Rock formations at Sullivan Bay, on the island of Bartolomé

This Epic Cruise to the Galapagos Gets You Up Close to Penguins, Sea Turtles, and Reef Sharks

Aboard Silversea’s new Galápagos expedition ship, guest can connect with nature in an unprecedented way.

For all the natural marvels of the Galápagos — and they are truly marvelous — it is a man-made monument I think about when I try to make sense of my time there early this year. Well, part monument, part desecration. A piece of graffiti, of all things, carved into the volcanic rock at Tagus Cove, on the island of Isabela, where seafarers of all sorts have left their imprint over the past 200 years. There are scrawls made years before Charles Darwin and the Beagle landed, in 1835, and spray-paint from well after Isabela's infamous penal colonies closed down in the late 1950s.

One of the older etchings, carved into the rock in stencil-perfect all-caps sans serif, reads simply WANDERLURE. As in, I imagine, the subject or cause of wanderlust, dangling out there beyond the horizon, tantalizing us with its mystery and romance.

Wanderlure (noun). See: the Galápagos Islands, a biosphere so singular and special that, after only 19 days on land, a 26-year-old university dropout could deduce from it the origin of the species.

Galápagos sea lions napping on a log
Galápagos sea lions napping among the mangroves. Chris Wallace

In the notes he kept during his visit, Darwin reported that the buccaneers who would stop at the islands in search of food and fresh water were known to collect up to 700 giant tortoises a day. (These would be kept upside down, without food or water, until they were made into soup.) Now, of course, there are protections in place for singular species such as the giant tortoise. But with carbon consumption what it is today, and with our entire planet — let alone this tiny, vulnerable ecosystem — in grave distress, I found myself wondering whether the pursuit of our various wanderlures is still a viable, ethical objective.

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On the Silver Origin, the first site-specific expedition ship from Silversea my fellow shipmates and I saw the sorts of juxtapositions that set Darwin's brain awhirl — penguins swimming alongside tropical parrotfish, sea lions playing with reef sharks. We even got a glimpse of the archipelago's Wolf Volcano erupting on the equator, beneath the North Star and the Southern Cross.

And all the while, we were pampered mercilessly. Every one of the Silver Origin's 51 suites comes with butler service, and the ship itself exudes what Silversea CCO Barbara Muckermann describes as "whisper luxury" (breezy white curtains, low-slung couches, gallery-size prints by Silversea partner photographer Steve McCurry).

The ship claims to have the islands' highest guide- and Zodiac-to-guest ratios. Led by Silversea's expert naturalists, almost all of whom are Galapagueños, we saw the iguanas that inspired the 1998 Hollywood remake of Godzilla; climbed into collapsed calderas that looked like the crowns of giant ogre kings; and floated on the tide in the company of 30-odd green sea turtles. This was beyond a bucket-list trip; it was a life peak.

Kicker Rock, off the Galápagos island of San Cristóbal, as seen from the top deck of a cruise ship
Kicker Rock, off the Galápagos island of San Cristóbal, as seen from the top deck of Silver Origin. Chris Wallace

But does traveling to a place like the Galápagos do anything to expand our knowledge of the species we coexist with, or about ourselves, as Darwin's visit did? Do a few snorkeling sessions and hikes around great volcanic fields make us more humane, more aware, better equipped to be custodians of our home planet? I can't say.

What I do know is that during my 10 days in the islands I had at least four moments of the kind we usually describe as a religious experience — the religion here being nature. Whatever was flooding my system while I was swimming with seven-foot blacktip reef sharks off Champion Islet was intensely narcotic. I don't think I have been more "in the moment" than I was that day.

"You are an ambassador of the Galápagos now," an Ecuadoran friend told me at the end of my trip. And maybe that is the ultimate souvenir from a visit to one of your wanderlures: you are forevermore implicated, involved. A place like the Galápagos leaves a mark on you, carved in bold letters. You remain a citizen in absentia, doing what you can to protect both the myth and the marvelous reality, wherever you may be.

A version of this story first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Lessons From a Lost World."

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