Opinion – Galápagos Digital an online news website about Galapagos Fri, 18 Dec 2015 19:09:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.5.3 OPINION: Why not send Lonesome George on Tour? /2014/09/22/opinion-why-not-send-lonesome-george-on-tour/ /2014/09/22/opinion-why-not-send-lonesome-george-on-tour/#respond Mon, 22 Sep 2014 20:05:11 +0000 /?p=1315 Lonesome George inside a glass enclosure at the American Museum of Natural History in New York

D. Finnin / AMNH

Lonesome George inside his glass enclosure at the American Museum of Natural History in New York

At last week’s New York unveiling of the mounted body of Lonesome George, the legendary Galápagos tortoise, the VIP’s in attendance dismissed it as a silly idea:  “George is a rock star, why not send him on tour?”

Well, why not?

George’s body is on exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History until January 4, 2015. After that, plans call for him to be sent to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, whose provinces include the Galápagos Islands.  This angered people in Galápagos, who took to social media to express their anger that George wasn’t coming home.   The mayor of Santa Cruz, where George lived for the past 40 years, told the Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo that it was “an outrage.”

In response, the ministry of the Environment sent out a press release saying that returning George to Galápagos might be an option–eventually–but that Quito is still the first stop:

“Preserving Lonesome George’s body requires special conditions, like moisture, temperature, physical space and security,in addition to the annual retouching made ​​by the experts, the ministry said. “At present, there is no site like this in the Galapagos.”

That would require money to build an enclosure with equipment to control the environment and back-up power to keep it running during the frequent electricity outages on Santa Cruz.  One way to generate money would be to send George on tour and charge admission at major museums throughout the world.  The people in Galápagos who are protesting so passionately could also contribute to the cause, and should.

As British author and columnist Henry Nicholls writes compellingly in TheGuardian.com:

“Like it or not, George became a posterboy for the Galapagos and for endangered species everywhere. He may not have been aware of his talents, but he was able to communicate the conservation message far more powerfully, with more dignity than most humans. I think we have an ethical obligation to allow him to continue his work on as grand a scale as possible. He should go where he can do the most good.

“This might be the Galapagos. It might be Quito. But maybe, first, it should be the world. #GeorgeWorldTour.”

To which we can only add a hearty “Hear, hear!”

The Natural History Museum in London draws 5.4 million visitors a year while the National Museum of Natural History in Paris gets almost 2 million visitors.  In Washington, DC, 7.6 million visitors annually go through the National Museum. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a touring Lonesome George could be seen by millions worldwide.

And he could earn enough money to purchase a proper abode back in Galápagos, where he ultimately belongs.

RELATED: Lonesome George a Hit in New York Debut

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Galápagos Good Guy: Security Guard Rescues Tortoise /2014/05/23/galapagos-good-guy-security-guard-rescues-tortoise/ /2014/05/23/galapagos-good-guy-security-guard-rescues-tortoise/#respond Fri, 23 May 2014 23:02:50 +0000 /?p=1125 A Galápagos tortoise trapped inside a reinforcing steel framework for a wind power project

Manuel Correa

A Gal��pagos tortoise trapped inside a reinforcing steel framework for a power project

Manuel Correa, a security guard, was cycling with a friend through the highlands of Santa Cruz Island on May 19 when he spotted something strange: A Galápagos tortoise trapped inside a tubular mesh of reinforcing steel by the side of the road, struggling to get out.  Not wanting to see the trapped creature suffer any longer, they stopped, and Correa used the friend’s serrated knife to cut through wires holding the steel bars in place.  The freed tortoise was soon lumbering away.

Correa, a native of Loja in the Ecuadorian mainland,  said the steel framework is part of a pending construction project that will provide green electrical power to Santa Cruz Island. But the incident shows how Galápagos wildlife can be negatively impacted by human endeavors, even those filled with good intentions, such as the expansion of sustainable energy.

Manuel & Tugas

Manuel Correa

Manuel Correa poses with some of his tortoise friends.

“Let us be very careful,” said Correa, “and aware that we live in a natural world that we must always protect.”

From time to time, we’d like to recognize people in Galápagos whose actions do help protect this priceless corner of the world and the creatures that live there.  From our point of view, Manuel Correa is a Galápagos Good Guy.

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New Galápagos Book Offers “Biography” of Islands /2014/05/04/new-galapagos-book-offers-biography-of-islands/ /2014/05/04/new-galapagos-book-offers-biography-of-islands/#respond Sun, 04 May 2014 21:09:27 +0000 /?p=1035 Nicholls BookAfter I finished reading The Galápagos: A Natural History by Henry Nicholls, I felt as if I had watched a time lapse film spanning millions of years condensed in 195 pages. “I wanted this to be a biography of Galápagos,” Nicholls says.

