Far off the coast of Ecuador is a cluster of islands so well preserved and protected from human contact, that nature has been allowed to take its course. Wildlife has evolved as Mother Nature intended – uninterrupted by human impact.
The Galápagos Islands is one of those bucket list items most people are dying to achieve (pun intended). Boat operators have an obvious monopoly on the local market. American owners outmuscle the Ecuadorians, and provide an obscenely expensive service that while worth it, is difficult to justify in a third world country. Regardless, with everything else around the Earth dying (Great Barrier Reef is becoming an underwater graveyard, Maldives are rumored to be vanishing in the next decade), a chance to see the Galápagos Islands before they meet a similar fate is time restrictive.
They won’t always be around.
This travel blog has allowed us to share our Latin American journey with the world, one place at a time. Sometimes the stories are lengthy, other times pictures tell a thousand words. I’ll keep the stories brief and the photos plentiful. We blew our backpacker’s budget and went all-out on an 8 day cruise (the only cruise I’ve ever done). We did this because it was the only way to truly see everything Galapagos had to offer – it’s not everyday that you fly to little-known Ecuador, so it made sense to make the most of the opportunity while we had it.
We had an awesome crew on the boat, and really great passengers who made the journey extra special. A large group of Americans from Road Scholar were on there – grandparents with grandchildren who, as part of Road Scholar, elect to take the younger generation somewhere cool around the world. Something that doesn’t revolve around Mai Tai’s on the beach, as one American lady put it. It’s a great concept and something Australia should have. We also had other independent travellers, such as Phillip and Daniel from Germany (who convinced us to change plans and fly to Mexico), Livia and Jens from Switzerland (who were doing an epic road trip through South America), and George, an engineer from London working in Angola.
The seas are rough at night. Anybody who had a plan to have a few drinks while on board found themselves detesting that idea, as we wobbled around the cabin and made a beeline for bed each night. Seasickness was common. At times it was pretty brutal, but what we saw each day made those sleepless nights worth it.
We’ve done two big trips in the past six years. Our first was to Europe. That showed us how beautiful the world really is, and how magnificent history is. Europe cannot be compared to. It’s a melting pot of history, culture, arts, cuisine, good people, and a different way of life. Australia is young and for backpackers, is a faraway place best explored with a Kombi van. It’s barren, large, underpopulated and a diverse place to discover, if you have the time and means to go the distances. Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s mecca. So much so that it seems like “travel for beginners.” Australians probably take Southeast Asia for granted, given it’s on our doorstep, but for Europeans and the British, it’s a great, big mystery that backpackers yearn to explore. South America is different from all of these places. It’s the place to come if you want a true outdoors adventure – it blows everything else out of the water. On what other continent can you see a historically preserved natural wonder such as the Galápagos Islands, trek to ancient Incan ruins such as MP, go to “the end of the world” in Patagonia, rough it in the Amazon jungle, or venture into the remote vast deserts of Bolivia? Throw in places like Mendoza, Salta, Buenos Aires, Rio, Salvador, Banos, Santiago, Cuzco and Uyuni, and you’ve got yourself the ultimate backpacking adventure!
This is, of course, before you even hit the Cuban time warp or Central American identities such as Mexico (the latter of which is a huge juxtaposition in Latin America).
Without wanting to sound pretentios, our Latin American adventure has made us want to dig deeper into the world and see the great outdoors more than sitting on a European beach. It feels like our preferences in travel have evolved, but that’s because we’ve travelled a lot throughout the world. I see ourselves in the future being increasingly armed with rugged backpacks, long matted hair and at least one beard as we climb the heavenly mountains of rural China or trample through blizzards in Siberia. Prior to this trip, neither of us were overly inclined to do either – our main experiences were cultural. South America and its uncompromising brutality in the wilderness, has ignited a thirst for more adventure.
