The Galapagos is More Than Just Animals

A lesson that I am constantly relearning is one of patience. It’s a lesson of immediate importance as I try to explain my time in the Galapagos. In just over 2 weeks that I spent there I was assaulted; in a friendly way to be sure, but assaulted nonetheless. From the minute I left the hostal and walked down Charles Darwin Avenue, new experiences, new sights, new everything piled up in front of me, on top of me (pelican shit on my hand and my camera: wear a hat, please!), all around me.

For several weeks I’ve struggled to find a way to begin this story of what happened during my time in that very special place. I’ve begun nearly a dozen attempts and each one felt hollow and stilted and in no way a true explanation of how deeply I was affected. Thankfully, and out of the blue I believe that I can now solve this problem. It started with a song.

Paul Simon’s “Boy in a Bubble” was the catalyst I needed, and the line where he sings that we have — no, that we demand: “Staccato signals of constant information” nailed it for me. So here goes. I’m going to present you with facts and factoids. You’re welcome to piece together what you will.

We hear of (and insist upon) Take-Away Points and 6 Reasons to Do This and 5 Foods to Eat or to Never Eat for That and 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. So I’m going to start with the Power-Point of the trip. I’m dividing up my story into several separate posts that ebb and flow with what I did, where I went, what I saw.

Off the top of my head, this is what I saw:

  • Fish
  • pipefish
  • 15” clown fish
  • parrot fish
  • tangs
  • sharks — 3 kinds
  • Birds
  • vermillion flycatcher
  • yellow warblers
  • Galapagos doves
  • owl
  • blue-footed boobies
  • penguins
  • scissor-tail frigates
  • pelicans
  • ani
  • plovers
  • rakes
  • rails
  • Darwin’s finches
  • cattle egrets
  • great blue herons
  • yellow-crested night herons
  • flamingos
  • mockingbirds  — several kinds
  • seagulls
  • coots
  • Galapagos ducks
  • White-cheeked Pintail ducks
  • Gallinules
  • Sea Creatures
  • sea turtles
  • star fishes
  • sea urchins — 4 kinds
  • sea cucumbers  — 2 kinds
  • marine iguanas
  • sea lions
  • stingrays
  • crabs — 3 kinds
  • unknown fish by the oodles
  • Land Creatures
  • Galapagos tortoise — 2 kinds
  • land iguanas
  • striped racer snake
  • rat (squashed and desiccated)
  • indeterminate lizards large and small
  • people big and little and each with an interesting story

I know that there was more, that there had to have been more, but for now: that’s what I saw of the fauna. The flora ranged from giant opuntia cactus forests in the desert areas, to highland cloud forest plants duplicating in look and in feel the tree-fern forests of Hawai’i, plus vast tracts of palo santo trees with their stark white trunks and branches. I saw bugs up the yin-yang, scientifically speaking, and so very much more that I will still be processing the information overload for some time to come.

I spent approximately $132/day for the 15 days I was there. That’s an all-inclusive rate of expenditure which includes a round-trip flight starting and ending in Quito, a twin-engine hop between 2 of the islands and 2, 2hr $30 speedboat trips between 2 other islands. This also included all meals (breakfast was included in 1/2 of my hostal nightly room-rates), lodging, 1/2-day and full-day tours, plus obligatory tips to the guides (you cannot go anywhere without one).

The trip could have been cheaper had I wanted to purchase groceries (even cheaper still if I had brought them packaged from the mainland) and cooked at any one of the hostals I stayed at. But I didn’t. It could have been vastly more expensive had I booked one of the many 5-day, 8-day, 2-week cruises on one of rusting hulks or gleaming yachts available, especially had I booked during the high-seasons of July-August or the Christmas-time holidays. But I didn’t.

So there you have it, the quick-and-dirty. No need to read any further, just pack and go. And you’d better hurry since these days those academics in the know claim that within a (human) generation the islands will have become so genetically polluted from tens of thousands of visitors (carrying seeds on their shoes, insect eggs in their clothes, and smuggled produce with their luggage) that the magic of the Galapagos will be gone forever. So go, now! You will never forget the experience.

And if you stop reading now you won’t be disturbed by my conclusion that all of this was almost a distraction to the real Galapagos. You’ve been warned. Here be dragons.

In 1818 the Nantucket whaling ship Globe, under Captain George Washington Gardner, discovered a “mother lode” of sperm whales some thousand miles west of the South American coast approximately at the equator. He returned to Nantucket in 1820 with more than 2000 barrels of sperm whale oil and the news of his discovery. This led to an influx of whaling ships to exploit the new whaling ground and the Galapagos Islands became a frequent stop for the whalers both before and after visiting what came to be known as the Offshore Grounds. This led to the establishment in the Galapagos Islands of a kind of unofficial “post office” where whaling ships stopped to pick up and drop off letters as well as for purposes of provisioning and repairs.

