by Caitlin Owens
Max Murray fell in love twice within the same year.
After finishing college in 2003, Murray left his home in Winchester, England, and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to backpack in South America for a year.
Right away, Murray faced the decision of whether or not to visit the Galapagos Islands while he was in Ecuador. At the last minute, he let his love for wildlife and natural history outweigh the high cost of a trip to the islands.
He had no idea how much his decision would change his life.
“I thought I’d kick myself if I didn’t come to the Galapagos,” he recalled.
Halfway through his eight-day cruise, Murray met Diana, a dark-haired Galapagos native.
His ship had docked for only a few hours on Santa Cruz Island. Murray remembers how, as he sat in a bar and sipped a beer, Diana entered the room.
“All of a sudden, this stunning girl walks in,” he said. “I almost missed my boat because they said we had to be back by 10 p.m. and I ended up staying out with her until about midnight.”
Murray convinced Diana to travel with him for three months before she insisted she must return to the Galapagos.
“I just said, without even thinking, ‘I’ll go with you,’” Murray said. “I was hopelessly in love at this point.”
With that, Murray’s backpacking trip ended. He moved to Santa Cruz and married Diana. Eight months after he moved, they decided to visit Diana’s father on Isla Isabela.
For the second time that year, Murray felt an immediate and unforeseeable affinity. He sensed a connection with the island as soon as his plane touched down on the tarmac.
“I’d never experienced it before in my life, where everything just felt so natural,” he said. “I immediately just had this electric feeling, this excitement, that this was where my future lay.”
Murray and Diana returned to Santa Cruz only to pack up their things. Shortly after, they moved to Isabela.
Nine years later, Murray loves the same things about the island – the sand streets, the palm trees, the ocean. Some things have changed; he now has four daughters and owns a 16-room hotel, Hotel Albemarle.
Tourism has also grown, forming the basis of Murray’s lucrative hotel business. When he arrived, only one “first-class” beach hotel existed. Hotel Albemarle was the second. There are now five.
Murray has both watched and contributed to the island’s change over the past few years. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the Galapagos Islands annually, hoping, like Murray, to catch of a glimpse of a wild, somewhat bizarre haven for iconic wildlife and a sense of isolation.
Although most of them return home, their presence changes the archipelago. As the Galapagos Islands leave their historical identity behind, their future remains unclear and unpredictable.
Natural selection accounts for the adaptation of Darwin’s finches, but the islands’ current evolution is manmade. No one knows the consequences for the islands’ ecology or the people who live in the Galapagos.
Murray’s environment changed drastically when he moved from Santa Cruz to Isabela. The backdrop of a relatively untouched beach replaced the chaos of Santa Cruz, where empty taxis, piles of garbage and dirty bars greeted him every time he opened his front door. Having already undergone rapid growth and development, Santa Cruz had a completely different vibe and much larger population than Isabela.
“When we came here [Isabela], this is how I felt Galapagos should be like. This is the image I had in my head,” he said.
Gardenia Flor, middle-aged and the owner of a small hostel, grew up surrounded by this image. She traces her family lineage up to the first settler on the island, as she’ll proudly announce. Tourists who stay at her hostel like her because she’s chatty, she says.
Short and cheerful, Flor speaks fondly of a childhood without running water or gas. Wood provided both fuel for cooking and the material to build houses. A boat came with provisions once every three months.
Now, she is fighting a losing battle with tourists over whether or not to install air conditioning in the rooms of her hostel.
“I was really happy then. Now, I´m starting not to like it,” she said. “Life used to be nicer back then.”
The islands, which are provinces of Ecuador, first promoted tourism in the 1960s. The Ecuadorian government saw tourism as a way to offset the islands’ cost. Little thought was given to the industry’s potential for growth or impact on local residents.
Throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, tourism expanded. The “floating hotel” model of tourism, advocated by conservationists, dominated the industry. At first, tourists stayed on small boats, leaving briefly to visit land sites. In the 1970s, land-based tourism began on the islands and grew throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The 18,000 visitors to the islands in 1985 had already exceeded the recommended 12,000-person cap. In 1990, the islands saw 41,000 visitors. Only a decade later, this number had jumped to 72,000. In 2005, the number of visitors totaled 122,000. Currently, an estimated 185,000 people visit the Galapagos annually. This number continues to grow.
