Galapagos giant tortoise

Face to face with wildlife on the Galápagos Islands

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By Heidi Fuller-Love
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Rough Guides writer Heidi Fuller-Love embarks on a luxury cruise to meet big lizards, a giant tortoise and other magical wildlife of the Galápagos Islands.

Ever since reading The Voyage of the Beagle when I was at school, I dreamt of visiting The Galápagos islands. Contrary to popular belief, Charles Darwin’s trip in the HMS Beagle was quite short – spanning  just over a month from 15th September to 20th October of 1835 – and yet the discoveries he made during this epic trip were to affect travellers for centuries to come.

There are plenty of ways to experience the Galápagos islands: you can hike it, bike it, or stay in a well-situated sleepery like Finch Bay eco hotel and go out on day trips. After doing my research, however, I decided that the best way to experience these 19 Unesco World Heritage islands, formed by volcanic activity, was on a private cruise.

A thousand kilometres from the Ecuadorian coast – and a lot further from anywhere else – this legendary archipelago is pretty difficult to reach, but it’s that isolated situation that has allowed such a huge variety of endemic species, from giant land iguanas to gargantuan tortoises, to breed in peace.

Sea Lion, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

First I fly to Quito in Ecuador, where I spend one blissful night at the recently renovated Casa Gangotena hotel right in the centre of this historic city. Next I take the long ride out to Quito’s brand new airport and fly the three-hour trip to San Cristóbal, one of the oldest islands in the Galápagos chain.

Upon arrival I am set upon by sniffer dogs who check that I’m not carrying food, plants or anything else that might alter the archipelago’s fragile eco system, and then I’m free to hop on a bright-painted bus that takes me through narrow streets to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the island’s sleepy capital.

As soon as I leave the bus I’m struck by the unfazed fauna. All around me there are sea lions, yawning on wooden benches or scratching their backs in the middle of the road, whilst hordes of pelicans sun themselves outside cafes and frigatebirds soar overhead. Down at the quay a dinghy waits to carry me over choppy waters to Yacht La Pinta, the five year old, 48 passenger vessel that will be my home for the next four days.

Kicker Rock, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

A far cry from my visions of a cramped room with one tiny porthole, my carpeted deluxe cabin is sumptuous. There’s a large double bed, a table and comfy chairs, a floor-to-ceiling window and showers with lashings of hot water.

Back up on deck I’m decorated with a sweet-scented jasmine flower lei and led to meet the rest of the group, who are chatting with the guides employed to lead us to discover the unparalleled natural wonders of this volcanic archipelago.

Sometime during the night our yacht silently slips anchor and sails to the tip of San Cristobal. Sitting up in bed the following morning I feel like I’m hallucinating as I watch the sun rise peachily pink over Kicker Rock, the sea-lion-shaped pair of lava cones that feature on all the postcards.

An hour later I’m slipping and sliding across the rubber seat of our panga as we head out over choppy waters to Punta Pitt. Before leaving we are given a lecture about the island’s delicate ecosystem, which can be affected by the slightest alterations: a big problem over recent years has been introduced species, like rats and cats, that run riot and prey on local fauna. Before disembarking on this chunk of volcanic rock, where Darwin first landed on September 15th 1835, we are sternly warned not to leave anything behind, nor take anything away – not even a shell or a feather.

Sea Lion, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

It’s so hot that my camera lens steams up and I have to wait until we reach the top of this 730 metre-high structure to take photos. As we puff up along the narrow, lava-strewn path we pass blue- and red- footed boobies squatting in the tangle of bushes either side. They are so close they could peck our knees and yet they are totally undisturbed by our presence.

Right at the top of the rock we find the nest of a rare Nazca Booby lying on the barren ground, where a single white chick, like a kitten-sized ball of cotton wool, sits alone. As we watch the parents swoop in to feed their squawking offspring, Santiago our guide explains that the first chick will push any other chicks out of the nest, where they will be left to die or be pecked to death. I am beginning to see why Charles Darwin first spawned his theory of evolution by natural selection during his visit to the Galápagos Islands.

Over the following days we slip into a rhythm: up early to visit iconic landmarks like the twin Gemelos sinkholes or the stunning coral beach of Cerro Brujo. Afternoons are spent photographing brilliant turquoise-and-red rock iguanas and gregarious Hood mockingbirds at Punta Suarez, or weaving between noisy bull sea lions on the sheer-white coral-sand beaches of Gardner Bay.

On our last morning we are taken to an isolated rock in a panga (boat), where we snorkel with a large colony of sea lions.  Far from being frightened of us, the sea lions seem to enjoy the game. They dart up to us, then dive beneath us popping up on the other side, or take cheeky nips at our flippers. Several times when I dive down deep a sea lion dives with me, rubbing his belly against mine as we rise to the surface together.

Punta Suarez, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

On our final afternoon we visit the Charles Darwin research station on Santa Cruz island, where some 200 scientist from around the world work together on a captive breeding programme for giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises are a potent emblem for Ecuadorians and when Lonesome George, the world’s rarest creature, died in 2012 there was a day of national mourning – one local café even hung a sign that read, “Today we have witnessed extinction”.

Lonesome George’s empty pen is decorated with flowers and a plaque is dedicated to his memory. Next door to the pen I see my first Galápagos tortoise. On TV they look sizeable enough, but up close, with their pitted shells the size of a baby’s bathtub and long necks that allow them to fossick easily in the trees above, they are almost intimidating.

Seeing these living legends is like meeting a Tyrannosaurus Rex up close, and it sums up the magical sensation of visiting this fascinating collection of islands, which has hardly changed since the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Need to know

Boats from mainland Ecuador are not allowed to take tourists to the islands, so the only way to reach them is by plane from Quito. The Galápagos Islands are a protected National Park and there is a $100 entrance fee to be paid in cash upon arrival. There are also plenty of rules that must be strictly adhered to:

  • Do not touch, feed, disturb or chase any animal.
  • Do not move plants, rocks, shells or any natural objects.
  • Do not take food onto the islands.
  • Make sure you’re not carrying soil or seeds from one island to another on your clothes or shoes.
  • Never throw litter overboard or on the islands.
  • Do not buy souvenirs made of plant or animal products from the islands.
  • Declare any organic products in your possession to the quarantine services on arrival.
  • Plants, fresh flowers and live animals may not be brought to the islands.

Find out more about the Galápagos Islands on the Rough Guides destination page, or buy the Rough Guide to Ecuador.