By Sandra Glahn—
At age 88, my husband’s father had never been to South America. So last year, he had me put together a bucket-list trip for the three of us that included Machu Picchu (Peru), Iguazu Falls (Argentina and Brazil), and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).
A few months ago he wanted to try again. This time he sent me a bucket list with four more possible destinations: Galápagos/Easter Islands, New Zealand, The Great Wall of China, and Iceland/Norway—but that last one only in summer.
My husband and I had only one week free—spring break—and we loved South America. So we researched the Galápagos/Easter Islands option. Quickly eliminating Easter Island, as it’s actually more than 2,000 miles from the Galapagos archipelago, we focused instead on the Pacific islands that lie only about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
Although the Galápagos group consists of eighteen main stretches of land, three smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets, the Ecuadoran government allows tourists to visit only about two dozen of these. We opted to take in five islands, considering our short amount of time and our elder member’s health limitations.
Going from the US through Quito allowed us an overnight in the capital city. Every Monday at 11 am at the presidential palace is the changing of the guard, complete with band and horses and singing of the national anthem. So we caught that before flying to the islands through Guayaquil, the closest Ecuadoran mainland city. The flight with stop took only about two hours.
To our delight, strict limits on tourism have both preserved the islands and kept them from feeling crowded, even in high season. We arrived at the airport on San Cristóbal in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno the evening before we sailed. Wandering along the boardwalk, we stopped to sip on margaritas as we watched the sea lions play.
Red and orange crabs with intricate designs sunned and scuttled about on the rocks. And baby sea lions nursed in plain sight. The government enforces strict rules about getting no closer than six feet away from wildlife—and the Galápagos Islands have some of the world’s best places for wildlife-viewing. From our balconies along the waterfront that night, we could hear sea lions call out to each other as they fought and played.
The next morning, we hired a driver for three hours ($60) to take us to three sites on San Cristóbal—the trailhead for a short hike up to the islands’ only fresh-water lake (El Junco), which was in a crater; a tortoise sanctuary; and a secluded beach where a sea lion came straight to me and seemed to want to play.
The cruise portion of our trip began at the San Cristóbal dock that afternoon with welcome beverages and instructions from one of the three naturalists shared by two yachts that travel together: no touching animals or plants or taking anything away—even rocks.
Each morning at seven the captain woke us through the PA system. No need for alarms. We could have paid $78 for internet, but we chose to go totally off the grid. By eight a.m. daily, we boarded dinghies and motored off to shore for hikes or shallow-water snorkeling.
The happy result of intense regulation in the islands: most creatures encounter humans fearlessly. Giant sea turtles dive within feet. Rare birds allow close proximity to their nests, even when incubating eggs or nurturing babies. And even reef sharks glide by without seeming to care. December-through-March temperatures are comfortable, with waters warm enough to deep-sea snorkel without wet suits. Many of the islands’ fauna and flora are found nowhere else on earth, and the otherwise dry land was covered in greening earth.
How we did it:
- We went with a five-day cruise with Columbus Travel (columbusecuador.com). The cruise option allowed the two active members of our party to hike, go deep-sea snorkeling, and visit turtle sanctuaries while the elder member could see a variety of wonders from the deck or shore as we moved from island to island.
- We opted for the Coral I boat, which has 36 passengers. We chose this over less expensive options with fewer people, because we wanted the stability of a larger boat. Many aboard wore patches to prevent sea-sickness, but we never even used the Dramamine we took.
- The yacht had three decks that included one with a Jacuzzi. The onboard restaurant served three meals daily with Ecuadorian and international cuisine. One night we had a BBQ dinner on the upper Moon Deck, after which we stargazed. In the middle of the ocean in the middle of uninhabited islands, the Milky Way sparkles with undiluted brilliance.
- Hats, swim shoes, and swim shirts were essential. We took the latter two with us and purchased hats in country. We noticed all our guides wore floppy canvas hats with neck flaps.
- We wish we had taken itch cream and bug spray. A few hikes brought us face-to-face with multiple tame birds and their babies, but the member of our team with O+ blood got eaten by horse flies and mosquitos.
- Our best pre-trip purchase was a $50 underwater camera with which we captured stills and video of sea stars clinging to rocks, sea turtles navigating with stubby flippers, and king angel fish, hog fish, a blue-barred parrot fish showing off their colors.
For many people, mention of the Galapagos Islands evokes Charles Darwin’s nineteenth-century visit there and his observations that led to his theory of evolution. But this does not have to be the only association. As the psalmist wrote, “Those who go down to the sea in ships … They have seen the works of the Lord, And His wonders in the deep” (Ps 107:23–24).