By Lisa Grainger
As if on cue, the marine iguana lifted its stumpy nose from its black-scaled body and sneezed, sending a shower of droplets onto the feet of our guide, Morris Garcia. “As I was saying,” he grimaced, wiping his ankle, “these are the only iguanas in the world that have learned to survive at sea by adapting themselves over millions of years. Unlike their green, land-based cousins, their scales have become black to help them absorb heat. Their tails have become more oar-shaped to aid their swimming. Their noses have become rounded to graze on algae underwater. And just below their eyes they have developed a gland, from which, as you have just seen, they sneeze salt in a slightly unpleasant way.”
“Unpleasant” is a word that many earlier travellers might have considered too mild to describe the Galápagos. The first recorded visitors to these weird yet wonderful volcanic Ecuadorian islands; Peruvian clergymen whose boats were swept 600 miles off-course from the South American mainland were so disenchanted by the place they didn’t even leave a cross behind. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, called them islands that “man and wolf alike disown”, where “the chief sound of life is a hiss”. Cut-throat buccaneers named them the Enchanted Isles because of their ability to vanish in mists and spit fire from their peaks. Even Charles Darwin, the islands’ most celebrated visitor, whose five weeks here in 1835 contributed to his theory of evolution, grumbled about them and described a “Cyclopean scene” that resembled “parts of the infernal regions” .
Looking from my balcony after my first night aboard the 16-bed Ocean Spray catamaran, the newest luxury boat to cruise the archipelago, I could see why less well-equipped visitors might have been disinclined to stay.
We were moored off San Cristóbal Island, and in the dawn light its cliffs loomed dry and orange over a deserted creamy beach. Birds whirled in the grey cloudy skies, emitting strange whistles. From the black emptiness of caves, barking sounds reverberated. Equatorial fantasy island this was not.
But as the sun came out and we motored on two “ribs” towards land, the dark, hard silhouettes started to soften in the sunlight and nature began her powerful seduction. On the beach, sea lions warmed their golden fur in the early-morning light, one lying and scratching its back, as a dog might on a doormat, its flippers clapping above its chest. A pair of lava lizards bobbed their heads in unison from a rock against which their mottled scales blended perfectly. As we hiked up Pitt Point, a steep, red-soiled promontory, a squawk alerted us to the presence of a red-footed booby atop a nest in a ghostly Scalesia tree. Minutes later two blue-footed boobies popped their heads up from a rocky ledge that dripped white excrement.
What makes these creatures extraordinary is not only that they are endemic to this group of islands but also that they are as unafraid of humans today as they were in 1535, when the first visitor, Bishop Tomás de Berlanga, described them to King Charles V of Spain as “so silly that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand”.
In a week here – three nights on the new Ocean Spray and four at the new Pikaia Lodge on Santa Cruz Island – one of the greatest delights was being able to watch creatures without them fleeing.
On two occasions while I was out snorkelling, sea lions swam up to me, their whiskered faces almost touching my mask, before circling and somersaulting, as if inviting me to play. On a beach, a few yards from a noisily suckling sea-lion pup, a blue-footed booby waddled up and stared quizzically as if to say: “Have we been introduced?” Swimming in a deep crevice between two cliffs, shoals of enormous hammerhead and Galápagos sharks glided below, seemingly oblivious to the pounding of my heart. Even lying flat in grass near a giant tortoise failed to raise a wrinkly eyebrow; it just stopped, inspected me disdainfully (as well it might) and plodded on.
While exotic creatures in their wild costumes, with blue feet, pink scales, giant carapaces, were clearly the stars of this extravaganza of biodiversity, the islands that provided the backdrop to The Greatest Natural Show on Earth were equally fascinating. Particularly when you have a passionate guide, which on Ocean Spray we did.
Morris Garcia may be just 33 but there is very little he can’t tell you about the Galápagos. Showing no sign of the boredom so often displayed by guides whose job entails repetition of the most basic facts to uneducated tourists, he brought to life the mammoth journey on which the Galápagos Islands are still embarked: moving half an inch a year towards the mainland on a great tectonic plate, some sinking, and others growing as the great boiling volcanic hotspot to which they are umbilically connected explodes and subsides.
Whether it was at daily briefings in the boat’s comfortable living room or during excursions, we were entertained and educated. One night the topic was why this island group is so different from any other (it sits, Garcia explained, on volcanic land on the equator, at the juncture of three currents, and the point at which winds from the north and south blow). Another night he would tell us why Sally Lightfoot crabs hang around lizards (to eat algae off their skin) and why frigate birds can’t go in the sea (without oil glands to waterproof their feathers, they sink).
