Balanced on a knife’s edge - Galapagos archipelago
We have talked about ‘green vacationing’ before in these pages. It is a sociological responsibility to which we must all pay attention. Yet, like organic meats, vegetables and wines, for which a supermarket premium is paid for what might not necessarily meet muster, in visual terms, it is an ethical choice, essential for all of us to contemplate, if we have any positive thoughts
about the future.
Treading carefully is but one aspect but considering the impact of one’s carbon footprint is something for which all holidaymakers are already paying the price, through fuel levies and even local airport taxes. In our Autumn/Winter issue, we highlighted the value of tours in Africa that offer a ‘pay it forwards’ value. It is but one of the many ways by which the modern tourist can offset the pursuit of something that is quite different, as a means to lessen the burden on that part of the planet.
If that fantastic TV naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, engaged enough with a younger you to ensure that his comments would ring true today, then considering a holiday in the Galapagos must be worth every penny extra that you will pay. To visit this cluster of Pacific islands, located 620 miles west of Ecuador’s coast, which were annotated carefully by Charles Darwin, in
1835, as he observed the very cases of natural selection that would contribute subsequently to the formulation of his theories of evolution, is no less than a privilege. Straddling the equator virtually ensures that, climatically, there is no bad time to visit, although there are essentially two seasons. December to May is warm and wet, while June to December is cool and dry. Just as
the volcanic islands sit on three tectonic plates, Pacific, Cocos and Nazca, deep in the ocean, which move at a rate of around two inches each year, their remarkably temperate climate is governed by the oceanic currents.
The fact that there are three major currents that meet in this part of the Pacific is the key reason for such an amazing diversity of marine life around the islands. Incidentally, Darwin the geologist only spent around five weeks carrying out his research and gathering samples of the rocks, insects, wildlife and flora on Galapagos, as the survey ship he was on, The Beagle, continued its
world tour. At the age of 26 years, he might be considered something of a youthful genius, although he was 50, before his theories were first published.
While Darwin’s findings were sure to create immense appeal to Victorian adventurers, the islands had already been assaulted by various visitors over the centuries. Operated at different times as a whaling station, a safe port for pirates, or a staging point for travellers, the islands were never originally inhabited. In fact, it was only after Ecuador had annexed them in 1832, renaming
them the Archipelago of Ecuador, that Floreana, almost the southernmost of the group, accommodated some convicts. Not long afterwards, some farmers and artisans were encouraged to populate the island and the rest, as they say, is evolutionary.
Blame the antecedents
Much of the islands’ appeal lies in its wondrous and unique wildlife. As an ‘open zoo’, the Galapagos has few rivals. However, it is worth reflecting on the origins of the word ‘Galapagos’, as ‘galopegos’ is the Spanish word for tortoise. While there were reputed to be several different breeds of the protectively shelled animal that once populated the islands, the most famous of them was a giant Pinta Island tortoise, known as ‘Lonesome George’, which sadly died last year, at an age reputed to be in excess of 100 years.
Visiting sailors used to capture tortoises for fresh food, as they could be kept alive with minimal on-board sustenance for long periods of time. While many large tortoises do remain, it is hoped that a concentrated breeding programme and strategic protection can give them better hope for a future. However, black coral, sea cucumbers, sea horses, sharks (for their fins) and even local lobsters are all under the threat of clandestine fishing. Fortunately, the archipelago’s status as a national park was assured in 1959 by the Ecuadorian government, although it was not until 1978 that it was declared the world’s first UNESCO world heritage site.
Other amazing animals unique to the Galapagos include the world’s largest cormorant, which also happens to be flightless. Naturally, the remarkable Galapagos iguana, the world’s only marine lizard, has been well documented over the years. The islands’ fur sea lions are the smallest in the world but also the least fearful of people, which is a common issue with the islands’ wildlife. If you have been watching on television the charming recent series about penguins, those found on the Galapagos are unique to the northern hemisphere (only just) and the only one to breed in the tropics.
Tours and decision-making
When contemplating your options for visiting the Galapagos, it is worth noting that most vacations to this wondrous territory will also take in a partial tour of the Ecuadorian or Peruvian mainland. Very few organised tours spend the entire holiday on the islands, although Responsible Travel (a UK travel firm) does fly from Quito, Ecuador, for seven nights flitting from one attraction to the next on the islands, with the first and last nights spent in Quito. A ten days, multiactivity holiday will cost from around $2,490pp, not
including flights at an additional $520pp for a Quito return service. Entering the National Park costs $100 extra, which goes towards environmental upkeep, and only two evening meals are not included. There are other extra cost items, such as use of wet-suits, surfboards and so on, although most of the equipment and island transfers are incorporated.
As with most holidays to ecologically fragile and carefully protected sites, travellers are accompanied as often as possible, to reduce the risks associated with contamination and potential, if inadvertent, damage being caused to the local fabric. Yet, snorkelling and diving are popular pastimes and discovering caves and concealed underwater locations are definitely on the menu.
Naturally, twitching, or bird watching, is a common practice and it is possible to get up very close to much of the islands’ other wildlife, although you must ask yourself, what impact you might be having on the locale, in order to maintain a good sense of eco-balance. While the islands have a lot to offer, with visiting the volcanoes, kayaking, mountain-biking and plenty of hiking, much longer than a week spent on them might stretch credibility to new peaks, although, enjoying an additional seven to ten days on the mainland of South America, perhaps taking in the Amazon and a jungle trek, will certainly create a holiday of a lifetime.
Most adventurers to this part of the world will opt to offset the impact of their travel through the charity, Rainforest Concern. It has established Forest Credits, a not-for-profit management arm that shows how offsetting carbon emissions can resolve a few issues. Of course, cruising by boat is a most popular means to reach the islands and your ship can be anything from a luxury yacht to a steam vessel. Being part of a group is preferred by both the islands and the operators.
Most of the hotels on the islands are exceptionally well equipped and there are several five down to two-star rated residences between the islands of San Cristobal, Floreana, Santa Cruz and Isabela and their respective population centres of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Puerto Velasco Ibarra, Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil. The 13-room (only a solitary suite) 5-star Iguana Crossing Hotel, on Isabela, is designed to blend in with the locale, yet delivers first-class quality allied to the culinary delights provided by Chef Diego Catarino, for around $135pp/night.
On the other hand, the 2-star Hotel La Peregrina, on Santa Cruz, is located on Pelican Bay, with unparalleled views across the ocean, a short walk to the harbour and a fabulous white sandy beach within easy reach. Well serviced, the hotel offers private hammocks for daylight siestas, in its well laid out gardens, for a mere $22pp/night. As a measure, these rates are around twice what you might pay on the mainland for similar styles of accommodation.
A four days/three nights tour of the Galapagos can cost from as little as $975pp, including all yacht travel, but the aforementioned extras will weigh
in. Seven nights in the lap of luxury can cost you upwards of $3,300, including all yacht and island transfers, plus the inevitable extras. If you
have to ask, is it worth it, then you clearly should not be considering a holiday to the Galapagos. However, enter into the spirit of adventure, knowing the purpose of such a trip and creating unforgettable memories will be the least of your concerns.
Most tour operators can offer the combination of return flights to South America, with sea, or air transfers, allied to hotel accommodation to suit your budget, from fairly basic to full luxury.
www.discover.ecuador www.gadventures.com www.responsibletravel.com www.thinkgalapagos.com www.darwinfoundation.org www.forestcredits.org.uk www.rainforestconcern.org www.tucantravel.com www.intrepidtravel.com www.exodus.co.uk www.vjv.com www.peregrineadventures.com