Sarah Siese boards the MY Grace, bound for the Galápagos
I wished the animated wildlife could have spoken; it may have shared some wisdom about the 13 remote islands, nearly 600 miles from absolutely anywhere, that so profoundly changed humanity’s perception of itself.
Darwin famously spent five weeks here during his voyage off the coast of Ecuador in 1835: a waterless, volcanic desert, once populated by pirates and whalers. It was an expedition meant to cut his teeth as a naturalist, that sent the course of natural history wildly spinning.
The refraction from the dazzling tones of swirling black and turquoise waters had us reaching for our sunglasses as we touched down in San Cristobal. Yet we were wary of raising expectations. The sense of anticipation must be the same for all 70,000 annual visitors. Is it still astounding? Has it been spoilt?
The elegant nine-berthed MY Grace is the perfect partner in these hallowed waters. She’s probably the oldest yacht around and definitely the most romantic. Polished rails sparkle in the midday sun along her decking and we felt rather smug, slumped in the comfy wicker loungers near the open-air bar. She was thrust into the limelight in 1956, as the wedding present from the shipping tycoon Onassis to Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, who began their honeymoon aboard her burnished timbers. Today, on the other side of the globe, her svelte lines allow her access to remote islands that are out of bounds to larger boats, making for an enviable itinerary that criss-crosses the equator.
After seven hours of gentle cruising, the rugged remnants of a sunken caldera spread across the horizon. Genovesa. Two trips were planned on this crab’s pincer of an island: Darwin Bay (an interior beach surrounded by a backdrop of molten cliffs), and a walk straight across its diameter from Prince Philip’s Steps, named after his trip here in the 1960s. Both are home to the magnificent Nazca red-footed and green-footed boobies, and pillar-box red and black frigate birds that puff up their pouches until they look ready to pop: a ploy to attract females. Unfortunately for them they’re far outnumbered by the latter, who wantonly pick and choose – fleetingly monogamous for just one season.
Isabela, our next stop, is a seahorse-shaped island, home to, strangely enough, seahorses. The Galápagos’ largest island, it straddles the equator with no less than six volcanoes, fused together over aeons with deep pyroclastic chasms and searing temperatures. Galápagos penguins and colourful Sally Lightfoot crabs draw the eye along the narrow black shoreline as you climb through the scrub, surrounded by the birdsong of Darwin’s finches and flycatchers.
After a siesta in our cosy cabin, we enjoyed a frolic with sea lions, green and black turtles, huge orange and yellow sea horses, flirty flightless cormorants and of course the tiny but delightful Galápagos penguins, all of whom seemed totally unperturbed by our company.
Just west of Isabela, the island of Fernandina is the youngest island in the archipelago and also the most pristine, in as much as it has escaped the introduction of imported species. Marine iguanas carpet the lava floor and you have to pick your way along the path hoping to miss their intermittent sneezes expelling seawater. Galápagos hawks sit patiently in the mangrove thickets waiting to pounce on any unprotected hatchling, while flightless cormorants stand at the water’s edge drying their redundant wings.
The jagged shards of ebony lava mean that walking boots are the only practical footwear. Toffee-like lava ripples in between fissures hiding young iguanas, arched over by prickly-looking lava cacti, which are surprisingly soft and fluffy to the touch.
Española, the oldest and southernmost island, is home to the rare waved albatross and to colourful marine iguanas. The panicky urge to snap that special shot is totally redundant in the Galápagos – you have all day to sit a whisker’s width from a bird that will pose endlessly for a portrait. Thank goodness for digital memory cards.
By the last day there’s a more natural communion between you and the wildlife. That, ‘wow, look at that turtle!’ feeling has evolved – you’ve seen dozens. You realise that at some stage along the way you’ve merged with the harsh Galápagos landscape: it’s got under your skin.
When to go
The Galápagos Islands are a great year-round destination: there’s no off-season, as barely any of the animals migrate. The waved albatross is one of the few exceptions and is best seen in spring and summer. The confluence of cold water currents from the west and the south brings a dry and moderate climate and is characterised by two main seasons: the warm, wet season (late December to June) and the cool, dry season (late June to December).
This extract is taken from Sarah Siese's new book, 'Heaven and Earth Honeymoon Islands'.
Journey Latin America clients can save over a third on the cost of the book: to claim your copy at a special price of just £12.95 including UK postage (saving 35%), call 0118 9333777 and mention Journey Latin America.
By Sarah Siese, Author of 'Heavens and the Earths Honeymoons'.