It was the lizards that stole my heart. Black, spiky and covered in their own salty nasal discharge, Charles Darwin described them as disgusting and clumsy “imps of darkness.” I found them strangely charming, like little dragons proudly sunning themselves, blissfully unaware of their supposed hideousness. They are also, to me, the perfect symbol of the Galapagos Islands. We’ve all heard of Darwin’s journey to the islands on the HMS Beagle, and the finches that shaped his thinking, but in my mind nothing better symbolizes his theory of evolution than Amblyrhynchus cristatus, the iguana that learned to feed underwater.
Still, I understand marine reptiles aren’t the main attraction. The stars of the Galapagos are the blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises and frigate birds. But what really makes all the creatures here a wonder is their utter lack of fear around humans, the result of pretty much being left alone for centuries. That, combined with the rarity of several species, is why this Ecuadorian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, 1,000 kilometres off the mainland’s west coast, is worth the trek.
Just how unafraid are we talking? The first stop of my four-day tour is North Seymour Island. As my small group from Pikaia Lodge disembarks, our guide reminds us to stay on the designated path and at least two metres away from the island’s famous birds. This proves easier said than done. As I kneel down to take a photo of a booby, it begins to waddle over to me on its bright blue feet. I back up, but realize I’m encroaching on a frigate bird busy inflating his brilliant red gular pouch in the hopes of attracting a mate. The booby is practically chasing me and I’m beginning to panic when the guide laughs and tells me not to worry: It’s fine if the bird is breaking the rules.
Many of the animals turn out to be similarly rebellious. During a snorkel swim off Bartolome Island, two tiny Galapagos penguins flutter past as a playful sea lion swirls right in front of me, darting directly at my face only to deke to one side at the last second. Later, several of his kind, napping comfortably on the dock, ignore our protests and block us from boarding our dinghy. Sally Lightfoot crabs tiptoe alongside our feet during Baltra Island beach walks, demanding attention with their red, orange and blue carapaces. Just offshore, two male sea turtles risk drowning a female as they both attempt to mate with her at the same time. At sunset, frigate birds fly directly overhead as we sail back to Santa Cruz Island, their two-metre wingspans casting shadows on the deck of Pikaia’s private yacht.
After these action-packed days, the hotel offers a much-needed breather, and Pikaia Lodge is a rare species itself. Guests of the luxury property, located on its own 31-hectare wild giant tortoise reserve, sleep on land in one of its spacious guest suites, as opposed to the typical Galapagos experience of overnighting on a small, rocking cruise ship.
A pisco sour from the hotel’s DNA Bar steadily in hand, I cozy up beside the fire in the Homo Sapiens Explorer Lounge and pick up a copy of On the Origin of the Species. I might not agree with Darwin when it comes to marine iguanas, but he still has some interesting things to say.
The writer travelled as a guest of Pikaia Lodge. It did not review or approve this article.
If You Go
All visitors to Galapagos National Park must pay an entry fee (US$100) and obtain a transit card (US$20). This can be purchased at Ecuador’s Guayaquil or Quito airports before you depart for the islands. Travelling through sea-level Guayaquil avoids having to acclimatize to the extreme elevation of Quito.
Where to Stay The five-star Pikaia Lodge offers “land-based” Galapagos adventures, although getting on the water is necessary; guests travel between islands on the hotel’s private yacht. All rooms and suites, which range from 650 to 800 square feet, feature private outdoor spaces. Rates for 2022 start at three nights for US$4,305 a person, based on double occupancy, and include all excursions, guides, Galapagos airport transfers, gear (wetsuits, snorkels, bikes), meals and drinks. pikaialodge.com
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