There's a sort of paradox about the Galapagos Islands. In the same way that you don't have to leave your car to see a bison in Yellowstone National Park, or pay for a tour guide to introduce you to a loudmouthed New Yorker in Manhattan, in a place as wild as the Galapagos you need not put in any grueling effort (besides getting there) to have the experience you came to have. Like many of the great protected natural areas, the wilderness you experience is ultimately rather tame. Within a day of being anchored at Isla Isabela, the Westernmost island in the Galapagos, we saw swimming iguanas, tiny penguins, sea lions and tortoises. We arranged to go diving. We watched the sun set behind an active volcano. And any questions we had could be answered by all the other sailors around us, because they were all doing the same things. That's not to say these experiences weren't authentic. The fact that I was in one of the most unique natural places in the world was never lost on me. I'd never seen any of these animals in the wild before, and certainly had never enjoyed daily private swims with sea lions just beneath the boat. The dive we paid for was incredible– hammerhead sharks shyly passing by, sea turtles approaching without fear, hundreds of barracuda drifting before us like a gleaming curtain, and visibility like I'd never experienced. In the evenings, we ate Ecuadorian style BBQ and drank tall Pilseners (which were really lager) while we checked the weather and our emails in one of the cafes in town. One afternoon we sat through a torrential downpour and the booms of thunder that accompanied it while the clear, green water surrounding us flattened and then gave its surface up to the endless attack of drops of rain. The islands of the Galapagos are just as unbelievable as everyone says.
But right up there among the best experiences we had were getting small glimpses into the lives of the people who were making a living there. Yes, the wildlife and the scenery were amazing and memorable. Each morning it's what I looked forward to seeing. But, two months on, the most colorful memories are our interactions with the people for whom Isabela is home, not a tourist attraction. When you pare a place down, sometimes what's left is the people, no matter how spectacular the rest is.
We met a 19 year old surf-obsessed cab driver learning to speak English, a farmer willing to let half a dozen tourists romp around his fields and take whatever they like, an Austrian restaurant owner whose “chalet” was perched on the side of a steep hillside overlooking the harbor. Our dive guide was a short, square guy in cutoff denim shorts. Short shorts. He was the Ecuadorian copy of Willem Defoe from The Life Aquatic. His skinny, Catalan sidekick pranced around the dive boat in his underwear between dives. And there was JC, our "unofficial" agent (since Isabela is an unofficial port of entry), whose closet must have housed an eternal rotation of Hawaiian print shirts and whose bicycle wheels were always turning. His mustache seemed to twitch and his glasses suddenly needed cleaning whenever it became clear that he wasn't quite telling us the whole truth regarding the legality of us being in Isabela.
We also met non-locals, other sailors with whom we've ended up becoming good friends over the past two months. Unlike anchorages in other parts of the world where people are coming and going to and from different places on different schedules at different paces, the Galapagos is the last stopping off point for boats coming from South America before heading off for the South Pacific. Every boat in that anchorage was going the same direction – west – and we were all waiting for the right weather window to allow us to go. We ended up meeting a really nice group of people with endlessly entertaining stories and a shared sense of adventure. We ended up keeping in touch via SSB radio during the crossing, which not only provided our main form of entertainment each morning, but also made us work a bit harder to keep our speed up and our fishing lines active. Not that we're competitive...
Isabela, too, is where our good friend Loren joined us for the Pacific crossing. Loren is one of the few people we'd welcome on board without hesitation for such a long offshore passage. Out of all of our friends he has one of the most demanding work schedules, but somehow managed to talk his bosses into letting him spend a month not just out of the office but pretty much completely out of touch and off the radar. He'd be sailing with us for the next month as we made our way from one archipelago to another. He arrived with snowy stories of Boston's fiercest winter in years (which, after so much time around the equator, made me a little homesick) and a massive backpack full of spare parts that he lugged around from airport to airport.
So this was our backdrop during the ten days we spend finalizing plans and preparations for the longest open ocean crossing on our trip. The Galapagos were just as spectacular as you'd expect them to be. But it was the people around us who made our time there most colorful. We were surrounded by a liveliness that was exciting but never overwhelming and a constant state of activity that, in the following weeks, would fade until it existed only in memory against shifting shades of blue.
Ahead of us lay nearly 3,000 miles of ocean and only sun, moon, and stars to mark the passing of days.