We have spent January and February on the Galapagos Islands, volunteering for a large chunk of this time, for an amazing charity, Galapagos Horse Friends, which takes care of abused and abandoned horses.
There is a global perception that the Galapagos Islands provide a perfect model to the world for protecting its flora and fauna. Everyone has this picture postcard in their head of free animals in a pristine environment. For the most part, in the 97% uninhabited part that forms the national park, that is true. But there is a very hidden side of the Galapagos in the 3% inhabited part: gross machismo which translate into very high divorce rates, domestic violence against women and children, poor medical services, lack of jobs, lack of respect for the environment and a huge problem of cruelty to animals, particularly to dogs and horses. Because it is nearly impossible to bring tractors to the islands (the harbour is too shallow for large boats loaded with heavy machinery) and cars are also super expensive, horses are still used as pack animals. There is neither equine vet nor farrier on the islands, so stallions are left ungelded. Because of mistreatment, they run away or are abandoned to fend for themselves and regularly become too thin, ill or wounded. The fences on the islands are weak, so roaming stallions can easily break into barbed wire enclosed pastures and impregnate mares, giving rise to yet more unwanted foals and more culling of horses by the national park authorities…a terrible state of affairs that our NGO founder is trying to redress, and we have been doing all we can to help.
Where we worked really hard every day, yet felt good about it.
We are not experienced horse whisperers and the horses could immediately tell! At first, they were hesitant about letting us groom them and we found their size and freedom somewhat intimidating, but pretty soon once we lost all our fear, they responded in kind, with some jostling with each other to be brushed first. In fact, when we walked onto the pastures each morning, there was always a lot of discussion going on in the herd to agree who wanted to be brushed first! Every day, we spent at least five minutes with each horse just speaking softly to them while stroking their necks and brushing their bodies. Sometimes, we sang to them, which some liked very much and relaxed; others just turned away with a flick of the head and tail that was worth any gallic shrug and left for the farthest corner of the meadow. They all loved being brushed though. In response, they sometimes nuzzled and licked our necks and in time, they starting developing a body language with us, telling us exactly where they wanted to be scratched or brushed by pointing with their hooves or their mouth. They would move forward or back to put another part of their body under our brush, and they would lower their necks in pleasure if they liked having their face and ears stroked and scratched. When they had had enough, they would gently move away and another horse would take their place. What a joy it was! But look what can happen just after a brushing!
The shelter for which we volunteered practices Natural horsemanship and Horse Guided Empowerment, treating every horse with love and respect. We had to unlearn some of what we had been taught two years ago on a Belgian horse ranch, and start to think in terms of how humans can best serve horses rather than how they can serve us. Helping the founder with presentations and fundraising, here is a slideshow we created to tell the story to tourists of why Galapagos Horse Friends is necessary.
We helped develop a new website too: https://www.galapagoshorsefriendsofficial.org Incredibly, a former American sponsor, who no longer sends any support at all, continues to own the first galapagoshorsefriends website and continues using all of the charity’s intellectual property, so we sought ways to address the issue for the owner, including suggesting her lawyer draft a cease and desist letter.
Where noisy neighbours competed to be the loudest
We loved our experience on the ranch, but we became a bit sleep deprived! There was nothing we could do with the loud weekend and festival parties at the neighbouring farm, which was one kilometre away but with no traffic and no other neighbours, sound travels. Nearer to home, we decided to unplug the incredibly noisy fridge and the even louder water pump. However, there was nothing we could do about the roosters crowing at 4am and our next door neighbour’s poor dogs which sometimes barked through the night. Their owner chains them up 24/7 and starves them so that they become ravenous when he releases them at weekends to hunt for feral goats. Since introduced goats have multiplied uncontrollably, it is perfectly legal to hunt them to cull their population. In fact, few people savouring the traditional and often festive “seco de chivo” aka kid stew in Quito or elsewhere on the continent are aware that the goat meat for the stew comes from the inhabited islands of the Galapagos. We were sorely tempted to cut the dogs free but that would have created problems for our NGO. However, we did feed them a little when the owner wasn’t looking! Otherwise, our accommodation was ok. We have known worse. Our room was a clean, private and spacious multipurpose tack room cum office which covered our needs (decently equipped kitchen and a bathroom with the possibility of warm showers and flushing toilets). There were few bugs except for cockroaches, and we soon became quite adept at sweeping them outside, and vicious blood-sucking horse flies about which we could do nothing. We also had wi-fi there but only when it was not raining or windy and never strong enough for streaming. But we’re not complaining…the owner of this Foundation has, for nine years, been living in a building site without a floor, doors or windows, all for the love of protecting her gorgeous horses.
