Could Charles Darwin ever have imagined that the islands off the coast of South America that he visited almost 180 years ago, and which inspired his book On The Origin of Species, would one day be a prized destination on any cruiser’s bucket list?
We’re talking about the Galapagos, of course, a chain of islands about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador that I visited this summer on a Silversea cruise, where you can get close to iguanas and birds, swim with turtles and penguins, and walk among giant tortoises that have no fear of humans.
It’s an incredible experience, and one best done on a cruise as you will visit several islands and see many different species on one seven-night vacation. Here's a taste of what you can expect to see:
You’re welcome to the Galapagos - provided you are willing to abide by all the dos and don'ts, that is. Importantly, you cannot go ashore without a naturalist from the Galapagos National Park and you must stick with him or her at all times.
These colourful crabs greeted us as we made our first landing of the cruise, on the volcanic Bartolomé Island. I joined an early-morning hike to the top, climbing 380 feet up 388 steps built into the lava, then cooled off by going snorkelling before lunch.
We were advised to pack water shoes for wet landings from the inflatable Zodiacs that are used to ferry us ashore but they were not needed to step on the soft sand at Playa Espumilla on Santiago Island. Remember, to take nothing and leave only footprints (top left).
The shell of the giant tortoises reminded the early Spanish settlers of a riding saddle called a ‘Galapago’; hence the islands got their name. Darwin discovered that you could tell which island a tortoise came from by the shape of its shell (top right).
Galapagos giant tortoises can live almost a year without food or water, so they were preyed on in the 1800s by whalers looking for a source of fresh meat on their ships. The population was almost wiped out but is slowly recovering thanks to breeding centres like the one where I spotted this tiny tortoise, on San Cristobal, the Galapagos’ political capital.
When Darwin arrived in the Galapagos in 1835, he hoped to find an active volcano but instead encountered animals that that had adapted to the different island environments in which they lived, including lizards that had learned to live in water. I spotted this one on a Zodiac cruise around the coastline of Isabela Island.
Is this my best side? There were so many marine iguanas where we landed on Punta Espinoza in Fernandina Island that we had to fight the crowds as we hiked over the lava formations.
The walk on Punta Espinoza ended on the beach where we bumped into a colony of sea lions. This one seemed friendly but Hernan, our naturalist for the walk, was concerned when one nearby started snorting and rolling. Time to walk away.
I snapped this picture of the sun setting behind the Silver Galapagos as we returned from a Zodiac cruise through the mangroves in Bahia Elizabeth on Isabela Island that are home to green turtles, herons and sea lions.
Post Office is a grand name for a wooden barrel on Floreana Island that has served as a mailbox since 1793. It’s a fun system. You put in your mail and it is checked by folk from other ships who take any letters with addresses near their homes so they can hand-deliver them.
No wonder this heron looks guilty. I had been watching it pecking the sand in search of turtle eggs for dinner. Female turtles lay up to 200 eggs at a time in the sand, cover them and then return to the sea. A month or more later the babies hatch and try to make their way to the sea, often providing a tasty meal for waiting gulls before they even get to the shoreline.
The finches on the Galapagos played a major part in helping to shape Darwin’s theories of evolution. These three, all living on Santa Cruz, might look the same at first glance but look again at the beaks – some have evolved to crush seeds and others are designed for catching insects.
Land iguanas are no more beautiful than their marine brethren but they are easier to spot. Sadly I didn’t see many of these, or too many blue-footed booby birds, as my itinerary went to the western isles as opposed to a cruise that visits North Seymour where they are plentiful.
The fish market in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz was a popular attraction. After all, how many times have you seen a market where fishmongers are not only battling with flies, but also passing sea lions and pelicans trying to help themselves to the catch of the day.
One of the biggest surprises of the cruise was the scenery in the Galapagos. This is not a tropical paradise with pristine beaches and lush vegetation rather islands that were born of fire, with desert-like landscapes, giant cacti and lava fields. Like the animals, the plants have learned to adapt to their environment so Palo Santo trees, like the one in the picture, hibernate in the dry season (from July to December) and spring back to life when the rains come down.
Time to say goodbye as you arrive back on Baltra Island to fly to mainland Ecuador. Just be warned the authorities do not take kindly to visitors trying to take any animals from the Galapagos home. And yes, it does happen. One tourist was stopped with four live iguanas in his bag and ended up doing time.