Before arriving in the Galápagos Islands, we thought we knew what to expect: A tropical, humid climate with freakish, other-worldly plant- and animal-life. And maybe a Charles Darwin theme park or something. But even better than all that, we found something far more elusive on this over-populated planet: solitude.
Much like Hawai‘i’s Big Island, the Galápagos island chain was formed by a “geological blowtorch” beneath the continental plates which burst through thin spots, oozing lava into the sea which cooled and became volcanic islands.
These cooled lava-rock islands — at first barren of…well, everything — became lousy with flora and fauna from other places over millions of years. All of the wildlife found on these isolated islands had to come from somewhere else, and since it’s 600 miles to the Ecuadorian coast, there isn’t much. It’s thought that long-range birds carried seeds in their feathers, short-range finches got blown there in hurricanes and insects arrived on leaves.
Due to the haphazard and stupid nature in which the wildlife arrived, the islands developed with an incomplete ecosystem. That is, the islands’ endemic land species lack predators of any kind, and hardly any mammals at all, except for goats and some feral cats that the locals accidentally introduced in recent years that they’re trying to get rid of. As a result, the wildlife on the islands aren’t really very wild. Generations of limited exposure to mankind has left the inhabitants unfamiliar with our innate knack for killing the crap out of living things.
This unhealthy lack of fear was noticed first by Tomas de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama whose ship to Peru got blown off course. Writing of this unique island chain in 1535, Berlanga noted, “Verily, thee can totally stroll right upon yon dummies and pop a musket slug in thine asses! I doth shit thee not!” Or, you know…words to that effect.
Soon after that encounter, humans began using the isle of Floreana like a Stop ’N Go, stocking up on fresh water and the main ingredient of tortoise soup: tortoises. During the 18th and 19th centuries, whalers killed hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises due to their meaty size, inability to sprint, and convenient carrying cases.
A young Charles Darwin first arrived at the Galápagos in 1832 aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. The ship had been commissioned for a four-year trip with one simple goal: mapping the whole frickin’ world. Chuck spent the next five weeks stabbing, tagging and bagging insects, birds and animals which he sent back to England with passing whaling ships headed there.
During the rest of his “Around the world in 80 years” ocean voyage, Darwin worked on developing his scientific theory that species evolved through “the gradual, non-random, process by which biological traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers.” NOTE: A scientific theory is a falsifiable attempt — based on actual, observable facts — to explain those same facts, it is not simply a “wild guess” like ALL religions.
Once back home, Darwin scrutinized his slaughter and identified 13 distinct species of finches simultaneously living in the islands. This was a shocking and important discovery (to uber-nerds, anyway) since he believed that “natural selection” ultimately winnowed down a type of creature down to one species, the “fittest” one. (Usually, that was the version with fangs.)
Yet without competition or predators, even abominations against God — like the unholy “woodpecker finch” hybrid — could survive and prosper there, un-extincted. Had he known that unfit species could survive, it might have derailed any further work on the theory and forced him to accept a job at his father-in-law’s “Ye Olde T-Shirt Shoppe,” a great loss for human knowledge.
Though Darwin landed upon the idea of natural selection early on in his career, he put off publishing his theory for fear of religious “reprisal,” aka “being burned at the stake.” Chuck was finally pushed into it by his wife who worried that Charles’ long-time friend would get credit and she’d be denied points on the movie adaption’s overseas gross (see right).
Luckily for all rational, reasoning people, Darwin ultimately did publish his catchily named tome, The Origin Of Species: By means of Natural Selection of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life and now everyone all over the world — including all religious institutions — fully accept the scientific theory of Evolution as fact. (Right? Right?)
Despite having such a remarkable ecosystem and unique endemic species, the Galápagos Islands didn’t become a National Park until 1959. So prior to that, they’d let just any jackhole mess about on the Islands. Now, thankfully, jackholes have to go with a tour group, so that’s just what we did. From Quito, we flew AreoGal to Guayaquil and then some 600 miles straight West to San Cristobal, Galápagos. Stepping off the plane, I was somewhat disappointed to find the Galápagos more developed than the travel brochures had led me to expect.
For starters, there’s a @#!$%&ing airport on the island! Airplanes aren’t endemic to the area! Worse, there were whole towns, buildings, roads, cars and buses, too. In fact, had we been Ecuadorian citizens, we could’ve moved there and lived on a few of the damn islands! Of course, were the region totally locked down, we wouldn’t have been able to go at all, so we sucked it up and waited in the customs line, sweltering in the glorious, equatorial heat.
While Darwin went to the Galápagos for scientific reasons, we went for very different reasons: Warm weather and wide beaches devoid of other human beings. We explored the islands on very different ships, too: Darwin rode in the dank, musty hull of a Cherokee-class, 10-gun, two-masted Royal Navy sloop, while we sailed in luxury aboard a twin-hull “mega-catamaran” with a rooftop Jacuzzi!
Designed to accommodate up to 16 human tourists, our glistening white yacht, Treasure of Galápagos I, also held a full crew of ten — including captain, chef, waiter, zodiac driver, etc., plus our own personal guide. It was a large boat, to be sure, but 26 is still a lot of sweaty bodies. So imagine our disbelief when we were informed that the yacht was under-booked for our week. How under-booked? Well, let me put it this way: our entire tour-group could comfortably fit into the 4-person Jacuzzi at the same time! (I felt as lucky as the primate descendant who first scored the genetic mutation to become human.)
