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Giant Tortoises roam the Galapagos.
The Galapagos Islands: A "Controlled Adventure"



The volcanic island off the port side was just beginning to display its shape, and the steaming cup of Ecuadorian coffee was as welcome as the sun peaking over the island's rugged profile. Everyday, my morning vista was different, thanks to the captain and crew of the M/Y Eric.

About 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, surrounded by the mighty Pacific, lay the "Enchanted Islands" -- the Galapagos. The islands are perhaps the biggest, best natural laboratory in the world.

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Though Charles Darwin spent only five weeks there, it gave him a timeless legacy, and offered contemporary naturalists a haven. I wanted to see first hand how responsibly the UNESCO site was treated, so I boarded a LAN Chile flight and headed south for a Do-It-Yourself adventure in Darwin's lab.

The Controlled Adventure

My first thoughts while arriving at the airport on the island of Baltra seemed a move to an Orwellian scenario. Bags checked yet again. "Who are you with and where are you going? Please open your camera bag again".

In reality, I should have been very pleased that the National Park Guards were just looking for unwelcome species--insects, spores, molds, and other predators. With the number of visitors reaching 60,000 a year, the precautions to preserve the Galapagos Archipelago have become most necessary. To that end, both the National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation have worked steadily to ensure low impact visits to the various islands. The most important rules are:

· All travel must have a naturalist guide for land excursion to the sites.No groups larger than 16 people are permitted to follow the carefully marked trails laid out to avoid interfering with the animals breeding, courtship, and living areas.

· Do not feed the animals.
· Do not take any food to the islands.
· Be careful not to transport any live material to the islands or from island to island.
· Show a conservationist attitude.

You can't just anchor up at the Galapagos Islands by yourself, however: you must become a passenger on a ship licensed to bring travelers to the islands. Some of these are day-trip ships leaving from Santa Cruz Island (where there are also a few hotels, restaurants, etc.), but most are overnighters. While vigorously independent travelers may balk at having to be shepherded around, allowing only licensed vessels to cruise the islands is a way of protecting them and their incredible natural wonders.

Start Your Engines

For the traveler in the Galapagos, the main thing is choosing a vessel that will take you from island to island. Since you will most likely be living aboard the boat for anywhere from a few days to a week or so, you will want to choose according your budget and comfort levels. However, these aren't the only considerations: every vessel is assigned stops and allowed time at various islands and every island has different creatures, habitat and activities.

· Sailboats usually mean slower travel between islands and less space aboard. In exchange you get a slower and more intimate trip.

· Yachts offer more mobility yet the smaller number of passengers. In general your cabin space will offer more. Do not think of yachts as a lotto winner or millionaire's choice, they are quite reasonable.

· Cruise ships are usually in the 125-300 foot range. With hotel like accommodations, the comfort level is high, but with 50 to 100 passengers aboard your actual land visits are minimized.

Make sure you know just what you want to see and how! Do the research!


Aboard the Motor Yacht Eric

As I stepped into cabin D-4 on the 83ft M/Y Eric I was immediately satisfied with my choice of the motor yacht. The top floor cabin featured windows looking both port and backside of the vessel. The public spaces were well appointed and well laid out.

The outside decks and passageways offered full exposure to the sea and islands. The companies that book and operate the boat, Galapagos Network and Ecoventura, also have stellar reputations for responsible travel. Their latest certification was from The Rain Forest Alliance in December 2001.

We met our licensed head guide, Orlando Romero, at the post-boarding meeting. Orlando worked for the National Park Service for 17 years and achieved the highest rating possible from the Service and the Darwin Foundation before joining Ecoventura. His expertise and patience proved to be beyond monetary measure.

With only 16 passengers aboard, our land excursions were in-groups of 8, which gave us all plenty of time and space to truly learn. Other benefits of choosing the Eric included the use of sea kayaks, snorkeling equipment and swimming platform. With wonderful people, great food and comfortable accommodations, I easily adapted to my controlled adventure.

