The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, may not be the actual Garden of Eden, but Adam and Eve would have felt right at home there. Isolated for millennia by geography and ocean currents, to this day the animal life of Galapagos can be approached almost to within touching distance. It's a place where visitors really can "talk to the animals" at close range, Dr. Doolittle-style. The response of iguanas, sea lions, tortoises and an abundant bird population is in their lack of fear for humankind.
Charles Darwin's visit while on a five-year, worldwide scientific voyage on the HMS Beagle (1831-1836) led to a monumental insight that resulted in his controversial theory of evolution and put this remote natural laboratory on the map and into the headlines. His seventeenth-century voyage to this virginal cluster of islands was a long, arduous and daring trip. Times have changed. In recent years, Galapagos has become one of Ecuador's greatest assets and, thanks to Canodros S.A. and their luxurious M/V Galapagos Explorer II cruise vessel, a prime target for thoughtful--and well heeled--tourism from every corner of the world. In fact, recent visitors have ranged all the way from young families with small children to seniors to Spanish royal H.R.M. Felipe, Prince of Asturias.
Made up of a group of 100 % Ecuadorian-owned companies, Canodros S.A. is being organized into three major entities: Galapagos Explorer, the Kapawi Ecolodge in the rainforest of Ecuador and ASIRI, the latter responsible for all ground services, from arrival in the country to departure and including accommodations in international four- and five-star hotels. There are at least 23 ships carrying tourism and nine dependable tour operators in Galapagos, but until Canodros S.A. entered M/V Galapagos Explorer II into service, 5-star cruising
was not available in this remote corner of the world.
M/V Galapagos Explorer II, built in 1990 as the Italian liner Renaissance III, is the newest and most elegant of the vessels cruising the Galapagos waters. This 100-passenger, 290-foot-long, five-deck liner was recently listed in Theodore W. Scull's "100 Best Cruise Vacations" guidebook. The ship features 50 spacious cabins, all classified as suites, paneled in fine woods, with queen or two twin-bed configurations, air conditioning, full-length wardrobes, marble baths, televisions with VCRs, refrigerator-bars, telephones and a 110 volt electrical system. In addition, the ship has a pool and Jacuzzi, a ballroom-size public lounge, a full shopping boutique, a friendly piano bar, a well-equipped library and open-seating dining serving Ecuadorian and international cuisine as well as special diets, all prepared by a noted culinary staff.
Extraordinary care has been taken to make the ship as ecologically correct as possible, utilizing only biodegradable soaps, detergents and shampoos, filtered and ozone purified water, and a special sewage treatment system on board. .
Certainly, one of the ship's most significant contributions to the enjoyment and education of its passengers is the quality of its naturalist guides, almost all thoroughly trained young native sons and daughters of Galapagos. Passengers are divided into small groups not exceeding fifteen persons. Each group is assigned a guide and given the name of a Galapagos seabird: Penguins, Albatrosses, Cormorants and, yes, even blue- and pink-footed Boobies. During three- and seven-day cruises, different islands are visited daily, and groups disembark in motorized Zodiak watercraft. Early morning, briefings on board M/V Galapagos Explorer II instruct visitors and warn them if it is to be a "wet landing" or a "dry landing." The former involves transfer from the Zodiak on to a rocky shore. The latter means a beach landing best negotiated with sandals or barefoot.
Guide and visitor groups follow carefully restricted trails on the various islands and encounter the famous finches and other land birds, house-keeping Boobies and Cormorants and other nesting seabirds as well as colonies of sea iguanas, their cousins the land iguanas, sea lions lazing on the beach and giant tortoises inching along or immobile, thinking tortoisey thoughts. Another optional activity favored by many visitors is Snorkeling among playful penguins and other friendly sea creatures in several of the handsome and placid bays.
Life was not always so peaceful in the Galapagos. Pirates, during the early days of the Spanish Main, and later unsuccessful attempts at colonization made their impact on several of the islands and very nearly wiped out populations of tortoises as well as introducing a few harmful non-native species such as goats, pigs and rats. Before the days of refrigeration, pirates found they could capture tortoises and keep them alive for months in the stinking holds of their ships as a source of fresh meat.