Where we found Black Beauty
Heading to town one day, our NGO director spotted a stallion running down the road towards our ranch, so she returned immediately and enlisted us in her search party. Given the lack of equine vets on the Galapagos Islands, very few horses are castrated and given the bad treatments many suffer and the poor state of fencing, many break loose, take to the streets and end up encountering mares: several of the horses in our herd were the result of stallions forcing their way through our barbed wire fences. This time round, lo and behold, we found a runaway stallion right next to our pastures where our mares had gathered to stare in fascination. We got there just in time and the horse whispering skills of our director allowed her to harness and tie up the horse. We all immediately saw how this young, poor, beautiful and surprisingly gentle stallion had been mistreated, with its ribs showing and with the sides of its mouth cut, sore and oozing pus from the “bits” used to train and ride him. There was no way our NGO was going to allow this horse to return to its owner! And the owner would not care as he could easily pick up other horses running wild for free.
Where we meditated with horses
While on the ranch, we went through a dress rehearsal for a future tourist retreat. With a professional yoga teacher, we had a session in the fields with horses all around us. Some were just playful, while others seemed to want to take part, even copying our yoga postures! Our Horse Guided Empowerment session was also extraordinary. Some colleagues shared deep personal issues and found resolutions for themselves through their interactions with the horses they chose to work with: they genuinely felt empowered. We also had a real breakthrough with a horse which until then had run away from us every day when we tried to brush her, but suddenly during the session, she acted like a mirror to our emotions and let us get close. It was a very moving experience!
Where we didn’t get caught out by a tsunami
One of our dreams came true on our first free day on the Island which was to spend some time on Tortuga Bay. Just the name conjures a feeling of adventure and it has the reputation of being one of the world’s exceptionally beautiful beaches. It is not far from town but to reach it, you need to take a 2.5 km stroll on a comfortable path through a thick forest of opuntia tree cacti, palo santo incense trees and poisonous manzanillo trees. As soon we arrived, we saw droves of people leaving. On a weekday, the beach is deserted, but this was on a weekend when families come to enjoy swimming and snorkelling together. Right then, they were packing up and leaving in a hurry, at a time when they should have been enjoying themselves in the waves. A young girl approached us to warn us that all Pacific coastlines had received a tsunami warning. We just looked at each other and, without a word spoken, we decided to invoke the wisdom of Lance Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army and not panic and of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to “carpe diem” and savour the moment. In the end, we were pleased not to see anything significant except for the magnificent display of all the wildlife enjoying the deserted beach like us. It is only on that very same evening that a look at the BBC website informed us of the devastation on the Tonga Archipelago. The islanders live with the ever-present threat of an incoming tsunami, now made more frequent by climate change. In the Galapagos, street signs show an evacuation path and gathering points in the highlands in the case of tsunami warnings.
