At Anchor in the Galápagos

Cruising isn't the only way to see this unique archipelago

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.

About two dozen places to stay dot downtown Puerto Ayora. All are small by U.S. standards. At the bottom end sit a number of dirt-cheap but clean and friendly hostels hand-built of cinder blocks by the enterprising Ecuadorian families that own and operate them. A few of these have evolved into mid-range hotels complete with pools and restaurants that guests inevitably share with the owners' extended families. At the top end are three relaxed retreats from the equatorial sun that provide pleasant rooms or cottages, good food, and entertainment in resortlike settings.

The oldest of these mini-resorts is Hotel Galápagos. It was founded in 1961 by an eccentric American sailor named Forrest Nelson, who made it this far but no farther on what was meant to be a voyage to the South Pacific and beyond. Over time his establishment (now run by his son, Jack) has evolved into an eclectic tree-shaded compound of bungalows and larger buildings, including a restaurant, a bar, and a scuba-diving operation, nestled on the bay between the center of Puerto Ayora and the scientific-research station. It is an ideal location for visitors torn between going into town and frequenting the station's superb natural-history exhibits. At Hotel Galápagos the rocky shoreline is littered with marine iguanas and seabirds. Hotel Delfín, located across the bay from town and reached by water taxi, is much more isolated but boasts a quiet sandy beach. Many repeat visitors swear by it.

It may simply reflect my West Coast tastes, but my favorite place to stay in the Galápagos is the cozy Red Mangrove Inn—a pastel-hued bed-and-breakfast lifted straight out of a California watercolor. Guests leave their shoes at the door, and usually manage to find their way to a waterfront Jacuzzi. Only minutes by foot from the center of Puerto Ayora, along the main road to the scientific research station, this inn boasts a panoramic harbor view. The bar and the restaurant overflow onto a mangrove-shaded patio. With only twelve rooms (most with views), the hotel is able to pay careful attention to all its guests. As at every other hotel in Puerto Ayora, the proprietors will gladly arrange day trips and activities. Here they also rent kayaks, sailboards, and mountain bikes, and offer overnight excursions to and horseback riding at their remote ranch, high in the island's interior.

That it puts you within easy reach of Santa Cruz's interior highlands is, in fact, among the reasons that staying in Puerto Ayora is a good idea. Cruise ships deliver tourists directly to most of the archipelago's best-known coastal attractions, but the interiors of some of the larger islands offer their own delights. Thanks to the hard-surface road that bisects Santa Cruz, it has the most accessible of the interiors. Though many cruises offer excursions here, few ship-based tourists ever venture beyond the rock or sand coastline of any island—and that's a shame. The landscape changes dramatically as you travel inland. First comes a broad, rising plain, where desertlike conditions prevail and the things that look most like trees are gigantic prickly-pear cacti. Then Santa Cruz and the three other largest islands (which, like all of the Galápagos, are really the tops of enormous volcanoes standing on the ocean floor) rise high enough, to more than 2,000 feet above sea level, to have central cloud forests as well. On Santa Cruz this is tortoise country, where thousands of the ancient beasts survive in their native habitat, some weighing as much as a quarter ton. Vermilion flycatchers, Galápagos hawks, and short-eared owls also live here. There are gaping volcanic craters and lava tubes. Riding and hiking trails cut across cattle ranches and through the wilderness. Day tours, complete with lunch or dinner in a mountain lodge, can be booked in town—often with the same local tour operators who handle the cruise-ship excursions.

Still more appealing—at least to me—is scuba diving. I go a couple of times on each trip, and I'm a rank amateur at the sport. On various day trips out of Puerto Ayora, I have dived among sea turtles, marine iguanas, penguins, sea lions, eagle rays, moray eels, sharks, and rainbow assortments of tropical fish. The diving is so good in these waters that some scuba enthusiasts come for nothing else and live aboard dive boats. However, the various restrictions placed on Galápagos nature cruises tend to hinder them in offering scuba diving; cruise passengers interested in diving must usually plan to lay over in Puerto Ayora for a few days or else arrange for a commercial diving boat to come out and pick them up. The town has three busy scuba centers, but I was so impressed by my first dive, with Galápagos Sub-Aqua, that I never tried the others. Just ask for senior dive master Fernando Zambrano, and he'll take care of everything.

Of course, most tourists still go to the Galápagos to view seabirds, reptiles, and marine mammals. Nature cruises deliver these goods in grand style, by depositing their passengers at the designated coastal visitor sites around the archipelago. But some popular sites can also be reached on guided day trips—mostly by boat—from Puerto Ayora. On various day trips I have visited the Plaza Island sea lions, North Seymour's nesting boobies and frigatebirds, the Sullivan Bay lava flow, Santa Fé's enormous land iguanas, and the spectacular cinder cone of Isla Bartolomé, and in each case I found the experience similar to the one I had when I visited on a cruise.

There is more to do in and around Puerto Ayora—but what I've told you about already should keep you busy for a week or two.

You cannot telephone the Galápagos with any reasonable expectation that the call will go through. The Internet, however, has made it possible to communicate with local concerns. All the hotels I mentioned here have Web pages and e-mail addresses. With some luck you can reach Hotel Galápagos at (double-room rates there start at about $122 a day), Hotel Delfin through ($127.50 a day), and the Red Mangrove Inn at ($120 a day). Try to arrange scuba diving. Both Lonely Planet and Rough Guide publish reliable guidebooks for Ecuador that contain extensive information on Galápagos travel.