A Second Noah's Ark
When human beings discovered the islands, there were already geckos and iguanas and rice rats and lava lizards and spiders and ants and beetles and grasshoppers and mites and ticks in residence, not to mention enormous land tortoises… [one] theory back then was that God Almighty had created all those creatures where the explorers found them, so they had had no need for transportation. Another theory was that they had been shooed ashore there two by two - down the gangplank of Noah's ark. If there really was a Noah's ark, and there may have been - I might entitle my story "A Second Noah's Ark."
If the UK was a fairytale, then the Galápagos was a fantasy epic - strange reptiles littering the sidewalks and beaches, enormous birds flying through the air a foot above your head, cacti twisting and curling across the horizon. A humid, sticky heat that hung heavy over bright blue waters, stepping over seals on your way to the ferries, crabs scuttling underfoot. I got my first face-to-face introduction to the wildlife early, we were headed from the airport to our hostel when something hit the side of our car and fell in through the open window. I looked down and a beetle, size of your fist, was rolling around in my lap, wings twitching in a stunned confusion. I knew this was going to be good.
We only stayed a week in the Galápagos, we could have stayed so much longer but costs add up quickly out there, and on top of that, part of me almost felt guilty for being in the islands at all. The islands belong to the animals, to the trees, and as one more pair of potential-disease-carrying, carbon-emitting, environment-ruining human tourists we weren’t exactly helping. So instead of staying longer, we made the most of our time there, we were up before the sun rose every morning, and not in bed until well after it had set.
We spent the first few days exploring Santa Cruz Island, a whirlwind of peculiar and unusual flora and fauna. Like at the Reserva El Chato, where we walked through lava tunnels and trees dripping with passionfruit, dozens of giant tortoises padding slowly beneath them. Or at Los Gemelos, the twin craters, mossy and volcanic sinkholes that house short-eared owls, Darwin’s finches, and vermillion flycatchers. Darwin Research Center, we were passing through when a park ranger walked by, he motioned for us to stand still and then began making whirring and shhing sounds with his mouth. Within seconds, a swarm of finches emerged, a flapping, tweeting twister engulfing our heads while we stood in silence. White sands in Tortuga Bay, crunchy purple rocks along Playa de la Estacion, brilliant orange and blue lightfoot crabs scattered across black volcanic rocks. Walking along the Puerto Ayora pier, careful to sidestep the marine iguanas, a man gutting a fish, seals and pelicans gathered open-mouthed at his feet. Giant frigate birds snatching pieces as they flew by. On a day trip to some outer islands we were lucky enough to see blue-footed boobies out hunting - a flock of them flying above the water, then suddenly crashing down at once, grabbing fish from below the surface.
[The marine iguana] has no enemies, so it sits in one place, staring into the middle distance at nothing, wanting nothing, worried about nothing, until it is hungry. It then waddles down to the ocean and swims slowly and not all that ably until it is a few meters from shore. Then it dives like a submarine, and stuffs itself with seaweed, which is at that time indigestible. The seaweed is going to have to be cooked before it is digestible. So the marine iguana pops to the surface, swims ashore, and sits on the lava in the sunshine again. It is using itself for a covered stewpot, getting hotter and hotter while the sunshine cooks the seaweed. It continues to stare into the middle distance at nothing, as before, but with this difference: It now spits up increasingly hot saltwater from time to time. During the million years I have spent in these islands, the Law of Natural Selection has found no way to improve, or, for that matter, to worsen this particular survival scheme.
"And which of the thirteen sorts of finch are you?" she said. As though it understood her question, the bird now showed her what sort it was by sipping up the red beads on her knuckles. So she took another look around at the island, never imagining that she was going to spend the rest of her life there, providing thousands of meals for vampire finches. She said to the Captain, "You say this is Rábida Island?" "Yes," he said. "I'm quite sure of it." "Well, I hate to tell you this after all you've been through, but you're wrong again," she said. "This has to be Santa Rosalia." "How can you be so sure?" he said. And she said, "This little bird just told me so."
They were about the size of flightless cormorants, and had the same long, snaky necks and fish-spear beaks. But they had not given up on aviation, and so had big, strong wings. Their legs and webbed feet were bright, rubbery blue. They caught fish by crashing down on them from the sky. Fish! Fish! Fish!
After a couple days on land we knew we had to get in the water, for all the fauna we’d seen so far we know it’s a fraction compared to what’s under the ocean’s surface. We’d heard good things about Gordon’s Rock dive, but that it was for advanced divers only, with barely ten under our belts we knew that ruled us out. But when we went to schedule different ones the instructor convinced us otherwise, he thought we could handle Gordon’s Rock and that we’d regret it if we didn’t - it has some of the most beautiful sights in all of the Galápagos, including the best place for hammerheads (which we’d been dying to see). Truth be told I just got the impression he wanted to do the dive himself, but he had us convinced, and we signed up.
