Quito, Ecuador’s capital, is often called the “most beautiful big city in South America.” At an attitude at 9,300 feet, Quito is located in a valley between towering Andean peaks. Constructed upon the foundations of ancient Incan ruins, the modern city has been built around a well-preserved colonial center that includes 16th and 17th-century churches and other structures that blend European, Moorish, and indigenous styles. Independence Square (locally called the “Grand Plaza”) is surrounded on four sides by monumental buildings – three of which date from the colonial period. There are numerous public parks including the humongous 14,000 acre Metropolitan Park (NYC’s Central Park is 840 acres). The sweet-natured people, the extraordinary weather, the gorgeous scenery, the first class infrastructure, and the great restaurants and shopping venues have combined to make Quito the number one retirement destination in the world for the fifth year in a row, according to the Retirement Living magazine. None of these factors, however, prompted my return to Quito on a bright June morning 10 years ago. Rather, I made the journey to join a GAP Adventure tour group heading to the Galapagos Islands.
A tour bus transferred my tour group to the Quito International Airport, which also handles domestic flights within Ecuador. My flight to the Galapagos Islands was on “AeroGal” which is short for Aerolienas Galapagos. The flight landed on the southern tip of Baltra Island. This tiny island lies just north of the much larger Island of Santa Cruz.
On arrival, my tour group was met by a friendly guide who looked like the supporting character in the movie Crocodile Dundee. This jovial fellow sported a pair of desert boots and a safari outfit complete with wide-brimmed hat. His attire aside, he was very helpful and competent sharing information about the Galapagos Islands interlaced with witty, personal antidotes. The bus trip was interrupted just south of the airport when we boarded a ferry to cross the channel that separated Baltra from Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz is famous for its sandy beaches, sea turtles, marine iguanas, and volcanic calderas.
After about an hour, we reached Puerto Ayora, which is the largest town and most visited place in the Galapagos Islands. The hub of most activity in the Galapagos, this town is a charming, bustling port town where sun, sea, and sailboats all coexist in happy unison. The bus dropped us at the harbor where smaller open-top boats stood by to take us out to our awaiting ship, the MS Galapagos Adventure II, anchored further out in the harbor. This ship would be our home for the next five days as we sail among these picturesque islands. Most islands are too small to have piers, so rubberized rafts called Zodiacs transported the group to shore of one island after another. Once the Zodiac had to literally scatter the seals on the beach to make room for us to disembark. Another day the group was divided into smaller sub-groups of four, and each group boarded a canoe. The guide showed us some of the underwater creatures as well as plants. The colors were magnificent.
The archipelago known as the Galapagos Islands is the result of hundreds of thousands of years of successive volcanic eruptions. This archipelago group consists of 15 main islands, three smaller ones, and 107 rocks and islets. The islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, are about 600 miles off the east coast of South America. The Galapagos Islands are situated atop a geothermic “hot spot” where the earth´s crust is continuously being melted. It is this phenomenon that creates the volcanoes. Over time these volcanoes became the Galapagos Islands. The oldest island is at least 5 to 10 million years old. Having literally risen from out of the sea, these islands are in absolute isolation, which is perfect for the study of evolution.
The Darwin Research Center is located on Santa Cruz Island, and I visited there during my trip. The Center’s mission is to “help conserve the environment and the biodiversity of the archipelago.” These islands are noted for the famous Galapagos Tortoise, which when fully grown can weigh up to 500 pounds and reach 6 feet in length. I was able to see, close up, these giant creatures. A naturalist explained that these “giants” are actually quite small at birth – weighing as little as 1.8 ounces. The Darwin Center documents the journey of these tortoises through incubation, hatching, and the various growth stages. One of these giant tortoises was named “Lonesome George.” He became the face of the Galapagos Islands and an icon for conservation. His likeness turned up on virtually every piece of literature about the Galapagos Islands. After the drastic decline in subspecies, Lonesome George was, when he died in 2012, the only known living individual from his specific subspecies. The Darwin Research Center is dedicated to insuring that a similar fate does not await other subspecies.
One does not have to be an evolutionary biologist to appreciate that these islands are one of the few places left on earth where the human footprint is virtually absent or at least kept to the absolute minimum. The Galapagos Islands are definitely not your typical tropical paradise; indeed, most of the islands are without the lush vegetation characteristic of such places. Even though some of these islands more closely resemble the surface of the moon than a tropical paradise, humans do inhabit them in numbers larger than is commonly assumed. In fact, there is a surprising degree of development in many of the towns, mostly geared toward the thriving tourism industry. Tourists flock here in ever growing numbers because this isolated group of volcanic islands, together with its fragile ecosystem, has taken on almost mythological status as a showcase of biodiversity. Visiting a place that is home to a multitude of creatures – many of which are found nowhere else in the world – is a teachable moment in itself. Tourists often discover that these creatures continue about their business as if the intrusion by human visitors is nothing more than a slight annoyance.
Nearly all other islands in the world were once connected to a huge, central land mass. As these land masses fractured into separate areas and became continents, the smaller “disconnected” fragments drifted away and became islands. Not so for the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Islands never shared a geographical connection to a large continental land mass. These are true volcanic islands, very young in geologic time, and far too removed from the mainland for most flora/fauna to make the journey. The remoteness and geographic isolation of the Galapagos Islands allowed the flora and fauna to develop in a unique way. It is this “uniqueness” that enabled the existence of giant tortoises, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, and a wide array of other unique and endemic species of plants and animals.
The Galapagos Islands have been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The rational for inclusion refers to these islands as a “Natural Patrimon of Humanity” because of the incredible number of species that are found only here. Scientists point out that these islands include more distinct species of flora and fauna than any other place on earth. As a collection of volcanic islands within a few hundred miles of the Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands provide incomparable landscapes and an exceptional climate.
Unfortunately, the Galapagos Islands, with their gorgeous scenery and unparalleled and rare wildlife of paramount historical and scientific importance are quite expensive to visit. The only way to visit these islands is by cruise ship, and, when combined with the costs of flights to the Ecuadorean mainland, the total often exceeds the budget of many travelers. Happily, in the last 10 years or so, the government of Ecuador has begun to allow land-based tourism into its famous islands. Although a cruise is still the best way to see the islands, and the only way to see some of them, travelers on a budget now have some appealing options. A land-based trip is more affordable and still lets you experience the highlights of a Galapagos adventure, without having to go to sea!
Costs aside, my advice would be this: If the opportunity arises for you to visit these islands, TAKE IT! I believe you will come away inspired and you will begin to think differently about our world.
Next time: “The Parthenon”