We touched down on Baltra island, an outcrop of volcanic debris separated from Isla Santa Cruz by a narrow stretch of water. The blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean stretched in every direction, our nearest landmass now over 500 miles away. The locals have perfected the art of tourist-fleecing, and after an expensive series of coaches, boats and taxis we arrived at our hostel in Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement of the islands.
The landscape of the Galapagos is entirely alien; black volcanic rock, sandy beaches and a landscape that veers between verdant and blasted. The town was filled with souvenir shops and tour agencies, and prices in many of the restaurants were prohibitively steep.
Wandering through Puerto Ayora, we were confronted everywhere with the bushy face of Charles Darwin, the islands’ most famous visitor. Sea lions and iguanas draped themselves over benches or rocks, utterly indifferent to the presence of humans. Darwin’s finches flitted between tables whilst large, reddish crabs skittered around the rocky shoreline. On the road in to town we had passed a number of giant tortoises, ambling slowly along the side of the tarmac and occasionally bringing traffic to a halt.
On our first evening we discovered an excellent seafood street market on Charles Binford street – we tucked in to giant, fresh tuna steaks at $10 per slice, chatting to a number of biologists who worked nearby. Afterwards we walked along the wooden jetty, passing slumbering sea lions and watching baby sharks circle in the water below.
The next day we booked a trip to Floreana island, then paid a visit to the Charles Darwin Institute some 20 minutes outside of town. This conservation centre offered us a first close-up look at the incredibly placid giant tortoises, whose numbers are slowly increasing after near-extinction from hunting and invasive species. Afterwards we took a path to the nearby beach, where dozens of black marine iguanas basked in the midday sun. The largest was almost a metre in length, gazing at us impassively and intermittently blowing saltwater from its nostrils.