Carrots. It’s always the carrots. Even if you haven’t eaten any carrots, they always seem to show up first when you’re retching over the toilet bowl, wondering when the hell your stomach will settle and leave you free to roll into a self-pitying fetal ball on the floor. This is at least what Farzana told me after a night chucking her guts up out on the deck, and in the metre-wide closet that constitutes the bathroom in our five-star yacht.
Of course, it could have been papaya, I reasoned, the fruity orange Ecuadorean cousin that also chooses to surface first during terrible bouts of seasickness. But anyway, beginning our highly anticipated Galápagos cruise the other day, we sailed overnight from Cerro Dragon on Isla Santa Cruz, to Post Office Bay on Isla Floreana and realised that poor Farzana had left her sea legs somewhere on a pristine beach surrounded by sea lions. After a while I had no choice but to leave her lying in a crumpled heap on the five-star navy pinstriped sun lounge, while I prayed to the dimpled face of a seriously oversized moon for her recovery.
Ah, the moon! What a sight to behold here on the equator: the way it hangs in its Milky Way hammock between a squillion stars. You won’t see as many stars as you will here anywhere else on this planet, trust me, not even if you go to every Oscars after- party ever thrown by Elton John.
The Tip Top II cruise ship (one of the Galápagos’s original fleet vessels) swayed like Beyonce’s hips in a concert arena as I studied the black pin-pricked blanket of the Galápagos sky, and I was left in no doubt whatsoever that we, as humans sailing though this life, are not alone. We simply can’t be. Leaning over the railings that first night, I got lost in the majesty, the romantic possibility of galaxies stretching light years into infinity, until Farzana brought me back to earth by releasing another batch of vegetables.
The reason for such a spectacular display of stars above the Galápagos, according to our knowledgeable guide Andreas, is that on the equator you’re looking at twice the number of constellations. The stars you can see from both the Southern and the Northern Hemisphere are all spread out before you in the centre of the world, crisscrossing in the night like lonesome gypsy travellers wandering at last into each other’s paths. Some little stars are so bright and alive, they actually do twinkle.
Our guide Andreas loves nature like you wouldn’t believe. He told me on our second night, as a group of us lay out on the sun lounges counting constellations, that when he drank ayahuasca in the Amazon rainforest he communicated with ‘the spirit of the vine’ herself. Ever since then, he’s been able to communicate almost psychically with the animals.
You might laugh, but I swear, as we continue to walk together through some of the most insanely beautiful landscapes on our various island excursions, the animals we encounter don’t bat an eyelid. Not just that, but Andreas can point out every single animal and bird he promises we’ll see, usually within moments of promising it. It’s almost like he calls them and they appear.
Fascinated, we wandered around huddled groups of charcoal- coloured marine iguanas on our first day, their red underbellies glowing like embers. We saw albatrosses with humongous yellow beaks eyeing us idly from their grassy nests as we passed, just inches away. Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled in their scarlet droves over the rocks. Sea lions were everywhere. In fact, while most people who visit the Galápagos might ask ‘will I definitely get to see the sea lions?’ before they book their tickets (like we did), the truth is that you’ll be hard-pressed not to see one here. You’ll see thousands of sea lions and, yes, you can swim with them and, yes, they actually want you to swim with them, too!
They’ll chase your boat through the blue. They’ll waddle up to you on the beach and waddle back into the surf, and then turn around to see if you’re following, like puppy dogs. If you’re not, they’ll do the same again until you step into the water. This experience alone made the cruise worthwhile, I think. You don’t have to do a cruise in order to see the sea lions, though. You can go out to the islands on day tours from Santa Cruz if you buy a $400 (average) return flight from Quito.
It’s worth remembering, however, that most of these day tours are overpriced and the guides — many of them locals with no qualifications — are known to be considerably less enthusiastic than actual naturalists, like Andreas, who are paid really well to work on the higher-end cruises and will tell you so many interesting facts as you go that your head will spin.
One field trip the other day saw us beaching our Zodiac (an inflatable dinghy for the uninformed) on sands so white I thought I’d be blinded. The whiteness sloped down into some of the clearest seawater on earth. It was as translucent as tap water. This was Gardner Bay, Isla Española — in the far southeast of the Galápagos archipelago and almost four million years old. Make sure your cruise includes a stop here and don’t book it if it doesn’t. This is without a doubt one of the most unspoiled … no, make that the most unspoiled part of the planet I have ever laid eyes on. It was actually surreal.
Lazing on this beach we were able to stand, sit or even lie within one metre of the sea lions, ‘but no closer than one metre — that’s the rule,’ Andreas told us sternly. We all spent hours posing for the obligatory photos as these creatures, some of them huge and menacing-looking, some just curious babies, eyed us in equal wonder. There is seriously nothing cuter than a baby sea lion. And there’s nothing more impressive than spotting a cluster of a thousand or so marine iguanas, just lounging in the sun like dinosaurs who forgot to become extinct.
