DARWIN COUNTRY

 eastern shore

The truck came around the corner and bulled over to the curb.

here!”our jovial guide, Cesar, said in his best English as photographer Zach Stovall and I climbed out, grabbed our gear and headed for a dock that stretched into a harbor dotted with a smattering of fishing boats, workboats, recreational craft and military vessels. We followed Cesar as he stepped nonchalantly over the yellow tape that ran from piling to piling marked ,”which means danger in Spanish.

bien?”I asked, as Stovall and I stepped over.

, si, this is fine,”Cesar replied, as he waved to the driver of our panga (tender), who sat in the large black in datable beneath us. Soon we were cruising through the harbor of Isla San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands chain to greet the 192-foot M/V Evolution, which would be our home for the next nine days as we cruised through the famous archipelago.

After stowing our gear, Stovall and I visited Evolution s salon with the other guests a doctor and his wife from the Midwest, a family of four from the South, an Australian couple on holiday, a mother and her young son, a couple from the Manhattan financial world all of them sporting smiling and excited faces, slightly reddened from their time in the equatorial sun. Following a safety briefing, we were told webe heading north out of San Cristobal, past Kicking Rock, a famed formation named because it resembles a boot sticking out of the water, to Wizard Hill Beach for an afternoon excursion ashore, before returning to San Cristobal for the night.

We anchored off Wizard Hill Beach, boarded the pangas and motored to shore. Pelicans perched on the cliffs, blue-footed boobies dove into the sea, and slumbering sea lions rested on the rocks and the beach. We swam in the azure Pacific waters. The white-sand beach felt like flour under my feet as they sank with each step. To the east, a line of dark clouds hung low over the San Cristobal highlands. With Kicking Rock shrinking off our stern and the sun resting under the line of clouds hugging the horizon, we made our way back to San Cristobal. One night on the hook and we were off to explore what I was already finding to be an incredible, and at times unreal, landscape.

Morning found our vessel anchored off Espanola Island, the oldest and southernmost of the archipelago. It was our first full day in the islands, and Evolutions guests were roused gently at 7:30 a.m. as soft, classic rock Bob Marley, Paul Simon, Pink Floyd (nothing too trippy) —piped through the PA system into the cabins. In the main dining area, a bountiful spread of fresh fruit, juice, coffee, cereals, freshly cooked omelets and more greeted us as we sat around the tables and got to know one another.

Coming ashore on Espanola Island, we observed sea lions basking on the rocks. A male swam in the water, guarding his harem. Marine iguanas lounged about in the sun. A tortoise swam lazily in the surf. One of the great things about Quasar Expeditions, the company behind our adventure, is its ability to combine fun and relaxed exploration with a vast amount of

 eastern shore

information, leaving you with an experience and an education.

As Stovall and I followed our guide, Jorge, around the island, along trails that wound through low vegetation covered with a variety of nesting birds, I scribbled page after page of notes. are lava herons; over there is an Espanola mockingbird; here you see a Galapagos dove," Jorge rattled off, as we paused periodically to observe the wildlife.

We approached the shore and could hear the waves pounding against the cliffs, sheer and steep, their jagged ledges white with the guano of thousands of waved albatrosses —largest seabird in the Galapagos," Jorge pointed out, only nests on the north end of Espanola Island, nowhere else in the world." The birds, with their eight-foot wingspans, would launch off the cliffs like planes on a runway —soaring, swooping and returning. Below, iguanas clambered down the rocks and launched themselves into the pounding surf.

Standing on the cliffs, with a light drizzle falling from a gray sky, wind whipping gently against my face, I felt as though I stood on the shores of Ireland looking out at the North Sea, not perched above the Pacific on a tropical island. This was only the tip of the iceberg of wonderment that is the Galapagos.

Puerto Ayora sits on the southern side of Isla Santa Cruz. It is the most populous place in the archipelago with about 20,000 inhabitants, and it s home to the Charles Darwin Research Station. The facility looks like a typical Audubon Society park in the States, sporting well-maintained trails stretching throughout the woods along the shore. There is a fenced-in area of birds and a few interesting lizards-only pens, which house some of the most unique creatures on the planet. The famed and late Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises (one of 10 species found on the islands), relocated here in 1972 and, despite multiple matchmaking attempts, never found a mate.

