Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Galapagos

Marine Iguana

It´s hard to know where to begin to describe the amazing week I spent in the Galapagos. The whole experience was fun, beautiful, luxurious, relaxing, and fascinating.

Let´s start with luxurious, relaxing and fun. I booked my 8-day cruise on the Diamante, a 112-foot sailing yacht. We were 11 passengers, 1 guide and 5 crew members: captain, first mate, chef, engineer, and, er, another guy. Despite me wondering at the outset if I would be among a shipful of retired couples, we were almost entirely backpacker-types, in total of five different nationalities, and we all got along really well. The youngest was 19, a college student from Oregon, and the oldest was her grandfather. The ship was beautiful, with tiny little cabins for two, each with a private bathroom; a main "salon" for eating or hanging out and watching movies; and a sun deck. Unfortunately, the sun didn´t make too many appearances, but the few times it did come out we were all to be found lounging around with books or cards or music. Aside from the sometimes violent rocking during our long nighttime sails (three passengers were ill--thankfully I was fine, although it took me two nights sleeping on land to stop feeling the phantom rocking of the bed) we didn´t have to worry about a thing: the guide and crew took care of all the scheduling, cleaning and logistics and left us to do nothing but watch the sea and the quick but beautiful equatorial sunsets. And eat and eat and eat. The most luxurious part of it all was the food. I can´t even tell you how great it was. The chef, José, worked miracles in a tiny little kitchen, coming out with multi-course gourmet meals all the time: fresh fish or meat, salads, typical Ecuadorian dishes of fried bananas or corn or potatoes with lots of vegetables, casseroles and yummy desserts, and fresh fruit all the time...delicious and healthy food with lots of variety. I weighed myself at the airport on my way out, and found out that, unsurprisingly, I had gained about 3 pounds in one week. We started each day with absolutely huge breakfasts, came back from our morning activity to a three-course lunch and finished off the day with a big dinner. My mouth waters just thinking about it. Mmmmmm.

Now onto beautiful and fascinating. And fun. Our schedule worked like this: every day we had breakfast at 7 (did I mention how good the breakfasts were?) and went off at 8 for our first nature walk. Usually we´d come back on board to change for snorkeling, then back for lunch (yum...) and out for another nature walk, and back to freshen up for dinner (mmmmm). I confirmed to myself on this trip that I don´t have a brain which is particularly interested in retaining information about animals, and the extent to which I am fascinated with birds is, well, let´s just say limited. And somehow I had the idea that the animals would just be all over the place, landing on your shoulder, running across your feet, coming up to give you high-fives, etc. It´s not actually like that: the animals are less numerous that I imagined and mostly quite sedentery, so sometimes, I´ll admit, I got a little bored. (Although clearly amateur naturalists, not to mention professionals like Darwin, would understandably have a hard time controlling their excitement over the unusual species of finches, frigates, warblers, gulls etc.) But overall the animal life is extremely fascinating and quirky: iguanas spitting salt residue out their noses, noisy sea lions barking on the beach like sick dogs, colorful birds--including of course the idiotic and hilarious blue-footed booby--performing mating rituals and sitting on their eggs. The landscape, especially at this time of year (dry season) is brown and severe, and several islands we visited are made up mostly of hard black lava, but amongst the forbidding territory you find all kinds of creatures. Surprisingly, the animals we saw the least of were the famous Galapagos land tortoises...we only saw a few and those only in a turtle sanctuary.

The most incredible thing about Galapagos animal life is how little fear they have. They have lived almost entirely without predators (besides hawks and sharks and several critters who eat birds´ eggs) for so long that they live together quite peacefully. And after about 30 years´ experience amongst camera-wielding tourists who are strictly forbidden to touch, let alone hurt or kill, the animals, they have grown quite friendly and bold towards humans. Birds lay their eggs right in the path and iguanas and sea lions lie practically right under your feet. One little sea lion pup came right up to me to smell me and see if I was its mommy. But it was in the water that the animals were the most amazing. I heard we would snorkel with sea lions, but I didn´t realize they would come up and play with us. On the last day, I paddled around with a family of six sea lions, which would do little flips and circles in the water to impress me, then come up and take a look at me, and swim around, over and under me to play. Sometimes we´d all be surrounded by sea lions which would then swim off, leaving us to paddle around after the sea tortoises gliding through the water. Then off to the side one day we saw three penguins shoot past, and on the last day a white-tipped reef shark swam calmly through the (cold) waters below us. And that´s not to mention the beautiful, colorful fish of all colors we saw.

Anyway, the trip was really fantastic and highly recommendable. It´s not cheap, though, and after six months as a budget-conscious backpacker I hyperventilate when I think about how much I spent in those eight days--approximately five or six times what I spent in a month in Bolivia. But if you can afford it, like to snorkel and have at least a wavering interest in animal life, this was definitely a trip of a lifetime and something I wish everyone could do. And did I mention how good the food was?

Click on the booby for more photos:
Blue-Footed Booby