Galapagos: Is there anywhere on earth that inspires nature lovers like this small volcanic archipelago, bang on the equator? Before we arrived here, I worried that years of imagining and wondering about these islands, made so famous by Darwin, would mean that the actual Galapagos would prove something of an anticlimax. Would I actually see a tortoise in the wild, or are they kept in zoo enclosures?
I needn’t have worried: the Galapagos islands are magical. Sure, they have changed since Darwin’s visit – he noted 17 introduced species when he visited in 1835, just 3 years after humans first started permanently living on the islands. But, despite the very real problems of non-native invasive species, the Galapagos remains one of the most pristine ecosystems left on our homogenising planet.
We stay on Santa Cruz, where the majority of locals are from continental Ecuador, some are born here and the remainder are drawn from around the world by tourism opportunities, conservation work or research.
The main town, Puerto Ayora, has a statue in homage to Darwin’s evolution theory, which is yards from the typical South American, very Catholic, cemetery.
The rain follows us here from Quito – it’s a very unusual year, we’re told, normally the rainy season finishes by October. So we hire a driver to take us around the island. There are five of us: my brother David and his girlfriend Emily have joined us, plus another friend Jolyon, all from the UK.
We are five minutes out of the town when we spot our first giant tortoise, ambling slowly across the road: a huge, slow dinosaur tank, labouring on elephant feet. It’s an awesome sight, this ancient animal the giant size of so many extinct species. Giant tortoises were once found across the new world.
We stop at some fields, where tortoises graze like lazy reptilian cows; a muddy pond, where they soak, fart and enjoy the buoyancy of the water, much like hippos; and see them munching at the vgrassy verges of the road.
On the coastal path, we see iguanas and pelicans, frigates (which have recently been found to be a distinct sub-species to those on the continent, despite the fact that they fly thousands of kilometres) and a snake.
We explore lava tubes, created during one of the still frequent eruptions here on the young archipelago.
It’s very exciting to be here. Tonight we set sail for a few days around some of the islands. We’ll report back with photos and video next week.