With the rise in tourism came a flood of immigrants, each hoping to reap the benefits of the expanding industry. They came as tour guides, restaurant owners, taxi drivers and many other tourism-related occupations.
With this influx of people came new problems for the Galapagos.
“It’s not only the people’s feet on the ground. It’s the indirect consequences of development. It’s the generation of waste, the need for more electricity, more cement, asphalt, batteries, potato chips – all of those kind of things that come from the outside world,” said Stephen Walsh, the director of the Center for Galapagos Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A paradox now exists on the islands.
“The isolation and the specialness that created the Galapagos and its branding is the very thing that is drawing people to the Galapagos and hence, contributing to the change of the Galapagos,” Walsh said.
No one knows the capacity of the islands, Walsh said. It is unclear how resilient the islands will be to the increasing demands for development.
“We’ve overcome isolation for the Galapagos. And that was the thing that protected it all these hundreds of years,” Walsh said. “It’s still just as fragile, but it is now connected to a global enterprise….international tourism.”
Facing Isabela’s small dock, Carlos Rios surveys the hustle and bustle taking place. Amidst the chaos of tourists coming and going, fisherman unloading their catch and workers hauling cargo behind him, Rios seems unfazed.
Today, Rios wears sandals and one of his three pairs of socks with toes. When he unfolds his arms, a large temporary tattoo of a skull with snakes as hair appears, applied near his elbow. A sea lion sleeps, as usual, on the dock right behind his feet.
Only one thing makes today different than any other day. Isabela’s municipal government just raised the entrance tax for tourists coming to Isabela on cruise ships or day tours. It is Rios’ job to collect that tax.
The municipal government increased the tax with two goals in mind: raising revenue and deterring tourism that does not contribute to Isabela’s economy. The tax reflects the opinions of many locals, who dislike day tours from other islands and cruise ship excursions. This kind of tourism does not put money into the local economy and does not benefit the local population.
Boats have always provided a source of conflict in the islands. Historically, locals resented the boat-based model of tourism, the most popular model for decades, for taking business away from Isabela. In a newer, land-based model, tourists island-hop and stay the night onshore. As tourists rent hotel rooms and purchase meals from local restaurants, money flows into the local economy. Although land-based tourism has increased recently, resentment still exists.
Murray first experienced the Galapagos from a cruise ship. Now, he shares the opinion that boat-based tourism is flawed.
“A lot of tourists don’t think that people even live in Galapagos,” he said, “Their maximum interaction with Galapagos, and more importantly, with the local economy, is maybe a quick souvenir at Baltra airport.”
Although many of the passengers on the boats in Isabela’s bay now go onshore, the local economy still competes with outsiders for tourism profits. Multinational companies, companies from the Ecuadorian mainland and companies from other islands all conduct tourism business on Isabela, sometimes diverting money from local services.
Immediately offshore in Isabela’s bay, a cutthroat ecosystem of watercraft competes daily for profits. Internationally-owned cruise ships shoulder their way into the bay, bringing with them their own tour boats, guides and packed lunches.
Day-tour boats rush in from other islands, offering only a couple hours onshore to their passengers. Although they use some local services, the day-tour boats report back to their owners on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal at the end of the day.
Sails folded, several yachts also sit in the bay, pausing their excursions across the world. Largely independent, they interact with the island when their owners purchase provisions.
Small taxi boats, operated by locals, scuttle back and forth between the dock and some of the larger boats. They avoid the cruise ships, which have their own means of carrying passengers. Small, locally owned tour boats and fishing boats also gather around the dock, waiting for use.
“I think the people need for tourists to come and stay here,” Rios said. “They need to use the hotels, restaurants – things like that.”
The theme of money traveling beyond the islands exists throughout the Galapagos. As of 2006, Galapagos residents owned only 39 percent of tour vessels. Mainland Ecuadorian residents owned 54.5 percent and foreigners owned the other 6.5 percent.
With the increase in land-based tourism came an influx of people hoping to tap into the growing market. Whereas 10,000 people lived on the islands in the 1990s, the local population numbered 25,124 in the 2010 Ecuadorian census.
While land-based tourism might reap greater benefits for locals, it creates more problems for these same locals to solve.
As the procession of tourists wait in line for Rios to collect their tax, they face a chaotic scene.
Against a backdrop of yachts and cruise ships, a small crew of men works to unload a cargo ship by hand. The ship itself is too large for the small cement pier and is anchored offshore.
