The rickety old bus taking me from the airport to the pier suddenly grinds to a halt. ‘’Iguana,” murmurs the driver. And there sure enough, taking his time as he crosses the road in front of us, is an iguana.
It was a perfect welcome to the Galapagos, a group of islands on the equator 965km off the coast of South America, famed not only for its wildlife but also the fact they are clearly unafraid of humans. And from this first encounter, no fear of vehicles either.
Like everyone else on the bus, I had flown from Quito, Ecuador to join a cruise around the Galapagos Islands on Silver Galapagos: a ship owned by Silversea, one of the world’s most luxurious cruise lines. There are hotels on a couple of the islands, but I reasoned a cruise offered the chance to maximise our time. In our case 11 sites on seven islands, going ashore in most places (landings are made by inflatable Zodiacs) to learn about the unique flora and fauna.
The ship is small and comfortable, holding just 100 passengers. The large lecture room was the most frequented space after the dining room: it was used for daily briefings, talks about flora, fauna and Charles Darwin, and our meeting point to go ashore. Landings are tightly controlled to ensure the islands’ fragile eco-system is preserved. All trips have to be accompanied by one of the ship’s naturalists (registered by the Galapagos National Park and, like the crew of all ships in the island, must come from Ecuador) and no one is allowed to stray from the path.
Lesson one: when heading to the Galapagos pack a swim suit! Snorkelling was an option on four of our six days’ cruising, and was an unforgettable opportunity to swim with turtles, penguins and playful sea lions. We were all briefed not to touch fish or sea plants, or to stand on underwater rocks, to ensure the longevity of this precious ecosystem.
The first landing was early on our first morning. It turned out to be a keep-fit field trip, as we clambered 388 steps to the top of Bartolome island for a view over Santiago’s sprawling lava fields. That afternoon, on a walk around Santiago’s Playa Espumilla, we were introduced to some of the 13 species of finches that live in the Galapagos. Fascinatingly they have evolved with different beaks, depending whether they feed on fruit, seeds or insects.
The finches spark great excitement as some credit them as being the main inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution, developed after his visit to the Galapagos in 1835 and laid out in his book The Origin of Species. I have to confess to being more a fan of the humble lava lizards. There are seven species in the Galapagos, and they communicate via a sequence of ‘push-ups’, which are different on each island. It means lizards from, say, Bartolome, can’t ‘talk’ to lizards from Fernandina.
Next morning, instead of a landing, the expedition team took us on a Zodiac cruise around a small bay off the island of Isabela. This was one of the highlights of the cruise for me – a first glimpse of a Galapagos penguin, sea turtles and the flightless cormorants and marine iguanas that are endemic to the islands, as well as numerous pelicans. It was so magical I could have stayed for hours.
But by lunchtime we were sailing away, next stop Fernandina, the newest island in the archipelago, where we stepped ashore into a mess of marine iguanas basking in the sun. Never was a collective noun so apt given the disorderly way they lie, often on top of each other, camouflaged by the lava, and completely unmoved by our arrival.
I went for the long walk with Hernan, one of five naturalists travelling with us. We spent the afternoon hiking over lava fields to a small inlet packed with sea turtles. Picking our way around a rocky headland inhabited by sea lions, we discovered yet more marine iguanas.
Next day at Isabela we had a morning hike around Darwin Lake, and an atmospheric afternoon Zodiac cruise through thick mangroves. Then it was on to Floreana, where we clambered into a lava cave before visiting the Post Office – a grand name for a wooden barrel that has been serving as a mail box since 1793. You put in your postcard and hope a passenger from another ship will pick it up and deliver it.
In San Cristobal, we saw our first giant tortoises and programme that helped save them from extinction (they used to be hunted for their meat by whalers and sealers). It was a great morning out, but my tortoise highlight came the next day in Santa Cruz, where we headed up to the highlands to watch them in the wild. Though in the Galapagos, wildlife is not restricted to the wild. My final wonderful memory was watching cheeky pelicans and sea lions trying to pinch the goodies in Santa Cruz’s fish market. In the Galapagos, nature packs a personality you will never forget.
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