Cruising the Galapagos: Exploring the islands' wild wonders from a small ship
- With few natural predators, there aren’t many places on Earth where the wildlife is as unafraid of human visitors as the Galapagos.
- Our sailing was at full capacity with 20 passengers (all Americans) and 14 Ecuadoran crew members.
- The remoteness of the islands, which helps to protect the wildlife from predators, makes the Galapagos a challenging destination to reach.
SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, Ecuador – “Work it. Work it.”
On a black volcanic rock formation in a remote part of the Galapagos Islands, a pair of resplendent blue-footed boobies need little coaxing from a fellow traveler who wants the marine birds to remain perched while we photograph them.
The boobies are more than happy to oblige. Like runway models, they’re not bashful about posing while our small group clicks away.
With few natural predators, there aren’t many places on Earth where the wildlife is as unafraid – and even welcoming – of human visitors as the Galapagos. The result is an unparalleled chance for nature lovers to see up close everything from 5-foot-long iguanas to pink flamingoes to tortoises more than 100 years old.
►CDC warns 'avoid cruise travel' after more than 5,000 COVID cases in two weeks amid omicron
If Charles Darwin were alive today, he would find this archipelago of tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean – 600 miles west of mainland South America – little changed from his historic journey here nearly 200 years ago.
It was the English naturalist’s exposure to the rich diversity of wildlife in the Galapagos that led to his revolutionary theory of natural selection. Today, visitors can experience the same access to birds, animals and marine life that Darwin documented during his five-week visit in 1835 on the HMS Beagle.
Cruising the Galapagos on a 20-passenger ship
I recently visited six islands in the Galapagos on a one-week cruise aboard the Ecoventura Origin, named after Darwin’s landmark 1859 book “On the Origin of Species.” Our sailing was at full capacity with 20 passengers (all Americans) and 14 Ecuadoran crew members.
The Origin’s sister yacht, the Ecoventura Theory, was often visible in the distance as it traveled roughly the same itinerary. We were on the “northern and western route”; on alternate weeks the two boats take the “southern and central route” through the islands. Passengers can opt to book a passage for two weeks to experience both itineraries.
Local government rules require visitors to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to boarding flights to Ecuador. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased their cruise travel warning level on Dec. 30, advising travelers to avoid cruises regardless of vaccination status.
Twice a day, we were ferried from one of the Origin’s two blue dinghies to an island for a nature walk. Many of these visits involved “wet landings” in which we would step off the dinghy into shallow water and walk ashore. There were plenty of opportunities for snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding and viewing marine life on the Origin’s glass-bottom boat.
“You don’t see in other places what you see here,” said Yvonne Mortola, one of the Origin’s two onboard naturalists, who has been guiding tours in the Galapagos for 37 years. “Things happen just in front of you. And it’s safe. None of the animals wants to eat you up.”
If there was any aggression on display, it was between the animals themselves. We watched as a barking male sea lion emerged from a lagoon on Fernandina Island to stake out his beachfront territory, nearly trampling a group of marine iguanas in the process. (See the video here.)
We also saw sharks, whales, dolphins and the black-and-white Galapagos penguin. It’s the only species of penguin found north of the equator.
But it was the blue-footed boobies that I found most captivating – not just their eye-catching feet but their friendly dispositions.
“Blue-footed boobies are just special,” said Mortola. “They’re curious. They have no shame in just walking right up to you and checking you out.”
Crossing the equator 6 times
Governed by Ecuador, the Galapagos consist of 13 major islands straddling the equator. We crossed the equator six times during the trip, stopping each time so the captain could “lift up the line,” as Mortola joked.
Only four of the Galapagos are inhabited by humans; the entire population is less than 30,000. Nearly half live in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the largest city in the Galapagos. During a stroll down Charles Darwin Avenue – the city’s main drag – we needed to step aside for a pair of sea lions, indifferent to our presence as they waddled down the block to the fish market looking for scraps.
The Galapagos are volcanic islands – there have been eruptions as recent as 2020. We hiked through black lava fields and red sand beaches created from volcanic ash, visited an underground lava tube in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island and sailed at sunset past the dramatic Kicker Rock, the remains of a volcanic cone.
Even though the Galapagos are near the equator, the climate is surprisingly temperate. The cool Humboldt Current and steady trade winds kept high temperatures from surpassing the mid-70s most days, and I needed to put on a sweater when going out on deck to watch the stars after dinner. We were fitted with wetsuits for the week, which helped provide insulation from the chilly Pacific waters while on morning snorkeling trips.
Getting to the Galapagos
The remoteness of the islands, which helps to protect the wildlife from predators, makes the Galapagos a challenging destination to reach. There are no international flights into the islands; visitors need to fly into one of mainland Ecuador’s two largest cities, Quito or Guayaquil, then catch a flight into one of the small airports serving the islands.
We flew into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the provincial capital city of the Galapagos on San Cristobal Island. There also is an airport on the island of Baltra, the site of a U.S. military base during World War II. Once we left San Cristobal, we never once set foot on pavement the entire week until the final day of the cruise, when we anchored in Puerto Ayora.
In the towns near both airports, it’s possible to stay in a hotel and take day trips on small boats. But a weeklong cruise is a far more ideal – albeit pricier – way to explore the remote islands in the Galapagos while enjoying fresh seafood (the ceviche was amazing), onboard lectures and the expansive expertise of the two naturalists accompanying us.
To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species,” the Ecuadoran government designated 98% of the Galapagos as a national park. There is a one-time $100 national park entrance fee, payable upon landing at the airport. (Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.)
The government has imposed strict regulations to avoid the pitfalls of over-tourism. For instance, only cruise ships carrying fewer than 100 passengers are allowed to sail the Galapagos; most of the boats we encountered were far smaller.
Darwin described the Galapagos as a “little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else.”
Indeed, Darwin found a living laboratory that continues to offer visitors an education about nature and the environment in the most wondrous classroom imaginable.
Resources: The Galapagos Islands
Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism/Galapagos: https://ecuador.travel/en/destinations/galapagos.
Galapagos Conservancy: https://www.galapagos.org.
Dan Fellner of Scottsdale, Arizona, is a freelance travel writer.