The Galapagos are “hot spot” islands, which means they exist because of a pocket of magma under the crust that tends to boil over at semi-regular intervals. The oldest islands are in the east, moving toward the South American coast at a few centimeters per year, while the youngest and most barren are in the west, still smoldering and with only a few hundred thousand years under their belts. The most recent eruption was in 2005, a minor bubbling-up that stayed within its caldera on the largest island, Isabela, about which we’ll speak more later.
The next day, Day 4, we were heading south to Floreana Island, which has some kind of scandalous history about a European woman coming with some men for some stupid reason and everybody dying. Frankly I didn’t care. There’s enough human stupidity in the world right now without trawling through history for more of it. But feel free to look it up if you find that kind of thing interesting.
Our guide, a younger guy with a no-nonsense demeanor, spoke relatively little English but gamely tried to summarize to us what he said at length to the others in Spanish and to answer and respond to any questions we had. After a choppy, crowded, three-hour speed boat ride, we landed near a tiny grouping of shacks and had the usual fish-and-rice-and-salad lunch in one of them. Then we took an excruciatingly bumpy bus ride inland to a cloudy, jungly area where we hiked to places where pirates apparently used to hang out and watch for rival or friendly ships down below.
Afterwards we hung out back down at the dock for about an hour watching lounging iguanas, playful sea lions, and huge sea turtles flapping leisurely by just under the water’s surface. It was like a three-ring circus. Two juvenile sea lions had found a plastic bow from a bow-and-arrow set and were pushing it around with their noses, pulling it around in their teeth, fighting over it, and flipping around it, like an improvised Sea World act.
By this point I was so overwhelmed by the richness of life around me, I started to feel like I did when I visited Florence and was so overpowered by the casual wealth of masterpieces strewn about, I felt like I couldn’t take one more painting. Or like my nephew Dylan did one Christmas when he was about five — my parent’s only grandchild at the time — and he’d been opening so many presents for so long that he finally started to cry. I guess the overall feeling was being viscerally reminded that our world is like a constant Christmas with too many presents.
We went to a bay nearby to snorkel, and at first we couldn’t see much, then we heard the cry — “Tortuga!” — and followed the fingers on the boat pointing toward another marine tortoise, its shell at least three feet across. When I first saw him from the side, I thought he was another snorkeler and slowed down so as not to risk colliding with him. Then I saw what it was and swam four feet above and a bit behind him, following him as he flipped casually through the wavelets. I lost him after a while, just in time for another shout and another tortoise, which I found and followed again. I wish I could say it was a huge thrill, but by now all the rich amazingness had become thrillingly banal, as if this was simply how things were and had always been.
It was the boys’ last night, and we celebrated with another dinner on Charles Binford Street. The next day I packed up and caught the daily 2pm boat to Puerto Villamil on the island of Isabela. I checked into my hotel, Coleta Iguana (Iguana Cove), better known as Casa Rosada because of its bright pink paint job. It was the last hotel in town with nothing but white sand beach stretching to the west.
A girl I’d met on Santa Cruz had told me about this place and asked me to say hi to the owner, whom I assumed would be a middle aged man. Instead, he was a dead ringer for Gael Garcia Bernal, only younger and cuter, wearing cargo shorts and sunglasses and welcoming me with casual familiarity. He and his visiting younger brother, just out of high school, were alternately running around arranging new furniture, surfing on the beach, chatting up the clientele, or snoozing in the hammocks on the porch. Not a bad life. The atmosphere reminded me very much of Dahab in the Sinai in Egypt, except the local women were wandering around freely and the shebab (young men), some shirtless, were playing volleyball on the beach.
I unpacked and took a walk around town, swinging first by the salty lagoons behind my hotel, which were reported to be full of flamingos. Soon I saw a flash of shocking pink between the trees. As I approached, walking under a small grove of coconut trees, three flamingos came into view, their heads upside down, straining the water for algae and brine shrimp whose carotene give the feathers their distinctive color. I was enchanted by the grace and beauty (and size!) of the birds. I tend to think of flamingos as goofy or tacky due to Alice in Wonderland and those dreadful lawn ornaments. But here, in the flesh, in the wild, they were nothing but beautiful.
