The Galápagos Islands provide visitors with a unique view of the natural world—and of the ecological challenges facing this far-flung archipelago
At the Galápagos Magic campgrounds in the middle of Santa Cruz Island, we sit on overstuffed leather couches murmuring excitedly to each other, showing off pictures of our recent adventures. Most of those in my tour group are Americans from a dozen different walks of life: nurses, tech-industry execs, a few outdoorsmen. But here and now, we’ve all become avid bird watchers and amateur naturalists. With dinner finished and the daylight long since faded, the staff start belting out Spanish songs to the accompaniment of a well-used acoustic guitar. The dishwasher’s raspy voice harmonizes with our guide’s tremulous tenor, and Johnny the cook plays percussion with a cheese grater and a wooden spoon. Though my Spanish is rusty, I can make out that the last ballad of the night is about the sun on a lover’s face and the wind through her hair. Struggling to stay awake, yet unable to tear ourselves away, we’re all simply the latest visitors to be caught up in the siren song of the Galápagos.
Our trip had kicked off earlier that week in Quito, 1,000 kilometers to the east, where we rendezvoused with Roberto Plaza for a tour of the Ecuadorian capital. A trained biologist and the local field manager for Boulder, Colorado–based outfitter Natural Habitat Adventures, Plaza was to be our lead guide on this excursion, an eight-day cruise that would take in a sizable chunk of the Galápagos archipelago. His initial reticence didn’t bode well for the rest of our time together, but thankfully, once we’d flown to Baltra Island and boarded Natural Habitat’s luxury catamaran, the Athala II, he perked right up. Clearly, he was back in his element.
Known to early Spanish colonists as Las Islas Encantadas (“the Enchanted Isles”) because of the way they seemed to vanish and then reappear in the fogs of the dry season, the Galápagos have been renowned as a zoological Eden since the days of Charles Darwin, who arrived in these waters on the HMS Beagle in 1835. But Eden, as it turns out, can be a noisy place, as we discovered on our first stop at Mosquera, a sandy islet in the channel between Baltra and North Seymour Island. Populated by bright-red Sally Lightfoot crabs, it would have been a profoundly peaceful place were it not for the ear-splitting cries of the colony of sea lions that call the beach home. Park rules forbid visitors from coming within two meters of the wildlife, but this didn’t stop inquisitive sea lion cubs from galumphing right up to us for a sniff.
Discovered by accident on March 10, 1535, when a ship carrying the Panamanian bishop Tomás de Berlanga to Peru was becalmed and swept out to sea by strong currents, the Galápagos Islands were first described as a hellish place. Running out of water, the bishop and his men trekked through the barren landscape, squeezing liquid out of cacti. “I do not think that there is a place where one might sow a bushel of corn, because most of it is full of very big stones and the earth there is much like dross, worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass,” the bishop recounted in a letter to Spain’s King Charles I.
Herman Melville, visiting three centuries late aboard the Massachusetts whaler Acushnet, found the islands equally inhospitable. “Like split Syrian gourds left withering in the sun,” he later wrote in The Encantadas, “they are cracked by an everlasting drought beneath a torrid sky.” He might well have been talking about the craters and lava fields that we encountered the next day on Santiago Island. We scrabbled over swirls and ropes of dried lava known as pahoehoe (a Hawaiian word meaning “smooth” or “unbroken”), which forms intricate patterns across a vast swath of volcanic terrain. But even here, life finds a way, with stubborn plants like the lava cactus somehow finding purchase in this gray, infernal landscape.
Humans, too, have a toehold in the islands; today, some 25,000 people inhabit small coastal towns like Puerto Villamil, Puerto Ayora, and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal, the first island to be settled in the 19th century. But these constitute just three percent of the archipelago’s land area, with the rest protected as a national park.
Tourism has grown steadily since the 1960s, when a wartime American airbase on Baltra was converted into the islands’ first civilian airport. Today, some 180,000 people visit the Galápagos annually, up from an average of 44,000 in the 1990s. And while strict measures are now in place to ensure that pre-defined itineraries and carrying capacities are adhered to, Roberto Plaza remembers a time when things weren’t always so well managed—I was surprised to learn it wasn’t until 2001 that the Ecuadorian government designated the surrounding waters a marine reserve. Still, he sees tourism as crucial to the future of the Galápagos. As more tourism dollars go back into the park, more resources become available to protect its delicate ecosystems. And the guides that are required to accompany every visitor also serve as the park’s eyes and ears, reporting on the health of animal populations and reporting any ecological anomalies.
The growing number of people moving to the islands is another matter; up until the early 1970s, Galapageños numbered only 4,000 or so. “On an island, resources are limited,” Rob-erto told me. “Most mainlanders who relocate here have trouble adjusting to an insular way of thinking.”
Keen to show off his own version of sustainable island living, he took us to see his recently completed house in the Santa Cruz countryside. The once crumbling roads leading there from the Galápagos Magic campgrounds have been repaved enough to provide an adequate practice surface for the Puerto Ayora–based Galápagos Cycling Club, which, apart from its athletic mission, also actively advocates the daily use of bicycles on the island as a sustainable alternative to cars and motorbikes. Santa Cruz also hosts an annual triathlon—surely one of the most remote such competitions in the world—that consists of a 1,500-meter swim across the Itabaca Channel to Baltra, a 10-kilometer run across Puerto Ayora, and a 40-kilometer cycling circuit around the island.