Our first full day in the Galápagos dawned a bit overcast, but a very comfortable 75 degrees F (24C). Our hosts at the Sueños provided us with a delicious breakfast of eggs, cheese, a slice of ham lunchmeat, fruit, granola, yogurt, papaya juice and coffee. Wonderful way to start the day!
In keeping with our quest to enjoy the islands without spending a fortune, we filled up the hydration packs in our backpacks and set off for the short walk (about a mile from us, along the appropriately named Avenida Charles Darwin) to the Parque Nacional Galápagos.
In addition to the Darwin Research Center, this park includes the Ruta de la Tortuga, a tortoise breeding lab, a museum of sea life, a beach that is home to rock iguanas, the Darwin Museum, classrooms, and more. Okay, technically the “Galápagos National Park” covers over 3,000 square miles and includes 330 islands, islets, and rocks, as well as the ocean habitats.
But in this case, our little piece of the park today has plenty to occupy us. It is open every day from 6am to 6pm (although some of the buildings have shorter hours), and the best part is that there is no admission fee – absolutely free to enter the park and wander around on your own.
Full disclosure – there are buses you can pick up in town and in the park for a small fee to shuttle back and forth. But the park is really not that large or that far away from the center of town. If you can walk say three or four miles in a day (no big hills either), you will be fine on foot. It is also easy to rent bikes in town if you prefer.
There is a guard house where you can check in and sign a guest log, and they also have some brochures available. The staffer on hand was friendly and answered our questions about the park, but once again – no English, we had to communicate in Spanish.
After talking to the park ranger, we decided to start our visit with the “Ruta de la Tortuga”, or Turtle Route. More liberally translated, it is meant to be “Path of the Tortoise”
This is a lovely and well-maintained walk through the protected area, made of wooden walkways and raised stone paths to have as little impact on the wildlife as possible. There are several displays along the way about the history of tortoises on the islands, beginning with their use as easy-to-catch food by the early explorers and leading up to the efforts to preserve the different species found in the Galápagos today.
Speaking of species, this is a good place to point out something interesting I learned about the Galápagos and Charles Darwin in the informational displays along the trail that I never appreciated before our visit. The islands have been described as a “natural lab for evolution”, but not because of a vast plethora of living creatures there. In fact, the islands are a rather barren and forbidding environment, with only about a dozen different species of wildlife. To make a comparison, the Amazon Basin has over 300 species of reptiles alone; the Galápagos has only five: iguanas, tortoises, lava lizards, geckos and snakes.
What makes it such an important clue to the workings of evolution is not in the number of species, but in the way the various sub-species have differentiated in order to survive in the harsh yet varied living conditions found on the different islands. Furthermore, its remote location has kept it free of any invasive or artificially induced species (until man showed up, at least), so they could develop influenced by nothing other than the difficult natural environment.
One result of this isolation and the status as a animal sanctuary is that the wildlife on the islands remain completely unafraid of humans. This is one of the reasons you don’t necessarily need a guide to help you find the local creatures – instead, you have to be careful not to trip over them.
The Galápagos tortoises are an interesting case in point. At one time there were at least 15 different species of tortoise living on seven different islands, with an estimated population of 250,000 in the 16th century. The differences in shells and neck length that varied with the local climates and living conditions was one of the things Darwin noticed. With the discovery of the islands by man, over-exploitation and clearing land for agriculture and domestic animals reduced their population to just 11 species and around 3,000 tortoises by the 1970’s.
On the Ruta de la Tortuga you learn some of this history, as well as see the efforts ongoing there to increase their population and re-introduce them to some of the islands where they have died off.
On the Ruta de la Tortuga you also learn about Lonesome George. Thought to have been hatched around the year 1910 on Isla Pinta, George was first discovered by men in 1972. Pinta had been almost completely deforested by feral goats, destroying the tortoise’s habitat, and it was soon determined that George was the sole remaining survivor of his sub-species (Chelonoidis abingdonii).
Although several attempts were made to try and mate George with female tortoises who were closely related to his sub-species, all of them failed. For many years, he was known as “the rarest animal alive”, a dubious distinction. Lonesome George passed away from natural causes at the age of 102 in 2012, and the number of tortoise families in the Galápagos dropped to 10, where it stands today.
George’s remains were shipped to New York where taxidermy specialists preserved his body. It is now on display in a glass booth inside a climate controlled environment near the end of the Ruta. Visitors are only allowed in small groups, and you pass through a double door airlock-like space to enter and leave. The room is also kept darkened, and flash photography is prohibited to make sure this symbol of what the Darwin Center is trying to preserve will last as long as possible.
The Ruta de la Tortuga is a wonderful and free place to get to see and learn about a lot of Galápagos tortoises and other wildlife of the islands. The whole trail is only about a kilometer long (less than half a mile) and there are plenty of places to relax along the way, even nicely-maintained bathrooms near the end of the loop. Definitely a great way to enjoy these special animals without dropping a lot of cash.