Galapagos, where animals forget to fear

Exploring these islands and the surrounding waters, one gets thrillingly close to iguanas, sea lions and birds

Sea lions gambol and glide around me as I snorkel in the Galapagos Islands, where wild creatures have curiously lost their fear of humans.

There is an Edenic innocence everywhere. For long moments, a tiny finch flits next to me, then almost lands on my shoulder. And I nearly step on a beach-loving marine iguana because the small reptile, a swimmer found only in the Galapagos, does not scamper off when I wander by.

Little may have changed since 1835 when evolutionist Charles Darwin spent five weeks in the isolated Galapagos, 1,000km west of the Ecuador coast. He marvelled at the fearless fauna and took lumbering joyrides on giant tortoises in the volcanic archipelago of 19 islands.

More obnoxiously, he killed complacent birds with a swipe of his hat. I can imagine how easy it is to dispatch the harmless birds - a blue-footed booby trustingly sets up a large nest in the middle of a trail and I walk gingerly around her.

The wildlife on these equatorial isles in the Pacific are now precious, protected assets, of course. Ecuador limits the human imprint, opening only a sliver of the islands to visitors.

The 2012 visitor count was 180,800. This seems modest enough, as the land mass of the islands - 8,000 sq km - is more than 10 times the size of Singapore.

On my three-night voyage on Coral I, a cruise ship for 36 guests operated by Klein Tours (www.kleintours.com), I hop onto a different island each morning and afternoon, boarding small boats and sticking to trails with a naturalist guide.

Rates for Klein Tour cruises, which run from three to 14 days, start at US$1,600 (S$2,028). The price includes twin accommodation, meals and a guide who shepherds no more than a dozen guests. About 80 ships big and small cruise the Galapagos on rotating routes, to save the islands from being over-trampled.

I am especially fond of South Plaza, an island tiny enough to be circumnavigated on foot in a couple of relaxed hours. Vibrant red sesuvium, a flowering herb, sprawls cheerfully over the island. This red carpet turns a green hue in abundant rain.

Golden land iguanas and gregarious sea lions are the stars of South Plaza. Moments after stepping ashore, we look at a dozen iguanas in a field of cactus, chomping on the prickly pads, sometimes scraping off the larger spikes with claws.

Our easy trek, atop stunning cliffs and through rolling meadows, is rich in sights so we pause often. Memorably, in the wind and sun, a pregnant sea lion dozes as her foetus kicks just discernibly in her belly - life abounds on these "Las Encantadas" or Enchanted Islands, as early Spanish sailors called the Galapagos, which rose like an illusion from the middle of the ocean.

In the blue surf, baby sea lions are flipping energetically like elastic submarines. On a rocky cliff, a bachelor colony of sea lions is chilling in their "men's club". They are mellow and non-territorial when not embedded among females and pups that they are duty- bound to defend.

We linger on an outcrop, our faces moistened by the crashing surf far below, while Red-billed Tropicbirds fly overhead, long tails trailing. Strutting close to me are Swallow-tailed Gulls, with big, doll eyes that can pierce the darkness and spy the luscious squid they love to eat.

I enjoy such wildlife factoids dispensed by our experienced English-speaking guide, one of about 500 who are stationed on ships with travellers.

Most of all, I love the wild beauty and the sensation of being immersed in a natural soundscape of whistles, chirps, clicks, cackles and other mysterious wildlife calls, and never knowing what I will see next - possibly a shark patrolling the water, or a spiky-headed marine iguana peering at me inquisitively around the bend.

A couple of other islands also return often to my mind's eye. I like North Seymour, an island full of nesting sites. I watch the comical courtship dance of male blue-footed booby birds. They tap dance for females, showing off webbed, light-blue feet that will also double as egg-warmers. I am close enough to see the lemon-yellow eyes of a booby.

Above us, male frigate birds with 2m wingspans and shiny black feathers rip through the air. During courtship, they sport red, balloon-like sacs on their throats, an extraordinary sight.

Around me are downy baby frigates nesting in low, bare trees, unperturbed by human paparazzi. Our ranger offers one fledgling a small branch, which it accepts non-skittishly with its beak and adds to its nest.

On a third island, Santa Cruz, I stare at flamingos, a swimming iguana and vermillion Sally Lightfoot crabs. Pretty yet baleful, these crustaceans skittering along lace-edged waves are apparently named after a Caribbean nightclub dancer.

Here, with the strong breeze, turquoise ocean and splendid isolation, are all the elements of contentment.

I explore several islands among the 19 that form the Galapagos, not counting the many islets or outcrops that are spread over 50,000 sq km of ocean.

Remarkably, each island has a distinct terrain and character and sometimes micro-climate. A couple of islands such as San Cristobal and Santa Cruz are semi-deserts that sprout tree-like cacti. Yet, lush forests flourish in swathes on the same islands.

Some isles have misty highlands where giant tortoises may lurk, black volcanic beaches, or salt mines - a mega-diversity that is true, too, of the larger Ecuador experience. This is a country of four immensely varied zones that are almost like four lands: Andean mountains, Amazon rainforest, Pacific coast and Galapagos.

