“You can scuba dive with a hundred giant hammerhead sharks and …” that was all I heard. My new friend kept talking, I think she said something about giant tortoises, iguanas and sea lions but her voice slowly became quiet white noise as I splashed into the deep blue waters of my imagination. I sank down into the cold abyss and was gone. I saw the unmistakable shape of the primitive beasts. I could almost feel the wake roll off their tails as they swam by me. There was no detail. The hammerheads were black and dangerous and the world was inky blue. I felt a twinge of fear begin to vibrate in my chest. When I floated back to reality I knew I had to go. The shear insanity of the idea made me want to do it even more. For the next few days I thought about going and I made loose plans in my head but eventually my desire to keep moving South and the search for good surf led me to Peru instead. There I found an amazingly long left surf break, bright sun every day, more fun than I could handle bar tending in the hostel and a restless happiness.
A few weeks later my friend sent me an email telling me how great the Galapagos were. She had been there for a while and she was loving them. Again I was tempted. I looked at flights on the internet and I almost went but it didn’t work out. I was in a good place and I still had some things to finish so it didn’t feel right. I promised myself that I would go someday.
Over the next few months I met many travellers who had gone to the Galapagos. They told stories of amazing scuba dives and close encounters with strange animals. I looked at hundreds of Facebook photos of friends sitting right next to iguanas and sea lions.
In Bolivia I met up with the friend who had originally told me about the Galapagos. She could be quiet at times but whenever I brought up the Galapagos she would begin to glow and I would get a charming and enthusiastic lecture filled with interesting stories. But I was on the way to Argentina; and away from the Galapagos. Again I knew that I would have to go someday.
Over a months ago my mom told me that she was thinking about coming down to South America for her spring break. I was in Brazil at the time and I wasn’t sure where we should meet. I thought about going back to Colombia and meeting her there but then I realized it was time to go to the Galapagos. It was so obvious and it felt right.
Ten minutes after getting off the plane I saw the turquoise waters of the Pacific and a cool sea breeze brushed my face. A sense of tranquility washed over me. I thought why am I just now getting here? This place is incredible. But all that matters is that I’m here now. On the second day I decided that a week was not nearly enough time and that I needed to come back someday. A few days later I walked into the airline office and extended my plane ticket. It may have been the best seven dollars I ever spent.
The Galapagos were an extremely strange place. Their volcanic origins gave them a harsh and lonely appearance but they also exuded a calm peace. As I explored their diverse and bizarre landscapes a sense of stoic solitude grew inside of me. They were unlike any other islands I had ever been to. They had fields of black lava rocks but they were not like Hawaii. They had perfect white sand beaches but they were not like Panama. They had water that was the classic tropical blue but they were not like Thailand. They possessed a soul that was beyond unique. There are hundreds of mountain peaks, thousands of miles of beaches and millions of acres of jungle in the world but there is only one Galapagos.
The cost and hassle of reaching the Galapagos prevented most of the more annoying hippy backpackers from going there but they were replaced by roving packs of plump pink senior citizens who paid huge prices for organized tours that choreographed every second of their trip. They spent most of their time on massive cruise ships and excitedly took pictures of every insignificant fish that broke the surface of the water. I just shook my head with a combination of arrogance and sadness because I knew the splendor of sea life that was below them and that they would never see it. The streets of Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz Island, were also filled with pasty Europeans whose white skin was accentuated by layers of SPF 1000 sunscreen. They wore brand new, ill-fitting khaki safari outfits that only made them look more awkward and out-of-place. On this trip, whether on a remote island, a snow-covered peak or in a steamy jungle, it has been my experience that the people who showed up with the newest and most expensive gear were the one who were uncomfortable before they even arrived and would only feel more out of their element as the adventure progressed. The guys who rolled in wearing slightly stained jeans and old t-shirts were the ones who thrived in the extreme environments and truly enjoyed the trip. Despite what felt like hordes of fat poorly dressed tourists the islands were still wild and unspoiled and no amount of silly gringos could tarnish their exquisite beauty.
One of the most remarkable things about the Galapagos was that there have never been any large land predators on the islands so the animals have never had anything to fear because of this they treated humans as mildly annoying fellow animals. This unfortunately proved disastrous for many species like the giant tortoises which were hunted mercilessly by pirates and whalers. Everywhere I looked I was reminded of this brazen lack of fear. While walking on the black volcanic rocks by the ocean I had to take care not to step on the well camouflaged marine iguanas who felt that getting out of the way of my feet was secondary to catching some sun. Every morning and evening when the fishing boats arrived there were several sea lions and a flock of pelicans waiting for scraps around the tables where the fish were butchered. The sea lions begged just like puppies, incredibly cute, intelligent aquatic puppies or in Spanish “lobos marinos”; marine wolves.
In the first few days on the islands I watched the animals and birds, visited perfect white sand beaches and marveled at the azure water. I fell in love with the place and it felt great to finally be there. But I was not really there, not yet. There was one overriding reason why I had gone to the islands and that was the sharks. I wouldn’t have truly experienced the Galapagos until I dove into the deep blue waters of the Pacific and met the hammerheads.