Off the beaten track: cruising in the Galápagos Islands

In 1835, Charles Darwin wrote “I do not doubt every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness, from the simple consciousness of breathing in a foreign clime, where civilized man has seldom or never trod”.

Whilst civilized man may have done a great deal of treading since then, the impact of the Galapagos Islands - its breathtaking scenery, the remoteness, the wildlife, the lack of people - certainly creates an impact. And yes, there is something very special about visiting somewhere considerably less trodden.

Early this year I was lucky enough to spend four days cruising around the islands with Ecoventura on their luxury vessel, The Letty: my first introduction to the Galapagos Islands.

The landscape was stunning: barren and rugged at times, and yet full of colour and flora at others. But to me it was the wildlife that was the highlight of my visit. Not the volume, although it was quite extraordinary to see beaches littered with basking sealions, or to snorkel amongst giant sea turtles. It wasn’t even the fact that there are species on the islands that aren’t found anywhere else on the planet …. although I have to confess that walking amongst marine iguanas was very special. It was the behavior of the wildlife that is so incredible: and so at odds with anything you experience elsewhere. Normally there is a choice to be made. See animals in the wild, in their natural habitat, and accept that the very nature of this will mean that they may be hard to track down, and difficult to get too close to. Or see animals in captivity: in an environment where they have become accustomed to human interaction and therefore are more comfortable with people, but in an unnatural environment. The Galapagos Islands allow you both – up close and in their natural environment: for this reason alone it is one of the most incredible wildlife experiences you are likely to encounter.

From sitting on the beach observing the sealions and marine iguanas to watching the playful courting of the albatross: kayaking alongside dolphins to snorkeling with giant green turtles. Hiking up rocky paths to be greeted with incredible views to watching the frigate birds and blue and red footed boobies.

During the trip I spoke with one of their fabulous guides Ceci about the islands, visitor expectations and the difficulty of balancing the differing needs and priorities of tourism and conservation.


For so many people, the Galapagos Islands offer the ultimate wildlife experience – why do you believe this is?

The Galápagos Islands is one of the most pristine National Parks due to the number of endemic species. This National Park still maintains 97% of the original number of species. Therefore, on every visiting site one finds the wildlife almost intact. What really takes people attentions is that the animals are very naïve. They do not run or fly away from us. It is their lack of fear towards humans that visitors mostly appreciate. So, it is not the number of animals but the proximity to them that makes these islands the ultimate wildlife experience.


The islands seem to be a year round destination, but what is the best time of year to visit the Galapagos Islands, and why is this?

It is a year round destination - we do not have many species that are migratory. The different groups of animals breed during different periods of the year on different islands, So, animals are to be seen all year round, in different stages such as eggs, chicks, adult birds, baby sea lions, adult sea lions etc. If you are wondering about the weather that is a different story. We have two climatically periods during the year. From May to December we experience a mist or light rain called Garua. The water temperature drops to 19 degrees Celsius, especially on the western part of the Arquipelago. The hikes are more comfortable since the sun does shine constantly. During our warm months (Dec to May) air temperature could increase to 36 degrees Celsius and water temperature to 23. The water tends to be clear and it is ideal for snorkeling. I would say that the best time of the year to visit Galápagos depends on what your preferences are walking or snorkeling. One thing is for sure, the wildlife is found all year round: on land and in the water.


The islands all seem to offer something different in terms of landscape, sightings and experience. Do you have a favourite island, and if so, why?

Each and every island is different. Each and every visiting site is different. This is what makes Galápagos special. There are two islands that I enjoy the most; Fernandina and Española. Española is the oldest island. It is located on the southeastern corner of the Archipelago and therefore the first to receive cold rich nutrient waters from the Humboldt Current. Because of time, isolation and extreme cold temperature in its surrounding waters, Española holds the highest level of endemism. We find large populations of Blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies and marine iguanas. It has its own species of Mocking bird, lava lizard and it is the only island where the endemic waved albatross nests on. This island is filled with wildlife.

Fernandina is another jewel; it is located on the most western part of the archipelago. On the other hand, this island counts with only 500.000 years of age, making it the youngest island.  It is considered the most pristine of the Galápagos. On this island one encounters hundreds of marine iguanas basking under the sun on young lava flows. The visiting site is known as Punta Espinoza and it is a result of an uplifting that occurred in the mid 60s. The trail is a combination of sand and lava flows. It may not be filled with wildlife but the landscape is magnificent. Lava flows covered with colorful Sally light foot crabs decorating them and a blue background given by the rich ocean waters.  One can have a clear view of Isabela Island with all its imponents volcanoes. Fernandina is simply magical.


What do you believe is the highlight for most visitors?

There are many. Though most people enjoy snorkeling with playful sea lions, speedy penguins, curious Flightless cormorants and many colorful fish. Snorkeling is a big part of the trip.


How have things changed in the Galapagos in the years you’ve been guiding here, and do you think the changes are positive?

Many changes have occurred. For instance the number of visitors have multiplied by 8. When I started working, the number was around 20,000, now it has increased to 160,000. That has obviously made a big difference in the number of people we find here visiting and residing on the islands. The more visitors, the more people that are needed to work in the tourism industry. So, one can say its good for the people cause they have jobs, but it is not ideal for such a fragile ecosystem.

One positive action the Galápagos Park Service took was to assign a 15 days itinerary to every tour operator. Such measure was taken to spread out the big number of visitor at a given time. For instance, many of the small boats that carry a maximum of 16 passengers now have to sail long distances and cover far away islands. Where as before they would just visit the central islands causing a constant impact on them. Now one visits a site every 15 days, instead every 8 days. This gives the islands a break from being visited by a large number of people at the same time.

There was a special law ¨La Ley Especial¨ for Galápagos created in 1998.  This law regulates the number of people coming to live in the islands. It regulates the fishing industry to avoid over exploitation of our marine reserve. It was created to have a better control on the preservation of the islands. My personal opinion is that although it was a great idea, the law was passed a bit late in time.


I guess there will always be the challenge of weighing up the economic and educational value of tourism versus managing the protection and conservation of the islands. Do you think the current balance is right, and what would you see as both the negatives and positives from a visitors perspective on the current restrictions and rules around visitor numbers and access.

We do not have a balance. The number of people migrating to these islands to make a living here, has increased by huge numbers in a too short period of time. The more people in a given place, the more pressure you have from them to receive public services. They want electricity 24 hours a day. Many of them have businesses as hotels, restaurants and bars that deal with tourism.  More and more has to be imported from the mainland risking the introduction of invasive species. Cargo ships are coming on a daily basis.

We must have better quarantine programs to avoid the introduction of both plants and animals that could hams our local species.

Although only 3% is privately owned and does not belong to the Galápagos National Park, we have to ensure that the situation doesn’t get out of hand.


Any advice or tips for people considering a trip?

Just be prepared for a once in a lifetime experience. For the elderly, be mindful that some of the trails are a bit strenuous because they are rocky.


Liz Harper travelled on board the luxury vessel Letty with Ecoventura

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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