“Oh, you’re going to the Galapagos!”, a friend of mine emailed me. “Reminds me of all the stuff I had to learn in biology, you know, about Darwin and so on, but hey: that is so exciting!”
“Loz,”, I asked my better half, “what has Darwin got to do with the Galapagos?”
A glance of disbelief caught me. “Are you serious? You don’t know?! That is the reason why the Galapagos are so famous: because Darwin based his evolutionary theories on his visit to the islands!”
Nope, never heard of that. Of Darwin, sure. Of his theories, yes. But never about any connection to the Galapagos. Which is indeed a bit unbelievable in hindsight. I have since asked many, many people if they know about Darwin and the Galapagos, just to justify my lack of knowledge by finding someone I share it with, and I have found ONE person. One. It did make me feel better, though.
So that would be number 1) on my list:
1) Darwin + Galapagos = Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection
Darwin visited the Galapagos on a voyage of discovery in 1835 and later used his findings to base his ground-breaking theories on them, you know, survival of the fittest and all that, after noticing that the same species had slightly different features, depending on which island it was living on. That meant a species could evolve, it could change, and had not necessarily been plopped on earth picture-perfect by God. It is not known for sure if God was impressed by Darwin calling him out on the matter, but the church was not so much.
You see, all I knew about the Galapagos was based on vague memories of a classmate of mine sending me a post-card in 6th or 7th grade when she went there with her parents. Something about islands, beaches, big lizards. Good for her. I imagined it as a beach resort with big hotels and the possibility to visit a national park.
Forward some 20 years, and Loz and I got the opportunity to participate on a 10-day trip in the Galapagos. Which got everyone around us very excited. An ornithologist friend of Loz even urged us to smuggle back a blue-footed boobie (I actually don’t think he was kidding), and people kept talking about the incredible wild-life – the birds, the iguanas, the sea-lions, the underwater world…
The Galapagos islands are basically one big national park (97% of the islands), and the different islands have animal and plant species which are endemic to them, meaning they are nowhere else in the world to be found, not even on one of the other islands. Since the Galapagos are a bit remote (1000 km from the coast of Ecuador, to which they belong to), not much has changed for quite a long time. It’s like entering another world, and to make sure it stays that way, authorities keep an eye out that the number of visitors per year is restricted.
All very interesting, isn’t it? But if you ever had a vague interest in the Galapagos (or have a better general education than I do, apparently), you probably knew that already. Still, I have another nine things of which at least…err, some must be news to you! If you haven’t already been, that is. Brace yourself, here they come:
2) What’s with the people?
Nobody ever mentions the people of the Galapagos, but yeah: 4 of the 18 main islands are inhabited, making for an overall population of circa 28,000 people. So you’ll find regular towns with laid-back islanders, plenty of eateries, souvenir shops, little hotels. The locals mostly live from tourism, but not for tourism. Which I find nice.
It’s not one of these destinations where you get the impression tourism is a highly oiled machine, working smoothly to comply with the glossy picture everyone has of it. The Galapagos are quite real, with real, down-to-earth people. There’s even a university on one of the islands (San Cristobal)! Fancy a semester abroad?
3) Murder, mystery, love triangles!
The Galapagos have a pretty bloody and violent past. It’s seriously horrific. The fact that it used to be a hideout for pirates is probably the least gruesome one. But then there were the whalers and the seal-fur hunters, who slaughtered several species, including the giant tortoise, close to extinction. Convicts were brought to the island and forced to work on plantations, under inhumane conditions, which resulted more than once in violent uprisings and assassination of the plantation owners.
There was also a penal colony on one of the islands, where the prisoners were forced to built a massive wall (the “Wall of Tears”), for no reason at all. Other than to make them suffer, of course. Which they did, extensively. Mission accomplished.
And then there’s the story of the “Baroness”, who came to Floreana island in the 1930’s with her two lovers. It’s a story so twisted and crazy that you can’t believe it’s not made up. It includes a web of lovers, murder, people disappearing, people being poisoned, people starving to death, and nobody being able to say what exactly happened. The only right thing to do was to turn it into a movie/documentary. Which was released in April 2014 and I shall leave you with the title that sums it all up: “The Galapagos Affair – Satan came to Eden”.
I could use a picture of a cute, innocent sea-lion baby right now.
4) It’s not fancy.
Ah, the Galapagos! Stunning islands, incredible wild-life; a one-of-a-kind experience! Also, not known as a budget destination. But just because it’s hard to visit the Galapagos on a budget when you already have to pay 500$ for a plane ticket to get there from Ecuador mainland, doesn’t mean that it’s a luxury destination.
You pay for the great privilege of visiting these very special, very remote islands, not for access to top-notch accommodation or five star restaurants. You ain’t gonna find those here.
5) It’s got fancy coffee.
Right, I guess there’s one product that could fall under the category of luxury goods: the organic, fair-trade and gourmet blend coffee that is produced here. Who knew the Galapagos had a long history of growing coffee beans? We got to visit a plantation and wrote a whole post about it, and found that Galapagos coffee makes for a great souvenir – especially when you would pay about 8$ for a cup of that coffee at Starbucks at home!
