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Return to Zootopia
The iguanas may not have changed their routine for thousands of years, but the Galápagos Islands are still best appreciated with repeat viewings. Hey, even Darwin didn't get it right the first time. By David Quammen


Photo: iguanas on rocks
WHAT WOULD DARWIN DO? Were the father of evolution to make a return trip to the Galápagos today, he'd find much of it unchanged—like these descendants of the marine iguana Darwin tossed into the ocean.

Map: Galápagos Islands
It's a long way from Montana to the Galápagos Islands, more miles and airports than one day can encompass, so Zoo Girl and I broke the journey with a night's stay in Denver before continuing on toward Ecuador. Next day we reached Miami in time for an evening flight southward and, as the plane approached Quito, the lights of that high-altitude city spread in a grand floral pattern amid the dark Andes. Nose to the window, Zoo Girl (aka Betsy) clutched my hand. "I've never been to South America," she reminded me. "This is big." For her, a fervid naturalist since childhood (hence the nickname, which she embraces in all its feminist incorrectness) and a fierce conservationist throughout adulthood, it was the dream vacation marking our first wedding anniversary.

For me it was vacation and celebration, too, but also a working trip back to familiar ground, which I had last visited 17 years earlier. My immediate job this time was to lecture aboard the boat. My deeper purpose, as before, was to gather impressions and thoughts toward a literary project. Back then, I was a young freelancer beginning research on a book about islands. This time I was immersed in a different but related effort, and my brain, like my office at home, was filled with the life and works of Charles Darwin.

Six hundred miles (965 kilometers) off the Ecuadorian coast, raised by volcanic eruption, the Galápagos archipelago comprises more than 60 islands and islets, of which 19 are big enough to be named on a semi-serious map. Like most volcanic islands, they're geologically young, dating back only three to five million years. Unlike most, they sit near a convergence of sea currents, which bring an improbable mix of temperatures and other conditions, contributing to the odd assemblage of species. Where else do you get penguins sharing a neighborhood with flamingos? Where else do you get iguanas diving the waters alongside sea lions? Like a precious marble sculpture, these islands are exquisite, unique, stony, and frangible. In addition, beyond their natural splendors, they represent one of the pivotal sites in the history of science. Anyone who has browsed a guidebook knows that the Galápagos were once visited by a sunburned young Englishman named Darwin, who saw something that put him in mind of evolution. To view this place in the present tense only, without a sense of its history, is to miss half the point.

Betsy and I bounced from Quito to the island of Baltra, a bleak platform of lava supporting the main Galápagos airfield. From there we boarded an elegant cruise ship, the Eclipse, operated by a Quito-based company with an oxymoronic name, Luxury Adventures. In the main lounge we were greeted with tropical cocktails and welcoming speeches by the captain and senior officers, all in their nautical whites. By now we'd met some of our fellow passengers, and the company seemed diverse, urbane, and congenial. This was travel in high style, high comfort, thanks to the generous planning of a Los Angeles couple, Joan and Arnold Travis, who had organized the trip for friends of the Institute of Human Origins, a foundation that supports paleoanthropological research. Betsy and I, unaccustomed to such luxury, and believing that "adventure" begins only in the zone between improvisation and disaster, felt a little like crashers at a champagne picnic on the embassy lawn.

As we settled into our stateroom, a cheerful space with twin beds and a shower, I couldn't help remembering Darwin's austere accommodations aboard the Beagle, his hammock hung each night above a chart table in the tiny poop cabin he shared with an officer and a midshipman. The cabin was so small, and Darwin so lanky, that he'd remove a wall drawer at bedtime to open space for his feet. The voyage lasted almost five years. So did his seasickness. If I'd thought it would do his ghost any good, I would have felt guilty to be revisiting the Galápagos at all, let alone in such luxury. But another thing about Darwin: He didn't believe in ghosts.

After a soothing night's sleep while the ship covered some miles, we went ashore in small groups to the northwest coast of San Salvador (commonly known as Santiago), one of the large central islands, where sea lions basked on the beach like sleepy dogs outside a country store, indifferent to our arrival, and purple-black marine iguanas, limp as raw meat, sunned themselves in sociable pileups on the surf-polished lava. Blunt-faced and magnificently ugly, foreheads encrusted with salt, indolent except when necessary, marine iguanas aren't such crowd-pleasers as the sea lions or the giant tortoises, but they're a good reminder that evolution on islands tends to be drastic and anomalous. They reminded me of other things, too. Seventeen years ago, traveling in different circumstances with a different wife, I spent long hours seated among recumbent iguanas here on Santiago and elsewhere, until my unshaded ears were as red as smoked pork.

