Evolution, up close and personal

Swimming with the fishes in the Galapagos and climbing Ecuador's volcanoes

galapagos iguana 298 88 (photo credit: )
galapagos iguana 298 88
(photo credit: )
GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador - The animal's dark, reptilic head emerges from the teal-colored waters of the ocean, as he tentatively peers at the barren rocks around him before shimmying ashore. Clawed feet meet black lava as the creature climbs out of the water, the first of dozens to venture from the sea. Theirs appear to be the first steps ever to be taken on this island, which remains in a state of creation. In the distance, dark smoke pours out of a volcano, a sign of how nature's hand is giving shape to this untouched land. Man does not yet exist, at least not here. There are only the birds in the sky, the fish in the ocean and a few brave amphibians venturing cautiously from sea to shore. God has been good to the creatures in this prehistoric paradise. They live undisturbed by predators, and even in death they are spared the indignity of having their decaying remains gobbled up by some creature higher up along the food chain. In this unspoiled ecosystem, there is nothing to bother them. Click. A camera shutter whirs and an excited group of tourists ooh and aah as one of the iguanas splashes back into the water just as a pair of seal lions begins wrestling in the shallow waters offshore. This is not Day Five of the Seven Days of Creation, when God created the land and the seas and the creatures of the Earth but had not yet made man. It's day five of a six-day luxury tour of the Galapagos Islands, and we're 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, armed with cameras and binoculars and all manner of papaya. Yet the Galapagos, an archipelago of islands largely uninhabited by man that straddle the equator in the Pacific Ocean, remain much as they were thousands of years ago. Well, sort of. This is where Charles Darwin came in 1835 and developed his theory of evolution. Here, ongoing evolution means that these islands are in a constant state of flux. Just a few months ago, a volcano on Fernandina Island erupted, pouring rivers of lava down its 1,500-meter peak. The animals, for their part, have undergone change even within the last century, under the close observation of ornithologists and scientists from around the world. So, what you see here today may not be what you see here tomorrow. Of course, the most radical change to the Galapagos in modern history has been the introduction of homo sapiens, 28,000 of whom live on two of the islands and approximately 110,000 of whom visit the Galapagos National Park every year. Park officials take care to minimize human impact to the delicate ecosystem of the Galapagos, which is comprised of 13 large islands, six small ones and 42 islets, but there is only so much careful monitoring can do. Projections of the number of visitors to the islands routinely are outpaced by eager tourists, and Ecuadorian officials (the islands belong to Ecuador) are having a tough time standing up to the pressure of tour companies and cruise ships eager to expand their lucrative operations in the islands. Perhaps this is all the more reason to visit the Galapagos now, while cruise ships are still barred from the archipelago and the number of annual visitors remains relatively small. The best - and, to some degree, only - way to see the Galapagos is by boat. Through the Florida-based Galapagos Network, I booked passage on one of four luxury yacht tours run by Ecoventura Tours (www.ecoventura.com). Along with 19 other passengers and 10 crew members, we embarked from one of two Galapagos ports on a six-day excursion filled with nature walks on the islands, leisurely hikes, fabulous snorkeling and the occasional kayak outing. Days in the Galapagos move along at a leisurely pace, always starting with a wake-up in a cozy cabin on a small ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That fact alone is what brings so many visitors to these waters, who make good use of their time by spending hours on the deck atop the boat reading, dozing and watching the islands slowly disappear from sight as the boat moves through the deep-blue waters. There's plenty of time for rest - and the slight swaying of the boat along with the strong equatorial sun has quite a soporific effect - but seeing the animals up close requires getting off the boat. And you can actually get quite close to the animals, sometimes so much so that you have to take care not to step on a bird or sea lion or iguana. The birds are the main attraction of the islands, and they come in countless sizes and varieties. There are frigates and cormorants and warblers and hawks and finches and pelicans and penguins. There are also beautiful boobies, which come in two varieties: blue-footed and red-footed. Both look a lot like ducks. There's more action underwater, where giant sea turtles swim alongside squid, sharks and colorful tropical fish of some of the same varieties that live in the waters off Eilat. Life on the Galapagos may be a scientific wonder, but the islands themselves are, for the most part, not a delight to the eye. That surprised me, because I thought the Galapagos would be lush, like Hawaii. Instead, the islands are mostly barren and rocky, covered in guano, and populated by cacti and short trees. Ecuador's beauty primarily lies on the mainland, which I visited after a few days in the Galapagos. Wasting little time in the port city of Guayaquil, where I found little of interest other than a quaint old town section, I flew up to the mountain city of Quito, which at 2,800 meters is the world's second-highest capital city after La Paz, Bolivia. Between the altitude and having just spent several days on a boat, it took me a good day and a half to acclimate to my new environs. Then I promptly set off for the 6,310-meter Chimborazo volcano, Ecuador's highest peak, quickly returning to that feeling of drunkenness and disorientation that comes with vertiginous heights. Fortunately, we did most of our climbing in a car. As we rose through the Andes and approached the glacier atop the volcano, our helpful guide pointed out the elevations at which varying forms of agriculture stop growing. When we passed 3,600 meters, the highest arable altitude around these parts, the last of the mountain crops gave way to a barren moonscape and the clouds rolled in under us. The temperature dropped by one degree with every 200 meters we ascended, so when we finally stepped out of the vehicle at 4,800 meters on the steppes of