“Want to go camping in Puerto Chino with us? asked Alexandra. That’s what started our friendship with a bunch of great people in San Cristobal Island. The Galapagos was made famous by Charles Darwin for their animal life. But, they have some of the most wonderful people we’ve met in our travels, and it is more accessible than we ever thought.
(All the people live in four – yes, 4! – nice towns spread around the archipelago. Two of the towns have airports; hotels have varying prices of $25/night and up; restaurants have meals with decent prices of $5 and up)
Alexandra is a Galapagueña resident but is originally from North Carolina. She married a local guy a few years back, then went to the same graduate program I went to: the Bren School of Environmental Science. She introduced us to a group of friends with a fascinating international mix.
More people live in the Galapagos than one realizes. Out of the archipelago’s 12 islands, 4 islands are inhabited… The biggest town is in the island of Santa Cruz, with 12,000 people! There would be a lot more – because of the high wages and affluence – except the Ecuadorian government doesn’t allow its own citizens to move to the islands unless they have a special work permit or residency permit.
“How do you get to live here?” Is a common question we asked our new friends. Nico was from Miami but his Ecuadorian dad had a concession to farm in the highlands, and he was working there. Hosanna was from Australia and had married a local German-Ecuadorian naturalist guide named Ben; who we are convinced is the best guide in the archipelago.
The island of San Cristobal itself has around 6,000 people, a really nice waterfront, and some fancy restaurants. Everything is close by and convenient: you can even walk to the airport! It is the regional capital of Galapagos because it has the best port and best water supply.
However, Santa Cruz grew larger because it is the geographic center of the archipelago (handy for tourism) and it has the best airport, located in the adjacent island of Baltra. This was a U.S. military base during WW2, so the transportation infrastructure was put in place. It is also the hub for all the non-profits that work in the islands’ conservation.
Isabela is the largest island, but only a tiny section on the south is habitable; the remainder is largely lava fields. It has five volcanos, all active. The town is more of a large village, with 2000 residents. Thanks to the unusual natural environment of lava-carved “mangroves” and ponds, and great beaches, this is the prettiest town to spend time in.
The last inhabited island is Floreanna, which has a little more than 100 year round residents. It has a bizarre history complete with utopia-seeking German immigrants and a murder mystery with colorful characters. Learn all about it in the documentary “Satan Comes to Eden“. Floreanna isn’t visited frequently because of an erratic ferry schedule and limited activities around the township, but many visitors love it for its authentic, “Galapagos settlement” feeling. A few of the original immigrants including the Wittmer family continue to live there and run Hotel Wittmer, which is full of personality.
Before it was a national park, Galapagos has gone through many variations. I’m not sure why, but it never had a native population (unlike virtually every island group in the Pacific) which is an important reason the animals endured so well. In the 18th century it was a stopping point for European ships exploring the Pacific. It also became an outpost for whalers in the 19th century. Ecuador then annexed the islands in the 20th century and built a prison and promoted agriculture. After WW2 very few people lived on the islands, but that all changed in the 70s once it became a national park and major tourism destination.
Now, it is easy to forget we’re in Ecuador. Everything is relatively organized and very safe. The government realized it was sitting on a golden goose, and it has done a good job of protecting the goose’s egg. Or should we say, the tortoise’s egg?!