Where we walked with giants
Our horse ranch is located on the highlands of Santa Cruz. The surrounding green fields, with bouts of sunshine and rain, remind us of Ireland. Yet, we can also immediately tell that it’s not Ireland because the vegetation is different and because of the giant tortoises roaming around us, sometimes actually on our ranch. Here are a couple of our horses becoming very interested in a resident tortoise:
It feels like a real privilege to be in the company of these tortoises some of whom are over 5 feet (1.5 metre) long, 500 pounds (227kg) and pushing 140 years old. They roam freely across the island and sometimes passing traffic needs to wait for them to cross the road, although a (private) reserve ‘El Chato’ has been established to ensure their protection. About time too! Their population over the last three centuries plummeted from 500,000 to just 15,000, first because they were hunted by explorers and settlers for food and more recently because of illegal trafficking (very small juveniles trade for $30,000 each) and the persistent threat to eggs from feral dogs, goats and rats. On our visit to El Chato, while keeping to the legal distance of 2 metres of the tortoises, some came right up to us as we just relaxed on the grass to watch them in awe. It was a completely magical experience. We also saw two giant tortoises trying to mate, which they do by conjoining their tails which hold their vital parts…very sweet. The male has a long tail and the female a short one. It’s a real effort and the female in this instance was not so interested in having 200kg on top of her. Instead, she escaped into her shell. Escaping in that way produces an incredibly loud whooshy sound as all the air inside the shell is suddenly expelled.
How did tortoises evolve or arrive on the islands? The long-held belief is that tortoises brought by traders grew in size because of the abundance of food. However, the latest research, based on 3-4 metre long fossil tortoise shells found in Columbia, is that bigger tortoises, together with other animals, came to the islands around 5 million years ago. They floated on the ocean on rafts made of tree trunks and other vegetation uprooted and thrown down the currents of rivers that led to the sea by primeaval tropical storms. Those floating mini ecosystems were then carried by currents for weeks during their journey in the middle of the ocean. The animals would have eaten whatever vegetation was with them on the tree trunks. Once grounded on the barren basalt of the Galapagos, most animals and most plants would have died but the survivors would have adapted to the circumstances and transmitted their genes. Only the most abstemious of the animals and plants would have managed. Tortoises capable of surviving a very long time without food or water would have had an advantage over any mammal. Succulents and mangrove trees would also have won over tropical hardwood and jungle plants. Giant tortoises survived by eating the cacti which defended themselves by growing a trunk and becoming very tall. Faced with less food and water resources than on the continent, the giant tortoises have since been getting smaller in size.
Where we walked in Darwin’s footsteps
We spent some of our weekends on day cruises to uninhabited islands to admire the different flora and fauna. It’s remarkable to walk in Darwin’s footsteps and see how species have evolved differently on each island because of their different eco systems (due to them springing up from underground volcanoes millions of years apart). That one species of giant tortoise from Columbia which arrived on the different islands millions of years ago evolved into 14 species (three of them are now extinct). A fascinating story is how human “good” intervention has really complicated matters: Baltra’s iguanas were all removed 100 years ago because of a threat from that island’s rats, which came aboard ships from the first humans including pirates who came to the islands. After the iguanas were all transported to the rat-free North Seymour, their population exploded and they proceeded to eat and nearly eradicate that island’s cacti, so they are shortly going to be moved again, this time, to Santiago Island. The problem is that, now, some of the iguanas have evolved to eat juvenile rats….conservation is complicated!
Where we encountered a Picture Postcard uninhabited island
On another weekend with free time away from the horse ranch, we took a boat excursion to the tiny but perfectly formed Saint Bartolome island. It is the most central unpopulated island of the archipelago, one of the youngest islands, the most visited island too with good reasons: the cold water surrounding its shore makes it a haven for marine wildlife which in turn provide handsome resource for the many birds populating the shores. This particular island is famous not just for its animals (we had our first encounter with a Galapagos Penguin, the only penguin species to live north of the equator) but also and mainly for its volcanic landscape that allow the visitors to feel as if they were projected back in time to the very formation of the archipelago. It boasts impressive volcanic rock and ash formations in bright tints of grey, ochre and black that contrast delightfully with the lush, sensual green of the mangroves at sea level. An isthmus separates the twin beaches, another spectacular feature of this island and one of the most beautiful and most iconic vistas of the archipelago, particularly after the long climb to its uppermost point (the tip of an extinct volcano, 100 metres above sea level). On a very clear day, thanks to its central location, ten islands or rocks can be seen from the summit of that hill. Even on the not so clear day of our visit, we could admire the East coast of Santiago Island, that appeared tantalisingly close but is in fact quite far away. Just walking through Bartolome’s angular, brittle looking terrain was incredible. Seeing for the first time a lava cactus growing straight out of lava rocks sent shivers of thrill down our spines: that life could be erupting in such a barren, lunar landscape, devoid of soil or water felt just miraculous. Snorkelling under the sea, was sheer delight: it felt like gliding inside a giant aquarium designed by a genius artist, full of colour, shapes, textures and peace. There, watched over by Pinnacle rock, which appears to have been carved and decorated by an ancient and mysterious civilisation, we had the very first swim of our life with a green pacific turtle…an experience that moved us deeply and made one of our dreams finally come true.
