Seeing the world, one country at the time

Following in the footsteps of Darwin

Galapagos Day 1

“The black rocks heated by the rays of the vertical sun like a stove, give to the air a close & sultry feeling. The plants also smell unpleasantly. The country was compared to what we might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be” Charles Darwin wrote in his diary while exploring the Galapagos Islands. If tourists paid any attention to Darwin’s personal opinion of the Galapagos, they wouldn’t bother paying thousands of dollars to visit. Nor would they subsequently realize that regardless of your personal view of the Origin of the Species, in some matters, Darwin was clueless.

Ecuador, however, is well aware of what Galapagos offers and of the source of the river of money flowing into the country. TAME, one of only two airlines flying to Galapagos, showed its understanding toward us overpaying tourists by giving us window seats up front and serving a hearty breakfast. Over 900 kilometres (about 600 miles) from the Ecuadorian coast, volcanic plateaus reach up from the light blue water, signalling our arrival to Baltra, an abandoned military base constructed by the United States during World War II to protect the Panama Canal from Japanese attack. At the end of the war the base and all of its facilities were given to the Ecuadorian government. The landing strip now serves as one of the islands’ two airports.

The Galapagos have been Ecuadorian since 1832. Since that time, Galapagos history has included the repeated attempts of Ecuadorian colonists to survive the harsh and isolated island life. The only industries to provide sustenance to the small population were fishing and subsistence farming. Survival on the islands was so difficult that the population grew very slowly. By as late as 1955 it was only around 1500 even though the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914 made the Galapagos much more accessible. In contrast, by 2005, it was almost 30,000. Tourism and its mistress wealth have caused this influx of people. Good tour guides make as much as $4000 a month, twice as much as an average Ecuadorian makes in a year.

In 1835 when it was still an unpopular place, Darwin arrived in the Galapagos on the HMS Beagle and spent five weeks there collecting and preserving specimens from four of the thirteen main Islands. It was Darwin’s consequent revolutionary theory that all species evolved from one that put Galapagos on the map. And it all started with a simple observation that Mockingbirds he had seen on the islands had different beaks. The future of the Islands was inextricably intertwined with Darwin from that moment on. Ironic that he would be the one to ensure the popularity and development of a place that he didn’t even like.

Upon arrival, it’s warm and clear, not nearly as humid as Guayaquil, back on mainland Ecuador. It’s a bit surreal to be here in the famous Galapagos, a place I’ve only dreamt of since I was a little girl. Reality sets in quickly as we are asked immediately to fork out $200 for the park entrance. There is concern about introducing foreign flora, so bag inspections are thorough. I thought I’d fess up to the trail mix I’d been dragging around since Peru, but they waved it away. In 1959, the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, the Galapagos Islands became Ecuador's first National Park. The same year the internationally non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation was established to assist in the preservation of the islands. These two organizations regulate tourism in the Galapagos. The National Park regulates policies, issues permits, approves landing sites and itineraries while the Darwin Station trains the guides working there. In 1978, Galapagos was named the first World Heritage Site.

Lars and I waited for our luggage while an iguana idled by. Everything about this creature is fascinating. As usual, however, Darwin wasn’t impressed. He described them as “hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in their movements”. A bus dropped us at a dock where a ferry took us over a narrow canal to catch another bus to Puerto Ayora, 45 minutes away. The breeze felt good in the heat. The landscape surrounding us was dried out, featuring mostly brush and dead trees, which Lars had expected. I on the other hand, had pictured lush jungle. We soon found out that it has a little of both, due to the different flora of each island.

From the bus stop, we walked to our hostel, Estrella de Mar, which turned out to be owned by a descendant of one of the original Norwegian settlers. That’s right, Norwegian. The main city of the Galapagos was founded by Lars’ countrymen. They arrived in an era when Europeans came to Galapagos to seek their fortune. In 1924 the scientific researcher William Bebe's book Galapagos World's End was published. The book's descriptions and illustrations painted the Galapagos as a Utopia which drew more visitors and settlers. As the stories of this new land spread around the world eager people traveled to the Galapagos to seek their dream. Among them was a group of 22 Norwegians who arrived in Floreana in 1925 to the promise of great land and riches. They set up a fish-canning factory using all of their savings. Unfortunately, Bebe’s book failed to mention the difficulties of living in an area with little rain and within a year most of the group was wiped out. After their total fracass, the three who survived stayed and settled on Santa Cruz island, and founded Puerto Ayora, where we found Thorvald and his expensive waterline hostel. We couldn’t afford it and had to keep searching. The Norwegians of today are certainly doing better than their ancestors did.

