Ring my bell

Banos, Ecuador

When we left England, as well as a lot of plans for South America, we had dreams of three major trips off the continent. Having explored Antarctica and Easter Island, this week we were lucky enough to reach the last of them – the Galapagos.

It’s a place that’s on everyone’s wish list – who wouldn’t want to see the giant tortoises?

For me, it has always been somewhere I’ve wanted to go, without really knowing very much about it. The reality is more intriguing than I’d realised.

The Galapagos islands are a strange blend of raw rational science combined with the intensely wonderful world we live and experience – both sacred and profane. I’ve never been a Kansas style creationist, but the reality of the Galapagos brings evolution into clear view. The islands are geologically young and have never been connected to any other landmass. Every species there has arrived by chance migration. But the islands offer a variety of radically different environments, and consequently each species has evolved into unique variants, subspecies or species on different islands. There are, for example, (or were before whalers made 3 of them extinct), 14 species of giant tortoise in Galapagos, each adapted to its environment – for example, the ones with food sources higher off the ground have developed ‘saddleback’ shells to give them greater reach. Seeing examples of all the species, the process of evolution seems very clear.

And yet the origin of the islands themselves seems more than rational science can explain. Galapagos is a ‘hot spot’ where volcanic activity below the earth’s crust has created a series of islands in the middle of the ocean. That these islands are situated almost exactly where the cold Humbolt and warm El Nino ocean currents meet seems almost too good to be true. It means they have an unusual climate combination – cold enough for penguins yet hot enough for marine reptiles. It also means that a few miles north or south the climate changes dramatically – leading to 14 different environmental zones in such a small space.

That man didn’t discover them, and ruin them, thousands of years ago, simply adds to the wonder.

And the evolutionary process throws up as many wonders as it does logical developments. The 3 species of Booby (birds) in Galapagos have evolved logically different nesting grounds and feeding grounds. But no logic can explain why one species has blue feet and another red feet.

You’re left reinforced in both worldly and unworldly beliefs – a bit confusing really.

I was intrigued by the tortoises and iguanas. Here are species that have remained fundamentally the same for hundreds of millions of years. Their digestive systems for example are ‘primitive’ and tortoises get outcompeted by introduced goats because mammals can make much more from much less. Yet these living dinosaurs have woken up in an evolutionary sense – evolving into so many different species in less than 5 million years of Galapagos history. The iguanas have evolved not only different sizes and colours, but also taken to the water to become the first marine iguanas in the world. They are simultaneously Ancient and Modern (but then, aren’t we all).

We spent some time watching Blue Footed Boobies courting. They long ago abandoned the necessity to nest – lack of predators means they simply lay eggs on the ground. Yet courting males present females with small sticks, and to accept the stick is to accept the male. It’s as though this is a cultural relic of a bygone time. Left me wondering why we spend so much time denying that animals experience the world in the same way we do.

All in all, a very gripping experience.

And to add to that, we got to swim with sealions so tame you can play with them. I watched Marisa dancing with them in the water for ages. We also got to swim with penguins, a turtle, sharks and stingrays. I won’t go on – the list could be much much longer.

And we had a jolly boat to stay on all week. It was lovely to leave my bag unpacked for so many days, lovely not to catch a bus to anywhere. I got very accustomed to the ringing of the mealtime bell. I’m finding without it that I feel hungry at precisely 7am and 12 noon – meal times. (Though I don’t yet salivate to the sound of any ringing bell – so it hasn’t got too pavlovian).

But we’re back on the mainland and back on the trail. Rode the ‘Devils nose’ railway this morning. A ‘must do’ stop on the backpacker circuit – 200 gringos crammed precariously on the roof of a train for 6 hours as it struggles down the steepest hillside known to engineering. Great fun, if a bit odd.

In Baños (Ecuador) tonight. The nearby volcano Tungurahua is active at the moment and we hope for a (not too close) view – it was certainly smoking profusely today.

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