Heading back to Santa Cruz, we had not realised that the best was yet to come when we saw four dolphins racing ahead of our boat continuously diving for 15 minutes. What a joy! When they decided to let us go, we looked back, and they were doing backflips, we swear, as a way of saying Goodbye.
Where an island was teeming with life and death
On North Seymour island, life was in full flow: magnificent frigates with heart shaped red neck pouches bulging as they cry out for female mates, great frigates with their flight acrobatics, blue footed boobies and flamingos.
Life: Frigates cooling their blood with rapid panting and Beautiful Boobies
Yet, there were corpses all around us of those same creatures plus a dolphin skull. Seeing the corpses not rot but desiccate where they lay, reconfirmed to us that we weren’t at a Disney theme park and that we were just witnessing nature as it happens. The dolphin skull was at the top of a hill which made us wonder how it had ever found its way there. We decided to blame the frigates which are in the habit of stealing fish already in another bird’s possession. Since they only possess a residual oil and wax pouch, they cannot dive underwater to fish, unlike other sea birds whose feathers are waterproof. Great frigates stay on the surface, using as a harpoon their long thin beak with a hook at the tip. As for Magnificent frigates, they are also known as the “pirates of the sky”: they wait for other birds to come back with fish and just steal it from them! How to tell the two species apart? Unless you spot the red pouch indicating a male magnificent frigate, you will need to come close and look at the feathers. Great frigates are black with a green sheen and Magnificent ones are black with a purple sheen.
North Seymour surprised us in another way. There was a lot of vegetation despite the inhospitable conditions. There is very little soil, in some areas none at all. Woods of opuntia (prickly pear cacti) and green palo, with grey, spindly branches provide nesting areas. Carpets of sesuvium seen here (a relative of ice plants), incarnadine in dry areas, green near the sea where splashes water them, abound and form a vivid contrast with the bright green of mangrove trees. When one passes a finger on the waxy leaves of a mangrove tree, the finger comes out powdery with salt which the trees excrete through the leaves. Here and there, a palo santo aka incense tree bleeds its precious headily scented resin to slow down its metabolism and save energy. The scent of North Seymour’s palo santo is more floral than those on Santa Cruz: evolution made them two different species. Near the shore, blue footed boobies stand, watching over their young ones, on rocks decorated as if by Jackson Pollock in tears of white guano. When contrasted with the red of the rocks, it forms a striking background to their sky blue feet.
