Change in the Galápagos Islands

As new rules alter boat tourism, land-based trips are offering an intriguing alternative and insight into the oddball human history of the Galapagos Islands

6 mins

As the boat sped south and land appeared, I thought of the first travellers to take this journey: the pirates and prisoners, the privileged and the paranoid. A darkness hangs over Floreana’s past – a sinister back-story full of tortoise- eating thieves, feuding families and a promiscuous baroness with a taste for blood. Given its history, I wondered what awaited on one of the least-visited islands in the Galápagos.

Figures began to take shape on the pier. Most were sprawled on their backs, rolling around wildly and whipping their heads from side to side, mouths open, canines on view. But the dozen dozing sea lions were far more interested in the scuttling fire-red crabs than my arrival. The same could be said for the squealing children that somersaulted into the teal water. However, standing among them was Claudio Cruz, the Donald Trump of the Galápagos.

He may lack the bank balance – and the dodgy hair – of the brash billionaire but Claudio has been the driving force behind changes that will transform this tiny island and may revolutionise travel on this isolated archipelago, 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador. Most people who come to the Galápagos, drawn by its world-famous wildlife, explore by boat. “People come but only for an hour or two. Then it’s back on their boats and off to the next island,” Claudio explained. But that is starting to change.

Of the archipelago’s 13 main islands, five – Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela, Baltra and Floreana – are inhabited. Of those, sleepy Floreana was the first to be colonised but remains the least developed – a juxtaposition the 150 residents are fiercely proud of. “Up until now, locals here were against tourism,” Claudio told me. “They’ve seen how it can change a place. Look at Santa Cruz, it’s barely recognisable.”But Floreana – named after Juan José Flores, Ecuador’s first president who claimed the islands in 1832 – is now ready to share its secrets. Recent years have seen land tourism start to take off – much to Claudio’s delight. Keen to capitalise on the trend, he has built ten cosy beachside cabañas and a restaurant serving homecooked food; he’s also cleared the forest trails that he used to walk as a boy with his donkey, selling oranges to visiting ships. Like Trump, he thinks big: plans are underway for a luxury campsite, kayaking tours and cycling trails – all to tempt people to stay a little longer.

“Everyone knows about our incredible wildlife,” explained Claudio, “but the human history deserves some attention too.”

Legends and lovers

The Galápagos Islands were discovered accidentally in 1535, by a bishop looking for Peru. Word soon spread and the intrepid came knocking. The archipelago is now home to 30,000 people.

The first permanent inhabitant was an Irishman called Patrick Watkins. Marooned on Floreana by his crew in 1807 he settled in a cave on Asila de la Paz, a 450m-tall peak with a freshwater stream and pleasing sea views. For Patrick, who traded tropical fruit for rum from passing boats, the next two years passed in a drunken haze. Legend has it that he eventually escaped after commandeering a vessel, killing its crew and setting sail into the Pacific. In the years that followed, more unsavoury individuals arrived. In the 19th century European pirates decimated the local giant tortoise population, stacking piles of the reptiles on their ships and keeping them alive for up to a year until they needed fresh meat. Floreana also became a penal colony for prisoners from the mainland.

I could almost sense these ghosts as Claudio and I walked in the highlands, via a murky lagoon full of thirsty frigatebirds, famed for their magnificent scarlet throat pouches. Before long we reached Las Palmas, the small ranch where Claudio spent his childhood. The ground was strewn with squidgy plums. “Life has always been slow here,” he said. “Growing up, there was only one phone on the whole island. When you received a call, people would shout across the hills to tell you. It’s a beautiful and special place.”

“And the men are very handsome!” chimed in his wife, Lourdes.

Inside Las Palmas, frayed photos from decades gone by were pinned on the walls. The same face appeared in most. “My father built this ranch when he came here from the mainland in the 1930s. We were the first Ecuadorian family on the island,” said Claudio with an air of great pride.

