MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Musings of a Volunteer

I had wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Scotland, I was enthralled with the multitude of BBC nature documentaries on the television and David Attenborough has been a regular on my television screen for most of my life. As an adult, I have been able to combine my love of travel with the ability to spend more quality time in a place by donating my time and my skills where I can. I spent 3 months volunteering in South Africa when I graduated, and to this day, that trip still remains one of my life’s most defining times. Prior to moving to New Zealand, I spent a month volunteering in the beautiful pacific island of Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cook Islands, and this year, despite a lot of difficulties with visas, I finally got to live my dream by heading to Santa Cruz, the most inhabited island in the Galapagos, to volunteer for a month.

Government Office, Puerto AyoraVolunteering is an excellent chance to meet, integrate and work with people from different countries and cultures, and with everyone’s dates varying, the collection of fellow volunteers is an ever changing melting pot. There were 5 other volunteers for varying time lengths during my month stay there, and everyone was from somewhere different. Not only out of work, but in the working environment, it was interesting to learn new things from different people’s experiences. But in particular, I enjoy learning more about the local culture and politics than is usually possible as a tourist and am often fascinated by what makes the local town or government or community tick.

There are some talks amongst the people of Galapagos about trying to become independent from the country of Ecuador. I’m sure other islands or provinces in other countries can relate: their hard-earned money goes to a government far far away and in return they get only a relatively small percentage of investment and funding. Also decisions about their economy, their health and their education are made by people far far away, and it has led to many people in the Galapagos feeling short-changed. Whilst I was there, there was both a rally and a demonstration about some of these matters. One of the big things that I learned, is that when tourists book and pay for their Galapagos tours whilst abroad, through travel agents, that money goes into the financial pockets of mainland Ecuador. However, when tours are paid for whilst already in the islands, that money goes directly into the local economy. As the majority of tours are booked before reaching the islands, the majority of income generated from Galapagos tourism isn’t actually going to the people of Galapagos directly, instead it goes first to mainland Ecuador and then divvied up. Had I known this, and had I known how relatively easy it is to book a tour whilst in the islands, I may have booked my trip differently.

The growth of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San CristobalAnother thing that surprised me was the level of construction taking place on the island. There is little fresh water in the archipelago, so drinking water is shipped in bottled. There is one de-salination plant in the whole archipelago, and this means that there is a shortage of fresh water. Growth of Puerto Ayora, Santa CruzEach building is supplied water for only a few hours a day, which then needs to be stored in large tanks and rationed. The islands are very strict with recycling materials, but everything that is collected needs to be shipped back to the mainland. Growth of Puerto Villamil, IsabelaDespite all this and more, new buildings are going up left, right and centre. On one particular occasion, I spoke to an Ecuadorian man who pointed out that the new hotel next to where we sat was being built too close to the sea, and was not taking into consideration the higher tides and storms that can hit the region on occasion. Population & Visitor graph at the San Cristobal Interpretation CentreIt was a story I had heard before in Fiji when, privy to some local knowledge, we learned that a foreign investor was building a large reception hall on the opposite side of an island to what the locals recommended. The locals were fully aware of potential for storm damage on the southern side, but the foreign investor ignored them. Back in the Galapagos, it seemed that enthusiasm for the all-important sea view was over-riding local common sense. Both the local population is on the increase as well as tourism numbers, meaning more accommodation and support buildings and new streets are needed. With the exception of Floreana, all the other 3 inhabited islands’ towns have grown in size greatly in the last few decades. Two of the islands I visited also bare the scars from quarries that have been dug into what is supposed to be one of Earth’s untouched wonders.

