The Galapagos Experience – Isabela

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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hotel ablemarle

Flag of Ecuador  , Galápagos,
Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The breast-plate roasted...with the flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup"
Charles Darwin – on eating the Giant Tortoise in "The Voyage of the Beagle"

The third week of our programme was without any volunteer work; it was simply a chance to do some tours of Isabela, the biggest of the Galapagos Islands. My kind of volunteering!

Isla Isabela is basically a series of five fairly recent (in geological terms) volcanoes joined together by the lava flows. The main township of Puerto Villamil, where we stayed was small with even less development than we'd seen on San Cristolbal and Santa Cruz. And if San Cristolbal was sleepy Isabela is positively comatose. It doesn't have the souvenir shops of the other two islands and if Santa Cruz was overwhelmed with pharmacies then Isabela is starving with its mere two pretty much perpetually closed-for-a-siesta pharmacies.

Isabela has a population of about 2,500, not that you’d know this from Puerto Villamil which doesn’t look like it supports more than a couple of hundred people. And the majority of the inhabitants are descended from just four families – one, the Gil family, who originally settled the island in 1888 and the others from the penal colony guards’ families that decided to stay on after the prison was closed down in 1959. Suffolk has nothing on this place!

One of the aims of the programme was to put money back into the Islands, something that doesn’t happen when you stay on an expensive American/European/Canadian/Big Corp... owned boat moored just off the islands. This meant staying at a family-owned hostel. In theory I don’t have a problem with this. It’s a noble aim, and one I support. In theory it’ll improve the incomes of the locals and in theory improve the towns, making them a viable alternative to the boat. In theory.

In practice I’m finding my support faltering. After 6 months on the road I’m used to both good places and crap places to stay. Different countries have different standards and little, now, surprises me. But for family-run hostels like the one we stayed in to be a viable alternative they have to improve. Little things like: fans that work, mossie nets without gaping holes in them, rooms that are clean and showers that actually work. I’m not expecting 5-star luxury but I would expect the money that the families earn from the endless queue of volunteers to be ploughed back into the business. That evidently wasn’t the case at 'Hospedaje Ingrid Macarena’. But as our 2nd week on Isabela would be at the 'luxury’ Hotel Ablemarle putting up with cold showers and the rest was bearable.

And in any case the point of being on Isabela was the tours. Our first tour was to the Isabela Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre where we saw more tortoises of all ages and even some actually mating. After which the male rolled and slipped off the female and then wandered off for a snooze. Given there were so many tortoises – as a breeding centre it’s been very successful – you’d have thought Darwin’s favourite soup would be on the menu. Sadly (!) not so we wolfed down some ice-creams instead. We also went to the ‘Wall of Tears’ – a 100m wall made by convicts in 1946. The wall was made from heavy lava rocks and its sole purpose was punishment. The wall didn’t contain or keep out anything, it was constructed during the sweltering day time and many convicts died in the heat. The ultimate punishment I guess.

Our 2nd tour was a 12km walk to Volcan Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico. The first left the 2nd biggest crater (caldera) in the world. The 2nd, Chico, was a more recent volcano and sat in a huge lava field where we walked between strange shapes of molten lava. The older lava flows had long since given in to time and were covered in grass and brackens, the newer flows were still void of plant life. On the walk back it poured down and we finally reached base completely drenched.

We were really looking forward to our 3rd tour, the Tintoreras Islet, but on a cloudy day, with a broken down boat and a guide that was more interested in finishing the tour as quickly as possible, the day was a disappointment. Other than seeing more sea lions, iguanas and pelicans we saw nothing really of any note and when we did find a green turtle the guide stressed it out by swimming too closely and encouraged the group to surround it. When the tour finished early – boat engine problems – the guide, rather than hanging around and sorting out transfers back into town hopped on his bike and darted off ASAP. Glad we hadn’t tipped him.

