We were still on the runway when it began. There was a fuss on the path to customs as khaki-covered passengers stopped, pointed and huddled together around something. A lava lizard, I soon discovered. I arrived at the Galapagos Islands knowing wildlife was everywhere, but didn’t think it would be crawling beneath the cooling wheels of our airplane.

Bag in one hand and a receipt for my $100 national park entrance fee in the other, I stepped out into the muggy air and equatorial sun. The landscape was desolate, its features Jurassic – twisted tree trunks, prickly pear cacti and volcanic rock extended to the horizon, and with the exception of the airport terminal there were no buildings to break the view. For hundreds of years, explorers, buccaneers and pirates would find themselves on these very islands, brought over by the capricious currents of the Pacific Ocean. I squinted, trying to imagine what it would have been like to wash up on these shores.

Before the Galapagos became a natural reserve, humans sailed to the islands for few reasons: pirates came to seek refuge, explorers hoped to find fame in charting new territory and privateers sought protection here from enemy ships. It might have been the misleading name of Enchanted Islands that attracted the outliers, many of whom saw the Galapagos as an opportunity for adventure. But the title was given because of the archipelago’s tendency to disappear in mist, and not for its beauty.

But we arrived, around 480 years after humans first set foot here, with the purpose of seeing one of the world’s final frontiers of wildlife. We had flown from mainland Ecuador over almost 1,000km of ocean, covering the route that many of the island’s species would once have taken either by flying or swimming. The changes their bodies made when they arrived on these volcanic islands – for example the variations in beak shape that allowed finches to access food in their new environment – were what inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Hundreds of other tourists arrived with us, all hoping to explore the islands. Almost half of them would go on to Santa Cruz and stay on land for the duration of their trip, while the others, including us, would take one of the tens of ships to explore the park. Although tourists fuel the economy of the islands – which, in turn, allows the government to put more money into protecting them – we are currently arriving in numbers that are unsustainable.

Over only a few decades visitors to the park have increased from 17,445 in 1980 to 204,000 in 2013. This, along with a growing local population of around 30,000, has put strain on the ecosystem, which has suffered from a slew of invasive species, as well as pollution and urban expansion. Keeping this reserve open for tourism while maintaining it in pristine condition is the park’s greatest challenge.

Although it was June and the start of the cool season, hot air blasted through the open windows of the school bus we boarded. From there we arrived at a quiet wooden dock guarded by two soldiers with assault rifles (most likely something to do with recent protests against plans to open up foreign investment in the islands, which could allow the creation of luxury resorts and golf courses.) We then began to make our way to La Pinta, the 63-metre yacht that would become our home for the next five days.

On board, as we were given a 45-minute briefing about our trip that couldn’t have been more poorly timed (I had been up since 5AM, it was now 1:30PM and I had only eaten a banana.) The talk was delivered by our head guide, Ramiro. Tall, tanned and pedantic, Ramiro’s passion for the preservation of these islands became obvious as the trip progressed. He clearly believed that while tourists were helping to support the park’s programmes, they were also one of the biggest threats to the island. By the end of the trip I would come to agree with him.

The rules for our journey were straightforward but abundant: don’t touch the animals, stay at least two metres away from them, don’t take anything off the island, don’t stray from the path, don’t talk to the animals, don’t eat the plants, don’t step on the plants, try to walk in single file, don’t leave any rubbish on the boat – and if you have plastic, bring it back with you to the mainland. Every day there were to be two expeditions on land or water in groups of 16 or fewer, working on a rotating schedule across the park so that the animals were not disturbed by us or by any of the other ships.

The schedule on board La Pinta was as regulated as the park’s. We were to be woken up every morning by 6:45AM over the PA system. “Will the wake-up calls be gentle?” I asked, concerned at how I would react to being roused at dawn by Ramiro’s voice. The other guests laughed, but Ramiro did not.

Climbing down into the bowels of the ship we found our cabin and relaxed for a few moments before we were assailed by our first PA announcement. Ramiro, who would dominate the PA system for the duration of the trip – much like Kanye, he simply couldn’t resist a free microphone – informed us that the first expedition was to be that afternoon to North Seymour, around an hour from where we were anchored.

I’ve always found that the first step into a new place feels far more momentous when you are moving from water to the land. As I took my first step off the boat and onto North Seymour I knew it would be a significant moment, but hadn’t considered that it would change my outlook on the natural world forever.

Our boat’s rubber bow landed gently on the volcanic rocks and I stepped off, noticing that the swallow-tailed gull standing only a few centimetres from the spot where my foot had landed stayed completely still. It continued to tend to its nestlings, not paying any attention to us as we all climbed off.

And then we were there. On a sandy path walking through an Eden overflowing with animals that had no idea that we were top of the food chain and the biggest threat to their environment. It was early evening and all the animals were out doing their rounds. The land iguanas, deep orange in their mating colours, were gathering together to keep warm for the night, and we had to be careful not to step on them as they waddled across the path. Blue-footed boobies stamped their feet in a goofy mating dance while frigatebirds with scarlet throat sacs soared above, one almost clipping the top of my head. The sea lions, bellowing like old belligerent men, ignored us completely as they curled up under the brush and swatted flies. A mother, tired of her pup’s needy advances on her teets, comically smacked him with her flipper. The sally lightfoot crabs scuttled in and out of the sea. Amongst all this action, we just stood there in awe, humbled to be in the presence of such abundant beauty. I was reminded of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, where he described the archipelago as “a little world within itself”.

It was thrilling to stand so close to a wild animal and not have it move away, an opportunity to imagine what our relationship with the earth’s non-human inhabitants would have been like if we hadn’t hunted them for hundreds of thousands of years. Thanks to the historical absence of aborigines on the islands, I was able to have the rare experience of not being perceived in the way wild animals elsewhere had come to see me, as a monster. That’s what made the biggest impression on me that day.

Overnight we made our way to Isabela, the biggest island in the Galapagos, crossing the equator at around 4 o’clock in the morning. The next day after a wake-up call by Ramiro that began with the first few minutes of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, I looked out of the window to find that we had come to the ends of the Earth. That’s what it looked like, anyway. We were in Punta Vicente Roca, Ramiro told us on the PA. In front of me was a vibrantly coloured ocean, with Pacific swells 100 metres wide that crashed against misty red volcanic cliffs. Over breakfast I watched a hammerhead shark lazily swimming next to a sea turtle. On the water’s surface delicate storm petrels hopped across the water.

Because Isla Isabela is one of the four populated islands in the Galapagos, its ecosystem has suffered greatly from the effects of invasive species, which run the gamut from farm animals to domesticated cats and dogs. Many conservation projects have been launched here but none have been as successful as the eradication of 100,000 goats, which were wreaking havoc on the island’s vegetation and leaving other animals with nothing to eat.

The success of Project Isabela is commendable, but it is only one aspect of keeping the park in pristine condition – the goal across the board is to bring everything to its original state. All tourists are now scanned separately in the airport for any fruits or vegetables and insecticide is sprayed on the plane upon arrival to avoid other fauna and flora from coming in. In 2007, after Unesco put the Galapagos on its ‘sites in danger’ list, the Ecuadorian government put a firmer hand on the park’s management, limiting the size of expeditions, investing in conservation projects and tightening regulations across the board.

As I looked out onto the guano-spattered nests of swallow-tailed gulls, birds whose chicks can be eaten by feral cats (which in turn are useful as they keep the rat population down) I began to realise how easy it is for humans to influence the environment without necessarily polluting it or developing it. One seed could destroy the landscape, one species of fly could bring down an entire population of birds. The Galapagos is known for being one of the best examples of tourism management in a natural reserve, but with thousands of visitors arriving weekly, will this be enough?

I spoke about this with Gabriel, our pot-bellied and amicable guide, as we were snorkelling later that day, with fish and sea turtles beneath us being swept back and forth against their will in the currents of the Pacific Ocean. I asked him if he thought the park, which produces over $145 million in yearly revenue for the Ecuadorian government, would ever limit the number of tourists allowed in, and whether it was even sustainable to allow them in in the first place.

