When Herman Melville arrived on the Galapagos, he thought it an “evilly enchanted ground … looking as the world might after a penal conflagration”. After a five-mile hike to the highest point of the westerly island of Isabela, the landscape seems to me more like a furnace-baked work of surrealist art, its black lava fields rising into volcanic cones, yellow sulphur hissing around the rims.
Unlike the cruise-ship stampede, I have not come to the Galapagos simply to see the wildlife. The blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises that so famously inspired Darwin’s theories can wait for another trip. I have come for the volcanoes. More specifically, for volcano trekking.
At around one million years old, Isabela is the teenager of the archipelago. Its 100km length is made up of six large, shallow-sided volcanoes, five of which are active. In 2005, the biggest, Sierra Negra, exploded in an eruption that lasted for eight days, spewing out 150 million cubic metres of magma.
When I meet our guide, Julio, at the bottom of the Sierra Negra trail, he tells me he climbed up during the eruption to admire the molten lake of lava.
“Did you not evacuate?” I ask.
“There is no evacuation plan for the island in an emergency,” he replied. “In any case, there aren’t enough boats.”
We set off regardless, carving a path through rich soil banks. The greens of the undergrowth are spangled with wet cobwebs and purple verbena flowers. The humidity catches in my lungs. As we climb, the temperature drops and we soon reach the flat track along the cusp of Sierra Negra’s caldera (the large depression where a volcano peak has collapsed into a wide crater). As we peer over the edge, it falls away into a dark expanse only vaguely discernible through the mist.
The drop is fringed with guava trees shrouded in moss, which hangs off their branches like so many ancient beards. They look as if they’ve been there for ever, but in fact they are an invasive newcomer, having taken hold in the past 30 years. Native flora and fauna are highly vulnerable, both to eruptions and to alien species. In the 17th century, pirates used the islands for shelter as they lay in wait for Spanish galleons returning home laden with Inca gold. They took thousands of giant tortoises for food and also brought foreign species such as rats and goats, which ate tortoise eggs and hatchling birds. This, combined with the thousands of tourists who visit the islands each year, poses a serious threat to the Galapagos ecosystem.
An eight-year project led by the Charles Darwin Foundation recently eradicated 150,000 goats from Isabela. Tracker dogs and puppies, equipped with specially made boots to protect their paws from the lava, were used to trace the feral herds.
As we reach the highest point of the rim, 1,490m above sea level, the clouds finally curl back to reveal the great sweep of the caldera. At 70 sq km, it is the second largest in the world. Near the base, it is strewn with dead trees, their branches like bleached skeletons.
From the summit, we descend towards Volcan Chico, a collection of smaller cones in the flank of Sierra Negra. There is a hum of crickets and birdsong. I pick out a cluster of Darwin’s finches on a soap tree. Painted grasshoppers jump from leaf to leaf. A pair of Galapagos doves, their feet bright red and eyes blue-rimmed, look up unafraid from the path. As it warms up the guara, or drizzle, turns to thick equatorial rain.
Suddenly, the landscape changes. We leave behind the vegetation and clamber up a carmine-black wall of boulders, ash and cinder. Ahead is a solidified ocean of lava, like a petrified ploughed field. Julio tells us this spiked surface is called aa, from the Hawaiian for “stony with rough lava”. Early explorers found the aa ripped the leather from their shoes. Julio even wrote to me while I was still in the UK warning me to bring substantial footwear. My soles are surviving, but still I envy the puppies their boots.
The ground has been shaped over the centuries by a series of eruptions. Each flow has a different texture; it is like walking from one planet to another. Breaking up the aa are rivers of smooth pahoehoe – Hawaiian for “smooth unbroken lava” – where the lava didn’t ruffle as it cooled. The vegetation is sparse; the occasional thousand-year-old candelabra cactus has dodged the various eruptions, and stands erect on the horizon.
With rain still heavy on our backs, we kneel to inspect the deep fissures in the ground and partially eroded lava tunnels. (The outside of a stream of lava can cool and solidify, its centre continuing to flow, leaving a hollow tube.) One of the tunnels is intact. I crawl through it, admiring the stalactites on its interior. The ground is hot under my knees, the heat coming from the earth’s core.
I put my hand on a rock and am scalded by a puff of steam rising from a fumerole. The vapour has suckled a clump of fern, a solitary pioneer in this harsh landscape.
Further on, we reach another flow. Where the younger lava was black, this older layer is magenta, whipped like icing into billowing folds. As it has eroded, its metal content has oxidised, speckling the lava crimson and purple; it is studded with gold and silver-coloured particles which glitter in the light. When we reach the edge of Chico, the rain stops. Bouncing off the hard, silent surfaces is a peculiar tinkling sound, as the cinders dry in the sun. Gratefully, we sit down on the scree and unwrap our ham sandwiches. From nowhere a lizard joins us, a white butterfly in its mouth.
The journey down is easier, faster and drier. Drunk on the surroundings, it’s a relief to turn off the camera and stride out. We make good time, arriving at the bottom with burning muscles, covered in dust, dirt and burrs, ready for an octopus ceviche and a cold cerveza.
Next day, we trek over an aa field on the edge of the sea. Marine iguanas bask in the sun. Peering into a collapsed lava tunnel flooded with seawater, we see a group of basking female white-tipped reef sharks. The same volcanic tubes I climbed into on Chico are now visible under the sea, covered in seaweed. Here they host sea lion pups as they gambol in the surf.
The Galapagos are rightly famous for their native inhabitants. The wildlife on the archipelago is remarkable. But their topography is equally thought-provoking. As an exercise for mind and body, you couldn’t better a few days spent trekking through this magical, primeval place.
The Ultimate Travel Company offers bespoke tours of the Galapagos: www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk, 020 7386 4646
Original article published in Financial Times, in February, 2009