An American's Guide to Galápagos Islands: Prince Philip's Steps and El Barranco

This bird paradise is the prize if you can make it up the steps and across the plateau, around the ravines and canyons and over the shifting rock.

Late afternoon crossing El Barranco (the cliff) on Genovesa Island, under a cloudless sky and intense equatorial sun is an extreme experience. Add a slow mile-long hike (each way) through a Red-footed and Nazca booby colony and you have a very memorable afternoon. The shot above is late in the day as the hiking groups fell apart when injuries resulted in the evacuation of several hikers by guides, leaving the groups to navigate on their own across the unstable lava. More on that below.

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Are You Ready for the Galápagos?

The really interesting part of this excursion is that in general the only people who will ever visit this spot are wealthy and older, and this would be a difficult landing and climb for most young people.

On our visit to Prince Philip's Steps the sea was rough, waves were high and the landing was very difficult. My photos were ruined by sea spray and motion so Luke Robinson-Grant allowed me to use his photos of a more calm-sea landing on the steps here.

Check out Luke's page

Awe Around the Earth

Photos above and below by Luke Robinson-Grant

See Luke's other travel photos at

As you can see from Luke's photos the steps are difficult even on a calm day but to get up to the plateau and tour El Barranco where the elusive Galápagos Owl hunts and tens of thousands of sea birds nest, this is the only way up.

The Silver Galapagos never moved from her mooring in Great Darwin Bay. Our morning hike was on Darwin Beach, this afternoon's hike will follow the cliffs of El Barranco through ravines and around caves along the trail starting at Prince Philip's Steps.

I would have liked to explored Lake Arcturus which from the map above would appear to be an easy hike across undulating lava up to about 60 m, but there is nothing easy about this hike. Large rocks actually move under foot. Not gravel or scree, but huge slabs of lava shift as one plants their weight atop them. The island is criss-crossed with huge crevasse-like canyons from the eroding shield of lava.

While the canyons in-and-of themselves are not a big deal, navigating around them with a group of 60-80 year olds is. The fissures remind me of faults but I'm not sure they were caused by slipping or uplift, perhaps they were just weaknesses in the lava that exposed over millions of years gave way to deep canyons. They appear to be more the work of erosion than tectonic forces, even though this is one of the driest places on earth.

At the top of Prince Philip's Steps is the first such canyon we must navigate. Groups of hikers back up here going across a rickety bridge-like structure. We enter a Palo santo forest, denuded of leaves by drought, and surrounded by thousands of seabirds. Above a Nazca Booby (Sula granti) sits on its newborn chick. The nest is a pile of twigs and rocks, directly on the ground. To say this rock is bleak would be an understatement. It is a rough life for any creature that inhabits this island.

Once across the first canyon I look back and see the Silver Galapagos moored in Great Darwin Bay.

A pair of red-footed boobies (Sula sula), one white morph the other brown greet us as we trudge on through the "forest." It is not so much forest as what appear to be nearly dead low trees teeming with seabirds. The ground is dusty rock. A few cacti here and there. Nothing else.

The sea is almost visible in the haze of dust, sea spray and sun. Hiking groups of 10-12 make their way across the lava through the forest toward the cliffs where the Galápagos Owl is the predator everyone seems to want to see.

We walk through a huge Nazca Booby (Sula granti) rookery where there are many newborn chicks and many more eggs left to be hatched.

The mothers seem attentive, caring for the one chick. In cases where there are two chicks the guides tell us the younger is usually killed by the older sibling.

It is a long, hot hike and several boobies almost get skewered by hiking poles as elderly hikers slowly make their way across the lava. These scenes leave me thinking about the wisdom of Galápagos tourism as it is today. Only the wealthiest can afford to visit and then its a primitive experience dominated by a lot of guides talking about conservation when everything about what we've done to get here is detrimental to these islands. From the carbon emissions of the planes to the ships plying the waters to us trudging through this rookery. Might it not be better to set aside some places on earth solely for preservation of the species and places themselves? That's not going to happen in Ecuador where tourism is big business. So these boobies best beware as I'm sure we are not the only tourists to visit this island this week.

A red-footed booby poses atop the palo santos forest canopy. The forest canopy is about 10-feet (3 m). There is no wind here to limit growth of trees. The limiting resource is water. There is little to no fresh water to be found on these islands.

One of the caves where we search for the Short-eared Galápagos Owl (Asio flammeus galapagoensis; Búho campestre de las Galápagos).

We do eventually find a couple of the owls. They are resting in plain sight but their camouflage is such that they are rendered invisible to the casual observer (below with arrow).

Our effort is not without a price. There are injuries that result in hikers being carried out by guides leaving the hiking groups to navigate for themselves. The whole 10-12 person-per-group system quickly falls apart and we're left to figure out our own way back across this desolate rock.

The trail is poorly marked and I wander far from the other groups but manage to navigate my way along the cliffs. There are massive flocks of seabirds overhead.

Normally there is a guide with each boat but that system has also broken down. Groups of hikers gather at the top of Prince Philip's Steps as we wait for zodiacs to return from the Silver Galapagos. The flaws in this imperfect system revealed I wonder how fatigued many of the elderly travelers must be as we wait (no benches, no port-o-potties, no nothing on these islands).

It is dusk as we finally board a zodiac for the short ride across Great Darwin Bay back to the ship.

The sun slips behind El Barranco as we finally reach Silver Galapagos, exhausted.

I look back toward shore and see a lone sea lion kind of looking at us (or so I think). When I look at the photo later the sea lion looks as tired as us.

We've survived another day in the Galápagos

Join the Movement

Members of the first generation to grow up with social media at its fingertips launch a gun-control movement

When Twitter launched in 2006, the youngest students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were toddlers, the oldest just out of kindergarten. They would be part of the first generation to grow up with social media at their fingertips, and with an innate understanding of how to amplify their voices to reach state, national and even international audiences.

After a gunman killed 14 of their peers and three school staff members on the grounds of their Parkland, Fla., school last week, the reaction to share facts, questions and outrage on social media was immediate.

With an Eye on November, students and well-funded groups are teaming up on gun regulation

Young activists mobilized by the slaying of 17 students and faculty at a high school in Florida have begun to focus their fury on bringing change in November’s midterm elections.

As gun regulation efforts continue to face obstacles in Washington and state capitols, the students are appearing at candidate events, mounting voter registration drives and threatening to haunt politicians who stand in the way of their demands. And well-funded professional organizations that have long focused on curbing gun violence are rushing to find ways to harness their energy for the fall election.

Get out of Facebook and into the NRAs face

Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who survived last week’s mass shooting, wrote a beautiful essay for that declared: “At the end of the day, the students at my school felt one shared experience — our politicians abandoned us by failing to keep guns out of schools. But this time, my classmates and I are going to hold them to account. This time we are going to pressure them to take action. This time we are going to force them to spend more energy protecting human lives than unborn fetuses.”

Cameron, God bless you for that sentiment. But just one piece of respectful advice: If your generation and mine want to get serious about a gun control crusade, we all need to get out of Facebook and into someone’s face: the N.R.A.’s.

These Parkland students survived a mass shooting, but can they survive Twitter?

They survived a school shooting only to wage battle in some of the nastiest corners of the Internet

It’s easy to forget they’re children, waging battle in some of the nastiest corners of the Internet even while they process a trauma. That's what makes them so effective — and also especially vulnerable.

Sarah Chadwick, 16, is the Parkland kid who tweeted expletives at the president and deftly deflects attacks from politicians, gun-rights partisans, crazies and media personalities who don’t have qualms about picking on kids. Corin, the 17-year-old class president turned gun-control activist, is the one who tweeted, “Sorry, @NRA, the children are winning.” (On Wednesday Florida lawmakers imposed a waiting period and raised the purchasing age for long guns.)

The Second Amendment is being turned into a suicide pact

Feb. 15, 2018, Max Boot, The Washington Post

In 1791, when the Second Amendment was adopted, the state-of-the-art firearm was a flintlock musket firing paper cartridges loaded with gunpowder and a lead ball. Given the laborious loading procedures, a skilled soldier could fire at most two or three shots a minute. The smoothbore flintlock lacked both stopping power and accuracy; hence the need for lines of soldiers to fire from point-blank range at each other.

Nikolas Cruz did not come to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., toting a musket. Police say he came with an AR-15 rifle, which typically comes equipped with 30-round magazines and can easily fire 45 rounds per minute. And it fires not lead balls but .223 rounds that at close range could make the head of a Viet Cong soldier “explode” or turn his torso into “one big hole.”