THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, A WET DREAM


Darwin did it with The Beagle, I discovered the Galapagos with The Athala, a small catamaran. The pioneers in 1535 thought they arrived in hell when they saw big amounts of gruesome iguanas, but for me the Galapagos are like heaven, a timeless dimension where the beauty of nature lifts you up and where animals are your only contact with the world. The volcanic island group resembles an immense ark of Noah, a wet dream for every nature lover in an almost virgin scenery.
The Athala, my home for four days

Erupting giants. ‘Welcome on board’, an elaborated comity with the captain first is waiting for me at the Athala, a catamaran for 16 passengers, my home for the coming four days. People start chatting while having a drink. Harry, our guide, carries out most of the talking. We are about 1000km (621miles) away from the coast of Ecuador, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The archipelago has become world heritage since 1979 and includes 13 large and about 40 smaller islands that emerged millions of years ago through enormous eruptions. ‘Most of the islands and erupting giants are about 2 million years old. The seniors amongst them are already twice as old, and are despite their age still quite active’, smiles Harry, who looks like he has plenty of stories to tell. I can’t wait to see it all with my own eyes, and apparently I’m not the only one.
Sea lions at the archipelago

Bartholomé, a Dali like landscape. With the fleet of catamarans at the coast of Bartholomé, it surprises me that we are only walking around with two groups of 15 people on the island. The time slots, imposed by the government, work perfectly. The last volcano erupted at least 100 years ago, but it looks like it happened yesterday. I am standing in a red moon landscape, with a few volcanic peaks but apart from that nothing else than lava rocks. The emptiness is incredibly comforting; I would love to spend my whole afternoon enjoying these Dali like surroundings. The lava-sea and the photogenic Pinnacle, a triangular pointy rock that emerges straight from the sea puts Bartholomé on my top 3 of original landscapes in this eccentric archipelago. To my surprise a five year old Danish girl lifts an enormous lava rock. The porous boulder appears feather light. She drags it around like a proud Obelix. We want to limit our impact on nature to the strict minimum. I stay carefully on the footbridges, which make sure that the hollow lava tunnels, shaped by many eruptions, remain intact. I am so impressed by the landscape that I absolutely  don’t see any animals at all. Until a lava lizard attracts my attention, with its reddish breast it hardly stands out against its dark background. Back on board of the Athala we eat on the deck, it is sizzling hot. Tonight we sail across the equator. The heat and a couple of cocktails ensure a good ambiance, it feels like I am ‘hopping islands’ with a couple of friends. One thing is for sure; tomorrow I am getting up with the sunrise because I don’t want to miss anything.
Cactus plant eating ‘monsters’ in a Dali like décor
Isabela, penguins on the equator. Early in the morning we are sailing with a panga (a small motorboat) around the island Isabela, the largest and most volcanic island, with six erupting mountains of which five are still active. The Cerro Azul for example has already erupted ten times since 1940. There are hundreds of giant turtles living here. From our little motorboat I see one dragging itself through the sand. A bit further the rocks are cramped with sea lions, blue-footed boobies and lava herons and I stumble on my first penguin, who stares at me with an open beak. Even though I feel like walking around in a kind of paradise, to the pioneers it looked like they arrived in hell. The bishop of Panama discovered the Galapagos 500 years ago and was frightened when he suddenly saw iguanas crawl ashore, he believed it were sea monsters and thought he had arrived in the underworld. He blew his top when it turned out that they even swallowed cactus plants with ease. These terrifying animals tremendously fascinate me. Although I know they only have cactus plants and seaweed on their menu, definitely no human limbs, they would look great in a horror movie. They hardly move, they lie on top of each other and give me a penetrating look. In the mean time the sea looks like a large cup of cappuccino, as enormous foaming waves crash against the rocks. There are birds everywhere. When we observe more penguins Harry tells me that they move through the water as swift as an arrow. I put that statement to test by going snorkeling and indeed a handful of penguins dash away like torpedoes. A gigantic sea turtle swims sluggishly underneath me, I follow it for a while, but I am distracted by two sea lions diving into the water and showing the best of themselves as very skilled ballet dancers.


