Off the plane and walking the sizzling airstrip on a burnt-out volcanic island, I have that “holy crap” adrenaline feeling only touching down in a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before can give me. (Better than a first kiss.)
Darwin’s Galápagos and its prehistoric residents hovered in my mind for years as a destination that always felt too unreal. Being there drove this home.
This smattering of islands some 500 miles off Ecuador’s coast counts massive mysterious sinkholes, blue-footed boobies, tortoises older than New York City brownstones, seemingly apocalyptic islets that unexpectedly team with life, pristine reefs where sharks glide and sea turtles surface, natural sea lion nurseries, deserted beaches that make your soul soar, and the world’s finest cacao amongst its resources.
Straddling the equator, totally isolated by the Pacific Ocean, it’s also one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. Rainfall here is precarious (2016 has been one of the worst drought years in recent history). Endemic wildlife including land iguanas, giant tortoise, and Darwin’s iconic finches are affected by even the minutest changes to their environment; invasive species and human pollutants are big ones. And space is at a premium, both on land and at sea. There are few areas inhabitable by humans. Never mind land for farming, water and sewage processing, or trash facilities. In short, tourism within the islands carries great responsibility. On one hand it can be irreversibly scarring. On the other, it can be an essential part of the answer to preserving the wild now and for the future.
Galápagos Safari Camp recognizes this fine balance and approaches it with integrity, innovation, and yes, design. A way of being they’ve coined “acceptable luxury.”
Think Galápagos travel and you likely think cruise. Times are changing. After I land, I don’t board a cruise ship. Instead, I hop a private ferry to Santa Cruz Island, enjoy one of the most beautiful drives of my life through scrubby plateaus with views of watercolor hills on the horizon and turquoise shores to my left, and arrive at Galápagos Safari Camp perched on the island’s crown.
A love story of sorts, Galápagos Safari Camp was built by Michael and Stephanie Mesdag. The couple are conservationists at heart and have dedicated their lives to living sustainably without sacrificing comfort or style. Galápagos Safari Camp is a manifestation of this ethos.
I drop my bag in my private stilted safari tent. The hammock strung across the deck, a little canvas portfolio that invites me to de-tech myself and put my electronics away for my stay, and a stone sink in the en suite bathroom beckon me. But just then I need to bolt out the door to catch the sunset from the viewpoint terrace.
Strong caipirinhas are served while Stephanie tells how she and Michael fell in love with the Galápagos, specifically this spat of land with the best views on the island, and decided they wanted to protect it by sharing it with others. As the main lodge went up—a fluid space that helps guests transition into the Galápagos Safari Camp experience with glass walls, a giant fireplace, and décor that is borrowed from the landscape—simultaneously a rain water collection pit which can sustain the camp for months if need be, land for farming organic vegetables including yuka and cacao to supply the kitchen, and solar power sources were built as well. Their vision ensured style and sustainability went hand-in-hand from the very beginning.
The intent was never to tame or overcome the wild of the Galápagos. It was always about making just enough space, in the most elegant way, so that those who visit can appreciate it, too.
Before going I worried that a land-based Galápagos experience may mean missing out on wildlife encounters and remote island excursions. Wrong. On the first day I spelunk through volcanic tunnels and squat to get to eye level with ancient tortoises. On the second day I cycle from the highest point of the island (the front door of Galápagos Safari Camp) down to the bay, catching stellar vistas of lime green cacti and volcanoes peeking out of the sea as I descend. I kayak along mangrove shoreline and watch sea turtles surface right beside me. I tour an organic coffee farm and hand make lemongrass chocolates with the islands’ only chocolatier. Did you know the Galápagos supplies seventy percent of the world’s finest cacao?
On day three I take to the ocean by private boat. I disembark on untouched islands where I stand less than a foot away from courting blue-footed boobies and watch mothers continuously shuffle their eggs between their feet to keep them from overheating. I watch sea lion calves slither over one another, and recognize just how challenging an environment these islets can be when I pass a set of sun-bleached fins turning to sand. I take a motorized dingy to the edge of a sea cliff and snorkel through teams of fish. I am mesmerized by manta rays leaping out of the water and sharks swimming alongside us as we head to a deserted beach. I wade to the shore eager to explore while being mindful to stay along the waterline in case there are sea turtle eggs nested beneath the sand. There isn’t a single sign humans have been here before me, not even a footprint. Highways of land iguana tracks crisscross through the sand and giant crabs scuttle over the black rocks unperturbed.
On my final evening, I follow Michael into the groves surrounding Galápagos Safari Camp. He shows me the banks of seedlings they are nursing and will soon plant. We examine the rain water collection system they have built—an innovative system of filtration tarpaulins. As we pass under banana and passion fruit trees I snag a ripe passion fruit off the branch and rip it open with my thumbs. Garden of Eden.
Eventually one of the cooks joins us. We stop at a sapling rooted to the brown earth. She holds tight to its trunk and begins forcefully yanking it back and forth till it pulls away from the earth. With a hoe she hooks the roots from beneath and pries until the whole thing uproots. Huge brown bulbs are revealed: yuka. We hack them free, stack our arms with them and carry them up the hillside to the kitchen. (Watch the process in time lapse here.) At dinner that night we are served gourmet yuka offerings, from crispy garnished fritters to creamy spreads smoothed over olive-oil toast. That night, with the wind whistling through the trees and the tinkering of finch toes scrabbling over canvas, without a hint of irony I rank the days here among my top ten.
The only thing that could push the experience higher? Pairing it with cloud forest rambling and trekking the Andes in Ecuador.
Ready to go?
Get in touch and let’s start planning your trip.
212 627 1950