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Posted by Tim on Aug 20, 2005
Searching for Galapagos

For me, it starts with Darwin and the iguanas.

I remember being a kid and reading some book about Charles Darwin. Darwin, of course, was initially struck by the earliest seedlings of what would become the theory of evolution when he visited the Galapagos Islands.

I remember reading some account of his journey there aboard the HMS Beagle, and it included this anecdote about the iguanas.

The Englishman and the Iguanas

There are many kinds of iguanas on Galapagos, including the only marine iguanas in the world. These enormous beasties live in the water, eating kelp from the sea floor, and then from time to time they clambor up onto the rocky shores of some of the islands to work on their tans or something.

Darwin theorized that the marine iguanas had no predators on land (the lack of virtually any predators on the Galapagos islands is the reason for the apparent tameness of all the animals there). They would only need to fear things in the water. Their reaction to being attacked would therefore be to lumber up onto dry land.

He tested his theory in a novel way: he threw an iguana into the water. When, as he'd predicted, it scurried straight back out of the water at him, he hoisted it into the air and tossed it back into the water. From what I understand, this nonsense continued for quite some time.

I just cannot get enough of the image of this 19th-century English gentlemen rolling up his shirtsleeves, grabbing that poor confused iguana about the neck, and flinging it into the ocean for the twenty-seventh time. From that moment, long before I had the faintest idea of where Galapagos was (I imagined the islands to be somewhere off the coast of Africa), I vowed that I would visit them some day.

The Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are notable for three characteristics that, to my knowledge, don't coincide in any other location on the planet: they have never been attached to any continent, they are relative large as islands go, and they were only recently discovered by humans. The island of Madagascar is far larger, but was once part of Africa. The Hawaiian Islands are bigger and have also never been part of any continent, but there have been people living there an awfully long time.

Galapagos is unique: originally completely deviod of life, large enough to host a stunning variety of wildlife, and without predators (especially humans) for almost all of its history. That's why the finches will land on your head there, and the sea lions will play with you while you snorkel. They've just never been given a good enough reason not to.

Now, to visit the islands you have to pay a $100 entrance fee. Moreover, you have to get there, and about the only way to do that is to fly from Ecuador, which costs another $389. So between the two of us, that's nearly $1000, and we haven't talked about a boat yet.

To really see anything of the islands, you have to book yourself a boat. Otherwise, you're paying $489 to fly out and see what you can of one island, which is of course an island with an airport and a city. On a yacht, though, you can take in island after uninhabited island, seeing what you can of one during the day, and then sailing to another while you sleep. The only way to really experience the Galapagos is to book a cruise.

Problems upon problems, and a hint of despair

Our plan had been to fly into Puerto Ayora, the city on Santa Cruz, located approximately in the dead center of the archipeligo. There we would bargain hard with any boat captain that had empty bunks in his yacht, and score ourselves a great deal on a cruise.

We discovered the problem with this plan while laying by the pool in Vilcabamba. Our new friends Klaus and Mike told us that the airport on Santa Cruz was being renovated, so all air traffic was arriving on San Cristobal, one of the easternmost islands. San Cristobal is not nearly so nice a place to hang out while haggling over yacht prices, and wasn't in fact where the yachts were normally docked. We may well find ourselves shelling out the money to get to the Galapagos, and then be unable to find ourselves a boat there.

We took a night bus all the way to Quito, to try and sort out a boat through a travel agent there. This would be more expensive, but pretty much every boat in the Islands is booked through Quito, so we should at least have a good selection, right?

We started with the agent Mike had recommended to us, the one he'd used for his trip, just a month or so before. They bluntly told us that they had nothing.

Not only were they booked up for two solid months, they told us they'd just been trying to help another couple find a different agent, and that everyone was booked solid.

Naturally, we didn't take their word for it. We went to another agent. And another. And another. I don't remember how many exactly we visited in those dark first hours, but it was a lot. No one had anything. Some were shocked we were even trying to book a boat on such short notice; this, it turned out, was the busiest season in years. We were sunk.

For both of us, seeing the Galapagos Islands was a dream we'd nurtured for decades. I won't deny the possibility that tears were shed on some quiet Quito street corner.

Dan Gellar and the <i>Samba</i>

In time, things began to look up. We extended our tentative Ecuador timeline by a couple of weeks, and kept hammering away at agent after agent after agent. Some, in fact, did have a few slots yet available, albeit on the pricier boats. The last yachts to sell out, it seems, were the most expensive ones.

