2017-06-20 07:53:02
Explorer: In the Footsteps of Charles Darwin

The Galápagos Islands, with their gorgeous scenery, unparalleled and rare wildlife unafraid of humans, and paramount historical and scientific importance, were once a place you saved for years to see, a splurge that made a ski trip to Aspen look positively cheap in comparison. The only way to visit was by cruise ship, or by living aboard a boat, which put the cost, when combined with flights to the Ecuadorean mainland and then to the islands, out of the reach of many travelers.

But in the last 10 years, the government of Ecuador has allowed land-based tourism into its famous province. Although a cruise is still the best way to see the islands, and the only way to see some of them, travelers on a budget now have some appealing options. A land-based trip is more affordable and still lets you experience the highlights of a Galápagos adventure, without having to sleep on a pitching vessel.

If you’re going to the Galápagos as a land-based traveler, you will need flexibility, good humor and patience. Be prepared for uncoordinated and poorly communicated boat times, confusing directions, mistaken guidebooks and rapidly-changing laws. That said, my 10-day trip to the Galápagos from New York cost less than $2,000, including airfare. I visited Quito, Ecuador’s capital, as well as three of the islands, where I met quite a few budget travelers, dispelling the myth that the Galápagos are only for the rich.

It was a vastly different experience than the one I met when I had last traveled to the islands, 20-plus years previously, on a luxury cruise ship with my parents. On this recent trip my primary motivation was research for a novel-in-progress, and my budget was tight. I was pleasantly surprised by how economical the trip could be.

The Galápagos are an archipelago of 20 islands, originally called the Enchanted Islands, and made famous by Charles Darwin, who visited the islands in 1835, later formulating his theory of evolution based on his trip. Still, no one took much interest in them until World War II, when the United States opened an Air Force base on Seymour North, also known as Baltra. (The islands often have two or more names, in both Spanish and English, which can be confusing.) In the 1960s, the Ecuadorean government, having annexed the islands in 1832, woke up to their tourist potential, declared them a national park and got serious about their conservation. Visitors had to be accompanied by official government guides, and sleep aboard boats to limit environmental degradation.

When I first visited in 1992, the islands had a total population of just under 10,000; there were fewer than 40,000 tourists annually. Returning recently I found that visitors can now sleep on four of the islands, as well as visit several others on day trips. The total population of the Galápagos is close to 30,000 with an estimated 200,000 annual visitors.

Upon landing on the tarmac in Baltra (there is also an airport on San Cristóbal island, with daily flights to the mainland), the airlines spray the inside of the cabin while passengers are still seated, to kill any invasive species — a dubious welcome. Entrance requires a $100 fee, in exchange for an adorable cartoon tortoise and shark-shaped passport stamp.

After collecting their luggage and traveling through customs (mostly an agricultural search), boat dwellers are taken in an air-conditioned luxury bus to a nearby port, where they board their vessels. I chose to take a public bus to the biggest town, Puerto Ayora, on the adjacent Santa Cruz Island, for $1.

Like many sites in the Galápagos, the bus station was unmarked, but Galapagueños are extremely friendly and helpful. A multipart journey ensued: An overheated and ancient bus jolted me to the southern end of Baltra island, where I caught a glorified raft across the half-mile channel, then took another bus, for another dollar, to Puerto Ayora. Taxis from the Santa Cruz Ferry terminal to Puerto Ayora cost about $15. If this sounds complicated, well, it’s the islands.

I stayed with a friend, but budget options in Santa Cruz abound. Prices in Puerto Ayora range from $15 for a hostel to $500-a-night eco-luxury resorts. A comfortable room with a private bath and a functioning air-conditioning unit can be had for $40. The farther outside the main port area you go (nothing is more than a mile away), the cheaper the lodgings get. You can book in advance, or increase your chances of getting a deal by looking when you arrive and bargaining for a room that would otherwise go unoccupied. English is spoken in most establishments; traveler’s Spanish will get you far.

For nourishment, there is a row of Italian and seafood restaurants on Avenida Charles Darwin. One popular expat joint is Il Giardino. Appetizers range from $6 to $13; entrees start at $15 for pasta and go up to $35 for a mixed seafood grill. The budget option ($8 to $12 for plate meals, up to $25 for lobster), however, can be found on Charles Binford at Baltra Avenue, where food stalls and small restaurants serve Ecuadorean standards as well as fresh fish purchased at the morning market (follow the sea gulls). The most popular are Kiosko de Renato and K.F. William, but all serve similar seafood, plantains, rice and vegetables.

Puerto Ayora is not a party town, but there are bars that serve tourists until late, and one night my host took me to a free community party held by the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana in an outdoor amphitheater. A food truck sold beers for a dollar and empanadas for $2.50. This intergenerational, until-the-wee-hours gathering featured indigenous dancing (indigenous to the mainland, that is, as there’s no native human population on the islands), body painting, and a rock band whose lead singer performed wearing a bull’s skull.

A popular activity in Puerto Ayora is a visit to the Charles Darwin Foundation’s research center (free, self-guided, 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.). Exhibits explain its conservation efforts and showcase its tortoise-breeding ground. Other activities include the more extensive tortoise reserve called Reserva El Chato in Santa Rosa; either take a taxi ($20 to $40, ask the driver to wait) or ask the airport bus to drop you off (you’ll have a half-hour walk). Admission: $3.

Otherworldly lava tubes, natural tunnels formed by flowing lava moving beneath a hardened surface of cooled lava, some large enough to stand up in, are nearby ($3, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Additionally, local hikes are plentiful for all fitness levels, and approachable by bus or taxi (negotiate in advance if leaving the city; a round trip by taxi shouldn’t be more than $40, depending on how long the driver is asked to wait). There are also lovely beaches where kayaks are available to rent. But you won’t see much wildlife on Santa Cruz beyond the occasional sea turtle or Sally Lightfoot crab, maybe an iguana sunning on the beach, or a sea lion family frolicking nearby.

From Puerto Ayora there are three options for visiting other islands: book a passage on a multiday cruise; take day trips to small, nearby islands; or ride the public inter-island boat to spend the night on Floreana, Isabella or San Cristóbal Islands. I looked into all three options, but decided to spend a couple of days on Floreana, then return to Puerto Ayora for a day trip.

Traditionally, almost everyone visiting the Galápagos takes a multiday cruise. Residing on a boat offers a comprehensive way to see the islands, and there are discounts to be had if you book from the Galápagos themselves, though boats vary greatly in the quality of accommodations and guides.

The government has increased the presence of land-based tourism in an effort to benefit local residents, offering day boat transportation and allowing hotels on four islands. An estimated 45 percent of tourists now stay on land. It’s a new way of seeing the islands, and the trip brought me closer to both Galápagos residents and mainland Ecuadoreans. I experienced, if only for a few days, what it might be like to be real Galapagueña.

Of the islands travelers can visit without taking a cruise ship, I was most interested in Floreana; my novel “Enchanted Islands” is based on the life of Frances Conway, who lived there with her husband, Ainslie, in the 1930s and 40s. Conway was the author of two memoirs about their lives as homesteaders. I fell in love with her witty descriptions of Floreana life, her self-deprecating stories of foibles thereon and her reluctance to admit that she and her husband might have been spies for the United States. In short, a ripe subject for novelization. I took the inter-island boat to spend some time there. These trips fill up, so book from Puerto Ayora as soon as your plans are firm; any of the plethora of travel agencies along Avenida Darwin can help you purchase a ticket ($45). The two-hour trip, on hard benches, is a bumpy, sunburning voyage that you’ll wish was quickly over (note that depending on the weather the trip can be pleasant or nightmarish; in truly inclement weather, boats don’t run).

I had booked at the Floreana Lava Lodge beforehand ($138 per night), as it was the only lodging on the island for which I could find contact information. The lodge consists of luxury cabins complete with air conditioning (however the electricity is unreliable — it is run on local pine nut oil). I was the only one staying there, mimicking my protagonist Frances’ isolation in a way I wasn’t altogether comfortable with, but the next morning Claudio Cruz, who manages the property, sat down with me to a wonderful breakfast of fresh fruit grown on the island and local yogurt and cheese, to talk about his life.

