There are not only cute sea-lions and impressive landscapes in the Galapagos, there are also 25,000 really nice people. Like typical island-folk, they are rather laid-back and friendly, and most make a living through tourism or fishing. One of them was a bit more ambitious and built something that is now the first visitor sight on the Galapagos created by a person: La casa del Ceibo, a tree house on San Cristobal Island.
Since we ended up spending some time on San Cristobal, we were keen on exploring the island properly. I had heard about the tree house before, but couldn’t really tell from the information what exactly it was. So we walked into the GalaKiwi office by the pier (the guys we did our tour with), and asked the person who we knew knows it all: Emilee! Emilee works for GalaKiwi, is originally from the US and has been living out here for quite some time. And indeed she immediately told us what we wanted to know. Well. Almost.
The tree house actually belongs to the family of two of GalaKiwi’s guides, the siblings Pepo and Jessica. While Emilee is a big fan of the tree house and regularly spends a night there, she didn’t spill the beans: “You have to see it for yourself!”. She arranged a taxi for us to take us there (it’s a 10-minute drive from the town to the village El Progreso) and on the next afternoon, off we went!
The cab dropped us off in front of a colourfully painted gate, and kind of startled, we looked at the gigantic tree that was before us, with what looked like a cabin comfortably set in its crown, and a suspension-bridge with moss-covered wooden planks leading the way to it. Wow.
We entered the property – a beautiful garden full of bright flowers, various sculptures made out of wood and metal, ducks teetering around – and were welcomed by a very friendly dog, which brought us to a lady who joyfully shouted: “Hola!” and smiled at us broadly.
Although we don’t speak Spanish, we had by then cultivated the art of making sense of random words and gestures, so we understood that the lady was a friend of Pepo and Jess’s mom, and was just helping out watching the property and taking care of visitors today. She told us the dog’s name (conveniently Ceiba, like the tree, and therefore easy to remember) and encouraged us to check everything out.
So we wandered around the garden first, sniffing flowers, trying to make friends with the ducks (who did not care very much to be befriended), and looking at the ropes, poles, swings and hammocks all over the place.
Every now and again, visitors turned up and inspected the sight, children and adults both amazed that someone had built this tree house and brought a dream to life – and by the looks of it, a tree house seems to be everyone’s dream. He who yearned for more, could visit even another curiosity: a little room, dubbed “the pirate cave”, hidden under the tree trunk, accessible by ladder.
And finally (save the best for last), we too walked up the planks of the suspension bridge to a little platform, from which a ladder led into the tree house. It was NOT what we had imagined. It was like a real little house, up in a tree! It had a sitting area, another ladder leading to a loft with two beds, a kitchen, and even a bathroom with a shower and a toilet – with proper plumbing! Quite a serious tree house. Tarzan would be jealous.
We would have loved to haul our little suitcases up right then, and observe the world from this little tree palace, but the visiting hours did not end before 6pm, so we went for a walk around El Progreso, and afterwards had a coffee and a piece of banana cake at the little restaurant. The restaurant was quirky as well: the walls were made out of bottles. We realised that we wanted to know much more about this place, so a few days later, we met up with Pepo over a couple of milk-shakes, and he told us the story of the tree house.
It was Pepo’s dad who some twenty years ago bought the property with the tree on it, with the plan to construct a tree house. Together with a few friends, he did exactly that, and within a period of four months, “Tarzan’s house” was built.
In the beginning, it was just a holiday house; your not-so-average week-end-getaway, although Pepo recalls that his family even lived there for a while when he was around eight years old. Four people can easily sleep there, and on one occasion, they made it work for nine people, using mattresses and hammocks.
Since it turned out to be a good spot to bring people together, Pepo’s dad had another idea: he was going to open a little restaurant with a bar on-site! To build the bar, he took an environmental approach and used recycled glass bottles to make the walls. So ten years ago, all the people from the island contributed, handing over their empty bottles for this project, until the bar could open.
After that, Friday and Saturday night was disco night at the tree house, and on Sundays you could have food at the family restaurant. Once the kids had grown up and started studying and working, they couldn’t help out anymore, and those busy week-ends were given up.
The tree house remained an attraction, though, and is still open for visitors. Pepo’s dad bakes his famous banana cake every day (it is really good), which goes well with the organic coffee. Other snacks and little souvenirs are for sale, too. And you can stay over-night, of course – it’s probably about the cheapest accommodation on the island as well! It even has Wi-Fi!
On average twenty people a day visit the tree house, and Pepo’s dad’s dream and goal is that it will be included as an official Galapagos visitor site. The Ceiba tree, also known as Kapok tree, is thought to be at least 300 years old and might have been planted by early settlers, who would have brought their own animals and plants to ensure they would have enough to eat. This particular specimen is 40 metres high and has a circumference of 17,80 metres at the bottom. It is definitely not a tiny tree.
When the last visitor had left, the tree house was all ours. The night fell and sitting in our tree we felt a little bit surreal, like being part of a story from a book. We showered, just so we could check off one item of our to-do-list, “Shower in a tree house”, and, since El Progreso is a bit inland and lies higher, went to bed with our fleeces on. Cockerels confused each other during the night by declaring dawn (obviously a mistake), but we slept very well over-all. Down at the bottom, Ceiba (the dog) was guarding us.
The next morning, we got up early, said good-bye to Ceiba (the dog), and took a taxi to El Cafetal, the nearby coffee plantation, where we would meet a man called Nicholas for a little tour. Not too long after our departure, Pepo’s mother would have come, to open the tree house to visitors from all over the world for another day, and to serve the banana cake Pepo’s father would have baked the night before. That banana cake alone is worth a visit. Seriously.
If you want to visit “La Casa del Ceibo” while you’re in San Cristobal, just hail a taxi and let them take you there. The visit will cost USD 1,50, and opening hours are roughly from 8am to 6pm. You can walk around a bit in El Progreso as well; there’s a memorial and a look-out, for example.
If you want to stay over-night, it is probably best to book in advance. You can call the number 05-2520-248 for that, and it’s currently USD 20 per person per night. Obviously you will have to respect the opening hours for visitors, so if you don’t want to hang out too much before you can settle in, don’t arrive too early! Bring a fleece as it can get cooler in the highlands and insect spray because the cabin is not sealed.
We thank the Cornejo-family for having us in their fabulous tree house for a night, and GalaKiwi with helping us arrange our visit as well as the meeting with Pepo! The reluctance to use the firemen pole as a means to get off the tree house remains entirely our own.