The best travel drops us right next to the locals–
–and in the Galápagos, the locals are mostly tortoises–GIANT tortoises.
How giant are they? Almost 900 pounds when fully grown, but even the medium-sized tortoises move around like cumbersome coffee tables with pudgy, scaly legs. Though I’ve seen giant tortoises in zoos and other islands of the world, seeing this Giant Tortoise in the islands to which they granted their name (Galápagos comes from Galopegos = “tortoise”), was one of the all-time extraordinary highlights of my travels.
Giant Tortoises are indeed gigantesque, with heads the size of my fist, necks like my forearm and domed carapaces resembling a small VW Bug.
Today, eleven different species (or subspecies, as some claim) live on the islands, a tribute to the diversifying forces of natural selection. Sadly, invasive species (like rats) threaten the eggs and young tortoises, so human intervention is necessary to ensure the survival of the Giant Tortoise. After seeing so many (dozens) of Giant Tortoises in the wild, I was able to visit the Charles Darwin Foundation where Galápagos National Park employees are breeding four different species. Right now they told me they are raising 1,244 baby Giant Tortoises, which they protect from predators until they are big enough to survive out in the wild on their own (when they are about 4 or 5 years old).
The extra help of the national park means that today, there are almost as many Giant Tortoises as there are people in the Galápagos. That makes me happy, and I felt incredibly privileged to walk through the strange wild forests of this equatorial paradise and encounter these slow and deliberate monsters pushing their heavy selves along the ground, like prehistoric remnants trudging through multiple lifetimes.
Yes, I met so many animals in Galápagos but the Giant Tortoise was my favorite by far, definitely worth all the travel to land me in their home on the equator.