The Galapagos Islands. It’s one of those iconic destinations, the name itself evocative of an unspoilt world, something special and removed from the modern world of hurly-burly, hustle and bustle. The land of Darwin’s inspiration, a cluster of jewels in the Pacific Ocean.
We’d well and truly blown our budget coming here, but what a place for a splurge. Eighteen islands marooned in the ocean, right on the Equator, quietly going about their own business for millenia and creating a unique environment. Huge quantities of fearless wildlife will pose for photos, largely oblivious to any threat posed by humans. In a way the whole place feels like a vast open air museum/zoo/laboratory, like a pristine paradise set aside for an evolutionary experiment. Without knowing quite why, it feels like nowhere else on earth.
After Colombia we had a quick stop in Otovalo before returning to Quito to finish paying for the cruise. We then flew out the next day to Baltra in the middle of the islands; after disembarking we were stood at the dock waiting for our transfer to the ship when a couple of sea lions swam over and flopped inelegantly onto the jetty – it was at this point that we felt like we’d really arrived. A quick skitter across the water in a panga boat and we arrived at the Santa Cruz, the ship that we’d call home for the next five nights; we’d been assured this was one of the more luxurious vessels in the Galapagos, and as we were shown to our two adjacent cabins we were not disappointed – this was certainly a couple of notches above most of the places we’d stayed!
The travel agency in Quito (Midland Travel, just in case anyone is ever looking to book a trip!) had been really helpful throughout and we were very pleased to find that they’d provided exactly what we were hoping for – having handed over a small fortune, mainly in cash, it was a relief to know we’d got what we’d paid for, and that it was fantastic! (Big thanks to Alejandro).
We also met a lovely British family with kids the same ages as ours and we set off for an afternoon expedition to North Seymour Island with contented smiles and a tingle of anticipation, especially as this island was one of the best for seeing the famous Blue-Footed Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds that adorn pretty much every piece of literature about the Galapagos. We could blether on for ages about these wonderful, absurd creatures, about how the Boobies mesmerize with their comical dance, and how the Frigatebirds puff our their red throat pouches in a bizarre, ostentatious courtship ritual to attract a mate, but it’d be much easier to just show you the pictures!
Over the next four days we cruised around various islands, seeing amazing sights – there’s so much you could say about the Galapagos and its wildlife but it wouldn’t really do the place justice. Where else can you see dancing boobies, walk through ancient lava tunnels, climb inside a giant tortoise shell and then finish the day watching the sunset from a hot-tub on the top deck of a luxury boat?
Not to mention seeing Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Pengiuns, lumbering Giant Tortoises and more iguanas than you would have thought possible. The lava tubes were quite something – formed when the outer layers of a giant lava flow cooled and solidified as the inner core flowed onwards. Inside they looked pretty much just like any other tunnels, and the amount of rocks lying around inside made you wonder how stable they were, but they were interesting and certainly provided shelter from a torrential downpour. The marine iguanas were also fascinating – they are the only lizards that can live in the sea and they have an interesting habit of snorting out salty ‘snot’ from glands near their noses. They are sometimes camouflaged against the rocks but are more often piled on top of one another in a writhing mass, like a wriggling rock of sneezing, crawling strangeness – even Darwin described them as “hideous-looking”.
We’d learnt quite a bit about Darwin and evolution during this trip and the question of education is one that crops up continually. Shortly after meeting new people they would almost inevitably ask what we were doing about the girls’ schooling. We’d generally say that we were doing some ‘road-schooling’ and that they were picking up lots of different skills and knowledge along the way. Most people seemed to agree that they were getting a different kind of education and learning all kinds of interesting stuff.
Whilst we were walking to the Laguna Darwin above, we got chatting to an American man and he said something that really struck a chord with us. He passed on to us the saying that ‘Education is about starting a fire, not filling a bucket‘. Apparently this comes from an ancient quote from the Greek philosopher Plutarch and it sums up something about the nature of learning – it’s not just cramming in facts but trying to ignite some interest and inquisitiveness, some sense of wonder and hunger for finding out about the world. Hopefully the girls will have picked up some of that spirit!
So, what more is there to say about our time in the Galapagos? The kids loved the boat, the free hot chocolate, the hot-tub, and playing with their new friends. We loved the surprisingly superb snorkelling, the wildlife, the comfort and being able to share a sundowner beer with new friends. (Also, another small but significant plus point for the boat was the rare chance to flush your toilet paper down the loo! Almost throughout the whole of Latin America the sanitation struggles to cope with paper and there’s a ubiquitous bin in the corner – it felt strangely like home to be able to flush!)
The boat contained an interesting mix of people. Along with the British family (Stuart, Esme, Joe and Thea) there was a Chinese couple with a love of photography (their camera bags were nearly as large as our main luggage!), and a very friendly Peruvian family who kept wanting to give us advice on places to stay in Peru (however they kept recommending places way out of our budget, no doubt fooled by the fact we were on this particular boat!) There were also lots of other kids for the girls to play with – again the lack of a common language proved no barrier and they got on really well with an Ecuadorian girl called Emma. All in all it was probably the most relaxed time of our whole trip – it was like a holiday within a holiday, a treat within our travels, and provided a level of luxury we rarely experienced in the rest of our journey. The Galapagos themselves were as fantastic as people say – I’m not quite sure why but there is something magical about the place. It cost us a lot of money but was worth every penny and cent.
As you can imagine, we took a load of photos and we really have tried to edit them, but there’s a few more here…