Positioned at the coordinates 1°40’N–1°36’S, 89°16’–92°01’W, sprinkled across the equator like emeralds tossed haphazardly over blue velvet, the Galapagos Islands are a zone of tangible magic.
The bewitching spell of this Ecuadorian archipelago wafts on humid Pacific Ocean breezes and pulses on currents flowing between its 19 islands. Each island possesses its own element, a unique charm that makes it similar to, but also wholly distinct from, its rocky siblings.
As Darwin discovered for himself in 1835, this place is a veritable lost world. A wild kingdom pushed into existence by the explosive fury of ancient volcanoes. Here, modern dinosaurs course through the sea, land, and sky. The fluid passage of time is marked by viciously armed Galapagos cacti, which recall centuries with each meter of sun-seeking height.
My feet touch the rough, reddish Martian desert soil surrounding Baltra Island Airport and I glance outward at slumbering volcanic giants. Hints of verdant green in the distance whisper of the ancient life I’d soon be witnessing. A flurry of excitement and curiosity flutters completely through me.
It’s at this moment, I believe, that the quiet Galapagos magic begins to seep imperceptibly into my bones.
Afterward, I would recall my seven days in this place as a series of snapshots — vivid postcards that halt the Galapagos spell in time and space, allowing me to capture single moments forever in my mind…
Postcard #1: A Climb Through Time
From Baltra Island, a quick ferry ride across choppy water delivers me to Santa Cruz Island, where I’ll be staying.
My soft-spoken guide, Ricardo, wastes no time immersing me in the Island’s innumerable wonders. From the port, we leave the desert landscape of Baltra behind in the rearview mirror of Ricardo’s red pickup truck, and head into the lush central highlands.
Here, the scenery turns Jurassic.
“Bienvenidos a Los Gemelos” reads a wooden sign posted at the trail head: “Welcome to The Twins”. We hike into the endemic forest of Escalecia, where lovely but forlorn-looking trees ensconced in wispy moss lead toward a pair of extinct volcanoes, which appear as huge bucket-shaped, sheer-faced craters.
Next, we descend stone steps into the Earth’s belly, where great underground lava tunnels curve and disappear into the dimness like petrified arteries. Following them, climbing over long-cooled lava rock, I try to imagine the torrent of Hell this very place must have been, millions of years ago.
Toward the end of the tunnel, which has become an obstacle course of boulders, the rough ceiling dips so low that only option is to crawl along the waterlogged ground.
When I emerge again into the sunlight, I am thoroughly drenched not only in hot sweat from the burning equatorial sun, but also from the dripping walls and shallow streams that trickle through the tunnels.
I feel like a Indiana Jones exploring some lost, exotic archaeological site. I don’t mind the dampness a bit.
Above ground, Ricardo and I venture deeper into the highland jungle.
Postcard #2: Shell Shock
I stomp in too-big rubber boots through turbid black mud, eyes down, closely following Ricardo’s boots along the trail through an apparently empty field of tall grass and clumps of trees.
Abruptly, my guide halts and my foot slides forward clumsily as I try to stop, nearly plowing into him. “Look,” he points. There, resting languidly next to a low bush sits the largest tortoise I have ever seen in real life.
I gasp and stare. The giant Galapagos tortoise, a female, stares back for a long, astounding moment as I fumble for my camera. She quickly loses interest in me and resumes chewing her salad.
Further up the trail, two huge males sit side by side. I whisper to Ricardo, asking if it’s ok for me to have a picture with them. He nods yes and takes my phone, but advises me to approach from the back and not to touch them.
As I crouch, I begin to hear what sounds like a hollow, simmering growl. After the picture is snapped, I back away — almost as soon as I do, the larger turtle on the left lurches at the other, jabbing and snapping his beaked jaws repeatedly.
“He’s defending his territory,” Ricardo tells me, smiling in amusement. The runt makes a semi-sluggish retreat. Likewise, I retreat toward my hotel to rest up for the coming week of astounding sights.
Postcard #3: Birds of Every Feather
Bird watchers flock to Galapagos armed with super telephoto lenses and top-of-the-line binoculars, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Every island tour I take offers a menagerie of fascinating feathered creatures.
I spy pelicans, cormorants, herons, egrets, albatrosses, and adorable tiny Galapagos penguins, the only type of penguin that lives at the equator (which I will snorkel with later).
Here and there, charismatic blue-footed boobies drop unexpectedly like bombs into the water to seize fish. The skies are specked with hovering pterodactyls — Frigatebirds featuring bat-like 7-foot wingspans and deeply forked tails that look like trailing legs. They scan every shoreline, hunting (fantastically named) Sally Lightfoot crabs, which catch the eye with fiery flashes of red against the black volcanic rock.
Postcard #4: Iguana Instincts
Everywhere else on our planet, iguanas avoid water as if it might devour them. But in the Galapagos, these magnificent dinosaur-skinned beasts have learned to dive fearlessly up to 30 feet below the waves in search of algae to munch.
Several times while snorkeling, I watch in awe as these miniature dragons wiggle elegantly past my face on their way to or from feeding.
