Dipping my mask and snorkel into the azure waters of the southern Galápagos brings a silent, serene world into focus: skinny purple angelfish with golden tails nibble on orange coral, while pink-tinted bluechin parrotfish wriggle through lush lawns of sea grass.
Suddenly, my eye catches something big closing in fast, almost brushing my right side. It’s a sea lion, as long as me, that somersaults, doubles back, then starts literally swimming circles around me. She’s just playing, showing off—but it is a lion, after all, and it takes my breath away. Still, before I can react, she swims right up to my mask, and for a couple seconds, we’re nose-to-whiskers, gazing curiously at each other before, with a push of her flipper, she zips off.
It’s the kind of wildlife encounter one might expect on islands that lie 600 miles from their continental landlord, Ecuador. And not just any group of islands, of course, but the laboratory for one of history’s most significant scientific discoveries, and an area that still plays host to species found nowhere else on earth.
But as renowned as these volcanic landmasses are, the idea of protecting the Galápagos is a shockingly recent development. It wasn’t long ago that overfishing, irresponsible tourism, and a nonchalant attitude toward invasive species threatened the entire ecosystem. Without the relatively new—and ongoing—effort to preserve what’s here, that beautiful, intimate dance with my sea lion friend might never have happened.
Landing at the Galápagos’s San Cristóbal airport is oddly similar to landing at New York’s LaGuardia. Out the window below you see water, water, water…until, at the last moment, a runway appears. The geographical familiarity ends there. Black, pockmarked volcanic rocks line the airstrip, which leads past a squat control tower and up to a simple shell of a terminal.
I arrived in September for a six-night cruise with Ecoventura, an Ecuadorian company widely recognized as a green pioneer (and a T+L Global Vision Award winner in 2009). Aboard the company’s 20-passenger Flamingo I, my group would travel to five islands in the southern and central Galápagos for hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, and wildlife spotting.
Tour companies like Ecoventura are just one link in the islands’ chain of eco-protection. That process begins at the Quito airport, where everyone flying to the Galápagos passes through “quarantine,” with inspectors checking luggage for certain fresh fruits, animal products, and other items that could impact the balance of species.
The irony is that humans wrought imbalance in the Galápagos long before the islands became a tourist attraction. Eighteenth-century whalers hunted seal and tortoise species to the point of extinction. Cargo ships brought stowaway rats and cats. In fact, by the time Charles Darwin arrived on the HMS Beagle in 1835, the Galápagos region was far from untouched.
And while Darwin’s watershed theory of natural selection guaranteed the islands a place in history, fame was no match for 20th-century geopolitics. Thanks in part to the presence of Ecuadorian prison colonies and an American air base, it wasn’t until 1968 that the Galápagos fully became a national park. And it wasn’t until this century—2001—that the government decreed the surrounding waters a marine reserve.
Yet even these actions haven’t assured the Galápagos of anything: in 2007, UNESCO added the archipelago to its “In Danger” list. The islands came off the list in 2010, but between the 150,000 annual tourist visits, feral animals that prey on native species, and an exploding human population, maintaining an ecological balance is an often ferocious battle.
My group heard about one of those battles at Punta Pitt, on the northeastern tip of San Cristóbal Island. The area had only recently reopened to travelers after the park service suspended visits to eliminate the feral cats that were hunting red-footed boobies. As my group walked up a steep dirt trail through a surreal volcanic landscape that felt like the moon, we saw the swallow-tailed gull. We saw the frigate bird. But it will apparently take a while for the red-footed boobies to return in significant numbers; we saw none of them.
Yet just the fact that we all walked the same well-defined hiking trail is an achievement, and a relatively recent one. In the 1980s, boats overflowed with tourists, who could wander wherever they liked, trampling the life out of the flora. Even into the ’90s, the Galápagos was still the Wild West.
But regulating the experience hasn’t meant diminishing it. And nowhere was that more evident than on the island of Española, where, on a crisp September morning, face-to-fur meetings came fast and furious. Our excursion began with a landing party of sea lions greeting our dingy on the beach. We stepped over them, only to stumble upon hundreds of Christmas iguanas, still huddled en masse against the overnight chill, their red splotches forming a Jackson Pollock–like canvas on the sand.
We continued on to a front-row seat just a few feet from two albatross doing a frenetic mating dance, slapping their egg yolk–yellow beaks against each other repeatedly before sticking them straight up in the air with a guttural cluck (then walking away from each other, apparently uncharmed). We passed two eagles standing guard on a rocky outcropping. And the hike capped off with a pair of blue-footed boobies hanging out on the trail, sunlight bouncing off their bright webbed feet.
As the tour went on, I learned that the islands’ eco-awakening roughly paralleled that of our guide, José Castillo (known as Pepe), a Galapageño who grew up on San Cristóbal in the 1970s. Back then, he said, beaches were strewn with heaps of trash, and the waters full of overzealous fishermen who endangered undersea species. Pepe was a fisherman himself until he decided to go green, starting a recycling company in his 20s and then becoming a guide.
