Photographs by Susan Stahl Gordon

Photo:   A marine iguana colony poses for pictures on Isabela Island. 
  • Image about Santa Cruz Island

On the Galápagos Islands — where naturalist Charles Darwin first developed his theory of evolution — visitors, too, must be open to change.

I’m sipping a spicy fruit tea made from tropical flowers, cinnamon and lime when I hear it. The sound is a cross between an old man with a hacking cough and the deep belch of a drunk. I turn toward the source and see that it’s the playful bark of two sea lions chasing each other on the dock, a mere 10 feet from where I’m having lunch.

Suddenly the larger of the two rolls over onto her side and tosses her head back, while the smaller one bounces up to her belly and starts nursing. It’s day one of my five-day tour in the Galápagos Islands, and this is just the kind of sight I came to see.

Mention the Galápagos — a 3- to 5- million-year-old group of 18 volcanic islands located in the Pacifi c Ocean, 620 miles off the Ecuadorian coast — and most people will think of Charles Darwin. It was these islands, and the wildlife that evolved here in near isolation, that helped inspire Darwin’s theories on natural selection and evolution. Nowhere else in the world do you find marine iguanas that swim and spit water through their noses, giant land tortoises that can reach a weight of up to 650 pounds, and blue-footed boobies — birds whose thick, webbed, sky-blue feet make them a standout against the stark black volcanic rock.

Today, the remoteness of the islands helps protect their delicate ecosystem and distinctive character, as the difficulty and expense of traveling here keeps the number of visitors to approximately 170,000 a year.
  • Image about Santa Cruz Island
Photo:Our view from Red Mangrove Lodge on Santa Cruz Island.

But beyond the uniqueness of the wildlife, what makes the Galápagos a compelling place to visit is the opportunity to get remarkably close to the animals and to observe them in their everyday habitat. A lack of natural predators accounts for the wildlife’s fearlessness when they come face to face with humans. It’s obvious to me within hours of arrival that the animals could care less that I’m there — and that’s part of the appeal.

While the Galápagos is rich in animal life both on land and at sea, it’s not the zoolike experience some people expect. “The white-tipped reef shark is free to go wherever it wants,” says José Luis Morejón, former director of operations for the Red Mangrove Galápagos Lodges, my host for the week.

“So just because your itinerary shows you visiting the cove where they swim, there is no guarantee that they will be there on a certain day. A visit to the Galápagos is not homogeneous. Each person has his own unique experience.”

As I will come to appreciate, the island is an organic place where changing weather, currents and seasons make each day a distinct adventure.

After lunch — and my f irst sea lion experience — my traveling companions and I depart Santa Cruz for Floreana Island, a two-hour speedboat ride away. Dolphins play in the wake of the waves on the stern of the boat as we sail through open ocean.

We arrive to a harem of sea lions sleeping dockside, piled on each other like puppies. A few feet away, a mink-brown baby raises his head, wiggles his whiskers and, unaffected by our presence, lies back down. Red-brown Sally Light-foot crabs scurry down the sea walls as Floreana’s distinctive red-and-turquoise marine iguanas sun themselves on the cement stairs leading up to the landing.

While 16,000 people live on Santa Cruz Island, only about 120 make their homes on Floreana. The electricity remains on for only part of the day, and there is no cellphone reception or Internet connection. The rustic wood cabins where we spend the night sit solo on a remote stretch of black-sand beach, peppered with lava rocks, broken shells and sea urchin spines.

Contrary to popular belief, living aboard a boat full-time is not the only way to visit the Galápagos; although strict limits are enforced because of the islands’ status as a national park, there are a few hotels that allow for overnight stays and provide day trips by boat.

  • Image about Santa Cruz Island
Photo: A ship seen off Santa Cruz Island

“People don’t know that staying on shore and doing day trips is an option,” José says. “But this way, visitors spend only six to eight hours a week on a boat versus 60 to 70 hours if they lived onboard.” These options have made it possible for land lovers — and those who suffer from sea-sickness — to spend time in the islands.

Our tour guide, Jimmy Patiño, a 28-year-old second-generation Galapagueño, weighs in on the topic.

“Every island has its own feeling,” he says. “There is not just one Galápagos. When you spend time staying on each island, you get a feel for that community, and you contribute to the local economy of that island.”

We understand what he means when we have dinner at the home of Lelia Cruz — a local woman who has turned her small kitchen and front porch into a makeshift restaurant. Cruz serves a typical Ecuadorian meal consisting of muchines — fried yucca root and cheese patties served with hot sauce — and fresh wahoo, a firm mackerel caught that day by local fishermen, along with organic vegetables from her garden.

Back at the cabins, we take time to savor the evening’s entertainment: an aubergine-tinted horizon with pink clouds peeking through as the last bit of light leaves the night sky.