The chapters are brief and self-explanatory: Rocks, Ocean, Seabirds, Plants, Invertebrates, Land Birds, Reptiles, Humans. Nicholls says “I wanted to make no distinction or little distinction between all these animals and humans. Humans are just the latest species to colonize the archipelago.”

Nicholls writes that he started with volcanoes “for without them there would be no islands at all.”  He is skillful at explaining how eruptions in submarine “hot spots” built up underwater mountain ranges of volcanoes that eventually created islands.

In choosing his topics, Nicholls does what he calls “some cherry-picking” and the result is both entertaining and enlightening as he guides the reader through the theories of how the islands’ rich sea life started, the possible ways that birds “with the power of flight were quick to colonise, using the bare rocks as a nesting base and the ocean as a larder.” He also explains how vegetation took root: “first lichens, then hardy weeds, then bigger plants and trees.”  Eventually invertebrates arrived, land birds, insects, reptiles, sea lions, fur seals. Whether carried by the wind, or in makeshift rafts pushed by the currents, or hitching rides on another animals, they established themselves in different islands where they developed unique variations.

And then came man.

Nicholls mentions that there may have been pre-Columbian visitors in canoes or rafts but the first documented European visitor was the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, who was on his way to Peru in 1535 when his galleon was blown of course and ended up in Galápagos.

The bishop, who along with the sailors, had to endure a water shortage, was not impressed and later wrote to the King of Spain the place looked “as though at some time God had showered stones.”

Subsequently a rogues’ gallery of visitors called on the Galapagos. Some were buccaneers like William Dampier who arrived in 1697 to prey on Spanish galleons transporting silver and gold from Spain’s colonies in South America. Others were explorers, followed by whalers and finally settlers in 1832 when Ecuador took possession of the archipelago. The human impact was enormous. Thousands of tortoises were carried onboard ships to serve as a source of meat in the long cruises ahead. Later the settlers brought domestic animals and introduced mainland vegetation and crops which endangered endemic species.

And then in 1835 Charles Darwin arrived on HMS Beagle and the rest is history or evolution if you like.  Darwin spent only six weeks in the Galapagos but his observations and further studies inspired his revolutionary theory of natural selection. To Nicholls, Darwin is “a central figure” who led him to become interested in the Galápagos. Throughout the book he ties Darwin to seminal ideas on the geology, the fauna and the flora of the islands.

Particularly interesting is the recounting of the efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries by the United States and other countries to purchase or lease the Galápagos from Ecuador. In 1938, with rumors of war in the air, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited the archipelago as the Americans were scouting for a possible base to defend the Panama Canal. Soon after Pearl Harbor, Ecuador agreed to a U.S. air base on Baltra island and the first landing strip was built. Thousands of U.S. servicemen were stationed on what was known as “The Rock”. In 1944 Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt visited and her reaction mirrored that of Bishop Berlanga “It is as though the earth had spewed forth rocks of every size and shape” she wrote. 

Nicholls also reveals that President Roosevelt cared about the islands as more than a military outpost. He quotes from a 1944 memo the President sent to his Secretary of State: “These islands represent the oldest form of animal life and should, therefore, be preserved for all time as a kind of international park.”

In 1934 Ecuador placed several islands and most of the fauna under protection and in 1959, on the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, Ecuador declared the 97% uninhabited area of the archipelago as a National Park.

And in the same year UNESCO founded the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galápagos Islands, “to provide knowledge and assistance through scientific research and complementary action to ensure the conservation of the environment and biodiversity in the Galapagos archipelago.” To this day, the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station continue to collaborate in this mission.

At the same time that conservation measures started to take root, tourism also sprouted. The landing strip the Americans built on Baltra island gave birth to an airport and linked the islands by air with the Ecuadorian mainland. A small trickle of backpackers and other adventurers at first visited. Since then tourism  has grown exponentially and last year 200,000 people visited the islands.

Author Henry Nicholls

Charlotte Nicholls

Author Henry Nicholls

Attracted by jobs, many Ecuadorians moved to Galapagos, swelling the island population to  about 30,000. This poses tremendous pressures on the fragile infrastructure and endangers endemic species with the introduction of insects, mammals and vegetation.   Nicholls navigates these complex issues with care, sensitivity and honesty, while acknowledging that “the human chapters were difficult to write because there are so many sensitivities.” He says that the Appendix on “How to Visit Galapagos” was also hard to write because he wonders “whether we should go there at all.”  And he adds that “every person should think very hard about the different ways to visit Galapagos and the impact and consequences it may have.” He offers valuable tips on how to try to do that.