Today, the government of Ecuador has established the Parque Nacional Galapagos, exerting strict control over the islands in order to protect their natural treasures and to return affected areas as much as possible to their pristine, pre-human conditions. This has included partially successful efforts to eradicate feral goats and pigs. Rats still invade tortoise nests and eat the eggs, but determined efforts continue to remedy this. What is more, the World Conservation Union, under the auspices of UNESCO, founded the Charles Darwin Research Station in 1959; and a team of some eighty scientists, educators, volunteers, research students and support staff from all over the world, continue research to study and protect this "living laboratory of evolution."
Among the most dramatic sights are the islands themselves, several featuring impressive peaks of active volcanoes and all a unique visual encyclopedia of flora, fauna and spectacularly sculpted geology. Fields of hardened "rope" lava and multi-colored strata of pumice and volcanic ash in awesomely twisted waves confirm the violent growth of the more than 60 islands that make up the Galapagos chain. Each of these has been virtually isolated from the others by ocean currents--principally the Humboldt--and their geographic remoteness, ensuring the unique development of life forms on each island.
Most visitors these days arrive by air (TAME Airlines), landing at San Cristobal Island's small but modern Puerto Baquerizo Moreno Airport. This modest town, with a population of 4,000, is the capital of Galapagos and the oldest settlement. It offers an interesting and well-designed interpretation center donated by the Spanish government, some shops for tourism and little else, but it is the jumping-off place for most tours. Visitors are transferred from the small port to their cruise ship, and the adventure begins.
The first few hours on board are all taken up with settling in. After cabin assignments--almost all cabins are similar on this one-class ship, and all are unusually roomy with amenities that include security storage for valuables--there is an orientation session to review regulations and to explain the ship's high ecological standards, followed early in the evening by a welcome cocktail party to meet Captain Juan Rueda and his crew and staff. By this time, the ship has been underway for several hours, and one of the first dramatic sights for passengers is passing by Leon Dormido, the Sleeping Lion, an enormous rock jutting out of the ocean to a height of almost 500 feet and split from one side to the other by erosion to form a giant cleft that would accommodate a Manhattan skyscraper.
The ship sails most of the night to reach small Bartolome Island, an eye-popping lunar landscape that is ideal as a classroom to explain the volcanic origins of these islands. A short climb up wooden walkways to the island's high point gives visitors a 360-degree view of surrounding islands and Bartolome's splendid, secluded bay capped by Pinnacle Rock, made famous by every photographer who has ever been to Galapagos. Later, visitors have the option to tour the shores of the island on motorized Zodiaks to view Galapagos Penguins, Pelicans, Herons, Boobies and Frigatebirds nesting along rocky outcroppings. The other option is to snorkel with the Penguins in the waters of the bay, an amazing experience as these people-friendly birds swim, dive and play at close range with delighted snorkelers.
Following days take the Galapagos Explorer II around and through the island chain with daily stops to visit one or more of the most interesting islands, all totally uninhabited and carefully patrolled by Park rangers. Stops include Fernandina Island, notable for Punta Espinosa, a site where wildlife viewing is excellent and care must be taken not to step on entire colonies of unconcerned Marine Iguanas sunning themselves on the paths and rocks. These unique animals feed underwater, spending as long as an hour at a time grazing on sea grasses and seaweeds. Then, their bodies cooled to the danger point by cold ocean currents, they must leave the water to warm themselves in the sun. Sunbathing is a life-giving necessity for these creatures.
Their cousins, the land iguanas also have an interesting story. Females periodically make an arduous journey from the seashores where they live, up the rocky slopes of Fernandina's active volcano, and into the crater to nest and lay their eggs. The warm volcanic soil assists in the incubation process. Once hatched, the iguana babies, just days old, make the hazardous trip out of the crater and back down to the shores; and it is a gauntlet for them as birds and snakes pick most of them off on the way. This incredible odyssey was recently captured by David and Liz Meza in their remarkable documentary for National Geographic Explorer.
