Tag Archives: Galapagos


I am captivated by islands. Though I’m not referring to their landforms. However the ones I’ve had the luck of visiting are certainly worth appreciating simply for their natural beauties. But what pulls me to these places is the effect insularity has on the mindset of the peoples who live there.

Cut off from fast and easy access to other parts of the world, isolated population centers develop distinct identities which are both a boon and an obstacle to us transients just passing through. I’ve had the pleasure of spending some time in 3 very different such cultures.

Hawai’i in the 60’s and 70’s was an island chain in transition. Having become the 50th state of the US a few years earlier, it was also the materiel and military troop concentration point for an escalating war in Viet Nam. The ripple effect of the war created more high-paying jobs than qualified workers to fill them. One could, and often did, quit a job in the morning and have another one that afternoon.

A third element for change was the allure of the islands for the counter-culture youth, usually referred to as hippies. I was part of that culture. With so much money freely floating within the state coupled with the influx of people and new ideas, Hawai’i became one of the most liberal and free-thinking places in the country. But this was not to last.

After the war in Viet Nam ended, followed in parallel with the complete collapse of Hawai’i’s agriculture giants, pineapple and sugarcane, the state was struck low by 2 hurricanes. The first one came in the 80’s and the more destructive one in the 90’s and the devastation is still being felt today.

These successive shocks to the vitality of Hawai’i collectively morphed into a behavioral provincialism that carries on today. I witnessed this firsthand 2 years ago when asked to serve on a State Legislative Task Force for the creation of a medical cannabis dispensary system. Even though 23 other states already have fully functional systems in place the major players in the Task Force demanded a different approach, essentially commanding the reinvention of the wheel. As a result, years later the system has yet to begin treating qualifying patients with respect, let alone functional results.

Rationale for the refusal to incorporate existing, proven methods for a dispensary system focused on the fear of perhaps venturing into new territory, though in fact this was obviously not the case. To be sure, by reinventing that particular wheel the power group behind the scenes on the Task Force guaranteed the creation of a unique system of Byzantine complexity. Much of that complexity relies on the islands’ definition of terms.

The state’s interpretation of the concept of liberal and conservative thought are frequently 180 degrees out of sync with the US mainland. In Hawai’i you find leading Democrats almost maniacally opposed to the idea that cannabis could be a medicine, and you find a Republican who has been tilting against windmills for 20 years trying to introduce industrial hemp as a viable and profitable agricultural industry. So much for progressive action and conservative caution. It’s really fascinating and entertaining stuff if it didn’t adversely affect seriously ill residents.

The Galápagos Islands also model insular behaviors. Though visitors come to see the genetic diversity of the animals and the differences among identical species on the various islands, the diversity of the people on the different islands is just as pronounced and just as fascinating. Who could imagine such cultural/behavioral diversity in such a small island chain? But it exists and the differences are easy to spot. Easy, if one takes the time to sit down and have a conversation with the locals residents.

Iquitos, Peru is the 3rd island culture I am considering. And yes, it’s a city of 1/2 million people in the middle of South America. But it is also the largest landlocked city in the world without a road leading in or out. There is no overland access and it is surrounded by the Amazon jungle. Iquitos is undeniably an island, one with its own unique elements that combine to form its individuality.

Perú is a poor country, though like Mexico it is a rich country. Third largest in South America it is rich in resources and has a reasonably clear understanding of the meaning of that natural wealth. But, like Mexico, the people are achingly poor having to survive in spite of an endemic level of corruption touching all aspects of the country’s culture. Iquitos, at the tail end of nowhere, feels this poverty through an unemployment level of about 65%. So that when 50,000 – 100,000 comparatively wealthy tourists visit the city yearly, the gap between the local population and the visitors is painfully obvious to all.

This gap creates and sustains a vulture-culture, where tourists are declared open-season for opportunists year round. Though the majority of the city is virtually tourist free, the areas along the Malecon and the various historic sites in and around Iquitos are awash with wandering scam artists offering the unwary everything from bogus tours to unrealistic money exchange rates, to prostitutes, to street drugs, to ayahuasca and most likely very much more. Buyer beware and keep track of your personal items; the management is not responsible…

In Lima my first Spanish language teacher there explained to me about cultural feelings of inadequacy as an endemic Peruvian world view. She recounted a number of instances to support her argument that Peruvians regard themselves collectively as backward and thus regard visitors as somewhat intimidating. Here on the streets it is common to witness a deference shown by Peruvians toward gringos and it can be uncomfortable to those of us raised believing in universal equality. I can only image how African-Americans must have felt and behaved toward whites before widespread civil rights movements. I see that deference here in Iquitos far more commonly than either Lima or virtually all of Ecuador.