Our cabin on the second-floor was big by NYC apartment standards and ginormous by cruise-ship standards: It had a queen size bed, his/her closets, a balcony, a nice shower, two sitting chairs and a coffee table. Hilariously, the maid — whom we never saw, not even once — folded our clean towels into an origami turtle, swan or other creature after making our bed, so I can only imagine the depths of her/his boredom.
Our food for the week was prepared on-board and was surprisingly healthy — I even managed to lose weight while on-board (try not overeating on a big cruise ship). We ate at 7am, 12pm, and 7pm on the dot. By 8pm, the sun had gone down and everything around us went pitch black. So by 9pm, we were out like Anderson Cooper. There’s just no ambient light from nearby towns or cities, because there aren’t any. As a result, the night sky is fully visible and the stars are spectacular. If I could’ve remembered any Southern Hemisphere constellations, I would surely have been able to see them.
Our private tour guide for the week was a pleasant enough chap named Harry, and like all Harrys, he was German (who can forget Harry Hitler, right?). Everyday, Harry took the four of us on informative excursions to the islands. Using the ship’s zodiac boat, we went hiking, snorkeling, or both, followed by passing out on a pristine beach from over-stimulation. It didn’t suck.
While snorkeling, we saw sea turtles and tons of tropical fish, including a big yellow one that took a huge dump right in front of us. Everywhere we went, we got attacked by adorable sea lions interested in our pasty white, hairless fur, our huge plastic cyclops eye and our wildly inefficient swimming technique. It was like being overrun by kittens; kinda fun at first, but then get very, very creepy.
Over the course of our island-hopping, we saw nothing more threatening than a disinterested bull sea lion, a purple fish with pointy teeth, and a number of poisonous sea urchins along the sea bottom. Though, had I seen something more dangerous (like a shark) this close, a disorienting cloud resulting from my involuntary discharge of feces would’ve allowed me cover to easily escape.
Our guide was exceptionally knowledgeable about all things Galápagos and spoke both English and Spanish with a thick German accent (his rolled Rs sounded like machine-gun fire). Harry sat by himself and calmly waited for us while we went snorkeling or tanning on the region’s ridiculously empty beaches. He never brought a book, or anything to do. He just sat there. It was kinda weird. Luckily, we weren’t there to experience the oddities of Harry…
The Galápagos, in a nutshell, are the Islands of Misfit Species. Whereas most of the planet clearly demonstrates Darwin’s natural selection theory, the Galápagos demonstrates the absence of it. The species you find on these islands simply shouldn’t exist.
Take the boobies (the birds, not the mammaries), for example. The Galápagos is home to three separate species of boobies happily co-existing with each other, yet never interbreeding. Each boobie has its own feet color and nesting habits. The red-footed boobie nests in trees, the Nazca boobie nests on cliffs, and the blue-footed boobie nests on the ground in paths where tourists with hiking boots are trying to walk. Guess which of the three probably isn’t the “fittest?”
Not surprisingly, the Galápagos is a veritable “Garden of Eden.” Without any predators weeding out the stupid species, even the hopelessly unfit can thrive here in harmony and without fear. It’s such a non-threatening environment, in fact, that even migrating birds let humans approach closer in the Galápagos than in their usual Northern habitat! There’s no competition for resources, mates or anything — the place is like paradise for commies.
The balmy weather makes the islands a paradise, too. One degree South of the Equator, the Galápagos has a delightfully warm, humid climate. It was so nice that we were able to sleep with the balcony door wide open — only the occasional belching of sea lions or wheezing of boobies broke the quiet calm (thankfully, mosquitos aren’t endemic). That comfortable environment, along with the gentle rocking of our boat, provided us the best sleep we’d had in years.
By the end of the week, we’d seen manta rays, sting rays, flamingos, blue herons, cattle egrets, frigates, black noddy terns, turnstones, finches, boobies, iguanas, yellow warblers and a bunch of other mutant creatures I can’t remember at the moment. But our last port of call was the island of Santa Cruz, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of the elusive, endangered giant tortoise. About 200 feet past the park entrance, Harry remarked, “Oh, there’s one.”
At first, we couldn’t believe our luck of seeing this amazing creature up close. But that feeling quickly waned as we then saw about fifteen other giant tortoises (being unable to dart out of site when approached, they’re kinda hard to miss). Still, we took lots of pictures of ourselves posing with these proud, majestic creatures and they handled it just like a celebrity: reluctantly. At moments like this, I’m sure the tortoises wish they didn’t live quite so long.
Finally, we drove for hours along the longest, straightest road I’d ever seen anywhere on the planet. At the end of the road, we hopped a river ferry to Baltra, a former U.S. military base. A waiting public bus drove us to the open-air, Aero Puerto where we waited for our plane to take us to Guayaquil, back to Quito and home to San Francisco.
In all, it was an amazing end to an amazing two-week trip to South America. Talk about getting away from it all — we’ve never been anywhere in the world where we hung out with fewer human beings. So if you hate civilization, noise, pollution and people, you have got to go to the Galápagos.
It’s one of the few places left on the planet that hasn’t been entirely ruined by the arrival of man. Certainly the early whalers took at good shot at it, but thanks to the money eco-tourism is bringing in, Ecuador’s in no hurry to kill their golden goose. NOTE: There are no golden geese on the Galápagos.