The Galápagos Islands sound like smooth sailing, but they aren’t. In between seasickness, we went swimming amongst sharks, sea turtles, Mexican Hot fish, seahorses, sea lions, and other random fish whose names I’ll never know. Sea lions and sea turtles are playful. They swim right up to you and surround you. Apparently because there is little impact by humans here, they haven’t learned to fear them and run away. They treat you like you’re just another organism swimming on by. Apparently sharks don’t attack you either, since the Galápagos Islands have a perfect eco-system and food chain where fishing is virtually illegal (unless you are a local fisherman with permission from the National Park), so sharks never have to try other dishes. I’d be lying if I denied hearing the Jaws theme song every time I entered the dark water, but I trusted our guide Billie, and didn’t see anybody get eaten. That being said, Bull sharks swam all the way from the waters of Quito to this pristine environment and attacked two snorkellers. They had to be hunted and killed. Galápagos doesn’t like outsiders.
On the islands, some of which are volcanic, we came across giant tortoises, yellow iguanas, blue-footed boobies (obscure birds with bright blue feet), birds that were so heavily covered in white feathers that they looked as though they were wearing a giant white afro, black birds with inflated red sacks blowing out of their necks, and large skittering red crabs on the rocks, as well as black and purple-spotted ones running in and out of the cracks. Our guide Billie had a Masters degree in Biology and was exceptionally informative during our 8 day forage into paradise. Here, time had stopped. We saw what life would be like without humans. I half expected to see a dinosaur somewhere.
One of the highlights for sure was coming across a little lake in the middle of an island. This little lake can only fill up when the area floods, and whatever gets in there remains in there until it floods again next time, and they swim back out to the ocean. We stared at this crystal clear lake and wanted to jump in. It all looked so perfect. There were even sea turtles that managed to get themselves in there. It was a small lake. Surely it would be safe to enter, right?
We could see right through to the bottom. Sure, I can imagine fish getting bowled over the rocks from the ocean and finding themselves stuck. Sea turtles too, although that was still a big surprise. We sat and watched the water. On the sides of the mini lake were shadows from the walls. A very small cave. Maybe big enough for a person to hide under. I thought I saw something move. Something large and black. It didn’t make sense. Something big couldn’t be bowled over from an ocean and land in here, surely. Then another large shadow moved.
Then one more, because things happen in threes, right? Then the most irrational sight became apparent.
Fins broke the water.
Out of the thin shadows emerged three large sharks. Big enough to cause serious alarm if you were in the water. Big enough that nobody wanted to get too close to the edge of the lake, incase they fell in and became shark food. Who knows what the sharks fed on down below, but it certainly wasn’t their usual environment. A human would be most welcome, I thought. We stood back and took photos. The sharks just looked so big, and so much bigger than someone would expect. And they were in a lake. Mother Nature was playing games with us.
Seeing this was breathtaking. Everybody was astounded. When I was younger, my phobia of sharks spurred an obsession to learn everything I could about the different species. I knew, for example, that during the day, sharks of all shapes and sizes relaxed in the shadows of lagoons. Enhanced imaging of Australian beaches showed how close these sharks came to the shoreline. Those dark patches of water you see in the ocean, about thirty metres out from the sand? Yeah, it’s not uncommon for sharks to be resting in there, minding their own business. I had a memory flashback to our first time in Thailand, when we were taken out on a boat to go snorkelling in a lagoon. I didn’t know we were going to a lagoon at first. Naturally, with what I knew about sharks, this made me a bit uneasy. The Thai guide assured me there were no sharks in there. This despite knowing that Thailand was a hot spot for shark breeding.
So I ignored science and jumped in. The water was murky with a golden tinge. It was calm. The Brazilian girl next to me got stabbed by a small sword fish and started to bleed – although not too badly. She swam back to the boat. I swam further from it. At the bottom of the lagoon I saw a shadow in the distance start to come into focus. It was a shark. Not big, maybe 1.5 metres, but still big enough to do some damage.
Seeing the shark in the mini lake on a Galápagos island got me thinking: As fun as some of these environments can be, and no matter how many guides want to assure me that the sharks don’t attack, and no matter how many other guides want to lie to me about the presence of sharks, there is still something unnerving about being in the ocean with them.
And now they were migrating to lakes.
Welcome to the Galápagos Islands!