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By David Abel | Globe Staff | 11/13/2011
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador -- With her nails perfectly manicured, lips freshly painted, diamonds on her ears and neck, and with an appetite for nature limited to the golf course, my mom gingerly followed the trail from one lava rock to the next, sidestepping hundreds of marine iguanas snorting saltwater, finches pecking at the bloody placenta of a sea lion, and a covey of blue-footed boobies nuzzling with their spear-shaped beaks.
None seemed the slightest bit perturbed by our presence as we meandered past, my mom sweating in unnecessary layers of rain gear on this sunny morning and me wondering how she agreed to join me on this journey to the Galápagos, what remain among the world’s most remote islands.
‘‘I’m not much for mountain climbing,’’ she said as she ambled up a gentle slope, holding her wide-brimmed, lemon-colored hat as it flopped in the breeze.
When I reminded her that the island was basically flat, she smiled and said, ‘‘Well, I’m not much for rock climbing, either.’’
There are more forbidding places to take your mom than on a cruise through the Galápagos Islands, the famous archipelago 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, where Charles Darwin honed his ideas about evolution and I began to wonder how many of my mother’s traits I had inherited and whether I had benefited from natural selection.
The idea of a trip with my mom, Syd Abel, which I worried might be an exercise in masochism, began when she asked if I would help with the family flower business after my father died last winter and she turned 65. She wanted me to meet some of the growers in Quito, and I suggested we take the opportunity to do some mother-son bonding in the Galápagos.
I took the lead in finding the right boat to ferry us though the chain of more than 20 islands and islets, which are spread across nearly 17,000 square miles of turquoise waters along the equator. The options included budget boats with multi-bunk rooms and cold showers, so-called tourist-class boats with more amenities, and a range of luxury cruises.
I might have leaned toward the budget cruises had I been doing it on my own, although no excursion through the Galápagos could be described as cheap. (Tourists have to pay $100 just to leave the airport.) When I found two options that seemed to offer a mix of comfort and adventure, I e-mailed the links to my mom for her to choose.
‘‘I’m afraid none of the above,’’ she replied.
After some prodding, we agreed on a 16-passenger boat called, pleasingly enough, Eden, which promised hot showers, an experienced guide, and freshly cooked meals. About a week before leaving, we transferred more than $2,000 to a travel agent I found online, which included a round-trip flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, to a small island in the Galápagos called Baltra.
When we arrived in late September, a time when the flow of tourists starts to dwindle and waves in the Pacific swell, we descended onto a parched landscape formed some 3 million years ago during a series of volcanic eruptions that left a scree of lava rock and little that could grow besides cacti.
After paying the entrance fee and passing a scrum of tourists, we found a man holding a sign with our names, dispelling our concerns that we had fallen for an Internet scam. We followed him to a bus, where we joined dozens of others for a short ride to a water taxi to Santa Cruz, the second largest island in the Galápagos. The man then drove us across the island, an hourlong ride through deserts and rainforests, to one of the archipelago’s few inhabited areas, a growing seaside town of about 18,000 residents called Puerto Ayora.
Crew members were waiting for us in a dinghy and took us across a harbor crowded with tour boats, allowing us a glimpse of everything from the unpainted, listing hulls of budget vessels to yachts that looked like schooners. When we spotted the Eden, a sturdy ship with spacious decks and newly painted in white, my mom exhaled with relief.
There were large frigate birds — with their iridescent black feathers, red throat pouches, and long, forked tails — hovering above, a school of puffer fish visible in the clear water, and a pair of sea lions lounging on the stern.
‘‘This is going to be exciting,’’ Mom said.
The young captain helped us aboard and showed us to our below-deck cabin, which had a private bathroom, chocolates, and fancily folded towels on our small beds, and ample room to store our bags. It seemed comfortable, but it would be close quarters.
My mom didn’t appear impressed, and she flashed me a look that suggested I was asking her to spend the next four days in a prison cell. But then she surprised me. ‘‘It’s clean, and it’s nice,’’ she said. ‘‘No complaints.’’
The staff served us a freshly prepared lunch, the first of a series of finely wrought meals, and then we joined other passengers for a rainy hike to see the lava tubes and giant tortoises of Santa Cruz.
‘‘Well, this is adventurous,’’ my mom repeated several times, as her white sneakers became slathered in mud and her blown hair turned curly.
We passed dozens of tortoises, some chomping on grass and others seemingly asleep, their heads retracted in their shells. Our guide, Ruben Montalvo, said many appeared to be more than a century old.
As we descended into a cave carved from lava, Mom reminded me that hikes weren’t her thing. ‘‘I like golf,’’ she said. ‘‘But I can roll with the punches.’’
That night, the crew passed around pills to prevent seasickness before we left for Floreana, the archipelago’s sixth largest island, known for its flamingo lagoons. My mom decided to take a sleeping pill instead, but that was no match for the hours of heaving as we crossed the choppy sea.