In the morning, we’re off to explore the Floreana Highlands, which boast a colorful past that includes pirates, whalers, convicts and a murdered baroness. The Galapagueño naturalist in our group, Pedro Rogelio Guaycha Ayala , recounts the historical intrigue on a hike up to Bird Hill. Living up to its name, the hill offers a symphony of Floreana finches whose constant birdsong sounds like tiny silver bells being hit by even smaller hammers.

An hour into the hike, Pedro steps off the trail and into a clearing, where he stops a few feet away from a large statue of a Galápagos giant tortoise — the species that the islands are named after. I ask why they put a statue in such a remote location, and Pedro laughs. Then the statue stretches out its neck, takes a bite from a branch lying on the ground and chews it.

  • Image about Santa Cruz Island
Photo:  A blue-footed boobie

It’s the third day of the trip but my first tortoise sighting, and I’m speechless. The tortoise, on the other hand, seems wholly unconcerned that six feet away is a group of gawking humans. Tortoises are coldblooded creatures, so this male, who is three feet long and weighs about 250 pounds, is basking in the sun to raise his body temperature. Three small females are soaking in a mud wallow nearby to cool off.

There is something very Zen-like about land tortoises. They don’t move for long periods of time, and when they do, it’s at a glacial pace. But even just sitting in place, they are fascinating to watch. Similar to Steven Spielberg’s titular E.T., they stretch out their leathery necks, breathe slowly through two small holes in the center of their foreheads and stare directly at you with their deep, black almond-shaped eyes as if offering a challenge to guess what ancient wisdom they possess.

After exploring the highlands, we embark on a two-hour speedboat ride to Isabela Island, the largest of the islands, though it still boasts a population of only 3,000 people. On approach, we see blue-footed boobies standing on lava rocks staring out into space and dozens of penguins swimming boatside in the chartreuse waters. Closer in, large black frigate birds fl y over the fishing boats, while pelicans huddle below, waiting for the crews to fling fish entrails over the sides.

Next, we set out on foot to explore a marine iguana colony on a nearby islet. Even though they’re two feet long, weigh 20 pounds and have spikes running down their backs, it’s easy to miss the iguanas since they have the same gray-and-rust coloring and rough-hewn texture as the rocks they’re resting on. They gather in groups and line up as if posing for a family photo, or sit piggyback on top of each other. With their large five-fingered claws gripping the rocks and their eyes shut, they almost seem to smile in contentment as they soak up the sun.

  • Image about Santa Cruz Island
Photo: A sleepy sea lion on Santa Cruz Island

Pedro takes us to see the white-tipped reef sharks that often rest in a canal on this islet. Not today, though. We look around but can’t fi nd a single one. I flash back to Morejón’s comments about itineraries and expectations in the Galápagos. I’m beginning to see what he means.

The afternoon is set aside for local snorkeling. Several friends I consulted with before the trip waxed poetic about swimming with sea lions in the Galápagos, so I was particularly excited to have the experience. But despite my best efforts, no sea lions brushed their whiskers up against my leg while snorkeling, as some of my friends had reported. Instead, I had a satisfying swim with two three-foot sea turtles, schools of parrotfish, a dozen penguins, a stingray and even the previously elusive white-tipped reef shark.

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Photo: Volcán Chico on Isabela Island

While day three was all about the wildlife, my fourth day starred the approximately 500,000-year-old Sierra Negra volcano, whose crater — at four miles across — is reportedly the second largest in the world. We hike for an hour through ankle-deep mud up the slopes to reach the crest of the caldera, and the Sierra Negra rewards us with a panoramic view of its crater.

From there, we have the option of continuing on horseback to the edge of a lava field and then taking an additional hour-long hike over the field to the smaller crater of Volcán Chico, a fissure last active in 1963 and 1979. Up for the adventure, we decide to go the distance. Along the way, we pass fumaroles — cracks in the rocks that puff out hot air and gases from inside the volcano. We’re surrounded by swirling lava rocks that look like pulled taffy with rolls and folds of gray, orange and yellow. Arriving at the end of the lava field, I peek over the edge of a seemingly bottomless crater to its volcanic insides.

After our tour of the volcano, we stop for lunch at a local park. Just as we’re about to board the bus and leave, our tour guide Jimmy asks, “Did you hear that?” Sure enough, we listen and hear a low rumbling sound. “That’s the sound of turtles mating,” he explains. “Let’s go try and find them!”

We grab our cameras and begin running, following the sound until we’re only a few feet away from a 500-pound male tortoise mating with a 120-pound female. The male stops, takes a quick look at us and then goes back about his business. Pedro explains that turtle mating can go on for hours — but we’ve intruded long enough on their privacy and leave to catch an afternoon speedboat back to Santa Cruz Island.