“Eco-awareness is much better now,” he said. But things are by no means perfect. The very first day of the trip, our group walked along Playa Mann—a long stretch of white sand on San Cristóbal peppered with sea lions and bordered by a jetty crawling with slow-moving iguanas and bright red crabs. Yellow warblers hopped among the scrub brush. The water’s surface shone a spectacular bright blue. An idyllic scene, until someone noticed a baby sea lion with a white plastic bag wrapped around its neck. Keeping an eye out for a protective mother, Pepe yanked it off. “Educating locals,” he acknowledged, “is an ongoing process.”
But it’s a process that will only be successful if government agencies, nonprofits like the Charles Darwin Foundation, and tour companies also make strides. And they have. Tour companies must now follow predefined itineraries. Many use lead-free paint and biodegradable products. Some have gone even further. Ecoventura, for example, retrofit its M/Y Eric as the Galápagos’s first hybrid tour boat in 2008.
For travelers, these protection efforts translate to otherworldly experiences, as I had on the island of Floreana. Here, sea lions covered the sand, lying out like bags of mulch, until my group donned masks and flippers for an awkward walk into the sea. Seeing us wading in, several of the lugubrious lions lumbered up to their flippers and did their own awkward waddle to join the party.
And what a party. Stingrays bobbed along the sandy bottom. Schools of fish cut a collective path against the tide. Two penguins streaked past in a monochromatic blur. And just offshore, a sea turtle, nearly as big as a Smart Car, was slowly treading water, occasionally poking its ancient head out amid the undulating peaks of the surf. I treaded water myself, just a couple feet from his mosaicked shell, mesmerized by his slow-motion flipper flapping, and marveling at the life surrounding me.
It’s encouraging to see everyone’s preservation efforts, especially in an era where “eco-friendly” can mean as little as using a hotel towel twice before washing.
But the trade-offs don’t come easy. Tourism here generates $418 million annually, according to the Galapagos Conservancy—more than half of the local economy. Increasing that number would mean more opportunity, but also more planes, more boats, and more human residents.
I was thinking about this difficult balancing act one afternoon while sailing between islands, when I noticed we had picked up a posse: several frigate birds, including one juvenile, soaring over the boat, red gullets flush against their black feathers. Pepe said the birds often follow boats, possibly attracted by the fumes. No matter how much we humans minimize our impact, it seems, we still interfere.
Yet watching the birds from the ship’s top deck, all I could do was gawk at their choreography—massive wingspans fully outstretched, floating forward and back, swapping altitudes, and creating beautiful, instinctual patterns of black, all backlit by a bright blue sky.
Suddenly, one of the adults peeled off and headed straight for the juvenile, hitting it with a resounding thwack, grabbing a beakful of wing and pulling ferociously as the juvenile tried to escape. Feathers flew off into the wind before the juvenile wrestled free, madly flapping its wings to reestablish flight.
Just like that, calm was restored, and the expressionless birds quietly resumed their loose formation above the boat. Whatever the issue, instant natural selection would not play out here, today. The balance between bird and human, tourist and resident, spectator and participant maintained for now, the frigates continued their mission as we continued ours, all of us riding life’s evolutionary currents.
Cruising on a live-aboard ship is, hands down, the best way to see the Galápagos. Yes, you could stay at a hotel in Puerto Ayora or San Cristóbal and do day cruises, but you’ll see much more if you sleep on board. I traveled with Ecoventura, which offers two seven-night itineraries with the option of leaving after six nights; I spent six nights on its “Itinerary A” route. Meals, guides, and excursions are all included, as is snorkel gear (and wet suits, when the water is colder). Also recommended: Lindblad Expeditions, as well as Metropolitan Touring, which operates the islands’ luxury Finch Bay Hotel and a host of other tours in Ecuador.
When to Go: From December through May, you’ll find warmer air and water temperatures, so you won’t need a wet suit for snorkeling. The downside: you won’t see as many fish. It’s also the rainy season, though there’s not much rain (it’s also, ironically, the sunniest time of the year). From June to November, the water’s colder, but those cold currents bring nutrients, which attract more fish. And while you’ll usually see clouds, it likely won’t rain. When I went in September, the sun made an appearance every day, sometimes without any clouds.
Flights: Some people are surprised that real-size jets fly to the Galápagos, not little puddle-jumpers. TAME and Aerogal will get you to the islands’ two airports, Isla Baltra and San Cristóbal, departing from Quito with a stop in Guayaquil.
Quito: It’s worth spending a couple days in Quito before or after your trip. I stayed right in the historic district at Casa Gangotena, a gorgeous 31-room restored mansion that was a T+L It List winner in 2012. Service is outstanding, as is the restaurant, and guest rooms are ornately decorated with lots of original detail. Request one that overlooks San Francisco Square; through your room’s French windows you’ll be able to gaze out at the city’s beautiful architecture with a backdrop of mountains. A very different option is Hacienda Rumiloma, a fabulously quirky hotel and restaurant about 15 minutes from the historic district that looks out over the city. The biggest downside to visiting Quito is the airport: the historic district is more than an hour away by taxi.