She was wide awake when my alarm rang at dawn for our first swim. The crew provided wetsuits and snorkeling gear, and Montalvo took us in a dinghy to a cove teeming with sea lions, giant turtles, and other large creatures. As we slipped into the cold water — Mom decided to stay on the boat — several sea lions began to swim alongside us, performing somersaults and other graceful acrobatics, and the turtles floated around as if in slow motion.
We spent the rest of the day exploring a water-filled cave — Mom declined to descend into the darkness — snorkeling with tropical fish, and watching blue-footed boobies dive into the surf like missiles, spearing prey with their beaks. At one point, my mom suited up in a wetsuit with the rest of us. She followed us into the water, tentatively. But it was a tad colder than she would have liked, and it had been a long time since she had breathed through a tube in her mouth.
The effort lasted only a few minutes, though she insisted it was much longer.
The next day, after another all-night voyage on bumpy seas, we awoke to views of the rocky beaches of Española Island, the most southerly spit of land in the chain. The crew dropped us on a landing where hundreds of marine iguanas seemed to be in a collective coma, lounging inertly on the warmth of black boulders, their long tails offering the only signs of life. Few took notice as we stepped over them on our way to the beach.
Our path, however, was blocked by a troop of sea lions, a much sprightlier species. They had such little fear of us that they insisted on crossing the narrow trail at the same time we did, forcing us to make way by standing in bushes. On the nearby white sands, we found wide-eyed, playful sea lion pups nursing, crimson-colored crabs basking in the mist of the sea spray, and seemingly every kind of bird, from yellow warblers hopping about to mottled hawks sharpening their lethal talons.
Farther inland we came across a colony of albatross, their furry hatchlings camouflaged to blend in with the surrounding rocks. In pairs, the adults nestled in a field, primping each other before shuffling off to a prominent cliff, spreading their enormous wings, and gliding into the misty wind. Nearby, we came across a colony of masked boobies guarding eggs and blue-footed boobies marching about in their comical courtship dance.
‘‘A lot of nature, for sure,’’ Mom said, approvingly.
‘‘They’re beautiful — very graceful,’’ she said of the birds. She wasn’t as much of a fan of the iguanas. ‘‘Very ugly, and smelly,’’ she said.
Later that morning, the crew took us to a place called Shark’s Rock, where I had envisioned the possibility of offering my mom as bait, if things didn’t work out. Again, she chose not to join me and the others snorkeling.
‘‘Not my cup of tea,’’ she said of swimming with the white-tipped reef sharks that inhabit the area. ‘‘I just don’t fancy sharks. That’s your thing, but thanks anyway.’’
After an hour of swimming that included a close encounter with one large, toothy predator, which seemed more interested in the shade of a small cave than dining on tourists, we emerged to freshly baked cookies and other pastries aboard theEden.
There, Montalvo, 37, a trained naturalist who has been leading tours for more than a decade, explained how the islands are changing.
He said the water is now warmer in the winters, offering fewer nutrients to the abundant marine life, and breeding patterns from sea lions to boobies seem to be changing. He said many colonies of birds appeared to be significantly smaller than when he began visiting the islands as a child, which he attributed to dwindling food supplies.
‘‘It’s a combination of climate change and the increasing human presence,’’ he said.
This year, about 175,000 tourists will visit the Galápagos, more than four times the number in 1990, according to the United Nations, and some of those inevitably make poor decisions. Montalvo said he has seen tourists try to pet the wildlife. While they seem tame and exhibit little fear of humans, they know how to protect themselves. Montalvo said he has seen sea lions bite hapless tourists who pad on their turf and boobies strike those who have come too close.
‘‘The more this happens, I worry, the more their behavior will change,’’ he said.
A few hours after we reached the final island of the trip, San Cristóbal, where we circled a stark rock formation off the coast and watched pelicans prowl for breakfast, the crew brought us to land and took us to the airport.
We exchanged hugs, and my mom looked content, a beatific smile banishing any remnant of anxiety.
‘‘Well, it’s been quite an adventure,’’ she said.
As our plane took off, she held my hand in hers, which she began to stare at with alarm.
‘‘I need a manicure,’’ she said.
There are no direct flights from abroad to the Galapagos. American, Continental, LAN, and other major airlines fly from Boston to Quito for between $700 and $1,200, depending on the season. There are also direct flights to Guayaquil, which is closer to the Galapagos and less expensive than flying from Quito. LAN, TAME, and AeroGal offer flights connecting to the Galapagos from both cities, for $350 to $500.
There are hotels in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, and it’s possible to book day trips from there to the other islands. But most tourists take 4- to 8-day cruises, which range from budget boats with multi-bunk rooms and cold showers, tourist-class boats with more amenities, and a range of first-class and luxury cruises.
Rates per person for this 16-passenger boat range from $700 for a four-day cruise to $2,800 for eight days, depending on the time of year and how far in advance you book. Last-minute deals purchased a few weeks before departure can be considerably less expensive. Deals are also available by booking in Puerto Ayora.
Sites to search for cruise options: