Creature comforts in the Galápagos Islands

Nigel Tisdall
Mar 21, 2022

Most visitors see the Galápagos on a live-aboard cruise, but there’s another way: mix the creature comforts of a luxury lodge with animal-magic ambles. Nigel Tisdall puts his best foot forward

My first encounter with the celebrated wildlife of the Galápagos Islands is a near disaster. Fresh off the plane after the two-hour flight west from the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, I’m thrilled to find that my hotel – the immaculately designed Pikaia Lodge, on Santa Cruz Island – has complimentary mountain bikes. I jump on one, aiming to get a little exercise in before a sunset swim in its inviting infinity pool.

Soon I’m freewheeling through a savannah-like landscape sketched with wriggly branches of Palo Santo trees, chuffed to have made it to this bucket-list volcanic archipelago. After all, these islands “reveal in microcosm the processes that have shaped all life on Earth.” So says Sir David Attenborough in his three-part documentary Galápagos 3D, screened on demand at Pikaia Lodge, in a plush lounge with mini-cinema-screen-sized TV.

Suddenly, rounding a corner at speed, I happen upon a large and solid specimen of this evolutionary process crouching motionless in the middle of the track. It’s all I can do not to flip over the handlebars. The giant tortoise springs back into its shell with an almighty hiss, like a burst tyre. I think we’re both as shocked as each other. An ancient eye stares out at me with a look that seems to say ‘idiot!’ It’s a fair cop – from a tortoise’s perspective the world must always be going too damn fast. Still, that’s one true Galápagos highlight ticked off.

Galapagos giant tortoise

Tortoises’ longevity is extraordinary. When Charles Darwin visited in 1835 aboard HMS Beagle, he shipped three back to England. Waggishly, they were called Tom, Dick and Harry, only the last turned out to be a Harriet and lived to be 175, eventually passing away in a Queensland zoo as recently as 2006. The next morning, visiting the island’s Charles Darwin Research Station, I find myself peering down at a corral full of sweet baby tortoises milling around with yellow numbers painted on their backs as if about to compete in some hilarious race. Then I join a queue for the other end of the timeline: the reverential death chamber of Lonesome George, so called for his inability to mate. The creature’s demise in 2012 meant extinction for the Pinta Island species: a dark day for conservationists. First, visitors have to enter an acclimatising room, after which we get a few solemn minutes with the corpse before being moved along. Forget Tutankhamen’s Tomb or Lenin’s Mausoleum. You’ve not seen the world until you’ve stared into the lifeless glassy eye of a century-old stuffed tortoise.

The Galápagos Islands soon reveal themselves as a fine place to slow down. With its uniquely evolved flora and wildlife, I’d assumed this volcanic adventure park was only for serious-minded types clutching field guides and binoculars. Sure, there’s earnest stuff to contemplate: discovering how the 18 main islands vary in age from 3.2 to 0.7 million years; and how the pollinating carpenter bee found its way here (on driftwood). But it turns out you can have a relaxing holiday, too. I find Seychelles-white beaches, well-marked walking trails, friendly restaurants serving fresh tuna for $7 and some very indulgent hotels.

On the lip of an extinct volcano’s crater, with spacious balcony rooms, Pikaia Lodge is a blissfully isolated design hotel, testament to the notion that you can learn about the story of our planet while residing in the lap of luxury. What drew me (and, it seems, most guests) was a horror of spending days on end in confined spaces with strangers on a regimented itinerary. In other words, no week-long cruises. That said, the lodge strikes a happy balance, with day-trips on its boat, Pikaia 1, which has room for 16 guests (conventional cruise vessels take up to 100), and has private cabins and a sundeck. After each exhilarating outing, it was a joy to return to a leisurely dinner of, say, grilled octopus with chimichurri, followed by a tranquil night’s sleep in a big bed that didn’t sway.

The infinity pool at Pikaia Lodge

True, some sightings are only possible on longer voyages to outlying islands – the red-footed boobies on Genovesa, for instance, and the waved albatrosses of Española. But any fear of missing out as a ‘landlubber’ dissipates the minute I step onto tiny North Seymour Island after a 45-minute trip aboard Pikaia 1 after breakfast on Santa Cruz. We draw up beside what looks like just another guano-splashed bird sanctuary – under full-beam sunshine (the Galápagos sit right on the equator). Suddenly, everything explodes into life. Flame-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttle over the black rocks. A sea lion slips into the cobalt waves. What was that splash? ‘Marble rays mating,’ explains our guide, Mario, as he leads us ashore and along winding paths. ‘Look – love is in the air!’ Scores of male frigate birds perch in the trees, their bright-red throat pouches puffed up like Valentine’s Day balloons. High above, the females wheel past, sizing up the suitors. Further on we meet blue-footed boobies nursing their eggs, as other would-be couples perform their comic courtship dance. They bow low, then raise each leg with an exaggerated step, like a man with chewing gum stuck to the sole of his shoe.

These are plenty more surprises to come. The following day, we cruise northwest for 90 minutes to Santiago Island. We’re here to walk across the gargantuan swirls of pahoehoe lava at Sullivan Bay, like a petrified cowpat the size of a football pitch. The untouched beach is heavenly, and I can’t wait to dive into the bewitchingly turquoise sea. Warm enough to swim in, it is still sufficiently cool to please the penguins that made their way up from Antarctica on the Humboldt Current many moons ago and, understandably, never went back.

