All Rights reserved
It’s 4:30 a.m. and raining hard. A 15-foot swell shakes me out of bed. I stumble to the porthole and look out into total darkness. Feeling by turns panicked and curious, I stagger toward the aft past the lounge where the captain hosted last night’s farewell party, from which I had excused myself, slightly tipsy. Empty beer bottles, wineglasses, and ashtrays lie scattered across the deck.
Our 100-passenger ship, Celebrity Xpedition (highly favored for its comfort and indigenous Ecuadoran food), trudges through the storm at a good clip back to the island of San Cristóbal for our terminal disembarkation. I wonder if we’ll make it back on time. The swells are so massive, I start to wonder if we’ll make it back at all. Gripping the railing, I inch toward the starboard deck, each step taking me closer to the churning ocean. Española, Baltra, Floreana, and Santa Cruz islands, pink-hued and innocuous just last night, now take on dark and foreboding personae. Suddenly I remember that I’m cast in the middle of the Pacific, drifting amid an archipelago born of lava 5 million years ago—and that I’m a daunting 600 miles from the nearest continent.
I start to return to the safety of my cabin but suddenly see a small earthy blob of movement amid the blacks and blues of the storm. I recognize immediately a brown noddy scurrying across the deck, heading for shelter underneath a stairwell that leads to the first-class cabins. Although the brown noddy is one of the Galápagos Islands’ more clandestine species, this bird was in close proximity. From a distance noddies look austere, muscular, and unpredictable, but up close they’re delicate and vulnerable—much like the Galápagos Islands themselves. For a brief moment the noddy was no longer a greater part of the archipelago; she was temporarily unaffected by dodgy Ecuadoran environmental policies, global warming, Texas-size icebergs, ocean-current alteration, or offshore fishing regulations. She was alone—just one animal floating along the equator, the perfect ambassador of the Galápagos Islands: surviving.
The storm we were trudging through seemed uncharacteristically violent for the doldrums—an equatorial belt notorious for dead calms—which are tucked between opposite-moving trade winds where hurricanes and typhoons are born. Sailors had given the islands the nickname “Las Encantadas” because the strong currents surrounding them seemed to constantly change position, as if by enchantment.
Indeed, this place can turn on you quickly. A volcano had erupted on the island of Fernandina five days before my spring arrival, threatening much of the habitat there. Weather is erratic, especially during El Niño years, when lush conditions can arise on the normally parched interior of many islands, forcing species to adapt quickly.
Even though El Niño was not occurring this year, our tour guides expressed concern about unusual ocean swells as we relaxed on the wide sunny beach of Turtle Bay on the island of Santa Cruz during one of our first encounters with the islands. The beach is in close proximity to where incoming jets land on the island of Baltra. Each island differs in climate, habitat, and topography; generally, the islands are scrubby and arid, not lush like Tahiti or Hawaii. Crab-covered rocks creep from the sea onto the arid land, while water-seeking trees inched their way toward the beaches.
They say that too much time in these quasi-untouched islands makes you forget the rest of the world. The winding mountain roads and end-of-the-world quality of Santa Cruz is absolutely inimitable. A day spent in its charming town of Puerta Ayora can be a delight—imagine nibbling on spoonfuls of seviche while you watch local residents swim with sea lions in the crystal harbor waters. But make no mistake: These islands need to be experienced by boat.
Businesses of Puerta Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz., do not regularly use complete addresses. Since most everyone is friendly and many residents speak English, it’s best to get directions from locals. Dial 011 before all international numbers.
The Grand Hotel Lobo de Mar(12 de Febrero, just off Avenida Charles Darwin, 593-5-2526188, $20–$70) is the island’s largest property, with a spacious, airy lobby and accommodating staff. It’s situated on the water, providing optimum harbor views. For a more laid-back experience, the Hotel Sol y Mar (Avenida Charles Darwin between Tomas de Berlanga and Charles Dinford, next to the Banco del Pacifico, 593-5-2526281, $20–$70) is on the main street of town, but it’s tucked quietly away behind trees and guarded by a pet pelican. It also has fantastic harbor views and an atmosphere so relaxed that we had to wake up the desk clerk for service.
There are many sevicherias located along Avenida Charles Darwin in Puerto Ayora. The Spartan Frutos Del Mar (593-5 2526624) digs deep into a narrow dining room and spills over onto the patio, where diners slurp up large portions of tasty and inexpensive seafood. La Garrapata (593-5-2526264) is considered by many to be the best restaurant in town. Candlelit tables, a variety of pastas, exquisite locro de papa (an Ecuadoran potato soup garnished with slices of avocado), and fresh seafood galore lend this place an elegant yet casual ambiance. For more adventurous eating, hop into a water taxi and head round the bay to Angermeyer Point (593-5-527007) where sharks mill around in the waters of sparkling Academy Bay while you choose from upscale entrées like Galápagos lobster thermidor or chicken in apple curry sauce.
Many visitors make the mistake of not reserving a boat ahead of time and end up marooned on land for too long—or worse, shanghaied by one of the islands’ notoriously bad cruise companies. To optimize your visit, make sure you choose a vessel that suits your needs before arrival. Romance Voyages (866-456-4493) offers all-male gay cruises to several destinations, including one to the Galápagos Islands aboard the Celebrity Xpedition in June 2007. Prices start at $4,699 for a package that includes round-trip air transportation; meals (breakfast and lunch on the outdoor deck or buffet-style meals in the dining room, alcohol included); accommodations in Ecuador prior to departure; and park fees. LGBT travelers with kids may want to book with R Family Vacations (866-732-6822), which has scheduled a Galápagos cruise for November 11–21, 2006. Prices start at $5,299. If you decide to go on your own, two airlines—AeroGal (866-496-9600, www.aerogal.com.ec) and TAME (www.tame.com.ec)—fly to the Galápagos Islands. Most tours launch from Puerto Ayora or San Cristóbal. All visitors to the Galápagos Islands must pay a $100 park entrance fee upon arrival and must be accompanied by a certified guide while visiting the natural areas. There are several rental agencies in Puerta Ayora. Galápagos Discovery (Avenida Padre J. Herrera, 593-5-526245) offers tours and motorcycle and bicycle rentals in addition to surfing and snorkeling equipment.