FINDING SWELL AND SOLITUDE IN THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS
We’d been walking through dense bush land of the Galapágos Islands, following a narrow path running along the arid, deep-coved southwest coast. Our eyes were riveted on the ocean beyond, our bodies hardly able to contain our enthusiasm as we made out inviting lines of swell caressed by a light offshore breeze. We’d been here for less than two hours but the magic of the place had already pulled us under its spell.
World-famous for their key role in the developmentment of Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, the Galápagos Islands are, paradoxically, almost completely unknown to the general public. A remote sanctuary of unique flflora and fauna, lost in the middle of the Pacifific Ocean, there’s no lack of charm and interest for travellers, as SUP surfer Alexis Deniel, his girlfriend Melanie and I discovered when we visited the distinctive travel destination.
During the long flflight from continental South America, watching the endless azure-blue expanse through that little round plane window, I was struck by how isolated this chain of 48 volcanic dots on the map actually is, scattered like gravel in the deep blue ocean, about 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador. I thought about those fifirst Spanish explorers, and of the famous British naturalist Darwin, who landed here in 1835 on his equally famous three-master, the Beagle. It was much less of an adventure getting there for us, and once we’d fifinished with the immigration formalities we quickly piled our board bags into the pick-up with our local contact and guide, Danny. He gave us a quick run-down on the plan.
“The swell has dropped a bit, but there are still plenty of good waves to ride today, if you’ve got the energy,” he said. “We can drop your bags offff at your lodgings, then go check out some of the spots if you like.”
That’s how, after 36 hours of traveling and four difffferent flflights, we found ourselves on a long march up the coast, bags on our backs and boards under our arms.
Eventually, we stop in front of a makeshift sandwalled windbreak, from where we could see several difffferent waves rolling over a reef. The fifirst looked a bit dicey, but a few hundred yards further was a beautiful, shoulder-high left without a soul in sight. We raced down the path and in a flflash, Danny and Alexis were across the black rocks and in the water. With no trace of human activity and the endless deep blue all around, we quickly got the impression of being at the very edge of the world.
Alexis thought he was the only one riding a wave but was surprised to fifind a few giant sea lions racing alongside him and, when he kicked out, giant turtles flfloating in the gentle roll of the inside. Both were a reminder that nature is very much king here.
“Sorry, forgot to warn you we wouldn’t be alone,” Danny said, now in fifits of laughter. “No kid- ding though, watch out for the turtles, you could hurt them, but they could have all your fifins offff just like that.”
Alexis took note and scored a few more rolling lefts all the way to the turtles, until the jetlag kicked in and we left the spot empty once again.
The swell had diminished the next day, but with a promising new swell on the horizon, we took the opportunity to explore the east coast of the island.
We climbed the slope of a dormant volcano that dominated the valley and offffered spectacular panoramic views of the southern part of the island. Upon reaching the top, we were stunned to fifind an immense lagoon, hundreds of yards long that had built up in the crater. Various species of birds flflew to and from the water, washing their wings in this unexpected birdbath, which turned out to be the biggest lagoon in the entire island chain.
We carried on east, aiming for the home of the giant tortoises that the islands are known for. These endemic creatures seemed to have walked straight out of the Jurassic period, and are as impressive as they are peaceful. Despite the massive weight of their cumbersome shells and heavy, scaly feet, their slow walk has a curious grace. These reptiles have a reputation for extreme resilience, capable of passing half a year or more without eating or drinking, and living an average of 100 years. After their visit in the
path and barking raucously at anyone who tried to pass. Animals were clearly the rulers of that particular roost. Despite all our foreign trips, we’d never felt more like guests than there.
The draw of the water was too much for Alexis and Melanie, who soon inflflated their boards and readied their gear. The pair paddled across the water as a juvenile sea lion playfully followed them and a pelican flflew overhead on its way to the rocks at the southern end of the bay. Taking it all in from the vantage point of their boards, they slowly advanced across the bay, savouring every moment and enjoying the immense privilege of such an intimate moment with nature.
Judging by the foam that swept over the distant rocks visible from our window, the much-anticipated swell had arrived. Ready to check out some difffferent spots, Alexis quickly grabbed his gear and we rushed offff to meet Danny, the eternal optimist. We walked down a dirt track just opposite the house, the sun brightening the afternoon sky and a steady wind tickling the backs of our necks. We passed a few curious locals, intrigued by the boards under our arms and bags on our backs, then arrived in a little cul-de-sac with a small, almost hidden footpath leading offff it. Pushing our way through the dense vegetation, the sound of breaking waves became louder with every step. A splendid crescent beach came into view, as did the lovely, clean rights glinting emerald green in the sunlight. It wasn’t big, but the boys were anxious to get out after being deprived of waves for the past two days. Following Danny along the beach to the entry spot, Alexis was stopped in his tracks by an imposing iguana sunning itself on the volcanic rocks, motionless, as if dead. Darwin wrote in his memoirs about these reptiles, the “disgusting, ungainly lizards” and “goblins of the depths.” Huge numbers of them covered the nearby rocks. Their distinctive crests, crawling walk and resemblance to dinosaurs was both fascinating and impressive in equal measure.
