Luxury Hotels in Galapagos Islands
Pikaia Lodge, which is located on the summit of an extinct volcano, offers a new way of seeing the islands’ natural wonders
©David Santiago Garcia/Getty
Volcán Chico on Isabela Island
Charles Darwin was a solemn old man with a furrowed brow and a beard big enough for birds to nest in – or so the classic image has it. But set that stereotype to one side.
Instead, picture the 26-year-old Darwin sitting astride a giant tortoise in the Galápagos Islands, slapping it on the shell to make it giddy-up. Or grabbing an iguana by the tail just to see what happens. Or, as Darwin also records in The Voyage of the Beagle, poking a hawk off a branch with the barrel of his gun. For all the evolutionary insights he drew from the Galápagos, young Darwin had a playful side.
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The Galápagos archipelago, adrift in the Pacific 650 miles off the coast of Ecuador, also defies preconceptions. It’s a wildlife paradise and a volcanic wasteland. It sits on the equator, yet its waters are cool. It has both sun-baked atolls and highland forest wreathed in cloud.
This geological afterthought – the islands are only a few million years old – is now one of the most protected natural environments on the planet. It became a national park in 1959, with proper controls taking effect in 1968, and in 1978 was the first place to be recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
Some 97 per cent of the land is designated park, with the 30, 000 human inhabitants living on just 3 per cent, most of them on one island. With a limited number of hotels, most visitors stay on “live-aboard” boats that cruise around the islands.
Such restrictions have helped the wildlife remain remarkably insouciant about people. They are not as tame as in Darwin’s day but you can still draw close to, say, a male frigate bird, and watch as it inflates a large red pouch to attract female attention.
You can marvel at sea lions. One swooped playfully through the water while I snorkelled close by and another, sunbathing on a small jetty, didn’t want to budge when my group arrived. Iguanas and giant tortoises, in particular, seem keen to pose for portraits. These days, though, you can look but not touch, let alone grab by the tail.©Manuel Tama
So the arrival of a new luxury hotel in the land that gave Darwin key evidence for evolution is unusual. Pikaia Lodge, which formally opened on Santa Cruz island on October 1, is a 14-room futuristic haven of modern comforts amid the wildness.
It took Herbert Frei, the creative force behind the project, a year to find the right site and five years to obtain a permit to build a hotel. Frei is of the species Homo Entrepreneurialis, usually found in the business districts of lowland Ecuador but also sighted in the waters of Galápagos.
For years he ran two boats in the Galápagos for divers and tourists, and campaigned to ban the industrial fishing that threatened to destroy the rich marine life. His DNA, though, blends environmental passions with business instincts. When a ban on new hotels expired in 2005, he saw an opportunity for a high-quality hotel built with eco-friendly technology and styled around the theme of evolution. As he told me: “I wanted to create a spaceship in Jurassic Park. I wanted to do something very modern and very green.”
The result is Pikaia, named after pikaia gracilens, an animal that lived 500m years ago and is regarded by some experts as the ancestor of all vertebrates, us included. Pikaia gracilens looked like a small flattened worm. Pikaia Lodge looks more like a Bond villain’s lair.