State of Nature

On a chartered yacht it's possible to find parts of the Gal·pagos as pristine as they were when Darwin landed here in 1835.

These days the Galápagos Islands are a secular shrine, a place of eco-pilgrimage for around 60,000 devotees a year, who come to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and ponder the mysterious mechanics of evolution. Of course pilgrimages tend to be arduous—difficulty being half the point of them—and the Galápagos can certainly provide it: unexpectedly cold water with powerful down currents and large schools of hammerhead sharks. But for those who prefer to pursue ecological enlightenment in surroundings of tolerable comfort, their experience of nature mediated by the graceful pages of Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould, just exactly what is on offer? Are sailing boats preferable to motor yachts, for example? What are the relative merits of private charters and cruise ships? And in the islands that popularized the concept of "survival of the fittest," just how fit do you have to be to survive? To find out, I recently spent a week in the Galápagos investigating the practicalities.

The coastal city of Guayaquil is the jumping-off point for flights to the Galápagos. It takes the geriatric 727 an hour and 45 minutes to reach the main island of San Cristóbal, a bleak and jagged splinter of rock. The airport, in the middle of a lava field, is an immediate reminder that the Galápagos are of relatively recent volcanic origin and that although the archipelago is neatly bisected by the equator, these are no ordinary tropical islands. Immigration formalities consist of signing a declaration in which you solemnly promise not to introduce any alien species of animals, birds, or plants, and then paying a $100 entry fee (in cash, in U.S. dollars) to officials of the Galápagos National Park Service. (This seemed a small enough price to pay for the preservation of the planet's natural wonders, though at the time I was unaware that only 40 percent of it is retained by the Park Service; the remainder is siphoned off by the local government and other agencies. There is also a $25 departure tax—payable in U.S. dollars.)

Once in the arrivals hall, I was efficiently rounded up, along with the other four members of my group, by our guide, Fabricio Carbo. Everyone traveling in the Galápagos must do so under the supervision of an official Ecuadoran naturalist guide, who choreographs every waking moment of your visit. Fortunately, Fabricio turned out to be a veteran of his profession (having been escorting visitors for 17 years) and also an easygoing person whose temperament had become precisely adapted to life at close quarters with complete strangers (an unusually clear demonstration of natural selection at work). My companions (two men, two women, all from the United States) were respectively a software designer, a medical executive, an internet tycoon, and an engineer for a power company. A brief calculation revealed that the five of us had an average age of 36.

It proved to be only a 10-minute drive down to the quayside at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a nondescript town of about 5,000 and the administrative capital of the Galápagos Islands. We clambered down into a rubber Zodiac dinghy and were shortly on board the Nortada—a sleek, white, 66-foot motor yacht that carries 10 passengers and can be chartered independently.

Around 85 vessels of various shapes and sizes are currently operating in the Galápagos Archipelago. Most take fewer than 20 passengers, though there are a number of small cruise ships, the largest of which carries 100 people. However, all are required to be registered in Ecuador and licensed by the authorities there. Not only are the rules strictly enforced, but boats must submit their itineraries a year in advance for approval. These regulations eliminate international cruise ships as well as privately owned leisure craft. They also eliminate the freedom of planning your own trip as you go, but ensure that landing sites are not overcrowded.

Having been introduced to the members of our crew: captain, mate, engineer, cook, and cabin steward—we were ushered below to our respective cabins. The first surprise, and one of the biggest shocks of the entire trip, was how small these accommodations were, little more than seven feet long by five feet wide. Nearly all the space was occupied by the two berths. On the remaining area of floor, two normal-sized adults would have been unable to turn around without prior consultation and extreme circumspection, while the single wardrobe was so tiny that I instantly elected to spread out my belongings on the spare bunk. On the plus side, the cabin was air-conditioned and had a single porthole approximately nine inches across, which just barely kept claustrophobia at bay. (Clearly this was intended merely as a place in which to sleep, although once actually in bed, I found the cabin agreeably snug.) The attached bathroom proved to have an identical porthole, a small basin, a pump (as opposed to flush) lavatory, and a freshwater shower attached to the wall (which predictably soaked everything within range). In short, the facilities were virtually identical to those found on cruising yachts in the Virgin Islands or the Grenadines.

Having settled in I went up to the bridge, where I fell into conversation with the captain. (As none of the crew spoke English, Fabricio was obliged to act as our interpreter.) Having demonstrated the operation of the Nortada's radar and its GPS navigation system, he proceeded to enumerate his boat's other advantages. In his opinion, the chief of these was speed: The Nortadahappily cruises at 14 knots, even in a choppy sea. And as several islands are 40 or 50 miles apart—the archipelago is 250 miles across—this is a considerable advantage, because to maximize time ashore boats make the majority of these passages at night.

