Galapagos: We take a public speedboat 2-hours west to Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos chain. Bottle-nose dolphins leap in our wake, frigates glide on our air currents above and we search the waters for orcas. We see none, but spot large turtles and waved albatrosses.
Isabela is almost the youngest island in the archipelago, at less than 1 million years old, and its landscape is dramatically different from the others. It’s a conglomerate of 6 volcanoes, 5 of them active, making this one of the most volcanically active places on earth. The last big eruption was in 2005, but the lava flowed into the vast crater, so there was no new damage.
The volcanoes are natural barriers that have created niche ecosystems on the big seahorse-shaped island, and Isabela is home to several different species of giant tortoise. It’s also home to Galapagos penguins, the only penguins to live north of the equator, which cuts through Isabela directly slicing two volcanoes.
As we enter the main port, a small bay whose reef makes it only navigable at high tide, we see several penguins diving like aquatic mammals in the water, while others stand stiffly to attention on the rocky lava.
The island is a beautiful and tranquil place with few inhabitants, unpaved roads and a small main town whose buildings stop within a hundred metres of the main square. We find rooms in a house outside the centre, overlooking a long empty beach. At night, the waves lap rhythmically, sending us to sleep.
Ridiculously pink flamingoes filter-feed in a nearby brine lagoon and countless iguanas make their way to the beach and back every day for their algal snacks.
We decide to visit the nearest volcano – of the 2005 eruption – and walk for 10 kilometres along its enormous crater rim. The crater is huge: 12km by 8 km. The path is thick with dust. It covers our legs and clothes, seeps into every crease and fills our noses. In time, the desert scrub peters out, leaving just the hardy cactuses, until that too ends. Finally, there is nothing. The crater is as the island must have been soon after its emergence – after the earth vomited up this multi-coloured rock from beneath the Pacific Ocean. Metals in the black lava reveal themselves in gold or red flashes. There is the brightness of sulphur, accompanied by its smell, and the white powder of ash.
From our high vantage point, we can see that the barren lava stretches to the sea. In time, microorganisms will colonise this rock, holding the powdery lifeless crystals together long enough for lichens and cacti to get purchase. Eventually, there will be some sort of soil here and vegetation, like on the older islands we have seen.
The next day, we take to the water. A local man, Juan, tells me he knows where to find seahorses. We board a boat around the island to a place where tunnels of lava have spewed into the cold sea. Some are collapsed, but many arches remain, and the interconnected tubes and pools are a wonderland for every type of Galapagos fish, ray, turtle and shark. Blue-footed boobies nest on rocks above the water. It’s an incredible place, and we spend a couple of hours happily staring into the waters.
Then, a little further along, we jump into the water with mask and snorkel. White-tip sharks lie in rows on the bottom, slipping off with a single flick of their long bodies, turtles browse the coral gardens and a group of beautiful spotted eagle rays fly gracefully past us.
We enter a shady mangrove area and Juan motions for me to quietly approach. On a branch, with its tail wrapped firmly around, is a large male seahorse. He is perfect: his belly pouch fat with babies and his fins pressed neatly back. We watch him for a while, before Juan points out a female wrapped on a nearby stem. She is a darker, smaller and more slender version of the male, and just as beautiful.
A national census in Ecuador means we have to return from Isabela earlier than we had planned – there are no boats leaving during the census. We spend our last couple of days on the islands visiting the beaches on Santa Cruz and celebrating Nick’s birthday.
During the census, Puerto Ayora, the capital of Santa Cruz, becomes a ghost town – everything is closed and all the locals forced to remain indoors all day. Tourists wander forlornly through the empty streets and pelicans wonder where the fish market has gone.
Far too soon, we leave the Galapagos. It’s one of the most incredible places I’ve been, and it’s a fitting end to our South American journey. Tomorrow we enter the North American continent, crossing into Panama.