To the Galápagos

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The landscape of Baltra, with Daphne Major and Minor in the distance

It’s 7 am on New Year’s Day, and we’re just waking up to head to the airport. Outside the streets are empty save for the refuse of last night’s celebrations: scattered confetti, spent fireworks, and the occasional abandoned wig or costume prop. We stand in front of the hotel, waiting for our ride to the airport. Our travel agent, Gabby, arranged to have one of her relatives drive us since there wouldn’t be many taxis today.

“What do we do if he doesn’t show up?” Stoytcho asks me nervously. “We’ll figure something out then. We can always have the hotel call us a cab,” I reply. But Stoytcho’s concerns aren’t unfounded. We’re placing faith in someone we haven’t met, recommended by someone we have known for less than a week. And the biggest celebration of the year happened last night. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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A quiet day at Quito’s airport

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long. Five minutes later our ride pulls up and helps us load everything into the car. Then it’s off to the airport, along empty city streets that widen into equally empty highways. That means no delays in getting to the airport, the blessing of travelling when everyone else is at home with family and/or nursing a hangover.

The airport is also subdued, but plenty of people are queued up and running around, trying to catch flights. Our procedure is slightly different than usual: we have to pay a transit fee and go through a miniature customs for the Galápagos National Park before we can enter the standard security checkpoint. We hand over our $40 in cash at the transit control and receive printed pages that will serve as our transit control cards. Once we have that, we proceed to the miniature customs, where a man hands us a list of food products banned from the Galápagos and asks us whether we have any plant or animal material in our luggage. We don’t, since we had heard about this and threw out most of our food at the hostel, although looking at the list I slightly regret doing that. We could’ve brought our peanut butter.

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A long list of permitted, restricted, and forbidden food products for the Galápagos

Our flight ascends and descends with barely enough time for us to register that we’re on a plane, and we’re at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos. We step off the plane and walk the tarmac toward the terminal, a line of tourists of all shapes and sizes. We enter immigration, plastered with signs reminding you of the park rules: don’t damage plants, don’t take anything, stay at least 2 meters away from all animals, and so on. We’re prompted to pay the $100 per person park entry fee (cash only), then the immigration officer stamps our passports and waves us on. So far, we’ve spent $240 to enter the park alone.

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The last airport bus of the day

Arriving at Seymour Airport isn’t the end of the journey, though. The airport sits on the island of Baltra, and after the last flight each day the island closes. Everyone leaves for their hotels and homes on other islands, primarily on Santa Cruz Island, while the Ecuadorian military enforces the closure, banning anyone from entering Baltra when it’s closed. So camping out to wait for an early morning flight isn’t an option here. Good to know.

We get on the last bus of the day, full of tourists and airport employees going home. Since we’re the last bus, we wait for everyone to get on board. Then we’re puttering across the island toward the coast, past an arid landscape studded with small, leafless tree skeletons. Then it’s past massive wind turbines, their propellers drifting slowly, generating electricity for the island. After that, we pass a few abandoned shacks, alone inhabiting this dusty landscape. Though surreal and beautiful, this unforgiving land hardly looks like one of the richest and most unique environments on the planet. Is there anything living out there?

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Wind turbines in Baltra’s dusty landscape

As if to answer the question, our bus suddenly stops. We’re not sure why at first, but then someone shouts “Iguana!” and we look out the window to spot a meter-long, mango-hued lizard meandering across the road. Immediately we tourists spring into action, pressing against the windows and clicking our camera shutters to capture our first animal sighting in the Galápagos, trying to immortalize the moment, poor angle and terrible lighting be damned. I don’t know if the bus driver needed to stop for as long as he did, but he was kind enough to wait a few extra seconds so we could get our pictures. The locals probably get a kick out of us doing this, since they see these animals daily. The animals are a show for us, and we’re a show for the locals.

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A land iguana crosses the road in front of our bus

It’s near sunset when we reach the ferry that will take us across the narrow channel to Santa Cruz. We climb into the boat while the ferrymen load everyone’s luggage on top. Stoytcho and I have a vested interest in keeping our packs with us: for one, they’re not that heavy, and I imagine them breaking free of friction and sliding off into the depths of the sea. If we get to keep them, it also means we don’t have to wait for the unloading on the other side. We’ll be on the next bus earlier, meaning maybe we can find a bus seat that Stoytcho fits into, though that’s a long shot.

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The ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz

We pay the $1 a person fare for the 10 minute ride and we’re off across the water, where the current is strong but waveless. The ferrymen don’t bother to pass out life jackets though a few people take them of their own accord, and we count 38 passengers with us (a plaque on the boat puts its capacity at 35). So it’s business as usual here, despite increased governmental regulations. The other shore grows closer, and we can see beached boats hiding among the mangrove trees in the dying light. It’s eerie, but beautiful.

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Boats beached among the mangroves on Santa Cruz

On the other side, we leave the ferry and get on another bus, this one taking us from the north end of Santa Cruz to Puerto Ayora in the south. Unlike the airport bus, this one isn’t free, and the $2 per person fare for the hour-long ride is the first inkling of how much more expensive thing are on the Galápagos; a ride of similar distance would be about $1 on the mainland. The only other option is a more expensive taxi, so we ride the bus over the darkening landscape. Santa Cruz is a totally different environment, mountainous and thick with greenery. There are occasional houses along the road, ranging from modest shacks to opulent ranch houses. This is an island of life, for both animals and people.

It’s night when we finally arrive in Puerto Ayora, four hours after we disembarked from our flight. The bus drops us off at the pier on the waterfront, where you can catch boats to other islands. We find some cell signal and plot a route to our hostel, in the north-eastern corner of the town known as Barrio El Edén. We’re soon wandering along empty concrete streets, devoid of life except for the occasional dog. At the end of our journey, a hundred meters from our hostel, Google Maps tells us there’s a street where there’s nothing but a steep rocky path with someone’s laundry strung across it. We’re about to turn around when the laundry’s owner comes out from the house next to us. “Best Homestay Hostel?” we ask him, pointing up the rocky path. “Sí, sí!” he gestures up. We duck beneath his laundry and scrabble upward, negotiating the rocks on the dimly-lit path. In seconds, we’re up the hill and in another street, with our hostel in front of us.

“WELCOME NATALIE AND STOYTCHO” is scrawled on a whiteboard out front. Thank goodness, we’re home.

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Our first sunset in the Galápagos
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