The Galpagos Island that time forgot

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Isla Isabela, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
By Caroline Joyner

As I sit on the white sand beach looking out at the ocean, I realize that I am the only person here. The only sounds are the crashing waves, and the omnipresent bark of the Galápagos sea lions. My eye is drawn to something dark in the shallows of the shoreline. I watch transfixed as a huge marine iguana crawls out of the water onto the beach. He is a remarkable looking creature with dragon-like features: a line of sharp spines along his back, black scaly skin and a long tail bringing his length to about one meter. He waddles back into the water and gracefully swishes his tail as he swims off to sit on a lava rock nearby. There I watch him sit, staring at nothing into the distance for the next 2 hours. Such is the life of a marine iguana.

Dusk falls on the quaint streets of Isabela
Dusk falls on the quaint streets of Isabela

As the world’s only sea-going lizard and being endemic to the Galápagos, his presence would usually be accompanied by frenzied clicking of cameras and murmurs of astonishment, but not here. Unlike the other inhabited islands of the archipelago which are laden with wildlife hungry tourists, Isla Isabela has virtually none.

Of the inhabited Galápagos islands, Isabela is the only one that the trappings of modern tourism have left relatively alone. In the tiny town, Puerto Villamil, there are none of the paved roads, American-style cafes and restaurants, tour agencies and souvenir shops by the dozen that characterise the main towns on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. Of the thousands of tourists that are herded around the other “enchanted” islands each week, very few make it here. Only one eight-seater light airplane and one small speedboat arrive and depart each day.

However the tourists that do make it here are never disappointed. This island has everything and more to offer in terms of wildlife and scenery. Isabela is the largest and most westerly inhabited island in the archipelago, covering 58% of its total land mass. At least one of her five intermittently active volcanoes dominates your line of vision at any given time. Some can be explored by foot or by horse, providing spectacular vistas of the whole island and the chance to stumble across a lumbering giant tortoise in the wild. In addition to this, Isabela is home to one of the Galápagos’s few colonies of penguins, a lagoon where you can snorkel face to face with dozens of resting white tipped sharks, a beach where hundreds of marine iguanas scramble over each other, and several more unique visitor sites to the north of the island.

However, the real beauty of Isabela lies in its eerie sense of times past. Streets still made of sand, houses made of corrugated tin or wood, street-lamps made from crooked branches, and an atmosphere so un-hurried it is doubtful that “stress” has ever entered the vocabulary of its residents. The air has a humid tinge to it, and the swaying palms and 3 kilometers of white sand beach lend it a balmy sub-tropical feel.

As well as offering a tantalizing glimpse into the past of the Galápagos islands, there is a sense of remoteness about the people that could add a whole new side to Darwin’s famous theory of evolution, born here 170 years ago. Having nothing to do seems to be the only thing there is to do. A few fishing boats wait at the port, the town’s only four policeman perform their daily exercises in front of the police station, and the families who have converted their houses into a shop or restaurant seem to relish the lack of customers as they sit chatting on the street for most of the day. Children stop their street games to stare as the white faces of tourists. “Hola Tourista,” called out one little girl as I walked by.

However, one night I am sitting in Puerto Villamil’s cozy Beach Bar, looking up at the huge starry sky when I discover that change is looming on the horizon for this wonderful island. Lazing on a hammock next to me is Ricardo, one of the handful of people who manage to make a living out of tourism here. He leads groups on horseback to the Sierra Negra Volcano’s steaming fumeroles and ten kilometer wide crater, the second largest volcanic crater in the world. Like most “Galápagueños”, he has a somewhat lackadaisical approach to life and spends much of his time in the bar pondering life and its meaning. I discovered one thing, however, that arouses his fervor. He tells me in animated tones about plans for a new airport and commercial flights from the mainland. “It’s what we have been dreaming of,” he says suddenly sitting bolt upright in his hammock. “Finally our beautiful island will get a slice of the action”. His friend Marco is equally excited. He tells me about his plans to open a shop catering to tourists here and asks me what I think he should sell in it. When I tell him tourists would probably prefer the island as it is, with few shops selling limited items he is surprised. “But on the other islands you can buy anything,” he says.

The Sierra Negra volcano
The Sierra Negra volcano

A differing viewpoint comes from the island’s only foreign resident, Dora, a Swiss Hotel owner who has spent the last 14 years building her life and business here. She confirms that yes TAME, Ecuador’s national airline, will be flying into Isabela twice a week from August this year. Although her income is also generated by tourism she is cynical about the prospect of change. “It will damage the ecology and beauty of this island more than the benefit it will bring,” she explains. “The locals imagine the big bucks of tourism rolling in but what they don’t realize is that working in tourism is a 24/7 job for very little money. The big money in the Galápagos is only from the cruise boats and their guides, there’s little money in anything else.” She herself has been trying to help local fisherman by giving them tourists to take out on their boats but “they just don’t know how to treat tourists,” she continues, “my guests were complaining that they were grumpy!” It seems unlikely that a community built on fishing and agriculture could fully visualize the impact of tourism.

Dora has more grave concerns than these though. Apparently the Mayor of Puerto Villamil “is intent on giving the town as much concrete as possible.” He has ordered all the hotels to construct concrete walls, and for her that means dismantling the ecologically-sound wooden fence surrounding the guesthouse. The guesthouse was built to blend in with the surroundings and prides itself in being ecologically sound, a concrete wall would clearly spoil this. “The nearest hotel to us has already complied with this though,” she sighs. “He also wants to pave the sand roads and put more and brighter street lights up.” Though Puerto Villamil is dimly lit at night, without traffic or crime, but this only adds to its unique character.

Back in the 1970s the tourist hub of Isla Santa Cruz received its first paved road, and there followed the growth of a small port to the sprawling, commercialized town it is today. San Cristóbal survived with dirt roads until 8 years ago, and even in the last 3 years the addition of a disco and now a stage to the main square has sent the resident sea lions scurrying to beaches outside the town.

Cycling next to the never-ending beach
Cycling next to the never-ending beach

However these islands represent the image of Isabela’s future to many of her residents. The preservation of the authenticity of Puerto Villiamil and the wildlife that frequents nearby beaches, rocks and lagoons is a concern of few. Perhaps this attitude is a function of the remoteness of the Galápagos – many have never been out of the islands, how could they be expected to truly understand the significance of its treasures? Conservation efforts continue to be focused on scientific research rather than on empowering the inhabitants with an appreciation of the special environment they call home. Environmental education in this community could play a large part in its fate. The community of Puerto Villamil must be able to participate in its own solution to preserving one of the most unique places this planet has left.





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