Five Things to do in the Galapagos Islands

Five Things to do in the Galapagos Islands

PHOTO: Galapagos sea lions are generally indifferent to human visitors. (Photos by Brian Major)

Routinely at the top of travelers’ bucket lists, the Galapagos Islands are celebrated around the world for their pristine, relatively undisturbed natural environment and their abundance of distinct fauna and wildlife.

Of course this archipelago off Ecuador’s Pacific coast also holds a significant place in history as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, documented in his landmark text “The Origin of Species.” The journal is based on Darwin’s voyage from 1831 to 1836 aboard the Beagle.

The 14 islands and numerous islets that make up the Galapagos feature distinctive endemic species ranging from iguanas to Galapagos tortoises, albatrosses, boobies and sea lions. Many of these, including the sea lions, giant tortoises, cormorants and blue-footed boobies, cannot be found elsewhere.

Galapagos travelers are obviously focused on interacting with the stunning natural environment, but there are several ways for vacationers to obtain a fully rewarding Galapagos experience. Here are five things travelers can do in the Galapagos:

Commune with nature: OK, let’s first dispatch with the most common, and most treasured, Galapagos experience: appreciating the spectacular natural environment. The volcanic islands are part of Ecuador’s national park system and the surrounding waters constitute a marine biological reserve. The Galapagos was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Tours of the islands are conducted by federally licensed park rangers, who excel in introducing visitors to the region’s celebrated species and singular plant life. The rangers also ensure that the region’s wildlife is not disturbed and that environmentally sensitive areas are not damaged by visitors.

Nevertheless, visitors can still enjoy amazing experiences that include strolling beaches barefoot among dozens of sea lions. Surprisingly because they are protected and have long been accustomed to human visitors, the sea lions do not fear people and seem to barely notice their presence in most instances.

Suárez Point in Española, one of the largest of the islands, is considered among the Galapagos’ most diverse in terms of endemic species. Visitors will find Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, waved albatross, sea lions and colorful marine iguanas. At the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center-Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island, travelers can learn about initiatives to restore the Galapagos’ tortoise population.

Cormorant Point on Fernandina Island is home to flamingoes, migratory birds, a green sand beach, a placid flamingo lagoon and a white sand beach where nesting sea turtles and sting rays can be found.

Encounter history: While the Galapagos’ natural attractions are numerous and invariably inspiring, the Islands have their share of historical attractions, many tied to its past as a whaling center in the early 19th century.

Floreana was one of the first of the Galapagos to be inhabited and offers a compelling human history. The 1818 discovery by a Nantucket-based whaling ship of a thriving population of sperm whales in the waters surrounding the Galapagos led to its establishment as a whaling center known as the “Offshore Grounds.”

The whalers eventually established “Post Office Bay,” stationing a wooden barrel on shore for mail to be dropped, picked up and delivered by ships on their way to Europe and the United States. Travelers to Floreana today can visit the barrel, where cards and letters are still placed (without postage). Visitors are encouraged to sift through the letters and cards and deliver them by hand to their intended recipients if so inclined.

PHOTO: The Galapagos’ post office box at Post Office Bay.

Floreana was heavily damaged by a fire set in 1819 by Thomas Chappel, a crewmember of another Nantucket whaling ship, the Essex. The fire is believed to have led to the extinction of some species that originally inhabited the island. During the same voyage, the Essex was later sunk by a huge bull sperm whale. The incident formed the basis of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick.

Enter the deep: “Devil’s Crown,” perhaps the Galapagos’ most popular diving and snorkeling site, is located off Floreana’s northeast point. The waters rest above an underwater volcanic cone frequented by schools of fish, sea turtles, sharks and sea lions who weave happily among colorful coral formations. Travelers will also find great snorkeling opportunities off the white sand beach at Gardner Bay on Española.

Solve a mystery: In 1929, Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch traveled from Berlin to settle on then-uninhabited Floreana. By most accounts intent on popularizing a “back-to-nature” lifestyle, the couple encouraged others to follow in letters they sent back to Germany.

The letters were reported in the contemporary press. By 1932, a “gun-toting baroness” named Eloise von Wagner Bosquet had arrived with “her two German lovers, an Ecuadorian laborer and plans to build a grand hotel,” according to a trailer for “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” a 2013 feature-length documentary based on these events.

The film weaves together home movies shot by the original settlers with testimonies of modern-day islanders and contemporary footage of native flora and fauna.

Just as in the movies, a series of unsolved disappearances and deaths ensued, leading Strauch, who is voiced in the film by Cate Blanchett, to depart the Islands. Heinz and Margaret Wittmer, who also arrived in 1932, opted to stay and later their infant son Rolf was born of Foreana, becoming the island’s first native-born citizen.

The deaths and disappearances remain a mystery to this day. Meanwhile, the Wittmers launched the hotel which is today managed by their descendants, and Margaret Wittmer wrote an account of her experiences entitled “Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos.”

Travel by land: Most visitors to the Galapagos tour the region by cruise ship. After all, the Galapagos is an archipelago. However are several ways to enjoy a land-based Galapagos experience. Ecuador specialist Come to Ecuador Travel offers a number of ways to explore the archipelago by land.

The Finch Bay Eco Hotel offers regular day trips to nearby islands on its four-, five- and eight-day naturalist programs that utilize the hotel ‘s private yachts. The Finch Bay also offers adventure programs, including biking, sea kayaking and hiking to Las Grietas, plus hiking and surfing at Tortuga Bay. Finch Bay Eco Hotel is an excellent base for beginning and intermediate SCUBA divers and offers a Discover SCUBA Diving course.

Another company, Tropic – Journeys in Nature, is the U.S. representative for   the Galapagos’ Pikaia Lodge, which opened earlier this year on Santa Cruz Island. Located in the Galapagos’ highlands atop an extinct volcano crater, the lodge offers unobstructed ocean and island views and features a private Tortoise Reserve.

The 14-room luxury property is eco-sustainable, holds a LEED operational certification and is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Guests can explore the Galapagos’ natural attractions through the lodge’s three, four and seven-night programs that feature a land exploration of Santa Cruz Island plus private yacht tours of selected islands for kayaking, snorkeling and hiking.

Credits: Travel Pulse

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