With the sun slowly sinking towards the distant horizon, beautiful light was cast upon the wooded hillside behind the bay and the village beyond. Alexis and Danny took full advantage of the small but perfectly formed rights, the session fifilling us with promise for the days ahead.
“ANIMALS WERE CLEARLY THE RULERS OF THIS PARTICULAR ROOST. DESPITE ALL OUR FOREIGN TRIPS, WE’D NEVER FELT MORE LIKE GUESTS THAN HERE.”
“IT FELT —AND LOOKED LIKE— WE WERE SURFING ON THE MOON.”
The alarm rang the next morning with the sun still below the horizon. After swallowing a quick coffee, Alexis rushed down to the same spot from the previous night. The swell had clearly increased and overhead bombs exploded over the reef. The imposing walls of water were his playground and he scored tube time in the hollower sections. Danny and a bodyboarding friend, Jericho, soon joined him, stoked to share the spot and its excellent waves with their new French friend.
After three hours of serious surfifing, the change of tide signaled an end to the morning’s festivities. We decided to go eat in the village. The sea front was beautiful as we passed groups of sea li- ons squatting on patches of beach, lying on benches under the shade of trees and slowly crossing café terraces. They remind me of the stray dogs you see everywhere in Morocco, just as comfortable in human company and totally integrated into local life. Unforgettable.
The following days were blessed with more quality swell, which apparently isn’t always so consistent in the Galápagos. “Did you come specififically for this big swell or is it just good luck?” Danny had asked when we fifirst arrived. A lucky star was shining on our trip and we were enjoying every minute of it. The sessions continued, difffferent parts of the bay, difffferent spots depending on the tides. We fell asleep after days fifilled with miles of walking and upwards of six hours of paddling.
After yet another one of these days, Danny asked if we’d like to go to an isolated spot accessible only by sea the next morning. The forecast looked great, so we made plans to meet him at his pontoon boat at dawn.
With all our gear on board, we left the bay. Danny pointed out all of the interesting sites along the way. This included a stunningly beautiful little island with a long tongue of white sand and crystal-clear water. “It’s a paradise for the sea lions and other wild animals out here,” he explained.
The journey continued, passing endless miles of wild, virgin coastline, before entering a large, calm bay at the foot of a mountain. The water was an astonishing shade of green and beyond the fifirst band of vegetation, wide craters reminded us of the volcanic origins of the island. As the boat slowly advanced across the bay, Danny pointed to a wave that just broke, “See that? That’s the take-offff zone. This is going to be good fun!” With not another soul in sight, Alexis and Danny hopped in the water and made their way straight to the peak.
Although the wave wasn’t as well-formed as some of the other spots, the shoulder-high sets breaking amidst this surreal scenery was more than enough. They rolled in often, much to the boys’ delight as they tried new tricks and shouted encouragement at each other. It felt—and looked like—we were surfifing on the moon.
Beside our lunar surf session, our boat trip gave us a view of another bay that we hadn’t seen before but wasn’t far from our lodgings. “There must be a path leading there through the bush,” said Alexis, clearly scheming up another plan. “I think we should try and get there for a paddle,” he continued, already getting his gear out. We headed out along a small, rocky path that led northwards away from the house, eventually joining a larger path that seemed to head in the right direction. Below us we saw a beautiful blue creek shadowed by a dark volcanic cliffff. A little path led us down, before we came face-to-face with a big statue of Charles Darwin, complete with a plaque explaining that this was the bay where he had fifirst made landfall on the islands.
After soaking in the coincidence, Alexis walked quickly to the water’s edge, unpacked his inflflatable board and pumped it up at top speed. Within a few minutes, Alexis and Melanie were paddling over the crystal-clear water, not knowing which way to look fifirst. The incredible clarity of the water allowed them to study the rocks below and watch a beautiful big turtle swim past in the giant aquarium. While the outside world has changed vastly, this amazingly well-preserved wilderness hadn’t changed much since Darwin arrived nearly 200 years before. The trip left us hoping it would stay that way.
Time goes by too quickly on the islands. Our visit was coming towards its epilogue. Alexis had gotten into the habit of going to surf the same spot every afternoon, a 40-minute hike down a trail and only accessible for a short session with the tide at a specifific level. The wave was fifickle, but included a hollow right section that required speed and drive to make. After lots of practice, Alexis had learned his way around this isolated spot and fully appreciated it.
With time for one last session, we wanted to leave on a sublime note. The swell had subsided somewhat since the previous day but the shallow reef helped concentrate the wave lines into beautiful bowls. As we walked across the beach, the sight of solid, head-high sets tugged at Alexis. He was on the water in a flflash and two minutes later was stroking into a big right, popping out of the tube 50 yards further down like a pea from a pea shooter. Alexis surfed alone, save for the ubiquitous sea lions and turtles watching him. As the sun fell, Alexis tore himself away and fifinally came back to land. The sweetness of that fifinal surf was only escalated by our impending departure.
Walking back through the bushes, guided by the bright light of the moon, we recounted the unforgettable moments from a trip like no other. Just as they did for the legendary Charles Darwin, the Galápagos made a deep impression on us. One that will last forever.