The Galapagos Islands, straddling the equator, are a group of six larger and twelve small islands located 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast. They have never been connected to the continent and the animals occupying the islands migrated there and adapted to the conditions (Darwin traveled the islands for two months, where he bathed in the wealth of evidence for his theory of evolution). Half of the species of plants, almost all the reptiles, and a quarter of the shore fish are found no where else in the world (called endemic species). Most of the animals have no natural predators and little instinctive fear of humans, and so we are able come in amazingly close contact.
Having arrived in Quito on October 20th, the international portal to the Galapagos, we decided within half a day that we couldn’t pass up a trip to the islands. And so, for the first time, we left our bicycles and six of our eight panniers in the safe and welcoming Casa de Ciclistas of Santiago and took a flight to our vacation within a vacation.
We had heard through the net of the cycling community that it is much cheaper (or “economical” as is said in Spanish) to book a boat tour of the islands from the islands themselves. This turned out to be entirely true (although the travel agency in Quito did its best to convince us otherwise). Once on the island, we spent an hour going from travel agency to travel agency (some no more than a hole in the wall) until we found a tour through Island Cruise on a vessel that had been recommended, the Guantanamera. Our guide, Marvin, born and raised on the Galapagos, studied marine biology at UC Santa Barbara (his father was a captain and ended up moving to the States) and, at age 21, had already completed his BS, returned to the island, married, had a son, and worked his way up the tour guide hierarchy to find a position on the Guantanamera. Not only was he a wealth of information, but the island wildlife did not disappoint and, to boot, the food was wonderful – we stuffed ourselves with more vegetables in four days than we had eaten in a month on the mainland.
I left the island filled with astounding images of nature accompanied by continued mixed feelings of tourism and the ever-present dreary sentiment towards human destruction of the environment (including our flight to and from the islands!). Since the arrival of humans on the islands in the mid-16th century and the subsequent farming of the land and introduction of foreign plants such as berries, elephant grass, corn, coffee – on a side note, we were told that Starbucks is attempting to purchase all of the coffee plantations on the island – and animals such as goats, donkeys, dogs, cats, rats and cattle, the endemic species have suffered greatly. In 2007 the island was declared “at risk” and placed on the UNESCO list of endangered World Heritage Sights. As a result, many of the introduced animals have been removed (pardon the euphemism), as well as attempts made to rid the island of invasive plants. Tourism has hastened the productivity of breeding centers for such popular species as land iguanas and giant tortoises but I didn’t see any breeding centers for the less adorable endemic insects. The Galapagos, however, puts the rest of Ecuador to shame with its wide-spread recycling centers, composting and educational standards on environmental conservation. In addition, starting next year, there will be stricter limitations on the many cruises that swarm the islands.
Manna did not manage to get off the island unscathed, however. He ate something bad before our arrival that had him bed ridden for a few days and taking bacteria-killing antibiotics along with vials of anti-biotic resistant “good” bacteria so he could continue to digest the small amount of food he could manage down. He did improve prior to my birthday on the 26th though, and we enjoyed ceviche and wine on the pier (perhaps not the best choice for a fragile belly). The next day, however, he found himself once again bed-ridden, but his body had the courtesy to improve prior to our departure on the Guantanamera. He has officially lost any last traces of a faint beer belly but is working hard to regain it.
Once again in Quito, we have been reunited with our bikes, have the company of two other cyclists and their dog in the Casa de Ciclistas who have stopped here before continuing north. We have exchanged route information and are ready for our continued ride south through Ecuador.