First stop: Galapagos to do the three big islands. Santa Cruz, San Isabella and San Cristobal.
Group: two frustratingly able bodied males and one considerably more exhaustable and easily distracted female.
After I clomped and wobbled up the cobbled path in my thinly soled Indian sandals I eventually discovered that, like many things in life, the quality of a beach depends on the amount of effort you put in to getting there. Our humid hike in inappropriate footwear lead us to Tortuga Bay. A gleaming carpet of sea and sand ending only in horizon. We eventually managed to sever our gaze from it’s majesty at which point we noticed our first iguana, stationary at our feet.
Stationary is the operant word for iguanas. They don’t budge. Not even if you get down on your hands and knees and invade their personal space with a bulbous nose and a pair of wide eyes. They will stare you down until you feel a little silly and as though you really ought to move on from observing their predominantly non-existent behaviour before you too become a bit of an inanimate object. A human being frozen in a crouch, will never look as good as an iguana.
The Galapagos Islands are crawling with tame prey. The giant tortoises, little birds and sea lions never really flee, and the iguanas certainly don’t. These creatures have been spoilt to centuries of harmony, free from big cats and reckless humans, so their fight or flight instincts were never a necessary part of their evolution.
These are some of the few islands in the world that our ancient ancestors didn’t discover. This is a relief because mankind’s colonisation across the earth can be described as “one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom” according to Yuval Harrari, author of Sapiens. It was between 1200 BC and AD 1200 that we swept across South America, annihilating about half of the earth’s large land dwelling mammals.
The mild natured giant tortoises of the Galapagos avoided mankind’s initial tyrranies however in more recent times their survival has not been a guarantee. It is easy to imagine these creatures coasting by throughout history, munching merrily on foliage until they reached 102. This is the picture that Terry Pratchett paints in his book Small Gods. According to him, the tortoise has survived ‘while the rest of evolution flowed past’ by being ‘on the whole, no threat to anyone and too much trouble to eat’.
But sadly he did not have the full story. When man eventually made it to Galapagos they did not find tortoises any trouble too eat at all, quite the opposite. Pirates used to stack towers of these creatures, alive, in the basements of their ships.
Whilst alive they stayed fresh. Conveniently, tortoises can live for a hundred days without food or water. Not a bad shelf life for fresh food, particularly if you don’t have a refrigerator. They also famously taste delicious: ‘wholesome and something like mutton’ according to popular accounts.
But you aren’t allowed to try them today. They became forbidden fruit after mankind very nearly ate it’s way through their entire population. In the 1960’s we reduced what used to be hundreds of thousands down to just two males and twelve females. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, we have managed to increase the number to around two thousand. No where near what there used to be but significant progress at least.
There is a happy ending here. At Galapagos you can now find a constituent of mankind that respects wild life. Today conservation is the priority here.
Tourism will never be allowed to spread too drastically for this reason. Huge proportions of the main large islands remain untouched. Turn away from the white sand beaches and you see lines of bushes, not bars, and don’t make the mistake of embarking on a long hike without adequate snacks because there is never an opportunistic booth around the corner waiting to provide. You will only find trees and the occasional lizard, perhaps a sleeping sea lion that isn’t about to move out of the way for you.
In theory we liked the idea of a peaceful escape from the world of bustling tourism, however in practice it meant that things didn’t always run smoothly. It was a test of character when we discovered on San Isabella, that we hadn’t budgeted enough cash for an island without any ATMs.
At the end of our visit we were left feeling humbled, knowing that we definitely aren’t the most important things on this planet, and when it comes to looking after ourselves on an island with restricted capitalism, we are even more helpless than a giant tortoise on a pirate ship.