The Galapagos Islands are not on most shoestring backpackers’ budgets. Just to get here from Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador requires a $350 flight plus a $100 park entrance fee. On top of that, accommodations and food are expensive (an imported snickers bar is $2.50), guides are necessary to explore the islands, and most travelers opt for a yacht tour which will run you up to 400 dollars a day. Consequently there are a lot more suitcase-clad Florida retirees than there are folks like me down here. But the island habitats and scuba diving, I was told, was unlike anywhere in the world. I figured $450 would seem insignificant when I’m on my deathbed, reflecting on life adventures, so I bit the bullet, bought a ticket, and would improvise accommodations and tours once I arrived.
There are some myths about the Galapagos Islands that should be clarified. #1 People actually do live here. It’s not just turtles and finches who roam these remote islands. On the contrary, there are several towns on the two main islands that support a total population over 19,000 (according to a 2006 census). In Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, from where I write at this very moment, some 12,000 people are living their lives just as we do, going to Ecuadorian schools, attending farmer’s markets on Saturday mornings, making babies, and working nine to five jobs (most of which are tourism-based). There are two airports that bring in hordes of tourists each day, and some ex-pats who manage to hang around by volunteering in English classes or in local dive shops, but if you walk just a few blocks from the touristy Charles Darwin Avenue, you’d feel like you were in just another small town in Ecuador.
Thus my first objective in this visit was to get to know the people of the Galapagos. I set up contacts with the family of my friend, Lore, from Ecuador, and luckily managed to find free accommodation on couchsurfing.org with my new friend, Catalina. Catalina is super sweet, and thanks to her, I’m currently sitting in my private hotel-like room, beside the water, unstressed about money, and getting a glimpse as to what it is like to live here. I love it already. On my first night, I went to a birthday celebration for her mother, which unsurprisingly included lots of family, a midnight dinner, and dancing all night. The people I have met are quite relaxed, pleasant, and content to be here. They don’t feel isolated, nor like they are missing the action on the mainland, and they mostly have positive relationships with the internationals who travel through (no gringo hostility!).
On day two, I rented a bicycle to tour the interior highlands of Santa Cruz Island. After cruising through the tiny village of Bellavista, past the Amazonas night club and several small farms, I arrived at Los Tuneles de Gallardo. I was told I had to come here by my friend Fernando in Quito to visit his uncle and explore his underground lava tubes (caves which were once underground channels of lava). Antonio was his name and having come to Santa Cruz in 1948 he was one of the early inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands. He discovered several kilometers of these tubes some fifty years ago, and it wasn’t for another decade when a European geology expedition came to inform him of what he had found. Antonio was an absolute hoot, and we spent the afternoon munching on fruit, touring his property, and sharing stories. Each year on September 21, International Peace Day, Antonio drapes banners across the roads and hosts a small fiesta to celebrate the event, and he was busy at working preparing for the upcoming day. Thanks to a small connection among friends, I had a great afternoon.
The following day I was getting the wildlife itch, and had to splurge on a scuba diving tour of nearby Seymor Island. Although I lack the funds to use it frequently, I got my scuba diving license for the sake of moments like these, when you come across a place where the most spectacular sights are underwater. Spending the day on the boat and 2 hours in the water, I discovered the fallacy of Galapogos Myth #2. The Galapagos Islands, though located on the equator, are not a warm tropical paradise. Cool Pacific currents moderate island temperatures and require thick wetsuits for diving and snorkeling. As we dove to depths of 25 meters, the cold headaches that I encountered were quickly distracted by the wildlife that accompanied frigid currents. In our first dive, we encountered and swam along no fewer than fifty manta rays, who moseyed by at a turtle-like pace (this was convenient because we were swimming with a sea turtle as well), not seeming to mind at all that we were along for the ride. On dive #2 we swam into a congregation of Galapagos and white-finned sharks, measuring up to fifteen feet in length. Any fear I had of these creatures was soon decimated as the occasional sea lion would butt heads and scare the sharks away. The sea lions were a special treat to swim with. As if they knew you had paid a big price to be there, they would put on a show when you came near, which included underwater back flips, twists, and dives through submarine tunnels.