One thing above all draws the curious, the adventurous and those who love nature to these rough-hewn volcanic islands 600 miles west of Ecuador: the animals.
They swim. They fly. They lounge. They lumber. Sometimes, they do more. Naturalist Klaus Fielsch squats beside the trail along Tower Island's cliff top. He picks up a twig, twiddling it as he tells his listeners how seabirds teach themselves to fish. They toss and catch sticks to practice speed and aim, he says.
The twig's movement catches the attention of a young Nazca booby nearby.
"What's this? A game?" the football-sized seabird seems to be thinking. It web-foots closer.
Klaus sees the approach and gently flicks the stick toward the bird.
The booby moves nearer. Big, pale eyes target the twig. An even bigger, pastel beak snatches it, and the triumphant bird turns and waddles away, playing pitch-and-catch with its prize, its flat feet slapping the bare ground.
Such interaction is rare anywhere, but odds leap in the Galapagos where wildlife, ready for its close-up, generally goes about its business as if humans aren't there. Even the eldest human watcher becomes a child of wonder in this cradle of life nuzzling the equator in the Pacific Ocean.
Although sailors with their own oceangoing boats, and backpackers going cheap, can dip into the islands, strict rules set by Galapagos National Park, which controls 97 percent of the land (a huge marine reserve surrounds it) make independent travel impractical. Most visitors choose cruise tours on which permits, certified guides and fees are arranged by the operator.
Taking the organized option, I've joined a small group of journalists aboard the 40-passenger ship Isabela II of Metropolitan Touring, an Ecuadorean company that pioneered tourism in the Galapagos more than 40 years ago. Metropolitan books its North American travelers through Dallas-based Adventure Associates. Our seven-day trip will visit six of the 13 major islands in the archipelago.
After a two-hour flight from the mainland, our passenger jet lands at the airstrip on Baltra, first built in World War II by Americans protecting the Panama Canal. Barely onto the tarmac, birders have their first sighting: a small ground finch. It's one of 13 subspecies of finches found in the Galapagos and named after Charles Darwin, whose visit in 1835 added fuel to evolutionists' theories. The bird is so near that some cameras can't focus on it.
It's our first experience with what sets the Galapagos apart from most other wildlife hot spots: proximity. You see animals thrillingly close. Many seem fearless, unmoved by the presence of humans.
"Here, you're just another critter, a fellow inhabitant of the planet," says Fielsch, expedition manager for Metropolitan Touring.
He calls the failure to flee a "neurological flaw" developed over generations by species with few natural predators in the islands and decades of protection from harm by humans. "They should fear anything they don't know," he says, but they don't.
Shuttle buses take us across hardscrabble Baltra, where Jerusalem thorn trees thrive, but not much else. Small ferries, their roofs piled with travelers' luggage, carry us over the narrow Canal de Itabaca to Santa Cruz Island, the archipelago's most inhabited.
Arid lowlands give way to cooler central highlands. Tree daisies tower, and moss drapes and sprouts on moist branches. We turn off the slender highway for a short hike on Rancho Mariposa, where tall grasses provide a banquet for wild giant tortoises. Following lanes that their roaming, grazing bulk has mashed in the vegetation, we find a domed shell with the occupant at home. Its legs are the width of small trees. Ever so slowly, a head emerges from the bony hut to give us a reptilian once-over.
A barn owl preening on a rock shelf in a semi-dark lava tube on Mariposa provides an environmental lesson. A fingernail-size feather floats down to visitors in the cave. I pick it up, admiring its beautiful design.
"You can't keep it," says Isabela II expedition leader Carlos King, who has joined us for the walk and seems to be reading my mind.
It would be an exquisite souvenir, but guides carefully guard against such things' being transported among islands. Each landfall is a unique environment, and matter from one should not be allowed to reach another and set off unnatural change.
Understanding, I reluctantly let the feather fall to the tube's floor.
We descend to Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos' largest town. Here, we'll board the Isabela. Beforehand, the Charles Darwin Research Station provides additional time with tortoises. Lonesome George is the star at the facility, which studies and breeds tortoises and land iguanas to resupply declining wild populations. George lives up to his name. The 200-pound hulk is the last living member of his subspecies. Worse, even comely females of closely related lines haven't caught the eye of the elderly reptile, almost certainly dooming his branch of the family tree to break.
