Scottish traveller Ian Melvin was on a once-in-a-lifetime South America adventure when COVID-19 lockdown began. Here, he shares his unique, almost four-month lockdown experience on Isabela Island...
I started my trip on 14 November in Buenos Aires, and went down to the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia. I was travelling for about four months before making it up to Ecuador.
I travelled across to Uruguay and then back to Argentina, to Chile, Bolivia and Peru. I went hiking past glaciers in Patagonia, searching for jaguars in the Amazon rainforest, surfing in Uruguay and sand boarding in the deserts of Peru – the landscape and culture was constantly changing.
The first time I heard someone talk about the virus was in Bolivia, I was in a taxi and the taxi driver was saying there had been someone in Bolivia who’d had COVID. Still, it wasn’t really affecting my travels much. I made it through all of Peru without hearing much about it.
People were saying, ‘maybe you won’t get to go to the Galápagos’. I remember thinking, ‘oh no, it’s going to ruin my trip, that’s the one place I wanted to go the most’. At the airport to the Galápagos, they were already screening for the virus, checking your temperature. But I made it to Santa Cruz safe and sound.
Things were normal for the first couple of days. I could do the things I wanted to, like scuba diving with the hammerheads – around 100 of them in total. Suddenly, my dives were getting cancelled, there were quite a lot of rumours going around about what was happening, and there were a lot of people trying to get to the airports.
I thought, ‘well, I’m still here, so I’m going to try and go across to Isabela Island’. When I arrived on Isabela, it was 17 March, and they told me that the island was being closed. All of the islands were being closed.
Not even just the Galápagos Islands, but this particular island. I got here on the very last ferry. On Isabela, there are maybe two or three other tourists who stayed. It’s a very peaceful island, the other islands might’ve been more stressful to stay on. They have around 20,000 people, whereas this one has about 2,500 island.
The chance of me ending up here on the day everything shut – the last possible day – feels surreal. There were some repatriation flights set up to help get the tourists out, but they were from different airports. What made it harder to get home, as well, was that three journeys were involved: I had to get from my island to another island, fly to mainland Ecuador and then fly back to the UK.
What made it possible for me to stay at the beginning was that I’d arranged to stay [with a host family] on Isabela. I was talking to [the host] when I arrived, and I was told the island would be closed for two weeks. I was lucky I didn’t get kicked out – she was happy for me to stay as long as I needed.
Also, why would I leave here? I was staying in a house on a beach, on an island, and there were lots of COVID cases on mainland Ecuador. I registered with the embassy and told them where I was, and my family (at home in Scotland) said, ‘fair enough, you’ve probably made the right decision’.
For me, because of the language barrier, the first two weeks of lockdown were the most uncertain. I wasn’t really getting the official news properly. I was being told by the people I was staying with – and sometimes it wasn’t so clear for them, either, because it was a new thing that was happening for everyone around the world.
At the beginning, I was worried about how the island was going to cope with getting supplies. The first thing I remember is that in the UK, there was a problem with supermarkets running out of stuff. Surely, we might run out of food, too? This is a small island. Turns out that wasn't the problem.
A couple of shops – supermarkets – were open, but I didn’t know when they opened, so I would wander out hoping one would be. When I did my shopping, I couldn’t go inside, so I was ordering from a window, speaking Spanish and asking for pasta, vegetables, porridge and eggs. Generally, I wouldn't say the language barrier has been a huge problem, but sometimes I’ve ordered the wrong vegetables, or got five times as much as I needed.
For the past two or three months, I’ve worn a mask pretty much every time I go out. It’s weird that it’s kind of normal now – grabbing your phone, your wallet, your mask. The curfew was another thing – at 2pm, we had to be inside our house. It seemed kinda silly, as Isabela is the biggest island in the Galápagos, and there’s so much space, so few people.
The streets would be empty, and I was running around the island as much as possible before 2pm. We also weren’t allowed on the beach at the beginning, either. Luckily, the house I was first in had a garden right on the beach. I sat in a hammock most afternoons looking out at the ocean. My host family had a three-year-old, so that was interesting. She always wanted to play. The 2pm curfew stayed for a while, until June. Now, it’s a 9pm curfew.
I think when you come to the Galápagos as a tourist, typically, you don’t have much time. Everything and everyone is squeezed in. To have all this wildlife to myself has been incredible. I was still able to go to areas filled with sea lions, see the marine iguanas, I went swimming with penguins and sea turtles, I’ve been seeing giant tortoises and flamingos. I’ve managed to see all the wildlife I wanted to see.
There’d be iguanas everywhere. Or I’d go for a run through the forest. I stopped feeling like a tourist – I was just living on the island. I wasn’t paying money to go on a boat and be taken to specific spots to see animals, I was finding them for myself. More an experience of island life.
After six weeks, I left my host family’s home and am now staying in another place by the beach. I’m not paying tourist prices. That’s why I’ve not had to worry about things too much, and I make money online by doing a bit of English teaching.
It’s all still a bit odd. There aren’t really any other visitors, so the locals will come and see me on the beach and wave, and ask me questions about how I’m still here. They’ve been really nice. It was strange for the first month or two, though, having to avoid people due to the virus.
For the few I’ve spoken to, they’ve been able to enjoy the island more naturally again, without being caught in the rush of tourism. That said, the locals are struggling without having the work and business coming in, so they want the tourists to come back, to get working again.
It’s definitely a tough time for people on the island, but they’re helping each other out a lot. The fishermen are sharing the fish more, or a lot of people are growing their own vegetables, sharing resources. They’ve come together.
Because the curfew has relaxed, a few restaurants and takeaways have started to open up, and I’ve found someone I can rent a surfboard off, so for the last couple of days I’ve been surfing.
Recently, I was surfing and there was a huge tiger shark swimming about five metres away from me. Tiger sharks are part of the environment all year round, but they're more common at other times of the year. More have been spotted recently, and locals have told me that the tiger sharks like to eat the sea turtles. There are quite a lot of nests around.
This experience has been great for me personally, but the lack of visitors has been really bad for the Galápagos Islands. Maybe not for the wildlife – it’s good that they can have a bit more time to be undisturbed – but obviously tourism is important to the Galápagos, for conservation and research too. So, I hope everything does open up more.
Usually, you can get a 90-day visa for Ecuador, but on the Galápagos Islands you’re only allowed to stay for two months at most as a tourist. Because of the emergency situation, my visa’s been extended.
My future plans are to stay on the islands as long as possible. Definitely July on Isabela, at least. If the boats start running again in August, I might look to get across to one of the other islands. I hope to be here when schools start opening up so I can volunteer to help with teaching.
On Isabela, the islanders have been so kind and helpful, even though it’s been a really hard time for them. I want to give back to the island which has been a home for me.
I miss walking my dog in bonnie Scotland, and I miss being able to meet new people on the road, but my opportunity was just to experience the Galápagos Islands in a more natural state. I’m almost trying not to get used to it, to not take it for granted. Every time I walk down the beach or see more wildlife, it still feels like a dream.
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