washingtonpost.com
Galapagos Now
It's evolutionary! Most visitors to the Galapagos retreat to their cruise ships at night, but new rules allow the intrepid to camp on the islands Charles Darwin made famous.

By Julian Smith
Special to The Washington Post
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.

Climbing into four sea kayaks, we push off. It takes almost two hours to paddle up the west side of Baltra. A small motorboat called a panga follows with most of our gear. Tomala, my kayak partner, tells me how he got his bachelor's degree before he was 18 and was finishing his PhD over the Internet. Trying to get him to paddle slowly and evenly, I wish his kayak skills were as impressive as his résumé. Eventually I give up and lose myself in the rhythm, watching as sea turtles surface in the bottle-green water.

We camp on Salinas Beach, dotted with driftwood and black mangroves. "I first visited the Galapagos by boat in 1993 and immediately thought it would be the ideal location for sea kayaking," Grubb says as blue-footed boobies dive for fish. "I remember almost feeling trapped on board the yacht, thinking how fantastic it would be to paddle at leisure and camp on a beach."

ROW organized its first exploratory kayak trip in the Galapagos in 1996 and had been trying to arrange permits for camping ever since. "We were getting nowhere with permits from the park service," Grubb says. "We even offered to clean beaches of garbage that locals left."

He eventually secured permission to camp on Baltra from the Ecuadoran military, which controls the island. Grubb also discovered a handful of beaches on other islands classified as "recreational," for locals' use -- some 25,000 people live on the islands -- where camping would also be permitted.

Motorized boat tours, while highly structured, are wonderful in their own right -- I've been on two already. The feeling, though, of being able to paddle around, pull up your kayak, wander around a bit and set up camp -- just hang out -- was completely new.

It was like being in the Louvre after everyone else had gone home, pondering the "Mona Lisa" alone and hearing the echo of your footsteps down the hallways.

Hot Volcano

The next morning, great blue herons stalk breakfast among lava rocks uncovered by the tide, and a group of brown pelicans dives on a shoal of sardines. Whenever one surfaces, bill bulging, a smaller noddy tern lands on its head, hoping to dislodge a meal.

The sun emerges as we paddle two hours up the shore of Baltra toward tiny North Seymour Island, where Tomala guides us around a short loop trail.

In November, the dry season, the scrubby vegetation looks more dead than alive. Yellow land iguanas the size of beagles munch the pads of prickly pear cactuses in the underbrush. Farther on is a frigate bird rookery, where glossy black males inflate the crimson pouches on their throats to attract females. The trail ends on a rocky beach populated by marine iguanas, the world's only seagoing lizard.

Sea lions are thick along the shore, and after a quick lunch on the panga we slip into the water to join them. My ill-fitting wet suit leaks chilly water, but I soon forget as a pair of young sea lions swim out to inspect us. Equal parts cat, dog and fish, they contort their bodies into impossible angles as they swerve up close and zoom away.

Tired arms make the paddle back to the campsite seem longer than five miles.

After a night in a hotel in Puerto Ayora on nearby Santa Cruz Island, the largest settlement in the archipelago, we hire a speedboat to Puerto Villamil, the only settlement on Isabela Island, the largest in the archipelago. The two-hour, spray-soaked ride shows that kayaking among the major islands would be out of the question.

The trail up Sierra Negra volcano, one of five that form this horseshoe-shaped island, begins in the misty highlands above town. Three weeks ago, the volcano erupted for more than a week, but it's since calmed down to a moderate smolder. A quick hike takes us through underbrush thick with guava bushes, quick-spreading invaders that are nonetheless full of tasty fruit.

Indeed, along with illegal fishing, invasive plants and animals are the most serious ecological threat to the islands. The Ecuadoran government went so far as to hire a helicopter hunting team from New Zealand to rid Isabela of hundreds of thousands of feral goats that infested the island, left by sailors and settlers. It's working: The three northernmost volcanoes were estimated to be free of goats by the end of 2005, and fewer than 50,000 are left on the entire island.

To reach the active vent on the far side of the rim, we have to hike a third of the way around the crater. At six miles across, it's the third-largest in the world. Steam rises from a dozen spots in the fresh black lava that covers half the crater floor. Our boots crunch over chunks of iridescent lava that rise and fall around the rim like glassy black sand dunes. It smells like an old campfire. On top of the final hill, we gaze into the gaping vent, feeling like we're standing over an open oven.

Puerto Villamil is peaceful after dark. The snack shop is the only place open on the town plaza, where palm trees sway. After scooping our cones, the elderly proprietor pops on a homemade DVD of the eruption. Despite the shaky camerawork, it's mesmerizing. We munch our dessert and watch plumes of lava spurt 100 feet in the air.

"I love the peace and quiet here," says Isabela resident Marita Zecchettin. "I've been here 12 years, and I'm never going to leave."

"I'm scared about what's happening to the islands," she says. "We want special people who come here for the peace and quiet, not just more tourism." In 1998, when she opened the Casa de Marita, the cozy Puerto Villamil beach hotel where we are staying, there were three other hotels in town. Now there are 11.

Tonight every hotel in town is full.

Into the Deep Blue

The next morning we take a prop plane to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island. I hardly recognize the dusty, quiet town I visited nine years earlier. Hotels, tour companies, Internet cafes and new construction are everywhere.

This month, a 500-passenger cruise ship will dock for a night in this city of 6,000, a first for the islands. (At the moment the largest tour boat in the islands holds about 100 passengers.) Twelve such visits will be allowed every year.

I think about this as we paddle nine miles to Puerto Grande Beach on the island's western shore. Kicker Rock rises a few miles offshore, jutting skyward like a 500-foot stalagmite. It's separated from even larger, flat-topped Sleeping Lion Rock by a channel as deep and narrow as a Manhattan street.

The last day of kayaking is the most exciting. We ride the panga to Kicker Rock and snorkel in the narrow, coral-lined channel between the formations. Yellowtail surgeonfish, barracuda and Galapagos sharks swerve in the deep blue below us.

After lunch we paddle single file through a hole carved in the shoreside cliffs, barely wide enough for our strokes. The surf surges like a roller coaster and booms off the walls. The timing is as tight as the fit. Wait . . . now! Go!

Everyone makes it in one piece, whooping with relief.

Our final stop is Playa Ochoa, north of Puerto Grande, where sea lions sprawl on fine powdery sand. Newborn pups bleat like billy goats, demanding milk from their mothers.

As we ride the panga back to town, two Darwin's finches perch on the cabin roof, obviously looking for a snack. With their variously shaped beaks, the islands' finch species helped inspire the naturalist's momentous idea of distinct species arising from a common ancestor. Over time they've adapted to the food sources they've found here, developing short heavy beaks to crack hard seeds and long thin beaks to get grubs buried deep in trees.

Apparently this one has found another meal ticket, just one more example of the Enchanted Islands' ongoing evolution. After all, if there's one thing Darwin taught us, it's that life's one constant is change.

ROW International's nine 2006 departures are all full or nearly so, though the firm may be adding dates. The 11-day kayaking trips cost $2,690 or $2,890 per person, depending on how many are in the group ($2,890 or $2,990 in 2007) and include camping equipment, hotel rooms, most meals, guides and transfers. International airfare to mainland Ecuador, the flight to the Galapagos ($392 round trip), two short inter-island flights ($180 per person) and the Galapagos park entrance fee ($100 per person) are extra. Info: 800- 451-6034,http://www.rowinternational. com.

Julian Smith is the author of the guidebook "Moon Handbooks Ecuador," which includes the Galapagos Islands. He last wrote for Travel about kayaking off the coast of Kauai.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company