By Ernie Alderete
Of course, you’ve read about them, seen documentaries on the Discovery Channel, and heard tall tales about them, but nothing prepares you for actually setting foot upon these miraculous parcels of harsh lava, jagged stone and arid foot upon these miraculous parcels of harsh lava, jagged stone and arid land.
A magical archipelago of a dozen, or so islands where you can find snow-white, powder soft beaches on one island, coarse black volcanic sand beaches on another, rugged bright red sand on still another, and on one, incredible jade-like green sand that sparkles like crystals in the sun.
The islands are a national park, so all the wildlife is protected, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. You can still swim right alongside prehistoric-looking marine iguanas, hike across incredible lava fields, scale sheer rock cliffs. Or, swim in incredible limpid green natural pools surrounded by hundred foot tall stone outcrops that stand as sentinels to shield your delicate skin from the blistering sun.
The water in some lakes is a deep organic shade of crimson; in others it is as pink as a pimp’s Cadillac and all due to microorganisms that make their home in their depths. The same critters that give the flamingos that feed on them their dazzling pigment. The entire landscape is a kaleidoscope of unexpected colors, forms and shapes.
The animals are all tame of course, with no fear of mankind. But that doesn’t mean they’re harmless! Don’t make the mistake of standing between a bull walrus and his mate. He will blast you with a deafening roar, and if that doesn’t get you running, he will charge you barring his sharp white tusks all the while.
Actually, I was more impressed with a much smaller animal, the silly sounding blue-footed booby. A bird that looks like some prankster painted his over-sized webbed feet shocking blue! So brilliant a shade of blue just doesn’t seem part of the natural order of things.
There are virtually no man made improvements on the islands, except for your port of entry on the island if Santa Cruz with its airport and small town created to house workers necessary to service the tourist trade.
On the other islands about the only human structures you will find are marked trails, and a few signposts. So this really is a Garden of Eden. You will breath what is probably the most pristine air your lungs have ever inhaled, the water is pollution-free and teeming with life.
There are many ways to explore the islands. From a small ship that carries twenty passengers, to a large yacht that can accommodate a hundred voyagers. I foolishly opted for the smallest boat I could find, the Daphne, which was so old and battered that she was making her last voyage before being hacked to pieces for firewood.
She was indeed creaky, but intimate. Several times her antiquated engines just gave out, and we were stranded for hours. But o one was ever really concerned; some passengers took the opportunity to dive overboard. The crew fished for that night’s dinner, and worked on the repairs.
Mostly meals were fish, and other seafood. One night we had the tastiest lobster I ever sunk my teeth into. Most times it was one species of just caught fish, or another, with a variety of side dishes and delicious salads.
I liked my shipmates. We had time to pair off at the Quito Airport before boarding out flight to the insular airport at Santa Cruz. I gravitated to a young man from Germany. You’ll soon discover most of the foreign tourists in South America speak German because Germany, Switzerland und Austria give their workers such generous vacations that they can travel further a field than most North Americans.
The Daphne had four tiny cabins, smaller than my bathroom back home that slept two people apiece. But being part of such a small group had its definite advantages. When we landed on an island the wildlife hardly took notice. Not so when a hundred landlubbers from a larger vessel made landfall virtually trampling reptiles, and scattering land nesting birds.
An advantage of the national park status is that the arrival and debarkation of each boat is strictly timed so only one vessel will visit each island, or site at a time.
If I had beaten British Naturalist Charles Darwin to the Galapagos would I have formulated the theory of evolution? No way. My mind doesn’t work remotely like his did. Some people wonder why the sky is blue, I just accept it as it is and enjoy its splendor. I would have enjoyed all the species and never have wondered how they became what they are now.
There is only one population center in the Galapagos, your point of entry into the national park. Most of the people here are employed serving the tourist trade in one way, or another. Working in restaurants, laboring in the nearby farms that produce fresh vegetables, and fruit for the restaurants and ships.
Having visited two hundred countries on all of the inhabited continents, I would rate the Galapagos as the number one travel destination on the planet. If there was any justice in the world everyone would have the opportunity to visit this land bound slice of heaven on earth.
There are no bargains to paradise. Oh, sure there are a few hardy souls that hitch a ride on the odd freighter, but the weeklong crossing to the islands is the least interesting part of the trip. Time better spent around the islands rather than out on the open sea. And the Galapagos are more than worth busting your budget for.
Air transportation to the islands from mainland Ecuador is a state monopoly, so there are no discount fares, no mileage to accrue, and that’s just fine by me.
The airfare to the isles is money well spent, as is the hundred-buck entrance fee to the National Park.
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