Juras­sic perk SEE TRAVEL FROM P35

The mes­meris­ing Gala­pa­gos Is­lands are a heady mix of lush forests, vol­canic moon­scapes and oth­er­worldly beasts

Sunday Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - News - BY JANE MEMMLER

En­veloped by dense for­est on vol­canic Is­abela Is­land in the Gala­pa­gos sits Scale­sia Lodge.

Ma­ture pep­per ferns, sword ferns, tow­er­ing ca­cao trees and dag­ger-edged ele­phant grass are dom­i­nant in this arable land­scape. Dot­ted about are 16 sa­fari tents which wouldn’t look out of place on Africa’s vast open plains.

Sud­denly a mas­sive tre­mor jolts me from my in­er­tia. The noise is deaf­en­ing, like a train thun­der­ing through the open-plan re­cep­tion. It lasts mere sec­onds, yet feels like hours.

Af­ter­wards, man­ager Marco tells me this seis­mic ac­tiv­ity is per­fectly nor­mal thanks to the ge­o­graph­i­cal make-up of Is­abela – which is 99 per cent vol­canic.

It’s home to the world’s sec­ond­largest vol­cano, the 3,680ft high Sierra Ne­gra, which has been sim­mer­ing away since Novem­ber 2017 when it woke up. On June 28, 2018, it fi­nally blew its top and is still ac­tive in vary­ing now. I couldn’t re­sist a closer look. My guided three-hour tour led me through ver­dant farms, lay­ered in vol­canic mulch – or­anges, ba­nanas, guavas and live­stock thrive here – up to the vast, life­less sea of black lava.

We sat mes­merised on its south­ern rim watch­ing puffs of gas rise es­cape.

Is­abela’s only town, Puerto Vil­lamil (pop. 2500), was formed by co­a­lesced lava flows, with many houses lit­er­ally bal­anc­ing on their jagged foun­da­tions.

Else­where the wide beaches, dot­ted with bars and rus­tic restau­rants, at­tract back­pack­ers ga­lore who come to surf and hang out on ham­mocks.

Many roads are still dirt and it’s home to a huge pop­u­la­tion of marine igua­nas that have the run of the place.

At the Iguana Bar, they crawl up the sea­side wall chas­ing the last of the day’s warm rays.

With lu­mi­nous or­ange crabs scut- tling over smooth lava, pel­i­cans div­ing for din­ner, and sea lions en­joy­ing si­es­tas on park benches, you could easily be­lieve some­one had spiked your drink.

Par­tic­u­larly as you visit the neigh­bour­ing Tin­tor­eras islets, reached by a small cruiser. Strolling along the board­walk we spot­ted whitetip reef sharks rest­ing in a col­lapsed lava tube, and igua­nas glid­ing across the la­goon.

Many vis­i­tors come to nearby Santa Cruz to see the gi­ant tor­toises. Found in the ranches up in the high­lands among the in­dige­nous Scale­sia trees, they live a charmed life. With open fields, muddy pools for wal­low­ing and an abun­dance of grass to nib­ble, they don’t stray too far.

There’s no doubt the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands are iso­lated and shel­tered from the mod­ern world. Wildlife reigns supreme and the flora and fauna are fiercely pro­tected.

Anyone caught tak­ing home as much as a blade of grass faces a heavy

Marine igua­nas have the run of the place, crawl­ing up the sea walls, chas­ing the last of the day’s rays

fine or even jail. Ar­riv­ing here takes some do­ing too: a di­rect British Air­ways flight to Mi­ami, con­nect­ing on Amer­i­can Airlines to Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, be­fore a smaller hop to the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands’ army base on Bal­tra, fol­lowed by a boat and bus trans­fer. But it’s worth it.

Once here, ac­cess­ing the ar­chi­pel­ago is like en­ter­ing a quar­an­tine zone. Planes are sprayed be­fore land­ing and dis­in­fec­tion mats are laid out on the tar­mac. No food is al­lowed in. It feels as pris­tine as it looks. Even the ho­tels have biodegrad­able toi­letries, re­cy­cled wa­ter and so­lar power.

PER­FECT

Santa Cruz’s mod­ern Finch Bay ho­tel has white in­te­ri­ors, nat­u­ral woods and sandy walk­ways – it looks like a 27-room beach house.

A leisurely three-hour cruise out of Santa Cruz brings you to the iconic Pin­na­cle Rock. Shaped like a crys­tal, it’s fringed by two per­fect beaches – a dreamy lo­ca­tion for the cel­e­brated blue-footed boo­bies.