Or, at least so sayeth the Wikipedia. These days in the Galapagos one can find Gardner Islote (islet), Gardner Shoals, Gardner Bay, and even a place to stay during a visit, Hostal Gardner in Puerto Ayora, the main city in the islands.

TripAdvisor (copyright somewhere, no doubt) told me that this very same hostal was a great backpacker place to stay, so I did, and remained there for more than half of my time in the Galapagos. By the time I landed on Baltra Island I had traded several e-mails with the manager, Janina Chong Murillo. She seemed friendly enough.

Baltra Island has the main airport in the Galapagos, the other being on San Cristóbal, the Provincial capital. Once you land on Baltra, nothing but the remnant of a shield volcano and no more than 50’ above the sea at its highest point, you immediately board a bus for a 10-minute ride to the ferry landing. From there it’s another 20 minutes across a few hundred yards of water to Santa Cruz Island and the home of Puerto Ayora, the main city (12,000 pop.). But that city is a 45-minute ride from the dock, across the island (north to south) that climbs to the high-point (3000’) and then back down to sea-level. Waiting for me at the dock was Marlon Arias, Janina’s boyfriend.

Marlon works part-time at Hostal Gardner. He’s like many island residents, not just in the Galapagos, but Hawai’i for one is the same as are other island cultures. Full-time jobs are the rarity on rocks in the middle of the ocean and people survive by stringing together threads of employment, often unrelated to each other. Take Marlon, for example.

Often I’d find him on the computer at the main desk of the hostal, working the books and balancing the accounts. But find a phone booth and like as not you’d see him changing into a uniform of El Parque Nacional Galapagos Ranger (ed. note: for you younger folk, this last sentence refers to a quaint artifice of the antiquities whereby people would actually step into one for strange and occult reasons, or occasionally make a phone call!).

When not at the hostal Marlon flew a single-engine plane to the far and uninhabited reaches of the island chain, patrolling the waters for illegal fishing, instances of which there are far too many. He learned his craft and earned his license at a flight school near Orlando, Florida where he became hopelessly addicted to bacon-double cheeseburgers, the poor soul. We seemed to hit it off and had a pleasant talk of life and love as we made our way to the hostal, a block inland from the waterfront in downtown Puerto Ayora. It was then, when we off-loaded my bag and I checked in that all my plans changed.

Janina, a beautiful young woman of 34 was there at the desk to welcome me to the Hostal, to the city and to the Galapagos. There are those times when you meet a stranger and immediately know that all bets are off. You can tell that your preconceptions are headed out the window. Once the formalities and innocuous pleasantries were over Janina let me know that this was to be one of those times.

In a seemingly innocent manner she explained that while people from all over the world come to the Galapagos to see the animals, the local people are really what was most interesting. This was something that I was totally unprepared to hear and it stopped me stock still. It was such an outrageous statement that somewhere deep in my visceral core I knew that somehow, some way she was right. With her offer to help I decided that I would test this hypothesis.

But come on! These are the Galapagos Islands, famous the world over. Everyone knows of their most unique and untroubled animal populations that set Charles Darwin on an intellectual journey which put science and religions upside down and still generate deep controversies. People sacrifice, often deeply, for the one chance in their lives to be here among the furry and the feathered and the scaled creatures found nowhere else on this planet. Yet here is this hostal manager telling me that something else, not in any guidebook in any language, is just as interesting; and maybe more. What??!!!

Janina knew that it would take some time to digest this lump of information, so she gave me the rest of the day off. However she let me know that not only would she plan and arrange all my tours and visits for the 15 days I would be there, but that the next day I was invited to go with her and some of her family on an excursion. We would be headed up to the highlands in search of wild Galapagos tortoises, free-ranging on an organic coffee plantation. Who am I to blow against the wind? (thanks again, Graceland) Of course I said yes.

Let me make this clear: before I got there Janina and I were total unknowns to each other. She also never heard of the South American Explorers Club and I knew nothing of her but her name and her occupation. That was it. But not for long.

Then the next day after lunch we drove up there to the misty forests, saw Los Gemelos (the twins) — 2 collapsed volcanic craters, spotted several dozen of these living dinosaur/tortoises that live for more than one hundred years, spelunked through several lava tunnels and sipped some great coffee with snacks of cheese empanadas. Sublime indeed.

Later in the week, via Janina’s promised ministrations, I snorkeled (the first time in more than 4 decades) with sharks, a sea lion, and more. On another day I rode a taxi to and bicycled back from walking through a 2km long lava tunnel, and more. Still later in the week I also took a day-trip to another island, North Seymour, for some serious and up close bird-watching, and more. It was a very busy week and then it was time to visit some of the other populated islands.

One thought on “The Galapagos is More Than Just Animals

  1. Pingback: Galapagos Wrap-up, pt. IV | Wandering and Wondering Through South America

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