The Galapagos

Robert Westbrook Issue: Section:

sabela! I always put an exclamation point after it in my mind, an island that’s as close to perfect as anything I've ever found. The British called it Albemarle when they were here – after the Duke of Albemarle, some forgotten aristocrat – and I imagine pirates and whalers called it something else still.
     Lovely Isabela is the largest island in the Galápagos Archipelago, but the least populated of the three islands that have permanent human settlements. The equator runs right across the northern edge, which puts Isabela on the fatty bulge of the Earth's stomach, about 500 miles off the Ecuador coast in the Pacific Ocean.
     Among the facts you'll hear about Isabela is that it’s beautiful. Everyone says that. The second is that there are five active volcanoes – there used to be six, but even volcanoes die. It’s 790 square miles in size, slightly larger than Oahu, 62 miles long, and with approximately 2000 permanent inhabitants of the human kind, mostly in Puerto Villamil, a small fishing village on the southeastern tip.
     Only one of its few roads, none of them paved, ventures into the wild interior, to a small settlement of farms in the highlands where  most of the vegetables eaten on the island are grown. There are only a few dozen cars and pickup trucks and not a single stoplight or traffic sign. There are no banks, no ATM machines – bring cash! – and very often the primitive water system fails for hours at a time. At night there are no sounds but the roll of the surf and the swish of wind through the coconut palms.
     Every ten days, a supply boat comes from the mainland to deliver food, petrol, and such basic necessities as beer and wine. Occasionally by the eighth or ninth day, all the wine will be gone, not a drop left on the entire island, guzzled by the handful of thirsty foreigners who live here, and who now must keep an eagle eye on the horizon for any sign of the supply ship’s arrival. When you run out of wine in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you are really, really out.
     The most closely guarded secret about the Galápagos Islands is that you can come here cheaply as an independent traveler – you don't need to sign on with an expensively packaged tour boat. Flights from Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador arrive every day to either Santa Cruz, the most developed island in the group, or at San Cristobal where the surfers like to go. Once you are in the archipelago, you can remain for up to three months, a limit that applies to Ecuadorian visitors as well as foreigners, to everyone except the colonistas, the small but growing number who have been granted residency.
     The islands are a major source of cash for the Ecuador government, and there’s tension between those who want to protect the pristine environment and those who are hungry for development. At the moment, nearly all of the archipelago is protected parkland, off-limits to development, but the towns are growing – more hotels, restaurants, T-shirt emporiums, and cute little beach bars every year.
     Gail and I flew into Santa Cruz and spent our first month in a small apartment we rented for $300 a month on the outskirts of Puerto Ayora. Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the islands, where most tourists arrive to catch their boats and maybe pause long enough to visit Lonesome George, a huge old tortoise, the last of his kind, the evolutionary dead end of his species – a lonesome fate, indeed – who lives out his well-photographed days at the nearby Charles Darwin Center. Charles Darwin, of course, is very big in the Galápagos. You can't go far without seeing him on T-shirts and town murals. He’s always shown as an old man with white hair and a long white beard. But in fact, when the HMS Beagle brought him to these islands he was a young man.
     Puerto Ayora is a pretty little port with a wonderful beach that’s a forty minute hike out of town – a beach you need to share with huge marine iguanas, little dinosaurs who waddle past your beach towel inches from where you're working on your tan. Still, Santa Cruz is a bit too crowded with discos and dive shops and freshly arrived foreigners perfectly dressed for any safari in tan shorts and good walking shoes, binoculars strung around their necks. We kept meeting backpackers with serene smiles and suntanned faces who told us quietly, “Isabela! . . if you really want to see the Galápagos, go to Isabela!”
     So we went.
     There are two ways to get to Isabela if you're not with a pricey tour group – you can fly in a dangerous one-engine plane that bobs up and down on the air currents, or you can take an even more dangerous speedboat, a three hour trip (depending on the weather) that leaves once a day.
     We chose the speedboat, a small vessel maybe twenty feet long with two 70 hp outboard motors on the back. The boat was called Capitan Freud and I sensed from my own years in psychoanalysis that we were in for a rough ride. There were twelve of us squeezed into the interior with all our backpacks and the first thing the skipper did was pass out life vests. The second thing he did was tell a lie to the Ecuadorian Navy on his radio, informing them that he was carrying only eight of us, which I assumed was the prescribed limit – my Spanish was just good enough to catch this fib.  I have to admit, it caused me some worry.

