Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan cruised the archipelago. The Galapagos is one of those “It” destinations, like the Hamptons, for travelers across the globe. Everyone has either been there or says they want to go. I was of the latter group when some crazy multi-millionaire dangled the trip in front of me, like some magic carrot, in a race no one could win. I fled the guy and went with my sister.
We booked a cabin in the Ecoventura (www.ecoventura.com, 800-633-7972), a ten-room yacht that the likes of Robert DeNiro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Dana Delaney have chartered. With 11 crew members for 18 of us, gourmet cuisine and big showers, we felt appropriately pampered. Even as part of a group, the boat has the feel of a private yacht. The Ecoventura — the first carbon neutral ship — divides its passengers into homogenous groups, running three identical ten cabin yachts in tandem. We noticed a younger, rowdy group on one, jumping four stories off the top deck into the sea. On another, the sixty-plus crowd hiked at their own pace. There are special family-oriented cruises during school vacations. The boats stay far enough from one another to keep you alone on the expeditions, but close enough to provide a safety net.
The most economical route in and out of the Galapagos is through Guayaquil. In the city, the five-star Hotel Oro Verde is pretty much where you want to stay. It’s close to the airport, providing easy transportation to and from, and in the middle of the city. We spent three days pretty happily there, walking up and down Calle 9 de Octubre to the River Walks on either side. Their buffet breakfasts get you going and Ecuadorian lunches are worthy of the siesta. Swiss-owned, they even have a fondue restaurant, one of the most popular in the city. We appreciated the pool and gym, and even found some great local knitwear in their store.
Then, we were off to the Galapagos, onetime penal colony, pirate’s haven, and misanthrope’s paradise. An example of the latter was Dr. Ritter who came to Floreana with his girlfriend. In Margret Wittmer’s autobiographical “Floreana,” she tells how she and her husband arrived on that Galapagos Island when she was pregnant. When she asked if Ritter would stop by to help in the delivery, he replied if he wanted to practice medicine, he would have stayed in Germany! Today, there are 150 self-sustaining people in Floreana, farming, fishing, and getting their water from wells.
But, this trip is about the animal population that doesn’t need to go to the wells. The Galapagos “cities” — Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Balta, and Isabella have a combined population of 25,000. There are 50,000 sea lions. Doe-eyed Galapagos sea lions lounge on the beach like Buddhas and nursed their young, who mouth each other in play. Hawks eyed us curiously. Penguins swam under and around, sometimes brushing against us. And the Iguanas just acted like we were annoyances to be tolerated.
Many of the species and topography differ subtly from island to island. Darwin formulated his theories of evolution when he landed here in 1835, based on the endemic species that migrated, found a safe haven, and adapted the means to stay. You don’t need to understand the subtle beak varieties of Darwin’s finches to enjoy them as they hop along on your nature walks, like little hosts.
The Ecoventura navigates the rules and regulations of the National Park Service and Charles Darwin Research Station as well as the seas. They now manage the Galapagos — once on the UNESCO list of endangered sites — carefully. Only a handful of boats can carry 100 people, the maximum amount allowed per vessel. Tourists can only visit certain sites — and with a naturalist. You wouldn’t want to go it alone. This is where they once dropped off prisoners to die. Even our guide, while working for the National Park Service creating these trails, got lost for three days on an island. He survived by straining turtle poop from fresh water.
A typical Ecoventura day begins at the reasonable hour of 7:00 a.m. Then, breakfast, nature walks, deep water snorkeling, buffet lunch, siesta, and then, more of same. Gourmet seated dinners cap each day. Some days there’s more sightseeing. There’s a “dry day” in Santa Cruz, when everyone gets to check out the land tortoises, the Charles Darwin Research Station, shop, and later that night hang out in town.
A mask and snorkel unlocks a mystical world where hundreds of silver and black Salemas are like shards of light that seem to engulf you. Surgeonfish, Angelfish, and Puffers idle below in shades of blue, purple, yellow and black exotic beauty. Sea lions dart out of nowhere. Don’t be afraid of the White-tipped sharks and rays, our nature guide kept saying. In the Galapagos, they’re vegetarian.
After all, you’re in paradise.