As the author points out, Galápagos is not only a living laboratory for evolution it is also a stark example of the reality of extinction. And nothing illustrates this better than  “Lonesome George”, the last tortoise of the Pinta island species and the subject of a previous book by Nicholls. 

After the pirates and the whalers carted away thousands of tortoises, introduced goats decimated the vegetation of Pinta leading to the gradual disappearance of the tortoises. In 1972, one tortoise was found alive and taken to the Darwin Research Station where it was cared for and named “Lonesome George.” 

Lonesome George in 2006


Lonesome George in 2006

 “George raised awareness of extinction and because tortoises live so long we had four decades to be aware and reflect on the fact he was the last one of his species,” says Nicholls. By chance he visited Galapagos in 2012  one week after George died, noting, “it was a strange experience to see him bubble wrapped in a freezer.” 

As to the idea of taxidermists preserving George’s body for future exhibit, Nicholls says he had some reservations at first but says he now believes that the American Museum of Natural History, heading up the project, will do right by George, who will be seen at the museum in New York and later in Galápagos.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future, but Nicholls tries to strike a balance by concentrating on what has been done right. He asks, “Would Galapagos be alive today if the conservation movement had not come to the islands so early and so strongly?’ He mentions some of the projects that the National Park, the Darwin, the WWF and other organizations have successfully undertaken such as the elimination of goats, large  mammals and rats in the uninhabited islands and the ongoing efforts to breed tortoises and rescue finches. And he finishes by saying:  “The challenge ahead is enormous but it is worth fighting for.”

We’ve added this one to our list of recommended books.


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A Galápagos Docu-Noir /2014/01/08/a-galapagos-docu-noir/ /2014/01/08/a-galapagos-docu-noir/#respond Wed, 08 Jan 2014 17:10:46 +0000 /?p=832 Dory Strauch and Friedrich Ritter on Floreana Island

Zeitgeist Films

Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter on Floreana Island

(PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA)  If it were a work of Hollywood fiction, the pitch line for the movie might be: “It’s The Blue Lagoon meets Macbeth.” Instead, The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a film that just played to two sold-out screenings at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, is a documentary. In a mostly fascinating though sometimes meandering fashion, it tells the story of settlers who found their dreams of paradise dashed on the volcanic rocks of Floreana Island.

In 1929, Berlin physician Friedrich Ritter and his lover Dore Strauch ditch their respective spouses and head to Floreana in search of solitude in an enchanted corner of the world.  It’s a time when migrating to the Galápagos Islands is unfettered by Ecuadorian government regulations and pioneers can stake out their own piece of turf. The plans quickly go awry as Ritter and Strauch find themselves laboring constantly to survive in a place with scant food and water.

The German family Wittmer

Zeitgeist Films

The German family Wittmer

And their visions of solitude vanish with the arrival of the Wittmer family from Germany, who think of themselves as “The Swiss Family Robinson” of Galápagos. Then when a woman, Eloise von Wagner Bosquet, who bills herself as an Austrian baroness, arrives with her two boy toys, the place really goes to hell.

The assorted settlers get along like the Hatfields and McCoys and eventually, the baroness and one of her guys disappear amid rumors of a murder.  Later, her remaining lover flees Floreana, only to wash up dead on another island.

Baroness von Wagner with her lovers: Robert Philippson and Rudolph Lorenz, Circa 1932

Zeitgeist Films

Baroness von Wagner with her lovers: Robert Philippson and Rudolph Lorenz, Circa 1932

Then, there’s Dr. Ritter, who, despite being a vegetarian, dies after eating what may have been tainted chicken meat.  Or was he poisoned?  (Suspicion hovers like a Galápagos waved albatross riding the air currents!)

The story of the doomed Galápagos settlers has been told and re-told in their own accounts and by various authors over the years. (Dore Strauch, who returned to Germany and Mrs. Wittmer, who stayed on Floreana, both wrote books with differing versions of events.)  And the “whodunit” question has never been answered. So, how do you make this into a documentary movie?

Directors Dan Geller (l) and Dayna Goldfine (c) with Cecilia Alvear of Galápagos Digital (r) at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

George Lewis / Galápagos Digital

Directors Dan Geller (l) and Dayna Goldfine (c) with Cecilia Alvear of Galápagos Digital (r) at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

Directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, who first became fascinated with the story while in Galápagos in 1998 working on a  film about Charles Darwin, discovered a trove of archival footage of the settlers.

The old footage, donated to the University of Southern California, was shot by the crew of Los Angeles oilman Allan Hancock, who mounted several Galápagos expeditions in the 1930s and filmed the Floreana families. To their great credit, Geller and Goldfine rescued and restored the images that were rapidly deteriorating inside old film cans.  They also retouched hundreds of still pictures from the Hancock expeditions.

