Ecuador to Galapagos: Part Three - Santa Cruz, The Galapagos Islands
After a two and half hour flight from Quito, we arrived at Baltra Island Airport. We knew that we'd be assessed a fee to enter the island - $100 per person, preferrably in cash, before we could leave the small airport, so we were prepared. We had arranged for a pickup and island tour with Mathias, the host of our AirBnB rental for the week.
Mathias was waiting for us after we retrived our luggage, paid our fees and entered the main hall of the airport. I had been communicating with him for a few weeks via WhatsApp - the perferred tool in Ecuador. He was an experienced tour guide with an extensive resume. We didn't know what to expect really, but his bright smile and easy enthusiasism for the Galapagos was infectious.
We quickly climbed aboard a bus that would take us to the port at the canal between Baltra Island and Santa Cruz - the main inhabitated island of the archipeligo. Baltra is a small sandstone rock inhabited by iguanas, prickly pear cacti and little else. The United States had built the airport here during WWII as a base to protect the Panana Canal. It was turned over to the Eduadorian Military after the war ended. All that is left of the U.S. presence is the air strip and a few building foundations. Galapagos Land Iguanas roam freely near the airport.
The port is a maze of small shuttle boats that wisk visitors and their luggage to Santa Cruz island and on to Puerto Ayora, a 30 minute ride south. We stopped at a point off the road to hike through a grove of mangrove trees and learn a little about the flora, fauna and geology of the island and take some pictures at the caldera of a long dormant volcano. Unlike Baltra, Santa Cruz is a lush green island. We stopped at a farm that has turned its lava tunnels into a tourist attraction. There we saw a lot of the Giant Tortoises that Galapagos is famous for and learned a bit about the history of the islands.
Then into Puerto Ayora and our AirBnB. The property is located on the edge of the Darwin Station park property in a residential area of town, but only a short walk to the main street. The roads here are dirt and it looks like the town had started a paving program, but like much effected by the pandemic, that seems to be on hold. Tourism is the economic generator for the Galapagos and COVID hit them hard. It is only starting to come back.
After settling into our rooms we took our dirty clothes that had accumlated for a week to the laundry around the corner. It was a short walk through the neighbor-hood play lot, were boys (and girls) were shooting baskets. We dropped off the clothes and continued toward the main port.
The main thoroughfare in Puerto Ayora is a narrow one-way street for cars and a bicycle lane. Most people in the town walk or use a bike for transportation, so the street is strewn with parked bikes - most of which are not locked. Crime does not seem to be a problem here. We strolled past a few upscale art galleries, and cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. The weather here is temperate so the restaurants are all open to the street or water as the case may be.
In the center of town is a fresh fish market where the fishermen drop off their daily catch. Frigates, pelicans, seals and various birds eagerly anticipate the discards from the fish fileting and cleaning while restauranteurs select the best lobsters for the evening special.
Marine Iguanas are everywhere lounging in the sun or swimming for food. Along the edge of the water are hundreds of these creatures in a symbiotic relationship with the numerous red crabs clinging to the breakwater walls. Lion seal mothers and their children nap on the park benches or tree planters, trying to ignor passing tourists.
As a ship docks offshore in the port, we see dozens of tourists scurry past us, the souvenir shops and restaurants on their way to the Darwin Station at the eastern end of the main street. We are sure that they probably only have a couple hours before they need to tender back to the ship - maybe they will be able to grab a sourvenir from one of the shops before then. A large museum sits in the center of the port with the impressive name of Origins. We were intrigued and tried to stop in, but they were closed. We found out later that they are actually funded by the 7th Day Adventist Church and present an alternative storyline in opposition to Darwin's theory and science. We gave it a pass, not wanting to support this venture.
We spent 7 nights in the Puerto Ayora. One day was spent on an organized tour to Bartolome Island for some hiking and snorkeling. One day we visited the Darwin Station and one day we hiked to Tortuga Bay. Both trips were less than what we had expected even though we didn't have much in the way of expectations. The walk to Tortuga Bay is long (around 2.5 km) and when we got to the Bay it is just a beach, though there are a lot of very large Marine Iguanas. We planned to take a boat back, which we did, but finding that was difficult and there was no information as to a schedule. So though we would have liked to snorkel, we didn't and just took the waiting boat back.
Darwin Station is another issue. We did expect to learn something about the theory of natural selection, Darwin and about the research that was ongoing. A guide is required, so we paid a nominal fee, got on the tour with an English speaking guide and was presented with the usual spiel as well as entrance into the climate controlled building that housed the preserved body of "Lonesome George" - the last Pinta Island Giant Tortoise of his subspecies, who died in 2012. Most of the station is an incubator for varies subspecies of Giant Tortoises. The museum misses the mark in providing more in-depth information on the research that is currently being conducted.
Our last day in Puerto Ayora was a walk through town with Mathias who talked to us about the history of Galapagos. He showed the sites of the first Norwegian settlement on the islands, the first tourist hotel site, and his scuba diving shop. Then we took a local ferry to Finch Bay where we had lunch at the Angermeyer Hotel. Learning about the human history of these islands was the most interesting activity that we did.
Tourism has a huge impact on this pristine place. The Ecuadorean government has taken several steps to limit and control this important part of their economy - and more importantly - the wildlife that they are charged to protect. But much more needs to be done to make a visit here a chance to learn about the science and research activities that are ongoing. This should not be a destination for an island vacation full of luxury hotels, tiki bars and souvenir shops. It is a difficult task to balance the needs of the population to sustain a livelihood and the conservation of such a unique living laboratory.