Mention Ecuador's Galápagos Islands and what comes to almost anyone's mind is tortoises, finches, and nature cruises. Last year I published a cultural history of the archipelago, and whenever I gave readings from my book, some listeners would nod knowingly and then come up afterward to tell me about their own once-in-a-lifetime cruise through the islands. "But I never mentioned cruising," I was tempted to say. It's worse when I lecture at natural-history museums, because these often sponsor study cruises to the place, and I have to bite my tongue. Packaged Galápagos cruises are fine—a worthwhile part of a visit to the islands. But to settle in for a week or two on shore, and absorb the peculiar charms of the islands at your own pace, can be even finer.
Oh, what charms they have. There are thirteen real islands here and a few dozen islets, scattered across a Denmark-sized stretch of the equatorial Pacific about two hours' flight time west of the Ecuadorian mainland. Everyone knows about the archipelago's approachable wildlife. Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom jumps off the canvas and springs to life. Opportunities to swim with sea lions and walk among nesting blue-footed boobies are commonplace. For experiences like these, nature cruises of a week or longer do have the edge, because the ships have time to reach the outer islands and islets, which harbor the best surviving colonies of Galápagos penguins, flightless cormorants, waved albatrosses, and red-footed boobies. Nonetheless, on the easily accessible inner islands all but the most enthusiastic keepers of lists will find more than enough wildlife to satisfy them: those sea lions and blue-footed boobies, and also lumbering giant tortoises, dragonlike land iguanas, and magnificent frigatebirds. Marine iguanas, Charles Darwin's "imps of darkness," are likely to be found lounging on your hotel's deck. And Darwin's fabled finches are ubiquitous: if you let them, they will steal rice from your plate at outdoor cafés. Even a small colony of penguins frequents the centrally located Isla Bartolomé.
When I suggest to conservation-minded Americans that it's perfectly all right to plop themselves down in the Galápagos for a week or two, they tend to react as if I'd suggested that they camp out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and take their favorite paintings down from the walls so as to study them more closely. But land-based Galápagos tourism need not be any more intrusive than the nature cruises. Approximately 97 percent of the islands' land mass falls within Galápagos National Park, where the same strict rules apply to all visitors; much of the remaining territory, including the two towns where most tourists stay, is already developed. No one is allowed to wander freely (much less camp) in ecologically sensitive areas. All national-park visitors are restricted to designated sites, where their numbers are limited, and they must be accompanied by a park naturalist or a registered guide. Even those biologists most concerned about deterioration of the Galápagos environment agree that existing regulations keep tourism from doing significant direct damage to the ecosystem. On balance, tourism may well help, by increasing international concern for the islands and by giving Ecuador an economic reason to preserve them.
The ideal roost in the Galápagos is Puerto Ayora, a burgeoning resort town on the southern coast of Santa Cruz Island, smack in the middle of the archipelago. (The other major town is the archipelago's capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on San Cristóbal Island.) Puerto Ayora scarcely existed forty years ago, when UNESCO and a partner organization began to build the Charles Darwin Research Station there. Shops, restaurants, and hotels evolved to serve the visiting and resident scientists, most of whom have hailed, over the years, from Western Europe, the United States, or Australia. The town was and is strikingly cosmopolitan. English is widely spoken, and the U.S. dollar is Ecuador's official currency. Commercial nature cruises began in the late 1960s, the first two cruise operators being Lindblad Travel (now Lindblad Expeditions), of New York, and the Ecuadorian-owned Metropolitan Touring. Those two venerable agencies still operate cruise ships in Galápagos waters, and their ships are some of the biggest and most luxurious—although today they have lots of competitors. Then as now, passengers flew into what had been built as a U.S. military air base on Baltra Island, which rises like a bump off the north coast of Santa Cruz. In time settlers built a road across the larger island from Puerto Ayora up to a landing just across the narrow channel from Baltra. Ever since, the town has been expanding as the center for Galápagos tourism. These days more than 10,000 people, more than half the archipelago's residents, live here. Including cruise passengers, who often stop for guided tours of the research station and its tortoise-breeding facility, more than six times that number visit the islands annually.
On a typical day Puerto Ayora's broad harbor is packed with private yachts, fishing boats, and commercial cruise ships. The presence of so many yachts contributes immensely to the town's charm. Situated 600-odd miles off the coast of Ecuador and only somewhat farther from the Panama Canal, the Galápagos are the last landfall in the Western Hemisphere for many sailors heading westward around the world. Apparently, sailing a yacht around the world has become popular of late, attracting otherwise conventional folks ranging from families with young children to retired couples on long-anticipated adventures. I met one businessman, two years into a planned six-year circumnavigation, who from aboard his sailboat stays in daily touch by Internet with the North Carolina beer distributorship he manages. Think of it: George Bailey could have run the Bailey Building and Loan, in Bedford Falls, and still taken his dream trip. It is a wonderful life. After these sailors leave the Galápagos, they face the longest stretch of open ocean of their voyage. Many linger in Puerto Ayora for weeks, screwing up their courage and making sure everything on board is shipshape. It makes for fascinating conversations in the local restaurants and bars, and I readily struck up friendships with some members of this breed apart, which continued by e-mail long after I had returned home and they had sailed into the sunset.
Other people here seem remarkably cordial as well. Residents freely suggest places to go and things to do on the islands, and visitors eagerly share their latest discoveries. Puerto Ayora retains a frontier feel. It has no franchise restaurants or chain hotels. Since everything is indigenous to the Galápagos, visitors must seek and share advice. The hotels in particular have a family-like intimacy.