The Galapágos Islands have become a paradise for tourists, not for nature

Once I landed at the airport on Baltra Island and hit the road towards Santa Cruz (one of the Galapágos’ four inhabited islands), I began to see some changes. On the bus, I saw a man wearing a suit despite the warm weather — it was over 25 degrees Celsius. He received phone calls and talked about a meeting he would attend in Santa Cruz. A businessman who looked like he had just walked off of Wall Street was the last thing I expected to see in an island paradise.

While trying to figure out how and why this guy ended up doing business in the Galapágos, I noticed luxury hotels on the road, houses only kilometers away from the shore, and a new bicycle lane under construction. The government has strict laws to protect the islands and keep them untouched, but even in the Galapágos, a lot can change in five years.

This was my fifth time on the islands, yet it was my first visit as a global citizen. The last time I visited was in 2011, and I have spent much of the last five years traveling and meeting people from different parts of the world and cultural backgrounds. This has had a profound effect on my perspective on nature, life and earth.

The Galapágos are considered a paradise on Earth, and it’s safe to say that everyone who visits the islands falls in love with them. Strange plants and animals that can only be found on the Galapágos mix with the backdrop of volcanoes surrounding the islands — the last explosion was in 2009 — making every day feel surreal. It was on these lush islands that Charles Darwin found the inspiration and research for his theory of evolution. But many people don’t know that the Galapágos Islands belong to Ecuador. Tourists often visit the Galapágos and skip mainland Ecuador.

But these tourists are rarely millennials. Despite being part of Ecuador, the cost of living in the Galapágos is almost double that of mainland Ecuador. Tours cost at least $100 per day. Millennial prefer to travel spontaneously and walk off the beaten path, experiencing local life instead of following set tourist routes. Unfortunately, this is rather difficult to do in the Galapágos since everything is expensive and there are no cheaper options, and almost everything must be booked in advance.

Although a haven for tourists, most islands are strictly regulated so that they can keep their reputation as an untouched paradise. But on Isabela Island, evidence of human life is more clear. My first impression of Isabela was that it looked like the beaches in mainland Ecuador. Bars and restaurants crowded the beachfront, and there were plenty of hostels to attract young tourists. Most of the beaches in the Galapágos do not have shops — only ocean and sand. You would generally have to register once you enter the beach and would have to leave by a certain time.

Despite the strict rules, the government recently approved a project to build a golf course in San Cristobal Island, hoping to attract international tourists and bring more visitors to that Island. But the natural impact it could have on the island is terrifying. Tourists can’t even bring food onto the island for fear of pollution, but big companies can change the landscape of the island — land that has never been touched before, home to many species that are only found on this island.

I was in the Galapágos for six days and traveled across four of the 18 islands. Even in that short period I noticed how humans have affected and changed the islands to make them suitable for their lifestyle. Humans are no different than the species Darwin examined centuries ago, and may be pushing evolution along.

Recently, Google Earth released three decades of footage from different parts of the world showing how they have changed. If such footage exists of the Galapágos, it would prove that even in this paradise, where attempts are made to keep it as untouched as possible, mankind has left a footprint.

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV