In the Galapagos, iguanas smile and pose for the camera. ©John T. Andrews

Now, about the middle of January, is the time when I start to dream about the places I’d like to visit. The snow and cold have gotten a good foothold here in the Midwest, the frantic rush of the holidays is over and there’s an urge to fill the hole the exciting time of December has left with the “next thing to look forward to.”

Contrary to a lot of my fellow Midwesterners, however, I begin to think of far-off destinations in the colder regions: Alaska, Antarctica and Greenland. That could be because my body temperature is already set for the northern climes; I’m comfortable in boots and parkas. And, besides, I tell myself, I already have the proper clothing.

So, when I had the opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands earlier this year, I was excited—but not quite convinced it was a place I would have chosen if I could have picked a spot anywhere in the world.

Standing on Bartolome feels like seeing the Earth when it was new. ©John T. Andrews

It turned out, however, that the location chosen for me couldn’t have been more apt or meaningful.

Too many on the “moon”

Those of us who travel often find out that there is no better way to prove yourself, to test your most fondly held beliefs and to discover which issues mean the most to you than by stepping outside your normal routine and comfort zone.

Before I left home, I knew that the Galapagos and Ecuador were going to be hot; after all, we would be crossing the Equator four times in our weeklong tour. And prior to leaving, I read about the challenges the islands face; about the invasive plant, animal and insect species; the ever-increasing population; overfishing in the marine reserve; and the burgeoning tourist numbers.

Hopefully, giant tortoises will repopulate their native islands. ©John T. Andrews

But environmental threats such as those didn’t have an immediate meaning for me until my small group of about 20 travelers was on Bartolome Island, a place where the landscape is more accurately described as a moonscape. Among the volcanic cones and lava tubes, I easily envisioned standing on planet Earth when it was new, before beings like me were even an idea. And while at home I could appreciate from reading articles how important it is not to let our World Heritage sites get overrun with too many tourists at one time, the issue became personal for me when I worried about whether our tiny group—now at the top of an uphill trail—would run into that larger one just disembarking from a bigger ship down at the base.

Of course, the highlight for most visitors to the Galapagos is seeing the giant tortoises. Photos and stories about them are published around the world. But when you get to the islands and discover that the best opportunity to see them (without having to scale a volcano) is to go to a preserve, it becomes even clearer how much the islands have already lost due to human presence.

A contrary compass

For a cold-set person like me, though, I will admit that I found the Galapagos sun unrelenting. I had brought along my Wisconsin “summer clothes,” which basically consist of lighter, long-sleeved shirts and three-quarter-length pants, rather than my usual down-to-the-ankle jeans. The big surprise was that I turned out to be the smartest packer. Many of my fellow travelers commented that they had brought along sleeveless shirts and shorts only to find they couldn’t wear them due to the intensity of the sun. It seems I had blundered my way into being the group’s savviest island traveler.

A bright-red sunburn on my feet was a small price to pay for encountering birds that didn’t fly away when I approached. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In spite of that, I did get a remarkable “Teva-tan” on my ankles and feet—the sections of my lower limbs that my pants failed to cover and that showed through the straps of my sandals. Those parts ended up with a ruby-red burn, but I felt it was a small price to pay for the natural wonders I was seeing: birds that don’t fly away when I approach, sea lions who come up to greet me and iguanas that I swear posed and smiled for my camera.

My experience in the Galapagos has made me think that sometimes when choosing a next travel destination, playing “opposites” will bring you the most reward. Think of where you most want to go, then go to the opposing corner of the globe: in temperature, latitude and culture. I now know that it makes for an eye-opening and life-changing journey.

Culture clash

In one day, I had left the sun of Ecuador behind and was back in the Midwest. We’d had a snowstorm while I was gone, and it was time to start up the snow blower. Talk about culture shock.

Land iguanas resemble mythical creatures; dragons with long tails, clawed feet and spiny crests. Candice Gaukel Andrews

But this time as I pulled that engine’s cord, I somehow felt different. I wondered what the temperature was like at the Equator at that moment; were too many tourists stepping upon Bartolome? Were the small tortoises I saw growing up at the Charles Darwin Research Station thriving; were they being carefully watched at this second so that no harm came to them—that they could one day be returned to their native islands to repopulate them?

And, isn’t it amazing, I thought, that right now, under the thickness of my snow pants and inside my Gore-Tex boots lurks the hard-earned tingle of sunburn and peeling skin.

Have you ever traveled to a place that was “opposite” to where you dreamed of going?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,