The Nortada's main saloon turned out to be light and reasonably spacious, with a small bar, dining table, bookshelves, and sofas along the outside walls. It was also equipped with both video and music systems. (The decoration here, as elsewhere, was functional.) Outside, extensive areas of deck provided room for sunbathing, reading, or birdwatching. All in all, I felt reasonably content with my temporary home, although after only a few hours aboard it was plain that my happiness was entirely dependent on it being half empty. With a full complement of 10 passengers the boat would have been disagreeably cramped.

Days in the Galápagos begin around six o'clock. After a speedy breakfast you grab a life jacket and clamber down a ladder into the Zodiac. Landings are either "dry," which means stepping out onto rocks, or "wet," which requires wading ashore in water up to your knees. Our first stop, Española, was an easy, dry landing. The only tricky part was avoiding the snoozing sea lions, who resolutely refuse to get out of the way. I hadn't been in the Galápagos for 15 years, and it was comforting to discover that the animals and birds are still as absurdly tame as ever. Tourism has increased from 25,000 visitors a year at the beginning of the decade to 60,000 in 1999, but this seems to have had no effect whatsoever on the animals' behavior. (Also, while the numbers of tourists may have more than doubled, the area to which they routinely have access remains only a small part of Galápagos National Park.) Everywhere on the beach at Española there were sea lion pups, some of whom were just a few hours old, but their mothers were so relaxed that it was possible to squat three or four feet away while they suckled their young.

The most crucial factor in the Galápagos ecosystem is the Humboldt Current, which brings cold water from the Antarctic as far north as the equator. (Colder water holds more oxygen, and is thus capable of sustaining a greater quantity and variety of marine life.) Nevertheless, the flow is not constant, and from December to May the water temperature rises and the weather in general becomes warmer and more settled. This has obvious advantages: For one thing, the sea is calm, and therefore conditions for swimming and diving are much more agreeable. But alas, it is precisely the other half of the year, when the climate is most unsettled and the ocean is at its chilliest, that the wildlife is at its incomparable best. The sea lions breed in August and September, as do the largest and most spectacular seabirds, such as the albatrosses. On that first morning last September—sitting on the beach surrounded by bleary-eyed sea lion pups and nesting blue-footed boobies—I was sure that I had made the right decision. But then dark clouds blew in from the west, the air temperature dropped to the low 60s, and I was forced to turn up my coat collar against the persistent rain.

Back on board, Fabricio gave a briefing about the island. Española, it seemed, was one of the most encouraging examples of environmental reconstruction. Once the indigenous species had been on the verge of extinction, thanks in large measure to the proliferation of feral goats, descendants of those introduced by sailors at the end of the 19th century. In particular, the giant tortoise population had collapsed to just 13 individuals. However, a ruthless program of goat eradication had culminated in the island being returned to its pristine state, and tortoise numbers were back up to over 900.

After a lunch of spinach soup, fresh papaya, and roast chicken—a menu representative of the well-cooked but relatively unimaginative meals served aboard—Fabricio and I left the other passengers to relax and took the Zodiac across to an elegant twin-masted sailing boat that had recently anchored on the far side of the bay. This was the Resting Cloud—an 85-foot yacht that's owned by Quasar Nautica, the same company that owns the Nortada, and by common consent the company with the best-appointed ships as well as the greatest variety of vessels.

While I appreciate the speed and convenience of motor yachts, my heart instinctively belongs to sail, and I felt a surge of adrenaline at the sight of the Resting Cloud's teak decks, coiled ropes, and billows of clean white canvas. Meanwhile, Fabricio was doing his best to restrain my all-too-evident enthusiasm. Sailing boats, he pointed out, are invariably slow, so that passages between islands are considerably longer. "A five-hour trip becomes an eight-hour trip." Furthermore, extremely strong currents flow throughout the archipelago. In past centuries, ships would sail for days without getting anywhere, apparently being under the influence of some malign spell, hence the islands' other name, Encantadas, the Enchanted Isles. "So even on a sailing boat, they have to use the engines all the time. In fact, they put the sails up chiefly for stability. Otherwise they roll around and no one can get any sleep," said Fabricio.