They’re smaller, more solitary than their snow-zone counterparts. Progressing to neighbouring Bartolomé Island for a snorkelling session, we spy a dozen of them on the rocks like a row of black-and-white skittles, cooling their wings in the breeze as we breaststroke past. Abruptly, as if they’d heard a collective cry of ‘That’s enough, guys!’, they dive in with us, darting around with an urgency that seems a mix of playfulness and territorial defence. ‘Wow, I’ve just been swimming with penguins!’ a fellow traveller reflects as we head for home, sunbathing on the top deck. ‘What else is there to do here after that?’ she wonders.

In my case, the answer is an onward journey to my next hotel, on Isabela, the largest of the Galápagos islands. As I wait at Puerto Ayora to transfer from Santa Cruz, I encounter hulking sea lions fast asleep on a bench surrounded by gaggles of tourists. It’s a delightful snapshot of how refreshingly indifferent nature remains to the islands’ 275,000 annual visitors.

In just under two hours, after a bumpy high-speed ride, I reach Puerto Villamil. My welcome committee: a posse of marine iguanas hanging around the jetty like toughs in black biker leathers. These ‘imps of darkness’, as Darwin called them, have a mean-as-hell look, with their spiked spines, scaly armour and ‘Reptiles Rule OK’ arrogance. I guess they’re here to scavenge on scraps of dropped baguette – in fact, in an evolutionary plot-twist typical of the Galápagos, they have adapted from land to sea, fine-tuned to dine on seaweed and algae and hold their breath underwater for up to 30 minutes in the process.

A little bigger than Mallorca, Isabela has just one 30km road that runs from the port northwest to the mighty Sierra Negra volcano. Among the many miracles of the Galápagos is just how protected it is: 97% of its land mass is national park and I get a distinct feeling we lucky visitors are merely clinging to its edges, like kids peeping through a window at something they know is wonderful, but can’t fully comprehend.

A 20-minute drive along this road lies Scalesia Lodge, the only place you can stay outside the small port village of Puerto Villamil. For nature-seekers, it’s a dream – guests sleep in handsome safari tents shipped in from South Africa. They’re fronted with raised decking shaded by fruit trees. A profusion of stars fills a night sky unpolluted by artificial light, and I sit listening to the nightly frog chorus prior to dinner: an agreeable affair featuring swordfish with passionfruit sauce. Heading back to bed, I find a cushion with a warning: ‘There have been around 13 volcanic eruptions in the Galápagos in the last 100 years’. A good piece of trivia, if hardly conducive to a peaceful night’s sleep.

The dramatic results of such subterranean turbulence are in plain view when I take a tour up to Sierra Negra, which erupted as recently as 2018. Its vast caldera, which is almost 10km wide, is now a barren lava field that resembles a massive accident involving a hundred lorries loaded with instant coffee granules. Alfredo, my genial guide, who gave up a promising soccer career to live in this eco-paradise, was up here when the volcano kicked off spectacularly in 2005. ‘I told my clients not to worry,’ he chuckled. ‘I explained we get 400 tremors a year. Then there was a second big shake and it was clearly time to go!’

Walking around the rim, admiring the magnificent views, it hits me how immensely rewarding hiking in the Galápagos is – and surely always will be. Just about everything you encounter is so fascinatingly different to the rest of the world. Why are there mostly only white and yellow native flowers here? Apparently because the majority are self-pollinators, so there’s no need to show off to insects. How did spiders get here from the mainland? Flying on parachutes of silk, or so the story goes.

As Alfredo and I yomp along, our conversation turns to his distaste for the cruise ships that treat Isabela Island ‘as a place to drop their garbage’. Passengers might come up for a panoramic view of the caldera, he explains, but they rarely have the time to explore as we do. Cruise life is in sharp contrast to my experience, travelling group-free, at my own land-based pace, stimulated by thrills, insights and mellow times that leave me relaxed and enriched.
On my final day, I wind up as I began: on a bike, cycling off alongside Alfredo to explore Puerto Villamil, an agreeably sleepy place, with a sand-strewn main street and a lagoon of pink flamingoes striking elegant poses. Heading west beside its dazzling beach, we pass families picnicking next to the mangroves and birdwatchers climbing a tower for a far-reaching view along the coast. It all seems Edenic, but there’s a sting in the tail. Or tale…

At the end is a cairn-like row of heavy grey rocks, piled high above us. ‘Here they made hell in paradise,’ Alfredo explains as we contemplate the grim, colossal Muro de las Lágrimas – Wall of Tears. Its construction, by the inmates of a penal camp established in 1946, was ordered with the sole purpose of exhausting and punishing its labourers, whose crimes might be as mundane as stealing a calf. The prison was here for 13 years, and only closed after the convicts made an unsuccessful attempt to murder its governor by pushing a section of the wall onto him, which alerted the government to its iniquities.

As I survey this monument to misery and folly, it’s obvious that we humans haven’t evolved anywhere near as gracefully as these fabulous creatures now merrily swimming and sunbathing their days away in the Galápagos Islands. Hopefully, we still have time to get it right, but, meanwhile, I’m taking my cue from its loveable giant tortoises. If you want a long happy life, keep your head down and take things slow. Obviously, it’d help to not fall asleep in the middle of the road