At Santa Cruz’s pristine Tortuga Beach, the iguanas are so plentiful you have to be careful where you step. On day 3, my guide Cattya and I sit down under a shade tree next to a small herd of them. The one closest to me every so often sneezes white globs of salt onto my shoes from the seawater taken in during its last swim.
Postcard #5: Into the Shark’s Den
Each time I zip away by boat from Puerto Ayora marina to some far corner of the Galapagos Islands and splash into the warm, glistening blue with my finned feet and goggles, it is a glorious, quixotic experience.
My fascination with the myriad of animals I encounter in the tranquil depth is inherently childlike. Coming face to face with swift sea turtles or playful, spinning sea lions shoots liquid joy into my bloodstream.
But sometimes what I see sends pure fear through me, pricking my most primal flight instincts. Namely?
At Isabela Island, there is an area known as Las Tintoreras, or The Tunnels, where millennia of water erosion has carved the volcanic rock into a playground of underwater and above-water arcs and caves. It all has proven irresistible to the widest array of species I would see of any one spot in all of Galapagos.
I refuse to go bottoms-up and dive into the muck near a length of red mangroves in order to take a picture of a seahorse with my iPhone, which is sheathed in a foggy, supposedly waterproof plastic bag (I have wished I owned a GoPro every day thus far).
However, my guide Eduardo — though everyone calls him John Travolta for his uncanny resemblance — is determined that I will have a photo of the little creature that blends so well into the sticks and leaves that frankly, I can’t see it. But I lie and tell John Travolta that I can just so we can move on from the mangroves, which is where I often see sharks. He demands my phone and flips upside-down in the murky water several times to get me a blurred picture.
The rest of my snorkel tour with him goes much like this — I express that I don’t want to do something, and somehow I end up doing it anyway.
Admittedly, most of the time this actually turns out to be a good thing.
“Kristina, come with me, I show you something!” John Travolta says, tugging me by the hand away from my tour companions.
Leaving the group makes me nervous. “Uh, what is it? I, but — oh, alright…”
We swim through shallow fields of coral and lava rock, some just barely covered in enough water to gingerly float over without scraping the tops. John Travolta spies a spotted eagle ray and motions excitedly for me to start taking video with my phone while he propels me like a wheel barrow through the water after it.
A mound of rock rises from a deeper section of sea, and I can tell there’s an opening a few inches below the water. “Hold your breath, Kristina, you will like this!” John Travolta says, counting to three before he shoves me in my buoyant life vest part way into the cave.
My eyes adjust to the blue-toned dimness and I can make out in front of me what appears to be a den for several circling white tip reef sharks. I squeak in terror and fumble with my phone to try and get a photo or video or anything while I can, but it’s too dark and I run out of breath before I can get a clear image.
I pop wide-eyed at the surface. My guide smiles triumphant, “Yes? You see the sharks?”
“Uh-huh…!” I say sightly weakly.
“Come, Kristina. I show you more.”
We paddle through a complicated rocky outcrop to reach the other side of the shark den. “Here you see sleeping sharks. They rest on the sand before they go outside to hunt.”
“Um, I dunno, I don’t want to wake them up if they’re sleeping —”
“Haha, don’t worry Kristina. You won’t wake them up. Ready? One, two, three!” Grasping the collar of my life vest, John Travolta again plunges me beneath the water and partly into the mouth of the cave, which is more shallow than the last.
I find myself staring straight into the inky saucer eyes of an adult shark — approximately three feet from my head. I freeze and fight the urge to jerk away. It’s sleeping! I tell myself, though its lidless eyes suggest it’s waiting, watching, as if it’s been expecting me. It does not so much as flinch a fin in reaction to my presence. Again I struggle with my iPhone, only to realize that all the fish chasing earlier has killed off the battery.
I feel myself pulled back to the air.
“Holy s#@%!” I gasp and smile despite myself, pushing back my goggles to digest what I’ve just seen. This makes my guide laugh and sling his arm around my padded life vested shoulders.
“Kristina, you funny! Hey, you like cocktail? Vino? Cerveza?”
“Como? Yo no comprendo.” I deflect his questions, realizing now why John Travolta has appointed himself my personal tour guide. “Let’s go back to the group.”
Near the boat, we discover the others bobbing together in the water, chattering in amazement. “What is it?” I ask.
“A massive sea turtle!” says Glen, a thick-accented English guy.
“Ooh, cool!” I’ve seen my share of sea turtles here, but I can never seem to get enough of the serene beasts. I dunk my head into the water… and through my little plastic window I witness the single largest turtle that I have EVER seen. Bigger than the Galapagos Tortoises. Longer than the tallest person in our group, Glen, who I estimate at just over six feet tall. Its head is the size of a football. Each fin is as long as my legs.
I’m in utter shock: I simply had no idea a turtle could get this big. John Travolta helps me descend deep enough to gently touch the edge of its shell.
I take a mental picture of the universe around me. An image from the enchanted dreamworld that is the Galapagos Islands.
I will keep this postcard with me for the rest of my life.
Next up: I head north into Central America!