Galapagos National Park is a group of volcanic islands on both sides of the Equator in the Pacific Ocean. Politically part of Ecuador, the Park is the second-largest biological marine reserve in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It has achieved coveted status as one of UNESCO's premier World Heritage Sites due to the vast number of endemic species. Made famous by its contribution to Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, the Galapagos is high on many travellers' bucket lists and it was certainly very high on mine.
I had delayed doing the trip for many years as I felt it was the kind of place that would be particularly interesting to see with teenagers. I was right. So, I bided my time until my earliest nieces and nephews grew from annoying (age 1 to 8), to tolerable (age 9 to12), and finally to being engaging and interesting to me (ages 13 and beyond). It is also the age where my own quixotic eccentricity is most appealing to them. They are the only people in the world who think my non-traditional persona is actually "cool". All proper people think I am 'roll-their-eyes' crazy. Both are correct.
And so it was with little preparation beyond getting appropriate parental permissions that this single guy ended up gallivanting through Ecuador with two vivacious teenagers. We had a blast.
Connecting with Copa Airlines through Panama City is the best way, bar none, for Jamaicans to get to South America. The Panama Airport is so well constructed for connections that one can literally catch an outgoing flight with checked luggage in less than half-an-hour. Try doing that in Miami!
Our first few days were a stopover in the capital Quito. I wanted to check out the recently opened Casa Gangotena Hotel in the old colonial part of town. It had been getting rave reviews on the travel circuit for its understated elegance and superb service. Already top of Conde Naste Hot List 2012 and the number 1 Quito property on Trip Advisor, this refurbished mansion certainly lived up to the star billing. Marble floors and muted colour schemes blended with hand- painted murals and ceilings gave it grandeur. The attentive service and relaxed style of the staff gave it warmth.
Must-dos in Quito include a trip up to El Panecillo where a large 150-foot statue of the Virgin, as conceived as an Avenging Angel in the Book of Revelations, guards the city residents. Constructed carefully out of 7,000 pieces of aluminium, this Virgin of the Apocalypse stands on the globe as a dominatrix wielding her chains and stepping on a serpent-dragon beneath her feet. Poor Lucifer! He tricked the Mother of Man into eating of the Tree of Knowledge but ended his days crushed by the Mother of God.
Quito is known for its truly spectacular gilded baroque cathedrals. Best of these is the Jesuit Church of the Society of Jesus or La Compania. Constructed in the shape of a Latin Cross, the interiors are extravagantly decorated with gold leaf, gilded plaster and magnificent wood carvings.
Of course no visit to Quito is complete without a journey to the centre of the world, Latitude 0 degrees on the Equator where you can stand in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres at the same time. The magic of this moment comes more in the contemplation than in the actual doing. It certainly does not look any different at the "imaginary" line, but boy did it feel pretty spectacular.
After a few days of exploring the capital, we took off to join the National Geographic Endeavour Cruise to the Galapagos Islands. A relatively small ship by cruise standards, the Endeavour is built to accommodate only 96 passengers. There are no theatres, no malls, no casinos, no clubs, no mini-golf, no multifaceted restaurants, and no oversized swimming pool. As an expedition ship, the Endeavour is outfitted primarily with the tools for exploration like snorkelling gear, wetsuits, hydrophones, underwater cameras, video microscopes and Zodiac landing crafts. With more naturalists per guest than any other ship in the Galapagos, the intended star of this cruise is simply the abundant wildlife above and below the waves.
What's different about the creatures of the Galapagos is that they live largely without predators. They do not know fear. This means that visitors are able to get up close and personal either during a stroll on land or swimming in the ocean. We played with sea lions and swam next to giant turtles and sharks. We hiked right up to birds like finches, frigates and flamingos and they didn't fly away on our approach. We walked among hundreds of marine iguanas. We watched albatrosses mate. We saw booby birds give birth. We watched dolphins at their morning play. We walked the calderas (the rims) of still active volcanos and wondered in awe at the incredible tranquility and harmony of Nature without violence.
I think for the first time in our lives we felt ourselves a part of the grand cycle, not outside it. I was so happy to be able to share these experiences with my teenage niece and nephew. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that will linger in the memory forever.
To preserve the serenity of the ecosystem, the Ecuadorian government limits the number of visitors to the islands at any time. This means that you never see the hordes of tourists which you expect in other similarly world-famous sites. In fact, for most of our daily expeditions we only saw the other guests from our ship allowing us to commune with the animals alone.
Beyond the hiking on the islands and the snorkelling in the bays, there were several opportunities for kayaking, glass bottom boats, underwater filming and learning to drive the inflatable Zodiacs. The ship's Open Bridge policy meant that you could go hang with the captain at any time of day or night and learn about the navigational and operational functions of the vessel. I found this particularly memorable when I would awake at 5:00 am before my niece, nephew and most of the ship, I would go to the bridge and see the breaking dawn of these mysterious Galapagos Islands. As the mist broke over this miraculous place, the question arises: Is this Creation or Evolution? Battle lines have been drawn around this issue.
And yet to me the fight between the Evolutionists and Creationists has always seemed nonsensical. One is science and the other is poetry. Both are true. Why do they need to tell the same narrative? One can see both the hand of God and the intricacies of evolutionary biology. Was it all created in the blink of an eye or over several millennia? Who cares? It's magnificent! We are inheritors and therefore caretakers of Mother Nature's grand designs. May we guard it well!