Sunday, April 2, 2006
Slicing through the water in our baby blue kayaks, we arrive at Puerto Grande Beach, on the west shore of San Cristobal Island, at sunset. The nine-mile paddle from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the provincial capital of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, was an elemental experience: just wind, waves and the slowly slanting sun, with the occasional sea lion huffing up for air or curiosity. We set up our tents as the equatorial sun dives straight for the horizon.
Tents in the Galapagos? Yes. Until now, visitors have not been allowed to camp on the islands, whose popularity with ecotourists is soaring even as threats mount to the unique and delicate ecosystem. Camping here is the equivalent of a new wing suddenly appearing on the Smithsonian, or a trail being opened across the Grand Canyon. But knowing how rare and vulnerable the Galapagos are, it can be hard to paddle up to a beach and step ashore without a tiny pang of guilt.
Even when there's a baby sea lion there to greet you.
Signs of human presence await us up the beach in tangles of rope and bits of trash. Our guide tells us that locals haul their boats ashore here to clean and repaint them from time to time, which is why we're allowed to be here after dark at all.
We set up five tents for the eight of us in the warm sand and relax over glasses of boxed red wine as the stars come out.
Then the ground starts to move. Hundreds of hermit crabs appear out of nowhere and start crawling around our campsite. One or two in a terrarium is cute; en masse, they're a little creepy. We all make sure to zip up our tents.
This eight-day trip with the Idaho rafting company ROW International is the first to combine sea kayaking and camping in the national park that covers 97 percent of the archipelago. Smack on the equator 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador, the Galapagos are famous for their unique, fearless wildlife that helped inspire Darwin's theory of evolution. The Enchanted Islands, as early mariners called them for their tendency to disappear into the mist, now draw nearly 100,000 visitors every year.
Until now, the only way to visit was on a licensed boat-based tour, combining a rigorous regimen of shore visits by day with shipboard berths at night. A typical boat tour lasts five to eight days and visits eight to 10 islands. Boats usually stop at one of 116 visitor sites -- 54 on land, 62 in the water for divers and snorkelers -- in the morning and at another in the afternoon. Cruisers are hustled on- and offshore in small groups to regulate crowds and limit the environmental impact.
Our itinerary is different. While we will visit only five islands (Baltra, North Seymour, Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal), we will paddle kayaks and camp on Baltra and San Cristobal for three of the seven nights, all at more or less our own pace. (Many boat-based tours offer kayaking options, but only for an hour or two at a time.) We'll fly in small planes and take high-speed motorboats to save time, instead of chugging overnight in a yacht from island to island, as the usual tours do.
The campsites won't be in the most pristine or animal-rich spots -- that perhaps would be asking too much -- but they will let us experience the islands in an entirely new and intimate way, far from the burgeoning crowds. It's an exploratory trip, meaning the itinerary could change if conditions warrant. This seems fitting, the more we learn that the islands themselves are still very much a work in progress.
Permission to Camp
Our trip begins with a four-hour flight from Quito on Ecuador's mainland to Baltra, a rocky island in the middle of the chain. As the rest of the planeload of tourists is sorted out among a flotilla of boats, we gather our gear on the dock and introduce ourselves.
At the helm is Peter Grubb, the cheery, bearded founder of ROW International. His wife, two Ecuadoran guides, a 24-year-old park guide named Ramiro Tomala, a photographer and another journalist round out the group.