Flying over the beginning flecks of islands amongst the clear blue ocean, darkened and lightened with depth, I was reminded of images I’ve seen in my undergrad ecology class textbooks. Darwin's famed Galapagos Islands, whose contribution to evolutionary advances seemed almost mythical when studied those few months of college, was now about to be a real experience.
I felt the culture embrace me as soon as we stepped off the tiny, rickety plane in Santa Cruz, and onto the brutally windy landing strip where we were ushered inside the open-aired airport to be admitted. A separate immigration form from the one I filled out in Ecuador was required, along with an overall entrance fee to the natural attraction. Ecuadoreans only pay $20 as a sign of partial citizenship since the islands are a part of Ecuador - a decision that was made after neighboring countries couldn't reach an agreement and the closest one was awarded. American's had to pay $200.
The air was cool for August, and considered cold to the natives, who are used to the blistering hot equator temperature. We took a bus from the airport through empty flatlands, whose only form of life was straw colored grasses, cacti, and the random bird. The bland scenery was quickly compensated for by the sudden glimpse of the crystal clear water that separated the island we were on from the next.
We took a single motored ferry with about twenty other people across the channel to the next island where we would travel about 45 minutes in a pick-up truck to our destination, Puerto Ayora. Finally arriving at the opposite side of the small island, we stopped at the local grocery store for some necessities, wine and snacks.
A long dock reached out into the little bay where sailboats and yachts were anchored, and water taxis weaved around them to take customers to their island destinations. In front of the dock was a small outdoor amphitheater and playground, bustling with local children and on-looking parents or siblings. A narrow street separated the water from a curving row of shops, restaurants, and bars, giving it a true island feel.
The water taxi brought us straight up to the back of the grandiose two story yellow house we were staying in, intricately decorated with vibrant colors, artwork, and artifacts. The jacuzzi bubbled and the pool sparkled as the glittering sea danced behind it, effortlessly holding handsome pirate-looking ships in place.
Puerto Ayora had a hiking path that was surprising that it was made with intentions for tours. Climbing over the volcanic rocks in my Tory Burch sandals didn't seem like something I should have been allowed to do without a consent form. We passed a small beach with a surprising amount of people there, and a hotel, the Finch Bay Eco Hotel, that most visitors stay at. There were finches and iguanas everywhere as well as the occasional sea lion by water.
Being a biology major in college paid off randomly when I was able to point out and recognize the differences in the beaks and colors of the little finches, and how they applied to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The birds adapted and evolved according to predators and competition for food, so the size and shape of the beak correlates to what type of food they eat. Even though they are all the same species, their phenotypes (appearances) evolved depending on the ecology of the land they came from.
We then crossed over a marsh area on naturally made stepping-stones, and passed a random bar shack that sold beer and soda and overlooked an even bigger swamp of trapped water. Finally we made it to the massive rock formation where an island guide prompted us to sign a waiver, making me wonder what was going to be more dangerous than the hike. It was, of course, cliff diving at Las Grietas on San Cristobal Island.
We crawled and climbed over numerous rocks that threatened a high and painful fall with one missed step. Wasps swarmed everywhere, making the climb even more terrifying. But the journey was worth it when we saw the crystal clear sapphire water plunging deep between the two cliffs. There were already a few locals there, the children in the water, and mothers watching from the rock cliff shore. They tried to tell me the water wasn't freezing but the shivering snorkeler suggested otherwise. I dove in anyway confirming the icy temperature.
I clung to the side of the rock wall and watched the boys climb straight up the steep cliff, claiming that I was too cold to climb and would surely go numb and fall. Every single one of them landed in a position that made on-lookers wince, and me glad of my decision.
Back at the house, our two local groundskeepers had prepared us a delicious authentic fish and shrimp ceviche with plantain chips. The sandwich they showed me how to make with the chips, mild cheese, ceviche, and sweet hot sauce was so addicting that I kept eating beyond the point of being full.
The water taxi picked us up from our dock and brought us back to the main island where we walked along the shop lined street and stopped to get homemade ice cream. We noticed a dock with several small fishing boats and workers cleaning and displaying massive lobsters and fish for sale. We went to take a look and spotted a little sea lion lying in the middle of the workers like she owned the place and waddled over to greet us like a pet dog. She stopped and I bent down to take a picture with her, but didn't notice while I was smiling at the camera she was coming in for a kiss!
Next we went to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which houses numerous giant Galapagos tortoises. Sadly the oldest and last tortoise of it's kind, Lonely George had just passed away after unsuccessfully trying to breed him with two females from another closely related species. Novelty shops sold T-shirts of the three tortoises jokingly stating, "Lonely George wasn't so lonely anymore".
Storm clouds from the passing tropical storm disrupted our day of swimming with the sea lions, but we went out on the choppy water anyway to the tiny island where they all hung out. Hardly any were in the water because, as I was told by the guide, when the water is rough it makes it hard for them to see oncoming predators like sharks; I had no problem staying on the boat. We spotted a clad of about fifteen of them in the water popping their heads up curiously closer and closer to the boat. They tumbled over a small rapid repeatedly like they were going down a water slide, and I was told by previous swimmers that they are very playful when you're in the water with them.
Next we stopped at another small island where we trekked to see a lover’s canal, and a lagoon filled with about twenty sleeping sharks. We hiked through the desert like path where the only plant life where cactus trees; cactuses that grow tall but stop growing thorns below a certain height since its predators would no longer be able to reach its fruit.
We were going to go see Dog Beach but about twenty sleeping saltwater iguanas blocked our path. They were black, and ugly, and would snort salt out of their noses every few minutes from swimming in the ocean. There was only one massive male amongst the rest of the smaller females, and none of them so much as flinched at the sight of us.
We ate dinner at a restaurant called Anger Meyer Point, that I wouldn't have known existed if I hadn't been able to see it from the water. The seemingly hidden yet widely known path around houses led that led to the previous trail we hiked also led us to a variety of gates that led to small hotels, discovery centers, and finally the restaurant which was only occupied by one other table. Though the friendly and nice workers were incredibly slow, the drinks and food were amazing. We had island inspired cocktails followed by fresh caught fish with a macadamia nut crust, hand-whipped mashed potatoes, and lobster ravioli in a truffle cream sauce. The lucky sea critters off the dock got our leftovers.
Sadly it was time to leave, but not before stocking up on souvenirs from the numerous little shops that lined the street up to the small, open airport. Flying away seemed surreal, like it was almost unbelievable that we actually got to go to Galapagos, but the memories and photos will always prove one of the most incredible and unique experience I've encountered thus far.