Holidaying on Isabela and San Cristobal Islands
After six weeks volunteering for the horse shelter, we decided to have a regular beach holiday to rest and read. Isabela is most people’s favourite island of the Galapagos and for good reason. The largest, and one of the youngest of the islands, Isabela is composed of six volcanoes, five of which are still active – there was an eruption of Wolf Volcano in the most northern part while we were there. It is also the only island of the archipelago that straddles the equatorial line. The linked volcanoes give it its elongated, sea horse shape. The place is very underdeveloped: for example, they only received an ATM two years ago, the main roads are sandy and there is no building higher than three floors. Residents have to take a two hour, sea sickness inducing, expensive ferry journey to Santa Cruz for non-routine medical needs and some shopping. The population is concentrated in the southern harbour town Puerto Villamil and a small settlement of farmers 40 km exists in the Highlands. Having little or no internet for a week was the perfect way to relax. We had nothing to do beyond walking along the 6km deserted white sand beach, sipping on coconuts and eating chiffles (the island boasts an awesome artisan maker of these addictive green plantain crisps) while watching the sun set and taking some more underwater adventures. Isabela is also the greenest of the islands thanks to its long stretches of mangroves and its coconut trees hemming the shore and one where it is possible to see a lot by oneself or with some awesome organised tours. The boat tour we took to Los Tuneles and our kayaking to Tintoreras were some of the richest in terms of encounters with a wide range of fauna. This time, we saw not just one turtle but dozens of them! Some of the turtles easily compete with their terrestrial cousins for length and girth. A wonderful aspect of our swim in the Galapagos was that the turtles were not afraid. As they swim graciously and stop to graze on seaweed meadows between rocks and corals, they convey a sense of serenity, inner power and grounding, possibly because the large ones are so long lived and have survived so many threats. They are as peaceful, munching into the green and red algae, as cows in an alpine meadow. The turtles that are born in the Galapagos spend all their life in the same spot of the archipelago, unlike other Pacific green turtles which travel thousands of miles to their preferred grazing area and only return to their beach of origin to mate and nest. Finally, the icing on the cake came when we saw a seahorse for the first time. We felt that we had finally entered into a mythical world.
Before saying Gracias and Adios to the Galapagos, we spent a few nights on San Cristobal island, the oldest, most western island and the administrative capital of the Galapagos. Without being as large and populous as Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the more built up town. There is a very good reason for this. San Cristobal was the first island to be visited by humans. It was discovered in the 16th century and soon became an established anchorage for passing boats: explorers, buccaneers, pirates and 19th century whalers. With Floreana’s spring dried up, it became the only remaining island to boast a source of sweet water in the shape of El Junco lake. It also had fresh meat: tortoises that used to be transported to boats in their thousands (nearly leading to their extinction on San Cristobal) and then the descendants of goats introduced by first visitors. It is the first of the Galapagos islands that Charles Darwin visited during the second voyage of the HMS Beagle on 16th September 1835, only three years after the Archipelago became part of Ecuador (on 12th February 1832, 12th February coincidentally being Charles Darwin’s birthday). In the Second World War, after Pearl Harbour, it became the place where a US army base settled to protect the strategic canal of Panama. The Americans built pipe lines from the lakes to their base on the shore. When they left, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno developed where the base was, using the infrastructures left behind. Although the town Puerto Baquerizo Moreno feels a little more continental than Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil, it still brought yet more amazing experiences. Spending two hours with a colony of Galapagos sealions on Carola beach at sunset was incredible – we saw a little pup who went from one to another in search of its Mummy. And we laughed endlessly at three pups racing each other along the shoreline; at an adult rolling itself down the beach and at all of them as they barked out loud. Yet the best was yet to come when we took a sailing trip all the way around the island and had our last swim with all of our underwater friends. Snorkelling around Kicker Rock aka Leon Dormido, the iconic postcard landscape, was awesome. The cold, plankton rich water was teeming with life. Swimming in the middle of shoals of all sorts of multicoloured fish and trying to synchronise with their changes of direction, accompanying turtles as they grazed, observing sealion mums and their pups and higher up blue footed boobies, Nazca boobies and a juvenile pelican sheltering on shelves of the rock, gliding with sting rays and feeling mesmerized yet keeping a wary eye on a variety of sharks erased the fatigue of a long swim and made us feel exhilarated yet at peace. Above us, magnificent frigates, some males still sporting their inflated red pouch in a show of endurance to females, circled the rock. To top it off, back in the boat and in the same way as we had received the same miraculous greeting on our first excursion, a pod of dolphins shared with us their joie de vivre and wished us farewell.
One minute video of our meetings with turtles, sharks, etc:
One minute video of our encounter with Galapagos Sealions:
We will shortly be heading to mainland Ecuador for a few weeks before visiting Panama and New York. We will be back in the UK during April and May to see family and friends.