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Up Close…Way Up Close!
The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador Highlands

We were prepared to experience the Galapagos wildlife’s inattention to mankind, but this went much further. The playful sea lions were virtually "in our face," blowing bubbles at our snorkel masks as they frolicked back and forth before us. Carlos, our guide, had led our small group to a volcanic wall off North Plaza Island where the large creatures fished and played. Later that afternoon, we crossed a small channel in a motorized inflatable panga to South Plaza Island and witnessed daily life at a sea lion rookery where a huge roaring bull guarded his "harem" of 25 females with young nursing pups. "You wouldn’t want to snorkel just here, " Carlos declared. "That bull won’t let you come close to his beach." A half-mile walk to the other end of the small island brought us to the "bachelor’s quarters" where young male sea lions challenged each other in practice sparring sessions, preparing themselves for the day when they might take on the bull and claim control of the rookery.

Sea lion bull
Bull sea lion barks over his dominion

During our short South Plaza hike we stared into the large, unblinking eyes of yellow-skinned South Plaza land iguanas (endemic to this single island), passed through a forest of prickly pear cactus thriving on the 3 inches of annual rainfall, and viewed other species unique to the archipelago such as Galapagos marine iguanas and swallowtail gulls. This was only our first "up close and personal" afternoon in the islands, and we were already overwhelmed. "It only gets better from here," claimed Carlos. In the coming week his claim proved true. Each day brought us new islands and waters to explore, spanning the geophysical and wildlife extremes of the archipelago and exceeding our newly heightened expectations.

"Eminently Curious"

Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Archipelago in 1835 for five weeks during his five-year scientific circumnavigation of the Southern Hemisphere aboard the H.M.S Beagle. Darwin was so taken aback by his wildlife observations that they formed a major impetus to further research and deductions resulting in his theory on evolution published in 1859, On the Origin of Species.

Volcanic vista
Vista from volcanic cone on Bartolome Island

"The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention. Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands […] The archipelago is a little world within itself, or rather a satellite attached to America […] Considering the small size of the islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range. […] Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact — that mystery of mysteries — the first appearance of new beings on this earth." [Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle. Second edition, 1845].

Today’s first-time visitors come away no less impressed than was Darwin. The volcanic islands, preserved since 1936 as an Ecuador National Park, straddle the equator, yet exhibit an unexpectedly temperate and arid climate due to the cold Humboldt Current that flows north from Antarctica. Volcanic cones, rising from the depths of the Pacific, form the fault-aligned chain. The 13 major and four small islands contain black lava shores, arid lowlands, and numerous volcanic cones, some rising above 2,000 feet altitude and gaining enough rainfall for a verdant cover.

Galapagos hawk
Galapagos hawk

Marine iguana
Galapagos marine iguana

Blue-footed boobies
Blue-footed booby & chicks

The denizens, many without any natural predators, seem to wait on shore for the camera-laden visitor to come up close and take one-of-a-kind snapshots. Reptiles steal the show here: several species of Galapagos land tortoises, land iguanas, marine iguanas, and lava lizards. However, the islands’ greatest thrills may be their under-water sights. The relatively cool, nutrient-rich waters are teeming with colorful fish, sea turtles, rays, sharks, and seabirds, reptiles, and mammals such as diving blue-footed boobies, penguins, marine iguanas, and sea lions.

By Land and By Sea

Reina Sylvia
Reina Sylvia yacht (foreground) off Santiago Island

The best way to visit the islands is via a small cruising yacht with an experienced guide and crew. The charm of this approach is that each visitor feels like the first person to view the sights, coming away with his or her own unique experiences and impressions. We had decided to charter with Mountain Travel Sobek on the 16-passenger Reina Sylvia in November when the waters were warming and newborn animal and bird life was in full swing prior to the "rainy season." Although heavy seas made for a couple of rolling nighttime journeys, the friendly passengers and top-notch staff added to the incredible journey. The major upside to visiting in this fashion was the incredible array of Galapagos memories that now flash in our minds’ eyes, each island providing one or more major trip highlights.

Genovesa Island: Nesting red-footed boobies, masked boobies, and magnificent frigates staring peacefully back at us, an arm’s length away.

Fernandina: Flightless cormorants drying their useless wings; marine iguanas, propelled by long, wiggling tales, raising their heads to scout us intruding snorkelers, then diving to feed.

