Preserving the Galapagos’ Wonder

  • The approach to Santiago Island, where visitors can hike across dry lava flows and snorkel with fur seals.

    The approach to Santiago Island, where visitors can hike across dry lava flows and snorkel with fur seals.

  • A Galapagos giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station outside Puerto Ayora.

    A Galapagos giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station outside Puerto Ayora.

  • Ropy strands of pahoehoe lava on Santiago Island, whose volcanic features also include tuff cones and lava spires.

    Ropy strands of pahoehoe lava on Santiago Island, whose volcanic features also include tuff cones and lava spires.

  • A Sally Lightfoot crab foraging for algae on the rock-strewn shores of Mosquera Island.

    A Sally Lightfoot crab foraging for algae on the rock-strewn shores of Mosquera Island.

  • A boardwalk on Bartolome Island keeps tourists on the rigth path.

    A boardwalk on Bartolome Island keeps tourists on the rigth path.

  • Hiking through the volcanic terrain of San Cristobal.

    Hiking through the volcanic terrain of San Cristobal.

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Once at his house, Roberto explained that four years ago, he and his wife, Reyna, decided to uproot their young family from Quito and live off the grid in the Galápagos. After consulting with an engineering friend, the Plazas constructed their new home out of native volcanic ash and cement and insulated it with eco-friendly materials. The house collects enough rainwater for drinking and bathing, while solar panels provide energy for modern kitchen appliances. Their furniture is made of Cuban cedar, an invasive species. Outside, the farm not only grows vegetables for the kitchen, but also peppers for use as a natural pesticide. “We wanted to live in a way that’s in keeping with our love for nature,” Reyna said.

Their example has already attracted the attention of locals, who often stop at the gate to admire the low-slung square dwelling. Giancarlo Toti, our other guide, recently purchased land nearby and is building a house along the same lines.

Toti is an engineer by training. Originally from Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, he came here to work with the Charles Darwin Research Station, our next stop. He told us of his time as a dive master, manning mobile research centers collecting ecological data on marine crabs and lobsters. But like Roberto and countless others before him, he fell in love with the wildlife and soon became a guide in order to spend more time outdoors.

Located on the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, the research station has been supporting conservation efforts in the islands since 1964; it also contains enclosures for yellow land iguanas and young tortoises. Reared at the facility, the latter are brought up in captivity before being released at several sites in the park; to date, some 5,000 tortoises have been reintroduced to the wild.

Puerto Ayora itself proved an unexpectedly engaging place. The town’s new boardwalk was modern and clean, lined with dive shops, restaurants, and small bars. Numerous stores sold handcrafted sculptures of blue-footed boobies, shirts, and artwork dedicated to the archipelago’s menagerie of unique animals. Yellow-hulled water taxis ferried passengers across the busy bay, where small research vessels vied for space among tourist yachts. It was another beautiful day, and the boardwalk was filled with Galapageños watching an intense game of Ecua-volley—an Ec-uadoran version of volleyball with high nets and a soccer ball.

We were sitting on a small lava field on Santiago Island, watching a Galápagos fur seal nap in the sun in an isolated cove. Roberto had just finished recounting the successful eradication of feral goats on the islands. First introduced in the 1920s, the animals caused extensive soil erosion with their constant grazing, eventually threatening the survival of plants, trees, and even giant tortoises. Their elimination on this 58,500-hectare island took more than four years, using a variety of what Roberto says were humane methods. I asked him what the next big step in the conservation of these delicate islands might be. “People,” he said. “Now, it’s all about people.”

Humans will forever be a part of the Galápagos landscape—the challenge now, Roberto says, is to find ways for them to live in harmony with nature. To a certain extent, that’s already happening. Farmers on Santa Cruz, for instance, now build their fences high enough to allow giant tortoises to pass underneath as they migrate from their beachside nesting grounds to inland breeding sites. And the new airport terminal on Baltra is being billed as one of the greenest structures of is kind. But there’s much more to be done—a challenge that Roberto expects will occupy the energies of the next generations of islanders.

Later in our journey we crossed the equator. It was a special event for all of us onboard the Athala II, and as we crowded into the bridge our guides recalled an episode from an earlier voyage. One of their passengers, a first-time visitor to the region, asked the captain for permission to swim across the equator. Giancarlo and Roberto insisted on accompanying him into the frigid waters, and soon several others had joined them. Seven passengers—not particularly adventurous, not necessarily courageous—paddled their way across the line and emerged shivering yet triumphant in another hemisphere.

Having swum with sea turtles and seals, photographed rare birds, and clambered across the spent rage of ancient volcanoes, I think I understood exactly what they felt. Grinning, our captain sounded the boat’s horn as we made our own nighttime crossing.

THE DETAILS

Getting There
From Quito, Tame and Avianca fly daily to both Baltra and San Cristóbal islands.

Cruising
By far the best way to explore the Galápagos is on a live-aboard ship. Options range from the relative intimacy of Natural Habitat Adventures’ (10-day cruises from US$6,795 per person) eight-cabin Athala II (the company also offers land-based trips); to the 50-cabin Silver Galapagos (three-day cruises from US$2,335 per person), the latest expedition-class cruise ship to join the Silversea fleet.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Delicate Balance”)

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