By Kathleen Kemsley © 2020
Galapagos Islands – the name brings to mind two immediate associations: wildlife found nowhere else on earth, and prohibitively expensive travel. I wanted to see the giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, and land iguanas. But I didn’t have ten grand to throw at a week long cruise or fancy all-inclusive tour. My solution was to join a group that provided a land-based tour, including lodging and inter-island transportation, and little else. The idea was that trip participants could navigate their own adventures, and pay their own way, once they got to the islands. Basically, it was a Do It Yourself Galapagos tour.
The group included ten people, who rather quickly broke into two units. One unit was comprised of a couple from England, a couple from California, and two singles from New York and New Brunswick, who were obviously destined to hook up. This unit, younger and more energetic, chose to engage in day-long, high energy activities such as a ten mile overland hike to a volcano and a three hour boat ride to glimpse a rare sea horse.
The other unit consisted of ladies “of a certain age.” Debs, 58, was a divorced grandmother from England. I was an American widow a couple years older than Debs. We two shared lodging accommodations for the duration of the trip. The third woman, Belinda, also our age, had left her husband behind in Australia and was traveling with her 83 year old mother, Heather. The four of us immediately became fast friends and companions.
When we met on San Cristobal Island the first day, the other group booked a day-long boat excursion to Kicker Rock. We ladies would have been willing to go also, but alas, the total capacity of the boat they engaged was only six. So I searched my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to devise an alternate strategy. The result was a great DIY adventure, traveling around the island on our own.
We hired Roger, a taxi driver who, for $100, agreed to take the four of us for a day trip to see the island’s terrestrial sights. Departing from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the road headed up to Cerro San Joaquin, the highest point on the island at nearly 3,000 feet. Shrouded in fog, the hills were carpeted in lush grasses and thick brush. I practiced my Spanish with Roger as we sailed over the top and coasted down the far side. We came to a stop at Galapaguera, a wildlife preserve.
There we got a chance to meet the creatures we had traveled thousands of miles to see – giant tortoises. Entering the fenced parkland, we presently came upon a big group of them milling around on the refuge grounds. Weighing in at 250 pounds, the giants appeared unfazed by the presence of humans. A ranger stood nearby to make sure no one touched the creatures. He told us that the oldest tortoises, 150 years old, had become a protected species after early Galapagos explorers nearly exterminated them. Biologists at the preserve, he said, collected tortoise eggs, incubated them, and protected the babies for about seven years until they were old enough to fend for themselves. They were then released to the grounds of the preserve to consume about five pounds of plant matter per day, and multiply.
Apparently, it was mating season while we were there. One big male was seen pursuing a female tortoise across a shallow pond. As we watched him catch up to her and begin to clamber on top, the ranger said that it can take two hours or more for these creatures to complete the act. To give them some privacy, we moved away and found another gentle giant who posed agreeably in a clearing. She opened her mouth to show a pink tongue. “They make me feel young!” said Heather as we old ladies gathered behind the old lady tortoise for a picture.
Once our desire for tortoise photos was sated, we returned to the taxi and proceeded to the next destination. Chino Beach lay at the end of the road on the southeast corner of the island. Black lava rocks framed a beautiful little beach with white sugar sand. Overheated after a downhill walk through a cactus forest in the tropical sun, I ran into the azure water to rejuvenate. The other three women joined me, along with a fearless sea lion who, surprisingly, appeared to be enjoying some body surfing near us in the waves.
When we returned to the parking lot an hour later, a little food stand had popped up in the shade of a palm tree. There I bought a bottle of Aloe juice for two dollars. It felt strange going down – little beads of slimy aloe sliding down my throat – but it was cold and sweet, just the refreshment I needed.
On the return to town, we made one last stop at a place called El Junco Lagoon. There, Roger told us that Magnificent Frigate birds regularly fly to this fresh water lake within a volcano crater, there to wash sea salt off their feathers. Agreeably, we four trudged up a half mile path lined with ferns and blackberry bushes. Finches and canaries, showing absolutely no fear of us, flitted nearby. When we reached the edge of the lagoon, we were disappointed that the fog had returned. The lake water was visible only in glimpses, as dense clouds of mist drifted through. But in a moment of wonder, the shrouds of fog parted, just long enough to see one of the big black-and-white Frigate birds splash around in the water at the edge of the lake.
We arrived back to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno by mid-afternoon. Leaving the others, I walked by myself along the malecón. Sea lions laid around by the hundreds in shop alcoves and on beaches and sprawled on the sidewalks. Bright red crabs contrasted with black rocks that lined the harbor. Frigate birds patrolled above the port scene, and beyond, the ocean spread out forever.
As I watched a cruise ship motor in, I felt not a trace of envy toward its high-paying passengers. Yes, they might be eating gourmet meals, while I had scrounged a couple fried eggs and a heap of mashed plantains for breakfast. But I was sure my experience on the DIY jaunt around the island was at least as interesting as their guided, scripted, planned excursion. And maybe better, because my friends and I had experienced the joy of discovery, on our own in the Galapagos.