Can I go to the Galapagos for 24 hours?
The travel agent in the hotel lobby laughed at me. “Yeah, you can do it,” she said, “but it’s crazy.”
I was in Guayaquil, Ecuador, for business, with some time to spare — just enough time for an overnight trip to the Galápagos Islands, a place people normally go for a week or two. It was ten minutes to 6pm, closing time, and the flight was first thing the next morning. I had to decide.
“Let’s do it,” I told her.
Frankly, although I made the appearance of hemming and hawing before plunking down my credit card, it was a foregone conclusion. The outcome was determined at birth, I think, for this is how travel is for me. If I so much as get in the orbit of some extraordinary place or event, I predictably succumb to its gravitational pull. And I’ve yet to regret my impulsiveness.
So I’ve now gone where The Beagle and the puritanical genius Darwin have gone and can briefly convey to you my impressions.
And the main thing is this: visiting the Galápagos is like being behind the bars at the zoo. This isn’t my turn of phrase — I picked it up from a Louisiana man with a 400m zoom lens I was talking to at the giant tortoise reserve — but it is my sentiment exactly.
The thing about the animals in the Galápagos, on top of the fact that you won’t see 30% of them anywhere but here, is that they don’t run away. I heard a few explanations for this, but none convinced me as to why, precisely, Darwin’s finches think nothing of landing on you, and the smooth black iguanas sit unfussed at your feet, spitting and stinking up the joint. To be so close to wild animals in their world, on their terms, is fun. It is more fun, in fact, than you’d think it would be.
On top of the thrill of these close encounters with exotic creatures, I had the sense that the 737 that flew me to Baltra airport, the island’s main ingress point, from Guayaquil, the only airport you can fly to the Galápagos from, wasn’t so much an airplane as a time machine. And when I climbed down the gangway, I set foot in some other era or epoch of geological time — the Pleistocene, perhaps (whatever that is) or the Mesozoic.
There are bizarro trees — especially the cacti with trunks like a douglas fir — and the famously overlarge “E.T.”-headed tortoises, which look as prehistoric as anything alive in 2012 possibly could. The most famous of these fellas was the one they called Lonesome George, but early this summer he “reached the end of his lifecycle,” as his minder put it, making headlines around the world; I read his obituary in The Economist myself, which quite possibly was what planted the seed of this side trip in my mind in the first place.
The heir to George’s celebrity tortoise throne is, clearly, Super Diego, or Diego El Profesor as he’s also known. Diego was returned to his home islands to live at the Darwin Research Station from the San Diego Zoo some years ago.
<h4>He’s 130 years old, but of course has a bevy of much younger girlfriends. Basically, he’s Hef in a gran tortuga shell.</h4>
And unlike George, who despite being the last of his line of Pinta tortoises, stubbornly refused to mate, the Española-type tortoise Diego is padre to a slew of offspring. Moreover, he earned his nickname “El Profesor” because he taught the two other blokes in the enclosure how to do it: they’d been slacking in their filial obligations, but since Diego’s arrival, the three have collectively sired some 1,800 bebés.
As the guide explained in deeply clinical terms, “Diego [the tortoise] came in from California with his surfboard under his arm, a gringo accent, a laidback attitude. And the señoritas were like, hey there.”
Not even the homeland of evolution, it seems, where the birds and bees are the stuff of legend, is immune to the charm of a golden boy from the Golden State.
At Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, I got up close (you just can’t touch ‘em is all) with the giant tortoises.