Fernandina Island has other outstanding attractions for visitors. It's a good place for close encounters with Sea Lion cows and their offspring as well as an occasional Sea Lion bull. The very rare Flightless Cormorants keep them company. Geologically, Fernandina is fascinating with its vast fields of remarkable, rope-like Pahoehoe lava, frozen in time as it flows downhill to the sea and then cools after the volcano's periodic eruptions.
Other days will include transit along the Bolivar Canal where migrating whales may be sighted and a pleasant, hilly hike on Isabela Island to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin. The hiking trail rises around the rim of a giant cone containing a splendid lake named after the famed scientist. On the way, sharp-eyed visitors will almost certainly spot some of the 10 species of Darwin Finches that sparked the great man's insights and pointed him to develop his theory of evolution.
One of the final stops for the cruise will be Santa Cruz, the second largest island of the archipelago. The island's Puerto Ayala contains a sizeable population, many gift stores that range from tourist traps to places where fine souvenirs may be purchased, several hotels and guesthouses, a busy port, a surprisingly well-stocked supermarket and the famed Charles Darwin Research Station. A large part of the Station is given over to a sort of outdoor zoo where visitors may look down on varieties of Galapagos turtles in various stages of growth. They may even have the opportunity to meet Lonesome George, the only remaining giant sea turtle of his kind, and to hear about the Station's futile attempts to find George a mate he will accept. This brooding fellow apparently intends to take his genes with him to his grave, a loss of yet another of nature's miracles on the green planet.
Programs and rates
M/V Galapagos Explorer II offers three basic itineraries, varying in prices depending on season:
Cruise "A" is three-night/four-day and runs from Wednesday to Saturday. The range during high season is from $1600 for a Renaissance Suite to $1155 for a Classic Suite; and during low season is from $$1280 for a Renaissance Suite to $925 for a Classic Suite.
Cruise "B" is four-night/five-day and runs from Saturday to Wednesday. The range during high season is from $2240-$1610; and during low season is from $1795-$1290.
Cruise "C" is seven-night/eight-day and runs from Wednesday to Wednesday or Saturday to Saturday. The range during high season is from $3645-$2625; and during low season is from $2915-$2100.
There are special rates for single cabins.
Bookings on M/V Galapagos Explorer II may be made directly through Galapagos Explorer, ASIRI or Kapawi, the incomparable Ecolodge in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Packages are available for those wishing to combine the Galapagos trip with a visit to Kapawi in the rainforest or to Quito, Ecuador's fascinating capital.
Airline service from Newark to Guayaquil with an intermediate stop in Panama is offered by Continental Airlines, departing Newark at 5:10 pm. American Airlines offers a direct flight daily from Miami to Guayaquil, departing Miami at 5:15 pm. Ecuatoriana, the national airline, also provides service from the U.S. An internal connecting flight is required from Guayaquil to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno Airport on San Cristobal Island in Galapagos
Canodros S.A., (5934) 285711, 280173; Fax (5934) 287651;
Website, http://www.canodros.com ;
Galapagos Explorer II, www.galapagosexplorer.com ;
What does the future hold for the Galapagos Islands?
Human presence on the islands goes back to the 1600s when buccaneers raided tortoise populations for food. Subsequent settling introduced domestic animals and plants, at times to the detriment of native species. Today, the population of inhabited areas has been growing, but the Ecuadorian government and the international community have realized the danger this poses. The Ecuadorian government has introduced an amendment to the Constitution of Ecuador which restricts and controls immigration, commerce and property rights in Galapagos. Tourism also is making an impact, though extraordinary precautions and care taken by responsible tourism providers is minimizing this element while at the same time bringing much needed economic support to the islands.
A significant oil spill from a fuel oil tanker early in 2001 highlighted the ecological dangers that represent a continuing threat to the ecology of these unique islands.
Two organizations work together for the conservation of the islands: the Galapagos National Park (GNP) and the Charles Darwin Research Station.