Back then, while watching the male iguanas jockey for dominance and squirt salt from their nostrils insultingly, I meditated on Darwin's rude experiment of tossing one into a sea pool to see its response. That iguana swam back to land rather than escaping by water, and threw it again, then again. He concluded that, menaced habitually by sharks and unacquainted with terrestrial enemies, it was "urged by a fixed and hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety." I concluded that evolution and extinction on islands was a rich subject, a big subject, and spent the next eight years writing my book about it, The Song of the Dodo. Finally that project came to an end, as did the marriage (to a biological artist) that had originally brought island theory within my purview, and I went wandering off to the Congo and Romania and elsewhere, places with dry land on at least three sides, thinking I'd had a lifetime's bellyful of islands. But everything old shall be new again, and eventually Betsy was there with her ebullience and joyous curiosity, saying: "Yes, let's go to the Galápagos!" The marine iguanas don't seem to have altered their routine much in my absence, nor in the 169 years since Darwin's visit, and probably not in tens of millennia. Evolution proceeds slowly, relative to the pace of human civilization or other forms of cataclysm, which is why so many species, rather than adjusting to change, go extinct.

Marine iguanas, nicely equipped for their hard, simple world, will survive so long as that world remains hard and simple. They swim well, dive like turtles, live by grazing algae off coastal rocks, and constitute the only sea-going species (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) of the iguana family. In his published journal, eventually reprinted as The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin called them "hideous" twice within a single paragraph, yet he recognized them as "admirably adapted." His perspective was evolving, even as he walked this very island.

Galápagos National Park was established by Ecuadorian law back in 1959, and since 1968 conservation efforts have been administered by a Galápagos National Park Service. In 1986 the Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve was created, giving statutory protection to the marine ecosystems for a distance of 15 miles (24 kilometers)—increased to 40 miles (64 kilometers) in 1998—beyond the archipelago's collective perimeter. The park embraces 97 percent of the land surface of the islands, but almost all of that area is off-limits to tourists. There are more than 50 visitor sites delineated on the islands, some consisting of just a short coastal trail or a stretch of beach; to most of them, visitors may go ashore only in the company of a licensed naturalist-guide. The guides are trained by the park service and the Charles Darwin Research Station (an independent scientific institution based on Santa Cruz island), but they're employed by the tour operators. It's a role that demands knowledge, patience, and tact.

A guide's main duties are twofold: to explain the native fauna and flora, and to affirm the park rules shielding those fauna and flora from well-meaning but clumsy, impertinent visitors. Do not stray off the trail. Do not collect shells. Do not tickle the tortoises. Do not pet the sea lion pups, no matter how cute and welcoming they seem. Do not throw marine iguanas into the water, as Darwin did before rules became necessary. Do not be confused that your visit to the Galápagos is a wilderness camping trip or a chance to explore freely some mysterious tropical outback. It's not. It's more like a VIP backstage tour at the world's most remarkable open-air zoo.

Continue following David Quammen in the footsteps of Darwin by picking up the November issue of Adventure.


Adventure Guide: The Galápagos Islands

GETTING THERE: Six hundred miles of Pacific Ocean separate the Galápagos Islands from mainland Ecuador. Two airlines, TAME and Aerogal, fly round-trip from Quito and Guayaquil to Isla Baltra, connecting to Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz ($389) or to the capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on Isla San Cristóbal ($344). Most tours and cruises launch out of Puerto Ayora, the archipelago's largest town. Since Galápagos National Park covers 97 percent of the islands' land surface, foreign visitors must pay a $100 park fee upon arrival and be accompanied by a park naturalist while within restricted park areas.