So, on the one hand you have a deferential population and on the other hand you have the bold “street sweepers” looking for any opportunity to redistribute wealth. This paradox is, in a nutshell, why Iquitos holds such magic. Yesterday, for example, I rode a mototaxi to Embarcadero Bellavista to revisit the confluence of the Rio Nanay and the Amazon. I had been there, on the water, the week earlier and I wanted to spend time on my own without being part of a small tour group.

Before I even got out of the taxi, I had shills and scammers vying for my cash; each one professing to be the real deal at, of course, the best price for you my friend. And even after I had explained (always with a smile, nothing turns uglier quicker than a scowl or a harsh word) that I was only there to take photos, 2 or 3 followed me for a good 10 minutes. Each one assured me that they understood my predicament (?) and had the one, true answer. Gracias, but no…amigo.

Anyway, after the docks drained themselves of photo-opps I decided to walk back to the Malecon, about an hour’s toil in the heat and sun. If you have read Jack London, or personally visited international port facilities then you know that the surrounding areas are not only not pleasant, but often downright dicey as regards personal safety. Yet while I do not doubt that Bellavista shares these attributes at night, I was never once made to feel in any way at risk. Any time I got off Avenida Marina, the Main Street connecting the port with the Malecon, I never experienced resentment let alone hostility. Befuddlement certainly, and even small doses of curiosity, but danger, never. Everyone is just too polite.

Several days after arriving in Iquitos I noticed that the water was rising. From the beginning of February, when I got off the speedboat from Lagunas until the end of the week there were differences in the surrounding topography. This phenomenon was why I came! From the Time/Life books and National Geographic magazines I read as a child, to the PBS and Walt Disney nature programs, I knew that the Amazon swelled and receded yearly, the result of rains in the Andes. Now I was watching it. Slowly and surely, Iquitos is becoming a geographic island as well.



Galapagos Wrap-up, pt. IV

Arriving on Isla San Cristóbal I was more than ready for change. My time on Isla Isabela had put me into a dismissive and negative mood and the sooner I was off the island the better. So I went to Isabela’s airport an hour early and met Veronica, another passenger also eager to be gone. She’s a director in the Ministério del Ambiente, kind of a Parks & Recreation Bureau within Ecuador’s central government.

I didn’t know it at the time but she’s a high-level functionary within the workings of the country’s civil service. I found this out later when visiting a Sailors’ Museum and saw a bronze plaque with her name on it. The plaque commemorated the new museum and its major benefactors, with her name prominent on the list.

Anyway, Veronica suggested some things to do while I visited San Cristóbal. One of them was the path that began at the island’s Darwin Interpretation Center and continued to the summit of a hill overlooking the main city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Following that advice I was to take that trail several times during my stay, each time just before sunset. Muchas Gracias, Veronica!

She was very proud of that trail, having recently attended its grand opening after having worked to get it funded and built. She also took my phone number and promised to call and meet while we both visited the island. But this time I was ready for those notorious subjunctive tenses and (rightfully) didn’t expect the call to come. By now I’ve started to recognize “the meeting that will never be.” On the road for less than a year and I’m already making some cultural progress ;}

Who I did meet though were people very different than the folks on Santa Cruz or Isabela. I found people who were not on the make. The people of Santa Cruz, and more specifically Puerto Ayora, are there for your money. They are friendly enough to be sure, but the town and the island by extension, is there to redistribute the wealth (and property if you don’t hold on to your purse) from the visitors of the developed world and relocate this wealth among the people of the developing world. Visitor and resident alike knows this and there’s no misunderstanding. And at a coarser and sleazier level the same is true on Isabela. But San Cristóbal is different.