The Real Stars

Darwin put it best when he wrote, "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 different sets of beings."

This is still true today; every island maintains its own characters and creatures. None of our two daily shore excursions were repetitive. In the course of the trip, I found myself swimming with sea lions, snorkeling with sharks, leaping around lizards and taking time with tortoises. Blue footed boobies and fully inflated, red-throated male frigates endlessly puff up and caw for mates. From the top deck, whales, dolphins and sea turtles are constantly something to be on watch for. Red sand beaches blend into snow-white beaches and life in the laboratory continues much as it did when Darwin visited and gawked.

The Galapagos comprise more than a dozen different islands off the coast of Ecuador.
The Galapagos comprise more than a dozen
different islands off the coast of Ecuador.
Every island is different, but here are the highlights of the islands I visited:

· Tower Island ( Genovasa )
Located north of the equator, the island is the remains of a volcano filled with water. A landing at Darwin's Bay will take you to magnificent Frigate Birds' nesting grounds where the males' puffed red throats are amazing. Red-footed boobies also predominate. Swimming and sea kayaking are superb.

· Tagus Cove (Isabella)
The largest island in the Galapagos is formed by six volcanoes and offers the chance to climb and observe finches, salt-water lagoons and graffiti from the 1800's. In the cove, you will observe Galapagos Penguins, sea birds and impressive cliffs.

· Punta Espinoza (Fernandia)
Fernandia is the newest of the islands. The swarms of marine iguanas on the island are the largest colony in the archipelago. The rugged shore also is a great place to observe sea lion harems, so watch out for the resident bull lions.

· Puerto Egas (Bartolome)
The best place to actually swim or snorkel with penguins and schools of tropical fish. A 30-minute hike up a once active volcano will give you the chance to enjoy lunar landscape. The lava bombs and spatter cones give insight to the formation of a volcanic island. The view from the top showcases the much-photographed Pinnacle Rock.

· Rabida ( Jervis)
One of my favorites, the brick red beach is full of sea lions playing along the shore. A salt pond nearby provides the viewing of Galapagos flamingos. The best snorkeling of the trip was at the right end of the beach. The cliffs descend straight into the water and the walls provide colorful places for schools of fish. Here, the baby sea lions swam right up to me and peered into my mask. Their acrobatics provided hours of entertainment and memories that still make me chuckle. The thrill of a nurse shark swimming below me is forever etched in my mind.

Santa Cruz

After a few days at sea, arrival in Santa Cruz was a welcome stop. Here, you will actually see a Galapagos rarity--a town. Puerto Ayora is a brightly painted handsome seaside settlement. Lively restaurants and bars are interspersed with stores and souvenir shops. It is also the place to stay, if not cruising the Islands. Small hotels abound and some tourist offices offer inexpensive 2 and 3 night boat deals.

One must see location in town is the Darwin Research Center. This is where you will most likely first see the Galapagos' pinup--the giant tortoises-whose preservation is the key function of the Center. Fascinating facts about the islands and the giant sea tortoises are explained. From eggs to giants, the beauties are on display and cared for.

The Center is also the home of Lonesome George, the only surviving tortoise of the Pinta subspecies. At 70, George is at his peek, yet will not mate with the countless females he has been paired with… not even his heart shaped pool helps. There is a $10,000 dollar reward for a female Pinta tortoise with a libido… spread the word.

If you get a chance, head by cab or bus to the Santa Cruz highlands and Steve Devine's Butterfly Farm. For $2 you can wander the fields and see the tortoises roam in the open and on their own. With horseback riding, kayaking and sightseeing of the more urban kind, Santa Cruz is a worthy destination on its own after a cruise.

So Much to Sea

No matter how you choose to cruise, the Galapagos Islands will long remain in your heart and mind. The thousands of species being protected here have given me a larger respect for responsible tourism and those that police, protect and care. Without them, we would never have the chance to see the world through Darwin's eyes.

 




Kent St. John is Senior Travel Editor of GoNOMAD.com


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