Chimborazo, we had to put on all the warm clothing we had brought to Ecuador just to keep from shivering. We ascended the last 200 meters to Chimborazo's 5,000-meter base camp by foot, stopping every 10 paces to catch our breath in the oxygen-depleted air. When the clouds cleared for a few moments to expose the mountain's snow-covered peak, it was easy to understand why the native Indians viewed these mountains as gods. Occasional volcanic eruptions only underscore that article of faith, which some Indians still hold. While Chimborazo has been dormant for millennia, nearby Cotopaxi, which we were thwarted from visiting due to a landslide on the access road the night before we arrived, erupted as recently as 1999; experts expect another eruption in the next five to seven years. As we descended Chimborazo, passing vicu as (members of the llama family) and short Indians in colorful clothing and beautiful hats, the hard terrain of the Avenue of the Volcanoes gradually gave way to the deep-green lush of the Andes. Waterfalls appeared on the slopes of the mountains around us and the roadway grew busy with the sounds and smells of Ecuadorian commerce: guinea pigs roasting on the side of the road, ice cream stands and pollo - chicken - everywhere. Opting to skip a roadside snack, we barreled through Latacunga on our way to Ba os, a pleasant, touristy town about 60 kilometers away from the edge of the jungle that fills Ecuador's east side and Peru's west. In Ba os, as in the Galapagos and nearly everywhere we went, we found a little taste of home when we ran into a bunch of Israelis - among them the proprietor of our lodgings. Though the Transilvania (sic) guest house (hamakom.lihiot@gmail.com) would be quite a change from our week of luxury yachting and our 5-star hotel in Quito, we got to enjoy the benefits of some home-cooked humous and clean, adequate accommodations for a mere $5 - including a delicious breakfast served by Ecuadorian teenagers astonishingly adept at Hebrew. It was not our first taste of home on the trip. When we were met at Quito's airport by our guide from Flash Travel (www.ecuadoor.com), a man named Francisco who introduces himself as Yossi to Israelis, he wished us a "Shalom Shabbat" and then had his assistant give us a crash course on Ecuador's kosher offerings (in a word: none). When we set off Sunday morning for the volcanoes, Yossi handed out Hebrew copies of the Traveler's Prayer on Flash Travel's letterhead, then popped a Mashina album into the car's CD player. This, after spending a week with a pair of Israeli mothers and their trek-exhausted sons on our Galapagos boat tour and an Ecuadorian guide who reveled in wishing us a "boker tov" every morning on the high seas. In Ba os, we invited a kibbutznikit who was nearing the end of her eight-month, post-army trek through South America to join us for a bicycle ride down through the Andes, toward the jungle city of Puyo, at the edge of the rainforest. Along the way, we barreled past stunning mountain vistas and followed the path of a massive river-filled ravine. At one point, we crossed the canyon on a crude cable car, finding a trout farm and stunning garden hidden in the lush forest on the other side. We hiked back, crossing over the river on a precarious wooden bridge that shook with every step we took - and every jump of the reckless young Briton who had joined us. That evening, as a reward for all our hard work, we took a nice, long soak under a brilliant starry sky in Ba os' famous outdoor hot springs, which are heated from the lava of the nearby volcano we had seen smoking on our way into town. Every volcano in Ecuador is different. They come active, dormant, with snow, bare-topped, at the edges of cities, in the countryside and in the sea. One volcano into whose mouth we hiked, Kilotoa, is filled with a lake comprised of water and sulphuric gasses. Its ash slopes are soft as snow. There is even a snow-topped volcano on the equatorial line - the only place in the world where there is snow on the equator. We crossed the equator several times during our visit to Ecuador, by boat, by car and on foot. At an equatorial monument and museum near Quito, I even managed to balance an egg on the head of a nail at the Earth's widest point (gravity is said to be weaker there). Then it was back to Quito, where we ended our two-week adventure with a visit to the city's synagogue, a massive edifice complete with a swimming pool, squash court and soccer field. Though we were told there is no anti-Semitism in Ecuador - the country's Jewish community numbers some 600 souls - I spotted a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the airport bookstore on my way out of Guayaquil, the only sour note on what was a very sweet trip. Planning your trip Flights to Ecuador from the United States are relatively frequent and relatively cheap, at about $500 from New York and $250 to $350 from Miami International Airport, the main US gateway to Latin America. Many European carriers also fly to or through Miami. Once you're in Ecuador, you'll have to pay another $300 to fly to the Galapagos and a $100 park fee once you arrive. From there, your tour operator should take care of everything. Ecoventura Tours (Tel. +593-4-220-7177), which has excellent guides, a reputation for reliability and very comfortable yachts, runs five-night tours for approximately $1,500 per person, including lodging, guiding, food and equipment. Flash Travel (Tel. +593-2-290-6050), which provided the guiding services for the mainland portion of my trip, also runs tours in the Galapagos at a similar price, and the company may be running a kosher tour this Hanukka. L.L. Bean has all the equipment you might want for the Galapagos, from an airtight transparent camera bag for filming underwater to binoculars so powerful my Ecuadorian guide was mucho impressed. While guides are not required in mainland Ecuador, it's a good idea to get one if you're planning to travel outside the cities. The road signs in the country are difficult to navigate, and at $75 to $125 per day, it's more than worth it for a guide who will ferry you around in his vehicle, coordinate your visit, and take you off the beaten path. Flash Travel specializes in Israeli and kosher clientele, and our guide Yossi proved to be both a knowledgeable naturalist and adept at anticipating our religious needs. If you're staying in Quito, the Hotel Mercure (Tel. +593-2-256-2345) is pleasant enough and has a fantastic fresh breakfast; in Guayaquil, try the Hotel Oro Verde (+593-4-232-7999). Prices vary by season. Ecuador's currency is the US dollar.