- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador — As my cameralens zooms in on the head of a long-necked giant tortoise that is in the wild yet less than 10 feet from me, I think the face of this bizarre creature really does make it look like E.T.

That’s no surprise because that famous movie character was modeled after a close-up image of the head of a giant Galapagos tortoise.

There is no other living thing in the world quite like a giant tortoise — the correct name for a land-dwelling turtle — and there is no other place in the world quite like Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. The islands are one of only two places on the planet that giant tortoises call home. The other is South Aldabra atoll in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, where, unlike in the Galapagos, their numbers are negligible.

Giant tortoises (picture a normal turtle and then try to imagine it suddenly expanding to 20 to 40 times its height and a few hundred times its weight) with faces that look like E.T.’s; iguanas that look like mini-Godzillas; albatrosses that look like the result of crossing a penguin and a goose — these are just part of what makes it so fascinating to visit this archipelago 600 miles out in the Pacific Ocean off the mainland of Ecuador.

Seeing a giant tortoise in the wild is a Galapagos must, and this odd creature is, after all, the namesake of the islands — “galapago” is the Spanish word for “saddle,” a reference to the saddlelike shell of these elephantine reptiles.

What makes going to the Galapagos Islands such an incredible experience is that there are few other places in the world where wildlife is so easy to view and photograph close-up as it is here.

The creatures of the Galapagos are so unafraid of humans, and so unthreatening, that visiting one of the islands is like taking a walk through an open-air zoo of peculiar creatures:

• Sea lions.

• Fur seals.

• The world’s second-smallest, northernmost and only tropical-dwelling penguin.

• More than 750,000 seabirds in 19 species, five of which are endemic.

• 29 resident species of land birds, 20 of them endemic.

To say the Galapagos is a bird-watcher’s paradise is understatement in the extreme.

DARWIN’S VISIT

This is the archipelago made famous because of a five-week visit in 1835 by Charles Darwin and the observations he later made of its creatures, which led to his theory of “descent with modification” — he never used the word “evolution” in his writings. It amazed Darwin that such similar islands located so closely together housed such very different creatures from each other.

Modern visitors to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are every bit as amazed by what they see as Darwin was. To conserve and protect the fragile environment of the archipelago, Ecuador limits the number of visitors each year. Nearly 97 percent of the islands’ land area is in the Galapagos National Park, and there are strictly enforced rules governing visitors, one of which is that a watchdog-licensed Galapagos guide must accompany visitors at all times.

Tourists are permitted to land only at any of about 50 official visitors sites, some of them open sites but most of them restricted. At an open site, visitors may wander anywhere within clearly delineated boundaries. A large beach area may be designated an open site so that visitors can walk freely among colonies of sea lions.

At a restricted site, visitors must stay at all times on a clearly marked trail to help insure that they do not disturb the wildlife or the vegetation upon which the wildlife is dependent. This requirement also helps the animals adjust their territorial instincts to the path pattern of human visitors.

The rules pose no problem for any reasonable person. Sure, there may be times when the rules prevent making a great photograph, but with patience, an equally great photo opportunity likely will occur next to the trail and sometimes in the middle of the trail.

Unless visitors hire their own ship and crew and a private licensed Galapagos guide to be along aboard and ashore, they must visit the islands as part of a group. Unless they are fluent in Spanish and very familiar with Ecuador, they also need the services of a good tour company to make the most of a visit to mainland Ecuador.

Most tourists visiting the Galapagos do not spend more than an overnight in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, before or after flying out to the islands. This is a big mistake. They should linger a while in mainland Ecuador to experience a captivating country widely considered to be one of the world’s up-and-coming tourist destinations.

A perfect choice for seeing both the Galapagos Islands and mainland Ecuador is one of the packages offered by Abercrombie & Kent, the highly regarded U.S. tour operator that also has an Ecuador-based operation.

A&K; books its Galapagos visitors aboard the Eclipse, generally considered to be the best and most comfortable ship serving the islands. It carries about half the number of passengers (46) of most Galapagos ships its size because its cabins, each air-conditioned and with an outside sea view and a good-sized bathroom, are much larger.

The Eclipse’s features include an observation sun deck, a hot tub, a deck bar, a small boutique and a library stocked with solid information about the Galapagos and the islands’ wildlife.

The dining room, lined with large windows, accommodates all guests at one seating, an important convenience, and there is a large lounge where each evening before dinner, one of the ship’s four naturalist guides gives a half-hour slide-show presentation explaining what will happen the next day.

“The food and service are outstanding — better than on big cruise ships,” says Roberta Hand of Auburn, Ala. She and her husband, John, a retired Auburn University professor, loved the ship and the shore excursions.

“It’s all great,” Mr. Hand says. “The naturalist guides are very knowledgeable, and they seem to really want you to enjoy yourself and enjoy the Galapagos.”

Mrs. Hand says she was “absolutely amazed at how close you get to the wildlife. You can walk up to within a few feet from them. It’s incredible.”

The Hands found Ecuador and the Galapagos an easy trip from Alabama. Ecuador is less than a four-hour flight from Miami, and there is no jet lag because the flight is mostly within the same time zone.

