San Cristóbal resists pretention. There’s one tiny strip of highly visible boutique hotels and showy restaurants where everyone can watch you spend money. There’s another gated modernist structure that may be a luxury condominium or overstated single-family dwelling, near the flying-carpet sized public beach and food court.

That’s pretty much it for the well-heeled. Everything else is comfortable two-star hostals, satisfying three-dollar desayunos, the usual four-dollar cocktails, and however many five-hour tour operators you can stuff into a port city of six thousand people.

Chantal and I, and our constant globetrotting companions Chris and Filiep, stayed with a strange, jittery little fellow named Pepe, who owns the Palma del Mar 2. I don’t know what happened to the first Palma del Mar. The second is Pepe’s private residence, overtop a four-bedroom flop with kitchen and salon, about a kilometre from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno’s main drag.

Pepe met us at the dock as we disembarked our terror ferry. We cheerlessly followed him back to his place. He talked incessantly. After that gruesome interisland experience, we weren’t really listening. Something about a restaurant we had to try.

Palma del Mar 2 is cozy enough, if all you’re looking for is a place to sleep. Each large room has two beds with flashy zebra print sheets, toilet, and a badly tiled stall with one of those on-demand hot water electrocution devices that pretends to be a shower head. Inexplicably, Chris and Filiep’s shower head was on the same circuit as ours, and I could control their hot water with a light switch in our bathroom. That made for two very entertaining mornings for me. Chris and Filiep, not so much.

Chris Caves

After we were settled in, Pepe escorted us to a tour operator he knew, who would give us a very good price on what the locals call a three-sixty: that is, a boat excursion around the island.

Chris was having none of it. Chantal, Filiep, and I were curious about Kicker Rock, a rugged volcanic cone that offers some of the world’s best diving. Pepe insisted that the three-sixty was a better option for only twenty dollars more per person. Nevertheless, we’d had our fill of boats that day; the three-sixty was something like eight hours long; and all Filiep and I wanted was to snorkel. Chantal doesn’t swim but they were offering drinks. Chris threatened to chain herself to a tree.

Somehow, during our walk to the malecón, Chris talked herself into going with us. I think at first it was just me and Filiep. Then Chantal chimed in, as she does, because she’s a trooper. After that, Chris felt peer-pressured into tagging sullenly along. We paid up, fitted ourselves for wetsuits, flippers, and masks, and spent the rest of our afternoon listening to Chris’ misgivings about her change of heart. Look at the body language in this photo and tell me she made the right choice.

Chris Not Having Fun

Chris had every right to be anxious. Next morning, we piled onto a craft very much like the one that rearranged our spinal columns. Fortunately for us, the seas were far more forgiving that day. It was cloudy but calm.

We had a retired US marine and his extended family with us, and three begrudgingly fit young people – one from Prince Edward Island – who were kitted out to dive the Sleeping Lion.

This is what locals call Kicker Rock: Léon Dormido. It didn’t remind me of a lion, at all. I also had no idea what a kicker is supposed to be. Our guide said it’s a high heeled shoe. I could sort of see that.

Cerro Brujo

We stopped before our dive at Cerro Brujo, a wind-scoured tuff cone on the uninhabited northern coast of San Cristóbal. There’s room in the inlet for two, maybe three, pleasure craft. We were the first to arrive and had the place to ourselves. It was magic.

Cerro Brujo’s coral sand beach is undeniably primeval. Above and behind is the cartilaginous throat of an ancient volcano. Black lava rocks are tossed in craggy heaps along the boundary of a perilous horseshoe bay. Emerald tidal pools are alive with tiny darting fish and scrabbling crabs black as cold lava. Pelicans and boobies roost on the natural jetties; and sea lions are everywhere, most asleep or getting to it. In the distance, on the steel blue ocean horizon, stands Kicker Rock.

We had 90 minutes to explore. It wasn’t enough. But I did capture this image.

Sleeping Lions

As we departed, another boatload of adventurers was making its way inland. I was happy to leave before the telephoto lenses appeared. There are a lot of German tourists in Galápagos. They expect you to be out of their shots.

Léon Dormido

Then we were off to Léon Dormido. It took about 30 minutes and more gas than we had to return home. We would find that out later in the afternoon, to the great embarrassment of our captain. For now, we were running on our own nervous energy. The formation before us had a presence, an overpowering authority. It was impossible to look at. There was just too much of it, in every direction. We anchored off the Rock and everyone excitedly reached for their equipment. Our mood was exceptional.

Chantal and Chris remained seated. They had planned, up to that very moment, to drink rum punch and gab while Filiep and I snorkelled. But our new acquaintance, the loud US marine granddad, hectored them into suiting up.

This amused me greatly. Both women are retired military. The guy asked – correction: he demanded to know – if they would snorkel and they made their excuses. Then he barked at them for not seizing life’s rare opportunities, and it sounded like a direct order. They were in the water in less than five minutes. I’ve only ever coaxed Chantal into reef diving, once, in Bonaire, and she had a full-blown panic attack.

The water was flawless. We could see dozens of metres below us. It was like flying. There was life everywhere. We spotted clown fish and swam with turtles, and I thought of Finding Nemo. A curious sea lion introduced himself, then spun off in a swirl of bubbles. Our young diver friends were busy with their GoPro cameras while we paddled about at the surface. Chantal and I held hands the entire time. Because she’s nervous in water, and because we needed to share this experience with each other. Touching hands somehow made it more real.

I was glad for our wetsuits. The sea was scrotumtightening, as James Joyce would say. Still, we were so engrossed with the spectacle before us that we didn’t think to freeze. Our group spent an hour in the ocean. I could have kept going.

This was the Galápagos I’d hoped one day to see: stripped of artifice, unmolested by commerce, raw and uncompromisingly beautiful. It took us five days to find it. It wasn’t on Baltra or Santa Cruz. It wasn’t at Darwin Station, though it should have been. It wasn’t in the chain restaurants or sports bars, or even at Tortuga Bay. It was well away from all that. It had to be.

Never mind that we wound up adrift because somebody forgot to fill the tank. There was good-natured ribbing all ‘round when the rescue boat arrived. None of us minded. We sat on deck as the sun dropped below the clouds and enjoyed our languid approach to port. The lights of the city were just coming on. It was a genuine moment.

Chantal and I live for those. If there are more to be had on the other islands, we’ll be back to find them.