Mr. Cruz is a native of Floreana, the son of 1940s settlers. He and his wife also own a guesthouse, the Casa Santa Maria. Besides Mr. Cruz’s properties there are five other lodging establishments; the most famous is the Hotel Wittmer, right on Black Beach (named for its black volcanic sand), which heats up to infernal temperatures and is overrun twice a day with groups of tourists who come and snorkel and then go back to their boats. Each room at the Wittmer has a balcony with a hammock. The other guesthouses are clean and comfortable, with bathrooms en suite. Some have air conditioning and include breakfast, at $30 to $40 a night. There is usually a vacancy, unless there is a school group or a large scientific research community. Each guesthouse consists of two or three rooms atop the proprietor’s house.

Floreana, with a small population of about 200, is not for the easily lonely. There are no stores and no real restaurants, and you are not allowed to bring any produce to the island (though granola bars, instant oatmeal and other packaged foods are fine), for fear of contamination. Erika Wittmer and her mother Floreanita will make dinner for $10 and, if you sweet talk them into it, lunch ($6). Oddly, if only because the Fräuleins Wittmer have never lived there, it is German food: pork, spaetzle, overcooked vegetables, a bit heavy for a tropical island. Claudio Cruz’s sister, Aura, cooks tastier food out of her home and restaurant — you’ll see the sign marking La Canchalagua. She will serve you at one of the two tables on her front porch if arrangements are made with her in advance. Meals are local fish and simple grilled meats, rice and vegetables (lunch $6, dinner $10 to $12). Nowhere on Floreana do you get to choose your meal (though accommodations may be possible for vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions).

The main attraction is Asilo de la Paz (Haven of Peace), site of the first human settlements on Floreana, in a cave near the only source of fresh water on the island. It’s about five miles up the only road. You can take the workers’ bus, which leaves at 7 a.m., and ask to be dropped off ($2). Technically it’s national parkland, so you’re not allowed there without a guide, but I went several times and was questioned only once. The cave is empty now, and just big enough for five people to stand — it’s hard to believe an entire family once lived there. Also at the summit is an abandoned resort that the Wittmers built but never actually used, as well as the Floreana tortoise breeding corral, where you can commune with (and get close enough to touch) giant tortoises, cousins of the “originals.”

Better still: Attach yourself to a group. One day I caught a ride with a class of Ecuadorean fifth graders and listened as their guide explained the site while we shared lollipops. Another day I was invited to join a German group, and we stopped at a farm to examine the plants that provide the food to islanders. A third day, I asked Mr. Cruz to show me his farm, and the site of some of the human settlements that provide Floreana’s historical lore (I paid him $20 for his time).

Floreana has some of the most interesting human history in the Galápagos, and was the site of the possible murder of three flamboyant characters, entertainingly chronicled in the 2013 documentary “The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.” (I fictionalized them in my novel.) Originally occupied mostly by marauding pirates and buccaneers (who are said to have eaten all the tortoises, and released goats and rats), consistent human settlement on Floreana only dates back to 1929, when a German doctor, Friedrich Ritter, and his companion, Dore Strauch, decided to follow his nativist philosophy by leaving their respective spouses (who conveniently moved in together), pulling out all their teeth to seal their commitment to vegetarianism, and moving there. Their solitude was disturbed by the arrival of the Wittmer family in 1932. Relations between the two German families were tense, and the discord was further fueled when Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, an Austrian “baroness,” arrived to stake her claim to the island. Competing narratives can be compared in Margaret Wittmer’s memoir, “Floreana,” and Strauch’s memoir, “Satan Came to Eden.”