BUSY DAYS

In the eight-day, seven-night itinerary of the Eclipse, visitors go to seven of the main islands of the Galapagos group and go on shore excursions led by a naturalist guide each morning and afternoon, never with more than 16 persons in a group, most often with about a dozen or fewer.

There is a lot to see and do each day. Some days, guests can swim among sea lions or go snorkeling. One day, we sailed through a whale sanctuary area, sighting several whales and what seemed like hundreds of dolphins.

Much in the Galapagos is very different from anywhere else. Iguanas, including the marine iguana, the only seagoing lizard in the world, are so plentiful that visitors must watch carefully where they are stepping. A red-colored version of the marine iguana is found only in the Galapagos.

The waved albatross, which nests only in the Galapagos, waddles along penguinlike. These are the birds that look like a penguin-goose cross. They are huge, the largest birds of the islands, standing about 3 feet tall, with snouts that stretch 6 inches or longer.

The flightless cormorant, the only other flightless seabird besides the penguin, is endemic to the Galapagos.

Other attractions are the brightly colored red-top, blue-bottom Sally Lightfoot crabs; flamingos; finches; mockingbirds; swallow-tailed gulls, the world’s only nocturnal gull; and lots more.

The favorite, best-known Galapagos birds are the three boobies:

• Largest is the shiny white-masked, or Nazca, booby, so named because of a blackish area of skin that surrounds its bill. (It also has black at the tip of its tail and edge of its wings.)

• Smallest is the red-footed booby, whose feet really are bright red.

• Then there is the blue-footed booby, which, of course, really has bright blue feet.

Visitors who do not see a giant Galapagos tortoise should stop by the compound that houses six giant Galapagos tortoises when their tour visits the Charles Darwin Research Center. Tourists are allowed to interact with the creatures as long as they don’t touch the animals or intrude upon their feeding platforms.

MORE TO ECUADOR

The Galapagos Islands may be one of the world’s best-known and most-interesting travel destinations in and of themselves, but lingering a while to see some of the rest of Ecuador makes a great trip even better and more fun.

Quito is South America’s oldest capital, and no other capital on the continent matches its Spanish colonial charm. The city’s setting also is interesting. At an altitude of 9,405 feet, this city of 1.5 million is the second-highest capital in the world, after La Paz, Bolivia.

Its religious architecture and artistic works are world-class treasures, which is why the city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In San Francisco Church, the oldest large church in South America, visitors are amazed by the gold covering the walls and ceilings, even columns.

It’s difficult to imagine anything so ornate, yet it seems almost plain compared with nearby La Compania, which took 163 years to complete. La Compania’s altar contains 1 tons of gold.

Each Wednesday evening in Quito, the Ecuadorian Folklore Ballet performs “Jacchigua,” a celebration of the folklore of the Indians of the Ecuadorean Andes. It’s dazzling — a riveting two-hour performance by a cast of 60, each dressed in a stunning outfit that meticulously re-creates traditional Indian dyes, textures and designs. The choreography is perfect, the music is extraordinary and unforgettable, and the spectacular colors are indescribably beautiful.

Another Ecuadorean highlight is shopping. Quality goods are available at bargain prices — and the talent and craftsmanship of the people of Ecuador is world-renowned. The fact that Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar for its currency makes visiting and shopping there all the easier.

Second only to the Galapagos Islands, the Indian market at Otavalo is Ecuador’s best-known tourist attraction. Otavalo is in the northern highlands, about a two-hour drive from Quito. It is huge — about three blocks wide and 12 blocks long — and for at least a couple thousand years, it has been a gathering place for Andes Indians to sell livestock, food, clothing, tools and just about anything else.

With one notable exception, it remains very much as it always has been. That exception is the presence of tourists and the vast amount of handicrafts that draw them: rugs, sweaters, woven blankets, paintings, bags, wall hangings, jewelry, shirts, ponchos, embroidered blouses, Panama hats (which originated in Ecuador), leather coats, purses, belts, etc.

The market is worth visiting just to experience the colorful atmosphere. Picturesque Otavaleno Indians wear their traditional dress: blue or gray ponchos, white trousers and wide-brimmed hats for the men; embroidered white blouses tucked into long black skirts for the women, who drape bright-colored shawls across their shoulders, wear colorful headdresses and hang strands of beads or gold jewelry around their necks.

The scenic ride from Quito to Otavalo crosses the equator, making Ecuador one of the few places in the world where you can see snowcapped mountains from the equator.

A day trip to Otavalo also should include, as my Abercrombie & Kent tour did, stops for still more great shopping opportunities in nearby towns such as Peguche, a village where skilled craftsmen weave baby-alpaca sweaters and alpaca blankets, and Cotacachi, which has more than 100 shops devoted exclusively to leather goods that are of high quality, also at bargain prices.

“I think visiting a hacienda (a country estate farm or ranch with a large Spanish-style manor house) like this is a must if you want a full Ecuadorian experience,” A&K; guide Antonio Torres says as we enjoy a fine Ecuadorian lunch beside a cozy fireplace. Mr. Torres is a wonderfully gracious gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the attractions, people and history of his country.

Outside, the lush, green fields soar sharply upward before disappearing into a snowcapped volcanic mountain.

A full Ecuadorian experience — that’s the way to go, and all it requires is adding a few extra days onto a trip to the Galapagos.

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