We sorted our own tour for the last full day of the programme, not trusting the host family to organise another trip along the lines of the previous day. The tour to Los Tuneles was brilliant. The boat trip into the lagoon was a thriller, on route we’d seen turtles and huge manta rays frolicking in the open sea. When we reached our destination the pilot had to line the boat up with the large, crashing waves to ride the crest into the lagoon. Once there we walked around on lava flows that had sprung out of the sea, creating arches and mini-lagoons where boobies and Galapagos Penguins nested and white-tipped sharks slept. We did a couple of snorkels and saw sea-horses in the mangroves, a big WT-shark cruising around, sting rays and a couple of Green Turtles. Coming back out of the lagoon we hit the waves head on, bouncing thru’ them until we were past where the waves broke and back into calmer waters.

As the week drew to a close the rest of the group headed back to Sanata Cruz, to fly back to Quito on the mainland. We however simply changed hotels for a fourth week on the islands.

One of the things I’ve learnt is that the description ‘luxury’ is relative. Compared to the hostel the Albemarle was luxury. It had air-con, a shower that worked for part of the week, a big comfortable bed and was clean. But when compared to other places I’ve stayed the Ablemarle is a bit shabby, a bit run-down, had bone-idle staff, a loo that didn’t really work and showed the signs of complacency that comes when you’ve had (until very recently) very little competition. Still, it didn’t matter. It was on the beach and we had the most amazing view (every so often I have to pinch myself to check that I’m not dreaming I’m in the Galapagos) over the bay. And we negotiated a discount on the hotel because of some of the problems which will probably be spent on vino.

We were a bit ‘toured-out’ (as well as short of cash – no ATMs on the island and few places took Mastercard) so we spent the week largely on the beach where sea-iguanas scraped out their nests next to where we lay and sea-lions swam around us when we went into the sea.

So after 4 weeks on the islands what ground breaking theories did we develop? Well, none actually. The islands really are truly beautiful. Each of the three we visited has stunning beaches and on each the wildlife if not tame is generally indifferent to humans and treat the place as much theirs as the humans.

Back in the mid to late 1800’s Ecuador offered up the Galapagos to the British as collateral for a loan, the French decided they wanted to rent it and the USA tried to claim it was unclaimed so they could take it. None of these moves succeeded. If the British had got it we’d have probably turned it into a penal colony as we have a tendency to do when we find a place with wonderful weather and great beaches, the French would have probably either used the fertile land to create massive vineyards or tested nukes on it and the Americans would have drilled for oil and dug for minerals before handing it over to become a Disney-fied nature reserve for the few remaining animals to have survived the drilling and digging. 

Thankfully the Ecuadorians didn’t give the islands up and it’s perhaps the lackadaisical attitude to work that preserved the islands in the state they were in until it was made a UNESCO site which limits development across the islands. There are still problems – not enough of the money generated by the Islands stays on the islands and from what I can see that will stay the way until people here get more ‘commercial’ and start offering alternatives to the ‘boat-stays’, an ever-growing population needing more land and invasive plant and animal species threatening natives plants and animals. Solutions to these issues aren’t easy and I’m not in a position to suggest any.

But what I would say is that if you ever have the opportunity to visit these islands, do so. Don’t stay on the luxury liner. Stay in hotels (but perhaps not the Ablemarle) and move around the islands. Take the tours and go snorkelling or diving in the clean, warm waters. Go hiking in the wetter, but still warm, highlands. These really are magical islands. There are very few places where you can get so close to so many different animals, fish and birds. The beaches are wonderful and the weather fabulous.   

Darwin did five weeks here. We’ve stayed four. We could easily stay another four weeks and we still wouldn’t have seen everything there is here. And we still probably wouldn’t have formulated any earth-shattering theories.

Sadly we've now just 3 months left before we have to return to the UK and the days seem to be going so fast now. Anyway next up is a stint in an animal rehab centre in the Peruvian rainforest. 
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Andy Howell on

Another corking entry, especially enjoyed the Tortoise Porn section in the middle. Must be a bit disconcerting for the Tortoises having all that Barry White blarring out - not exactly natural selection. Anyway, looking forward to your report from the Peruvian animal rehab - I presume you'll be wrestling a crack pipe of a monkey that's gone completely 'Charlie Sheen'. Cheers.

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