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A view of Pinnacle Rock from a peak on Bartolomé Island (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

What They Don’t Tell You About the Galápagos

Sea lions were the first to welcome me to the Galápagos Islands. There they were, lounging next to parked motorcycles and cars on the island of Santa Cruz, splayed out like they were at a luxe beach resort.

I knew before embarking on this National Geographic Expedition that animals were not afraid of humans in this “enchanted archipelago of fearless creatures,” as the Galápagos are described in the trip literature. I also knew that this is where Charles Darwin was inspired to write his theory of evolution. But aside from these basic details, I knew virtually nothing about where I was headed.

I spend a lot of time exploring big, dynamic cities. But these isolated islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador grew on me in such a way that when I left, I felt as though I was taking some of the characteristics of the landscape and animals—fearlessness, energy, equilibrium—home with me.

At the airport on the way home, a new friend told me, “The way I feel after this trip is like when you’re a kid and you come out of the pool shivering a bit and completely exhausted in a wonderful way, having just had the best time playing.” There is no better feeling.

Here are a few other things I learned about the Galápagos along the way:

It’s not a vacation. Though I returned tanned and happy, this trip was not relaxing in the way that sitting on a beach and vegging out is. Instead, it was a journey of discovery, as that’s exactly what each day brought. All five senses were engaged at any given time, culminating in the best kind of physical and mental exhaustion imaginable.

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A young sea lion pup makes its way along the beach. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

One morning, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. for a hike on Bartolomé Island, where we climbed 326 steps to take in one of the most iconic formations in the Galápagos—Pinnacle Rock. A naturalist who was traveling with us reported that the landscapes we were seeing are the closest proxies for what the islands looked like when they were first formed from volcanoes—with little vegetation.

He also reminded us that evolution is not all about Darwin’s finches. “The pioneer plant is changing the landscape here to make it more suitable for future generations,” he reported, pointing out evidence of species evolving in real time to protect themselves from new threats.

Your heart will stop at least once. The albatross is a mystical symbol dating back to ancient times. Walking on Española Island, our resident naturalist explained how the seabirds mate for life. After spending time apart in the ocean, the pair returns to the island, recognizing each other by performing a ritualized dance.

“When they have obligations like eggs and babies, the dancing is not as frequent. But during mating season…” he trailed off and winked. Next, we rounded a corner, entering an open field embellished with red rocks and brush, and there they were, as beautiful as a pair of Olympic gold-winning ice skaters—two albatrosses clucking, kissing, and dancing in perfect synchronicity. The timing was so perfect it seemed staged.

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Therapeutic scenery on Santa Cruz Island (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

And your heart might break once, too. The sea lions that grew to mean so much to all of us on the trip generally had the look of well-fed, husky happiness. But we also saw more than one skeletal baby sea lion, dragging itself lethargically across the beach. The naturalist explained that if a baby’s mother disappears and it’s not taken in by another female, it cannot survive in the wild. Naturally, we wanted to cuddle the pup and help, but could of course only watch.

The landscape is therapy. I had heard about the animals in the Galápagos, but never about the landscape. For me, it turned out to be a source of greatly healing beauty, from the wise cacti dotting the black lava rock against a background of the deep aquamarine sea to the blazing red Sally Lightfoot crabs adorning the islands like Christmas ornaments.

Photos take a backseat to being present. Of course, I have hundreds of incredible photos that I took in the Galapagos. It is difficult to snap a bad picture there, partly because the lighting is so conducive to great photography. Each day, we left our ship and boarded Zodiacs bound for various excursions—kayaking, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and more. But I started leaving my phone and camera behind and truly immersing myself in isolation travel, those rare times when you are absolutely in the moment and your nerves feel like they’re on fire.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

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