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Galapagos Island cruise tour: From hell on earth to paradise

The Galapagos Islands are hell for some, paradise for others. Photo: Craig PlattLooking across the landscape in front of me – a black, hot, desolate plain of molten slag – it’s easy to understand why the first visitors to these islands considered them hell on earth.
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It wasn’t just the landscape. The animals also looked like the spawn of hell. This was the view of Spain’s Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, who arrived in the Galapagos Islands in 1535 after drifting off course en route to Peru.

And compared to the bountiful paradises found elsewhere in the Pacific, surely these remote, uninhabited, harsh islands did seem hellish.

More than anything, it is the lack of rainfall here, combined with the burning equatorial sun, that made it such a hard place for humans. In the age of exploration, ships would anchor at islands with the expectation they could find fresh water and replenish their supplies. Not here.

And yet, the Galapagos Islands are a paradise in their own way – it just depends on your perspective. Here, dozens of unique species have evolved and flourished because of their isolation and ability to survive in the tough environment.

Charles Darwin is considered something of a father figure here, as the man who recognised the significance of the islands, even if his theory of evolution was still just a glimmer in his mind’s eye at the time he visited in 1835.

His identification and classification of the many unique animals – particularly the finches, which were different from one island to the next – put the Galapagos on the map as a place of biological importance.

Darwin’s legacy continues to this day: protection of the unique environment has become a serious business here. The Ecuadorian territory has placed limits on the number and size of the cruise ships that can operate here, so planning your trip well in advance is advised.

The tourist demand isn’t surprising because the islands remain a true bucket list-destination, particularly for ns: a recent survey on Traveller苏州夜网.au found it was top of the list for many of our readers.

And as the extraordinary Planet Earth 2 series from the BBC hits our screens, the Galapagos is a place where you can have your own “Planet Earth” moments. The BBC’s viral footage of an iguana narrowly escaping a onslaught of snakes was filmed here on the island of Fernandina.

My own visit is on board the Ocean Spray, a luxurious catamaran that sleeps up to 16 passengers. The width of the catamaran means the common areas – the dining area, the lounge and the rooftop sun deck – are particularly spacious. And the cabins are also quite luxurious, and large with their own bathrooms (the shower is one of the largest I’ve seen at sea). All have private balconies, even my own single-berth room. Day one: Blue feet and red throats

Wildlife is the number one reason to visit the Galapagos Islands and, unlike some other parts of the world where the animals can prove elusive, here visitors will discover it immediately and in abundance.

Before arriving at the aforementioned hellscape of southern Isabela island, we set out from Santa Cruz – one of the only islands to be inhabited by humans. Shortly after boarding the Ocean Spray we cruise across to our first island stop, North Seymour Island. From the deck we watch as blue-footed boobies circle and dive for fish, their bodies folding into perfect arrow shapes the instant before they hit the water.

Despite North Seymour’s tiny size, the number of animals that live here is staggering. As with all on-shore visits to the Galapagos, we’re accompanied by a naturalist to inform us about the island and its animals as well as ensuring we don’t stray from the defined path. This is just as well, as the wildlife is so abundant one could easily end up stepping on a poor creature by accident (the animals have no fear whatsoever of humans so won’t bother getting out of your way).

North Seymour is home to hundreds of the blue-footed boobies – the males will whistle and do a little dance, lifting each of their bright blue feet in turn before spreading their wings, in the hopes of attracting some female attention. The island is also a popular nesting spot for frigate birds. The males of this large black species have bright red sacks at their throats, which they inflate into enormous balloons. Again, it’s all about getting some female attention. Day 2: Vast volcanoes

We arrive at Isabela, the largest of the islands by a long way: a vast, volcanic landscape of harsh cliffs and ancient lava flows. We tour by Zodiac in the morning and quickly discover that what appeared to be sheer barren rock from a distance is teeming with life. More boobies, Galapagos doves, and black aquatic iguanas all perch or cling to the rock face. In a sheltered bay a small group of another of the island’s’ unique species can be found – the world’s only flightless cormorants. Such is the abundance of food in the water, the birds have never needed to travel far. As a result, their wings have shrunk to become near useless. If anything they have begun to resemble penguins, without yet having the abilities in the water that the latter’s flippers provide.

Our second stop is Fernandina, essentially a huge single volcano that resembles Mt Fuji without the snow. Its volcanic landscape is harsh and unforgiving, covered in rocks of cooled lava that makes it impassable to most animals and unwelcoming to plant life. We walk along a designated track, being careful not to step on the island’s most abundant residents – marine iguanas, which are sunning themselves in large groups on the shore. We also spot several rarer Galapagos snakes, small constrictors that hunt for baby iguanas.