We found a little hostel and liked the old woman running it. It was thirty dollars less than Thorvald’s and in Galapagos, every dollar counts. Our first task was to find a boat. We had no boat reservations, unlike 90% of visitors to Galapagos, but took our chances, having heard that buying packages on the island can save big bucks. You have to take what you can get though, since boat trips are mostly pre-booked and full. We lucked out, getting the best there was and at a reasonable rate. The recommended travel agent had a harried woman running things, but she took the time to find us a boat at a discount. It was the Tip Top II, a first class boat with a naturalist guide on board for four days. Some of these boats go for $1650 if you book them abroad. We got a great deal, even if it hurt our budget. Besides, when I learned it was run by the Wittmer family, one of the original settlers on the islands and of legendary fame, well, I was sold.

In the 1930's settlers included two notorious German couples that settled on Floreana Island. Friedrich Ritter, a dentist, and his mistress Dore Strauch arrived in 1929. They lived happily in their island Eden, visited by passing ships and writing of their new life, including nudism and experimental diets and medicine. Within a few years, a German family (the Wittmer's who still reside on the island today) and the 'Baroness' Eloise Wagner-Bousquet with her two male lovers in tow joined them on the island. She was looking to create an island paradise resort, and used one of her lovers as a slave and stole from the other families. This caused jealousy and feuds, which ended with the mysterious disappearance (and assumed murder) of the Baroness and one of her lovers, the accidental death of her other lover and the poisoning of the dentist. Only Dore Strauch returned to Germany alive, while the Wittmers established themselves permanently and their descendants remain a part of the social fabric of the islands. The Wittmers had been a part of the infamous history of the Galapagos. I was intrigued to be on their fleet of boats. Who could know the islands better than the Wittmers?

Galapagos is infamous for costing a lot and the guidebook mentioned that the only bank in town has the sole ATM, which accepts only Master Card. You’re supposed to bring a lot of cash, but who wants to do that?! I’m scared of thieves. So to pay for our trip, I had to get an advance on my credit card from the bank, since the ATM only allows a withdrawal of $200 a day and anyway, it wouldn’t accept my Visa debit card. A bank advance costs 15% per transaction, compared to 22% for using the ATM machine. To get an advance you have to make a photocopy of your passport first and stand in line. We stood there bored, until we discovered a sea lion sunning herself on the ledge outside, as well as bright fiery red crabs and marine birds. We could hardly pull ourselves away to get our cash when it was our turn. Back at the agency we met the owner of our boat, Charlie Wittmer, who showed up on his moped. He was a very friendly guy and laughed when I said “so, you come from the only normal German settler family”. The whole outfit was very professional and very German. The brochure he handed me focused on safety first and punctuality. I could see why the Wittmers had survived their eccentric countrymen.

With our trip paid, we headed off to the beach, stopping at a roadside vendor for some delicious “camaron encocado”, shrimp in coconut sauce over rice with plantains and a guanabana juice on the side. Trying new and exotic fruits is one of the best things about visiting new places. By this time it was late afternoon, which meant we wouldn’t have much time to walk the three km to Tortuga Bay, which has the most beautiful beaches on the island and is reached via a paved path winding through a cactus forest. The park closes at six pm and the walk from the beach takes 45 minutes. We almost ran the whole way and arrived first to the surfing beach, where swimming is prohibited due to rip tides. From there we trudged to the “playa mansa”, or calm beach – a lagoon 15 minutes further down the beach, which is secluded and safe for swimming. We took a walk toward the mangroves on the far end to look for giant sea turtles, and found one! But it was floating in the water and Lars was convinced it was dead, which upset him. It did indeed seem pretty lifeless and after a while some local guys come over and dragged it up from the water onto the sand.

Allowing for enough time to leave the park at closing time, we headed out slowly, enjoying the walk and stopping to look at the fascinating marine iguanas, who lounge all along the beach, but are so well camouflaged, you don’t even notice them at first. Maybe we just aren’t used to seeing wild animals so close. The males are massive and colourful. They are very protective of their territory and their females. We stopped with a group to look at a bunch. One male jerked his head up and down in defiance, to mark his territory and to challenge us. There were sunset red Sally Foot crabs everywhere and more iguanas hiding in the shadows. We got back to the guardhouse to sign out and I told them about the dead sea turtle. After dark we strolled to the main pier in town and watched a sea lion playing, or hunting. We couldn’t tell the difference. It was totally mesmerizing. After lobster salad at an open-air café we headed back to our simple hostel to sleep so we could get up early to start our Tip Top adventure.