It takes only an afternoon's walk on Tower Island, and Thomas Kruger of Chemsee, Germany, exclaims, "Perfect! My dream is fulfilled."
The northern isle, closed to large vessels, is a chattering, clattering otherworld of Nazca and red-footed boobies tending their babies, male frigate birds ballooning their crimson throat pouches in hopes of attracting a mate, juveniles of all species on this nesting ground learning life lessons, and storm petrels, tropic birds and swallow-tailed gulls slicing the winds sweeping across the rocky plateau.
Tower's stony, uneven trail, reached after a climb up the boulders of Prince Philip's Steps, calls for agility and sure-footedness. Many of Isabela's passengers are middle-age or older; an expensive trip such as this (more than $4,000 per person) is out of the financial range of most younger travelers. For any age, sweat and physical effort are the price of amazement such as Kruger's.
An overnight sail and a second crossing of the equator (the ship's GPS systems display Earth's belt line as "00.00.00") brings the vessel to Tagus Cove on Isabela Island. Vintage graffiti painted or cut on the rocks is an ugly but fascinating log of ships that passed this way. The earliest scrawl dates to 1836, a year after Darwin's visit aboard the Beagle; the later marks stretch to World War II.
Just above the water's surface, along the line where barnacles grip the rocks, we spot two only-in-Galapagos residents.
Hopping across the stones are small penguins, the world's northernmost. Distant ancestors, possibly caught in the cold Humboldt Current barreling northward from Antarctic waters, made landfall — and a new subspecies — here at the equator.
Another bird that can't fly but swims like Michael Phelps is nearby. The flightless cormorant spreads stumpy wings to the hot sun, drying them after an underwater chase for a fish dinner.
With plentiful food, no better place to go and a need for streamlining, the bird's body adapted, shrinking its wings and giving up oils in its feathers that would have made it too buoyant to dive deep.
A short but steep trail from the cove overlooks the green soup of Darwin Lake and cloud-crowned La Cumbre volcano across the strait on Fernandina Island.
A crowd of scaly, spine-backed, salt-caked marine iguanas forms a sort of welcoming committee as passengers wade through mangrove-shaded shallows and onto Fernandina. The black reptiles, warming themselves after feeding underwater on algae, are so numerous and so inert that arriving humans must watch not to stamp on clawed arms or feet.
Fernandina, youngest of the Galapagos islands, is still forming. Lava flowed from its volcano as recently as a year ago, and the ropes and glops, shields and clumps, swirls and straws of congealed lava that visitors cross may be less than a millennium old. The payoff of the trudge is sea lions lounging like big, wet dogs on the beige beach. Some snuggle next to each other in sleep while pups yip for mom's attention. Dozing iguanas punctuate the sprawl.
Life here is uninterrupted by human concern or sentimentality. A fly-blown, pitifully thin pup, plainly ill, is left to its fate. The remains of an iguana, curled in the animal's final sleep, are undisturbed.
The ocean dances, pirouetting among lava arches and a grotto on James Island's Puerto Egas trail. Fur seals, another equatorial oddity, have claimed this rough sanctuary. A fat mama, her pup snoozing against her in a cooling pool, lazily swats flies away with a flipper. A youngster levers itself up a nearly perpendicular wall to rest on a ledge. A marine iguana turns its face to the sun's warmth above a seal pup sleeping soundly in a shaded crevice. Tiptoeing sideways among them all, as they do on each island, are red-orange sally lightfoot crabs scavenging tidbits from tidepools.
Magnificent frigate birds ride the air wave above the Isabela as the ship cruises to one last island on our route, lunarlike Bartolome. It promises the photo everyone wants: skyward- jutting Pinnacle Rock. The silhouette was made famous in the movie Master and Commander, and the view belongs only to those willing and able to make the hot, steep climb up a walkway's 370 steps and several inclines to the island's summit.
Winded, Isabela's intrepid make it to the top as daylight begins its abrupt departure. (At the equator, the sun rises about 6 a.m. and sets about 6 p.m. year-round, and deep darkness bookends those hours.) They photograph the volcanic spearhead and descend, chased by voracious mosquitoes.
Of the 42 species of birds I see in the Galapagos, one individual holds my heart.
Farther along that Tower Island path where the curious booby snatched Fielsch's stick, I stop near another young Nazca, this one watching the parade of tourists from pathside. Motionless bird, I think. Great photo opportunity.
