August 2019 How to Travel for Good in the Galápagos Islands

How to Travel for Good in the Galápagos Islands

Creature feature: A land iguana lazing on South Plaza Island.
Creature feature: A land iguana lazing on South Plaza Island.
Photo by SL_Photography/Getty Images
The Galápagos Islands are leading an evolution in sustainable tourism.
"Watch your step!" our guide, Lorenzo Banchana, calls out, and the warning gets passed chain-style to each member of our small group. I soon understand the caution: A booby nest is set precariously just inches off the marked trail.

Trekking in the Galápagos Islands is a practice in mindfulness. You need to stay hyperalert to each pace, lest your foot land on a bird egg or a black lava rock that turns out to be a marine iguana basking in the sun. It’s a delicate balance with being giddy as a schoolgirl as I watch sea lion pups dart around in the gentle surf or a male frigatebird puff out his crimson gular pouch and wrap his wing around his mate while another male dives in and out, vying for her attention.

As sustainable tourism takes root in our global consciousness, it’s only fitting that these remote islands that transformed how we see the world following Charles Darwin’s famous visit in 1835 are now leading this modern evolution.

Galápagos National Park and Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism have set strict rules for visitors, making the archipelago one of the world’s most highly protected wildlife areas and a model for low-impact tourism. Stringent limits are placed on the number of cruise-ship travelers (around 75,000 per year), the size of each tour group (16 or fewer visitors per guide), and the number of people exploring any one place at a time. Authorities also highly regulate what comes into the park, spraying the interior of every plane for pests and diligently scanning luggage for plastic bags and invasive species.

A number of local and international organizations further protect the UNESCO World Heritage site by conducting scientific research, supporting conservation efforts, and even reintroducing species to islands where they were previously erased. In early 2019, for example, the Galápagos National Park authority gathered more than 1,400 land iguanas from North Seymour Island and released them on nearby Santiago Island, where they had been wiped out by feral pigs. An earlier Galapagos Conservancy project had eradicated the last feral pigs from Santiago in 2000.
A colorful Sally Lightfoot crab mingles with a marine iguana.
A colorful Sally Lightfoot crab mingles with a marine iguana.
Photo by GFED/Getty Images
Such rigorous management efforts have a huge impact on the future of this ecologically diverse hot spot, located some 600 miles from Ecuador’s coast. Yet Sheila Gallant-Halloran, a Virtuoso travel advisor, says it’s equally incumbent upon travelers to do their part. “With the number of visitors quadrupling over the past 20 years, sustainable tourism is crucial to the archipelago’s survival,” she asserts. “People need to ensure their travel dollars are helping conservation efforts.”

Beno Atan concurs. The experience director for Metropolitan Touring, a Virtuoso on-site connection based in Quito, not only points me to his company’s diligent conservation efforts, but also the fact that proceeds from the park entrance fee ($100 for most foreign tourists over the age of 12) go directly toward preservation. “The tangible for every traveler,” Atan says, “is that he or she feels part of a greater good. By the mere act of visiting the Galápagos, you are doing something for the planet. There’s power in that.”
Sea kayaking by Santa Cruz II.
Sea kayaking by Santa Cruz II.
I definitely feel part of this inspiring place while cruising aboard Santa Cruz II, a 90-passenger expedition ship operated by Metropolitan Touring. The vessel is fitted with the latest sustainable technology (including a waste-water treatment plant), follows strict recycling protocols, and uses a third less fuel than its predecessor. There’s an equal emphasis on social responsibility: Metropolitan staffs the ship with an all-Ecuadorian crew and operates a cultural program that provides cruises for mainland school children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience the islands.

Tour groups here are not only limited in size; they also must be accompanied by a park-licensed naturalist guide – a position that now can only be filled by Ecuadorians born (or married to someone) in the Galápagos. The islands have seen a dramatic jump in human population over the last decades: from around 3,500 in the 1970s to 30,000 or so today. Habitation is restricted to four of the 18 main islands and just three percent of the park’s total land area, with the majority of residents living along the coasts of Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. Many of them relocated for economic reasons, and Virtuoso advisor Karen Majsay notes that aggressive education efforts in sustainable farming and fishing methods are helping ensure they live in harmony with the environment.

“Island residents are in a very privileged position to be able to control what happens in their homeland,” says Majsay. “There’s a great responsibility that comes with that privilege – as well as for those visiting there.” The efforts seem to be working, given that the islands we visit appear pristine. When a member of our group spots a lone piece of trash lying along the beach, Banchana tells us it almost certainly washed ashore with the tide.
Prickly pear cacti on Santa Fe Island.
Prickly pear cacti on Santa Fe Island.
Photo by Paul Vowles/Alamy 
A Galápagos native, Banchana grew up playing with the sea lions and crabs on San Cristóbal, and volunteered at its biological research station before becoming a professional guide nearly 18 years ago. His own young family lives on the island, and he’s instilled the same stewardship mind-set in his 11-year-old son. “I tell him how important it is to respect nature,” he says, “since we all have to share the same place.”