Arriving with two German lovers, the self-proclaimed baroness antagonized both families by stealing provisions and otherwise attracting attention. After a split in the ménage à trois, the baroness and one of her partners vanished. Everyone on the island would seem to have had motive and opportunity for their disappearance, but accidents can also happen on volcanic islands. In the wake of her disappearance the spurned lover caught the next boat. His desiccated body was found on a deserted island nearby, six months later. Not long afterward, Dr. Ritter died from eating spoiled potted meat (despite his professed vegetarianism). Amid rumors that she had poisoned him, Dore Strauch returned to Germany, leaving the Wittmers briefly alone on the island. The Floreanita mentioned earlier is Margaret’s daughter.

If the murder stories don’t scare you off, the snorkeling is terrific around Floreana. It’s best to bring your own equipment, though there is usually some knocking about that you can borrow at hotels. There were five foreigners staying on the island the week I was there, and two Argentine girls negotiated a snorkeling trip with a local resident. The American couple who joined us were avid snorkelers, and they pointed out manta and eagle rays, small sharks and different kinds of colorful fish as well as spectacular underwater volcanic rocks.

In addition to the road that goes to the top of the island, there is a second one that runs parallel to the shore and ends in La Loberia, a sea lion nursery. I had been warned that the 800-pound bull that lives there is territorial, and when he barked at me angrily I knew I’d gotten too close.

I also took a hike up the mountain called Cierro Paja. I was encouraged to bring plenty of water and not to stray from the path. A tourist got lost here in 1964; they found her body in 1980. In development is a path to Floreana’s most famous attraction: Post Office Bay, a beach where an old wine barrel attached to a post has served as a mail delivery system since the 18th century. (Leave a postcard and take one to mail.) Until the government approves this trail, though, it is off limits, and there is no way to visit the bay unless you’re on a live-aboard boat.

Back in Puerto Ayora with a day to kill before my plane to Quito, I booked myself a daylong island excursion to Pinzón, which included snorkeling, a beach excursion and lunch caught from the boat. Though I had purchased the ticket just as the agencies were closing the night before, I was unable to negotiate more than a 20 percent discount (I am not known for my bargaining skills); the excursion cost $100. The boat left from the Baltra harbor, so it was back on the bus, across on the glorified raft, then into a dinghy, which took me and the group to a perfectly serviceable motorboat. The guide was not tremendously helpful, but the day was pleasant and the lunch excellent. There was a variety of snorkeling equipment to choose from. In the water, we saw Galápagos sharks and a few of the 450 types of tropical fish that call the islands home. Sunning myself on a beach after lunch I spotted iguanas, albatrosses and cormorants. Lunch was a hearty piece of tuna (said to be caught while we were snorkeling, though I didn’t witness it) with a tomato sauce and rice.

I didn’t get to see the crowd favorites, the blue-footed boobies or the frigate birds, during my week in the Galápagos, but I met scientists, travelers and residents, and learned a little about what life was like on the islands, an experience that cruise-ship dwellers don’t necessarily partake of in their hurry to adhere to a boat’s schedule. Standing at the top of Floreana’s mountain, looking out onto an ocean where smaller islands shimmered like nascent ghosts on the horizon, I experienced, for the first time in my urban life, the profound and calming silence of being the only human for miles.

Where to Stay

Lodging on Floreana:

Hotel Wittmer $40 per night with private bath and balcony. Breakfast included. Email: erikagarciawittmer@hotmail.com

Casa Santa Maria (rooms above the home of Claudio Cruz) $30 a night, with breakfast included). Email: claudio.trebal@hotmail.com or malourdes.soria@hotmail.com

Floreana Lava Lodge Lovely cabanas near La Loberia. Very expensive by Galápagos standards. Rates from $138 per night. To book, email: Floreanalavalodge@gmail.com or visit http://floreanalavalodge.destinationecuador.com/contactus.html

Where to Eat

Dining options on Floreana:

Aura Cruz charges $10 per dinner, $6 per lunch at La Canchalagua. Phone: 593-5-253-5048

Email: auracruzbedon@gmail.com

Erika Wittmer charges $10 for a three-course dinner and $6 for lunch at Hotel Wittmer.

How to Get Around

For information about traveling among islands by public ferry, see

galakiwi.com/blog/public-ferry-schedules-in-the-galapagos-islands