My visit to Isabela Island on the Galapagos began pleasantly, with a look at some flamingos and tortoises, followed by a face-to-face encounter with penguins and marine iguanas. But it didn’t end that way: there was more adventure awaiting me, for better or for worse.
We tend to think of the Galapagos as a bunch of flat, rocky lowlands filled with strange creatures. But in fact, the volcanoes that formed these islands are still there, rising high above the shorelines. Some are still active. The most noted volcano on Isabela Island is called Cerro Negro, and it occurred to those planning my tour that climbing it would make for a good day in the Galapagos.
“Climb it” may be an exaggeration: for the most part, the trail up Cerro Negro is a long, slow uphill slog, within the abilities of most physically active people. And those who conquer the five-hour hike are rewarded with a look at an amazing variety of landscapes – and weather.
That’s where the problem comes in. As we drove up into the highlands toward the mountain, through surprisingly lush tropical farmland (yes, there are farms on the Galapagos), the weather turned from steamy hot to chilly and then rainy. That’s par for the course at this altitude, and we were warned to bring something warm, and to wear good hiking shoes, since the trail was muddy. That was the understatement of the day.
It was raining when we started our climb, and a mile or so up the misty trail, the footing turned from soft to treacherous. Big pools of water blocked the way, forcing our whole group to clamber up the sides of the trail on narrow footpaths that had been churned into slick mud. Slipping and sliding, I ploughed my way through, managed to avoid falling a few times, and came out the other side covered with only a foot or so of mud.
Once past the mud pools, the way turned firm again, and about a half-hour later the landscape changed to scrub forest. Then we entered what looked like a brown, rocky moonscape filled with spindly cactus. We had reached the upper regions of the volcano, a place like none I’d ever seen before, .
Huge craters and sinkholes appeared, plunging hundreds of feet into the earth. Strange-looking rock littered the pathway, filled with swirls of earthy colours. This was the earth’s blacksmith shop, where natural features are formed with fire and minerals from the molten mass beneath the crust.
We stopped for lunch on the peak, looking over a landscape filled with small mountains ripped open by volcanic eruptions. Far away, through the late morning haze, we could see the blue ribbon of the sea.
At last we headed for home, winding up and down the rocky path that led through this Hobbit-like landscape. And adjusting our clothing: conditions changed constantly up here, from hot to cold to windy to rainy, all within 10 minutes. Cover up, strip down, cover up again …
By now I was starting to feel my age. My legs were still working, but they weren’t enjoying it as much, and the last thing I wanted to see was those mud pools again. But here they came, and for the second time I struggled up the steep slopes, cursing the group members who’d hired horses to carry them cleanly through the muck (why didn’t someone tell me about that?).
I tried walking on the grass beside the muddy paths, and that worked for a while, giving me a precious foothold. But sooner or later a climb appeared that I couldn’t avoid, and halfway up the slope my footing gave way and I lost my balance. With a helpless groan, I plunged knee-first into a deep, sticky patch of mud.
A pair of friendly Brits helped pull me out, and we staggered on, slipping and sliding, until the way turned clear again, and finally we could see the parking lot with the bus to take us home. I rode back covered in mud to the knees, and wearing a few scrapes to remind me of my eventful day in the Galapagos.
The mud washed off (well, most of it) in time for my 3 o’clock boat to Santa Cruz Island. And after some serious scrubbing, the shoes survived to live another day. But the experience may have had a more lasting effect: I was the oldest hiker in the group, by far, and I was the one who had the most trouble – was it time to leave some of the adventure to the young?
To be fair, even at 65, I found I could handle the hiking, even when it got steep. But when the going got rough and muddy, and the footing precarious, I just didn’t want to be there. If aging is about resetting your limits to match your abilities, maybe I’d just found the spot to reset mine.
It’s true that we all have our own travel style, formed by our tastes and our limitations. And as we age, most of us change our style, trading in some of the hard adventure for adventures in learning, or in food and wine. And that’s all right: how many 60-year-olds really want to careen down a hill on a mountain bike, anyway? Bones break more easily at our age.
I guess the moral is: if you still want to do it, give it a try — I’ve seen pictures of people zip-lining at 90. But if it’s starting to seem like too much, maybe it is: could be time to change your style.