The Cruz’s were preceded by another couple, though: dentist Friedrich Ritter and his patient-turned-lover Dora Strauch. Seeking an Adam and Eve existence – and both escaping spouses back in Germany – they settled on Floreana in 1929. Anticipating the worst, Friedrich swiftly pulled out all of his teeth in favour of wooden dentures.

Much to their disgust, he and Dora were joined by another Germany family less than two years later. There was no love lost between the Ritters and the Wittmers (whose son was born in Watkins’ cave), but they soon had bigger things to worry about following another new arrival.

This time it was Baroness Wagner-Bosquet of France and her three lovers. Florid stories surround this unconventional household. Some reckon the Baroness ‘accidentally’ shot one of her lovers in the stomach (apparently she was aiming for his leg); others that lover number two died mysteriously, or that he killed the Baroness and lover number three. Many reports suggest that on one muggy evening in March 1934, a bloodcurdling scream shattered the night air and the Baroness was never seen again.

In Floreana’s ‘capital’, Puerto Velasco Ibarra – little more than a collection of buildings along an unpaved road – it seemed that the eccentricity of the original islanders remained intact. Of all the things I expected to see in the Galápagos – dancing blue-footed boobies, schools of hammerhead sharks, tortoises the size of (small) tanks – a slam-dunking nun was not one of them. But there she was, clutching the basketball tightly, eyeing her opponents with menace and sprinting across the court in her billowing white habit. Passing by was a mother and her young baby. Pushing the tot along in a creaking wheelbarrow (padded for extra comfort), she negotiated the potholes with care.

Into the volcano

Isabela beckoned. The largest island in the archipelago, seahorse-shaped Isabela also lends itself well to land-based exploration. I visited Islote Tintoreras – breeding site of thousands of coal-black spiky-spined marine iguanas, which scrambled all over each other. Then I hired a bike to explore the town of Puerto Villamil and its surroundings: a tortoise refuge centre; a lagoon filled with flamingos; and possibly the only church in the world with a stained-glass window depicting boobies (of the blue-footed variety).

Early next morning, before the pulsating sun rose too high, I met naturalist guide Julio for a 20km hike to the Sierra Negra Volcano. Rising1,124m in the south-east of the island, it’s one of the largest calderas in the world. As we walked small Darwin finches fluttered between the guava and soapberry trees, and metallic silver millipedes crawled along the sun-baked ground. The caldera finally appeared over the crest of a hill. It was so vast, with a diameter of 10km and sheer walls rising up 200m, it stunned me into silence. Half its base was verdant and fertile, a lush lawn aching for a game of cricket. Like the yin to its yang, the other was burnt and black, bearing ugly scars from the most recent eruption.

“I remember it well,” said Julio, recalling the eight fearful days in 2005. “People were frantic. They gathered their valuables and rushed for the coast but the flow stopped. I rushed up here to see it for myself. It was unreal, flowing rivers of red lava. It reminded me that we do live on a turbulent planet.”

Lava fields etched with the deep ripples of past eruptions spread in every direction. Standing tall were giant cacti with twisting limbs that pointed skywards, like fields of contortionists.

We gazed out to sea. A yacht slowly inched its way towards Fernandina, the youngest of the islands – a mere 700,000 years old. Many of the other islands emerged from the ocean up to five million years ago, the aftermath of underwater explosions.

Julio stared at the yacht: “I used to work on a tourist boat but I got fat from all the buffets and no exercise, so I left,” he said. “But there’s something magnetic about those wild and untamed places that only boats can reach.” 

Better by boat?

I was also keen to see that side of the Galápagos Islands, to witness some of the sights and sounds that greeted Darwin in 1835. So I hopped aboard the MV Seaman, a 16-passenger catamaran, for a four-day voyage.

Sailing in the Galápagos is a tricky business. Most of the 180,000-plus annual visitors to the archipelago travel by boat and last year regulations were tightened in a bid to minimise their effects on the fragile ecosystem. As a result, strict rules are now in force determining the kind of boats that can operate, where they go, for how long and when.