We eased out of the port and as soon we were clear of the flotilla of tour boats, our capitan pulled back hard on the twin throttles, the bow lifted in the air, and off we went with a roar, smashing through the waves, both outboard engines churning with all their might.
     WHACK! We hit the first big swell and I was certain the small boat was going to shatter to pieces. But our good Capitan Freud didn't slow down for a moment. WHACK! The bow came down with all its might, again and again.
     How that small craft survived the journey, I can't say. All around me, the other passengers were throwing up and weeping. Some were praying. My strategy to deal with imminent death was to keep tightening my life vest until I could barely breathe. I would describe it as a joy ride without the joy. Every time we smashed down against a swell, everyone in the boat screamed.
     After three hours, mercifully, the skipper relaxed the throttle, the bow settled upon the surface, and we glided over tranquil water into a bay protected by reefs and a string of tiny islands, some of them hardly more than a dozen feet wide.
     The water was so clear here you could see the sandy bottom, as well as the huge shapes of manta rays gliding underneath. Sea lions popped their heads up in greeting. A flock of blue-footed boobies circled overhead, then fell into the sea like arrows, all together, in search of some hidden feast. One of the tiny islands we passed was full of penguins, the small Galápagos variety, as well as huge marine iguanas. Up ahead, a small wooden wharf came out into the water from the green tangle of mangrove trees.
     We were in Isabela.
     Puerto Villamil is a dusty little port, only a tentative stab at civilization, a tiny outpost set against the vastness of nature. There’s a strip of development along the beach, a few small hotels and guest houses, and an old pier with a restaurant on the end, The Sea Lion, that opens when the owner is in the mood. Back from the beach is a sleepy town square, a few straggly dirt streets, a post office, and a dozen or so small grocery stores that don't have many goods on the shelves, particularly in the last few days before the supply boat arrives.
     A dirt road runs through the town, east to west, and is so empty of traffic that sometimes the local people use the road for impromptu horse races. There’s a bakery, a municipal building, a school whose walls are cracked green plaster, and a small fenced-off compound for the Ecuadorian Navy, just in case Peru, the arch-enemy, decides to attack. Behind the town, there are several brackish lagoons where pink flamingoes stand on one leg and meditate on the meaning of life. At the end of town, the beach continues for another few miles, one of the loveliest white-sand beaches in the Galápagos.
     By asking around, we quickly found a small one-room cabin behind the Casa Rosada, a guest house on the western edge of town, that the family was willing to rent to us for $200 a month. The cabin sat in the shade of coconut trees across the dirt road from the beach. It was small but brand new, and it had everything we needed – a stove, a bed, a table, two white plastic chairs, screens on the windows to keep out the prehistoric bugs, and a bathroom with a shower (cold water only, but that’s all right on the equator). There was no refrigerator, but the family at the Casa Rosada let us store food in the refrigerator there.
     The Casa Rosada had a sign outside that advertised fresh sushi.  We saw only one guest the entire time we were there, an elderly lady from Switzerland, and I think the sushi was wishful thinking, a distant memory from when two Japanese men had owned the place a few years earlier. The Japanese had an illegal business harvesting sea cucumbers and they managed to disappear after eight months without ever getting caught. Throughout the Galápagos, there’s a good deal of this sort of thing – illegal money to be made by poaching from the incredible abundance of nature.
     We never did figure out entirely the present family structure of our landlords, the colonistas who owned the Casa Rosada – more women were in evidence than men, two very cheerful middle-aged sisters, an old lady who seemed to be the matriarch, and a number of happy children. Every morning, the middle-aged sisters brought us papaya and bananas and sometimes fresh fish when there was a catch.
     Our lives soon settled down into a quiet island rhythm. Gail volunteered at the nearby Giant Tortoise Breeding Center where she spent every day raking up giant turtle poop and making sure they had enough water and leaves to eat.

It’s necessary to take a human hand in breeding the giant land tortoises on Isabela because the five active volcanoes explode every few years and threaten many species with extinction. The pirates and whalers who used to come here didn't help matters either, taking thousands of these turtles for food.
     I spent my mornings working on a novel and my afternoons beach combing and swimming in the turquoise water which was just the right temperature. It was mating season for the marine turtles and we often found them having sex in the surf, orgiastic groups of threes and fours, flippers caressing rounded turtle backs – the Galápagos version of From Here to Eternity.

The islands are teeming with life, sometimes very strange life indeed, and you can see a lot of it underwater with a mask and snorkel. The sea lions are very playful and will swim right up to your mask, give you a kind of flipper high-sign, and welcome you to their realm. At sunset, Gail and I generally sat on the beach with a glass of wine to watch the evening explosion of color. Sometimes pink flamingoes flew by in pairs, very romantic – although pink flamingoes in the air look somewhat like pregnant golf clubs, not terribly aerodynamic. And every night, we fell asleep to the soothing roll of the surf, the endless crash and roar.

Ah, Isabela! If it hadn't been for the three-month limit, we might be there still, de-evolving into a shaggy island peace, shipwrecked sailors, happy as prehistoric clams.

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