Were the Galapagos at the very top of my bucket list for years and years and years? Yes. Were the Galapagos Islands anything like what I expected? No. Was I disappointed? Oh, no, quite the contrary. I’d be happy to return again; after all, I haven’t made it to the island the red footed boobies call home yet!
It’s hard to describe the experience of being in the Galapagos. The lure of these Islands is undeniable, with its promise of encountering animals you can’t see anywhere else in the world. For me, that’s a powerful attraction for sure.
What I was not prepared for was the subtlety of the “wildlife viewing”experience. Instead of driving for long distances, searching diligently across expanses of grasslands for hours, hoping for a glimpse of large animals like you do in Africa, you walk along carefully marked trails, trying not to interfere with the much smaller but just as exotic animals, which are everywhere. Instead of worrying about getting too close, to keep from scaring them away or getting hurt, these animals have no fear of humans and humans need not fear them. It turns out that the most striking part of the Galapagos experience is just how up close and personal you can get with the animals.
Along with the surprising accessibility of its animals, each island in the archipelago has its own story, told by its distinct geology, flora and fauna. Each island has a different volcanic timeline, resulting in slight but tangible differences in plant growth and fascinating adaption of many of its animals, especially birds. There are amazing birds throughout the world, but rarely are you able to walk through large bird nurseries and watch parents feeding their young, absolutely oblivious to you. There are also beautiful beaches in many parts of the world (although I dare say none more beautiful than the ones we visited in the Galapagos), but I doubt there are any others where you can swim with frolicking seals and bobbing pelicans and none of them mind having you there. Or lie on the beach to soak up some rays next to a few basking seals. No problem here.
Wonderful birds abound, endemic to the Galapagos and otherwise: Galapagos penguins (yes, penguins at the equator), flightless cormorants, blue-footed and red-footed boobies, masked boobies, gulls, hawks, doves, finches, flycatchers, mockingbirds, albatross, frigate birds, and pelicans. Many display the differences in adaptation to variation in food from one island to another that so intrigued Charles Darwin in the 1830s, providing him with further verification for his emerging theory of evolution. Among the least eye-catchinging birds we saw, though central to Darwin’s work, were the drab 15 species of Darwin’s finches found on the Islands (bearing no relation to other finches), whose subtle beak differences caught Darwin’s attention.
And don’t forget the iguanas. There are two types of iguana in the Galapagos, marine iguanas and land iguanas, both of which have faces (and bodies) only a mother could love. They grow to be about 4-5 feet long, although they have differences in size and colour depending on which island they inhabit. They are not pretty, for sure, but harmless. They scurry across rocks, wharfs and beaches, sun themselves on rocky perches, and can be found sleeping together in piles of 10-15 bodies. Quite the sight! Marine iguanas come in a variety of colours, from black to dark green to red. Those on Espanola Island have bright red and green exteriors, giving them the nickname “Christmas Iguana”. Differences in their island food sources give them their distinctive colouration. I’m glad that effect doesn’t happen with humans!
A typical visit to the Galapagos, which is actually a province of Ecuador, involves flying from the mainland of Ecuador to the Islands, more or less 600 miles west of South America along the equator. For a full experience you need to board one of many available small cruise boats. The cruise ships offer a pretty idyllic experience, providing a very comfortable home base while transporting you to different island locations for guided tours each day. If you like beautiful warm weather, rare habitats of nature, and truly unique interactions with rarely seen wildlife, you should put the Galapagos on your list. And, if you go, make sure you take a good wildlife guide with you; there’s so much to learn while you’re there.
Bolivia/Peru/Galapagos: #3 of our top 5 favourite trips of all time.
Photo credits: Howard Fritz