Unlike many other boats, which offer one big activity daily, Ocean Spray has at least two. Each day, with just eight passengers on each rib, Garcia would take us out on nature walks and snorkeling trips or hikes along fine white beaches. In three days I saw so many odd beasts and hiked up landscapes so raw, so primeval, so utterly other, that by the end I felt that I not only understood the evolutionary process of our planet better but had also seen with my own eyes the effects that tiny changes in climate – whether a cooler current, a drier wind or a higher altitude – has on the land and its inhabitants.
After four days exploring the watery world of these islands, stepping into the lobby of Pikaia Lodge, in the highlands of Santa Cruz, was like landing on another planet. The 14-room hotel, which opened in October, is the brainchild of a Swiss-Ecuadorian businessman, Herbert Frei, who spent five years getting the (extensive) permits to convert a cattle farm into a luxury island oasis.
Built on the edge of an ancient volcanic crater, Pikaia’s architecture is in stark contrast to the soft green natural contours around it: ultra-modern, cantilevered from the caldera’s edge on dark steel pillars and constructed from glass and black volcanic rock. Although Frei has taken considerable pains to ensure that the project is reasonably sustainable (with solar panels, a wind turbine, rainwater tanks and large mesh-covered doors to cool rooms), the hotel couldn’t have felt more comfortable or cutting-edge. Its spaces were adorned with artworks illustrating evolution, from a DNA double-helix sculpture to metal cut-outs of Neanderthal man. A glass-walled, marble-floored spa offered views over the Pacific and miles of Scalesia forest pitted with volcanic craters. Slick brushed stainless-steel loungers were meticulously lined up around an infinity pool with far-reaching views. And for those who had had their fill of the outdoors, the spacious lobby opened out into a bar, a sleek living area and a film room where, at night, guests in 3D glasses sat mesmerised by David Attenborough’s Galápagos series.
Unlike Ocean Spray, the hotel doesn’t have its own guide, or transport (vehicle numbers on the island are, rightly, limited). So each day, the hotel arranged excursions with trusted guides and minivan drivers. One day, with 10 other hotel guests, our guide Tommy Acosta Coral took us on a land excursion to visit a giant-tortoise sanctuary, followed by lava tunnels deep in the earth, then the town of Puerto Ayora , where rare tortoises are bred at the Charles Darwin Foundation . The next day, he took us on to the hotel’s large motor-cruiser to explore islands.
From the top deck the scenery was similar to that which Charles Darwin would have looked upon almost two centuries ago from HMS Beagle . In the distance, the four craters of the still-active Isabela Island volcanoes disappeared into thick grey clouds. Nearby, the pinnacles of the ancient sunken volcanoes of Daphne Major and Minor poked through the waves. And after two hours we sailed into Santiago Island , an otherworldly landscape of rust-coloured hillocks and miles of black basalt, twisted into ropes, sheets, pools and waves of earth. The last eruption, Tommy told us, occurred in 2009. “Not long after, some of my friends came to look and got their shoes burnt because the earth was still so hot,” he said.
On closer examination, though, it soon became clear that even in this desolate black wilderness there was life. In the distance, a patch of yellow was revealed to be a single lava cactus, bristling with golden spikes. In a crack, a long fine strip of gold showed itself to be the stem of a plant that sheds most of its extremities in the dry season to survive, then erupts into a mass of green when it rains.
Looking out from this black desert, we were, Tommy reminded us, “seeing the Earth as it was in the beginning, when it was formed. Tonight, on Santa Cruz, you will be in forests that are one or two million years old, where soil has formed. In a few days, on the Ecuadorian mainland, you will be in landscapes created 4,300 million years ago, and which are now thick with forest.”
And that, I reminded myself in the Pikaia spa that night, fresh passion-fruit juice in hand and bubbles warming my bones as I looked out over the grassy extinct caldera below, is what makes the Galápagos so extraordinary. It’s a place where you cannot just witness the evolution of our planet from moltern red infant to forested adult but also get a feeling for what life was like before humans came along. On our crowded planet, that is a privilege indeed.
Vacationing on the Ocean Spray and at the Pikaia Lodge are not cheap. A 12-day Galápagos trip, on board and off, with a night in Quito, can set you back about $13,000. A better option is to book directly with the lodge and boat.