But we leave the island after our guide spots a killer whale cruising the shoreline. Getting in our boats, we follow it, watching it occasionally surface to spout and breathe before it disappears. Shortly after, it resurfaces right on the bow of our dinghy, a hapless sea turtle clenched in its jaws. A few minutes later, we gasp and shout in awe as the whale knocks the turtle 20 metres into the air with incredible force, seemingly in an attempt to crack its hard shell. Or perhaps it’s just playing with its food. It’s hard to tell. Even our guide has never seen a whale exhibit this type of behaviour. Day 3: Penguins and turtles

We return to Isabela in the morning for a brief hike from Tagus Cove, a small volcanic crater lake that offers beautiful views of the harbour. Further up the hill we can see the tallest point of the islands, Volcan Wolf, a volcano on Isabela, along with the adjacent Volcan Darwin. We then tour the bay in dinghies and see our first Galapagos penguins – the most northerly based penguins in the world and the only ones you can find north of the equator. After that, we snorkel the shoreline and see a large number of sea turtles grazing on the seaweed. They are completely unperturbed by our presence. While the sea turtles are not interested, a young sea lion decides to pop in to have a look at our snorkelling group.

After lunch, we head to one of the Galapagos newest beaches, a place called Urvina Bay – which did not exist until 1954, where an earthquake forced the land to rise up, creating a new shoreline for this part of Isabela. Here there’s a lot more vegetation, but little life. There are a few land iguanas and birds, but the tortoises that are said to live here are likely in higher ground, where there is better eating and cooler air. Day 4: From mangroves to hell on earth

Still circumnavigating Isabela, we find the landscape has completely changed from our last stop. Here it’s a mangrove forest, though the water in the channel remains beautifully clear. We see plenty of turtles and sea lions again (one, in a bizarre sight, lazing in the branches of a mangrove tree), but the real attraction this time are the eagle and golden rays. Though small compared to some other ray species, they are both colourful and move beautifully through the water.

After lunch we move further down the coast and the landscape changes again. Gone is the greenery of the mangroves, replaced by black volcanic rock as far as the eye can see. The dark surface reflects the sun’s blazing heat back at us as we walk along and the “hell on earth” descriptions come back to my mind. Depressions in the landscape have created small salt-water lakes and here we find one of the Galapagos’ rarest inhabitants – flamingoes. There is only a small population of the exotic birds to be found in this part of the world, yet they still survive here, dining on the small shrimp that can be found in these pools. Day 5 and 6: Darwin’s legacy

Day five is a full day of sailing and chance to rest. We round the southern coast of Isabela and make our way back to Santa Cruz. While it’s a travel day of relaxation on board, I find myself constantly distracted – in regular intervals I see a spout out the window and find there’s a whale off the starboard side. Later, we even spot a whale shark from the upper deck, recognisable due to its vertical tail fin.

Back at Santa Cruz the next day, we visit the island’s town of Puerto Ayora, home to the Charles Darwin Research Station – a place where projects are developed to protect the wildlife of the region and also an opportunity to see some of the giant tortoises that are difficult to see in the wild. It was also the home of Lonesome George until 2012, when the 100-year-old tortoise – the last of his species – finally died.   Got up close with this huge giant tortoise shortly after arriving in the #galapagos. Look at the size of that shell! And he’s probably 100 years old. #travellerau #travel #instatravel #wildlife #animals #natureA post shared by Craig Platt (@cptraveller) on Jul 3, 2016 at 3:19am PDT

In the gift shop, T-shirts are emblazoned with a quote attributed to Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Strangely enough. given his name is on the centre, the quote was never actually said by Darwin. Instead, it reportedly originated with an American business professor in the 1960s.

A more accurate quote from Darwin is this from one of his journals: “The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.”

Indeed it feels like it’s own world. One that, despite its initial appearance as hell, turned out to be a paradise. Trip notes

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traveller苏州夜网.au/galapagos-islands

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FLY

LATAM flies from Sydney to Santiago, Chile with connections to the Galapagos via Quito, Ecuador. See latam苏州夜网/en_au

CRUISE

South America Travel Centre arranges high-end cruise trips in the Galapagos Islands. A four-day cruise on board the Ocean Spray luxury catamaran starts from $US3090. See southamericatravelcentre苏州夜网.au

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of LATAM and the South America Travel Centre.

Follow the writer on Twitter and Instagram.

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