The Pikaia Lodge, a sustainably run luxury hotel in the Galápagos Islands, is worth the trek (and price tag).
“Nobody move!” shouts our guide, Luis Rodriguez, who everyone calls “Champi,” short for “Champion.” Champi is an Ecuadorian local who has been leading tours in the Galápagos Islands since 1998—so when he says something, you listen.
We’re on Santa Fe Island, and there are dozens of sea lions in front of us, basking in the sun on the white sand beach. In the distance we can see the M/Y Pikaia I, the 100-foot yacht that’s transporting us out to sea and back each day this week. In the foreground, just feet from us, there’s a young sea lion bull charging another one.
“Nobody move,” repeats Champi, firmly. Sea lions can’t see very well, and as the males careen within feet of us, there is a chance of getting knocked into or worse. We don’t move. I wonder what animal signal my heartbeat is giving off, out here in the elements. Then, the alpha male of the colony sticks his head out of the ocean, where he’s carefully guarding his territory. The young males separate immediately and try to act casual, ambling away as if nothing happened. If they had hands, I bet they would have clasped them behind their backs and whistled.
We release a collective breath. Reckless young males aside, the surrounding sea lions are calm: Pups nurse on their moms, and most of them are spooning one another, or flopping about until they reach shade.
Continuing around a path on the perimeter of the island, we come across a mom and her newborn pup (we had passed the placenta a hundred feet earlier), both asleep in the shade of a cactus. That afternoon, snorkeling off the coast, a 450-pound bull eyes us, his bear of a body gliding within arm’s reach.
“Just another Sunday at Santa Fe,” says Champi with a smile and a small shrug.
This is the unique beauty of the Galápagos Islands. It is one of the few places in the world where animals aren’t afraid of humans, because they’ve lived in isolation with very few predators for millions of years. This is also the reason they’ve been able to adapt relatively quickly to the islands’ incredibly harsh conditions, resulting in different species of the same genus across each of the 13 islands. (As a gentleman passenger aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835, Darwin noticed differences in the mockingbird population on each island, which would later be included in The Origin of Species in support of his theory of evolution.)
Today, this destination is an animal-lover’s playground. Sally Lightfoot crabs don’t scuttle away when approached, blue-footed boobies sit on their eggs mere meters from humans, and sea lions dance with you underwater. On our first day, en route to Santiago Island, we’re escorted by hundreds of bottlenose dolphins, and manta rays do flips on the horizon. Overhead, magnificent frigatebirds catch a free ride on the yacht’s tailwinds. In the town of Puerto Ayora, sea lions hop right up onto land and flop down in the middle of the fish market, unbothered by the business dealings taking place around them. As long as you move slowly, giant tortoises at the Reserva El Chato will continue their chomping instead of retreating inside their shells as you come near. And at Tortuga Bay, sea turtles poke their old-man heads out of the water alongside your kayak. In all of the many bays and coves, parrot fish and angelfish swim within arm’s reach—it’s the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced. And again—those sea lions!
For its part, the Ecuadorian government—while corrupt in many other sectors, like taxation and police—has always prioritized conservationist efforts, making a lot of these magical moments possible. In 1959, the Galápagos National Park was formed. Today, 97% of the Galápagos Islands is protected parkland, and only 3% is privately owned. When there was an uptick in development and agriculture in the 1970s and ’80s, a 133,000-square-kilometer marine reserve was set aside in 1998. Both the park and the reserve are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Before we arrived, a bus driver had recently hit a giant tortoise, and the animal was taken to a vet so that his shell could be repaired with fiberglass, while the bus driver was fined $11,000. At Puerto Ayora’s fish market, both the army and the national park had representatives present, weighing fisherman-caught lobsters and making sure none of the females held eggs.
Local businesses like Pikaia Lodge also view it as their responsibility to safeguard the land and water— especially those in hospitality, for whom these resources are necessary investments. The luxury land-based eco-adventure tour operator and hotel not only employs expert local guides like Champi and curates excellent land and sea excursions—they’ve also planted over 12,000 scalesia trees on their property, which provide food and nesting for birds, shade for tortoises, and combat invasive species. They’ve recently started working with a local school, helping to build up the future protectors of the island. Plus, their 3-, 5-, or 7-day exploration packages will turn just about anyone into an environmentalist.
Our first day at sea, we head to Bartolomé Island, and snorkel in Sullivan Bay. Under the water we see schools of sardines (“penguin food,” as Champi calls them), giant starfish, and—almost right away—one particularly playful sea lion. I stick close to Champi, just in case, and get to be one of the only people nearby when he calls out that he’s spotted something. I swim over to him and he grabs my wrist, pulls me toward a little cove, then pushes me out just in front of him. I peer underneath the rocky ledge and try to figure out what I’m looking at—gray and white, sort of flat … could they be manta rays?
Then I notice the rows of teeth.
White-tipped reef sharks, six of them. My eyes get bigger, and after a few seconds I pop my head up, spit out my snorkel, and laugh.
At another point during the trip, we pass by a sea lion with a hook in its throat. Champi’s already heard about this one; park officials have been trying to track it so they can provide care. He takes a photo so that he can share its location. “Did it go after someone’s fish?” someone on our tender asks.
“It was his fish first!” Champi responds. “We don’t belong here.”
But of course, that’s why you visit in the first place.