What it’s like to be the only tourist in the Galapagos

For those who can, now is truly the time to witness the natural beauty of the archipelago in all its tranquil glory

Sitting on the edge of my bed in Quito’s Casa Gangotena, the nicest hotel I have been inside during 2020, I waited for the swab to disappear inside my skull to search for a disease that wasn’t there. “Listo?” asked Gabriela, an Ecuadorean nurse decked from head to toe in PPE. Listo means ready in Spanish, but it can also mean clever. I wasn’t the former before the Covid test began and felt less of the latter by the time that it came to an end.

This was my second PCR test of the week and while Ecuador was in that moment at a point of grateful decline, the cases at home were surging. From the invasive testing, to the hand-sanitising, to the on-the-spot fines for failing to wear a mask in public, the South Americans seem more organised than Britain in every way when it comes to Covid-19. They have learned the very hard way – reports from May sounded apocalyptic as hospitals, then morgues, then crematoriums in Guayaquil were overwhelmed.

Galapagos, as ever, needs extra protection, so while my first PCR test on UK soil covered entry into mainland Ecuador, the second negative result gave me passage to the islands – that and a $20 (£15) admin fee at the airport, a $100 national park fee, specialist insurance for travelling during These Times, and a travel document known as a salvoconducto. It all combined to make it far more hassle than an ordinary trip but I was lucky. I knew ahead of time that Galapagos is anything but an ordinary destination and that the effort to get here would be worthwhile.

I’ve been once before, as a backpacker pre-Covid, to this singular place Sir David Attenborough describes as “a paradise unlike any other, enchanted volcanic islands where life has played out in isolation from the rest of the world and produced some extraordinary results”. But I knew that my experience would be different this time around.

Around two hours’ flying west from the continental mainland, the archipelago isn’t remote enough to have escaped the pandemic, but the numbers have come under control and countermeasures are everywhere; from decontamination in the airport to temperature checks at the entrance of almost every building.

Metropolitan Touring owns Casa Gangotena in Quito as well as the Finch Bay Hotel in the Galapagos and a small fleet of three yachts that tour the islands, though only one, La Pinta, has sailed in recent weeks. Every corner of their business has been devastated in 2020, but they were the first to resume touring when government restrictions allowed; many of the guides I have spoken to have shared a sort of relieved ­disbelief about this.

Galapagos sea lions: “reeking,” but remarkable beasts

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The wildlife is as abundant, colourful and curious as ever, it is just that now you have to observe while wearing masks. In the case of the reeking sea lions, this proved a mercy.

While the 30 or so passengers on board were thrilled to see this bombastic menagerie, when we stopped on the eastern island of San Cristobal, we were the remarkable beasts.

Deputy expedition leader Ramiro Tomala Bravo explained that La Pinta had been the first ship to revisit the island just a few weeks earlier and that the locals hadn’t seen outsiders in four months. Many gathered at the dock to wave. Some wept. “It was really emotional, you know?” the Santa Cruz native told me in a tone that made me wonder if he was welling up behind his dark sunglasses.

As we cruised around some of the central and southern islands, it was clear that most of the animals were little concerned by the rolling disasters that have defined our year.

The magnificent waved albatrosses on Espanola continued with their complex mating rituals; the red-footed ­boobies were still being harassed and robbed by dishonourable frigatebirds. It was even possible to get uncomfortably close to a marine iguana and it not blink a stony eye.

Albatrosses

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Charles Darwin, whose association with the Galapagos is never undersold, described the animals’ lack of fear as “stupidity”, but in truth it’s more a case of simple naiveties. In evolutionary terms – and thanks to Darwin everything is couched that way on Galapagos – the creatures just haven’t had time yet to consider us as the menace that we invariably are.

I sincerely doubt that they have noticed our absence this year, either. In the port towns, sea lions are still commandeering benches, while pelicans launch great, gulping sorties from long-anchored yachts. 

What seem like everyday miracles of the natural world to the first-time visitor continue much as they have done for hundreds of thousands of years.

The lack of visitors has resulted in subtle differences with the fauna here, with these occurring on the more remote islands. “The blue-footed ­boobies, nesting on the path on San Cristobal? You’d never see that normally,” said La Pinta’s expedition leader Dennis Ballesteros Guerrero through his mask. “Just too many people walking, but not now.”

