The Galapagos archipelago is famous for two things: Darwin and its rich animal life. What most people don’t anticipate before their first trip to these fantasy islands are the unique, once in a lifetime experiences you can only find in the Galapagos.
Swim with a Penguin – You wouldn’t expect to find penguins in the Galapagos. The island chain is located far off the West coast of South America and straddles the equator. But because of a unique series of crosscutting ocean currents, many things that shouldn’t exist in the Galapagos do. The penguins originally arrived on the Humboldt current, which originates in Antarctica. Unlike some of their polar cousins, these penguins are small and almost scrawny looking. One day I was snorkeling and espied a group of penguins up on the rocks above me. Then, all at once they dove into the water and starting frantically circling around me. They were feeding on small minnows, and I was just getting in the way. I just swam there, amazed at the experience as penguins kept ricocheting off my dive mask and nipped around my toes. In the Galapagos you aren’t allowed to touch the animals, but there’s nothing you can do if they touch you.
Lunch with a dinosaur – The blue-footed boobies are nice and the flightless cormorants are cool to watch, but the real star of the Galapagos are the giant tortoises. We were driven out to a farm and told along the way that the tortoises were migrating down from the highlands to reach their coastal mating grounds. Apparently the tortoises pass by quite often, because the farm had a gift shop and small snack bar. I grabbed a water and sat down to examine the terrain below. The rolling green hills were peppered with large boulders, only these boulders were moving, albeit slowly. There were dozens of giant tortoises in the wild, following a journey that has been going on for thousands of years. We were allowed to walk amongst these mighty creatures, and it truly felt as if we were descending into Jurassic Park. Walking about an open field with dozens of giant tortoises is definitely an experience found no where else on the planet.
Oblivious wildlife – The islands are home to some of the most unique animals in the world, many of which are endemic to the island group meaning that they don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Even more impressive than bearing witness to these strange quirks of evolution is witnessing the animals’ legendary lack of fear when it comes to humans. Before my visit to the islands, I really didn’t believe that this could be true. I thought it was probably an overstatement and that by now, surely, these animals had become skittish. I was shocked when on our first hike this famous Galapagos legend proved to be true. We walked within inches of blue footed boobies and their nests without attracting the slightest bit of interest from them. It is an awe-inspiring experience to be able to observe nature as it was meant to be, not corrupted by modern society.
Be a kid again – Forget Disneyworld, for the chance to reclaim that feeling of pure, childlike wonder, the Galapagos is the place for you. One day, while on a daily nature hike of one of the islands, I watched as an interesting transformation occurred. There was an older gentlemen in our group who for the most part seemed completely unflappable. While the other people in the small hiking group interacted, he would traipse ahead of the guide seemingly lost in his own world. Then, we turned a corner and there he was beaming and pointing to a small area of gorse on the trail. “Look!” he stammered, barely able to get the words out. He was pointing to a family of blue-footed boobies, the young chicks in the process of being fed by their mother. After that, the formerly taciturn traveler was cracking jokes with us and just as eager to find the next amazing animal. That single moment had removed all of his pomposity and allowed him to rejoice in the moment with childlike pleasure. That ability to experience genuine wonder and surprise is perhaps why I most love the Galapagos.