It was difficult to argue with such common-sense considerations, but aside from the charm of its varnished wood and polished brass, the Resting Cloud struck me as having one or two practical advantages over the Nortada. Chief among these were the cabins, which especially at the stern were notably more spacious, with larger portholes and shower cubicles separate from the bathroom. Even in the bow of the ship, where the accommodations were smaller, the rooms interconnected, so if the vessel were not full, everyone would be able to enjoy a spacious cabin. Like the Nortada, the Resting Cloud in theory takes 10 passengers (looked after by five crew and a naturalist-guide), but again like the Nortada, it struck me as a ship ideally suited to a private group or family of six.

Days in the Galápagos follow a routine: Trips ashore in the morning and evening for a gentle three-hour walk, most of which is spent in rapt contemplation of the wildlife. If the boat is not under way, the time in between is free for swimming, snorkeling, diving, or sea-kayaking. The morning of my third day found us anchored at Isla Santa Fe and after a couple of hours ashore in search of rare land iguanas, we returned to a spectacular white coral beach, where we had left our masks and flippers piled up among the sleeping sea lions. It was then that I made two uncomfortable discoveries: first, that I was the only passenger who had not brought along a wet suit; and second, that Fabricio—despite being a certified diving instructor—had absolutely no intention of joining us in the water. "Too cold this time of year," he explained, pulling a face and zipping himself more securely into his parka. Eventually I steeled myself and took the plunge, finding that I could stay in for at least 15 minutes without getting chilled and for nearly half an hour if I wore a T-shirt and swam fairly vigorously. However, between June and November, a wet suit is essential.

In many ways conditions for diving and snorkeling in the Galápagos are far from ideal: visibility underwater can be quite restricted, and the currents are tricky and strong. Furthermore, as the islands are volcanic and the ocean is too cold for most forms of coral, there aren't extensive reefs and the myriad multicolored fish that go with them. However, there are impressive shoals of large fish, turtles, three varieties of shark, and if you are fortunate, manta rays, dolphins, and minke whales (I saw all three from the boat; two of my companions saw manta rays while snorkeling.) Above all there are the sea lions, who twirl past you like prima ballerinas. Sometimes I felt one brush along my body, but by the time I turned around it had vanished. Sea lion pups can be more obliging however, and on occasions will come within inches to stare at your face mask.

While snorkeling with the sea lions is pure pleasure, the sharks take some getting used to. Of course the guides tell you that attacks on divers are virtually unknown. ("There's too much food around here for them to be interested in you," said Fabricio complacently from the safety of the beach.) But that's probably true, for apart from a few locations where hammerheads number in the hundreds, places much beloved by photographers on assignment for National Geographic, sharks in the Galápagos are mostly the harmless white-tip variety. I went snorkeling about seven or eight times and never failed to spot one.

Neither Nortada nor Resting Cloud is equipped for scuba diving, but two of Quasar Nautica's other boats, Lammer Law, a 93-foot trimaran, and Mistral, a 74-foot motor yacht, both have compressors and proper storage racks for the tanks. Awaking on the morning of day four, I peered through my porthole to discover that the Lammer Law had anchored next to us during the night, so after a brief chat with the captain over the radio Fabricio and I unhitched the Zodiac and went over for a tour of inspection. "Most divers don't care about being comfortable," Fabricio observed as we scrambled aboard. "They just want to be in the water the whole time." In fact, the Lammer Law seemed palatial after the Nortada. The cabins were proper rooms, with plenty of space to walk about, while the bathrooms were much larger and better equipped. Of course with accommodation for up to 18 passengers, seven crew, and two guides, the trimaran isn't directly comparable to the Nortada. And what you gain in space you undoubtedly lose in intimacy. Sailing aboard the Lammer Law, there would be no sense of privilege, of being on a private yacht where activities could, to some extent, be tailored to individual whim. (Unless you charter it, that is.)

During a week-long trip the places you visit are within two or three days' sail of either the airport at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno or the one at Baltra; from both there are direct flights to the Ecuadoran mainland. There is little opportunity to see the more far-flung parts of the archipelago, or for that matter to spend much time on Isabela, more than 80 miles long and much the largest of the Galápagos Islands. However, my itinerary did allow for an excursion to Isla Genovesa, a journey involving a seven-hour passage across a stretch of open Pacific. The sea tends to be fairly calm in the Galápagos, since you are nearly always sheltered by one island or another, but the open ocean can be rough and at its worst in August and September. (Crossings to Genovesa and the other outer islands always have the potential to be uncomfortable.) By 10 p.m. the Nortada was rolling so heavily it was hard to stand up, and sleep was completely out of the question. Two of my fellow passengers were extremely seasick and vowed never to subject themselves to a similar experience again—even when daylight revealed that the Nortada had anchored in the middle of a collapsed volcano, surrounded by the sheer cliffs of an ancient caldera. For the rest of us Genovesa was one of the highlights of the trip. We had the entire island to ourselves and didn't even see another boat pass by. As I walked through its vast colonies of nesting seabirds, it was possible to believe that I was seeing the Galápagos as Darwin did more than a century ago.

