TravelEssays

How the Galápagos Adapted to the Pandemic

Oranges for dental work, milk for English lessons—when COVID-19’s initial lockdown dried up tourism dollars and supply chains, the islands bartered their way through

The islands had officially reopened to domestic tourists at the start of July, and to foreigners a month later, but few had actually made the journey. (Photo: Sharon Jones/iStock)
Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador - November 3 2015. A young man cleans a fish at the Puerto Ayora outdoor fish market while a wild Galapagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) and brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) wait for scraps

Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.

“The problem with giant tortoises is that they really love my papayas,” said David Solís as he looked past me toward his orchard, shifting his weight to get a better look in case one of the mega-reptiles was helping itself to lunch at that very moment. 

It was October 2020, and we were standing on Solís’s farmstead outside the tourist center of Puerto Ayora, on the Galápagos Island of Santa Cruz. Clouds were rolling down from volcanic peaks above; below, only a few Ecuadorean visitors wandered around town. Earlier in the year, in March, as the virus caused havoc on mainland Ecuador, the islands went into strict lockdown. When they officially reopened to tourists at the start of July, few actually made the journey in the months to follow. Around 300,000 visitors had been expected in 2020, though by year’s end just 75,519 had been registered. With around 90 percent of the islands’ $800 million annual income coming from tourism, their absence was a disaster. 

Yet, for Solís, things didn’t seem exactly catastrophic—throughout 2020, cash had lost a lot of its power on the islands, and farmers like him, able to provide for themselves and their communities, felt newly enriched. “When I was younger, we traded everything and money wasn’t so important,” he said as we walked past his papaya trees. Farther up the slope, he grew sugarcane, while neighboring farms specialized in coffee. “We’ve gone back to that now, and I have more time for everything,” he said. “Before, I felt like I was running to make money, so maybe I prefer things to stay like this.”

While individual mayors oversee the archipelago’s five inhabited islands, various local government departments—from public health to tourism to environment—are in charge of protecting and managing some 97 percent of the islands’ land as the Galápagos National Park, as well as the Galapagos Marine Reserve that encircles the islands. With so many involved parties, even without input from the central government in the capital of Quito, the islands can be a Frankensteinian monster of bureaucracy. As traffic and then goods started to slow from the continent, Galápageños turned to each other and a simpler way of life to take care of themselves. 

View from Bartolome Island
(Photo: DC_Colombia/iStock)

During the strict 11-week lockdown that began in March, the majority of the 30,000 residents entered into a barter system. Fruit was traded for meat; milk for English lessons. Clothes were handed down, not just within families but through the community. At one point, Solís swapped 50 oranges for some dental work. Elsewhere, Brett and Maria Peters, the affable owners of Galápagos Deli in Puerto Ayora, traded produce they couldn’t use in their restaurant for houseplants to decorate their new home. Nature guide Lola Villacreses, realizing she wasn’t going to be aboard any cruise ships for the foreseeable future, did a crash course online and began growing fruits and vegetables on her smallholding in the fertile Santa Cruz Highlands. During my two-month stay, whenever I bumped into her around Puerto Ayora, she gave me a bucket of tomatoes. 

“Things have been changing very fast. All the money used to be in the town,” said Matias Espinosa, a dive master and naturalist on Santa Cruz whose businesses had been crippled by the pandemic. “Covid froze all our enterprise. Instead, we have this trading now, so these farmers are the kings of the island.”

Cash wasn’t abandoned entirely—even during the strictest lockdown measures from March to June, locals had to use it to pay for fuel for fishing boats that brought in catch on behalf of the community (there was no shortage of fuel, due to an excess created from the lack of ship, taxi, and tour bus usage), among other transactions. Upon returning, the day’s bounty was announced over megaphones, and fish that would ordinarily be exported to Miami at great expense was taken door to door and simply given away, with the understanding that the fisherman and their families would be taken care of with other goods and services in return. 

At times, I thought this sounded Edenic: travesty bonding a community at the very edge of the world, allowing them to eschew money in favor of organic trade and kindness. Inevitably, it was more complicated than that. Many shops and restaurants around Puerto Ayora had been shuttered, and there was no respite from crippling interest on business loans. Of the fleet of around 100 tourist boats and ships that would ordinarily cruise the islands, just three were in service when I visited. Owners were concerned that if tourist dollars didn’t return and revive at least some of these businesses, things would grow desperate and residents may have to resort to fishing in sanctioned areas or hunting endemic species, both of which were common practice before tourism spurred conservation designations in the late 1960s. 

