I don’t do bucket lists.
Mostly because I’ve found that the best times are the ones you don’t plan, arriving at the right time and for me, it’s always the right time because I’m going where I want. Fair enough, some destinations aren’t the type you pass through on the way to somewhere else, such is the case with the wild life bonanza that is the Galapogas Islands, 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
Alarmingly though, the notion of conservation in this region is shockingly recent with large numbers of tourists flocking here particularly within the last decade with Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural agency, to place the Galapogas archiplelago on its ‘in danger list’. In the 1970’s this archipelago of 13 islands scattered over 45,000 square kilometres of equatorial water was difficult to reach with only the most ardent travellers willing to make the journey due to minimal tourist infrastructure. A management plan at the time that anticipated tourist interest posited the sustainable number of annual visitors at 12,000.
Today it hovers around the 180,000 mark though it’s not so much the tourists themselves that are the risk, it’s the un-regulated tourism infrastructure that came with it and permanent (often illegal) residents with their cars, goats, cats and cattle. Over the last few years visiting the Galapogas national park has become far more regimented and controlled: You’re only allowed to visit tiny pockets of the national park, you can disembark (from small boats) only at designated landing spots, you must walk only on clearly marked trails in strictly disciplined small groups, and you must be accompanied by local certified guides.
If like me you are looking to have your own Darwin moment, avoid the larger ships, and be sure to ask in advance the number of passengers per naturalist guide with 10 per guide being the suggested limit. Consisting of 13 big islands, 6 small islands, and more than 40 islets, Santa Cruz is the most populated with its main town, Puerto Ayora the major city in the Galápagos. From here, you can arrange last-minute tours around the islands, day trips, and scuba-diving excursions. Santa Cruz is also home to the Darwin Research Station, where you can see giant land tortoises. San Cristóbal is the second most populated island followed by Isabella which is the largest.
It’s far from an unusual experience, I later discovered to find yourself suddenly swimming alongside sea lions and fur seals before being engulfed by schools of Yellow-tailed Surgeon fish, No scuba equipment required, such is the curiosity of the fauna and marine life here having never known a human presence to be any kind of threat. For snorkelling, Isla Lobos and Kicker Rock off of San Cristobal are excellent spots but for the divers among us, there are dozens of great spots all through the archipelago, but most notable are Gordon Rocks, Kicker Rock (León Dormido), San Cristóbal, Devil’s Crown and Champion Island, Floreana with the latter offering a visit to a sea lion colony at Champion Island.
Above ground, Galapagos penguins are found throughout though the largest population live around Tagus Cove (in addition to 35 percent of the giant tortoises) on Isabela. You need to do some homework for these areas as most tour companies tour the souther/central islands but try to put this western island on your itinerary to see some wildlife gems. The Wall of Tears, a stone wall remnant from the old penal colony is on this island as well.
Fernandina has the largest colony of marine iguanas in the archipelago along with another sea lion colony and flightless cormorants. It’s also the youngest and most volcanically active island.
Try as I might, it’s near-impossible to relay the spectacle and experience of the Galapogas Islands, even Darwin had his critics.