My sister-in-law recently asked if I wanted to travel to the Galapagos Islands. A presentation about conservations efforts to protect its animals inspired her. I love to travel with Jan, but I hesitated. I was there fifty years ago in 1973 with my mother and four brothers and felt a later experience may not compare to that adventure.
My oldest brother had joined the Peace Corps and was posted to Agato, a small farming and weaving village outside Otavalo, Ecuador in the Andes Mountains. The first stop by my family had been to visit his basic home without running water or electricity and meet his indigenous neighbors. But Mack insisted we should also visit the Galapagos Islands owned by Ecuador and he arranged the flight and boat. We flew Equatoriana Airlines out of Guayaquil into Baltra Island on a DC4. The landing strip was dirt and the environment barren with no visible permanent population. We needed to travel to Santa Cruz Island where we would meet our guide.
The transfer on a small fishing boat seemed interminable. At the port, Mack jumped out, looking for our guide and boat. He sheepishly returned with the news that the fishing boat we were on was our boat, the San Pedro II. We looked around incredulously at the small boat. Below, two beds lined the walls with the motor in between where Mom and I would sleep. Behind was a second room with two sets of bunk beds for my brothers. The captain and his son, Walter, would sleep on deck. We motored out of the bay into the open sea, enviously eyeing the larger boats and one small cruise ship in port.
The islands had promoted tourism only recently. None were off limits as some are today. Knowing where different animals, reptiles and birds lived, the captain determined our itinerary. At the islands, Walter usually rowed us to shore in a small rowboat. We would jump into the water, carrying our shoes and were then free to roam. We were often the only visitors on an island. Since neither the captain nor his son were particularly talkative, our experience was based on exploration and a small guidebook. Seeing the blue footed boobies, red footed boobies, playful seals, and frigate birds was exciting. We could walk amongst them as they were not afraid of visitors. In the lagoon of one island, we swam with the Galapagos penguins and the sea lions seemed to tease us
It was the iguanas that gave us pause, especially my mother. On our first encounter, the large marine reptiles lined the top of the bank, watching us carefully. We would have to walk past them to explore more. At first, Mom refused to go further. But when she saw us passing them without incident, she agreed to try.
I have often talked of my mother’s bravery and her willingness to experience anything new, but it was on this trip she was most tested. Mom had to cook meals on a two-burner stove below deck. The captain would put out a fishing hook trailing the boat and quickly bring in fresh fish, mostly tuna, that was grilled for dinner. Having only had canned tuna growing up, fresh tuna was a wonderful discovery for my family. But we also needed breakfast and lunch sandwiches. In addition, all of us had acquired amoebas in Mack’s small town, meaning we were treated with flagyle, a strong medicine that causes nausea. On one rough stretch of open sea between islands, Mom ran out of the kitchen, rushing to the boat’s edge to throw up. I had never seen my mother sick like that, probably the nadir of her travel experiences.
Upon return to Santa Cruz Island, we visited the Giant Galapagos Tortoises at their research center. That night was spent at the only Guesthouse/Inn then available. We were happy to be on land with real beds, even as iguanas watched us from the rafters. By then we were accustomed to them and knew they would sleep through the night until warming up in the mornings. I recall wishing them good night.
I would describe the Galapagos Island as exotic rather than beautiful. They are of volcanic rock, with 13 active volcanoes, making the survival of so many unique animals even more remarkable. The feeling of isolation in the middle of the world’s largest ocean is also part of the experience, especially on a small fishing boat.
Today the number of tourists has had to be capped to protect the animals’ environment. Many more small cruise ships (less than 100 passengers) and large boats are available with better accommodation but I’m confident their encounters won’t be as unique as ours. My mother might have described it otherwise.