The Galapagos itself is a year-round destination, with something unique to see month by month, island by island.

For instance, the eggs of giant tortoises, symbols of Galapagos, hatch in January. Lonesome George, the last of its Pinta Island subspecies, was the planet's most famous giant tortoise and a symbol of conservation before it died in 2012, aged about 100.

Sea lions are born in August. Equatorial penguins court in September. There is a chance of seeing whale sharks in November.

But be mindful that seas can be rougher in the cold, dry season between June and November. I pop motion sickness pills all three days but still have to lie down a couple of times when the unrelenting waves make me queasy. However, tourists are fewer and the Humboldt Current washes in ultra-rich nutrients, so we see droves of birds and fish.

In between island-hopping twice a day, we don wetsuits to snorkel in the cold water, where a fellow guest reports that a sea lion playfully yanks his flipper. To relax, guests take a siesta between treks, read, dine well, sip caipirinha or sugary rum and lime cocktails at the bar, and swop travel stories.

Mr Steve Morland, 58, a biomedical engineering technologist from Brisbane, does all this and also wakes up early to star-gaze from the frigid deck.

"The Galapagos is significant in the history of human knowledge because of Darwin," says the nature lover, whose three-month excursion with his wife includes Japan, Canada and Panama.

"I love it that animals are not scared of people - it's very rare in the world,'' he says.

Still, there are spots of trouble in paradise. The conservationists are ridding the island of non-native species, from cats to goats, as the gentle wildlife here is vulnerable to new species.

The delicate balance of life in the Galapagos is conveyed at the Interpretation Centre (www.galapagospark.org) on San Cristobal island, and the Charles Darwin Research Station (www.darwinfoundation.org) on Santa Cruz island.

This pair of venues bookend our trip and encourage us to reflect on the miracle of life in the Galapagos.

In retrospect, our sojourn in the Galapagos is a glimpse of an imagined Eden, populated by rare and fearless wildlife.

siewhua@sph.com.sg

The writer was hosted by Pro Ecuador, Ecuador Ministry of Tourism and the Embassy of Ecuador in Singapore.

Next Sunday: Lee Siew Hua explores the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.


Quito, capital in the clouds

Cradled by snow-capped Andean peaks, Quito is a metropolis of many vistas and more than just a gateway to the Galapagos Islands.

I travel on the old, single-lane Conquistadors Road up to the capital of Ecuador, a less-traversed route that suddenly reveals the high-altitude Quito, which rises 2,800m above sea level.

A city of skyscrapers and spires, Quito is the second- highest capital in the world after La Paz in Bolivia. Like many visitors, I have taken altitude sickness pills in preparation.

Quito was also the first city to be declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1978. Its historic centre is filled with churches and plazas that conjure up its Spanish colonial past and its dream of independence.

In the Plaza Grande, the heart of old Quito, I pause at a sculpture of a wounded lion, which represents Spain. Quito is known as the Light of America (Luz de America) for its courageous role in pushing for independence in 1809 and inspiring other Spanish colonies in South America.

Also within the cobblestoned historic quarter is the La Compania de Jesus, a Jesuit church built in the Baroque style, with geometrical Moorish elements.

South of the old town, on the Panecillo or "bread roll" hill, is a 45m-tall aluminium sculpture of the Winged Virgin which overlooks Quito benignly.

After gazing up at the Virgin, I swivel to admire panoramas of the capital and the Avenue of Volcanoes, a chain of perpetually snowy peaks rising more than 5,000m, including the Cotopaxi.

Quito also sits on the equator and is nicknamed the Middle of the World. Ecuador itself is named for the equator.

At the Intinan Museum (en.museointinan.com.ec), on the Quito outskirts, tourists pose for pictures, with one foot on either side of the equator. Fun experiments abound. The museum maintains that it is possible to balance eggs on the heads of nails at the equator, but I do not manage that mini feat.

This eclectic outdoor museum is also peppered with replicas of tribal huts, where I pick up a bit of indigenous culture and see frightful shrunken human heads. In the past, the Shuar tribe shrank and preserved heads of enemies as trophies.

For a little more serenity, I visit the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve in the vicinity. From a lookout platform, I gaze down at a caldera or volcanic crater which is inhabited and cultivated with maize, potatoes and fava beans.

Mist drifts over the crater and I wish there is time to wander down a green trail to the crater, perhaps to spy some wildlife.

Eventually, I do peek at some wildlife in a little Vivarium inside Quito's La Carolina Park on the Amazonas River Avenue.

The Vivarium specialises in reptiles and amphibians. Somehow, I stop being squeamish and find myself impressed that Ecuador is such a mega-diverse country that even in Quito, a city of two million, wildlife flourishes.

I look at a green tree frog, with a pouch on its back for babies. The frog is a Quito native and hops around some of its parks. Nature lovers are working to declare the tiny amphibian the emblem of Quito. I also see the False Coral Snake, Quito's very own too.

Before leaving, coaxed by the manager, I hold a snake that seems docile, though it slithers a little. It is an odd little adventure. But then Quito, a place swimming in contrasts and surprises, compels a visitor to experience the world quite differently.

This story was originally published in The Straits Times on Feb 9, 2014.