It also has an airport allowing flights from the mainland, though the traffic is far less than at the main landing strip on Baltra servicing Santa Cruz. And it also has sights and tours to some relatively unique features, like the only natural fresh water source in the Galapagos. What keeps this island different in flavor is the presence of federal offices, a large naval base, and national commercial fishing administration. There are dry-dock facilities, freight-forwarding yards and other trappings of non-tourist related activity. So one’s chances of meeting someone not involved with tourism are far easier on San Cristóbal. No scams for a change, and a welcome one too.

In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno the streets are clean. And the waterfront promenade with its one-way street was named, but what else? Avenida Charles Darwin. All the shop fronts and park benches in the sun and the shade were well-cared for. This port town was neat, proud, and yet still had time to be friendly.

Just outside the Darwin Interpretation Center there is a brand new UNC/Chapel Hill facility housing earth and/or natural sciences graduate students with lecture halls and common areas as well. The architecture blends well with the surrounding structures and land forms. It was the beginning of fall semester and the grad students seemed to be mixing rather smoothly with the local residents. This island is definitely different from the others.

Yet again Janina was right by revealing to me that the people can be every bit as interesting as the animals. I got a first-hand view of her thesis and now am a believer too. People can and do change rapidly in different social structures. They had clearly done so among the inhabited islands of the Galapagos. But do they evolve? Maybe, if they are as adaptable as guppies.

Which brings me to perhaps my biggest failure while visiting the Galapagos: I never visited Floreana, the mystery island. The last, smallest, of the inhabited islands, Floreana boasted a tale of death, perhaps murder and certainly deceit; mistresses and scandal with transformation following hellfire. Being south of the main island group, this outpost holds itself back from the others.

Set completely ablaze by a whaler’s prank in 1819, it is now believed that a number of important and unique species of animals were lost in the conflagration that consumed the entire island. Descendants of the original settlers from early 20th Century still run the single hotel on Floreana. And if I ever return to the Galapagos, I’m going there very early in the trip.

Back on San Cristóbal, one night walking, I encountered a sea lion pup not more than a very few hours old. Cruising along the town’s seawall and encountering herds of sea lions is vaguely reminiscent of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The difference being that the hundreds of sea lions use the beach here, plus the common piers and sidewalks to bask; Watch your Step!!

Barely able to move with most of the umbilicus attached, as was the placenta to the mother, this particular little pup was too weak and still too new to use the flaccid skins that would become flippers. When I returned barely 8 hours later those same flippers had somehow “inflated” and were now able to carry the pups weight as it struggled to find its mother to nurse.

Witnessing both of these sea lion pup events I was accompanied by a recent friend, Michaela. Twenty years my junior, this owner of a German travel agency and I had bumped into each other on 4 islands now, so we ended up wandering the docks and eateries along the waterfront. I was fortunate that Michaela speaks far more English (she’s fluent) than my 4 words of German. We compared notes of our various day tours and she collected the information for her clients back home. My second regret, after Floreana, is that I never directly introduced Janina and Michaela. I’ve made some amends via the computer and I sincerely hope that both of them thrive.

In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno I had my first (and only) lobster in the Galapagos. It was pretty good and pretty cheap. Seafood in the Galapagos is generally a bargain.  Along with visiting Floreana, I will spend more time on this island should I get blown back to this part of the world. If I weren’t so fond of Janina and her family on Santa Cruz, I’d fly directly here from Guayaquil. And being retired, I’d happily and easily spend a month in these islands. Now THAT, would be a vacation!

It’s mid-November as I’m writing this and I’m living a comfortable life in Lima; the Galapagos is a long way away. When I consider those various experiences there and the people I met, I think often about how I could improve on my trip. And the most obvious change would incorporate my new love of being aboard a boat. I would root out more day-trip boat tours, or perhaps even a short multi-day cruise. But I wouldn’t learn to SCUBA dive here. These waters are for experienced divers.

The unique life systems that motivated Darwin to devise his theories were themselves the results of unique geologic and geographic conditions found nowhere else on the planet. These islands sit at the collision point of 5 major and 4 minor ocean currents.

From the massive Humboldt Current bringing both cold water and surprisingly cool air temperatures up from the Antarctic, to the nutritionally important Pacific Equatorial Under Current bringing food eastward from the ocean depths to feed the whales, to the Panama Current bringing rain and clear diving waters, these currents form a complex set of powerful forces which endanger the unwary. So learn to dive elsewhere, learn safety and emergency procedures and then you can put the knowledge to good use here.