Each of the seven naturalist guides aboard Santa Cruz II leads his or her own group (aptly named after an iconic species) of no more than 11 guests. The park maintains firm guidelines for activities – kayaking and snorkeling locations must be preapproved; time limits on each beach are rigorously enforced – and it takes a great deal of planning not to cross paths with guests from other ships. As such, our daily itinerary ends up reading like a schedule at Grand Central Station, yet somehow Ramiro Tomala, our expedition leader and another Galápagos native, keeps the entire operation running smoothly and, in turn, all of us exceedingly happy.

“All of the restrictions are in place to keep our ecosystem healthy and ensure as little alteration as possible,” says Tomala. “Imagine how beneficial it would be for our planet if every nation were to do that.”

My group, the Finches, follows in lockstep behind Banchana up the steep Prince Philip’s Steps to a rocky plateau atop Genovesa Island that’s home to vast colonies of red-footed and Nazca boobies, petrels, and frigatebirds. They, like all the island’s wildlife, are totally unafraid – the result, many scientists believe, of losing the “fear or flight” instinct after escaping mainland predators eons ago. Yet Banchana presses us to keep a proper distance – six feet or more – so as not to disturb them, or worse, pass along some bacteria or scent that might, say, cause a mother fur seal to reject her pup. He uses his best herding skills on us, but has absolutely no control over two young boobies who bring their sibling squabble directly into our path.
Slow travel at its best: Seeing Galápagos giant tortoises on Isabela Island.
Slow travel at its best: Seeing Galápagos giant tortoises on Isabela Island.
Photo by Ingus Kruklitis/Getty Images
All the books and BBC Earth documentaries can’t adequately prepare you for the impact of witnessing “Darwin’s Eden” up close. I certainly wasn’t ready for the sheer multitude of sleepy sea lions lined up on the shore or the shockingly bright colors of a Sally Lightfoot crab. On the final day of our journey, we visit what, for me at least, is the pièce de résistance: the El Chato Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz. Meditating on the slow, lumbering movements of giant Galápagos tortoises in the wild seems like the perfect antidote to our data-driven world.
Sea lions rest on the beach. 
Sea lions rest on the beach. 
Photo by Elmvilla/Getty Images
Although UNESCO removed the Galápagos Islands from its “red-list” of endangered sites in 2010, the archipelago’s ecosystem remains quite fragile, and it’s a frightening possibility that this complex bio-community could vanish in our lifetime. Gallant-Halloran encourages every world traveler to visit as soon as possible, while placing sustainable-tourism practices at the forefront of any adventure. “Go to see what Darwin saw, but through a twenty-first-century ecotourism lens,” she implores.

My spirit is buoyed by stewards such as Banchana, whose passion and life’s purpose is to preserve the islands. Returning to the ship after one of our last island hikes, he beams while telling me that, when his boy was just 6, he announced his intention to follow in his father’s footsteps as a guide, a conservation warrior for the next generation.

Three Ways to Go Green in the Galápagos Islands

Virtuoso travel advisors can work with Metropolitan Touring to create a custom Ecuadorian vacation that includes a five-day Galápagos cruise aboard the Santa Cruz II. Departures: Multiple dates, August 1, 2019, to December 31, 2020Bookend Your Trip: Casa Gangotena, a 31-room restored mansion in Quito’s historic district, can arrange visits to Museo del Carmen Alto (a historic convent built in 1653) or a behind-the-bell-tower peek of UNESCO-designated San Francisco Church. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a six-course tasting dinner for two.

Summer 2020 sees the launch of Silversea’s Galápagos-specific new build, the 100-passenger Silver Origin, staffed with Ecuadorian national expert guides and featuring dynamic positioning (which will be used when the ship is positioned over delicate seabed ecosystems to prevent the anchor from causing damage). Other eco-conscious gizmos include reverse-osmosis water-purification stations for refilling reusable bottles. We're Excited About: Slipping on our water shoes (perfect for Zodiac tours) in the ship’s comfy base camp and cozying up by the lounge’s fire pit. Contact your Virtuoso travel advisor for departure and pricing details.

Set by the edge of an extinct volcanic crater on Santa Cruz Island, Pikaia Lodge powers up using solar panels and keeps its 14 rooms cool with a clever cross-ventilation window design. Look Forward To: Lounging after your land adventures by the Peruvian-marble- decked infinity pool and crossing paths with giant tortoises in the lodge’s private reserve. Virtuoso travelers receive a 60-minute massage for two.

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