Upon our arrival, a strong breeze was blowing out of’the north. It stirred up seas that rocked the pangas as we boarded and headed ashore. After we toured the research station, buses took us into the mountains. The highlands of Santa Cruz, unlike anything on the other islands of the Galapagos, is a tropical cloud forest. We were headed to The Twins, two sinkholes that were formed by the recession of magmatic pressure thousands of years ago. Rimmed with lush vegetation and the thick rainforest, these sinkholes are a cutaway of  the geological history of the island.

We awoke the next morning to the mountains of Santiago Island reaching for the beautiful blue sky off our bow. The black-sand beach of Port Egas is made from volcanic ash and has a porous nature, drying our feet as we walked. Our group explored the beach and headed past the grottos where we could see the beach morning glory stretching down to the shore. In the rainy season their vines bloom with purple flowers. There are few colorful flowers on the Galapagos, which surprised me, given the lush variety in flora and fauna, but one thing lacking from the islands is bees, a necessary element in the pollination and the proliferation of flowers. Along the shore, Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas, sanderlings, plovers, finches and oyster catchers were feeding and drinking in the pools on the rocks.

 Hill Beach

Cruising toward Bartholomew Island off the eastern shore of Santiago, I could see Pinnacle Rock, its cragged and pockmarked surface resembling a Native American arrowhead seeming to pierce the heavens. Stovall and I climbed the stairs of Lookout Point, from where the terrain looked like my imagination

vision of the surface of Mars —red sand and hardened lava flow, the calderas of long-extinct volcanoes that formed this marvelous landscape. On a spit of land connecting Pinnacle Rock and Lookout Point sits an oasis of lush vegetation, bordered by white-sand beaches and turquoise water —a lovely contrast to the otherwise barren and hard landscape of this island.

We continued our way through the archipelago to Genovesa Island, also known as Tower Island, where the birds reign supreme, and on the southern end, petrels swarmed like the angry flocks in Alfred Hitchcockhim The Birds. Above them on the high breezes, frigates soared in the updrafts. Then to Darwin Bay, where we dropped anchor in the lee of the strong trades, which blew the sea into a vicious chop and drove the surf hard against the island s southern shores. We took the tender ashore and walked along the white coral beach.

As we motored out of Darwin Bay the prevailing southeast trades built a heavy beam sea on our port, diminishing to a gentle four to six feet as we reached the open ocean. The sun neared the horizon as our vesselbow pointed toward Isla Fernandina, a 13-to 14-hour passage, the longest of this journey.

Fernandinalandscape resembles the scorched earth of a battlefield. It stretches out, black and rippled, revealing the flows of lava where they reached the sea and became frozen in time. Evolution rested at anchor on the leeward side of Isla Isabela; to the north sat the Ecuador volcano, still shrouded in clouds. On the rocks, looking much like the lava itself, iguanas rested in piles of 50 to 60, sunning themselves. Mangroves lined the shore and grew slightly inland, but other than these and the occasional lava cactus, the area is devoid of vegetation. As the day rolled on and the clouds began to clear, we could see across the Simon Bolivar Channel to the highlands of the

calderas of Isla Isabela, the vegetation poking through the mist and shining a brilliant green like an emerald in sunlight. On the eastern shore, flightless cormorants rested and nested.

After our morning excursion we pointed the bow across the channel, bound for Isabela and Beagle Lake. We anchored and ate lunch. Afterwards, we swam in the deep waters (almost 200 feet) of Beagle Lake. Heading ashore our group hiked the Tagus Cove ridge, along the shores of Darwin Lake, which possessed a brilliant greenish-blue hue, reflecting the scrub brush and the surrounding hills like a mirror. From the top of the point, we turned and looked across the expanse of land stretching northward. Behind us, anchored in the same waters that played home to the Beagle nearly 200 years ago, sat Evolution.

Staring out at all that lay beneath us, die truly amazing nature of the archipelago came out. Everything seemed so foreign, like something from another planet. It is hard to believe that this fascinating land is so close to the mainland, to CNN, to e-mail and the constant noise of the modern world, and yet so completely removed. The serenity of the islands belies the turmoil and furious explosions that formed them. I felt, as Darwin suggested, that I had a glimpse into the beginning of evolution at the dawn of creation.

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