A day-trip for SCUBA divers will cost somewhere under $200/person. It’s all-inclusive with well maintained equipment, just show up with your bathing suit (and a set of warm, dry clothes). But if you’re like me with size 13 feet, bring your own fins. Each of the populated islands offers day-trips and with some pre-planning before leaving home one can easily dive in almost all of the biomes in the islands.

What about the last-minute cruise packages, said to be possible at amazing discounts? Possibly. But marketing has changed over the last several years. When the Islands started accepting tourists wholesale a generation ago, the park was geared solely for the well-heeled who could afford multi-day cruises aboard all manner of yachts. There were no land-based facilities and the choice was expensive cruises or stay home.

As more travelers visited the islands, the galapagueños rose to the challenge and began offering trips for land-based tourism. Each year saw newer and more extensive and comprehensive ways to experience these islands without committing to an expensive cruise package that virtually dictates every minute of every day. The change in emphasis from cruises (which, to be sure, still exist in a multitude of options) to land-based day trips brought about a corresponding change in what gets flogged to the newer generation of bargain conscious traveler.

Now that all the hip travel guides mention the lure of last-minute cruise deals that is exactly what is (said to be) offered by every business everywhere on the islands. Of course it begs the question: if they are all last minute, how can this be a bargain? I’m still waiting for that answer. The various agencies, sporting goods stores, and shoeshine boys, each of whom offer tickets to everything everywhere network amongst themselves with smartphone apps, so the deals of a decade ago are deals no more.

What this means is that one sees a leveling of pricing that follows the increase in choices. So one now still has the option for a pampered but rather rigid cruise package (which take the traveler to places off-limits to the day-trippers) or a more personalized though still regulated series of land-based 1/2 day and full day tours. As there is some wriggle-room in pricing for the land-based tours, a general homogenization of offerings among vendors markedly dampens opportunities for bargaining. Yet it doesn’t hurt to ask. Hidden treasures exist if you seek them out and you don’t have to pay the asking price.

The Galapagos Islands is an experience every bit as astounding as people say. I barely touched on what is there and how a visitor can see it. I met a Scottish couple in Quito who spent £800 between the 2 of them, for a week. That’s a bit less per day than I spent and one of them had a sea lion come up to him and kiss his GoPro® while snorkeling off Isla Española. I watched it on their computer back at the SAEX Clubhouse.

There are as many ways to visit the Islands as there are visitors. Pick one…

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.


Dramamine Monologues: Galapagos, Pt. II

After the first week spent exploring the most populous island of Santa Cruz I was ready for a change. Knowing, though not focused on the warning to beware of what one wishes for, I was in store for a very big change on a much deeper and purely personal level.

So I hopped on a 6am speedboat headed to the largest of the islands, Isabela. By now it was mid September and the calm, tranquil waters offshore were gone. By far the best times for diving were over. With rough seas came silt and sediment, so underwater visibility is greatly diminished.


Those of you who SCUBA dive would be best served by fighting the hoards of the July-August high season, when the water’s warmer, calmer, and clearer. It’s also rumored that those times don’t demand a wetsuit either. But 2 weeks after US-Labor Day the lazy days of summer are gone. And so was breakfast for at least 1/3 of the 15 or so passengers on board for the commute. Oddly enough though, not for me.

Some of my earliest childhood memories, predating Kindergarten no less, were of the times spent puking on Sunday drives with the family. Joining my dad, smoking one cigarette after the other motoring down the highway, my mom riding shotgun and passing around sandwiches and kool-aide, was my older brother pasted against the left side of the back seat, hoping to avoid any backsplash. He was mostly lucky in this regard.


Motion-sickness has whipped me about the head, shoulders and stomach my entire life. I’d get sick in wide-screen movie theaters, riding the ferris wheel, often even a teeter-totter, anything that moved in more than one direction at a time; for-my-entire-life. Often my motion-sickness has been the deciding factor, the weakest link, in determining directions, adventures, roads not taken for more than 65 years. What was going on now, here in the Galapagos?

The chop was breaking over the bow from about 10 o’clock, and we were headed due west with a strong wind from the south. This 40’ sport fisher, with twin 300hp Yamaha outboard engines (and a monster 500hp spare) was battering through, under, and occasionally over waves while fish-tailing and slipping sideways with constant irregular lurches. And I wore the biggest ear-to-ear grin the entire time enjoying the bouncing and pitching and rolling the sea was throwing our way.