Op­po­site, Sul­li­van Bay on San­ti­ago Is­land of­fers an­other sur­real en­counter with igua­nas.

And so on to the Ecuador main­land and the capital

Quito, a charm­ing colo­nial city high in the An­des, founded in 1634. Hemmed in by the ma­jes­tic moun­tains, this im­pec­ca­bly re­stored jum­ble of steep cob­bled streets, or­nate churches and lively squares was the first to be awarded Unesco World Her­itage Site sta­tus, in 1978.

Ladies in tra­di­tional dress – long skirts, pinned shawls and fe­do­ras – ar­rive from sur­round­ing vil­lages to tout their wares, from large chunks of creamy lay­ered sponge to bags of fruit and colour­ful shawls.

Pro­tect­ing this mag­i­cal city is a 134ft high statue of the Winged Madonna, hold­ing a dragon on a chain (the con­quered Devil).

Here lo­cals rely on nat­u­ral reme­dies, as I dis­cov­ered on a tour or­gan­ised by Metropoli­tan Tour­ing, with young Joselin Pavón who grew up in the steep San Roque area of the old town. She of­fered us a glimpse into their lives and tra­di­tions.

It’s fringed by two per­fect beaches – dreamy for blue­footed boo­bies

We be­gan at San Fran­cisco mar­ket, which con­sists of food stalls serv­ing lo­cal del­i­ca­cies of meat and rice from large beaten metal pots. But off to one side are a few tiny stalls with tow­er­ing stands of herbs. I watched “healer” Rosa Mercedes run raw eggs over the legs of a young baby to ab­sorb bad en­ergy and help with sleep.

She also rubbed bunches of mixed herbs over adults to help with de­tox­i­fi­ca­tion.

I chose a “cure” of Ecuado­rian choco­late from the Molino de San Martin Mill, where ev­ery­thing is or­ganic. We con­tin­ued our odyssey at Chez Tiff, whose spe­cial­ity is pas­sion­fruit creams.

The sun shines as we head up to the cloud for­est. Sur­rounded by jagged moun­tains, this is the dra­matic road to Mashpi Rain­for­est Bio­di­ver­sity Re­serve, 10,000ft above sea level and a three-hour drive from Quito.

Mashpi Lodge is an oa­sis in the for­est. All the eye can see is lush rain­for­est. What’s even bet­ter is that you can tai­lor your time to how ac­tive you want to be.

Dive into a wa­ter­fall pool? No prob­lem. I wanted to see it all so I be­gan with a gen­tle ride on the Dragon­fly – es­sen­tially a gon­dola – with guide Es­tu­ardo.

Our “flight” took us 395ft above

the canopy and cloud for­est. Gen­tly we sailed over the 140ft high Mashpi mag­no­lia, balsa wood and co­coa trees, over gi­ant ferns and trees shrouded in moss, binoc­u­lars glued to our eyes. How Es­tu­ardo man­aged to spot, at a thou­sand paces, in­dige­nous birds such as the moss backed tan­ager and choco tou­can is be­yond me.

The su­perb food back at the lux­ury lodge is lo­cally sourced and evenings were lively with guests com­par­ing notes on what they’d done that day.

On my last morn­ing I was up at dawn, head­ing off through dense for­est, along a nar­row trail tread­ing on old Coca-Cola crates re­pur­posed as steps.

Our desti­na­tion was the Life Cen­tre, a breed­ing hub of some of the re­serve’s 200 va­ri­eties of but­ter­fly. It’s quite a sci­ence. We moved on to watch the vi­brant hum­ming­birds dart back and forth between feed­ers filled with a wa­ter and sugar mix.

Fi­nally, as we climbed the ob­ser­va­tion tower, the light rain be­gan and we could just make out the only sign of civil­i­sa­tion for miles: Mashpi Lodge.

Right then, there was no other place I wanted to be... as long as the earth didn’t move.

FOR­EST OA­SISMashpi Lodge

LAVA CHAMP Vol­canic land­scape of Sierra Ne­gra IGUANA DON Pre­his­toric lizards rule the is­lands

SLOW LANE An­cient tor­toises are pro­tected

HIGH PITCHED Scale­sia Lodge

BLUE WON­DER Ex­plore Is­abela Is­land by boat

MAG­I­CAL Quito is a charm­ing colo­nial capital

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