Galapagos, The Last Paradise

Without any modesty, I consider myself a global traveller. As expert in the hidden bars of Ladak, as in the bravest mezcal in Tlacolula or the best place to eat sea urchins in Panarea. I am a contemporary explorer, a collector of miles, a jet-lag addict.

So, as I set off for the Galapagos, I am ready to enjoy myself, to sweat, to see rare species, to try strange foods, to ask a thousand questions and to be engrossed by magnificent landscapes. In short, to marvel at just the right number of exotic islands.

But Galapagos is different from any exotic island, it is the only paradise left on earth, the last frontier.

© Luis Davilla

Over four million years ago, within the depths of the ocean, a spell of unknown elements caused a formidable explosion. From the bowels of the sea, a strange and bewildering mineral world emerged, a landscape of primitive beauty, a land with its own natural laws. An archipelago of basaltic rocks, craters, and active volcanoes. The kind of universe that not even Jules Verne would have dared to imagine.

The Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, 621 miles west of the coast of Ecuador. The archipelago consists of 13 islands and a multitude of small islets and cays. Each island is a microcosm, a small world within itself, with endemic fauna and flora that exists nowhere else on the planet. But this remote archipelago shares a common element, lava. It twists, slides, sinks. Sometimes it rises, sometimes it slips through lush green mangrove forests and turquoise lagoons, leaving extraordinary sculptures in its wake. Frozen semi-fluid rock forms defy the sun, austere and arrogant, or playfully form surreal structures with unlikely names like Ha-ha or Phoe-hoe.

© Luis Davilla

Considered by volcanologists to be young islands, the Galápagos is, along with Hawaii, the most volcanically active oceanic area on the planet. But it is not only their topography that is exceptional, but their geography is also extravagant and contradictory; although the islands lie on the equator the Humboldt Current, an ocean current rich in cold water from the Antarctic bathe them.

© Luis Davilla

A perfect alchemy of these extreme factors has contributed to making the Galapagos unique.

Ever since a Panamanian bishop discovered the islands by accident in 1535, these lands at the end of the world have attracted a handful of strange and original characters.  Pirates and buccaneers made them their haven, among them Sir Richard Hawkins, Sir Henry Morgan, Sir Francis Drake and Ambrose Cowley. These legendary renegades were the terror of ships sailing to Europe laden with gold, silver, and other precious goods. Legend has it that the islands hide extraordinary treasures, but they have yet to be discovered. In the late 17th century, a more sophisticated, but equally cruel and perhaps more effective, form of piracy also wreaked havoc in the Galapagos seas: the whalers. For 200 years, the greed of the whaling industry drove the vast numbers of cetaceans around the archipelago to near extinction.

© Luis Davilla

Great writers throughout the ages have been seduced by the charm and mystery of the Galapagos: Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, recounts his experience in the book “The Enchanted”. Daniel Defoe also based one of the greatest adventure novels ever written, “Robinson Crusoe”, on the islands. Defoe recounts the adventures and misadventures of Alexander Selkirk who in the early 17th century survived by his wits on the island of Juan Fernandez in southern Chile and in the Galapagos.

© Luis Davilla

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, a series of colourful characters succeeded each other on the islands, contributing to the legend of the Galapagos with bizarre stories. Manuel Cobos, a megalomaniacal and bloodthirsty dictator who is murdered by his employees on the island of San Cristóbal. Oberlus, a strange, diabolical, and vain hermit who, thanks to his impressive ugliness, was the principal attraction for visitors to the island of Hispaniola. Charles, also called “king of the dogs”, founded a quasi-praetorian republic on the island of Floreana, a reign of terror guarded by enormous dogs. Among these characters stands out Eloise Wagner de Bousquet, an Austrian baroness who disembarks one fine day on the island of Floreana and creates, together with her two lovers, a libertine “paradise” in which, it is said, she satisfies all the erotic fantasies of the travellers whose curiosity leads them to the islands.

© Luis Davilla

Intrepid travellers from northern Europe also emigrated to the Galapagos. The Angermeyers, the Wittmers and the Ritters did not hesitate to sail the seas with their families and after a thousand vicissitudes they settled permanently in this lost paradise. Their descendants still live on the islands today.

But the person who definitively marked the fate of the Galapagos and revolutionised the scientific world forever was Charles Darwin. 