Andreas told us one story of a man who was caught at the airport with a marine iguana in his backpack. God knows how he thought he would get it to wherever he was going, but these creatures are so placid it’s not hard to believe that you could scoop a few up and whisk away with them. They smell pretty bad, though. I’m not sure you’d want one, really.
None of the animals seem to have any fear of humans in the Galápagos, and Andreas explained that it’s because none of them – maybe with the exception of that poor iguana — have ever been harmed by humans. Every few months, they shut certain islands to cruise ship passengers and open different ones to encourage the continuation of each natural habitat without disturbance. The US$100 entrance fee, which everyone must pay in cash upon arrival at the Galápagos airport, is spent purely on maintaining this unique part of the world and its precious, rare ecosystems.
Charles Darwin first noted that the finches on each Galápagos island varied in the shape and size of their beaks, and thus, his theory of natural selection was born in 1839. It appeared that these finches had originally come from mainland South America, that they had colonised the islands at some point and had then over time evolved their distinct beaks according to their needs in each different island environment.
To this day, the Galápagos National Park Service and conservation teams are so concerned with keeping every island immaculate and individual that the cruise ship staff have been told to make all passengers wash their feet and shoes after each island visit to avoid cross-contamination. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been hosed down on this cruise. I’m actually surprised Farzana and I weren’t put in quarantine before we were allowed to visit … but then, the authorities aren’t aware of my filthy thoughts about Salvador (sigh).
Today we got to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, but unfortunately we’re just a few weeks too late to see its star, Lonesome George, the sole remaining Pinta Island tortoise. He refused to mate, apparently. He just wasn’t a horny tortoise, so his entire subspecies fizzled out when he did, in June. Poor guy, though — all that pressure. Imagine if you and only you were responsible for the continuation of your entire race. It was all too much for George. He preferred eating cucumbers.
Before humans sailed up, the Galápagos Islands were home to literally tens of thousands of giant tortoises. The numbers fell to near extinction but there’s now a recovery program run by the Charles Darwin Foundation, and it has been successful in bringing the numbers back up to over 20,000. You can walk around the research station and learn all about them, which, to be honest, isn’t really the most exciting thing in the world. They don’t do much, tortoises.
The blue-footed booby is perhaps the creature that most people look forward to encountering in the Galápagos. I won’t bother with any puns now and, trust me, neither will you once you’re here, because everyone does it for you, all over the place. You can’t walk down the street in Santa Cruz without being accosted by a man displaying his rail of ‘I heart Boobies’ T-shirts.
These weird, long-winged seabirds look a bit like penguins crossed with seagulls and they really do have bright blue feet, as though they’ve waddled across a wet painting of the ocean. Our group was lucky enough to witness the mating ritual, which is a strange dance-off between the male boobies, a bit like men vying for a girl’s attention at a party. The female looks on from the perimeter, trying to decide which one she prefers as they flap and strut and lift each leg up in an effort to look masculine. The winner gets the girl and the privilege of building her a nest, and the loser goes off to try his luck with someone else.
It was during the enjoyment of this ritual that we also witnessed our first group of ‘serious birdwatchers’. You won’t see as many birdwatchers anywhere as you will in the Galápagos. As you can imagine, it is literally the holy grail for fans of things- with-wings and you can spot these people a mile off, usually because their telescopic lenses protrude into the corners of your humble iPhone snap shots, appearing way before you see the ‘serious birdwatcher’ in person.
What really sets a ‘serious birdwatcher’ apart from a regular birdwatcher, however, is the note-taking. Not content with photographing every single feather on the head of an Española mockingbird, or the butt-crack of a swallow-tailed gull, the ‘serious’ of the species must then whip out a clipboard and pen and busy themselves with noting why these feathers are so very different from the ones they shot yesterday, plus the date, time and exact location of each shot.
I know this because I stopped one man, part of a bird-watching tour group, and asked what they were all writing down. He was drooping under the weight of his equipment and his Canon lens was so long and so unconscionably wide, I’m pretty sure the Hubble Space Telescope would’ve had a tough job competing for close-ups.
‘We have a competition, with prizes when we get home,’ he said proudly. ‘We have to make sure we all get shots of different birds.’
‘But how do you tell the difference?’ I queried. ‘They all look the same to me!’
He frowned then, as though I was the most despicable racist ever to walk the face of the earth. ‘Every single one is unique,’ he said curtly, and lumbered on in his quest.
It seems I have a lot more to learn when it comes to discerning my feathers from my … feathers … and my carrots from my papayas, perhaps. But suffice to say that apart from the little problem of seasickness (which, by the way, was cured once Farzana took some special pills courtesy of a fellow shipmate) the Galápagos is turning out to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I should have booked more time here, really.
This is a chapter from my book Latinalicious – The South America Diaries