I go down on one knee, keeping my distance, as required, and begin shooting. One, two, three frames. Late-afternoon sun sets the bird's eyes aglow. Another shot. And another. The booby in my viewfinder leans first left, then right to see what I'm doing. Winged insects cling to its long brown neck.
Then, whap, whap, webbed feet start my way, the sun's glint on my lens too tempting for the bird to ignore. I freeze, not wanting to alarm the youngster.
Suddenly, the screen on my digital camera is filled with a feathered head. Click. Then the head pulls back, and its open beak forms what I'll take as a smile.
The bird and watcher have traded roles.
I smile back.
IF YOU GO:
Many trips include flights to Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador via Miami. Include a three- to four-hour layover each way. In most cases, you must retrieve then recheck your bags.
- Adventure Associates; 972-907-0414; www.adventure-associates.com. South American mainland tours also available. Affiliated with Metropolitan Touring, which is committed to environmental protection and to including locals in tourism planning and jobs. More than three dozen Galapagos departures remain in 2010; three ships available. Prices aboard Isabela II start at $3,750 plus $203 government fuel tax, $44 departure tax and $110 national park fee. Discounts of 20 percent (no single supplement) are available on September and early December sailings. Kids 17 and younger get 50 percent off this summer.
- Abercrombie & Kent, 1-800-554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com. Nineteen family-oriented departures in 2010; from $6,695.
- Cruise West, 1-800-296-8307; www.cruisewest.com. Five Galapagos trips in 2011.
- Ecoventura, 1-800-633-7972; www.ecoventura.com. Ecuadorean-owned company; 16- to 20-passenger ships, one for divers.
- Geographic Expeditions, 1-800-777-8183; www.geoex.com. Aboard Metropolitan Touring's 48-passenger ship La Pinta.
- International Expeditions, 1-800-633-4734; www.ietravel.com. Thirty-two passenger, motorized tall ship.
- Lindblad Expeditions, 1-800-397-3348; www.expeditions.com. Respected adventure company. Partners with National Geographic.
- National Geographic, 1-888-966-8687; www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com. Discounts on some 2010 tours.
- Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, 1-800-328-8368; www.ventbird.com. Austin-based birding specialist. Next Galapagos trip July 9-18.
WHAT TO WEAR
- Casual is the rule. Swimsuits aren't allowed in dining rooms, but T-shirts and shorts are. A dress for women or slacks for men may serve for a city dinner in Ecuador before flying to the islands.
- Quick-dry clothes are most useful. Cotton stays wet longer but has an air-conditioning effect in a breeze.
- Sunburn is a danger at the equator. Take sun-protective, long-sleeved shirts. (Mine are from Sun Precautions; www.sunprecautions.com.) Shorts are cool but may lead to a burn. Capris for women and long pants (with zip-off portions to allow for wading) for men offer more protection.
- Sandal-style waterproof shoes work well on wet landings, but they offer little sun protection and may lead to painful foot-top burns. Consider enclosed styles (for example, Keens; www.keenfootwear.com).
- Sturdy athletic shoes built for walking and jogging are best for hiking over lava or on rocky trails. (Mine are Saucony brand). Soft shoes such as Crocs can rub uncomfortably when worn climbing or hiking.
- Hats should fit snugly or have ties or cinches to keep them in place in wind.
- Pack lightly. Small ships have limited storage space.
- Equatorial weather is moderate (70s) to hot and muggy (90s) year round.
- The U.S. dollar is used in Ecuador and the Galapagos.
- U.S. electrical current is used on the Isabela II.
- Cellphones may be off the grid during a voyage.
- Waters may be rough in areas where currents meet. Consider carrying motion-sickness medication, especially on ships of 20 or fewer passengers.
- Snorkeling gear, wet suits and fins are available on many ships.
- A daypack is handy for carrying cameras, sunscreen and other small items. Barefoot's Wanderlite full-size pack weighs 8 ounces and folds to the size of a small book (www.packbarefoot.com; $27.95).
Metropolitan Touring, www.metropolitan-touring.com
Ecuador tourism, 1-800-328-2367; www.ecuadortouristboard.com
Galapagos tourism, www.galapagosislands.com
Fundacion Galapagos, www.fundaciongalapagos.org
Mary Ellen Botter: firstname.lastname@example.org
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