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The Galápagos Islands: a wild and special place to celebrate a milestone

Photo by Alamy Stock Photo

The author celebrates a birthday on the islands that symbolize change and renewal.

"Don’t trip over the iguanas,” warned Carlos.

Our guide’s advice wasn’t flippant. Coming ashore on North Seymour Island, the animals were so thick and well camouflaged that it was easy to stub your toe on a resting reptile or blunder into a sleeping sea lion. Squawking and grunting filled the air, but the resident birds, lizards, and pin-nipped appeared oblivious to our arrival.

We’d arrived in the Galápagos Islands in late May. The cool Humboldt and Cromwell currents were stirring the sea, inspiring a breeze and enriching the ocean with nutrients. “Now it is the romantic season,” cooed Victoria Mediavilla, another of our expert guides, if prone to anthropomorphisms. “When the birds feel the wind, they start the mating season. It is the time for love!”

It was a good time for me too. I’d just turned 60 and was fascinated by the widespread Eastern belief that if one reaches that milestone, one’s life enters a new phase. Here is the reasoning: In Chinese astrology, there are 12 animals and five elements. After 60 years (12 times five), you’ve experienced every possible combination. When that cycle is complete, I’ve heard it said, one’s worldly obligations are settled; your life is your own. The Galápagos, a hotbed of change and renewal that I’d long dreamed of visiting, would be a perfect place to celebrate this passage.

My only concern was that while I’d certainly encounter the five elements—earth, fire, air (or metal), water, and wood—I might not see 12 animals. But as I ventured out on my first excursion, I recalled the gentle mockery of a well-traveled friend: “I could blindfold you in the Galápagos,” she’d told me, “and you’d see 12 animals.”

One can explore the Galápagos in several ways: via day trips from one of the inhabited islands (there are four with hotels), or live-aboard boats of various sizes. Our craft—the 48-passenger La Pinta—stopped at seven islands during its weeklong voyage.

Galápagos National Park, 600 miles off the Ecuadoran coast, lives up to its documentaries. The many animals we encountered—from blue-footed boobies to giant tortoises—were not simply “tame.” We seemed utterly invisible to some, and objects of bored curiosity to others. Coming from San Francisco, where birds and lizards scurry out of my way, I found myself wary of every stone on the beach. “At a certain point,” our lead guide, Carlos King, agreed, “everything starts to look like an iguana.”

There are few places on our planet where landscape and genetics have merged as visibly as in the Galápagos. Nearly two centuries after the 24-year-old Charles Darwin stepped onto the islands, they’re still a global laboratory for the study of adaptation. I had a strange feeling when my own foot touched the sand of North Seymour’s coast. It was the realization that everything about our planet—even its position in space—is in constant flux, moving toward an unknown destiny. When I was 24 there was no Internet or digital music. When Darwin was 24, there was only one known galaxy (ours), and life on Earth was viewed as pretty much fixed. No species had ever—to use the root meaning of the word evolve—“unfolded.” But this planet is in a continual state of unfolding, from the drift of the continents to the progress of our lives. And with a map of the islands flattened on my stateroom bed, I was ready to see what this particular journey might disclose.

Fire

galapagos hike

Visitors to the Galápagos Islands tread carefully across the rocks. | Photo by Jeff Greenwald

The Galápagos are islands born of fire. Like Hawai‘i, the archipelago is being continually formed as one of Earth’s tectonic plates (the Nazca) crawls over this hot spot in our planet’s mantle. Moving eastward, the plate buckles under the South American continent—the same process that is creating the Andes.

Among the 13 major Galápagos islands, the westernmost are the newest (and barest). Fernandina, the youngest, is less than a million years old. (The oldest, Española, was formed about 4 million years ago.) Fernandina sits alongside Isabela, a seahorse-shaped landmass formed by a chain of six volcanoes. These islands are very much alive; Fernandina is a shield volcano that erupted most recently in April 2009. 

Some of the animals here actually look like fire creatures. I’m talking, of course, about the iguanas, which are sort of miniature dragons. All three species of land iguanas have spiny backs. Charles Darwin called them “ugly animals, of a yellowish-orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above. From their low facial angle, they have a singularly stupid appearance.” 

That was uncalled for. In any case, my favorite was the Galápagos marine iguana, found only on these islands. The animals are a wonderful example of what makes the Galápagos so fascinating. They’re the only iguanas to have adapted—through population and habitat pressure—to feed on underwater algae and seaweed. Yet another group of reptiles is found all over the Galápagos isles. I hate to give this away, but to all you footwear manufacturers out there: You could hardly do better than to name a line of sandals after the red-throated Tropidurus, a.k.a. “Lava Lizard.” Each of seven species is adapted to slightly different terrain. I’ll take a pair of each.

Air

Frigatebird

A Magnificient Frigatebird inflates his pouch to attact females. | Photo by Jeff Greenwald

If you’re an animal, it’s tough to get to the Galápagos. One factor that makes the islands a “living laboratory” for evolution is that they’re so isolated. “Every animal endemic to the Galápagos came on the wind, on or inside a bird, on a raft of floating vegetation, or on the ocean currents,” said Carlos. Even the giant tortoises, which still roam by the thousands over Isabela Island, probably arrived after a long, unintended ocean voyage. “Their shells,” he said half-jokingly, “are sort of like small RVs.” 