The great advantage of a small boat like the Nortada is that at times it's possible to believe that no other tourist exists within 500 miles, an experience literally impossible on a cruise ship. Nevertheless, the impact of tourism itself on the environment appears to be much less than one might expect. (Only on those islands that are within a day's sail of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galápagos with about 11,000 inhabitants, do tourist numbers seem somewhat excessive, and that is because of the "budget" day boats that come out from the port.) Landing sites are restricted, and the rules of behavior are enforced. Environmentalists grumble that the food and supplies flown in for the tourist industry inevitably bring with them nonindigenous plant and insect species—but the truth is that without tourist revenue the Ecuadoran government would have little incentive to preserve the archipelago.

After the blissful solitude of Genovesa, it was an extremely unpleasant shock to make landfall on Isla Bartolomé, perhaps the most frequented place in the whole Galápagos. We suddenly found ourselves sharing the beach with 60 or 70 other people. The solution was to paddle off in a sea kayak. Distance kayaking in the Galápagos is impossible owing to the currents, but short excursions close to shore are both easy and unforgettable, kayaking with sea lions being almost as much fun as snorkeling or diving with them. On this occasion I was keen to find one of the famous Galápagos penguins, whose numbers have been much reduced by the 1998 El Ninó (which raised the water temperature and eliminated much of their food supply) and illegal fishing by industrial trawlers, chiefly from Japan and Costa Rica (nowadays the principal threat to the Galápagos ecosystem). According to some estimates, penguin numbers may have declined to no more than 300-400 individuals. I was lucky, however, and within 20 minutes found a solitary and forlorn individual standing on a rock at the head of a tranquil cove. The water was a luminous green, and I could see down 30 or so feet to where the dark, fleeting shadows of sea lions flickered across the white coral sand of the seabed. Edging my kayak closer to the rock, I came to within three feet of the penguin, which glumly stared back.

The town of Puerto Ayora, headquarters of both the national park and Charles Darwin Research Station, feels like a big city after a spell among the islands. As the Nortada edged its way toward our mooring I counted over 50 boats of various shapes and sizes at anchor in the greasy, polluted bay. On shore there were cars, streetlights, even a pizza place and automatic cash machine. Litter blew along the waterfront, and half a dozen drunks caroused in the bus shelter at the end of the pier. Despite the pleasure of making my first phone call for a week, it was unsettling to return to society. One of the vessels in port was the Parranda, a 125-foot motor yacht that enjoys the reputation of being one of the most luxurious of all the craft operating in the Galápagos Archipelago. The Parranda is undeniably a graceful boat, with clean, classic lines. Able to accommodate 16 people in eight double cabins, she is too large for most private charters but would nonetheless be ideal for a group of, say, eight friends who were prepared to pay a premium for a degree of comfort and style. The cabins are by no means enormous, but both the public areas and sun decks are spacious. Plus the Parranda is fitted with stabilizers to minimize the discomfort of open-sea crossings. After brief consideration, I concluded that the Parranda indeed offers the highest degree of comfort available in the Galápagos, unless you opt for a different experience entirely and choose to sail on a cruise ship.

Among these it is Quasar Nautica's Eclipse and the Isabela II (owned by a rival company, Metropolitan Touring), both of which carry fewer than 50 people, that are generally acknowledged to provide the highest standards of amenities and service. At the time of my visit both vessels were coincidentally in dry dock at Guayaquil, so having bid farewell to the Nortada, its crew, and my fellow passengers, I boarded a plane for the mainland. The dry dock turned out to be in the middle of an Ecuadoran navy base, and despite the evident misgivings of a number of armed sentries, I eventually found myself being shown around by the captain of the Eclipse, who was personally supervising the refit.

Initially I was completely bemused by the different sense of scale. Although a comparatively small ship, with accommodation for just 48 passengers, the cabins struck me as huge, some even equipped with the unimaginable luxury of a bathtub! There was a library and a dining room that stretched across the entire width of the ship, even a 20-foot swimming pool. After a prolonged period aboard a small boat, the space on the Eclipse seemed a gross indulgence. All of which confirmed my opinion that the experience of the Galápagos on a cruise ship and a small boat cannot be directly compared. Each has its merits but is fundamentally different in character. Coming ashore from a sailing boat like the Resting Cloud, you can be virtually alone with the wildlife, whereas a cruise ship lands 40 or 50 people on the beach simultaneously. In essence, the price of comfort and security is lack of intimacy and a general remoteness from the natural world. Indeed, it's a truth as old as the Galápagos themselves.

