It started with a conversation over a few pints: "How are we going to celebrate our 40th birthdays?"
The milestone conjured up memories of my father's surprise 40th party, with its parade of gag gifts, old-fart jokes and "life begins at 40" cards. I had no interest in riding that bus.
"Let's take a trip," I suggested.
After intense negotiations - hiking in Bolivia (too much work), sailing the British Virgin Islands (not enough work), a village trek in Scotland (too many hangovers) - five of us settled on the Galapagos Islands: home of my only travel regret.
Several years earlier, I was in Ecuador for a rain-forest excursion and had plenty of time to explore the site of Charles Darwin's famous observations, which culminated in the classic On The Origin of Species. Lacking the benefit of hindsight and a comfort level with debt, I declined the opportunity, believing the cost to be extravagant. I have regretted it ever since.
The group of us, friends and extended friends from our university years, secured permission from our wives and partners to leave our families behind for a week (another intense negotiation), and the planning began in earnest.
The Galapagos Islands, located 1,000 kilometres west of mainland Ecuador, have a long and rich history. The first recorded discovery was in 1535, and in 1570 the 19 islands earned their name after the thousands of giant tortoises that roamed their shores. The islands were used on and off by sailors and pirates, mostly as a stopover to hunt whales and store tortoises for food, until 1832, when the first formal settlement was established.
Then came Darwin in 1835. His visit would lead to a new theory of evolution, and nearly 200 years later, the site continues to draw scientists and curious onlookers to the home of his greatest triumph.
With those onlookers comes a price. The islands, formed by a series of continuing seismic activity and volcanic eruptions, are unlike almost anything on Earth. Their isolation has helped to shield the harsh environment and its unique wildlife from all manner of human interference: the mass poachings, the introduction of invasive species, the establishment of prison colonies, naval ports, and even research stations and towns.
But the Galapagos Islands are under constant threat from these and other hazards. Despite their status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, too many boats with too many people visit the sensitive ecosystem, and if current patterns continue, there won't be much left for the casual visitor to see.
Before we booked our trip, my friends and I passed around a copy of The Economist that had a short piece on the current state of the Galapagos. It was not optimistic, given the fact that "tourist visits have increased 14-fold to more than 160,000 a year." What really struck us was the final sentence: "Paradoxically, if word spreads of the islands' deterioration, even more tourists may feel moved to visit them before it is too late."
We were those guys.
I felt like I'd really arrived in the Galapagos on the second day of our weeklong boat cruise. After flying from Quito to San Cristobal island a day earlier, we boarded our 20-passenger ship, the Letty, and took a quick cruise around a dramatic formation called Kicker Rock. But a cancelled swim with sea lions because of stormy seas had dampened our spirits.
Then the events of Day 2 more than made up for the disappointment.
We woke up on the shores of Genovesa Island, having travelled overnight. After breakfast, we donned wetsuits and snorkel gear, and plunged into the cool waters, where we swam with an array of tropical fish, coral, colourful starfish and sea urchins. The water was stunningly clear, with new sights everywhere you looked, and our guides, Jeanette and "Pepe" (his nickname was his preference), got their first taste of our reluctance to get back in the dinghies.
We went ashore later that morning and out came the cameras. "There's a sea lion on the rocks!" one of our fellow passengers shouted. Pepe, who got excited about everything, was unimpressed. We would see hundreds of sea lions over the course of the week.
Up "Prince Philip's Steps" we went (he had visited the site in the 1960s). What we saw at the top made my jaw drop: birds. We were practically surrounded. The famous red-footed boobies - yes, I've heard them all - and Nazca boobies. It wasn't just their strange, otherworldly looks that captured my attention, it was the fact they just sat there next to the hiking trails as our group walked by that amazed me.
I'd heard all the stories about the wildlife of the Galapagos, and the complete lack of fear of humans. But it's one thing to hear about, another to experience. The birds stared intently at us, as though we were the first people they had ever encountered. We were able to crouch next to them, observe them closely, take their pictures, examine their nests, even catch glimpses of their eggs when they stood up to stretch.
"This is incredible," I kept repeating.
When our group of friends first boarded the Letty, we were, figuratively speaking, the boobies of the boat. And by that I mean objects of curiosity. Sure, we were there primarily to experience all the scenery and the wildlife the Galapagos had to offer. But hey, we were celebrating our 40th birthdays. We wanted to make every moment count.
"Please pick these up for the cruise," Marcus wrote in an e-mail before we left. "Have a nice trip: Me - gin; Sean - Cognac; Jamie - Scotch; Jon - Champagne; Michael - margarita mix." Never mind we were only going to be gone for about a week.
The ship's passengers were a motley crew: Our group of five Canadians, two women from Japan, a couple from New Zealand and 10 Americans, including a young couple on their honeymoon and a woman who had visited the Galapagos Islands 25 years earlier and was returning to see how it had changed.
The answer? A lot.
Our first night on board, the captain of the Letty, Pablo, introduced his crew and welcomed everyone. We were going to be in close proximity to each other for an entire week. "We're hoping you'll all go to sleep every night after dinner," he said optimistically.
His plea didn't quite pan out. We behaved ourselves, but we also made the most of our vacation, including several evenings on what was supposed to be the "sun" deck, and a few late-night dinghy trips to the towns we occasionally stopped at along our route. Who could resist an evening at a bar called Iguana Rock? Well, as it turned out, all the passengers except us.
Eventually we got a chance to swim with the sea lions. They're rather lazy creatures on land, lounging on rocks or beaches, practically oblivious to your presence. When they hit the water, everything changes. Suddenly they're playful, animated and remarkably graceful.
There's nothing quite like snorkelling in the ocean, watching rays "float" below you, while you're surrounded by schools of angelfish and parrotfish, when out of nowhere, a sea lion swims toward you and stares you down, face to face mask.
I was expecting some intense experiences on land, but I ended up looking forward to our daily snorkelling sessions more than the hikes.
The most spectacular swim of the trip took place off the shore of Isabela Island on Day 3, when within a one-hour period we saw sea turtles, sea horses, sea lions, bull-headed sharks, chocolate-chip starfish (yellow with black spots) and cormorants and Galapagos penguins taking a dip. To top the day off, as we sailed toward Santiago Island, the sun was setting in spectacular fashion as a school of minke whales broke the surface next to the ship.
It was a week of daily wonders: barren, beautiful landscapes; stunning vistas; naturally formed lava tunnels; blowholes spraying water 15 metres into the air; marine iguanas, often in packs of hundreds, spitting out excess salt; red crabs scampering along rocky shorelines; white-tipped reef sharks; huge marble stingrays and albatrosses performing their mating rituals.
The list seems endless. It was everything I expected from a visit to the Galapagos, and more.
One of our favourite finds, which wasn't part of our itinerary, was a hike to isolated Tortuga Bay beach, on Santa Cruz Island. That particular day began with low expectations. Santa Cruz is one of the inhabited islands, and it's home to research centres and a tortoise reserve: We braced ourselves for a more traditional tourist experience. We'd been spoiled.
But it turned out to be the perfect way to round out the trip. After a 45-minute walk outside town, along a brick path through fields of cactus, the vegetation suddenly opened up to a pristine beach straight out of a movie. Two kilometres of perfection. Surf, silky white sand, no hotels and hardly any people. We dove into the ocean and body-surfed for what seemed like hours.
Happy 40th, boys. Couldn't have scripted it any better.