After being promised a free holiday by a University to the Galapagos Islands, in return for 6 months of teaching, a promise that never materialized 6 months later, I decided to try my luck and go independently. Normally this would be very easy to arrange with the ridiculous number of tour operators lining the main streets around Avenida Amazonas in the La Mariscal district of Quito, but deciding to go the following day after being told the bad news by the University, a place I have decided to no longer work at, and having no flight, accommodation or trips lined up, I was expecting a tough time making my dream become a reality.
I shouldn't have been so pessimistic. The following day I was basking in the ferocious heat of the Galapagos sun on the island of Santa Cruz and had arranged accommodation and trips for the duration of my stay here. It seems so many tour operators book flight tickets in blocks for their Galapagos tours and then let them go at the last minute when there is no chance of selling them. Turning up three hours before the flight departs will normally give you a successful place on the standby list. It still took a few choice words to an Ecuadorian family who pushed to the front of the queue before finally confirming my place on the flight to Baltra, the main airport of the Galapagos with only five minutes to spare.
Upon arriving in Baltra, it was nice to see senior members of the world politics brigade also sharing my great idea of a holiday here. Sitting on the runway, guarded by a man who was more interested in falling asleep under the aeroplanes front wheel was the blue and white plane belonging to the First Lady of America. Just in case you weren't sure where the plane came from, in giant gold letters along the side was written 'United States of America'. There's no point being shy about these things! With such a sight before them, almost every tourist whipped out their cameras, like John Wayne in a Wild West flick and continuously pulled the trigger. I always believed airport photography was prohibited by law?
Passing through the airport i was a little annoyed at having to pay the full $100 entry fee. Having temporary residency should have meant paying only $25. Apparently this rule only applies to foreign students studying here. Students that have either rich parents to fund such an adventure, or who have a nicely donated scholarship. Volunteers like myself on the other hand, people who donate a year of their time with no pay or financial reward get absolutely no benefits. I'm not quite sure of the reason for this, but I have a sneaky suspicion the attendant that dealt with us had an inferiority complex problem and this was his way of proving to himself that getting one over on an Innocent Gringo showed he had something to offer this world. With 95% of the $100 admittance fee going straight to the preservation of these islands unique ecosystem and wildlife, I suppose I can sleep with a guilt free conscience.
Coming to the Galapagos with no accommodation or trips arranged isn't always a risky business. Prices here are much cheaper than on the mainland, in your own country, or through the Internet, although I think if visiting in the high season and trying to get on a cruise ship will be very difficult. As I had deemed 4 and 5 day cruises too short and 8 day cruises too expensive I decided to plump for a variety of day trips instead. Most guide books say this is the worst way to explore the Galapagos, but if you are on a tight budget and want a slice of Galapagos action then in my opinion there is nothing wrong with such a choice, seeing virtually everything these islands have to offer.
I was very pleased with myself at having planned a full weeks itinerary and with no worries of where to sleep either, I spent the early evening wondering around the streets of Puerto Ayora with my girlfriend, the base for the duration of my time here. It was certainly an interesting first walk, some would even say a baptism of fire. First off, the baking hot sun wasn't something I expected and led to a very white Gringo acquiring a body full of sweat, a beetroot coloured face and eventually a sun burnt head that a couple of days later started to peel to imitate the worst case of dandruff I have ever seen.
Such a shock had put me in a bad mood, but this was immediately lifted on reaching Pelican Bay, found halfway down the seafront road of Calle Charles Darwin, where my first taste of ridiculously tame Galapagos wildlife was had. Pelican Bay is the main place on the island to buy your freshly caught seafood. As well as a variety of freshly filleted fish sold here, the small immaculately clean 'fish market' is also home to numerous pelicans (hence the name!) and sea lions, all of which snap at any of the leftover and discarded waste materials that the fishermen throw away.
After watching these animals and the numerous pufferfish and manta rays that swim in the shallow waters of the bay past the small fishing boats I carried on walking down Calle Charles Darwin towards the Capitania and Academy Bay, a walk of no more than 5 minutes. By this time my bad mood had completely vanished, and I was in full swing, enjoying the casual and laid back atmosphere that the island of Santa Cruz has to offer. Upon arriving at the Capitania I was a little startled to see an angry mob of locals pushing, shouting and gesturing towards each other. With no idea what this was all about I bought myself an ice-cream, sat across the road, kicked my feet back to the setting sun and enjoyed my slice of free entertainment.
It wasn't until a few days later with the arrival of cameramen and reporters from every Ecuadorian TV channel and newspaper that I finally found out what all this 'Galapagos Aggression' was about, a hard job considering my lack of Spanish. The night before my arrival, the coastguard went to check on some boats acting suspiciously, docked on the island of Baltra. Upon reaching them they found a group of military personnel having a secret midnight drinking session. Of course, littering beaches with empty alcoholic beverage cans and trespassing on national park property is prohibited and in the Galapagos, very strictly enforced. Upon requesting the drunkards to stop their illegal behaviour, and having their drinking brought to an abrupt end, they took out their anger on the coastguard personnel putting a number into hospital with fairly serious injuries. As news started to leak out, the military tried to cover up their actions stating nothing happened. Hence the angry confrontations witnessed on my first day in 'paradise'. If all my days would be as action-packed as this.