Close encounter. There is exactly one tree that grows on the beach of ‘Egas Port’ in Santiago, a manchineel tree, a poisonous apple tree. Poisoned for us, but a delicacy for the giant turtles. I follow a huge trail from the high-water line to the boat, it looks like a tank drove through the sand, but the turtle has vanished. In the mean time a couple of snorkelers are sitting underneath the tree. It looks like a scene from the bible, only the snake is lacking. Harry’s father worked for Dario Fegas who firmly managed a salt mine over here in the sixties. After its closure the island became a nature reserve again. I’m very happy for that because Santiago is a raving beauty. The erosion has created a master peace, like a fully qualified sculptor. I observe naturally formed bridges where spoonbills (wading birds) are at the lookout, beautiful rockeries and a large number of pools where I discover fur seals, which only live on this island. Large colonies of iguanas are idle on the beach according to the ‘close to each other must be warm’ principle. Because they eat seaweed, which only grows in ice-cold water, warming themselves up between meals is vital. They hardly stand out from the black sand; I ‘m rather scared when I stumble over one. A ‘close encounter’ but all my toes are luckily still there.


Following Darwin’s footsteps. Mount Pitt at San Cristobal was the beach were Darwin came ashore with his legendary Beagle in 1835. The islands have created a typical fauna and flora because of their isolation. Under environmental pressure new species came into existence, or animals started using different methods to get their food compared to their counterparts on the mainland. ‘There are 14 different species of finches which all relate back to one and the same ancestor’ explains Harry, ’but they adapted themselves to survive’. ‘It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change…’ He shows me an example and theory suddenly becomes reality: a pointed beak spark finch exchanged seeds and insects for plants and I see him emptying an egg of a sea bird in front of my eyes. The cactus finch eats cactus plants, very relevant. But I’m genuinely impressed when I observe a finch using tools. He imitates the woodpecker through poking a tree with a stick to trigger insects to come out. I can’t believe what I’m seeing, Darwin’s theory in real time. It becomes even more obvious when Harry points out a cormorant which wings are too short. The local cormorants can’t fly but can dive into the water as the best. Darwin’s ‘On the origin of Species’ made the Galapagos immediately world famous.


Fernandina, the toddler of the archipelago. ‘Another day in paradise, this is your DJ Harry’ is communicated amusingly through the intercom: ‘this morning we’re visiting Fernandina’. The western islands Isabela and Fernandina are much younger than the ones in the east. At Fernandina the lava scenery is impressive, there is hardly any vegetation. At the east side were the elder islands reside, nature predominates. The lava rocks are full of albatrosses and pelicans; they steal a march on each other while diving to a school of fish. It fascinates me that most animals around here aren’t afraid of humans at all. We were never a risk for them and they do not have natural predators. In the bushes, only just at a meter distance, two blew-footed boobies are observing me carefully with their bright blue eyes. Because of their unrestrained confidence I feel myself more as one with nature then to any other place on earth. It is nearly an illusion, like I am performing in a Disney movie. The photographer in me jumps for joy. Every island is completely different. At the Rabida Island I’m completely overwhelmed by the landscape that is defined by bright green prickly pear cactus plants which contrast sharply with the fire reddish beach. Snorkeling is the ultimate experience over here as giant manta rays of about 6 meter (20 foot) wide float like space ships underneath me. Even in this warm water I get goose bumps of it.
Frigatebird trying to pick up a partner

