OpenRoad Driver Volume 14 Issue 1 - Page 86

86 » OpenRoad Driver civilization after five days at sea, and we board a bus to the lush highlands to see giant tortoises, long-necked behemoths with gentle, intelligent faces. They wallow in mud pools and munch on grass, their immense shells suggesting that many are over a century old. These tortoises are the handful that survived after their populations were decimated from the 1500s onwards, their ancestors harvested for their meat and oil by pirates, whalers and buccaneers. At the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz successful breeding programs are returning increasing numbers of tortoises to the wild, where these 700-pound creatures have a crucial role to play. By dispersing seeds in their dung, they revitalize important ecological sites, helping to restore and preserve the flora of the Galápagos. As we cruise from one island to another we’re stunned by the variety of wildlife and the closeness of our encounters. Sea lions swim playfully alongside us as we snorkel near the basalt cliffs. Pelicans and giant frigate birds hover near our ship, while on land our walks take us inches from nesting blue-footed boobies and the unblinking faces of prehistoric-looking iguanas. Like the naturalists that lead and educate us on this journey of natural discovery, we leave with unforgettable memories and a sense of responsibility to protect the integrity of the Galápagos. A week in the embrace of this exquisite archipelago we learn that this smattering of islands and the uniquely adapted birds and animals that inhabit it are Ecuador’s most priceless jewel. W H E N YO U G O Adventure Life, a company specializing in travel in Ecuador, coordinates itineraries throughout the country including Quito city tours, highland hacienda adventures, Galápagos Islands cruises and visits to the jungle. (800) 344-6118 adventure-life.com