Because all the principals in the tale are dead now, the filmmakers’ challenge was finding a way to bring the characters to life.  To that end, they employed actors such as Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Thomas Kretschmann and Josh Radnor to provide voiceovers, speaking the words the settlers wrote in their own accounts of life and death on Floreana.

To flesh out the story and explain what drives certain people to seek a life away from civilization, the filmmakers have inserted plenty of contemporary talking heads; descendants of the Floreana settlers, elderly Galápagueños who remember hearing about the events on Floreana and members of other Galápagos pioneer immigrant families.  Here, the film wanders off the main story for too long, even after the filmmakers cut nine minutes out of the movie to give it a two-hour running time.

Ready for my close-up.  The Baroness in her pirate outfit.

Zeitgeist Films

Ready for my close-up. The baroness in her pirate outfit.

But the film has more than its share of redeeming moments, including a movie-within-a-movie. Amazingly, the baroness persuaded the Hancock crew to film her in a silent short that she dreamed up to show off her acting “talents.”  The whole thing is unintentionally hilarious as she plays a lady pirate who seduces and kills with great gusto.  One of the Hancock crew members, in drag, plays a honeymooning bride.  It’s a hoot.

Director Dayna Goldfine told the audience at the Palm Springs screening of The Galápagos Affair:  “The baroness always dreamed of being a Hollywood movie star.”

Now, thanks to Goldfine and Geller, she’s getting her wish, eight decades after her death while a fascinating bit of Galápagos history is preserved for film fans.  The movie will be screened in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and will be in theaters in April. Some months ago, the filmmakers put on several screenings in the Galápagos and said the film was received with great enthusiasm by the locals.

Click on this link to see a trailer for The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.


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The Bureaucracy: Moving at a Tortoise’s Pace /2013/06/19/the-bureaucracy-moving-at-a-tortoises-pace/ /2013/06/19/the-bureaucracy-moving-at-a-tortoises-pace/#respond Thu, 20 Jun 2013 01:49:22 +0000 /?p=640 Walking slowly is normal for the iconic Galápagos tortoises but I am sadly surprised to find that the apparent slowness is also a trait of Ecuadorian bureaucrats. Even when the safety of children at a historic school in Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal is at stake.


Field Museum

My father, Commander Alejandro Alvear, in 1941

Ordinarily, I try to be a dispassionate journalist but I write this as one deeply involved in the story. My father, Commander Alejandro Alvear founded the school when he was the military governor of Galapagos and it bears his name. (Although it is now called the “Basic Education Public Center Alejandro Alvear” instead of “school.”)

In 1996 I visited the Alvear, as many in Baquerizo Moreno call it, and I was moved to tears when I heard the students sing the school hymn which begins: “With the grace, elegance and decorum of the glorious Alejandro Alvear ..”

I felt so proud to be his daughter and to know that since 1939, the school has educated thousands of Galapagos children. Since then I have made it my mission to visit the school each year and, with the help of my family, we’ve tried to help the Alvear, its students and teachers. We introduced the first computers and have contributed educational material, books and shelving for the library, musical instruments, and modest cash donations. It’s our effort to continue the legacy of our father.

Flash flooding at the Alvear School, March 2012

teacher Gresia Alcivar/Alvear School;

Flash flooding at the Alvear School, March 2012

Last year, due to heavy winter rains that brought flash floods, a dry riverbed within the school perimeter had turned into a raging torrent, damaging a wing of one of the school buildings and undermining the structure. There was also evidence of moisture and mold in the building’s walls and ceilings. The school principal, Dr. Mariana Rojas Falconi, had already urged higher authorities in March 2011 to study the hazard in the dry riverbed and the risks to the building. Nothing happened, and in March 2012, her worst fears were realized when the floods came.

During my annual visit in August, 2012, I noted that no one had made any repairs. I accompanied Dr. Rojas to ask for help from various organizations such as the Provincial Department of Education, the Governing Council, the Governor’s office, the Provincial Risk Management, the Municipality of San Cristobal. Although some preliminary studies were made and danger warnings were issued, at every stop, officials told us they were not responsible for fixing the problem. The one exception was the Provincial Director of Education, Dora Gonzales Bajaña, who offered to intercede with the Ministry of Education to resolve the matter.

Teacher attempts to fix collapsing ceiling tiles at Alvear School

Cecilia Alvear / Galápagos Digital

Teacher attempts to fix collapsing ceiling tiles at Alvear School

Returning to Galapagos this year and visiting the school, I found that some classrooms have been renovated through the efforts of teachers who have painted them and cleaned them up using their own funds. But when it comes to major repairs the situation remains the same. The dry riverbed is not stabilized, the foundation of the wing close to the river continues to deteriorate. The ceilings of many classrooms are falling apart.

