Is­land-hop­ping ad­ven­tures cap­ti­vate at ev­ery turn in the Gala­pa­gos.

ELLE (Canada) - - Escape - By Christina Reynolds

t he van came to an abrupt stop less than a kilo­me­tre from my ho­tel on Santa Cruz Is­land due to a very slow-mov­ing road­block: a 200-pound Gala­pa­gos tor­toise. More con­cerned with munch­ing on the bright-green blades of grass dan­gling from its mouth than with the ap­proach­ing ve­hi­cle, it didn’t make any ef­fort to move. Even­tu­ally, two peo­ple had to care­fully carry the im­pos­ing crea­ture off to the side so we could pass. This was a fit­ting start to my five-day visit to the Gala­pa­gos since the ar­chi­pel­ago of 13 ma­jor is­lands clus­tered 1,000 kilo­me­tres off the coast of Ecuador is named af­ter the gi­ant tor­toises— galá­pa­gos, in Span­ish.

The is­lands, where there are no nat­u­ral preda­tors, are fa­mous for wildlife that is not gen­er­ally spooked by hu­mans, so my close en­coun­ters came swiftly: On my first yacht ex­cur­sion, to North Sey­mour Is­land, I only took a few steps onto the shore be­fore spot­ting a blue-footed booby with its chick as well as male frigate birds with their bright-red bal­loon-like necks on dis­play. An­other day, be­fore we had even dropped an­chor, we came across two adorably tiny Gala­pa­gos pen­guins near Bar­tolomé Is­land. It’s strange—al­most al­ter­nate-re­al­ity-like—how quickly you can adapt to the no­tion that birds would rather ig­nore you than try to peck out your eyes when you get close to their ba­bies.

Of course, I did ar­rive here ready to be cap­ti­vated by the wildlife and the sur­real lava-formed land­scapes—the Gala­pa­gos is a bucket-list trip for good rea­son. But I had no idea I would also be­come en­thralled with some of the is­lands’ hu­man his­tory. While the Gala­pa­gos has long been an Eden for an­i­mals, that has not been the case for hu­mans. In 1535, the Span­ish dis­cov­ered the is­lands

by ac­ci­dent af­ter drift­ing of­f­course. They found the place in­hos­pitable—some died of thirst be­fore they found fresh wa­ter. For years, whalers and pi­rates were the only in­ter­mit­tent hu­man vis­i­tors. The first “res­i­dent” of the is­lands was a marooned Ir­ish­man in 1807. But in 1929, ac­cord­ing to my guide Paulina Aguirre, a hand­ful of Ger­man set­tlers came to Flore­ana Is­land with the ex­press pur­pose of cre­at­ing their own Eden. It did not go well—it was ba­si­cally Gil­li­gan’s Is­land gone very, very bad.

The con­vo­luted tale starts with the ar­rival of a Ger­man doc­tor/philoso­pher and his young lover, who are then fol­lowed by an­other (un­wel­come) Ger­man cou­ple and a self-pro­claimed baroness with two male lovers. Fast­for­ward five years—through sev­eral al­leged affairs, two dis­ap­pear­ances/likely mur­ders, a drought, a sus­pi­cious food-poi­son­ing death and a ship­wreck with two mum­mi­fied bod­ies—and you end up with ab­so­lutely no cer­tainty about what re­ally hap­pened to any of them.

The small group I was trav­el­ling with was so taken with the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up his­tory that we watched a doc­u­men­tary about it— The Gala­pa­gos Af­fair: Satan Came to Eden (com­plete with voice-overs by Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger)—and it dom­i­nated our din­ner con­ver­sa­tions back at our ho­tel. It be­came our very own Gala­pa­gos true-crime tale wor­thy of in-depth spec­u­la­tion à la the Se­rial pod­cast or Netflix’s Mak­ing a Mur­derer.

To­day, more than half of the Gala­pa­gos’ 30,000 res­i­dents live on Santa Cruz Is­land; to curb de­vel­op­ment, the num­ber of au­to­mo­biles is lim­ited. (Ninety-seven per­cent of all land in the Gala­pa­gos is pro­tected as a na­tional park.) The one main road (with bike paths) is flanked by fruit and cat­tle farms at higher el­e­va­tions. On the east­ern side of the is­land, perched along the ridge of a now-dor­mant vol­cano, is the 14-room Pikaia Lodge, the is­lands’ first luxe eco-ho­tel, where I stayed. Af­ter my long days out on the prop­erty’s Pikaia I yacht, it was lovely to step back onto solid ground and then wake up to a misty-green view of the sur­round­ing gi­ant-tor­toise re­serve. Named af­ter Pikaia gracilens, the first crea­ture that evolved into a ver­te­brate, the prop­erty is full of evo­lu­tion­ary touches, like a copy of Dar­win’s On the Ori­gin of Species in my night­stand and a wall sculp­ture of Dar­win’s finches in the Evo­lu­tion restau­rant.

Ear­lier in the trip, on the grounds of the Charles Dar­win Re­search Sta­tion, as if on cue, two of th­ese finches ap­peared within sec­onds of each other—a medium ground finch and a cac­tus finch. Dar­win didn’t rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of the finches he had col­lected from the var­i­ous is­lands dur­ing his 1835 voy­age un­til years later when their dis­tinc­tive beaks be­came a key ex­am­ple in his the­ory of evo­lu­tion. See­ing the finches my­self made me think of Bri­tish evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gists Peter and Rose­mary Grant, who’ve been study­ing finches on the Gala­pa­gos islet Daphne Ma­jor since 1973. Their ground­break­ing work, pub­lished in their 2014 book 40 Years of Evo­lu­tion, found that the Daphne Ma­jor birds are evolv­ing much quicker than Dar­win had ever sus­pected—in some cases from year to year. It all re­minded me that there is still much here to be ex­plored.

On my flight back to the main­land, my cu­rios­ity about the Flore­ana saga was again piqued. I couldn’t be­lieve my eyes when none other than Tui De Roy, one of the lo­cals in­ter­viewed in the The Gala­pa­gos Af­fair doc­u­men­tary, sat across the aisle from me. Her par­ents came to the Gala­pa­gos from Bel­gium in the 1950s and were early set­tlers on Santa Cruz Is­land. I was dy­ing to ask her what kind of Flore­ana ru­mours she’d heard grow­ing up. But she was so soft-spo­ken and gra­cious that I couldn’t bring my­self to sully the con­ver­sa­tion with the “Who do you think did it?” ques­tion—plus, I al­ready knew that no one re­ally knows that an­swer. In­stead, we talked about what it was like for her to grow up in such a beau­ti­ful but iso­lated place. “My best friends were the an­i­mals and birds,” re­called De Roy, now a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher based in Takaka, New Zealand. Her kind de­meanour and fo­cus on na­ture quickly brought my fo­cus back to the real rea­son that I, like so many oth­ers, am at­tracted to the Gala­pa­gos. n

Clock­wise, from top left: San­ti­ago Is­land’s ex­tra­or­di­nary shore­line is a snorkeller’s par­adise; Santa Cruz Is­land’s Pikaia Lodge is perched on a volcanic crater with amaz­ing views; a Gala­pa­gos gi­ant tor­toise; a Sally Light­foot crab; a Gala­pa­gos pen­guin; s

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