So here’s a disclaimer: an hour before launch I had downed a Dramamine. Having grown up using the drug I also knew that it rarely if ever had a damping effect on my upchucks. But I had received what may turn out to be a lifetime supply of the stuff earlier in the year from my support staff back in Hawai’i, specifically delivered to me for my Galapagos trip. I really wanted to visit these islands and overcome my dread of the sea with handsfull of the pills.

But not only didn’t I have the least bit of queasy feelings, I pushed my luck and started reading my Kindle part way through the ride. The chop was so intense though, that I had to stop for fear of cracking the tablet lens on my forehead. Nevertheless, this was a major event; I couldn’t bring on even a hint of discomfort. Another test was in order.

Six days later I boarded another boat, this time from San Cristóbal back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Believing that I am my own best Guinea Pig, I chose to wait until the boat was underway before downing a pill; normally Dramamine takes 1/2hr to an hour to kick in. 

This trip, if anything, was even more violent than the first and I was sitting amid-ship, inside and away from any views of the horizon or anything else but fellow passengers. This location was where the pitching was far more noticeable. It’s hard to imagine, but my grin was even bigger than during the first trip. What was going on here? An older gentleman taking the commute in the stern of the boat and confined to a wheelchair was thrown to the deck 4 times from the strength of the battering waves (he was grinning though the whole time though, a great sport). I badly needed a reality check.

Back in Puerto Ayora I met with Janina for a deep debriefing. The week before she told me that when she was younger her father had insisted that she have an ayahuasca ceremony. She had been experiencing some very serious health issues that were just not responding to “conventional” medicine and he believed that it was time for a more traditional indigenous approach. So, knowing that this woman is wise beyond her years, I sat down and talked this nausea thing out with her. We both agreed that something deep was going on here.

During my April-May ayahuasca intensive I received 2 separate messages from la medicina. The 2nd message dealt with my immediate future in Ecuador and revealed that it was time to quit Quito, which I subsequently did. But it was the first message that had a connecting link to this motion-sickness issue.

At the time I arrived in Ecuador, and for nearly 5 years previously, I had been plagued with what my primary care physician diagnosed as “intractable nausea.” He was of the notion that a chronic liver condition that I have was the root cause of the nausea, but being cautious he wanted additional opinions. So I spent several years and multiple thousands of (health insurance) dollars with medical specialists trying to pinpoint the origins of this nausea. All of these examinations failed to discover anything definitive, though I did receive several scares of more serious conditions. It was fortunate that those frights were all false alarms, and yet the nausea remained.

So when I received the first message from the ayahuasca ceremony, clearly explaining what the cause was and how to cure it, I was very happy to be lying down at the time. I was rocked to my core. And now, talking to Janina I realized that I was experiencing continued healing from that ceremony from nearly 6 months earlier.

Clinical research, both here in Perú and elsewhere in South America, has frequently shown that ayahuasca can and does have delayed healing effects. While it could be argued that my experiences are purely anecdotal, I’m getting ready for another experiment.


A few hours south of Lima are the Ballestas Islands, billed as Perú’s answer to Ecuador’s Galapagos. It is my intent to go there without any Dramamine at all. This Guinea Pig’s ready for some real action. As the year winds down we’re now heading into a showdown with El Niño and the seas are not smooth and they are becoming less so with the passing weeks and months. If I’m truly over my life long motion-sickness I’ll know it pretty clearly. If not, keep your boots on.

But enough about me, what about you? We were talking about Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands, so let’s get back to business.

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.

In the Galapagos and Thinking About the Amazon

I’m sitting in the Hostal Gardner here in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos waiting for the Steelers-Pats game. It’s already over (it happened last night) and either Rothlisberger has prevailed or Brady has yet again displayed super-human abilities. Or maybe both. But I don’t know who came out on top and ESPN3/Español will, through pre-recorded programming, lead me to NFL nirvana. It’s still 8 hours until the broadcast, so what to do?

It’s surprisingly cool today, 10 feet above sea level and a few miles south of the Equator. The proprietress of the hostal, Janina, has invited me to take a trip to the highlands of this island to view giant land tortoises, see 2 collapsed craters, and walk through some lava tubes. Her recently married cousin, the cousin’s husband, and Janina’s boyfriend will be going with us too. This should eat up some time before kickoff.

