If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

The Galápagos: Up Close and Personal


Years ago, while taking the train from Nairobi to Mombasa I recall thinking that traveling in Africa was reminiscent of childhood. As we passed by herds of elephants and giraffes, I remembered how we learned to read, memorizing letters by their animal counterparts: E is for elephant, G is for giraffe, L is for lion. It felt comfortable, like going home.

Well, going to the Galápagos is different. It’s like going back to before time began. Much, not all, of the environment is young and stark and raw. Lava fields stretch out before you, sharp, black and treacherous. Strange cactuses have evolved trunks to place their succulent leaves out of reach of creatures that would eat them. Those creatures, tortoises, have themselves evolved longer necks and saddleback shells that allow them to reach higher.

Volcanoes still emit steam and threaten to explode as this land is still growing, fed by molten lava from the depths of the earth. The Nazca Plate on which the Galápagos sit moves imperceptibly towards the South American landmass 600 miles to the east where it is being subducted under the continental plate. As it moves over a stationary hot spot in the earth’s mantle, more lava spews forth to create new islands while others, perhaps, sink into the depths.

The Galápagos are young, ranging from the youthful Ferdandina Island at 700,000 years old to the creaky-kneed Espanola at 3.25 million years old, much younger than the Hawaiian Islands at 20 million years.

And then there are the animals. Huge, lumbering land tortoises who look like ET but have no phone with which to call home. Iguanas, land or sea versions, are smaller versions of the dinosaurs of bad dreams. Birds with puffy bright red necks to attract mates and show no fear of humans or another creature. Galápagos sea lions who will swim right up to you and nip your fins or camera and flick away while throwing bubbles at you.

No, the Galápagos are different. They are unlike anywhere else on earth and your time here will be unlike anything you have ever experienced in your life. I flat-out guarantee it.

Four of us flew to Quito, Ecuador at the end of January. A man one row in front of us asked us if we were on the Rhodes Scholar tour of the Galápagos. Thinking he was a pretentious twit, I replied no, we were with the Mensa group. Turns out that mensa in Spanish means stupid. It also turns out that there is a travel organization called Road Scholar so anytime any of us did something dumb we’d say SM, for Spanish Mensa. And if we ever did something smart, we’d say EM for English Mensa. To illustrate, buying the brand-new Oceanic+ dive housing for my iPhone was EM. Waiting to read the manual until just before my first snorkel outing? SM.

Of Pirates, Buccaneers and Naturalists

It is not known who or when the first person stepped ashore one of the 70 or so islets and islands but the first recorded visit was by the Bishop of Panama whose ship was blown off course in 1535. Soon to follow were pirates and buccaneers who used the islands for refuge between attacks on Spanish galleons carrying Incan gold back to the King. Then came the whalers who used the islands as a base to slaughter sperm whales and the extraordinarily tame sea lions. Tortoises were captured by the thousands and used for food and oil aboard ship as they lasted for a long time without food or water. It’s commonly reported that they were stored upside-down; an unlikely practice as it would soon lead to death from respiratory failure.

One visitor to the islands was the US Navy frigate Essex which arrived in 1813 during the War of 1812. The captain apparently let loose four goats who soon begat more goats who begat more goats and so on. Able to out-compete the native tortoises, the goat population grew to around 250,000 while the tortoise dropped from 150,000 to an estimated 15,000 over the course of 150 years.

In the 1990s, Project Isabela was created to eradicate goats from the islands. Sharpshooters were imported from New Zealand who used helicopters to kill goats from the air. Feral pigs and donkeys were also part of the plan. The elimination of introduced species and breeding programs continues to be the goal of the Galápagos Conservancy and the Galápagos National Park Directorate. While still considered threatened, breeding programs have had some success in restoring native populations.

Perhaps the most famous visitor to the Galápagos was the English naturalist, geologist, and biologist Charles Darwin. Darwin visited the islands for about a month in 1835 during his five-year journey aboard the HMS Beagle and his observations of different species and their adaptations to their environments played a crucial role in the development of his evolutionary theory. His groundbreaking work, On The Origin of Species was published in 1859, almost a quarter-century after visiting the Galápagos.

Flora and Fauna

A present-day visitor can expect a close-up view to the natural aspects of the islands. While one is expected and admonished to keep a minimum of feet distance from the wildlife, sometimes the wildlife has not heard of that rule. Sea lions have little concept of personal space and the young ones will swim up to you while snorkeling and show no hesitation in bumping your camera or nibbling your flippers.

Older bulls are more standoffish and aloof but one I drifted towards soon established his territory by showing me his teeth and pushing my camera away (see above). I would have moved away from the bull even without my naturalist guide telling me to except for the calf cramp that suddenly came on. That was a SSLM (Spanish Sea Lion Mensa) moment.

Birds, iguanas, lava lizards are all remarkably tame and show no fear of humans. Tortoises are shy at worst and will tuck themselves inside their shells. Should they decide to make a run for it, they are easy to catch as their top speed clocks in at only 0.16 mph.


Most flights to the Galápagos fly into Baltra Island from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Formerly a U.S. Air Force base during WWII, Baltra is the stepping off point for transfer to tour boats or to the other islands. While many travelers choose ship-based travel, others opt for land-based itineraries or a mixture of both. Ours was a smaller, 16-passenger vessel (as are most locally owned ships). Despite being nearly 100 feet long, there was a fair amount of rocking and rolling on some parts of the seven-day itinerary.

Our guides, Juan Carlos Lomilla and Orlando Penaherreta, were government-certified and possessed a wealth of knowledge about the archipelago’s geology, natural history and the animals we were there to see. The passengers were from throughout the U.S. with the exception of Jim, a tight-lipped member of the British Navy stationed in Washington, D.C. Despite many subtle hints, he refused to tell us what he did for a living, leaving us to conclude he was a liaison for the Trident missile program, at the very least.

Some of the key populated areas and tourist hubs in the Galápagos include:

Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the Galápagos and is located on Santa Cruz Island. It serves as a central hub for tourism, with various accommodations, restaurants, shops, and tour operators. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the capital of the Galápagos Province and is located on San Cristóbal Island. It’s another significant town with amenities for tourists, including accommodations and excursion services.

Puerto Villamil is the largest settlement on Isabela Island. It’s a more laid-back town compared to Puerto Ayora, with beautiful beaches and proximity to various natural attractions.

These towns are the main bases for tourists exploring the Galápagos Islands, providing access to guided tours, cruises, and other activities that allow visitors to experience the unique wildlife and landscapes of the archipelago. Accommodations range in price and luxury from exotic villas to hotels to hostels.

Keep in mind that the Galápagos are a protected area, and tourism is regulated to minimize environmental impact and preserve the delicate ecosystems.

Suggested Reading:

Galápagos: A Natural History by John Kricher & Kevin Loughlin, Princeton University Press, $29.99 paperback or EBF. Written with wit and verve, this is a must-read richly illustrated nature tour of the Galápagos.

On The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin from various publishers.    X