The Director of the Alvear gave me a folder containing 20 letters exchanged with the various authorities.
The first, dated March 23, 2011 by Dr. Rojas to Ms. Gonzales Bajaña contains this paragraph:

“As you are aware the ceiling panels keep falling down and could harm students. During the visit you made jointly with DINSE (The National Directorate of Educational services) officials, you could see that a block of classrooms is located near a ravine and is in the danger zone and the constant rains are deteriorating the foundation. It is dangerous for children to be educated there. ”

And almost two years later on January 24, 2013, Dr. Rojas wrote a new letter to Ms. Gonzales:

The pile of letters to authorities begging for help with the Alvear school

George Lewis / Galápagos Digital

The pile of letters to authorities begging for help with the Alvear school

“Considering that to date we have not had any response from your office, I again very politely request you give priority to this request as the winter is approaching and we are seeing small landslides near classrooms located next to the ravine.”

Once Again Dr. Rojas and I visited Ms. Gonzales, who said she hoped the Educational Services officials, who had conducted an inspection a year earlier, would respond and make the necessary repairs on campus.

I think that now, because the solution is apparently at the highest levels of the Ministry of Education in Quito, it’s time to speed things up and make repairs to this historic educational center of Galapagos. There is no justification to expose these children, who are the future of the islands and Ecuador, to unnecessary dangers.

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LaRevista El Universo: “The Galápagos I miss” by Gianna Haro Vallazza /2013/06/02/larevista-el-universo-the-galapagos-i-miss-by-gianna-haro-vallazza/ /2013/06/02/larevista-el-universo-the-galapagos-i-miss-by-gianna-haro-vallazza/#comments Sun, 02 Jun 2013 17:02:05 +0000 /?p=497
Gianna Haro Vallazza now and at age 4 in Santa Cruz

Gianna Haro Vallazza  who grew up in Santa Cruz, Galápagos, writes with great sensitivity about the changes, not all positive, that have occurred in the islands that she loves, calling for everyone to work together to protect this precious corner of the world.

Today the young University of California at Santa Barbara graduate biology student plans to return to Galápagos when she gets her master’s degree.

Gianna writes that she misses her childhood. “When the lights went out at midnight, the streets were gravel and sand, and the way to Tortuga Bay was all stone, when there were iguanas on Avenida Charles Darwin, when being out at night was not dangerous and there were just a few cars for carrying cargo.

“When the bikes and our feet were our only means of transportation and when I was little, I felt that the whole population of Galapagos was my family because I knew everyone and they knew me. When water and bread were delivered to our  home, when we could leave our bikes and our homes unlocked.”

Now, every time she returns to her beloved Galápagos, Gianna writes she feels like a tourist.

“I know no one and no one knows me, biking or walking at night is dangerous, because taxis drive fast and don’t yield to pedestrians or cyclists, they just honk their horns. Now very sadly I do not see iguanas on the sidewalks of Avenida Charles Darwin.  Now there is light 24 hours, the streets are cobblestone or tar, water is piped.”

Gianna agrees that thanks to progress, several things are easier and faster to get, adding a “but.”

“Do we need things to be easier and faster?  Did we need this  when we didn’t have all these amenities?  If you ask me, things were more comfortable and safer back then. ”

“I know everything changes,” writes Gianna, “but we should not let the wrongs continue. Our biggest problem is overpopulation and lack of implementation of laws and education. I know many  who now live in Galápagos are good people and many of them came to help preserve what we are losing, and I know that others came in search of  better employment opportunities and a better quality of life for their families, but there must be a balance. ”

Gianna writes she’s not attacking anyone. “This is a reminder to those who have allowed Galápagos to become what it is now and a call for the new settlers to learn what we are destroying. The key is education: an educated population will never be exploited or exploit their own resources. ”

This Ecuadorian believes that the negative changes are destroying her childhood memories, and with them, the fragile habitat of Galápagos.

To save this ecosystem, she says, it will take a country determined to rescue this heritage, but mostly it will be up to the 30,000 people of the five inhabited islands to make this happen.

“I want to help the conservation of the islands,” she wrote, “and when I have my children, I want them to grow up in the same place I did.”

To read the original article from LaRevista El Universo in Spanish, “click” here.

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Ten Things to Ponder Before Visiting Galápagos /2013/05/06/ten-things-to-consider-before-visiting-galapagos/ /2013/05/06/ten-things-to-consider-before-visiting-galapagos/#respond Mon, 06 May 2013 22:00:36 +0000 /?p=292
(Cecilia Alvear and friend–Galápagos 2012)

When people meet me and find out I was born in Galápagos, many want to pick my brain about going there. It’s on everyone’s bucket list these days–a lifetime dream for many. I first played tour director in 1996 when I took a group of 15 friends there aboard a boat we chartered. All of us were delighted with the experience. While I’m not in the business of promoting tourism, something I think should be held in check in an environmentally sensitive area, I’ll give you ten helpful hints:

1. CONSIDER THE COST Going to Galápagos can be expensive. Week-long cruises can run around $5,000. That usually doesn’t include the cost of airfare from your home country to and from the mainland of Ecuador, where Galápagos tours begin and end. When you get to Galápagos, there’s a $100 fee to enter the National Park, a fee that tour operators often pay. But don’t count on that.

You can opt for something I call “Galápagos Lite:” flying to either Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal Island, staying at onshore hotels and taking day trips to the unpopulated islands. For this, you have to have a sense of adventure and a willingness to endure bumpy ocean trips on small boats. You’ll save a bit of money but won’t get the full Galápagos experience. Another caveat: all tourism leaves a footprint. The growing tourist population staying on land taxes the shaky water and sewer infrastructure of the populated islands.

2. READ UP ON THE PLACE You’ll get so much more out of your visit if you study about the islands, their individual characteristics and the unique animals that populate the archipelago. Find out about how Darwin studied the differences in the finches from island to island as he began to piece together his theory of evolution. We’ve posted a bibliography of “Recommended Books” here on Galápagos Digital to help you learn more.

3.REMEMBER THE RULES This is not a Disney theme park. It’s a World Heritage Site that needs plenty of tender loving care. You’ll have to travel the National Park lands with a guide who will insist that you stay on the marked paths and trails. Don’t touch or try to feed the animals. Don’t smoke in the park and do pick up all your trash. Responsible tour operators will ask you to wash your shoes as you move from island to island to avoid contaminating the flora and fauna.

4. OH, THE HUMANITY! Galápagos gets more than 150,000 visitors each year. The peak travel seasons are June-September and December-January because everyone wants to go when the kids are out of school. So don’t be surprised if your shot of that rare marine iguana is populated by fourteen fellow tourists playing paparazzi. Consider going in the off season. The fall months bring dry weather to Galápagos, if sunshine really matters to you. Some divers like the rainy season from December to May because the seas are calmer.

5. IT’S A WORKOUT You should be prepared to do a fair amount of hiking on rocky, hilly trails. Landings on unpopulated islands are usually via rubber dinghy and you need to be able to scramble into and out of them as you travel. There are “dry landings” where the dinghy pulls up onto the sandy beaches and “wet landings” where you have to wade through shallow ocean waters. You can always opt out of the tougher landings and read a good book. If you have physical limitations, you should discuss that thoroughly with your tour operator. Some companies offer special tours for people with disabilities.

6. MURPHY’S LAW APPLIES Remember that old chestnut that says: “If anything can go wrong, it will?” In my native land, Ecuador, things don’t always operate with speed and efficiency. The tour that’s supposed to begin at 8:30a.m. sometimes gets underway an hour or so later. Itineraries may change at the last minute. The power may go off and the hot water may not be so hot at times.

While U.S. dollars are now the official currency of Ecuador and Americans don’t have to do any currency conversions, shops in Galápagos often don’t have small bills and many don’t accept plastic.. When I visit, I normally carry at least $100 in ones. It’s good to adopt a Zen attitude about all this.

7. WWW-WHAZZUP? There’ll be a bit of a break from email, Facebook and Twitter for most people. Internet connectivity is hard to come by in the unpopulated parts of the Galápagos. There are wi-fi connections at hotels, restaurants and Internet cafés on the populated islands but bandwidth is limited. Your smartphone will work some of the time if you’re willing to foot the bill for international roaming or use an unlocked phone with a local SIM card. You can also just unplug completely and enjoy the solitude.

8. MAKE TIME FOR ECUADOR Try to spend a few days on the Ecuadorian mainland. The capital, Quito, has a wonderful old Spanish colonial quarter, beautifully restored, with ornate churches and grand plazas. Ride the teleférico–the aerial tramway–to get a spectacular view of the city. Go to the equator line and get your picture taken with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and another in the Southern Hemisphere. Visit the native markets in Otavalo, a picturesque city at the foot of the Andes. Go to the cloud forest at Mindo and marvel at the exotic birds and flowers. Hey, you’re this far away from home, live it up.

9. CONSIDER GIVING BACK TO GALÁPAGOS If you’ve enjoyed your time on the islands, you might want to think about donating to one of the organizations that’s trying to preserve the Galápagos for future generations. End of sermon.

10.AFTER ALL IS SAID AND DONE, IT’S STILL WONDERFUL! I’ll never forget how the dolphins escorted our boat into my birthplace, San Cristóbal, when we visited there in 1996. It was as if they were saying, “Welcome Home!” Also unforgettable was the sight of my nephews frolicking in the water with a young sea lion, or the climb over mounds of lava that looked like giant coils of black rope. There were evenings when we would sit on the deck of the boat and marvel at the blazing equatorial sunsets. We forgot all about deadlines, projects, to-do lists and just took in the amazing beauty of the place.

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Ecuadorian Columnist’s Dire Warning about Galápagos /2013/05/02/ecuadorian-columnists-dire-warning-about-galapagos/ /2013/05/02/ecuadorian-columnists-dire-warning-about-galapagos/#respond Fri, 03 May 2013 00:52:17 +0000 /?p=108

Columnist Sebastian Mantilla Baca of the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio has been to the Galápagos Islands recently and doesn’t like what he saw–what he calls a place overrun by tourists and people bent on making a buck without regard to the damage to the environment.  His piece appeared on Wednesday, May 1. We offer it here as a springboard for reflection and discussion.  Mr Mantilla has left out several groups of Galápagueños who are working to improve the quality of life on the islands without harming the environment. Nevertheless, some of his observations are accurate and deserve airing.


Who owns the Galápagos?

The Galapagos Islands were declared by UNESCO in 1979 as a World Heritage Site. Famous for its extraordinary natural beauty and for being the place that led Charles Darwin to formulate his ‘Theory of Evolution’, the islands today are experiencing a fundamental dilemma: human actions are threatening the natural balance.

What are the problems? In general, the usual, only more severe: increased tourism, increased external species (invasive), constant mishandling by the authorities. If 30 years ago  20,000 tourists a year visited the islands, now we talk of about 195 000.

Similarly, there has been an increase in cruise ships, hotels and related tourism activities. Many of these activities are carried out illegally and without any control. In the case of introduced and invasive species,  one  just has to see what happens in Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. The introduction of animals, insects and plants brought from the mainland have completely transformed the ecosystems.

In the case of the most populated islands, there is a striking expansion of farms devoted to tourism, agriculture and livestock. There are no special skills or training required to engage in any these activities.  That’s what I have seen after a couple of  weeks visiting San Cristobal. One ca see  rats everywhere even near the sea lions.

As can be seen, the mismanagement is evident. The management of the Galapagos National Park authorities is deplorable. Much of its action is focused on partial control of the  flow of tourists and certain fishing activities. This goes hand in hand with population growth in the islands. In 1950 1300 people lived in the Galapagos, now that number exceeds 25 thousand.

And, obviously, all demand the right to work, receive services, have a place to call home, etc.. Moreover, many of the islanders believe they have  the right to pursue the activities of fishing, tourism, agriculture and livestock without any control.

However, the mere fact of being born or living in the islands can not be a reason for everyone to do anything they want. The concept of “Natural Heritage of Humanity” is lyrical. but in reality  everyone defends their own interests. Tour operators struggle to cram the Galapagos with tourists. Fishermen continue to operate without boundaries. The authorities strive to do the  least while protecting their  jobs.

The Galapagueños fight to defend their right to do as they please, regardless of the severe impact caused by the growing towns.. The ‘theory of evolution of  the species’ Darwin has another chapter: The chapter of how human beings can destroy the islands.   Who owns  the Galapagos? Who is responsible for what is happening?

The original version of this column in Spanish can be found at the site for El Comercio.

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Cecilia Alvear: Are We Loving Galápagos to Death? /2013/05/01/are-we-loving-galapagos-to-death/ Thu, 02 May 2013 01:21:32 +0000 /?p=44 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was a piece I wrote for Harvard’s ReVista in 2009 and it still holds true today.

Whenever I tell people that I was born in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador, they always say, “I didn’t know there were any people on the Galápagos. I thought only strange animals lived there.” To which I usually respond that people—strange and not-so—also made their way to the islands over the years.

The islands were unpopulated for centuries, although they were not unknown. There are oral accounts of one Inca ruler who made his way here on a raft. The first written chronicle comes to us from the Bishop of Panamá, whose ship was blown off course in 1535. The misplaced cleric and his party loaded up on water, but the volcanic terrain and the strange creatures reminded them of hell, so he said mass on the beach and promptly left. The islands, also known as “Las Encantadas” or “The Enchanted Isles,” later became the refuge of pirates and buccaneers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, whalers made the Galápagos a way station to stock up on water and giant tortoises which they carried as a meat supply.

In 1832, the newly independent government of Ecuador took possession of the Archipelago and in 1835, a young Englishman by the name of Charles Darwin came calling.

And the rest is history—or evolution, if you prefer.

Throughout the early years, Ecuador tried all sorts of colonization schemes. When they failed, settlers left behind domestic animals which became feral and to this day threaten the native species.

Among the more colorful human specimens in the Galápagos saga stands the legendary tyrant Manuel Cobos who planted sugar cane and ran a sugar mill and a railroad in San Cristóbal Island with convict labor. He was killed during an uprising. A few years later Norwegian immigrants tried to start a fish processing plant. It failed for lack of adequate transportation. In the 1920s, several Europeans arrived searching for a Robison Crusoe experience in this volcanic utopia.

In the 1930s came a woman who called herself a Baroness and lived with two lovers in Floreana Island where she intended to open a hotel. She and her favorite suitor vanished mysteriously—but that is another story. Several Germans who came in those years fleeing the impending horrors. Prominent among them were the Wittmers and the Angermeyers whose descendants still live on the islands. Mrs. Margret Wittmer wrote Post Office Floreana about her experiences. A couple of “pre-hippies,” Ainslie and Francis Conway, arrived from Berkeley, California. She wrote a book about their adventures, Las Encantadas.

Both authors praise my father, Lt. Col. Alejandro Alvear, who was appointed “Jefe Territorial” or Military Governor of the Archipelago in 1939. They call him “enlightened” because he built the first school in San Cristóbal and cared about the settlers.   When my father, my mother, Laura Triviño de Alvear, and my older sister Alexandra arrived in 1939,  Baquerizo Moreno in San Cristóbal Island was  a small village with huts of bamboo, lumber and corrugated iron. There were only 800 people living in the whole Archipelago. My parents lived in a wooden house facing “Shipwreck Bay” (with a front porch view of the site where on January 16, 2001, an old tanker, the  “Jessica” ran aground, spilling bunker fuel ). That’s where I was born and where I spent the first two years of my life.

Although I was never more than a toddler there, I know that we spent most of the days at the then-pristine beach. Sealions and iguanas frolicked on the nearby rocks. We watched the blue-footed boobies as they dove in swarms to catch fish for their dinner.

In the summer of 1996 I returned to Galápagos with a group of friends. As we approached San Cristóbal a school of dolphins rode the bow wave. They are magnificent creatures in their natural habitat: powerful and playful, enjoying an afternoon romp in the turquoise waters. Our squeals of delight seemed to encourage them to do even more elaborate somersaults, to flip over and then to look up at us to check our reactions. I felt they were welcoming me back home.

The Galápagos were declared a national park in 1959, and in the 1960s tourism to the islands started to grow and produce significant revenues for Ecuador. There are now about 160,000 annual visitors—including myself— and the local population, mainlanders in search of better job opportunities, now numbers 30,000 spread over five populated islands. My birthplace, Baquerizo Moreno, is now a small city of 4,000, with a concrete pier, paved streets, cars, and cement houses. The house where I was born was swallowed by the new Ecuadorian Navy base.

Although the Galápagos National Park and the Darwin Foundation are making efforts to protect the fragile environment from the impact of the human species, it is very hard for us to co-exist with endangered species. One famous story is that of “Lonesome George,” the last one of the species of tortoises that inhabited Pinta Island. George now lives in Santa Cruz island where the Darwin Foundation cares for him.  Efforts to find him a suitable mate have failed thus fair, but there may be some hope because recently another male tortoise was found with half of the genes of George so now the search is on for a female equivalent to try and save George’s species.

Some of the people who live in the Galápagos are fishermen. It has been difficult for them to accept governmental regulations as to the length of time they can fish and amount of crustaceans and fish they can harvest. In the past they have  staged uprisings to protest the end of the lobster season and the constraints on the harvesting of sea cucumbers.
Tourists come here because they love the animals and the wildness of the several islands that are still uninhabited. Islanders resent what they perceive as a policy that favors animals over people. They also feel that the profits generated by the tourism industry tend to favor well-established mainland operated tour companies.  Tourism is the economic lifeline for the islands but  it has many downsides.

The islands were given World Heritage site status by Unesco in 1978 and in 1985 were declared a Biosphere Reserve. This was extended in 2001 to include the 43,500 square miles  of ocean surrounding the islands.But in 2007 UNESCO  joined the government of Ecuador in declaring  the islands “at risk.” But despite all these efforts the flood of tourism continues and will be even greater this year which marks the 200th aniversary of Darwin’s birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his theory of evolution inspired by his visit to the archipelago.   Perhaps the time has come to seriously question whether we are loving the Galápagos to death.