I’d also like to review the jungle trip that I took last month. But I saw so much and La Amazonia is such a critically important region of the world that I’m going to split my account into 2 postings. I’m also going to post more images to go along with the postings, since this was a visual journey. WordPress, the group that hosts my blog, has a feature called a photo-carrousel, so I’m going to try that out too. Let’s see how this works; in Spanish: ¡Vamos a Ver, Compañeros!

I had decided to follow my nose and hook up with a place called Jamu Lodge. It’s located on the right bank of the Rio Cuyabeno, one of the major tributaries in Ecuador leading down to the Amazon River. Though I didn’t know it when I signed up, I later learned that the Cuyabeno is a “black-water” river, fully saturated with tannins from trees growing in the surrounding forests.

These tannins not only stain stain the water dark but they also lower the pH to around 5.4, which makes for an acidic environment. It also means NO MOSQUITOS! It’s hard to believe that one can visit the Amazon basin and not be eaten alive by these parasites, but sadly (not!) this was the case.

After a 7hr overnight bus ride from La Mariscal in Quito I found myself at dawn in Lago Agrio. This is an oil-drillers town hard up against the Colombian border (across the Rio Putumayo) and reputed to frequently host visiting FARC guerrillas on their best behavior. Well, I didn’t see any.

An Interesting pair of bluejeans in Lago Agrio

An Interesting pair of bluejeans in Lago Agrio

But I did have breakfast at Hostal D’Mario while waiting for another bus which would take us to the end of the road. In the meantime I was entertained by a vendor selling medicinal tonics. These folks with their pushcarts are fairly common in cities and towns throughout Ecuador. Here in Lago Agrio this young lady was pouring liquified herbs from jug to jar to jug to jar with a brilliantly choreographed style. And her bluejeans were one-of-a-kind.

Finally by mid-morning this other, much smaller van showed up. The driver stuffed me and nearly a dozen fellow trippers inside and we took off. I was surrounded by Germans, Dutch, Belgians, a Scotsman and his French wife. Except for the Scotsman they all spoke passable English. We had 2 more hours of sitting in the van until we ran out of pavement and boarded a long canoa for yet another pair of hours motoring down the Cuyabeno to the lodge. By this time I was done with sitting for the day. Or so I thought.

After an hour or so of unpacking, introducing ourselves and settling in, we gathered back at the dock to go up the river for a sunset swim in huge lake formed by the Cuyabeno. Since by then I’d already been back in Quito for a month, wearing layers of fleece for the ever changing high-elevation climate of the capital, it was downright paradisiacal to be clad only in a bathing suit floating, splashing, blowing bubbles and stroking around the boat while watching a beautiful sunset in one direction and a moonrise in the other. I haven’t been to heaven yet but if it’s anything like swimming in that lake at sunset, I’ll be knocking on its door.

The real wonder though, was that this was the first of successive evenings that we spent swimming at sunset. And as the moon was on the wax, each night was more stunning than the night before. After several of these swims we stayed out late for either a nighttime walk through the forest or we floated down the river spotting caimans or a tree boa or we were enchanted by the hundreds of fisher bats, the largest of the bats in Cuyabeno Reserve, swooping down to the water for a night’s feast of small fish.

By day we also traveled either up the river or down it or on one of the feeder streams with our guide Sulema. She was a fantastic set of eyes for us, motioning the motorman to halt the canoe countless numbers of times as she spotted monkeys or birds or sleeping bats, plus 1/2 dozen anacondas throughout the week. I knew through readings that this part of Ecuador has some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the world. But to be there, on the water, and witness this abundance is a spellbinding experience.

A day-walk through the forest is a great example of our time there. We were sloshing (knee-high Wellington boots are the only way to do this) up a trail when Sulema stopped at one of the trees. It could have been any tree as far as I could tell, there were so many of them. Some scientists argue that this portion of the rainforest contains more vegetation per square foot than any other spot on earth. I surely won’t contest that point of view.

As it happens she stood in front of a cinchona tree, where quinine comes from. She explained how the bark is stripped, then dried to a powder and used as an anti-malarial medicine. This bark, in powdered form, was the basis for Samuel Hahnemann’s development of homeopathy for treating diseases. Here, growing wild in the rainforest, it seemed to me like just another tree. Who knew? It turns out many, and for thousands of years in the Quechua culture.

