I’ve always viewed the idea of going on a cruise ship as similar to checking in to jail for a week. The food would probably be better, the entertainment probably worse. The phrase “I’m trapped with these people” would be on a constant loop in my head. It’s one reason why, though I’d wanted to visit the Galápagos Islands since seeing images of its landscape and resident monsters at an impressionable age, I’d more or less written it off. How else was I going to get about if not by prison ship?
I could almost have imagined it was the Norfolk Broads we were driving through – but for the tortoises
The sea-wary can rejoice: for, as it turns out, there are landbound alternatives to seven nights at sea. Staying on one of the inhabited islands allows visitors to delve deeper into this extraordinary location without having to abide by a cruise ship’s strict time limits.
That’s not to say you’re guaranteed to see an awful lot. When I arrived on Santa Cruz island (flying from Guayaquil in Ecuador to the island of Baltra, followed by the inevitable boat transfer), the weather was as November damp and drizzly as the London I’d left, the lushly landscape thoroughly cloaked in grey cloud. Driving north through the island, I could almost have imagined it was the Norfolk Broads we were driving through – but for the tortoises. There’s something very surreal about seeing the stone-grey domes of their shells inert in the fields either side of the road, on the grass verges or, occasionally, in the road itself, cumbersome as boulders.
The Galápagos Safari Camp is located in the highlands at the centre of Santa Cruz. For my entire visit, the property was suffused in cloud, limiting visibility but certainly boosting the lodge’s otherworldly feeling. So too does the accommodation: tents, overlooking the dense forests of this 55-hectare estate. These are large, comfortable, warm and, well, as luxurious as tents can be. Ecological concerns are to the forefront, so the toiletries are biodegradable, and there’s limited hot water for showers (though it easily lasts long enough for two decent showers at a go). But if a tent isn’t your idea of a hotel room, the main lodge contains a family suite with three bedrooms. Meals, uniformly excellent, are served out on the veranda here, overlooking the darkening woodlands. Cheeky finches come to visit as you eat – and here, as hotel manager Katrien notes, is a Darwinian adaptation happening almost before our eyes: finches whose bills a minute genetic mutation has made more curved than straight, making it easier for them to scoop up stray grains of cooked rice from diners’ tables, are prospering while their straight-beaked cousins are languishing behind. The curved-beak birds are likelier to survive long enough to reproduce and pass this genetic quirk down to their offspring. Over time, and by increments, this is how populations change – or, all things being equal, stay largely the same, as in the case of the Galápagos’ most famous denizens.
There are two species of giant tortoises on Santa Cruz: those on the western side of the island are bigger, with smoother shells; their relatives on the east are smaller, with shells whose distinctively ridged sections are markers of age, like the rings of a tree. You can visit several different tortoise “farms” where these prehistoric creatures roam (one of these farms also has a fantastic subterranean tunnel carved out by ancient volcanic flow; down here, ferns grow in proximity to artificial light, and – as if this weren’t odd enough – the Galapagos Safari Camp staff have pre-empted your exploration and gone ahead into the catacombs to set up a stand for tea and cookies.
Man being man, the tortoises here have seen drastic reductions in population size (it all goes back to when they were hunted down for the valuable oil that insulates their bodies beneath those shells). One facility near Puerto Ayora is helping to rebuild populations on the islands where humans once hunted the species to the point of extinction, desperate for the fat under those shells. The infant tortoises are the size of your fist and, for a reptile, strangely cute; at the far end of the scale, both in seniority and effect on the viewer, the mortal remains of Lonesome George, for some time the sole tortoise dwelling on neighbouring Pinta Island, have been stuffed and placed in an airtight chamber in a pose of neck-out upwards straining, as if towards tortoise heaven or the prickly pear unattainable in life.
Ungainly as the tortoise might be, I proved ungainlier by far as I undertook, or underwent, a twenty-minute surfing lesson that ended in ignominy. I was quite unable to complete the limber hop from a prone position on the board to the standing crouch that allows surfers to ride an approaching wave.
“Use your core strength!” my instructor urged. “I don’t have any!” I screamed, finally giving up. Note: my board was still on dry land at this point. As Frasier’s Niles Crane deemed ballroom dancing, so too I conclude that surfing is difficult yet boring.
A calming walk along the beach and a kayak ride out into the shallows brings the more reassuring sights of prehistoric monsters and killer sealife. Black land iguanas the size of beagles sprawl on the sand, only the pulse in their necks or the twitch of a talon showing they’re alive, or trudge along the water’s edge, oblivious to the tide washing over them. In the shallows beneath the rocky shoreline, sharks bask, arranged head-to-tail like a game of sardines; invited to swim with them, I had to demur, not for true fear of them but because trying to co-manoeuvre a two-man kayak had left me with such high blood pressure I did think the sharks might think me easy prey. (Really, though: do two people collaborate on steering a car? So why a kayak?) There are sea turtles here, too, briefly visible as blinking, beaky faces popping up amid the waves as we kayak out. “What are they doing?” I asked my guide, seeing two heads bob to the surface at regular intervals and in very close proximity. “Humping!” came the gleeful reply.
