Going Broke Staring at Sea Turtles

I have spent considerable time trying to figure out how to word this journal entry so as to avoid sounding like a spoiled, world-weary brat. Instead, I’ll just begin by admitting that I probably am a spoiled world-weary brat. Okay, now that that is out of the way, I can begin to describe the Galapagos. The main town on Santa Cruz, the largest island of the Galapagos, is Puerto Ayora, which is equal parts Thamel, Nepal, Queensland, New Zealand, and Darien, Connecticut. The town focuses on the upscale eco-tourist, which means a 150% mark-up on food, housing, and the many, many t-shirts for sale (which include such tasteful gems as “I Like Boobies” with a picture of a blue-footed boobie bird). The remote location of the islands mean another 150% mark-up. If Darwin never stumbled on this fairly unremarkable group of islands in the HMS Beagle, the Galapagos would be just another stop on the sailing circuit instead of some mythical nature wonderland. Thanks to his tedious experiments on frigate birds, Ecuador now feels that it is acceptable to charge $175 for a 20-day cruising permit, $100 per person for entry to the park (the whole island is a park), $230 for immigration and customs fees, and a $30 fee every time you move between islands.

And herein lies the problem that I have with the Galapagos – for all the build-up and high expectations, it is basically Maine with a better advertising campaign. This is not to say that I dislike the Galapagos. In fact, I like it very much. However, I also like Maine very much and it is a lot easier to get to, it has far fewer tourists, and the locals, while surly, are at least not all involved in the tourism industry. The lack of any people indigenous to these islands results in little if any authentic culture. Instead, the culture focuses on surfers and the scientifically inclined and the whole experience is designed to provide a vague sense of healthy, environmentally conscious living. This is the place for the people who shop at Whole Foods just because it makes them feel healthy, even though they can’t quite place how it is healthier than Stop & Shop. In actuality, what they probably enjoy is the fact that poor people are priced out of the place and they are not inconvenienced by upper-class guilt.

Once again, kudos to the marketing team behind the Galapagos. Well done, really. Despite being expensive, there are a lot of activities that are readily available for tourists. My initiation to the Galapagos began on Saturday with a trip to the Darwin Nature Center. The center is nothing more than a glorified zoo with plenty of opportunities to take pictures of authentic Galapagos turtles. Sadly, there were about 20 American tourists for every turtle, although the tourists tended to be less photogenic. One of the famous residents of the Nature Center is Lonesome George, a turtle who is supposedly 150-years-old and is said to have been an intimate friend of Charles Darwin. George is the last of his particular type of turtle species and in his 150 years he has failed to produce any offspring. During my visit, he looked to be as bored as I was.

On Sunday, I went on a roughly 30-mile bike ride through the highlands. The landscape was beautiful and the rolly hills continually revealed spectacular views of the water breaking below. The fact that my tire blew out about 15 miles away from Puerto Ayora and that I had to spend a few hours walking back did little to put a damper on the pleasurable outing. Monday, I went with Peter and Zach to the beach and we attempted to surf, although it bared a closer resemblance to doing cartwheels in modestly sized waves. Tuesday was spent waiting for the fumigator to visit the boat, which is apparently mandatory for any boat remaining in the Galapagos longer than 72 hours. In the evening, I enjoyed a nice run over to Tortuga Bay, where natural selection was on full display. While running through the scenic park, the path was littered with small lizards. I did my best to avoid the little creatures, but some of those lizards that instinctively ran away down the path instead of towards the side wall met their end at the hands (feet?) of my New Balance running shoes. The circle of life.

On Wednesday, I accomplished the impressive feat of going an entire day in the Galapagos without spending any money. In order to bring about this miraculous achievement, I drew my entertainment by watching packs of blue footed boobies dive bomb fish in the harbor. The birds usually circle around looking for fish and then dive at full speed towards the water, emitting a loud whistle just before they splash through the surface and down about three feet before emerging several seconds later with a tasty treat. One might think that this form of entertainment would get old fast, but one would be wrong. The rest of the day was consumed by small projects on the boat and relaxing in the anchorage. Thursday was similarly spent in a frugal manner by cleaning, reading, and going to the beach. For a couple days at least, I was able to stop the hemorrhaging of cash.

The big news for the week on Audentes was the addition of a new crewmember. On Monday, Anna joined the boat and will help on the passage to the Marquesas. Anna is an experienced sailor who has previously sailed on tall ships and in the mean seas surrounding Poland. If our boat is struck by lightning and we lose our GPS, Anna knows celestial navigation. If we are attacked by Polish pirates, she can translate their unreasonable demands. And if we have a sudden urgent need for cosmetics, we now have plenty of make-up on board. Hopefully, Audentes will benefit from a female touch. And so, the first week in Maine, er, the Galapagos has been enjoyable. I’m glad that I stopped here, although I cannot help but feel mildly disappointed by the large number of tourists and the nagging sense that this whole place is one big photo op. However, the good times should get even better when two of my high school friends visit me during the upcoming week. Joe and Sashin are excited to come to the Galapagos and I’m thrilled to have them visit.

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