In 1835 Darwin arrived in the islands on board the “Beagle”, a ship financed by the British Crown whose mission was to sail around the world on a voyage of observation and scientific learning. What Charles Darwin discovers and observes in the Galapagos was published in 1859 as “The Origin of Species”. Darwin’s book became one of the most controversial texts ever published. The audacity of the British scientist’s theories forever upset all hypotheses about the origin of man on earth.

On the Galapagos, Darwin writes:

“…both in time and space, we come face to face with the great phenomenon of the mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on earth…”

© Luis Davilla

Charles Darwin sums up in a few lines what makes the Galapagos a unique place on the planet. But you don’t have to be a visionary scientist or a Nobel laureate in science; every traveller lucky enough to visit the islands can perceive the “mystery of mysteries”, Galapagos is a unique, personal and intense experience.

But everything we have heard or read about the Galapagos Islands does not come close to the adventure we would experience. We boarded a floating palace, the Isabela II, 54 metres of luxury, calm and voluptuousness. But the most extraordinary yacht that sails the seas of the Galapagos has nothing to do with the huge ocean liners that sail the seas of the planet loaded with cheesy, falsely sophisticated octogenarians.

The passengers of the Isabela II are modern adventurers, exotic explorers or convinced environmentalists. They travel great distances for the sole purpose of one day seeing the Galapagos. Each of us is about to live a rare, intense and profound experience. We are aware that we are stepping back in time into a virgin paradise, a place where humans have never been perceived as a threat or danger.

For each of us, the Galapagos experience is so intense and unlike anything we have ever experienced before, it is difficult to sum it up in words.

I could recount that in Santa Cruz I zigzagged in a kayak between the white-tipped fins of placid sharks called blue sharks. That I walked through Opuntia forests, dodging giant turtles as I went, to reach one of the most fantastic beaches I have ever seen.

That I saw the island of Genovesa appear, like a mirage out of the light of dawn. A magical white island full of extravagant birds. Turquoise-footed boobies, others masked, owls with melancholic eyes, birds of paradise drawing elegant ellipses in the sky with their endless white feathers, countless frigate birds with their mouths as red as inflated that with the carefree attitude of spoiled trapeze artists stole the prey of other birds from the air. But the spectacle and the beauty of the different varieties of birds that populate Genovesa is less surprising than the attitude of every bird I saw there. None of these birds are afraid of man, one can watch them for hours at a distance of a few centimetres without any of them flinching in the presence of man.

© Luis Davilla

At Devil’s Crown I swam with hammerhead sharks, who insolently ignored me with each of their eyes on either side of their singular head. I watched mesmerised as tiger rays copulated casually in an aquatic ballet worthy of the Bolshoi. I marvelled at the agility of penguins that flew like arrows through the placid waters of the Pacific before diving to catch multicoloured fish.

In Fernandina, I avoided as best I could the countless marine iguanas that lay in the sun and mingled with the lava, imitating Giacommetti’s extravagant sculptures. I saw Cormorants, who despite having lost their ability to fly, without any complexes, dived like the most agile of fish to catch their prey. At Punta Espinoza naughty sea lions played for half an hour with my fins, having fun like little children. I saw dolphins, killer whales, manta rays? But also delicate seahorses, amazing jellyfish and hundred-year-old turtles, patiently devouring kilos of seaweed.

On Isabela I was overwhelmed at every step by the sound of virgin lava breaking at my feet. I watched streams of strident yellow sulphur gush against a horizon as black as night and turquoise as the Galapagos sea. I saw gigantic land iguanas that flaunted the colours of Pompeii, and stoic, like aristocratic dragons, watched the photographer’s lens with millenarian condescension.

In Bartolomé, intoxicated by the scent of Palo Santo, I climbed to the top to discover an extra-terrestrial landscape, a sunset similar to the images that astronauts discover when they float in the vast universe. An explosion of lilacs, purples, reds, pinks, oranges…like the visions perceived by shamans on their psychedelic journeys.

It is almost impossible to describe the Galapagos in a few lines, but every human being who has been to this place on the planet carries with him forever a tiny piece of the great mystery of the origin of the universe. For me it has the sweet taste of salt and sulphur.

RECOMMEND

Yacht Isabela II

The best way to discover the magic of the Galapagos. An extraordinary yacht that combines luxury with adventure travel. The Isabela has 20 cabins a welcoming and professional crew, plus a team of expert naturalist guides that make the Galapagos a fascinating experience.

Reservations:

Metropolitan Touring

Quito, Ecuador

tel.   +(593) 2- 298 8200

fax.   +(593) 2- 246 4702

email. info@metropolitan-touring.com

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