The rustic feeling of GSL is less prevalent at my second stop, Pikaia Lodge (pictured above and top), whose rooms come off a central walkway whose minimalist granite and white two-storey blocks reminded me, prosaically, of the modernist campus of the University in East Anglia. Norwich, for some reason, was very much on my mind this trip. The rooms here are spacious and light-filled, with almost half the wall space given over to floor-to-ceiling windows, so you can lounge in the big comfortable bed and admire the changing sky. When I arrived, the cloud that had blanketed the island over the preceding couple of days was finally starting to dissipate and the emerging sun made a tremendous double rainbow that arced above Pikaia Lodge, apt for a place replete with both scientific wonder and the kind of beauty that doesn’t need intellectualisation.
You can’t fault Pikaia’s commitment to the scientific theme: detailed paintings of the island’s forests decorate the lobby, as does an abstract sculptural interpretation of the Big Bang. In the restaurant, you eat (excellent) meals beneath a large wall-sculpture depicting the ascent of man and the tree of life, while and at the centre of the room stands a paradoxically huge and clumsy metallic structure representing the double helix of DNA but which speaks less to the “endless forms most beautiful” of Darwin or the elegance of Watson and Crick’s discovery, and more to the set decoration of a 1960s Doctor Who episode set in a genetics lab. (The monster would doubtless be the pikaia, a sort of tusked and bewhiskered tapeworm that swam the prehistoric ocean, but monstrously upscaled.)
You can’t avoid seagoing forever, and on my final day at Pikaia I set sail with fellow guests – I feel some looking askance at my all-black outfit: a Galápa-goth, if you will – for a day’s cruising to some of the smaller, uninhabited islands, such as Bartolome and the prosaically named Chinese Hat. Uninhabited by humans, that is. Instead, these are the territories of short, dazed-looking endemic Galápagos penguins, of shadowy, red-throated frigatebirds that glide in the slipstream above the cruise boat as you sunbathe on deck, of teeming hordes of vivid orange-red crabs scuttling on black magmatic rock, and of the blue-footed booby, a gull with uncannily pale eyes and, yes, webbed feet of a distinctive azure blue. Best of all are the baby sea lions we saw cavorting in the tide on Bartolome Island. Born professionals, it’s as if on sighting an incoming ship they race onto the seashore where they proceed to shameless cavort and frolic. Plush pups tumble over one another, nip each other’s snouts affectionately, squirm in and out of rockpools, seem to evince comical surprise when the tidal spume sprays up around them. Their parents are also utterly unafraid of humans, approaching us with a curiosity matched only by their cumbersomeness: hooting and grunting, they converge on us like competitors in a sack race. A snorkelling tour of the coast of Bartolome allows you to tick off almost all the sealife in the “I Spy” guide to local fauna that Pikaia provides its guests, or to set off in flipper-powered pursuit of sea turtles speeding along beneath the surface brisk and unwavering as clockwork toys.
Conservation is spoken of constantly here, both in terms of the effort to undo the negative consequences of historical environmental misuse, as in the case of the tortoise sanctuary on Santa Cruz, and in recognition of what future generations will face as the environment changes, sea-levels rise, waters warm. The truth is that, no matter how swiftly those Darwin finches at the Galápagos Safari Camp adapt to their surrounds, fate, or human indifference, can render them extinct, their efforts pointless, by destroying their environment.
A visit to the Galápagos, symbolic epicentre of the greatest natural-scientific discovery of the modern age, is an opportunity for great wonder at the diversity and ingenuity on display in the natural world. But as we’re reminded by the way those sea lions trustingly lollop towards their human visitors on the beach of Bartolomeo, not tame but simply ignorant of the dangers humans may present, it’s also a place to reflect on humankind’s disproportionate effect on the world environment. Operations like the tortoise sanctuary on Santa Cruz are working hard to undo historic injustices visited on the endemic fauna here; the larger story of swift environmental change is as yet not fully told, and the truth is that however swiftly the Darwin finches flitting about the Galápagos Safari Camp may adapt to changes in their habitat, at a single stroke – or just through manufactured complacency – that entire environment can be rendered uninhabitable. This place of natural wonders, of life finding extraordinary new ways to prosper, is also a place whose visitors should remember to keep their feet on the ground. C
Galapagos Safari Camp, Finca Palo Santo, Barrio Salasaca, Parroquia Santa Rosa, EC200350, Ecuador
+593 99 371 7552; galapagossafaricamp.com
Pikaia Lodge Galapagos, Sector El Camote a 100 m del Cerro Mesa, Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador 200105, Ecuador
+593 4 371 1670; pikaialodge.com