants which service food more typical to South America. Ceviche is one such example and is made from fresh fish which has been cured in citrus juices with raw onions, coriander and chili peppers. According to archaeological records, various versions of ceviche have been eaten in South America for around 2000 years, making it an integral part of local cuisine.
If raw fish is not your thing, then there are various Italian style restaurants which serve dishes which are far more familiar to us. The downside of these restaurants is that most of the ingredients are not grown locally and have to be shipped in. This increases the cost of the food significantly.
My favourite way of eating was to choose a restaurant which was serving up a set menu. Typically, there will be something on the menu that you have never tried before but the experience will set you back no more than $5 which is exceptionally good value for island tucker.
Galapagos has no rivers or natural springs and this forces the importation of all water, making even a cup of coffee in the mornings, pretty extortionate. There is little to no party scene on the islands so dispel any ideas of Ibiza. However, there is a wide and delicious array of cocktails available ensuring a pounding headache the next morning should you indulge too much.
Galapagos offers some amazing photographic opportunities. You will find yourself in very close proximity to a lot of wildlife and the lack of fear towards man allows you to take shots which would be impossible elsewhere in the world. The scenery is volcanic and dramatic. The differences between the islands is pronounced, requiring any landscape photographers to constantly snap away. How about rocking up on a beach made up from black volcanic sand? Take a camera with A LOT of storage!
Further to that, it is also a good idea to take a waterproof camera, even if it’s only 5-10m resistant. The warm tropical waters are inviting, and you will inevitably bump into a green turtle or sea lion whilst you swim. They are friendly and curious and you will regret not having some snaps of the encounter should you be without it. Disposable cameras are available for use but the quality is never great and you will have to develop them before you can see how the picture came out.
In summary, Galapagos remains one of my favourite holidays for its pure magical experience. It is real life, up close and personal. Free from the trappings of technology and immersed in a wildlife experience, it is rivalled by no other. I found each island to be awe inspiring in its own right.
An observation by Charles Darwin jotted in his journal in 1835 is as true today as it was then “These Islands seem to be a little world within themselves, a perennial source of new things”. What better experience could one ask for from a well needed break? To describe it in my own words, I would employ one; Magic!