These effects lead on to some conservation issues which I had my eyes opened to whilst I was there. Advertised as one of the few places on earth that is relatively untouched, and containing such unique wildlife, since the days of human habitation, there has been a lot of irreparable damage. Cute dog in Puerto AyoraAside from the earlier explorers eating the tortoises and sending several species extinct, they introduced mammals both accidentally and deliberately which not only challenged some species survival directly but also introduced disease. Cat wandering the streets of FloreanaCurrently there is a pox virus rampaging through some of the endemic bird species. Road kill is also an all-too-common occurrence. With the increase in people, there is an increase in vehicles and roads, and this has led to iguanas and birds especially, being hit and killed on impact. Restaurant named after the tick parasite, prevalent on Santa Cruz's dogsOne of the buses I was on, hit and killed a native bird whilst we were on our way to go on a boat trip to see some of the native birds. The irony was discomforting. But I was equally surprised by the attitudes of some of the locals. Many are so reliant on tourism for money, but as a vet volunteering at a free veterinary clinic, I was surprised by how many people didn’t want to neuter their cats and dogs who were just left to wander the streets, and in the case of the cats, were hunting the native species. Mural in Puerto AyoraThey didn’t seem to consider, or appreciate, or care, that these introduced species had a huge impact on the native species, which are what the tourists come to see. Ticks were a common problem, and these ticks carried diseases which were also a common problem. But some people relied on breeding dogs to sell the pups as an added source of income. Lonesome GeorgeIt is a conundrum. Thankfully though, with such public awareness to the wonders of this archipelago, there is no shortage of research work being undertaken there, and new discoveries continue to be made. There are also some of the islands which are off-limits to tourists and some parts of the national park are out-of-bounds unless accompanied by a park guide. With so much at stake, I for one am interested to see what will happen to one of the Earth’s gems in my lifetime. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be resoundingly positive.

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9 thoughts on “Musings of a Volunteer

  1. Fi, we haven’t made it to the Galapagos yet, but it’s definitely on the list. I wasn’t aware of most of the issues you mentioned, bus alas, it doesn’t come as a surprise. We tourists, whether from indifference, ignorance, or by accident, leave a footprint. And as we become more mobile, the globe gets smaller and smaller, and the crowds get bigger and bigger. But the silver lining in all this are people like you who volunteer and help to spread the word. Thanks and great post. ~James

    • Thanks for stopping by. It is still very much a magical place so definitely worth a visit but I found some things rather surprising. It is definitely getting harder to find places that haven’t been moulded by tourism. The more I travel the more I notice these things.

  2. A very interesting read. Some of your discoveries was surprising to me as well to learn about. And I was not aware of all the infrastructure being developed. After growing up with David Attenborough on the screen I had imagines Galapagos as a remote location with no / little influence by humans.

    • Indeed! The islands initial inhabitants were mainly criminals & their guards, neither of whom wanted to be there. How times have changed! There are definitely large parts of the archipelago that are more natural & less touched but it is impossible to go to the islands without witnessing some form of human interference be it the quarries, the roadkill on Santa Cruz, the tourist shops or the dogs wandering freely around the back streets. My favourite island was Isabela which was quiet and felt natural but even there the flamingos live in a lake that formed in a man-made quarry. I certainly don’t want to sell the place short: it is still a very magical place to visit with so much wildlife but I do worry about what the impact of growth & tourism will have on the place over the coming decades.

  3. When I visited the galapagos in 2011 (I was volunteering in San Cristobal), I fell in love with isabela island. A few months ago, I saw picture on the internet of the new hotel they were building over there. I wanted to cry. I snorkeled over there, it was beautiful, there was a little mangrove… and now.. it’s a f*cking 5 stars hotel. I fear for the galapagos, because despite being a national park I have the feeling there is a lot of corruption

    • Isabela is my favourite island too & still is full of peacefulness & charm but yes, the view from the balcony of my hotel was onto a building site as more accommodation was being built. I don’t know if you visited Santa Cruz or not but that island displayed the most concerns to me. The archipelago is still an incredibly magical place to visit but I fear tourism will ruin it. It is too accessible now & the numbers of locals & tourists has sharply increased over the last decade which brings nothing but construction & destruction in my mind.

      • Yes, I’ve visited Santa Cruz as well, it was already very well developed at that time (lots of luxury accommodations). On isabela, there was only a couple of small bnb/hotel … and you know, we didn’t even book, we turn out over there, rang to the first bnb.. there was room.. was cheap.. I don’t think it will be possible in the future. They will build these massive resort that will ruin everything 😥

  4. Excellent post and thank you so much for sharing this with me. I’m going to share now via twitter. It is a great fit with sustainable travel.

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