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The Magic of the Galápagos

by Laszlo Stephan (CB67)

Last February my wife, Diane, and I joined 10 Northwestern travelers on a true voyage of discovery: the Wonders of the Galápagos Islands tour sponsored by the Northwestern Alumni Association.

Our nine-day adventure began with our arrival in Ecuador's capital, Quito, a colonial city in the Andes.

On our first full day we toured the Museo Nacional del Banco Central and visited La Compañía de Jesús, a Jesuit church decorated with several hundred pounds of golf leaf. The next day we visited three towns near Quito: Calderón, Otavalo and Cotacachi, each famous for their handcrafts.

The following morning we took a two-hour flight to the Galápagos. After landing on Baltra Island, we were transported by small inflatable boats to the MV Santa Cruz, our home base for the next five days. Aboard the Santa Cruz we received attentive service, enjoyed comfortable accommodations, dined on fine Ecuadorian cuisine and interacted with the helpful shipboard staff, including naturalists thoroughly versed in every aspect of the islands.

The Galápagos archipelago, between 3 million and 5 million years old, consists of 19 volcanic islands located about 600 miles west of continental Ecuador. The islands are inextricably tied to Charles Darwin, who landed on the Galápagos in 1735. He published his findings in The Origin of Species.

During the shipboard orientation we were told, "You are not on vacation, you are on an expedition." We made our first Zodiac landing on Santa Cruz, one of eight landings on six different islands.

The islands look inhospitable, with boulders and rocky terrain of hardened lava flows. Volcanic activity, mostly on Fernandina Island, still continues. Given the violent seismic history and the beautiful colors of black, rust and shades of brown set against the blue of the ocean, the land is, in its own way, spellbinding and beautiful.

During our walks the ship's naturalists informed us about the islands' plant, animal and marine life. Vegetation ranges from tiny earth-clinging vines to miniature shrubs to short trees hardly taller than bushes. When we visited, cactuses of varying sizes were just starting to bloom.

At each landing we were greeted by a welcoming committee of unique creatures. We saw Darwin's finches, Galápagos doves and Galápagos hawks, as well as land and marine iguanas and small colorful lava lizards. You could not miss the beautifully colored Sally Lightfoot crabs clinging to rocks along the shore.

On Santa Cruz we saw land iguanas, which are making a comeback after feral cats (now exterminated) nearly wiped them out. On the Bartolomé Island beach where we snorkeled and swam, one of the sea lions decided to plop down on one of our towels. On North Seymour Island we saw male blue-footed boobies performing their courtship dance, lifting their feet like sumo wrestlers.

In the lush highlands of Santa Cruz we saw the legendary giant Galápagos tortoises, which can weigh up to 550 pounds and live to perhaps 170 years. The most famous (now at the Charles Darwin Research Station) is Lonesome George, estimated to be 80 to 90 years old and the last survivor of the Pinta Island subspecies.

These sights were more than fascinating, but the magic was in the behavior of these wild creatures. These birds and animals are completely tame. The iguanas, too lazy to move even under threat of being stepped on, never budged.

It was a fabulous trip with fabulous companions. Very early in the excursion, a person from one of the other universities asked if we Northwestern alumni knew each other before the trip because we all seemed to get along so well. Most of us had never met before. But our school camaraderie, the "something in common" that we share as Northwestern alumni, helped make this trip so wonderful!

Laszlo Stephan (CB67) is a retired accountant who lives in Des Plaines, Ill.

Visit the NAA's travel page or call 1-800-NU-ALUMS for information on upcoming trips.

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Galapagos tour group
Travelers on the Wonders of the Galapagos Islands tour pause for a photo.