6) The Galapagos served as a US military base.
There are two airports in the Galapagos. One on San Cristobal island, the other one on Baltra island. It was Baltra island where the US army constructed a military base in 1942 in order to protect the Panama Canal. After WWII had ended, the base was turned over to the Ecuadorian government, which also uses it as an official military base, as well as a commercial airport.
It might not be the most interesting bit of information, but for me it added up to the pile of stuff that was completely unbeknownst to me. And there’s always a lot more to it, if you dig a bit deeper. But I leave the digging to you!
7) If you want to become a Galapagueno, you need to travel back in time
Pretty much everywhere I go, I ask myself: “What would it be like to live here? How hard would it be to get permanent residence?”. The answer to the second question is usually “Definitely not easy, yet not impossible” for most countries. Ecuador has several types of visas that allow foreigners permanent residency, but the Galapagos are not part of that scheme. In fact, not even mainland Ecuadorians can just move to the Galapagos anymore.
After the population (and tourism) grew exponentially to a point where social and ecological problems started to occur and the UNESCO put the Galapagos on their list of endangered World Heritage Sights due to overcrowding, officials severely tightened the immigration laws in 2009. That means it has become close to impossible to obtain permanent residency.
As for visiting the National Parks, you are by law required to have a guide. Guides must be locals and are always fully trained. There are precise schedules for tours to ensure that there are never too many people on one spot. Galapagos tourism is quite an interesting operation, and the measures taken after the UNESCO issued their warning have paid off: it was removed again in 2010.
8) You can skip the boat
Well, almost. If you want to go between islands, you will have to rely on boats to get you around. Unless you are willing to spend a bit more, because then you could also charter a plane. Entirely up to you and your wallet.
Anyway, what I mean is: most people think you have to stay and sleep on a boat when visiting the Galapagos, but you can also do a land-based tour like we did. This means you will get to sleep in hotels and have a bit more freedom to roam around once the tour-part of the day is over (or before it has started – if you’re an early-riser, brrr…).
For us it was definitely the right thing. Maybe for you it’s the boat after all – but know that you have the option (more information here: “What is a Galapagos Land Tour?”)!
9) Disabilities needn’t hold you back
On our tour we snorkelled, hiked, walked along beaches, canoed, visited various centres, rode bikes… It was pretty active. So we were quite surprised when we found Tim, one of the owners of the tour company that invited us, fiddling around with a wheel-chair. That was after our tour, when we stayed on San Cristobal for another nine days just by ourselves.
“What’s with the wheel-chair? Has something happened?” – “No, not at all. We are just going out on a little canoe trip, and one of the clients is in a wheel chair. These here –“, he pointed to the wheels, “- can drive in sand. Do you want to come?”
So we did. The clients were a couple and the guy’s father, who was 83, along with the father’s girl-friend, who was 78. Both the father and the girl-friend were in a canoe each with a guide in the back who did the paddling and assured everything was alright, while the younger couple and us each shared a canoe.
That’s how we learned that GalaKiwi also do trips for disabled people. As Tim said: “If you’re up for it, we’ll do it.”. They have all the necessary equipment – they even take you snorkelling!
What I want to say is: if it is your dream to see the Galapagos, and you think you can’t do it because you are disabled, or maybe because you think you’re too old: don’t let it hold you back!
10) Volcanoes and lichen
(Sea lion) Babies and (blue-footed) Boobies get most of the Galapagos glory, but geologists and botanists are drooling all over the place, too! Because it’s not only the animals that are fascinating, no, there is also the fact that the islands are a baby in geological terms (the oldest one is only around 5 million years old), with the youngest islands still in the process of being formed. So you can count the Galapagos in with the world’s most active volcanic centres. Makes for some pretty epic landscapes, I’m telling you!
As for the plant species: much like the land, many of them are still in an evolutionary process. And, of course, they too are endemic (nowhere else in the world to be found), more than 30% of them, at least. Just to give you an idea: there are around 600 documented lichen species, 400 of which were only discovered very recently (in 2005!).
I will admit that a sea-lion is cuter than lichen, though. Much. Sorry, lichen.
Right. These were ten things I didn’t know about the Galapagos. Out of many more. It’s really the gift that keeps on giving: the novel “Moby Dick” for example is based on the voyage of a ship called “Essex” that was sunk by a sperm whale, which happened after the “Essex” had left the Galapagos, where the crew had caught around 360 tortoises, and (admittedly accidentally) set fire to Floreana island, thereby destroying it completely, plus wiping out the odd species in the way. What an achievement. Team Moby Dick.
Anyway, I hope you got a glimpse at how diverse a visit to the Galapagos can be; not just in terms of the animals, but also historically or politically or socially or environmentally, etc. Thanks for reading, and hey: it’s still okay if you just come for the sea lion babies…!
A special Thank You to GalaKiwi, who invited us on their 10-day-adventure tour and made it pretty much impossible to not love each bit of it. The inability to tell a Great from a Magnificent Frigate bird after all the enthusiastic explanations by our guide however remains entirely my own.