The pick-up-lines of the frigatebird. Approaching Lobos, my photographers’ heart starts beating faster because the frigate birds are trying to pick up a partner which leads to spectacular images: the males blow up their red crop to outrageous dimensions. As a result they can hardly move their head. The ticker and the more reddish, the better they can impress the females. When the response to their act of seduction doesn’t come quick enough they start flying around like that, which to me looks extremely uncomfortable. It are strange birds and kleptomaniacs because once they have found the wife of their dreams and have finished breeding their eggs, they teach their young how to steal food from other nests. Isla Lobos is a particularly green island and everywhere I see sea lions lying around. One of them shuffles roaring to me; but luckily his target is one of his congeners. They dive into an enormous pool in which they start tussling around. When Harry goes snorkeling with the rest of the group a little inkling inside me tells me to stay. My suspicion gets rewarded. Nearby the rocks, sits a blue-footed boobie with the ocean in the background, another one sits next to it. It doesn’t take long until the male starts to perform his mating dance. He waggles from one foot onto the other one, his macho steps make me laugh, but make a significant impression on its newly acquired love, because only seconds later he jumps on her back. What follows is an intimate ballet after which they lay their wings across each other. This is the unique moment I was waiting for. Every noise disappears; it looks like my whole body focuses on this unique scene. It ‘s spectacularly beautiful.


© M.T. - DICHTBIJ & VER WEG 2017



DEFINITELY TO DO:

1. Don’t wait too long to visit the Galapagos because the increasing number of visitors every year starts to show its impact on the ecological balance in spite of all actions taken. The Galapagos are included on the red list of  Unesco, meaning it is considered as an endangered heritage. It is expected that the government will impose stricter quota, which will make the journeys more expensive.

2. It is an absolute must to follow up the good advice of the guide to ensure your ecological footprint remains as limited as possible. On some islands you can’t get off the tracks, on others you can.

3. Before taking off, do your research on what you precisely want to see and which islands you want to visit. Definitely go to Bartholomé, you won’t forget the scenery any time soon. Floreana is the only island where flamingo’s can be observed. Every island has their specific eco system, landscapes and animals.

4. You can approach all animals very closely and you definitely do not have to be scared about creepy iguanas because they are harmless.

5. Inquire where you can see the lechesos, they are compared to exceptionally large sun flowers that can get up to 10m (33foot) high.

6. If you don’t have strong sea legs and therefore do not want to spend a whole week on a boat, then you can stay in one of the beautiful hotels or safari camps on one of the four inhabited islands of nearly 60 of the archipelago: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana or Isabela. From there onwards you can undertake day trips. Santa Cruz is with its 24000 inhabitants the most populated island from where you mostly start and finish your journey.

7. On the inhabited islands you can go horse riding, mountain biking, kayaking, staying over in the cloud forest (Santa Cruz), tour around with a 4x4 and even go surfing.



Information regarding the Galapagos:

Amazing Journeys organizes on an individual basis a cruise (on a luxurious catamaran of 16 persons) in the Galapagos archipelago. You can book this cruise separately or in combination with a journey to Ecuador. (Popular package) www.amazingjourneys.be

Amazing Journeys has three agencies: 


- ‘Travel Tip’ in Herenthout (Belgium): +32 (0)14.50.20.50
- ‘Archeon Travel’ in Meise (Belgium): +32 (2)270.30.10
- ‘Riviera Reizen’ in Hamme (Belgium): +32 (0)52.47.96.94

KLM flies 6 times a week from Brussels through Amsterdam to Quito (Ecuador). Reservations can be made on 
www.klm.be
Flying to the Galapagos can be done from Quito with the local Aerolinas Galapagos. 

Athala luxury cruises is part of the Haugan cruises: an exclusive catamaran with spacious cabins inclusive private bathroom, full pension and a knowledgeable guide. On board everything is included except tips. 
www.haugancruises.com

The Galapagos practically:

Passport: should still be valid 6 months after departure
Money:  US dollar currency. A ticket to the protected Galapagos costs 100 USD + 10 USD of taxes.
Language: Spanish and Quechua, on board the guide speaks perfect English. 

Climate: all year round favourable, in September the water temperature is the coldest, in March the warmest. From January up to and including April there can be some rain but the sky is clear and temperatures will be pleasant. 
Time zone: GMT -6h


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THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, A WET DREAM

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