2004 Journey: Central and South America
Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador lay a group of islands that have touched the world like no other. The Galapagos Islands, remote and isolated, were the stimulus that eventually led Charles Darwin to develop his theory on evolution. A trip to the islands is one of the wildlife experiences of a lifetime. The fearless animals allow for a close-up encounter with nature that leaves you humble and in awe.
The Galapagos Islands bask in sunshine as they sit directly on the equator. Combine this with the nutrient rich cold currents that come from the southern hemisphere and you have a paradise for the animals living there.
As a biologist, I have studied, read and dreamed of the Galapagos Islands, and for most of my life, it was a remote and distant wish-list destination.
In Quito, we booked a last minute sailing yacht, saving considerable money from the advertised price. Needless to say, our $15 a day budget ceased. It is impossible to see the islands on a small budget. Personally, I feel there are certain opportunities where one must bite the bullet and not miss the chance. This was one. We were fortunate to find a first class boat. This meant our food and service would be excellent. In addition, my sick body needed a little pampering.
The entire island chain is designated a national park. Some islands have restricted access, others no access at all. On the islands where exploring is permitted, well-marked trails are laid out and enforced by the guide. This is really not a bad policy; it helps prevent people from walking over turtle nests or disrupting other habitats. Even with these regulations, the animals often live by different rules; often we walked around nesting birds in the middle of the trails that were unwilling to relinquish ground. We encountered all the animals one associates with the Galapagos Islands: Blue-footed boobies, Giant Galapagos tortoises, penguins, dolphins, whales, Marine iguanas, and so on.
Three encounters we had with animals were extraordinary. First, we happened upon a pair of Albatrosses displaying the courtship ritual. This was amazing, as they bobbed their heads up and down, then slapping with their bills in fast repetitive motions. To hear it, smell it and watch it happen takes learning to a higher level.
Second, our ship was escorted for a brief period by a large group of dolphins; this provided a nice opportunity to go for a swim with them. Slow to find my snorkel gear, I was left on the boat alone until the captain said, "you can jump in from the deck." He had no idea he was speaking to someone who has never even been off the high board at the public swimming pool! Determined not to miss this chance, however, I jumped into the clear, cold water. Soon, I was surrounded by dolphins, which came in close to say hello. It was a great thrill to hear them speaking. I imagine they were talking about my poor swimming ability.
Third, our last morning we watched a feeding frenzy of a large flock of boobies in a shallow inlet. A flock of several hundred would fly over the water, until suddenly they would dive into the water like kamikaze pilots setting the water on boil as they gorged on fish. These encounters with nature, on such a grand and close up manner, are simply priceless.
When the eight days were over, I was a little sad to say goodbye to our 14 temporary traveling companions whom we shared the boat with. I was even sadder to say goodbye to first class service. It was a nice splurge after months on a small budget.
One of my boat mates was a semi-retired prison nurse from England by the name of Nina. We had some frank conversations about travel and life in general. She remarked that we are more likely to remember the unpleasant experiences with people and draw judgments about an entire country based on those moments, rightly or wrongly. Her statement to share with the U.S., "It would be good if you bought a geography book, you have much to learn about the world."
My last night, I walked up to the top deck of our boat, lay down and stared at the stars for a while. The masts were moving gently back and forth against the star-filled sky as a warm breeze quietly blew across the boat. The Milky Way was thick with stars, and our boat faced south, I knew, because straight ahead was the constellation Southern Cross. And for a brief moment, I had the satisfaction that I just fulfilled a dream.
Next, moving through Ecuador.