Perhaps, in the end, this was for the best. Galapagos wasn't going to be cheap under any circumstances, and if a few extra bucks would ensure we wouldn't be miserable in a cockroach-infested leaky tub for eight days, then maybe that was money well spent. We rewrote our budget and made our peace with it. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we weren't about to squander it.

By the time our initial research was done, we had interviewed somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty travel agents. One in particular had really clicked with us, and we started working more closely with him. His name was Dan Gellar.

Dan reminded both of us a little of my great-uncle. He had spent 15 years as a guide in the Galapagos, and had indeed lived there for as many years. He, more than anyone else we talked to, seemed to really care about us and the experience we were trying to arrange for ourselves. He gave us a number of recommendations, and we spent a few days back and forth talking to him and looking things up on the internet.

There are five official classes of cruise ships in the Galapagos: Economy, Tourist, Tourist Superior, First-Class, and Luxury. Luxury, the most expensive category, was in fact the least appealing to us: these are all enormous Carnival Cruise style ships with hundreds of passengers. First-class yachts, the next category down, take between 10 and 16 people only. They are first-class in every sense of the term: the cabins, the meals, and most importanly the guide are all the best of the best.

We settled on the Samba, a first-class yacht owned by a highly respected family that has worked in the islands longer than nearly anyone else, and only owns first-class sailing yachts. The reviews and travelblogs we read about the Samba had us pumped, and our good friend Dan helped us score it for $1370 per person for a eight-day, seven-night cruise. (It normally lists at more than $2000 in high season.)

Parting with so much money at once was painful. The $3800 or so we're paying for our Galapagos adventure could probably have lasted us five months in Southeast Asia. But this was the dream of a lifetime, and we were in a unique position to make that dream come true. After withdrawing our daily limit from the ATM for several days in a row, we had the largest wad of money either of us had ever seen. (Galapagos cruises are generally paid for in cash: they charge a murderous 10% surcharge on credit cards.) Walking to the travel agency with so much money in our pockets was a little unnerving. But we got our boat.

In the next couple of days we're hoping to get another entry or two posted. But don't come looking for us between August 23rd and 30th, folks. We'll be hundreds of miles off the shore of South America, somewhere in the vicinity of the equator, playing with sea lions and talking to the tortoises.

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

Magic Memories

Magic Memories

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August 20, 2005 at 4:37pm
It is so awesome that you guys were not only in the position to be able to make your dream come true, but also that you are smart enough to make the decision to do it, and then not agonize over the financial consequence. After all, this is what money's for, right?!?!

Have a fabulous time… I'll think of you, and wait for pictures and posts in a couple months.



Angry Diabetic Unemployed Lesbian
August 20, 2005 at 5:45pm
Why do I suddenly have a vision of you being Marlin in "Finding Nemo" riding on a the back of a sea turtule? "Grab shell dudue!" "Oh and like, no hurling on the shell… I just waxed it." Have fun my dear brother and please be sure to take lots of pics for us.

*Hey, I'm number 2! I rule!*

August 20, 2005 at 5:46pm
good for you two, going for it. :) you'll be sambaing still on the eve of my birthday! :) i know you'll have an awe-filled time.
August 20, 2005 at 6:19pm
i think that this totally awesome and i really hope that you have a great time
August 21, 2005 at 6:03am
How many times did Jess say "you think its Ok"
"you think its OK"
Poor Timmy
No thats O for Awesome you made the right choice
August 21, 2005 at 1:53pm
How many "once in a lifetime" adventures can you have?
Angry Diabetic Unemployed Lesbian
August 22, 2005 at 12:26am
Oh yeah I forgot… NO THROWING LIZZARDS INTO THE WATER! That is unless they attack your or something, but if they're just sitting there getting a tan and drinking beer than just leave the poor dudes alone. You never know… they could be related to Ally and she would be really pissed if you hurt any of her relatives!

I do not want to hear any stories of you throwing lizzards nor do I want to see/hear that you're wearing lizzard skin boots and eating some lizzard-esque steak. Just do me a favour and leave the lizzards alone… You can hug them, but please don't hurt them! 8 o ) Thanks!

August 24, 2005 at 11:33am
Under the circumstances, I'd have been disappointed if you hadn't done the cruise. It's only money, after all.

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