“The number of tourists is bound to increase,” he told me, but he didn’t seem to have any more to say about the fact that changes in the law about foreign investment will mean the building of water-sapping golf courses, and luxury hotels bringing 542 new rooms on the islands within the next few years. Later that daythe illusion that I was the first person to walk these islands was immediately shattered when another group from a different boat passed us walking the trails. We later encountered two more groups, which made me seriously question the park’s rotating schedule and its ability to limit any disruption to the animals.

In rough weather on the next morning we landed on shore. The black beach was shrouded in mist as hermit crabs made their merry way along the sand. We were walking further inland through brackish water when we spotted a giant tortoise. Obviously, he was enormous. Around 400lbs, primitive-looking, and one of 10,000 on this island. He didn’t shy away as we moved nearer, but one of the children in the group got too close for comfort and his scaly head moved back inside his shell.

The heat was so intense that day that it was a relief to lower myself into the chilly waters, especially cold this time of year because of the Humboldt current. Under the surface the water teemed with life. I wondered how many species you’d find in a cubic metre of this stuff. We moved through the water with trepidation initially – as thousands of tiny jellyfish, some the size of a fingernail, passed us by.

A few metres away two cormorants bickered with each other as they skidded across the water’s surface. The afternoon sunlight filtering through the water was beautiful but made it difficult to see anything at all, so I came up for air to see what was happening above. A Galapagos penguin jumped off a rock and into the water – tiny and agile, it fished in a school of sardines below me. A sea turtle floated by me, then another, and then another.

One of the cormorants now searched for its dinner. It dove beneath a rock ledge and came up with a squirming eel in its beak. A struggle ensued, the two animals suspended in water, but the cormorant won. Then I saw the white tip of a Galapagos shark, and I quickly swam in the other direction, where I came across a sea lion playing a mere metre away from another guest.

Late that night, after being vividly updated on the gastrointestinal issues of one of our fellow passengers, our dessert was interrupted by a rumour that Wolf Volcano was visible from the deck, and we rushed out to see a smudge of red on the horizon of the night sky.

At 2AM we were woken (not so gently) with the information that we were now closer to Wolf and could see it erupting. We raced onto the upper deck in our pyjamas and were floored by what we found. Lava oozed from the crater of the volcano and every so often a red glow shone fiercely around erupting sparks. We stayed for 45 minutes, unable to avert our eyes. Then a cloud covered the spectacle and Wolf disappeared.

On the last day of the trip I stopped by the fish market in the town of Puerto Ayora on the inhabited island of Santa Cruz. For the first time in five days I saw buildings. Pelicans and sea lions jostled for space as fishermen threw them scraps of tuna and red snapper. The sea lions, full and content, slipped back into the murky harbour water to sunbathe elsewhere, and the fishermen, their pockets full, walked home for an early lunch.

In Puerto Ayora, the natural park collides with the island’s human inhabitants. It’s a place where land-based tourism is growing and the suggestion of mass tourism, hinted at by a garish blue and pink train that runs through the town and T-shirts for sale that read ‘I love boobies’, are beginning to show. Until recently, tourists who came to these islands would arrive and tour by boat, but with the expansion of land-based accommodations the locals are seeing more and more money from tourism. The government’s recent decision to open up the islands to foreign investment means it will soon be larger hotel and resort firms benefitting from this revenue, while causing yet more damage to the environment.

I think of what Ramiro said one night back on La Pinta after he had given a lecture on the current state of the islands. “If only,” he paused. “If only some sort of disaster would wipe out all the humans,” he said, with a wry smile. “Then it would be perfect.”

I imagine what the Galapagos would look like without the residents, without the tourists. I demolish the apartment blocks and I pull down the shops. I yank out the water and gas pipes like the roots of a tree. I peel back the asphalt on the streets and obliterate the cement lining the harbour. I pull out the power lines and wipe out the airport runways. I throw the planes away and sink the boats. Then there’s just me, standing along a shore at the beginning of time. And I blot myself out of the picture.

This article appeared in Volume 12 of SUITCASE Magazine. Order your copy here.

Maria Alafouzou and Claudia Legge were hosted by the Quito Tourism board and Metropolitan Touring. They travelled around Galapagos aboard La Pinta.

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