Isla Isabela, an Island With an Attitude; Galapagos Pt. III

I enjoyed my stay on Santa Cruz, but as Janina predicted, it was more for the people than the animals. Certainly the animals were fun and fantastic. Yet having worked in an oceanarium at Makapu’u back in the 70’s, I had been surrounded by and somewhat inoculated to the sight of whales and dolphins, sea lions and seals, penguins and boobies, though not inoculated from the tourists and the schlock.

Puerto Ayora had its quota of schlock with more in reserve should anything be found lacking. As for tourists, even though I was visiting during the off-season there were enough of them out and about that I could only imagine, horridly, what it must be like in the high-season. It’s a question that I hope to never have answered.

So consider this: Way-back-when, after standing eyeball to eyeball with a dolphin (OK, our eyes were probably at least 3″ apart); and with my hand and arm up to my armpit stuck down his throat, pulling out the plastic flowers he had swallowed, I’m no longer filled with visions of unicorns and elves and angels and our noble brothers from the sea. Although, come to think of it: I don’t think that I ever was.

This 1,000lb. beast with a mouth full of needle-point teeth was even less happier than I was by being there, as we were, together. It was not the kind of scene one might have watched during “Flipper” re-runs. And it left me with a working knowledge that while these are impressive beasts, the intersection between humans and animals is usually no fairytale and often not very pretty either.

My point here is that yes, the animals of the Galapagos are an amazing sight to witness, a sight and experience found nowhere else. But I don’t see these animals with the same wonder that others do. I’m glad that I went snorkeling and walked amongst the nesting seabirds, but I gained far more insights walking amongst the nesting humans.

Back in Hawai’i and 40 years ago I’d had a Humboldt penguin nail my foot through a brand-new pair of RedWings. Those work boots had just cost the greater part of my weekly salary! I’ve had my calf sliced open by the razor-sharp trailing edge of a sea turtle’s flipper while transferring it to a holding tank. I’ve disposed of buckets offal and vats of blubber from a beached pygmy Sperm whale after its necropsy on the beach near Kahuku. Though, on the good side, I’ve also built a circus cart for a sea lion to pull through the crowd and made a pair of Elton John-like sunglasses for a dolphin to wear during a fashion show.

Are my views jaundiced towards these creatures? I don’t think so. But neither do I have stars in my eyes when staring down a sea lion in the surf; enjoyable certainly, but transcendent? Hardly. So when it was time to leave Puerto Ayora, I was happy to go. After the high-season, now that at least 1/3 of the shops and restaurants were shuttered, it can be a bit gloomy and careworn.

Puerto Ayora still functions year-round, but it ain’t Disneyland. Instead of Mickey Mouse this and Donald Duck that, the town serves up Darwin on the half-shell. As named on all the islands, I walked down the main drag: Avenida Charles Darwin. One could buy Darwin bar-drinks and Darwin t-shirts and mugs and placemats. And as on 2 other islands, there is the Darwin Research Center and several Darwin statues. Even the chief factotum at my hostal (a friendly and industrious young Ecuadorian) was named Darwin. It was time to visit Isla Isabela, or at least time to leave Santa Cruz.

So I took a 6am speedboat (40′ sportfisher really) on a 2hr, $30 rollercoaster ride to the largest island in the chain, Isabela. Janina had arranged my stay, but in the confusion of a dawn sailing I misplaced her notes and never did meet the person who was supposed to greet me at the dock holding my name on a sign. There were a number of people there each holding various signs, but none with my name. So I flagged a taxi and rode the 2km into the island’s only town (pop., about 3000), Puerto Villamil. My plan was no plan really, but to stay for perhaps 3 days, depending on my mood.

Except that while Puerto Ayora is dismal, Puerto Villamil is bleak. With streets of hard-packed sand and garbage strewn along the lava fields, this village is beaten down, knows that it’s down and isn’t putting up a fight. The food is nothing but destitute collections of bits and pieces of something scooped onto a plate while the person dishing it out stands over me and demands an exorbitant price. The bars are tattered and grimy, the hostals are closed. No tropical paradise here.

The place was weird; both in the words of the guide I met the next day and also in my immediate feelings after getting off the speedboat from Isla Santa Cruz. In the ride from the dock to the center of town, with a taxi driver willing and wanting to sell me almost anything, I saw old mattresses and junked TV’s, trashed clothing and broken furniture strewn far across the lava fields and the houses (shacks, really) far more rundown than in Puerto Ayora.

What you find in Puerto Villamil is a sluttish attitude and everyone seems to expect my money, and a lot of it to boot. The people know they have something unique and they milk it for what they can but they aren’t particularly “green” by any means. I found on several occasions that a tension openly exists between a large segment of the Galapageños and transient scientists regarding the environment and it is very apparent here on Isabela.

At Puerto Villamil fishing is a major source of income for my erstwhile and reluctant hosts. And legal fishing, observing and adhering to quotas and obeying off-limit species harvesting is not a major source of joy. The Chinese pay enormous prices for illegal shark-fins and the scarce and protected sea cucumbers, and money talks. Being told that these animals can generate more money alive than dead is a concept as foreign and as ridiculous to the fishermen as is the idea of sustainable tourism.

It’s a true shithole, Isabela is, and I was so very happy to hop on a small plane and leave. I decided to fly to the far eastern side of the archipelago. By flying I would be taking less than an hour’s time instead of spending an entire day shuttling from Isabela to Santa Cruz and finally to San Cristóbal in fishing boats. It was time to visit Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the provincial capital of the Galapagos. There on Isla San Cristóbal I ended up having the best of times.


5 thoughts on “Isla Isabela, an Island With an Attitude; Galapagos Pt. III

  1. Marilyn

    Wow, another fantastic post. The lava photos remind me so much of Haleakala crater. Did it seem so while there?


    1. kmalivuk Post author

      Thanks Marilyn; I’m glad you liked this one. I could not help but see Hawai’i with almost every step I took along the Sierra Negra trail. And the guide identified the lava as either pahoehoe or a’a, so the nomenclature is also identical. In May of this year the northernmost volcano on Isabela erupted with quite a show for offshore cruise ships. There was no danger to humans and the night views of the lava flows were impressive. Take care, Karl.


      1. nalomacs

        Good show old man. The prose flows and engages. A very readable good read I say.
        The pix illuminate the prose bigtime. I felt as if the yellow iguana and the crimson breasted booby were within a few yards of me.
        Especially enjoyed the bits about SL Park. Didn’t know you were employed as a veterinarian intern as well as a tradesman.
        Until we digitally meet again,


      2. kmalivuk Post author

        MuchGrass Compañero! As re: SLP, I wasn’t so much a vetenerian intern as I was a slop-bucket extern. Even though it was a pygmy Sperm whale, it was pretty massive. The park vet was always called for a beaching, and sadly they usually ended in death. He’d take samples for research, though 40yrs later the question is still unanswered as to why they beach themselves. Hasta Pronto…


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

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