Arrival isn’t enough. Next comes “establishment.” This means finding a habitat, a food source, and a feeding strategy that isn’t already claimed by one of the other creatures competing for the islands’ limited resources. Once all that is accomplished, you must find one more thing: a mate. 

So it’s no surprise, really, that the most successful squatters in the Galápagos are birds. Of the islands’ 56 native species, 80 percent are found only here. There are waved albatrosses, Galápagos hawks, and 13 species of Darwin’s finches, whose specialized beaks—each adapted to feeding on a specific seed or insect—offer real-time evidence of natural selection.

But of all the creatures of the air, the blue-footed booby is probably the most beloved. Named after bobo, the Spanish word for “idiot” (what was it with those naturalists?), the young booby does have beautiful, sky-blue feet. With the enraptured Victoria, I witnessed the booby’s elegant, slow-motion mating dance. The male approached the female and cautiously lifted one blue foot, then the other. The female, evidently impressed, turned toward him, and followed suit.

“See my blue feet!” exclaimed our passionate, Galápagos-born guide, narrating the encounter from the male booby’s point of view. “Are they not beautiful? Look! I will dance for you!” Her glee was infectious; the ritual took on the suspense of a Project Runway episode. Had Victoria been on those early Spanish expeditions, these birds would definitely have been graced with a different name.

Water

bluefooted booby bird

The color of the blue-footed booby's feet helps males attract mates. | Photo by Jeff Greenwald

If snorkeling were the only thing I’d done in the islands, it would have been worth the trip. Suspended in the cool water, snug in my shorty wetsuit, I could not believe the scene before my eyes. Below me, on the rock-scattered seabed—a colorful landscape of parrot fish and urchins a few yards beneath my fins—two marine iguanas grazed on algae. A couple of green sea turtles swam languidly by, their flippers bearing an astonishing resemblance to angels’ wings. Moments later, a pair of spotted eagle rays brushed past me, undulating their own wings in perfect rhythm. I followed them in a wide circle, fascinated by their strangely cat-like features. All the animals seemed to be in twos, as if preparing to board the Ark—even the Galápagos penguins that rocketed past my mask, sleek as tuxedoed torpedoes. 

We seemed all but invisible to these animals that have somehow evolved without any fear of (or interest in) human beings. The miracle is that it’s not just one species of fish, bird, or reptile; it’s all of them.

Yet we were anything but invisible to a pack of young sea lions off the coast of tiny Santa Fe Island. They greeted us like long-lost playmates—and there’s no exaggerating their mischievous humor. They cartwheeled, pirouetted, blew bubble-rings, and raced in circles around us. There were so many that it was easy to get lost in a crowd of them, trying to keep them straight as they rolled in acrobatic loops. Each seemed to have a distinct personality. There was the shy one and the bold one, the curious one, the bully, the show-off. One rapscallion tried to pull off my fin, then gyrated up to look me right in the eye; another swam up to one of my fellow snorkelers and “kissed” her on the forehead—a benediction she’ll never forget. 

As soon as we were back aboard La Pinta, Santa Fe receding into the blue distance, I missed my new friends desperately.

“I wonder,” I said, “if they would recognize me if I came back next year?”

“I don’t know,” replied Carlos, shrugging. “Would you recognize them?”

The farther east you travel in the archipelago, the older the islands. Here, there are mangroves and a wild variety of cacti—the last thing you expect to see after swimming with penguins. Santa Cruz Island’s hills were covered with Scalesia and Palo Santo trees, whose fragrant sap recalls frankincense. We had sailed, in a few days, from bare lava slopes to thick forest. 

On Santa Cruz Island, we stopped in busy Puerto Ayora to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station and observe the Galápagos tortoises. They looked oddly familiar, and for good reason: The giant reptiles, with their sage-like eyes and elongated necks, are reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.

Though it was a bit shocking to go from the sparse beauty of the other isles to the pizza parlors and gift shops of Puerto Ayora, it was a delight to see sea lions loitering like hounds at the outdoor fish market, waiting patiently for handouts.

Our intimate proximity to so many creatures left a strange impression on me. In some respects, the Galápagos Islands felt like open-air zoos. But what they more accurately showed me was that the Earth itself is sort of an open-air zoo—with certain animals the self-appointed zookeepers.

Four million years may be an eye blink in geological time, but 60 is a full human cycle. In my own evolution as a journalist, I’ve already seen some tectonic changes in the world: the digital web that now binds every corner of our planet, the rise of electronic books, the fall of many magazines. It’s taken some adaptation. On a more personal level, what I discovered in the Galápagos is that my early interests have come to define me: a love of travel and a delight in writing down what I observe. In recent years, protecting our world’s diversity of species has also become a passion, along with a desire to help preserve the animals’ habitats. 

Before we departed, I ducked briefly into the Church of St. Francis—an unpresuming green-roofed wooden building a few steps from the main jetty. Inside, I found some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows I’d ever seen. The “saints” celebrated in these colorful portraits are not martyrs or Madonnas; they’re iguanas and reef sharks, pelicans, and rays. As the equatorial sunlight beamed through the vivid glass panels, I lit a candle in this unexpected sanctuary. It was an encouraging reminder that we humans, too, really do evolve. 

Author Jeff Greenwald's books include Shopping for Buddhas: An Adventure in Nepal and Snake Lake.

Your AAA travel agent can provide trip-planning information about visiting the Galápagos Islands. Call 800-814-7471 or go to AAA.com/explore.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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