“The Galápagos has shown that tourism can directly support conservation,” said Espinosa, who had spent years training divers on Isabela Island to become nature guides. Before, some of those divers made a living by scouring the ocean floor for sea cucumber and lobster to sell to Chinese exporters. He felt as though the eyes of the world were watching to see how the islands managed ecology and tourism, especially in the COVID-19 era. While the pandemic has forced the islands to adapt in some ways, the longer-term effects remain unclear as the government focuses on its immediate financial crises. But Espinosa has hope that this period will have a lingering effect, at least in the way it’s proven how adaptable the islands and its people are. “I think we need to go back to Mister Charles Darwin,” said Espinosa, referring to the British scientist, whose theories on evolution were partly formed by a five-week visit to the Galápagos in 1835. “The tourism industry needs its own kind of Darwinism. How can we shrink and survive and reset?”

The internet connection on the island is notoriously unreliable, but there is enough bandwidth to coordinate trading through a huge and sometimes unruly WhatsApp group of 256 members, the maximum allowed by the app.

Two hours west from Santa Cruz via a bumpy speedboat ride is Isabela, the largest and wildest of the Galpagos Islands. Comprising five volcanoes fused together by eruptions and time, Isabela is the most remote of the archipelago’s islands; west of it is nothing but the Pacific Ocean until you hit the Papuan island of Biak, while heading south will eventually get you to Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. 

Despite having more land mass than all the other islands combined, Isabela is home to just 2,200 people, who inhabit a tiny sliver between the volcanoes and sea. It’s also the only stretch of land in the Galápagos not designated as a national park. Consequently, it doesn’t have much infrastructure. Even in an ordinary year, the rudimentary airstrip took only a few light aircraft from other islands, but in 2020, it had barely been used. San Cristobal, home to the islands’ largest medical facility and its only ventilators, is at least four hours away by boat. This remoteness was often sold as Isabela’s great appeal—the end of the line, away from the mass tourism on Santa Cruz—but COVID-19 rendered that wildness a potentially fatal liability for tourists and residents alike.

When I met guide Pablo Valladares by the island’s main dock, Isabela had only just opened up to outsiders. Valladares, who leads hiking and nature tours across the island, explained that I was his first guest since February, and that after our days together in late October, he didn’t have anything else booked for the rest of 2020. 

Valladares’s availability was unheard of—the last time Sir David Attenborough and his BBC crew came to Isabela, he was their local fixer. His day rate was high, his availability low, and then the world shut down. For several months, he’d been spending his time surfing and tending to a small farm, grateful he had some savings. It wasn’t ideal, but he was nonetheless relieved to have been able to make ends meet. 

The previous spring, Valladares had been on a trip of his own, to Nicaragua’s Corn Islands, when the pandemic broke and he found himself in a frantic dash home to beat Ecuador’s national lockdown. With his wife and son, Valladares made it as far as his sister’s apartment in the plague-ridden city of Guayaquil before the planes stopped. After a grueling three-month lockdown there, the family returned to Isabela, where they quarantined. On arriving, Valladares found that his neighbor had dropped off a basket of fruit from his garden. These care packages continued to arrive every day until he could finally cross the street and shake the man’s hand. He repaid this debt by teaching the neighbor’s son how to surf.

As of March 2021, Santa Cruz has seen a slight improvement in tourist numbers, reducing its dependency on bartering. Though many local businesses remain closed, supply lines from the mainland are no longer an issue, and with the arrival of vaccines, hope for more of a revival later this year is growing. The same cannot be said on remote Isabela, where the reliance on trading has continued in lieu of visitor dollars. The internet connection on the island is notoriously unreliable, but there is enough bandwidth to coordinate through a huge and sometimes unruly WhatsApp group of 256 members, the maximum allowed by the app.

Valladares explained that this ramshackle marketplace was also being supplemented by hunting feral animals. In the 1800s, buccaneers brought animals like pigs, goats, donkeys, and cattle to the islands, where they quickly broke loose, settled, and started causing havoc for endemic species, trampling on bird nests, eating young tortoises, and spreading seeds of invasive flora. 

For decades, the progeny of these original invaders have been reduced, though they still inhabit the park and roaming freely on Isabela. At the start of the pandemic, residents revived a form of hunting, heading out of town on horseback and returning with feral cattle or pigs. 

“Hunting has been happening on the Galápagos since the first settlers were here,” Valladares told me the following day as we hiked toward the Sierra Negra volcano, a blasted, blackened peak that rises above Puerto Villamil, the only real settlement on Isabela. “Of course, back then they were going after the giant tortoises, too, but it wasn’t really a hunt, more like a collection.”

With more wild mammals abundant, no one seriously looks at the reptiles in that light anymore. Besides, tourists are unlikely to come back if the locals are eating the emblem of the islands, Valladares added. In any case, he expects it will take at least two years for tourism to fully recover here. In the meantime, trading among the islanders will need to continue. “We have to adapt,” he said. “It’s one of the golden rules here on Galápagos.”