Visiting the Galapagos islands in the midst of the pandemic: 'You won’t see it again like this for 100 years'

With tourists still scarce, wildlife-spotting opportunities on the Ecuadorian islands are more abundant than ever

If I had been running away from the pandemic, I couldn't have gone much further than Isabela, the largest and wildest of the Galapagos islands.

If the archipelago is remote, then Isabela, comprising five volcanos fused together by eruptions and time, is more distant still. West there is nothing but the Pacific until you hit the Papuan island of Biak 13,000 kilometres away. Head south and the big blue stretches all the way to Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf.

I arrived on the first boat carrying outsiders that was permitted to dock in Isabela since the start of the pandemic. I was met by Pablo Valladares, ordinarily a guide much in demand, but who now spends most of his week teaching surfing or tending to his farm outside the town of Puerto Villamil, the only significant settlement on Isabela.

The plan, he told me, was to head into the national park, to take a nature hike to the Wall of Tears, a grim remnant from an old penal colony. If that sounded slightly macabre, I soon had plenty of distractions, including a pair of giant tortoises – now synonymous of the islands – which were clumsily courting on the path in front of us. “Normally this sort of thing wouldn’t be so easy to see out in the open,” said Pablo. “But we are the only ones here – I’ve never seen this place so empty.”

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The economy on the Galapagos is heavily weighted towards tourism and without those dollars arriving, a sense of uncertainty hung over the islands

Ecuador’s Galapagos is one of the world’s few destinations where the word unique truly applies, but it wasn’t so singular as to avoid Covid-19. Like the wider country, the islands were put into a strict lockdown in the spring of 2020, with all tourism immediately halted. Some visitors elected to stay put, to wait out the first wave on the exotic island-chain rather than in their home nations.

By the time I visited, the reopening had been tentative, but absolutely necessary. The economy on the Galapagos is heavily weighted towards tourism and without those dollars arriving, a sense of uncertainty hung over the islands. A good deal of this was because the normal fleet of 100 or so licensed cruise ships had been reduced by 90 per cent.

There is much still to be worked out with global tourism, but cruising will likely suffer for the next few years. In the early days of the pandemic, the virus ran rampant through the decks of large ships around the world; for some, that association will live long in the memory. This has created an issue for the Galapagos, where cruising has, for almost five decades, been regarded as the best and only way to see the islands.

However, during my time on the archipelago, I was instead shown the value of land tours.

The definition of this was more liberal than I had anticipated – essentially it meant simply not overnighting on board any boat. That still allowed for travel between islands, or for fantastical snorkelling trips to places like Kicker Rock. Using Santa Cruz, the most populous island, as my hub, I was able to visit several of the smaller islands, including the red-rocked Bartolome, a couple of hours to the north.

After disembarking, the route to the top of Bartolome followed a sun-blasted boardwalk, under which especially nervous lava lizards scurried whenever our group’s monstrous shadows loomed overhead. Quite what the colourful little lizards were able to eat or drink in that punishingly dry landscape was unclear.

The only real flora we could see were endemic grey matplants, sorry-looking shrubs that looked like they might be made entirely of ash, or had been perhaps transported here from a garden in Pompeii. The only other signs of life were the bleached carapace of a crab and a single, confused Darwin finch who looked like she may well ask for a refund on this particular holiday.

Our guide, Mario, had done this hike to Bartolome’s summit perhaps 100 times, though of course not much at all in the preceding six months. As we took a much-needed break close to the summit, where 360-degree views of the Galapagos waited for us, I asked how the year had been for him.

“After five months, I was going crazy,” he said, panting through his Covid-19 face mask. “Thank you all for coming here. Thanks to god. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.”

He paused again so we could admire the view, a view so grand it tempted Peter Weir to shoot a crucial scene in Master and Commander from this very spot in 2003. "Really, you won't see it empty again like this for 100 years," he added.

We returned late that night to Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz. I had visited a decade previously, staying just a couple of days before heading out on a cruise. This time, I spent almost a month there, renting an apartment and living like a local. Whereas previously I had viewed it as a nothing more than a functional, necessary tourist town, this time it offered so much more.

At the central harbour, mornings were spent reading books while sea lions dozed on benches next to me and marine iguanas tried to absorb as much of the early sun as possible. Out on the water, pelicans and blue-footed boobies perforated the surface of the ocean in search of breakfast, careful not to disturb the black-tipped reef sharks below.

Several lunchtimes were spent in the excellent Galapagos Deli, one of the first businesses to reopen in downtown Puerto Ayora. Many had not managed to do the same; some never would again. Owners Brett and Maria Peters also run a tour company and were among the first to be encouraging people to come back – they were among the biggest champions of experiencing the islands without having to be on a ship.

Still, the return was gradual, so much so that Brett had time to personally take me into the heart of the island, to hike through deep lava tunnels which run through Santa Cruz like arteries. Later, we walked to Tortuga Bay, with its vast and wild white-sand beach, messy waves rolling in from the Pacific while sand pipers, sally lightfoot crabs and oystercatchers feasted in the surf.

In the years prior to the pandemic, the Galapagos had been garnering an unwanted reputation for over-tourism, with questions over whether or not quotas should be introduced to cap the number of annual visitors. I was fortunate that during my visit, I  repeatedly found myself alone in places ordinarily swamped with tourists.

“Some people wanted it to be quieter,” said Brett one afternoon in his deli. “Not like this, maybe, but I think this will be a chance for the islands to really think about what comes next.”

Getting there

Two negative PCR tests are required to reach the Galapagos – one to enter Ecuador and another to fly to the islands themselves.

From the UAE, the most direct route is to fly to Guayaquil via Amsterdam with KLM (klm.com) and then on to the Galapagos with either LATAM (latam.com) or Avianca (avianca.com).