HOW TO EXPERIENCE THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS ON A BUDGET
ARRIVING ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
After spending just over a week on San Cristobal Island, we took the two hour ferry boat back to the "Big City" on Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora is the most populated town in all of the Galapagos with a whopping 12,000 inhabitants. Here you will find the most developed infrastructures, many hotels and restaurants, and a beautiful malecon (boardwalk). Most of the cruises and tours leave from this location and it's the only potential "nightlife" within the islands.
What I found most shocking was actually seeing the lack of tourism during their "high season." Corinne and I both lived in Hawaii for three years, so we've definitely experienced high tourism periods. Our expectations of dealing with a huge cluster of tourists before arriving in the Galapagos was pleasantly shattered as we walked the peaceful streets around town. Of course, there were a ton of tour guide offices, hotels, and restaurants scattered throughout, but the vibes of this place were truly the perfect mix of foreigners and local island life.
When we arrived on the island, we went straight back to Galapagos Native Hotel to begin our volunteer work. After sitting down with Joffre to discuss his expectations for the week ahead, we were pleasantly surprised to receive our upcoming assignments. We would be working the hotel reception, assisting with breakfast, taking photographs, updating their website, and helping at their family farm.
TIP: We recommend using Workaway for an incredible source locating volunteer options. This is where we discovered Galapagos Native!
Our hotel work was pretty simple. We checked in guests, gave out room keys, and assisted with any questions about the island. In the restaurant, we served guests their breakfast and assisted the cooks in the kitchen. We also helped with enhancing the website by re-writing all of the English descriptions, as well as updating the hotel and restaurant photos.
My favorite volunteer work was actually working on the family farm. But before I describe our incredible experience nestled in a small cabin without any electricity in the lush highlands, I'll first explain the remarkable history of this property.
The story of Galapagos Native begins with the Villacis family arriving on Santa Cruz Island in the 1950s. After a large earthquake in the Tungurahua province destroying their home, they left mainland Ecuador for the Galapagos Islands in search of a new life. With only a dozen other families living on the island, the Villacis' claimed land in the lush highlands where the soil was fertile and created Villa Luna - their rustic family farm that is still operating today.
When the family first arrived here, it was a completely different way of life. There were no roads, the locals traveled by foot, and a currency wasn't even established. Families living on the island shared and bartered their possessions in order to have resources they needed to survive. During this time period, the weather was extremely harsh in the dry months and the families had to cut down banana stalks to have water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. They used bamboo to build their homes and slept on animal furs for comfort. Island life wasn't easy, but it was peaceful, simple, and sustainable.
We had the amazing opportunity to work on this beautiful farm. Our responsibilities included watering all of the vegetable plants in the green house, pruning the banana stalks, planting thirty trees that will one day line the property with stunning red leaves, and overall upkeeping of the property. We cooked simple meals with fresh veggies from the property and snuggled in warm blankets playing cards and eating popcorn under candlelight. These are my favorite moments: The times without internet, without electricity, and where you can't here any traffic noise. Corinne and I always joke because our "night life" is usually about as crazy as your 90-year-old neighbors across the street!
While working at the hotel in town, we usually stayed between 4-5 hours and had the rest of the day off. We really enjoyed running to Tortuga Bay and having the entire beach to ourselves. This massive white sand beach is strictly regulated by the National Park and truly is a gem on the island. Again, I was so stunned by the lack of tourism here and soaked up all the peaceful beach vibes I could get. The black marine iguanas chilling all over the sand were pretty awesome too!
I had heard about this swimming lava tube from other travelers before arriving on the Galapagos and had to check it out. After taking a five minute water taxi ($1) from the main port to "El Otro Lado", I took the well marked path toward Finch Bay. I then continued on the path for another mile to a lava tube called Las Grietas. Once again, I got super lucky because a group of tourists left exactly as I walked up, and I had the entire swimming channel to myself! I have never in my life swam with so many MASSIVE fish in such a small area. As I snorkeled to the back of the lava tube, these vibrant 2-3 foot sparkling fish circled around me glistening in the shining sun. What's incredible is that this waterhole has been protected for so long that the fish keep grower bigger and no one is allowed to fish them. Never in my life have I experienced anything like it!
One of our favorite activities was visiting the pier at night. This newly renovated boardwalk shines bright lights in the water so that you can see all of the marine creatures come to life. Just standing next to the railing for five minutes, you'll be able to see at least thirty small black tip sharks, thousands of fish, and sea lions zigzagging like Tasmanian devils just below the surface. It was AMAZING!
In our next blog post, I share our incredible experience exploring Isabella Island, which was the highlight of my entire time in the Galapagos. Stay tuned!