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#AdventureTravel: Finding the Real Galapagos

#AdventureTravel: Finding the Real Galapagos

(Photo: Getty Images)

Most travelers visit the Galapagos today to see the wildlife, to observe the origin of the “origin of species,” and to dive and to do sepia-toned selfies with iguanas. The videos, pictures, and stories of Darwin’s finches and the hermetically-sealed wildlife exist on these islands like quite no other place on the planet. Truth told, the Galapagos were not high on my “bucket list.” As a professional traveler, I visit many interesting, remote, and wild places on the globe, so I’ve generally avoided those bucket-list destinations, often mistakenly believing they are overrated, overcrowded, and underwhelming. 

scenic galapagos

(Photo: Getty Images)

Being in Ecuador on business already, it seemed a kind of arrogant insanity to miss the Galapagos. So I booked a trip with Klein Tours and landed on Baltra, one of the two islands that has an airstrip and brings in curious travelers from around the world. Twenty minutes after going through the immigration line, I was on a boat headed for a scuba dive. 

And then it was crystal-blue-clear why people come to the Galapagos. You can fly over and into a destination and feel like it is fairly unremarkable from on high. Until you take time to dig deeper and get under the surface (literally, in this case), you can’t actually understand such a remarkable place.

I stared at the nine-foot hammerhead shark swimming softly by, looming and circling, eyes somehow both cat-like and stony. My heart hammered at the sight of white-tip sharks and a shimmering school of barracuda. A Pacific Green Sea Turtle calmly slid under me with a sidelong glance like a wise old sage. Scores of needlefish, puffers, and a thousand other colorful specimens caused a stir. One of the oddities of being an amateur diver is that I’m only used to such scenes accompanied by music — frightening, lovely, ominous — or a deep, bass narrative voice from National Geographic. Seeing it with the background noise of muted popping, pinging, and swooshing brought me deeper into the experience.

scuba diving galapagos

(Photo: Getty Images)

After the dive, I sped across Isla Santa Cruz in a little pickup truck at dusk, seeing a kaleidoscope view of the island’s different climes — desert, jungle, coastal. I left the windows down, letting the dry, hot air blow my hair into a mess. Eventually I rolled into the somnolent town of Puerto Ayora. A big sea lion on a town dock shared space with the locals — both completely ignoring each other. I couldn’t believe people were walking within two feet of this “wild” creature. “Lazy Bunda!” (lazy butt) exclaimed a traveling Brazilian, creating a perfect bilingual term for the languorous, flopped, yawning, yorking sea lion that dominated the dock scene in Santa Cruz and was clearly bored to death by us. That night I ate fish, vegetables, and beer on the ship and enjoyed the sunset with drink in hand, an equatorial nod to the famous African sundowner.  

The Galapagos have what you would expect to see: gorgeous bays with every imaginable tint of blue and green, even when the sky is gray, confounding the oft-used anecdote about water reflecting the color of the sky. One blindingly bright morning a bird that had a green underside and white body flapped by, then suddenly, as it gained altitude and distance from the water, it was completely white. 

sea turtle galapagos

(Photo: Getty Images)

Not everyone is a convert. Herman Melville (of Moby Dick fame) described the Galapagos as “The Encantadas” in 10 sketches: a strange hybrid of travel, fiction, and mystic writing that appeared in 1854 in Putnam’s, under the pen name Salvator R. Tarnmoor. And he wasn’t kind:

Take five and twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains… looking much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot of earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.”


(Photo: Getty Images)

Melville might be forgiven as he never saw the underworld of the Galapagos. At first blush, the surface can be bleak. There doesn’t appear to be a lot going on. One must listen and be still and observe — and go underwater. (Not exactly a popular option in the 1850s.)

Snorkeling in Devils Crown — a jagged circular island shattered in the middle, like a craggy giant donut — allowed for my junior-high fantasy of seeing sharks in an underwater cave. I could hear my brother’s voice from 20 years ago, compelling me forward, then snickering when I didn’t. The guide warned not to make any sudden movements. Is total body panic considered a sudden movement? 

sting ray shark

(Photo: Getty Images)

On Floreana Island, a vivid, humanizing lesson came from an unexpected source. In the late 1700s, British sailors put a wooden barrel on shore (now named Post Office Bay) as a location for passers-thru to post messages and mail for homeward-bound sailors to pick up and deliver once they returned home. According to history, during the war of 1812, U.S. Navy Captain Porter found the barrel, read the letters, and thereby deduced where British whalers might be located. He captured several of the ships and confiscated the valuable whale-oil cargo.

 postal barrel galapagos

(Photo: Getty Images)

Today the purpose of this wooden barrel is more pedestrian, mostly used by travelers sending messages to friends and family around the world. The tradition continues, though, of not using postage. As a tourist, you can go through the list of addressed letters and postcards and if someone lives near where you reside, you have the opportunity to hand-deliver the letter to the recipient.

Perusing the letters to determine if I could be a global postman, I became interested in the open postcards and read a few — eavesdropping on letters from this remote place, which ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous to the profound.

From a child, in red and blue marker: “The Galapagos Islands…. Where the sea lions play and blue footed boobies dance all day….” (I could hear the tune, “Where the deer and the antelope playyyyyy.”)

From the U.S., a crisp, cynical note: “Doubt you will ever get this. We are mailing it from a barrel on a beach”

A card that said across the top in bold: DO NOT DELIVER (for a friend to come and pick it up on their next trip through Galapagos): “BR- if you get this you have to dive and secretly bring home a baby sea lion. A FAT ONE.”

One addressed to Baby Girl Foster: “We left this here for you when mom was 25 weeks pregnant. You snorkeled and saw sharks, rays and turtles. Love, Mom and Dad Foster” 

And a posting by a local: “Looking for a husband! My soulmate is somewhere around this island! Can’t wait to meet you! —Beka”

galapagos birds beach

(Photo: Getty Images)

There were postcards to people in Singapore, Brazil, the U.S., Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Norway. Messages written in English, Cyrillic, Portuguese, Mandarin, Arabic, and numerous other languages. A kaleidoscope of traveling humanity passing through the Encantadas.

Then came the letter with a note at the top that said “Please leave on Floreana” that stopped the game instantly, leaving me crushed:

Dec 2012: “Dear Chris, You will never be able to receive or pick up this card, but you have been with me, in my heart, on this trip. Forever missed, Love Dad”

I placed the letters back in the barrel and sat, listening to the waves, to the distant tittering of swimmers. I imagined the father calmly and tearily writing a letter of agony in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the son he had lost. What better location than in this deserted land, with its roaring silence of blue water and vast sky, to place one’s pain and let it go? 

For a moment the Galapagos felt much like Melville’s cinder-filled land, and then the birds interrupted again, bringing the moment back to life.  

Shannon Stowell is president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a global network of adventure tourism professionals, businesses, NGOs, and governmental agencies. He bought a first edition of Moby Dick at a small town garage sale, forever addicting him to good literature. His organization also runs, a resource for customers looking for adventure traveling opportunities.


The author, Shannon Stowell. (Courtesy: Shannon Stowell)

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