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A Galápagos view

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As someone once said, it is a pleasure to burn.

One day last summer – pick any day of the week, it meant that little – I was indulging that pleasure, stretched out on a deserted sweep of white sand. I was shrouded in heat on the island of Isabela, the biggest of the Galápagos Islands, which lie 1,200km off the coast of Ecuador. Palm trees swayed softly in the light island wind, while the hard sun beat down on the bronzed earth. It was the first month of my half-year exploration of South America, and I was entirely content.

On Isabela, you’re in the hands of nature. It has a tiny population – just 1,800 people have made it their permanent home, and they’re all clustered on its southern shore, leaving a vast volcanic landscape open for exploration. It felt pristine yet protected, untouched yet understood. Isabela is aptly shaped like a seahorse: a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has the pure Galápagos magic that so many people go searching for.

My companions and I had booked a guided tour of the lava tunnels, or los tuneles, a complex cluster of hardened mounds which jut from the sea to create a haven for an array of unique creatures. We navigated tricky terrain as we drove towards the port to catch our boat ride there. Rough, heat-baked tracks barely connect the main knot of houses to the little harbour, and vehicles will only take you so far. Yet it is refreshing that such a tourist honeypot has retained some of its original enigma: pride in these cherished islands, combined with a stubborn refusal to comply with westerners’ expectations of convenience, I had found to be typical of Galapageños. I liked their attitude.

An hour’s windswept boat ride and we were standing in the bizarre environment of los tuneles, with its dark, porous, rocky outcrops supporting many large cacti and other scrubby plants. Blue-footed boobies, their turquoise toes spread wide, looked on inquisitively while shoals of radiant fish shimmered beneath the strange arches formed by the hardened lava.

 

Before long we were dipping into the pellucid waters. With the equatorial sun warming our backs, we were led to the places where our guide was certain we’d glimpse the most intriguing animals – a cave here, a well-known shady spot there. Indeed, I saw a seahorse, a swarm of gentle golden rays, white-tipped sharks, enormous sea turtles and Galápagos penguins – some of the smallest in the world at 30cm when standing, and the only penguins in the northern hemisphere.

Later that afternoon, we hiked 16 kilometres to the Sierra Negra – an active volcano which last erupted in 2005 and has one of the largest craters in the world at 10 km (six miles) across. It’s shadowed by a landscape which can only be described as Jurassic: dense, tall trees in every shade of green juxtaposing sharp, permeable volcanic rock, periodically broken by softly smouldering reddish dust. In the distance lush flat land rolled away as far as the eye could see. To the North West, miles away, the Pacific Ocean lapped at the shore in hues of exquisite teal. I had entered a lost world. I could have looked at it forever.

“Consumers do not have an insatiable desire to consume.” I found myself recalling the words of the sociologist Colin Campbell as I thirsted after the view. “Rather, they seek to experience in reality what they have already experienced in their imaginations.”

If that’s the case, I thought, then I’m there. That day, as I looked out on what could have been another planet, I arrived in the Galápagos of my imagination.

This is a Student Travel Writer competition entry.

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