The famed Galapagos Islands of Ecuador are truly a sight to behold. Home to a number of rare plants and animals that live nowhere else on the planet, the islands were declared a World Heritage site in 1978 and a Biosphere Reserve in 1985. It was here after witnessing the amazing behaviours of such unworldly creatures as the salt-snorting iguanas, giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies that Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural section. There are nineteen islands in total but only a select few are accessible for tourists. The main ones include Santa Cruz, Isabella, San Cristobal, Fernandina and Santiago.
For those who scuba dive, journeys under the sea here will be some of the most incredibly vibrant you’ll ever do. During a recent trip I went under at Floreana Island, where I saw a Galapagos shark, a white-tip shark, numerous sea turtles, sea lions, colourful star fish, schools of barracuda, eels and rays, and much more. On other islands, such as Kicker Rock, it isn’t uncommon to dive with large schools of hammerhead sharks as well.
Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz is a worthwhile visit. The forty-five minute walk from the entry point is lined with the Opuntia Cactus, the only cactus in the world that grows like a tree. The dry journey is rewarded with your choice of killer waves for surf or a calm, beautiful, blue lagoon for swimmers, kayakers and sunbathers. Keep your eyes peeled along the way for iguanas that look much like their dinosaur ancestors.
Las Grietas is another excellent way to spend a hot afternoon on Santa Cruz. It is a volcanic fjord with a mix of fresh and salt water. The plunge is crisp, and the water is shaded by the surrounding cliffs that make for excellent cliff jumping. It’s a common place for the local teenagers to hangout.
Isabela is home to flamingos as well as the Sierra Negra Volcano and Volcan Chico, which together make for a long, but scenic sixteen kilometre hike. The Sierra Negra crater is the second largest in the world and makes you feel as if you’re on the moon. For those less keen on such a lengthy hiking commitment, the Wall of Tears is a great alternative. In fact, you see substantially more wildlife on the shorter journey.
Not everything on a Galapagos tour has to be tourist related. I had the pleasure of volunteering on a conservation site on San Cristobal with an organization called Hacienda Esperanza. It was a challenging but rewarding experience. The days were hot, so work began at the first sign of sunrise. The work was primarily invasive species removal, meaning we hacked down a lot of spiky plants - particularly mora, a.k.a blackberry - that were overtaking resources and killing off native plants. It was an onerous, strenuous task but the results were gratifying. The cacti, mountains and beach landscape in the distance were far superior to any office I have ever seen, especially since giant tortoise sightings were common. Farm work, too, was part of the package and included weeding around rows of yucca and scattered papaya trees, which provided shade from the unforgiving afternoon sun. Bicycles, horses and jeep taxis are the main modes of transport throughout the island, though we mainly walked the easy trails to get to our various work sites.
When we had free time, we would often go to town and enjoy a beer on Playa Mann and it seemed as though the seals often had the same idea. The water was refreshing and the sand was soft, though traveller beware: food and drinks can cost nearly as much as they do in North America, not just because tourists are a main generator of income but also because a lot of resources and supplies need to be imported. It is often understood, too, that people who can afford to visit the Galapagos can generally afford to pay a few extra dollars for every meal.
Santa Cruz is littered with visitors, tourist agencies and t-shirts that cheekily declare “I love boobies”. The majority of visitors arrive on one of the several swanky cruise ships that dock every day. They do a quick once-around, take a few pictures with some seals and nosh on a bit of street food. Many people when asked what drew them to the Galapagos Islands often responded simply that it was on their bucket list.
Despite the sometimes-best efforts of many concerned, the Galapagos Islands are a prime example of how tourism, despite its financial benefit, can have negative effects on the place itself. Poorly regulated traffic means more supply for the demand. It can also mean an elevated risk of environmental damage due to boats and physical disruption to the flora and fauna. It perpetuates a consumerist culture, too.
That said, however, it is also a great example of how travel can be sustainable and positive. Responsible tourism is giving back, not disturbing wildlife, educating yourself, being culturally sensitive, being conscious about where you spend your money, and supporting those who are trying to preserve natural beauty and the very reasons why you want to go there in the first place. There are more than enough opportunities to do all of the above on the Galapagos, not the least of which are a few non-profit organizations that put forth conservation efforts and support the eco-tourism industry. Not only could this save you some money, but you’ll gain a wealth of experience and knowledge. When researching, look for the organization itself rather than going through a tour operator who will charge a hefty commission.
About the Author Jaime Chong's home is British Columbia, Canada, though she has has left her heart in many corners of the world. There’s nothing she likes more than good food, good company and long walks. For more on Jaime's adventures, check out her personal travel blog at http://driftwardbound.wordpress.com
About the Author
Jaime Chong's home is British Columbia, Canada, though she has has left her heart in many corners of the world. There’s nothing she likes more than good food, good company and long walks. For more on Jaime's adventures, check out her personal travel blog at http://driftwardbound.wordpress.com