Friday, 24 June 2011

The Galapagos Islands--In Darwin's Footsteps

Darwin only spent 35 days sailing around the Galapagos Islands, but in that brief period he made observations and gathered data that would lead to his monumental publication decades later. If Darwin and the HMS Beagle had not visited this now most famous of archipelagos in 1835, these volcanic islands probably would not have the world's attention as they do today.

Most of the almost 200,000 annual visitors arrange in advance for very expensive cruises around the islands. The only way to visit the islands is by boat and the Ecuadorian government requires--rightfully so, considering the environment's extreme fragility--that all tourists be accompanied by a Galapagos National Park guide.

My friend, Dave McCargo, and I, traveling on the usual shoestring budget, arranged nothing in advance and flew from Quito to the islands with nothing organized--neither a place to stay nor a pre-booked wildlife viewing boat cruise. Upon arrival we made our way to the town of Puerto Ayora at the southern end of Santa Cruz Island and through word of mouth located a hostel for $8 per day.  That became our home base for the next 36 days.   Using local bus transportation we were able to easily reach a tortoise sanctuary up island adjacent to some ranchland where we could hike extensively and photograph the giant tortoises without supervision (while picking and eating passion fruits along the trail). 

This was very idyllic, but we still needed to find a boat to take us to the other islands to visit the many endemic species.  This proved to not be a problem.  Some boats didn't fill their quotas so the captains sent crew members to wander around Puerto Ayora in search of customers. They practically beat down the door to our hostel with offers for island cruises at bargain basement prices. After a week on Santa Cruz we signed up and did the tourist thing for the next seven days, visiting some of the very locations where Darwin had landed.  We encountered the entire cast of characters--marine and land  iguanas, frigatebirds, boobies of various varieties, sea lions, penguins, finches we couldn't identify, flamingos, flightess cormorants, a vermilion flycatcher, and sea turtles.

We spent the two weeks after the cruise backpacking on Isabela Island, hiking to the rim of Sierra Negra volcano, the second largest caldera in the world after Ngorongoro, and even climbing down to it's enormous floor. We encountered a pair of Galapagos hawks on the rim where we set up our tents.

After some additional adventuring in the islands, some of it by kayak, we felt ready to return to the mainland.  By that time we were approaching the same length of time that Darwin had stayed in the Galapagos so we thought what the hell and stayed a 36th day before boarding the jet back to Quito.

Within the next year I will be publishing a book about my travels in the Galapagos and contrasting my experiences with those of Darwin in 1835.

Mark Newman

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