Only those lucky enough to visit the Ecuadorian archipelago will have a chance to enjoy this Swiss...
Solidarity with the Galapagos
This World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve is creating a culture of sustainable tourism that sets a worthy example.
With its landscape of volcanic rock, unique vegetation and extraordinary fauna, the Galapagos Islands recall the Eden of Adam and Eve. Just as in that biblical tale, man came to this Ecuadorian territory 620 miles off the continent and sinned. Discovered in 1535, the archipelago attracted pirates who found that tortoise meat provided a bountiful, long-lasting source of food. In 1830, the Galapagos received its first colonists, who brought with them non-native plants and animals that today pose a lethal threat to local species. This paradise – declared a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve in 1978 – gradually became a tourism hotspot, encouraging economic development and the arrival of even more residents. As a result, in 2007, UNESCO came to an unfortunate conclusion and declared the islands “at risk.”
This story may be somewhat discouraging for the traveler who dreams of visiting the home of giant tortoises with shells like saddles (or galapagos in Spanish), marine iguanas (a sea-adapted relative of the land variety), blue-footed boobies the color of the ocean, coffee-brown pelicans, lava gulls, frigate birds, seals, hammerhead sharks and more. However, realizing that the Galapagos deserve special care can add another layer to the adventure. “We want the kind of tourist who understands our situation and wants to help in the conservation efforts,” explains a representative for the Galapagos Chamber of Tourism.
Many visitors come here in search of privacy or in the spirit of solidarity. Leonardo di Caprio lands in a private jet. Bill Gates arrives on his own boat. Tom Cruise was just here, and Daryl Hannah recently came for vacation. Visitors can choose how they arrive to explore this piece of paradise (onboard a cruise ship or via daily excursions from Santa Cruz, for example), but everyone follows the same mandate of respect for the archipelago’s unique ecosystem.
At my hotel, a heron poses next to the natural pool, two marine iguanas take a nap on the deck, dozens of red crabs climb a mangrove and a family of seals put on a playful show for tourists in the crystal-clear ocean waters. It’s a typical scene in Puerto Ayora, on the island of Santa Cruz. Here, the eco-hotels produce their own drinking water; they have installed treatment plants among other measures to make their activity sustainable. On the islands, everything is regulated: water, trash, sea transportation, even the paths that traverse the few unrestricted areas of Galapagos National Park. The rest of the sites must be visited with an authorized nature guide to keep the environment pristine.
At the Charles Darwin Foundation, established in Puerto Ayora in 1959, scientists from around the world study subjects like human impact and climate change; they advise on how to minimize the damage and what measures to take in order to guarantee sustainable tourism. The Foundation has a tortoise-breeding center, which is open to the public, and is home to Lonesome George, the last surviving giant tortoise from Duncan Island. Students of various scientific disciplines come to volunteer for three to twelve months. Valeria, 22, from Cuenca, Ecuador, is working in the chemical identification of lichens (the first life form on the volcanic islands), while Josselin, a geography student from Nantes, France, who is also 22, studies fresh water, a coveted resource on these islands bathed by the sea.
You get to Turtle Bay, also on Santa Cruz Island, by way of a four-mile-long, paved path surrounded by opuntias, giant cacti with lustrous trunks. This landscape is home to wall lizards, butterflies, Darwin finches, mockingbirds, lanceolated monklets and other native birds. On the vast extension of sand that borders the turquoise sea, an American oystercatcher pokes at a shell with its long, red beak. On the other side of the beach, the mangroves shade the marine iguanas, but some of the scaly fellows still bathe alongside surprised visitors in a natural pool. A few steps away, Playa Mansa offers a peaceful, sandy haven for tourists returning from a snorkeling session off the Islet of Caamaño, where you can swim alongside the seals while spotting slate pencil urchins, a dazzling array of fish – yellowtail blue damsels, hieroglyphs, parrotfish, king angelfish and rainbow wrasses – and, if you’re lucky, sea turtles.
High above Santa Cruz, the twin volcanic craters of Los Gemelos offer a terrific view, framed by a forest of scalesia trees full of birds. An exploration of dark lava tunnels and a visit to Rancho Primicias (home to tortoises in their natural habitat) round out the educational excursion. Near the end of the tour, the guide explains why the animals are so friendly: “People started living on these islands in 1800, and in biological terms, 200 years isn’t long enough for a species to genetically process the notion that the presence of humans can be a threat to their existence.”
A two-hour boat ride separates Puerto Ayora from San Cristobal Island, the location of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos. A stroll along the pier gives a view of hundreds of seals, the natural inhabitants of the archipelago. On the nearby Playa Lobería, seals happily co-exist with tourists snorkeling off the coast. The vegetation gradually changes with the altitude. High above the beaches, miconia trees surround the only lagoon on the entire archipelago, El Junco, formed in a volcanic crater. The island has its own tortoise-breeding center on Cerro Colorado, where the tortoises are bred, raised and then released into nature when they are strong enough. Of the 100,000 tortoises that once populated the island, only 1,500 are left in an area of ten square miles.
Higher up, in the jungle, volunteers from the Jatun Sacha Foundation are making efforts to preserve the native flora on private land and in the parts of the national park that are at risk. Young people from all over the world come for two weeks to three months at a time, working in the mountain and heading down to the port to relax on weekends. It’s a different way to get to know this mysterious part of the world. “And it’s a way to contribute while learning about nature and yourself,” say Philipp, 24, from Switzerland, and Gen, 18, from Canada.
In the Galapagos, we learn that all species, including our own, are in a state of constant evolution. Each guided tour is a biology lesson in how plants and animals transform to adapt to their environment. Humans alone have spent centuries trying to shape the planet to our needs. Perhaps getting in touch with the origin will help us understand ourselves better as well. in
LAN Flights: Once a day, Monday through Friday, to the Galapagos from Guayaquil.
The Galapagos in Numbers
- The archipelago is one to five million years old; it consists of 19 islands, 42 islets and 200 rocks totaling 3,090 square miles of land with 17,375 square miles of marine reserve.
- The Galapagos are 97% national park; the remaining three percent are populated areas distributed over four islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana) that are home to approximately 25,000 inhabitants.
- Before arriving in the Galapagos, visitors must purchase a transit control card (US$10). Entrance to the protected areas costs US$100 for foreign visitors, US$50 for Mercosur visitors and US$6 for residents of Ecuador. Children under 12 pay half the admission cost.
- Organic Galapagos coffee, available in supermarkets
- Wood, recycled glass and ceramic crafts at Reflections, an organization that supports Ecuadorian folk artists.
Av. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora
- Eco-friendly clothing at the store named after Lonesome George.
Av. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora
Where to Stay
$$$ Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge: Tours from US$817 per person (includes two nights lodging, meals, use of bikes and excursions).On the islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana. Tel. 593-5-252-6564 www.redmangrove.com
$$$ Casa Iguana Mar y Sol: Doubles from US$100 to US$250.San Cristóbal Tel. 593-5-252-1788 www.sancristobalbb.com
Where to eat
La GarrapataAv. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Tel. 593-5-252-6264
PatagoniaAv. Charles Darwin, San Cristóbal
MiramarAv. Charles Darwin, near the Capitanía del Puerto, San Cristóbal Tel. 593-5-252-0154
Parque Nacional Galápagos: A complete guide to visitor sites, with schedules, permitted activities and other tips.
$$$ Moderately Priced