A marine iguana

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We were sitting on a satisfyingly smooth piece of driftwood 30 yards from the shoreline on a white-sand beach on Espanola Island. When we’d landed, our small group’s footprints had temporarily disturbed the flawlessness of this perfect place.

In the spearmint surf, sea lions chased each other, all their terrestrial clumsiness replaced with aquatic athleticism.

“Once you get here, you start to forget everything else,” said our guide. “You stop being so nervous, I think, and enjoy scenery like this.”

The marketing line is that right now it’s possible to see the Galapagos as it was 30 years ago, but for Dennis, a sixth generation Galapagoan, that doesn’t quite ring true.

“I mean back then all the power came from generators that we had to switch off through the night and the roads weren’t sealed, so life was very different,” he trailed off and allowed himself a smile at an unspoken memory. “But in terms of the traffic on the ocean and the people, sure.”

It is certainly noticeable just how few other ships are around – aside from one fishing boat, we didn’t see another vessel out on the open ocean in four days, nor at anchor at any of the sites. This allowed us a sense, so hard to find anywhere in the world, of real discovery on each and every landing.

In Puerto Ayora, the islands’ largest town, the problems are more visceral, with several businesses shuttered, many permanently. There is an uncanny stillness to the town; a sense of withering through underuse.

There were few other guests around during Jamie’s stay at the Finch Bay Hotel

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Finch Bay Hotel

Even in the upmarket Finch Bay Hotel, through the space-age ozone chamber (designed to neutralise the potency of the virus), past the hand sanitising stations and over my mask, it was impossible to ignore just how few other guests were around. When I sat down for a cup of coffee, a couple of Darwin’s famous finches arrived, hopping around my table like minute inspectors, seeming to ask: “Hey, where is everyone? And why don’t you have any biscuits?”

With so few ships operating, there is a renewed emphasis on land tours both on the island of Santa Cruz, and via short yacht excursions to neighbouring islands.

Finch Bay organised one such visit to Bartolomé island, whisking us off for an all-day trip that had us out immediately after breakfast and back at the hotel in time for sunset.

“In ordinary times, this is one of the most popular tours,” revealed Mario, our guide, as we wheezed at the summit of the island in the late morning sun. “But now…?” he paused to catch his breath and I found myself doing the same.

“Look at this. You won’t see it like this again for 100 years,” he enthused, gesturing to a view that is one of the most photographed anywhere in the archipelago: a coppery volcanic peninsula framed by open brackets of golden sand surrounded by the most extraordinary aqua­marine inlet. A view that, once again, we had all to ourselves.

As well as this solipsistic approach to travel – you can book out hotels or even entire islands like a paranoid ­billionaire – visitors to Galapagos not only help to protect jobs on the island, but ultimately the fauna, too. Weighting the local economy so heavily toward tourism has convinced islanders to reject illegal and damaging ­fishing practices and instead focus on sustainability. Now, those securities have been removed.

A black-browed albatross flying near the Ecuador Volcano on Isabella Island

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Optimism about what will come next seems to vary from one local to the next; it appears to be a matter of faith. With each conversation I had, I tried to offer reassurance; Galapagos has something that many destinations claim, but few actually possess – genuine uniqueness. And whatever the circumstances, for adventurous travellers, that rarest of qualities will always be worth a journey.

Essentials

Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) can arrange a nine-day trip to Galapagos from the UK from £6,342 per person based on two people sharing. Includes flights, a night in Quito at the Casa Gangotena, national park fees, a four-night cruise aboard La Pinta (full board) and two nights at the Finch Bay. Those willing to travel this year can enjoy savings of up to £2,000 per person.

The FCDO currently advise against all cruise ship travel and all but essential travel to Ecuador. Travellers to Ecuador must present a negative PCR taken up to 10 days prior to their arrival and then take another PCR test before travelling to Galapagos. More information: gov.uk/guidance/cruise-ship-travel; gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/ecuador.

See the latest advice on travel ahead of England’s national lockdown: telegraph.co.uk/travel/advice/holiday-during-lockdown-england-travel-new-rules-uk-allowed/

For more on how to get travel insurance should you choose to ignore Foreign Office advice: telegraph.co.uk/tt-travel-insurance-advice

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