Isabella: A 40-foot Bryde’s whale surfacing within 10 yards aport of our yacht’s bow.

Bryde's whale surfacing

Carlos in panga
Guide Carlos (rt.) in panga

Islet sunset off Floreana

Santiago: Lava flows and tidal pools; Galapagos fur seals; snorkeling with a large green sea turtle.

Bartolome: Snorkeling with salema-feeding penguins; startling a white-tipped reef shark; climbing a 600-foot volcanic cone for a view of the ruggedly beautiful islands.

Santa Cruz: Walking among grazing 300-pound domed tortoises; climbing through a half-mile-long lava tube; celebrating with the local townspeople of Puerto Ayoro as Team Ecuador won its first entrance into soccer’s 2002 World Cup.

Floreana: Flamingos feeding in a salty lagoon; drift snorkeling around Devil’s Crown in the Humboldt Current with sea lions, sharks, wrasse, parrot fish, trumpet fish, snappers, yellow-tailed grunts, surgeonfish, diamond sting rays, and king angelfish; the "post office," operational since pirate days in 1792 where we left a postcard in return for forwarding another.

Domed Galapagos tortoise

Sally lightfoot crab

Pink flamingo

Espanola: Kayaking along grotto-filled cliffs; a blue-footed booby diving down 30 feet, just past our snorkel masks; nesting and soaring albatrosses with 8-foot wingspans; blue-footed boobies with their eggs and young chicks; red and green Hood marine iguanas; burrowing Hood lava lizards; a perched, hunting Galapagos hawk; a large, digging cactus finch.

Click here for a Galapagos Islands' wildlife photo gallery.

Andes Mountain High!

Travelers to the Galapagos are placed in the enviable position of connecting to the islands through Ecuador’s capital, Quito, sitting at 9,500 feet altitude and surrounded by volcanic peaks of the Andes. We took good advantage of this opportunity, taking a couple of days to explore the city and four days to venture northward into the highlands of Imbabura Province.

The highlight of the capital is its colonial Old Town, dating from 1534. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is full of beautiful plazas ringed by whitewashed, tile-roofed buildings and impressive cathedrals. One of our favorite places was Independence Plaza, a large garden square with neighboring Metropolitana Cathedral and El Sagrario Church. A few blocks uphill along narrow stone streets we delighted in busy Plaza de San Francisco with its Tianguez market and the neighboring baroque church of San Francisco Monastery. It was built in 1535 and houses a treasure trove of colonial art, a Moorish-style wooden ceiling, and a huge pipe organ. For a fantastic view of Quito, we journeyed up Panecillo Hill to the large statue of Virgin de Panecillo, looking directly down on Old Town roofs and plazas.

View to Panecillo Hill
from Plaza de San Francisco

Another "must see" Quito attraction is the Central Bank Museum near Parque El Ejido. Since the museum is so large, we found it best to focus our brief afternoon visit on the early archeology and Inca ages, the incredible gold indigenous art display, and the social realism section of modern art.

Countryside vendor
Roadside Indian vendor near Otavalo

A two-hour drive north from Quito on the Pan-American Highway brought us to Imbabura Province where Cotacachi and Imbabura Mountain tower over a patchwork of green farms coating the valley floor and ascending the volcanic slopes. We relaxed for several days at the tranquil hacienda, Hosteria La Mirage, reveling in the tasty Ecuadorian food. Side trips included visits to Laguna Cuicosha, the beautiful volcanic crater lake, and explorations of small Otavalian Indian villages such as Peguche with artisans at their tapestry looms and families farming on small corn plots near their homes. In Iluman we visited craftsmen producing Ecuador’s famous felt fedora hats.

The indigenous society of the province has managed to maintain its individuality while winning respect and success in the modern world. In nearby San Antonio we found excellent woodcarvings, and, in Cotacachi, wonderful leather goods. In the busy town of Otavalo we shopped at the large Indian food and crafts markets where friendly street merchants with luminous black braids and colorful clothing calmly bartered with us. We couldn’t avoid the temptation to load up on several souvenirs, including a colorful wall tapestry that displayed many of the incredible Galapagos creatures that we had discovered only days before.

Otavalo market
Otavalo marketplace

Hat craftsman
Iluman hat craftsman

Peguche weaver

Otavalian baby

Viva Ecuador!

Click here for details to plan your own trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

Les Furnanz
Photos by Rita and Les Furnanz

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