I dreamed I was in a land full of giant reptiles; lumbering, armor-plated creatures that hissed at me and yet moved so slowly that one crossing the road could tie up traffic for an hour. I dreamed I was floating, in complete calm and comfort, while curvy brown mammals spun around me and each other in playful joy, while huge schools of rainbow-colored fish passed all around me, while graceful, brown-shelled behemoths glided underneath with a wave of their fins. I dreamed I was walking and breathing on Mars, surrounded by red and black rocks, deep craggy craters, and tall, conical volcanoes. I dreamed I was on a sunny beach that seemed endless, with white sand, bright teal waves, diving pelicans, and a hammock in the shade.
To see our photo galleries of the three islands we visited, including a new gallery on San Cristóbal, click here or on Photos above.
When I awoke, I was on mainland Ecuador again, had reliable internet access, and the real-life news of the world was not good. The Galápagos are technically a part of Ecuador, but they are truly a world of their own, living by their own rules, with daily experiences and encounters you won’t find anywhere else. World events seem so distant and dim when the sea lions are clustered on the beach, when blue- and red-footed birds are calling and dancing on a shoreside cliff, when the waves are breaking and the cumbia music playing.
It was not a dream; the Galápagos exist and we were there. But it now feels like one. We are reading about the horrific war crimes and heroic stands in Ukraine, rising prices and battles over civil rights in the U.S., new Covid strains, and what feels like an existential conflict between democracy and autocracy at home and around the world.
And yet all that still feels far away—we are now living a new dream in Santa Marianita, a small fishing village on a beach near Manta, on the mid-coast of Ecuador. It’s a gorgeous beach town known for kite-surfing, with a two-mile-long stretch of beach bookended by cliffs, with spectacular sunsets. It’s as hot here as it was in Galápagos, but we are in a comfortable apartment with reliable ocean breezes in the evening and air conditioning when we need it. But there’s something about the Galápagos that is even more dreamlike.
We were unusual tourists in that we stayed a full week on each of the three most populated islands. Most tourists experience the islands on a cruise or stay a couple of days on each island at most. That’s enough, actually, to see the headline sights: the land tortoise preserve, sea lions on the beach and by the docks, blue-footed boobies on the rocks, sea turtles and sharks while snorkeling. Those things alone are worth the trip. By having the incredible privilege of staying longer, we got a small sense of the character of each island, learned about their history and geology, saw the animals in more than one context, and had a small glimpse of what it might be like to live there. A few things we observed:
Conservation and pride—We’ve seen so much caring and love among locals for the islands; those we spoke with truly seemed to see themselves as stewards of the environment, each other, and making the future sustainable. Locals have been trained by the national park service to be guides and they happily share stories about how their families came to be there and what they love most about the islands. Guides routinely pick up any stray pieces of trash or plastic they might see; cars wait patiently for giant tortoises that have wandered onto the roads; we saw several “mingas” (community volunteering events) where dozens of people come together to benefit the community, such as clearing out invasive plants from the roadside. Locals still stop and appreciate playful sea lions, glowing sunsets, and leaping dolphins. They also express caution and concern about their future. Those on lightly-populated Isabela are trying to prevent what they see as overdevelopment on Santa Cruz from happening to their island. And all the islands are pursuing alternative energy sources, from solar-powered street lights to wind farms to electric cars and scooters (though many are charged by diesel generators!).
Inconvenience and survival—On Isabela, a cargo boat arrives every two weeks and it can take a week to unload everything. We went to one restaurant where they apologized for not having broccoli because it was still on the boat. On Santa Cruz, you have to make an official request to the government to buy a car, which are shipped over 600 miles from the mainland and are tightly restricted to keep the number of cars low. There are no movie theaters and streaming video is still impossible due to the slow internet. Nearly all transactions must be in cash—which must be particularly challenging for tourist agencies that charge thousands of dollars for multi-day trips. Some restaurants and outfitters now take credit cards (though they typically charge fees up to 20% for credit transactions) but mostly people line up at the few ATMs (when they’re working) to get cash. One must be a Galápagos native or married to one in order to work and live there, a restriction that seems like a great strategy for protecting the ability of natives to make a living. As much as 80% of their economy is dependent on tourism by some estimates—beyond park guides, there are also boat captains and crews, water- and land-based taxi drivers, and of course numerous shops and restaurants that rely on tourists. There is also fishing and agriculture in areas that support it, growing organic fruits and vegetables that are typically scooped up immediately by local restaurants before they reach the markets.
Identity and culture—Isabela’s port has a relaxed, small-town beach vibe and is the most remote of the inhabited islands; Santa Cruz has the largest town, largest airport, and most amenities and activities; San Cristobal has the Galápagos capital city yet it feels a bit more like a party town. If I were to assign a mascot to each, Isabela’s would be the sea turtle—we saw hundreds of them on various excursions there, and they seem as laid-back and relaxed as the island. Santa Cruz’s would be the giant land tortoise due to its size and the fact that nearly every excursion requires a trip back across the hump of the island, where the land tortoises live in the wild. San Cristobal’s would be the sea lion, because hundreds, if not thousands, line up on the shore of the harbor every night, the same way that tourists crowd the streets and bars. But each island also has its own unique highlights and attributes, from exquisitely beautiful beaches to hardened-lava volcanoes to at least one distinct craft beer on each island—one of our favorites (on San Cristobal only) was called, appropriately, “Endemica.”
In my naive vision of these islands before arriving, I had expected rocky outposts with a few scientists and small, rugged cruise ships stopping by occasionally to see the wildlife in their natural, undisturbed environment. I did not understand that there were thriving communities, wildly varying micro-climates, Caribbean-like waters, and a history of human exploitation and cruelty that only recently has spun toward protection and conservation. The islands were never connected to any continent, and most countries saw no value in them until Ecuador claimed them in the late 19th Century. As late as the 1950s, there were vicious penal colonies on the islands and some tortoises (and likely other species) were hunted to extinction. The islands themselves are young in geological terms and still developing, with active volcanoes adding new landmass to the westernmost islands when they erupt (as recently as January).
This volatile history and geography interrupts the dream. It reminds us that global politics and crises are not as far away as they seem. One person we met shared his fear that if Ecuador fails to pay its outsized debt, it could lose the islands to China. I have not been able to verify that fear, but the debt part is true; recent news articles indicate that Ecuador is actively renegotiating its multi-billion-dollar debt with China and has innovatively proposed swapping some debt in exchange for the global value of increased conservation.
We feel incredibly fortunate and grateful to have visited Galapagos, especially given the hardships afflicting so many around the world. Our photos will remind us that our memories are not from a dream, but from a real place with a real history and real people who live there—and these precious islands still need to be protected from the ever-changing threats and mistakes made by humans.