My first days in the Galapagos were spent on the island of San Cristobal. But there are many islands to see, so on day three I found myself on a small plane headed for Isabela Island, the largest in the group, though not the most visited or the most populated.
The main settlement on Isabela is Puerto Villamil, a pretty beach town with little pastel-painted houses and a main street lined with seafood restaurants, next to the docks. It’s a place you could easily drift away, downing a local Pilsener while watching pelicans drift by on their way to the sea.
But before that much torpor could set in, my guide whisked me off to the lagoon behind town, where a flock of flamingos regularly hangs out. And there they were, in their pink glory, though there were a few pale-coloured youngsters in the flock.
The next stop was the Centro de Crianza de Tortugas, where the local authorities breed the giant land tortoises for which the Galapagos are named. There are only 11 species of giant tortoise left in the world, and five live on Isla Isabela; the breeding program focuses on keeping their populations viable.
Large pens held dozens of tortoises who would one day be set free in their native habitats. And with each pen they got larger and larger: the Galapagos tortoises can live 150 years, and continue to grow throughout their lives. That means the oldest tortoises are huge – just an average-sized adult can weigh 250 kilos, or more than 500 pounds.
At that weight, animals don’t move fast, so watching a couple of the tortoises have a spat was like viewing it in slow motion. The best entertainment was watching one tortoise try to climb over another — something like trying to move a parked car by pushing it over the one in front. With a lot of flailing, scraping and inch-by-inch movement, he finally made it, and walked away (slowly) as if nothing had happened.
That was the morning’s entertainment. For the afternoon, my tour company had chosen a boat trip to visit some of the abundant wildlife that lives near Puerto Villamil – in fact, right outside the port. Within five minutes of leaving the dock, we were seeing schools of eagle rays swimming beneath the boat. And a minute later, the captain pulled over to check on a sea lion that looked as if it was caught inside a fishing boat.
As it turned out, it had just chosen the boat’s deck as a comfortable place to rest. The owners had wisely put a net over the boat’s open spaces to avoid this kind of visitor getting inside. In the Galapagos, if a sea lion climbs into your boat, you can’t give him the bum’s rush: the wildlife here is protected from any harassment. Your best bet is to put on some salsa music and hope he moves on.
Next, we pulled up beside a rocky outcropping scattered here and there with familiar-looking little shapes. These were the famous Galapagos penguins, and like most of the wildlife on these islands, they sat still as the boat pulled up within feet of them.
In some places the penguins shared their roost with blue-footed boobies, a kind of famous wildlife double-bill (see the photo at top of this post). They didn’t even mind putting on a goofy pose or two.
Our real destination wasn’t the penguin colony, though: it was the Tintoreras Islet, a small, rocky island that’s recognizable to anyone who’s watched a Galapagos documentary. Made entirely of black volcanic rock, covered here and there with white lichen and rimmed with scrub vegetation, it’s the postcard picture of the Galapagos.
To make the picture complete, however, there must be iguanas. And the islet is covered with them – marine iguanas, in all sizes and colours, some so dark they were invisible until they moved, others with shocking orange and green fringes that made them stand out like beacons.
These iguanas have flat tails to help them swim, and a hard white patch on their foreheads for protection when they’re eating seaweed off the rocks. They lined the small pathway that led around the island, and some even seemed to pose, like this macho specimen who struck the perfect posture for a Galapagos ad — or perhaps an ad for the next monster movie …
Later there was a chance to snorkel the shallow waters around the island. With my limited snorkelling skills, I didn’t see much, but others in the group spotted sea turtles, more rays, and some small sharks. With everyone back on board, we turned for home. As we started up, a penguin surfaced right beside the boat: I guess he wanted to see what the fuss was about.
It was a good day in the Galapagos, and there was one more to go – though it wouldn’t be anything like the easy ride this one had been. I’ll tell the story as my Galapagos journal continues.