TOURS AND ACCOMMODATIONS:

SEA-BASED: Most visitors choose a floating hotel and tour—ships range in capacity from 8 to 100 and sail mostly at night so passengers can take in islands far and near by day. Montana-based Adventure Life (www.adventure-life.com) makes reservations on more than 30 of the most reliable boats. Must-dos include snorkeling with sea lions around Champion Islet off Isla Santa María, hiking the lava flows on Punta Espinosa at Isla Fernandina, and viewing the giant tortoises in Isla Santa Cruz's highlands. Top outfitters include National Geographic Expeditions ($3,370 and up; www.nationalgeographic.com/ngexpeditions)—led by oceanography giants such as Sylvia Earle—and Lindblad Expeditions ($3,480 and up; www.expeditions.com), which offers flexible schedules and marine tours on its glass-bottom boat. The author, David Quammen, traveled with Luxury Adventures (www.luxadventures.com). For more outfitters, consult iExplore (www.iexplore.com) or the International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (www.igtoa.org).

LAND-BASED: A cheaper option is staying at hotels and inns on the inhabited islands of Isabela, Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, or Santa María. The Hotel Silberstein (www.hotelsilberstein.com), right in the center of Puerto Ayora, offers a three-night stay with guides and meals included ($501 for three days); the seaside Red Mangrove Inn is nearby ($88 and up, breakfast included; (www.redmangrove.com). Staff at both hotels will procure guides for you ($60 and up a day). Puerto Ayora also has several restaurants, including local favorites Angermeyer Point, serving freshly caught sea fare, and the vegetarian-friendly Capricho Restaurant. For more food, lodging, and tour guide suggestions, visit www.galapagostour.com. On Santa Cruz, Galápagos Camping ($90 a night; www.galapagoscamping.com) can take you to their cave camp—and they even serve fireside cocktails.

DIVING AND SNORKELING: Radiating 40 miles beyond the islands, the Galápagos Marine Reserve is home to incredibly dynamic ocean life—from schools of vibrant tropical fish beyond Isla Española's sandy beaches to school bus-size whale sharks off the islands of Wolf and Darwin. Difficulty at the more than 50 official dive sites varies from moderate to high. Serious divers can hook up with a live-aboard dive trip, such as the eight-day excursion offered by Galápagos Network; book through iExplore or its parent company, Ecoventura ($2,695 and up; www.ecoventura.com). Chaperoned snorkelers can flipper-up twice daily with playful sea lions off Isla Santiago, glide through sea turtle breeding grounds along the coast of Isla Fernandina, or see Isla Bartolomé's penguins up close. Turtle Bay, a beautiful open beach near Puerto Ayora, allows picnics and guide-free swimming.

PADDLING: A handful of outfitters with special permits offer sea kayaking in restricted areas (and many large cruise ships have a few sea kayaks aboard for guests to use). The Explorers' Corner charters an eight-passenger catamaran to transport guests and a fleet of expedition-quality kayaks to the remotest islands ($3,550; www.explorerscorner.com).

SURFING: With an average water temperature of 73°F (23°C) from November through April and five impressive wave breaks, Isla San Cristóbal is surf central in the Galápagos—though the sport is limited to designated areas. Only experienced surfers should take on these world-class swells. Surfing trips are available through Wavehunters (ten days for $1,570; www.wavehunters.com).

MULTISPORT: Many outfitters design tours around multisport, multiterrain activities, though most are restricted to the inhabited islands. BikeHike Adventures (www.bikehike.com) offers highland horseback riding, mountain biking, and sea kayaking on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Isabela, crashing at local B&Bs along the way ($1,699). Wilderness Travel chaperones guests on an active cruise with nine days of hiking and sea kayaking ($3,195; www.wildernesstravel.com).

RESOURCES: Longitude Books (www.longitudebooks.com) has a great Galápagos reading list. Info on conservation efforts is available on the Charles Darwin Foundation's site (www.darwin foundation.org) or the Galápagos Conservation Trust (www.gct.org). Helpful trip-planning tips can be found at www.discovergalapagos.com. Look for boats or outfitters bearing the SmartVoyager seal of approval, which recognizes planet-friendly practices (www.rainforestalliance.org/programs/ tourism/smartvoyager).

—Mary Anne Potts

Photograph by Steve Casimiro
Map courtesy of Jack Unruh


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, November 2004

Adventure Travel 2005: Amazing excursions for the new year
Return to Zootopia: David Quammen revisits the Galápagos
No Margin for Error: America's most perilous peak
Pelton's World: Former no-go zones make a comeback


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November 2004



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