After much oohing and aahing from her charges Sulema then proceeded to blow our minds. In a fold in the bark of the cinchona, known as quina locally,  she pointed out what appeared to be a sleeping beetle about 2 inches long. She ordered each of us to get close enough to see a tiny thread with a white dot protruding from the head of the bug. This insect wasn’t sleeping, it was dead.

And the dot on the filament were spores of a microscopic fungus the beetle had ingested. The fungus feeds on the brains of this and other insects. She explained that eventually the fungus causes the insects to act like zombies and find protected locales for their final resting places. To complete its cycle the fungus bores through the head of the bug and the spores on the end of the stalk are released into the atmosphere to find new hosts. How’s that for nightmares?

I noticed that several of the group seemed to be trying to hold their breaths until she said that this fungus was very specific to insects. The collective sigh was short-lived though when she continued by saying that there were literally thousands of different kinds of air borne fungi like that and we were breathing them in all the time. Sleep well tonight will you? Actually, I did.



The next morning we were up before dawn engaged in a bird-watching venture, floating among the semi-submerged trees and looking for avians just stirring. While we saw many “Stinking Turkeys,” or Hoatzin which are the most common bird seen in the Cuyabeno, the Potoo was the fascinating one for me. It is one of the few nocturnal birds in the reserve and it took me a good 5 minutes to finally see one while Sulema patiently waited for these old eyes to figure out what to look for. During the day they perch with their beaks pointed skyward and freeze in that posture, becoming (truly) one with the tree. I was pretty excited about this one. You really have to watch this video:


For my part the image that I grabbed was of a Potoo perched about 5-6’ above the water on a branch of a dead tree, their favorite hangouts. (On my Mac, if I double-click on the image and then click again on the enlargement, I can then see the bird. Give it a try.)

After finally identifying this bird I came to realize that it was impossible for an outsider to “know” the Amazon even in several lifetimes. Sulema was showing us the easy stuff, animals large enough or common enough for even us lumbering, loud, and camera-flashing tourists to see. And to know that we were only scratching the surface of the abundance of life here is a very humbling realization. But you take what you can get and what we got was a lot, so we continued on.

One of my hopes while in the reserve was to finally see monkeys in the wild. When I was in Guayaquil I took a guided day-trip to Manglares Churute, a vast mangrove reserve and we hoped to catch a glimpse of howler monkeys, the largest in this part of the world.

But a rambunctious group of teens had proceeded us on the path half an hour before, both laughing and chasing the monkeys deeper into the forest with their noise. Though I fully enjoyed myself (except for the snake encounter), I really was disappointed that we could only hear them and occasionally see a shadow or two.

Fortunately the Cuyabeno, and more specifically Sulema, didn’t let us down in this respect either. Of the 9 or so species of monkey in the reserve, we were able to spot 6, including the tiniest, the Pocket Marmoset, smaller than my hand. We saw the Wooly Monkey, with a tail as bushy as a raccoon’s but twice as long as the entire raccoon. We saw White-faced Marmosets and a few others of the marmoset family but I’ve forgotten their names.

Yet the real stars in the region are the Spider Monkeys, flitting through the trees in tribes of many dozens of animals at a time and not too worried about human trespassers. While we didn’t have the good fortune of 2 other groups at the lodge, where the monkeys actually came down to just a few feet from their canoes, I had my needs met to be sure.

In the tea caddy

In the tea caddy

Tarantulas, and scads of other spiders as well, were pretty common near the lodge. And we even had a juvenile who made itself at home in the tea caddy. Each night and on the same tree there were 2 trophy specimens that lumbered slowly on, in search of smaller prey. The lodge also hosted a mild tempered parrot (loro, in Spanish) who often decided to perch on a guest and tour the facilities.

Of the lodge itself, nothing could be found amiss. From the mosquito netting covering each bed that prevented intruders from disturbing our sleep, to the inexhaustible and delicious food for each meal, to the friendly and attentive staff, this was the way to see the Amazon Basin. Elías, the head waiter, could give the best of English butlers a run for their money in his unobtrusive yet excellent and cordial way of anticipating every need. We were living the life.

So with that, I’m going to end part one here.