Peaceable kingdom Galapagos: Limited numbers of people are allowed to visit these islands where the animals have no fear of us. It's a magical place.

June 28, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff

Predators and prey, the hunters and the hunted. In most of the world, living creatures fall into these two basic categories, with humans as the most fearsome predators of all.

But there is one place on this planet where those distinctions are not so clear-cut -- and perhaps never will be.

It's a land that has been seemingly unscathed by human development, a magical setting where sea lions come up and nuzzle your feet, birds will fly onto your fingers, and a giant tortoise will poke his head out of his shell at your command.

It's the Galapagos Islands, also known as the "enchanted isles."

The reason people can walk among the animals so freely is that they have no large-mammal predators here, and thus are unafraid of intruders in their midst. They have evolved without the fear of humans that animals have in most of the world.

Because this remote archipelago on the equator has remained so untouched by civilization, it offers a travel destination more captivating than any Hollywood fantasy -- a tropical paradise where wildlife exudes the innocence of the Garden of Eden.

Darwinian experience

Located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the west coast of South America, the Galapagos Islands are part of the Republic of Ecuador. Both a national park and an international research center, they are perhaps best known as the place that inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin to expound his theory of evolution after a visit in 1835.

While Darwin is indeed a hero here -- his name is on everything from Darwin Bay to the Charles Darwin Research Station to Darwin's Disco -- visitors need not be natural-history scholars to appreciate the beautiful environments and exotic creatures he observed, including fierce-looking iguanas, colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs and comical booby birds. Because the islands have not changed much in the past 160 years, visitors have a chance to play Darwin -- seeing the wildlife in its natural habitat, much as he did.

One of the most profound discoveries visitors can make pertains not to any one species, however, but to the islands themselves. Natural evolution, as Darwin noted, involves the survival of the fittest. Having withstood the near-total industrialization of the globe until now, the Galapagos Islands are currently in a fight for their own survival.

Even more today than in Darwin's time, human visitors are enemies of this fragile ecosystem. To protect these vulnerable islands, Ecuador has imposed strict limits on the number of people who can visit every year as well as where they can go and what they can do. It is these restrictions, ironically, that give today's visitors the ability to see the islands in the unspoiled condition that makes them so vivid and fascinating.

On the mainland

I traveled to the Galapagos last year with 10 others from Maryland, as part of a larger cruise whose passengers spoke English, Spanish and German. We booked our trip with Maupintour, one of just a handful of cruise-ship operators that offer tours of the islands.

Our agenda for a 10-day tour was typical of most Galapagos trips. From Baltimore, we flew to Miami to catch a flight to Quito, Ecuador's capital. After several days of sightseeing on the mainland, we flew to the port city of Guayaquil to catch a smaller plane for our flight to the island of Baltra, our gateway to the Galapagos.

From Baltra we boarded our cruise ship, the M.V. Santa Cruz, for a four-day excursion to six of the 19 islands (and 40 islets) that comprise the Galapagos archipelago. (Some trips give visitors a chance to extend their stays in the Galapagos to seven days to see even more islands.)

At the end of the cruise, we flew back to Guayaquil for a day, and then on to the United States. It was a long distance to cover, but because it was all within the Eastern and Central time zones, jet lag was never a problem.

Getting to the islands

Landing at the tiny airport in Baltra on a Thursday morning, we were met by crew members from the ship, who took us aboard for our first island visit.

The Santa Cruz was designed for 80 passengers and a crew of 40. After we were on board, the crew divided us into five groups named after some of the creatures we'd see -- albatrosses, boobies, cormorants and so on. After lunch and a short sail, we disembarked for our first stop -- Dragon Hill, on the island of Santa Cruz.

Because the main ship couldn't get too close to shore, we boarded smaller motorized dinghys, called pangas, that carry about 16 passengers at a time. From then on we followed the same pattern for each day of the cruise -- a morning departure for one port, then back to the ship for lunch and a quick jaunt to a second port in the afternoon.

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