‘What are you up to tomorrow?’ asked a friend during a Skype call. ‘Ah, I think I’m going to go and climb a volcano’, I told him, ‘an active volcano’. The island of Isabela is, after all, made up of six volcanoes (five of which are active) and to visit the Galapagos and not take in some volcanic splendour would surely be a half-hearted effort. As with many activities on the islands, local laws require you to be accompanied by a guide so doing it totally off my own back wasn’t going to be an option. I booked in for the $35 tour.
Tomorrow had arrived and here I was with a group of unknowns sheltering from the damp air, drizzle and grey skies, waiting to start the great ascent to Volcán Sierra Negra, one of the largest active volcanos in the world. But with this turn of bad weather and such poor visibility, would the trek go ahead?
It hadn’t started like this. Oh no.
Less than an hour earlier I had ran through sun soaked streets and arrived, in a sweat and seven minutes late, to an empty Tropical Adventures shop. No cars were waiting. No tour guides around to tell me off. They had left without me. Oh, crap.
I started to walk back towards the main square in search of breakfast. A jeep drove by, five, maybe six people crammed inside. Someone waved. Was that one of the guys from yesterday’s Los Tuneles tour? Another car beeped and pulled up alongside me. “Quick! Get in! You’re late!”
No rucksack, no breakfast and late. It was shameful. I made my apologies. People were gracious, on the surface at least, but maybe their tolerance was tested when half an hour later we were still driving through the streets of Puerto Vilamil doing random pick-ups and drop-offs and who-knows-whats.
And so, having driven north east from Puerto Vilamil upwards into an increasingly hostile weather front, here I was standing snuggled in with a bunch of about twenty strangers, and all those efforts to get here seemed to be in vain. It was surely a no go. This weather encouraged thoughts of duvet days and movie sessions, of chatting and playing music by the fireplace with friends.
Stop. Doubt not. This weather was, apparently, totally normal. ‘English speaking with me’, said our young guide who later told me how much he loved doing this job in between surfing the islands various breaks. The variety in landscape and climate, he told me, made Galapagos the best place to live.
And what about city fun? Wild, chaotic moments? Didn’t he crave a bit of breaking loose at times? ‘The mainland’, he said, ‘sometimes’. I found out from a few people that Guayaquil and Quito (on the mainland of Ecuador) offer them an escape at times, but do nothing in trying to tempt them away from the tranquillity of the Galapagos Islands.
For an hour we climbed along muddy, cracked pathways. The drive up must have dealt with a good chunk of the 1,124m altitude because the physical climb was the gentlest I could have imagined. As we ambled along, I chatted with French tourists and a young German couple, with an Argentinian wanderer and a chatty entrepreneur who had left his entire family and cultural sensibilities behind in India for a new life in Australia. As travelling often allows, I saw way beyond what was right in front of me, leant more about the world in a broader sense.
At the main lookout I realised my expectations of what a volcano might look like were limited to glossy photos in magazines that showed spewing lava flow and an excess of red and orange hues tipped with flashes of bright white heat.
This expanse of flat, cracked blackness that stretched off into the far distance was strikingly different to the volcano images in my mind. The drop off into the crater, although steep, was not as dramatic or as deep as I might have imagined, and swaths of clouds were swept along the surface by a moody breeze.
It was, undoubtedly, a unique landscape, all 10 kilometres of parched rockiness. We stood for a little while and looked out over this section of Sierra Negra. As recently as 2005 she had belched up a load of lava, and before that, 1979. There was a good chance that she might erupt again, right now. A sign stated ‘since the magma chambers are approximately two kilometres deep, there are cracks where every so often the fumes vent or lava erupts’. It could happen.
Onwards we walked, skirting along the eastern side of Sierra Negra, our grassy path contrasting with the bleak gravel of her belly spread out below us. The landscape started to change. More rocks, more slip, more hostility.
Those in the group who didn’t have boats to catch back to Santa Cruz continued on over shale and scatter towards Volcán Chico whilst the rest of us turned around and backtracked through ferns and hairy trees, walking and talking and stopping for a quick picnic lunch. Within two hours we were back at a still drizzly starting point, ready to descend back down to Puerto Vilamil.
One of the most active places for volcanic activity? Pah. Really? It all seemed very gentle and relaxed, dreamy even. Today, in any case.