The cargo arrives to the island the same way as tourists; it must be ferried to shore in loads on small barges. An assembly line of men meets the cargo, several of them barefoot and clearly young enough to be sitting in a classroom instead of working on the dock.
The disorderly scene clashes with the sense of isolation and serenity that newcomers to the island expect. It also differs from the memories of long-time Isabela residents who, like Flor, fondly recall a time when ships brought supplies from the mainland every few months.
With increased population in the Galapagos has come an increased demand for resources. A boat delivers 50,000 gallons of fuel to Isabela every 21 days in addition to the weekly cargo ship. Not only do these boats bring food, bottled water, vehicles, building materials and fuel, but they also bring things like toilet paper, toys and beer.
“All this stuff, including food, fuel and all the incidentals – T-shirts, hats – those things aren’t made in the Galapagos. They’re sold in the Galapagos,” Walsh said.
While Isabela receives one load of cargo a week, six boats are constantly in transit between the Ecuadorian mainland and the islands as a whole.
Not only does the importation of resources create a dependence on the mainland, but it also contributes to the presence of invasive species on the islands. Ships unintentionally bring in hitchhikers in their hulls. Invasive species threaten the status quo of Galapagos ecosystems.
Part of this resource demand comes from the construction of new hotels and other tourism-related businesses. It also includes building materials for homes and the accompanying utility infrastructure.
Infrastructure development has not kept up with the islands’ growth. Across the Galapagos, local utilities such as water, wastewater, sanitation and electricity have been largely ignored.
“The infrastructure – power, water, sanitation…suitable health care and a suitable education system – have been deficient, that’s for sure,” Walsh said.
Lauro Samaniego owns two hostels, both named Posada del Caminante. He opened the first one seven years ago, leaving agriculture to enter the growing tourism industry.
His business grew enough to open a second hostel three years ago. However, the pipes next to his hostel break every few days, spewing sewage into the streets.
He worries about how the system impacts tourism.
“Think how embarrassing it is for a tourist to come to Isabela when the streets are a wreck,” he said.
The sewage system, or lack thereof, threatens more than tourism on Isabela and throughout the Galapagos. It creates many health and environmental problems.
“I share ideas on conservation, but the human being comes first,” Samaniego said.
And the human being, at least the one who lives on Isabela, suffers from the water contamination created by the sewage system.
Murray first arrived to Isabela without any kind of plan, trusting that his destiny would work itself out. A week later, he got sick.
When he asked around, no one seemed surprised that he had stomach problems. They all blamed the same thing: the water.
“That’s when I got the idea – someone should do some good water,” he said.
He then began his first project, a small water purification plant. He later transferred ownership of it to his father-in-law, who still operates it.
Murray experienced first-hand the Galapagos Islands’ water issue. Fresh, clean water is in short supply. The locals must face the reality of water contamination and its consequences.
In Puerto Villamil, the primary inhabited area on Isabela, water contamination causes 70 percent of local illnesses, according to Walsh’s 2010 report in the Journal of Latin American Geography.
Privately owned water purification plants provide one solution to the shortage of drinking water faced throughout the Galapagos Islands. Other alternatives on Isabela include rainwater and bottled water shipped from the mainland.
The tap water on Isabela is pumped from two small aquifers. It does not undergo any treatment process other than filtration through sieves to remove small pebbles and rocks. The water is often contaminated by salt water or human waste, according to Walsh’s report.
The island’s water treatment plant collapsed ten years ago. It has not been rebuilt, although attempts have been made.
Thus, contaminated water flows into people’s homes whenever they take a shower, do laundry or brush their teeth.
“Living on this island and using the water constantly, to bathe, brush our teeth - I think it is affecting our health,” said Diana Villalta, a 24-year-old resident of Isabela.
She voices a qualified opinion. She works as the lab technician at the local clinic. Urinary tract infections, parasites, digestive diseases and skin infections are some of the most common water-related problems Villalta tests for in the lab. Walsh’s report lists these same problems as common water-related illnesses, adding gastrointestinal problems and vaginal tract infections.
Villalta herself uses tap water only to bathe. She cooks and brushes her teeth with bottled water.
The problem does not end with what comes out of the tap. The problem continues as soon as water washes down the drain.
