Shore Leave: Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos archipelago is one of the most extraordinary places to see wildlife – and increasingly, one of the most popular.
November 2023

A lava lizard races across the barren slopes of Bartolomé Island, scampering so fast its feet barely touch the ground. By mid-morning the carpet of ash, heated by the sun, has already reached near-molten temperatures.

So small that clouds simply pass over, this volcanic outcrop of craters and cones rising from the Pacific Ocean receives less than 7mm of rainfall per year. “The only things living here are rocks,” jokes nature guide Antonio Adrian, as he leads us along a raised platform. “Stick around long enough and you’ll see them walk towards the ocean.”

On closer inspection, however, there are so many signs of life: tiny insects seeking shade and safety beneath scalesia shrubs; clever cacti thriving on nutrients extracted from the dust.

Finding ingenious ways to survive in difficult conditions is central to life on the Galápagos. Igniting Charles Darwin’s interest when he first sailed here in 1835, this ever-evolving archipelago of wild wonders continues to amaze visitors today.

In 2022, almost 268,000 tourists visited the Galápagos according to data released by the Galápagos National Park, rising from 204,295 in 2015. And the biggest leap – an estimated rise of 80% – has been the number of tourists staying on land, on one of the four inhabited islands.

Although measures have been put in place to curb overtourism, pressure on the UNESCO World Heritage Site is undoubtedly increasing. With more and more travellers expected in the years to come, it’s not only the wildlife which has to find new ways of navigating the archipelago.

Bucking the recent trend for land stays, I’d chosen to travel on an expedition yacht. One of 76 vessels currently permitted to operate multi-day trips, Evolve is the newest addition to the Ecoventura fleet. Part of the Relais & Châteaux portfolio, along with sister ships Theory and Origin, it’s one of the most sustainable luxury yachts in the region.

Onboard, ensuite bedrooms have floor-to-ceiling windows perfect for viewing frolicking sea lions in the water. On the top deck, a barman mixes sunset cocktails, while gastronomic four-course meals made with at least 50% of ingredients sourced locally are prepared in the dining area below.

Beyond the swish interiors, however, what sets Evolve apart from other ships is privileged access. No more than ten guests are ever assigned to one guide (a figure much lower than the national park’s sixteen-to-one recommendation) and itineraries feature some of the best landing spots in the Galápagos. Operating since 1991, Ecoventura secured permits for top sites and time slots years ago, long before many other vessels appeared.

My seven-night tour of the southern and central islands started in San Cristóbal, following a two-hour flight from Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian mainland. One of three inhabited islands in the archipelago, its busy restaurant-lined harbour was an introduction to the extraordinary ease with which humans and animals have learned to live side-by-side. Marine iguanas clung to brick walls, sea lions lazed on park benches, and hopeful pelicans hovered above fishermen unloading their hauls.

Before setting sail, we crossed the highlands to reach a giant tortoise breeding centre. In low-lying clouds and thick mist, the landscape almost disappeared, explaining why 16th century sailors named this archipelago ‘the Enchanted Islands’. At that time, an estimated half a million tortoises roamed the volcanic outcrops, each population specially adapted to their surroundings. But following successive years of hunting, only 10,000 remained by the time a national park was created in 1959.

Seventy years later, that number has risen by 50% due to conservation efforts.

“The project on San Cristóbal has been so successful, they’ve decided to stop breeding tortoises in captivity on this particular island,” explains nature guide Sophia Darquea, as we watch one of the final batches of thumb-sized babies cluster together in pens.

Regardless of human intervention, life in the Galápagos is thriving. Walking through a forest of native scalesia trees, I tune into a symphony of birdsong: yellow warblers practise pieces unique to the island, while small ground finches sing their little hearts out to serenade a mate. Equally enthralled, a curious San Cristóbal mockingbird chick almost perches on my shoulder – a reminder of how intimate wildlife encounters in these islands can be.

In any month of the year, there’s something happening in the Galápagos. I’d specifically timed my visit to witness one of the avian world’s greatest spectacles. From mid-April, waved albatrosses gather on Española – the southernmost island - to perform a repertoire of extraordinary courtship displays.

Sailing overnight, we arrive to find the black basalt cliffs of Suarez Point bathed gold by the morning sun. All Ecoventura landings are timed to avoid crossing paths with other ships, meaning only 20 of us are ashore. With so few people, the sense of discovery is amplified: waves crash louder; the air tastes saltier; the scarlet shells of Sally Lightfoot crabs beam brighter on white-sand shores.

“Look at that swagger,” gasps Antonio, when we catch sight of our first albatross. Bowing his head side to side, a male is searching for his mate, engaging in a series of balletic bill-clattering dances to see whether she is ‘the one’. Struck by Cupid’s arrow, the lovers are oblivious to our presence - even though we are sitting only a few metres away.

Above us, doves and mockingbirds mob a predatory Galapágos hawk. On the horizon, blue-footed boobies stomp proudly, like school children showing off their shiny new shoes.

“I always thought birds were a bit boring,” admits one member of our group in a hushed whisper. “But I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Both land and sky serve as an arena for impressive displays, but what lies below the ocean is equally entertaining. Almost every day of our journey there is an opportunity to snorkel. All different in terrain and species, each location is a merry-go-round of colourful activity: parrot fish dock into cleaning stations for spa treatments, puffer fish snack on sand dollars, and penguins fire past so fast I almost miss them in a monochrome blur.

Taunting us with acrobatic displays, agile sea lions rouse whoops of applause from young children, and when a pod of 30 bottlenose dolphins approaches, even seasoned Galápagos-goer Sophia can’t disguise her squeals.

“Of course, our marine area is vulnerable and we have problems,” she later tells me back on the ship, listing illegal fishing, pollution, invasive species and climate change as threats. “But we are dealing with it.” Millions of dollars have been spent removing goats and rats from the islands and in January 2022, the marine protected area surrounding the islands was extended to the maritime border with Costa Rica.

On Santa Cruz, the most developed island, I am reminded once again of how closely animals and humans have learned to depend upon one another. In exchange for protecting the environment and building fences high enough to allow tortoises to pass underneath, several farmers have been given the right by authorities to charge visitors for access to their land.

Walking through one of the farms, I find tortoises mud bathing, mating and feasting on fallen passionfruit. All around me birds are singing from branches draped in healthy lichens.

In that moment, any problems and concerns dominating headlines feels very distant. After all, as Darwin wrote in his field notes: “The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.”

Contact one of our expert Journey Designers or talk to your travel advisor to learn more and start planning.



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