It’s still a dream destination though. As the anchor of the MV Seaman was raised with a heavy clunk, one of my fellow passengers turned to me, moist-eyed: “I have longed to visit these islands for 50 years. I can barely believe I’m here.”

They say good things come in small packages and that is certainly true of Santa Fé. We dropped anchor off the tiny island, and two pangas (small motorboats) were hastily prepared for our beach landing. Stepping ashore on the sweeping beach’s soft sand, only one of the countless sunbathing sea lions seemed to take umbrage at our presence. The big, burly bull, which had been swimming up and down the shoreline like a sentry on patrol, suddenly bounded ashore. Rising tall and barking wildly, he headed towards us with surprising speed.

He soon backed off as Geoff, our guide, intervened. “People think we train the wildlife, that they’re friendly because they don’t run away. They just know no fear. There’s a big difference,” he said as our heart rates started to stabilise.

Thankfully, the other sea lions were totally unfazed by the paparazzi taking their photos. Venturing close enough to stroke, one young pup happily posed for a close-up. From the beach, we ventured into the interior, which was red and rugged and carpeted with rosy sesuvium plants, endemic to the Galápagos. Under a tall cactus with delicate yellow flowers sat a large land iguana, several feet long, its coarse skin tinged with flecks of orange.

Always amazed

Our voyage continued north, crossing the equator bound for the island of Genovesa. There, the captain moored in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped cove named after the Galápagos’s most famous visitor. Staring at Darwin Bay, it was easy to understand why the great naturalist was not immediately bowled over. The towering basaltic walls, black and scarred, were hostile and angry.

Charles Darwin spent only five weeks here, candidly revealing his first impressions in his 1839 journal, The Voyage of the Beagle. ‘Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance,’ he wrote, describing scenes of dry, parched and sunburnt lava fields. I can only assume he would have felt differently had snorkels been around in the 19th century...

One by one we slipped into the chilly darkened depths. I paddled towards the oyster-studded cliffs, gazing down at the unmistakable shapes of white-tip reef sharks. Nearby, two turtles were getting jiggy. Not wanting to intrude on their special moment, I concentrated on the sea lions that shot past like torpedoes. Unlike them, the schools of yellow-and-white fish moved at a slow pace, drifting through the current like confetti.

That afternoon called for more land exploration. Climbing a steep staircase – named after Prince Philip who visited in 1964 – we emerged onto a rocky plateau, home to colonies of frigatebirds and storm petrels. However, it was the red-footed boobies that dominated, many sheltering fluffy chicks: clumps of cotton wool with small black faces and long beaks.

But there was one specific species that Geoff was scanning the skies for: the elusive short-eared Galápagos owl. Genovesa is one of the best islands to see these bite-sized birds of prey – although spotting these masters of camouflage is near impossible. We looked, and we waited. The wind whistled. The minutes ticked by.

Then, not one but two. Flying straight towards us, the pair of owls were locked together in a thrilling mid-air battle. Dipping, twisting and tugging, they eventually broke apart and one landed just a few feet away.

I studied its amber eyes and the different shades of brown on its squashed face. “I’ve never seen one so close,” whispered Geoff, beaming from ear to ear. “You know, I was born in the Galápagos, I grew up here and now I work here but they never cease to amaze me.”

Local view: Juan Nieto, water taxi driver

“Everyone who comes should visit the volcanoes, hike through lava tunnels and go snorkelling. It’s excellent.”

Local view: Fernando Franco, conservationist

“Tortoises are my favourite of all the Galápagos creatures but recovering their numbers could take 60 years.”

Local view: Jorge Piedra, policeman

“I come from the mainland but the Galápagos Islands are incredible, particularly Isabela with its lovely beach and beautiful flowers.”

Nick Boulos is an award-winning writer, he won the AITO Young Travel Writer of the Year award in 2011

The author travelled with specialist tour operator Journey Latin America, which offers a range of group and tailored trips to the Galápagos Islands. A 13-day land-and-sea trip, including time on Floreana, Isabela and Santa Cruz plus a cruise aboard the MV Seaman, costs from £4,810pp.

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