Sometimes, sewage spills right into the street. Municipality official Ivan Yepez knows this. He spends almost every day cleaning up wastewater that flows into the streets.
“The streets with all that water, with that horrible smell - that’s the way kids are contaminated,” Villalta said. “Kids play in the streets and sometimes they don’t wash their hands, or they touch each other.”
One solution has been to build concrete boxes around pipes that frequently crack. Yepez said that when he cleans the boxes, he finds water, dirt, sand – even dogs and cats.
At least three of the four inhabited islands do not have an operational, municipally sponsored wastewater management system. San Cristobal has “supposedly” implemented a new treatment plant recently, Walsh said.
Isabela’s sewage network was made 35 years ago, when only 1,000 people lived on the island. Today, around 3,000 people live there, coexisting with a growing tourist population.
Only 40 percent of households in Puerto Villamil receive service from the wastewater system, according to Walsh’s report. The rest of the households and those in the highlands use individual septic tanks, latrines or dispose of their waste in the volcanic rock near their homes. Household dumping contributes to near-shore contamination, along with the seepage of waste through rock and the pumping of water from wells.
The network has only one four-inch pipeline, Yepez said. It flows into a non-functional wastewater treatment plant. Untreated wastewater is dumped into an adjacent fissure in the lava field, according to Walsh’s report.
The problem will only intensify with time.
“Let’s imagine that on Isabela the population doubles or triples or quadruples. Without water and sanitation, where is all that going?” Walsh said.
The municipal government currently has a plan to fix both the water treatment and sewage systems, Yepez said. The government has already received money to begin rebuilding the sewage treatment plant in May. It is also currently working on a project to build a new water purification plant.
Many others think about the future of the islands. Their resilience and the sustainability of current practices are in question. While some wait, others actively work to have a hand in the formation of what is to come.
Yessenia Herrera moved twice in the past five years. The first time, she chased opportunities in the tourism industry from the mainland to Santa Cruz. The second time, the tide of tourism carried her to Isabela.
Eight months ago, when a new company offered her a position as a diving guide on the island, she accepted it. Tourism is nothing new to the 24-year-old; her family has worked around the industry all her life.
She finds it easy to compare the two islands.
“Here, I’m working and it’s crazy, but you can see and feel nature in a place that is not too consumerist,” she said.
Although Herrera lived in Quito the majority of her life, she was born in Santa Cruz and lived there until she was 5. She remembers the island back then.
“20 years ago, Santa Cruz was mostly like Isabela now,” she said. “Not too many people living on the island, but at least 5,000 people. Now on the island, you can find 20,000 people.”
Daniel Orellana, the lead researcher for the Charles Darwin Foundation, agrees with Herrera. The Charles Darwin Foundation is a nonprofit organization promoting conservation of the islands.
Isabela still has hope of avoiding the kind of development that Santa Cruz has undergone, Orellana said.
“It could be on Isabela there is still time for creating their path of sustainable development,” he said.
This path looks different on each island, and some forms of tourism are more sustainable than others, he said.
Some local institutions, he said, work hard to create new concepts of ecotourism.
This is Carla Flores’ job as the tourism director on Isabela. Working for the municipality, she searches for methods of sustainable growth.
Flores said that the island began growing before the necessary regulations were in place. Now, the municipality has created laws to prevent uncontrolled growth. These include preventing non-residents of the island from owning a business without a local partner, inspecting tourism businesses and having a systematic response to tourists’ complaints about services.
Flores said she wants to conserve “the spirit of the island.”
“We have here a paradise. We have something unique in the world – not in the country, the world – and we have to preserve it,” she said. “We can make wonderful things with preservation. We don’t need to destroy the island to make good things.”
Aside from regulations, Flores believes the tourism industry could improve from higher prices and more education for service providers.
“I hope Isabela reacts and they value all that Isabela is,” she said. “They don’t have to sell Isabela like candy. They like to sell Isabela like a jewel.”
By providing a high-end hotel, Murray shows his understanding of this concept.
Although Murray is not sure what the future of Isabela will look like, he hopes one thing will never change: the beach that sprawls right outside the entrance to his hotel, the same beach he fell in love with nine years ago, untouched and unadulterated.
“You can walk down to the end of the beach here where there’s no development and there’s nothing,” he said. “There’s a few iguanas, maybe a few surfers, but you can walk up and down that beach and maybe bump into two or three people.”