The Trade-Off

While with larger ships there's more comfort below deck, smaller boats, with fewer passengers and therefore smaller landing parties, afford a greater sense of the remoteness of the Galápagos Archipelago. The 66-foot Nortada motor yacht allows for intimacy with wildlife but might seem cramped if booked to its 10-passenger capacity. The 125-foot Parranda with accommodations for 16 in eight double cabins, is one of the most luxurious of the large motor yachts. Although its cabins are far from enormous, its public areas and sun decks are spacious. For Galápagos cruise ships, the Eclipse is state-of-the-art. At 210 feet it accommodates 48 people (half the number of passengers vessels her size usually carry in the archipelago) in 27 large, air-conditioned cabins with queen- or twin-bed arrangements. The ship also has a 20-foot swimming pool.

Seeing Giant Tortoises

The one animal most associated with the Galápagos, the giant tortoise, is also the creature most difficult to see in the wild. Today there are around 15,000 giant tortoises in the Galápagos, down from an estimated 250,000 before the first humans turned up. Their only natural enemy is man, who has used them for everything from food on long sea voyages to oil for the streetlights of the city of Guayaquil, on the coast of Ecuador, and feral goats, which compete with tortoises for food. (Indeed, the only reason such a large colony of tortoises exists on Isabela Island is because of a serious goat-eradication program.)

Tortoises are hard to see because they live in the highlands of the Galápagos, where they feed on the abundant vegetation, whereas a typical cruise concentrates on the animal- and birdlife of the relatively arid, barren seashore. Here are the options for seeing giant tortoises.

EASY Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, on the island of Santa Cruz, where around half a dozen animals are kept for study and captive-breeding programs. Here it is possible to approach to within two or three feet of the tortoises, which are entirely indifferent to human attention.

PRETTY EASY Elsewhere on Isla Santa Cruz, about an hour's drive north from Puerto Ayora, there are areas where a small number of the creatures roam freely on large private reserves. However, the surrounding human settlements make the experience less than ideal.

DIFFICULT The largest tortoise colony (some 8,000 animals) lives in the remote Alcedo Volcano on Isabela Island at the western edge of the Galápagos Archipelago. To see them requires special arrangements with the tour operator and involves a strenuous hike up to the highlands. You must also receive permission from Galápagos National Park authorities to camp overnight on the island. The paperwork can be handled by the tour operator.

Incidentally, the name Galápagos derives from an old Spanish word for a type of saddle the tortoises were thought to resemble.

Galápagos Guide

GETTING THERE Flights to the Galápagos are from either Quito or Guayaquil. Two Ecuadoran airlines operate the route: Tame, which goes to Baltra, an islet at the northern end of Isla Santa Cruz, and Saeta, which flies to an airport just outside Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristóbal. The flight takes slightly less than two hours, and both airlines rely on Boeing 727s that appear to be on the verge of a well-deserved retirement.

SELECTING AN ITINERARY Most travelers opt for a week-long cruise, during which they can expect to visit around a dozen islands and islets and see most of the major animal and bird species. Two-week trips are for real wildlife enthusiasts, and in particular for those determined to see the giant tortoises in unspoiled habitat on the island of Isabela (see Seeing Giant Tortoises). As specific itineraries for each boat have to be negotiated with Galápagos National Park authorities a year in advance, the first step is to contact your travel agent to find out the available routes. We suggest Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions, Britain's leading adventure travel company as well as Galápagos specialists. Ask for the 17-page Galápagos brochure. 8 Comeragh Road, London W14 9HP; 44-171-381-8638; fax 44-171-381-0836; e-mail:

ORGANIZING A CRUISE Whether you decide to travel aboard a sailing boat, a motor yacht, or a cruise ship, on a private charter or as part of a group, the best craft available for your Galápagos adventure are likely to be those owned and operated by Quasar Nautica. U.S. contact: Tumbaco, Inc., Miami International Commerce Center, Suite 221, 7855 NW 12th Street, Miami, FL 33126. 800-247-2925; Web site:

Andrew Powell, a contributing editor, wrote about a horseback safari through Botswana's Okavango Delta in the May/June 1999 issue.