On the way to the rocks, the dive master taught us all the hand signals for the animals we’d see while underneath the water, so we could point out when we saw something cool. Wiggle a finger for garden eel, flap both arms for manta ray. Do your best Louis Armstrong impression for a trumpetfish, open a tin can with a pull tab, tuna. And a closed fist on your temple - that meant hammerhead. It had been a while since we’d been in the water, but you forget how nervous you are the minute you go under and see a whole world teeming with life just under the surface. It was still scary though, it’s labeled as “advanced” for a reason - there were times the current was so strong I had to grab onto the wall of rocks for fear of getting swept away, when I didn’t know which way was up and which way was down, I learned exactly why it’s nicknamed “the washing machine”. But as difficult as it was, it was also exhilarating, after each tank we’d crawl onto the boat, fingers pruned, lungs full of salt, finally able to discuss what we’d just seen - sea turtles, hovering next to us, riding the current and the surge pulling back and forth, back and forth. Schools of fish, bending and moving as one, but when you get too close they disperse in puffs and swirls, like smoke through wind. Reef sharks, blowfish, starfish carpeting the ocean floor. Then finally, what we’d been waiting for, the muted tinkle of the dive master’s bell, a fist flush with his temple.
We spent our last few nights on Isabela island, stretching every bit of daylight we could. Long walks on the beach during golden hour, sunlight pouring in through palm trees. Winding through blue lagoons, flamingos and iguanas idly passing us by. Hiking Sierra Negra volcano - just over nine miles of colorful crater rims and rock fields that made us feel like we were on Mars, learning the names for different types of lava along the way. Snorkeling at Concha Perla, holding our breath and freediving as long as we could, eels and eagle rays. Seals that would approach us in the water as we dipped in the surf, swimming right up to us before twisting and darting away, like a dog begging to be chased - they say you shouldn’t come within ten feet of the animals, but what are you supposed to do when they come to you?
Then again, it is so peaceful here, why would anybody want to live on the mainland? Every island has become an ideal place to raise children, with waving coconut palms and broad white beaches - and limpid blue lagoons. And all the people are so innocent and relaxed now, all because evolution took their hands away.
The Galápagos is the kind of place you never forget. We’ve been traveling a while now, almost a year to the day, and the places can blur together (where we did that hike, which temple we saw in what city), but the Galápagos will forever stand out with such a colorful clarity in our minds. Otherworldly terrain and peculiar yet friendly animals, existing alongside humans in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s the closest we’ve ever felt to an Eden - or to a second Noah’s Ark - right here on earth.
A few tips and bits of advice for exploring the islands if you’re planning a trip there yourself.
• Manage your expectations. Before we came to the Galápagos Islands we thought they were going to be this pristine, island paradise where everything is perfectly clean, immaculate, and rugged. But the truth is that there are schools and businesses and homes and lots and lots of humans living there, and the destruction we bring in our wake - trash on the ground, taxis spewing exhaust while honking and yelling, packs of stray dogs milling in the streets. We had such a romantic and incorrect expectation of the place, and I wish we knew going in.
• That being said, still - keep the islands magical. There are still so many parts of the islands that are well preserved and clean and please help keep them that way. I don’t really have anything groundbreaking to say besides the obvious - don’t litter (and pick up other people’s trash if you can), don’t touch the animals, support local businesses, turn off the shower when you soap, use reef-safe sunscreen.
• Don’t book with a package tour (though you will, by law, need a tour guide in some places). We arranged in advance for several activities and transportation to be booked for us through a tour agency, we wanted to make sure we made the most of our limited time there, and well, we thought we needed a guide (see bullet point one). However, it’s really not necessary and we found it to be a huge waste of money - the islands are much more developed and tourist-centered than we thought, and it would be easy to book taxis and boats independently and save some money. However, several attractions require a tour guide by law (e.g. the Sierra Negra volcano), so make sure you check online or with your hotel/tourist agency beforehand, and they can set it up.
• Walk a little outside the city for meals. We found that in the main, most touristy areas of the islands the food prices were quite steep (i.e. minimum ~$15 USD/person), but that if you walked even fifteen minutes outside those districts you could get a standard soup, seafood and fruit juice meal for four or five bucks a person.
• Get scuba certified before you go. I know this seems a bit much for a “tip” (as getting certified does require some time and effort), but it is honestly the best advice I could give. The diving around the islands is some of the best in the world, and if you’ve gotten yourself all the way out to the Galápagos you might regret not taking advantage of that; it truly feels as if you get access to a whole new world that most people never get to see. Gordon’s Rock dive was our favorite, but we also loved our dives around North Seymour and Mosquera Islet.
• Practical packing tips: motion-sickness tablets and lots of cash. If you do much island hopping then you’ll have to take some pretty brutal speedboats around the islands, if you’re prone to seasickness at all then you’re going to have a really rough time without medicine. Also, bring lots of cash - there are ATMs on the island but we saw such long lines for them, and as you’ll have to drop a lot of money for a lot of things (like an automatic $100 fee for setting foot on the islands), then it’s good to bring it with you. No need to exchange if you’re coming from the US as Ecuador’s national currency is the USD.
• If you’re looking for something to read on the plane ride, read Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s always more fun to read a book while you’re in its setting, plus if you read all the quotes this post then you’re already about halfway there.
• Ask for a passport stamp if you don’t get one! We personally got one without asking, but apparently they’ll sometimes skip it because you’re not technically leaving Ecuador. But it’s a fun stamp and if you ask for one, they’ll give it.