It sometimes seems that the more spectacular a location, the more violent its creation. Take Santorini, in Greece, for example, or Iceland; these barren landscapes are the result of their earth-shattering volcanic births. But nowhere in the natural world do you get as much bang for your buck as in the Galapagos, an archipelago located 960km from the South American mainland, flung into existence by an underwater chain of volcanoes and spread across 45,000 square kilometres of Pacific Ocean.
For European travellers it takes days to get to this remote outcrop of volcanic rocks. However, the march-on-march-off mentality that rules cruise boats navigating the Archipielago de Colon (unofficially known as the Galapagos) can be frustrating for some travellers. Of course, there are sound ecological reasons why all visitors to this marine park province of Ecuador must file sheeplike around their chosen landing sites, staying within the confines of the paths and adhering to their guide's every instruction. Most travellers will leave understanding every nuance of Darwin's natural selection theory, possibly able to explain with great erudition the exotic breeding habits of the endemic blue-footed booby, but they might also leave craving to know more about island life. These harsh islands on which Darwin devised the theory of evolution may have defied human colonisation until the 20th century, but today they are a home to more than seabirds and iguanas; they have a controversially booming population.
A traditional tour of the Galapagos sees little of this, usually entailing a lengthy sea expedition, living and sleeping afloat as the yacht makes its way overnight from one remote landing site to another. Daytime excursions come at regulated times, after which it's back to the boat. After all that time at sea most people are itching to put their feet on solid ground. And now they can do just that, exploring the Galapagos from a base on land.
As we came into dock at the Galapagos hub of Santa Cruz, one of the swirling mists that gave the archipelago its nickname, las encantadas or "the enchanted", hung over the port. Up above the central highlands, where I would be staying, a dark cloud loomed. "Looks like rain," said the deckhand as he turfed a couple of indignant sea lions out of the dinghy so we could get in.
First stop: Red Mangrove, a hotel on the edge of Santa Cruz's main settlement, Puerto Ayora. This rustic luxury billet, designed by its artist owners, built into a mangrove on the water's edge has welcomed such nature-loving celebrity guests as Robert De Niro, and is the place from which to explore "the other Galapagos". From this hotel, tours can be made across the island, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkelling, horse riding, and, in my case, camping.
While waiting for the hotel owner, Polo Navarro, to arrive, I ambled over to the very worthwhile Charles Darwin Research Station. On my walk back through the grounds I had a giant tortoise and a lava-black land lizard the size of a large domestic cat for company, their pace steadier than mine in the 90-degree heat.
Within seconds of leaving the coast the heat abates. As Polo navigates his jeep through narrow roads fringed with lowland scrub and cactus patches, the vegetation thickens. Elephant grass, fern and papaya trees begin to pop up from the rich red soil. "People in Quito thought I'd gone mad when I first came here," says Polo, a fortysomething diplomat's son who dropped out of society life and a promising career as a pro-golfer, to come and live an idyllic shoeless existence in these remote islands. "When I arrived 20 years ago the place had one or two dirt roads and you could only communicate with the mainland by radio. You'd see little kids, sons of local fisherman padding along the roadside selling lobsters bigger than they could carry. That's all changed now, of course. Now I come up to the highlands for a taste of the simple Galapagos life."
Half an hour later we are roaming around Polo's farm on the edge of the national park boundaries. Polo purchased this forgotten plot in1983 with the plan to conserve rather than farm it, home as it was to some 50 sub-species of giant tortoise. A trained naturalist guide, Polo takes us on a tour of his land, keeping his eyes peeled for one of the magnificent primordial creatures. As the sun sets, we give up the search and retreat to the camp on a picture-perfect lip of land overlooking the coast. Outside simple tents pitched on raised platforms, we eat freshly barbecued langoustine and yellow-tail tuna. Soon Polo and his artist girlfriend, Coque, retreat to their farmhouse for the night, leaving me swinging in a hammock.
I am woken the following morning by the sound of heavy teak leaves falling from the trees above my tent. There's nothing like a herd of grazing giant tortoise on your front porch to remind you that you're camping in one of the most unique places on earth. I only realise I've been sitting for over an hour watching their sluggish progress towards a brackish pond, when Polo comes to invite me up to the house for a breakfast.
We eat scrambled eggs as he tells tales of his early life as a yachtsman. "These islands attract the same kind of eccentric explorer as they did in Darwin's time," he says over a cup of handpicked lemongrass tea. "I met a Japanese sailor who built a boat out of trash and sailed in it back to Japan. There's a plaque dedicated to him in Baltra harbour," he says. "But my favourite was a woman who sailed solo with her dog for so long that she used to ask me directions around town, and would make barking noises to show she'd understood."
We spend the day far from this kind of madding crowd, trekking around the farm, following the tortoises' slow progress and spotting Darwin's finches flitting around the trees. At one point our trek descends deep underground, into a 30-metre-long lava cave where Polo has arranged a roughly carved banqueting table and wooden chairs, tall candle sticks made out of cana gradua (a robust bamboo). Overseen by a snowy white owl that roosts in a little hole in the wall, this dark dining room has an occult air. The experience is far removed from the "other" Galapagos seen from the cruise boats. Up here the coast seems merely a hot, savage dream. Shrouded under the cooling highland mist, surrounded by the boulder-like tortoises and nodding green trees, we are a world away from the archipelago's characteristic scorched, uninhabitable landscape, a mythical topography that seems only defined by the sea that surrounds it. Up here, the isles that many early explorers believed were a mirage really do seem enchanted.
Rumours abound that the first direct flights are soon to begin from the UK to Ecuador, but BA's continuing retreat from Latin America suggests otherwise. Meanwhile the main routes to Quito are via Madrid on Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com), via Amsterdam on KLM (08705 074 074; www.klm.com) and on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) to Miami, where you transfer to American Airlines. Return fares are typically around £700, though occasional specials are available.
Onward flights are available to the Galapagos (via Guayaquil) with TAME (00 593 23 301 256; www.tame.com.ec) for around $389 (£205) return.
On arrival in the Galapagos foreign visitors must pay a marine park entrance fee of $100 (£53) in cash only, which is valid for the duration of the trip.
Journey Latin America offers fares from London to Quito from £641 return with KLM via Amsterdam. It can also arrange flights to and tours of the Galapagos. A seven-night cruise of the islands costs from £1,721 per person including international and internal flights, full board accommodation and excursions.
The Red Mangrove Inn, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz offers double rooms from $140 (£74) per night including breakfast. Excursions from the hotel can be arranged including camping in the highlands (see: www.galapagoscamping.com) for $110 (£58).
Charles Darwin Research Station (00 593 52 526 146; www.darwinfoundation.org)
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