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Friday, May 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Natural wonders: A visit to the Galapagos Islands is like a trip back to Darwin’s time

UPDATED: Sun., May 3, 2020

By Bart Haggin For The Spokesman-Review

We were lucky to go on a trip of a lifetime last year to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands before the coronavirus pandemic changed our world. But conditions will change again, and that unchanged world will still be there – and it would be a shame to miss it.

Tucked into an Andean valley, Quito, Ecuador, is the gateway to many treasures of the natural world. The mountains rise up to dizzying heights and provide habitat for more than 150 species of hummingbirds. A pleasant climate at around 8,000 feet makes this tropical terrain near the equator very livable.

But perhaps Ecuador’s greatest attraction is located 600 miles off the coast out in the Pacific Ocean: The Galapagos. The cadence of the name rings with the fame of a reclusive reserve that protects a world frozen in time. Most islands are like Darwin found them in 1835, and they started him on his way to making a major impact on civilization. Darwin’s theory of evolution was engendered in this archipelago.

There are more than 100 islands, and many are just large igneous rocks sticking out of waves. Three of them have a small community of people and two airports. The others without humans are mostly in their natural state. The creatures are as childlike as when discovered, and their homes, because of the remoteness, are protected and sheltered as if the inhabitants had never seen a human.

That is really the magic here. You can walk right up to nesting blue-footed boobies and frigate birds and look them in the eye. The sea lions hardly know you are watching. You can be there, respectfully, for as long as you like, and the creatures are not spooked.

There are surprises aplenty, though. The big puffed, red throats of the frigate birds are almost grotesque. There are hundreds of these prehistoric-looking flyers. They have a 6-foot wing span and can stay aloft for days at a time just soaring even while they are sleeping. You can look at them on the nest, and they wink right back at you.

The blue-footed boobies are wonderful. They only raise one baby booby at a time, and the little white offsprings are comically endearing. They walk around like they have no predators, which is true. Get down on your hands and knees, and they just look at you, curiously. There also is a concentration of red-footed boobies on one of the islands that don’t seem to mind having red feet at all.

There are many other species of birds, and they all know no fear of humans. Birds have found what it was like to colonize these island for millennia. Animals, not so much. The sea lions didn’t have much trouble getting there, though. They delight in swimming with the “land lubbers” who dive in to see them.

They lie all over the place and seem well fed. They are remarkably mobile on land, too. They have been seen at the top of cliffs that would require a long climb over tough terrain. They come in all sizes but seem to be smaller, in general, than the ones on the west coast of North America. Remember, they have vestigial ears, so don’t call them seals. There are a few fur seals in the Galapagos, but they are rare.

The iguanas are another matter. Because they live for long periods without food or water, they drifted with the currents to the Galapagos. Harmless and calm, they are one of the main reptiles besides the giant tortoises. They can be colorful and are about 3 feet long. There are marine iguanas, as well, who snorkelers might see.

The water, depending on the time of year, can be very swimmable. Wet suits make it possible to stay in the water longer. The water is not as clear as in Hawaii or the Caribbean, but swimming with the sea lions makes that irrelevant.

There are other critters in the ocean for companionship. You can swim with the penguins. Small sharks and rays are easy to see. The fish can be abundant at times. There are no protected bays with calm water, but snorkeling along the islands can be a great experience, and the underwater environment is well worth the choppy waves.

The real beauty of the Galapagos is the unspoiled nature of the islands. You are able to go back in time and mimic Darwin’s landing. The trails and paths are well-marked with white-topped stakes just inches high. And you must honor them. No changes have been made to the places you are allowed to go.

The footing is challenging at times when there is no easy place to step. We are talking volcanic eruptions here that haven’t been ground down by the elements. The trails meander to make the going as easy as possible and to minimize the slight affect of walking feet.

On the island of Santa Cruz, there is a large population of giant tortoises. These grow to weigh more than 700 pounds and live long lives. They have the run of the island, and private ownership means nothing to them. They don’t seem to be aware of the humans who share their land. You could easily find space inside the shell of one of these ancients.

This is one of the most remote places on the planet, but it is easily accessed by modern transportation. It is easy to feel the joy of a natural habitat unspoiled by human activity. It is possible to keep it that way. The people of Ecuador have made sure of that, and that is a challenge for all of us to honor.

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