Puerto Villamil was a town of around 1,500, and the main drag had about ten open-air restaurant/shacks selling the usual fish and rice, ham sandwiches, or fried chicken and fries. In the middle of town, I passed a small fenced-in turf soccer pitch where ten-year-old boys were playing with a small contingent of spectators cheering them on. After about twenty minutes of watching them play, I realized that I would watch football pretty much anywhere at any time for any reason.
I finally tore myself away to watch the sunset from the beach and found some cool, clear tidal pools with sandy bottoms surrounded by dark volcanic rock and filled with little black fish with orange fins.
That night I went to the outdoor bar next to my hotel, a folding table with a hand-lettered sign set up near four or five low benches, and ordered a caipirinha. I sat down next to a British guy I didn’t know. We started chatting, and he invited me to join his group the next day for snorkeling at Los Tintoreros, a rocky series of islets just south of Puerto Villamil, famous for being a place where sharks hang out, especially the white-tipped Galapagos sharks after which the islets are named.
Our guide was a woman this time, and she took us to a long, straight inlet between two folds of volcanic rock where, sure enough, dozens of white-tipped sharks, ranging from three to six feet long, were sleeping or prowling. Iguanas were hanging out on the rocks above. I wanted to slap on my snorkel and jump in, but the guide assured us we would see sharks in the bay where we would snorkel later.
We got back on the boat, and it swung around to an aquamarine bay where we suited up in our shorty wetsuits and jumped in. There were loads of cool fish and some corals, but so far no sharks. Some sea lions came up to say hi, and this time I was prepared and just let them glide by, looking it us curiously or showing off with a flip or a twist.
When they left, I went nearer to shore to look for sharks, and again I saw what I thought was a fellow snorkeler up ahead, but it turned out to be something much more thrilling: A stingray with a wing span of four or five feet! Images of the Crocodile Hunter meeting his bane kept me from getting too close, but I followed it a while as it waved its wings with infinite grace. Then a sea lion swam by and poked it with its nose, at which point it spazzed out just like I had on the beach a few days earlier and high-tailed it out of there.
The sea lion looked at me as if to say, “Hehe! Look what I did to that jerk!”
I scowled at him as if to say, “Hey, I was watching that!”
He shrugged and swam off.
I poked my head up to look for my boat. When I spotted it, I shouted, “Where are the sharks?”
A German guy poked his head up and repeated in Spanish, “Donde estan los tiburones?”
Our boat driver pointed vaguely at the water.
Yeah. Thanks. Figured that.
We looked for sharks for another half hour, but didn’t find any. When I got back to Puerto Villamil, I tried to find a group to go on a dive trip with at Tortuga Island, a crescent-shaped hill poking out of the sea a few miles south of Isabela, famous for hammerhead sharks and all kinds of amazing big sea life. But no groups were going the next day. So I’ll have to do that (and many other things) next time, inshallah.
I hiked the nearest volcanoes instead, a biggie named Sierra Negra and a smaller parasitic cone called Volcan Chico. It was a 26 kilometer trek all together, first through cloud forests full of all kinds of red and yellow and black and brown finches, then along the rim of Sierra Negra, and finally down to the blasted cones of Volcan Chico, which were too young to support much in the way of life yet.
In some places the rocks were warm and yellow, indicating sulfur still leaking up from the depths. Sierra Negra had last erupted five years earlier, spewing lava that only covered a few square kilometers within the caldera itself and didn’t spill its banks. Still, the whole time I was up there, I kept thinking, Please be stable for just a few more hours. Just a few more hours…
Back in Santa Cruz the next day, I did a little local tour of the bay, and this time the guide didn’t even try to speak any English. We saw more boobies, penguins, crabs, iguanas, waves and sea lions, and a charming swimming hole, a deep crack or canyon in a volcanic field filled with clear blue-green water, fish, locals, and tourists.
I treated myself to a lobster dinner that night, and in the morning I bade farewell to Las Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Islands), which certainly lived up to the name given to them by early mariners.