Galápagos has changed. It has changed a lot in the past 13 years since I last set foot on the islands. Some changes are good, some are bad, and on some I hold my judgment until I have more information.
The first change was already obvious in Guayaquil before boarding the flight to Baltra: the baggage was screened for organic material before boarding the plane. The second change is Baltra airport itself. Instead of the small, kind of make-shift airport of before a modern building with extensive halls welcomes the wary traveler. Luggage is checked by a very enthusiastic search dog for plants and meat, before travelers can get hands on their suitcases and bags. So the control for introduced materials at least appears to be more stringent than before.
The transfer in a dilapidated bus to the Canal Itabaca between Baltra and the bigger and populated island of Santa Cruz remained the same, as did the little ferry crossing the canal, and the buses awaiting travelers on the Santa Cruz side. Though nowadays there are not only buses waiting but also more taxis than existed on all of the island before. The number of cars seems to have increased tenfold, and while I am writing this I am inhaling a lot of exhausts from the sheer incessant line of cars passing by the main square at the docks. But back to the first impressions.
Crossing the highlands of Santa Cruz towards the inhabited area on the southern side of the island, the new and much wider street gave a new level of comfort. But the big shock came when entering the formerly tiny village in the highlands. Where there used to be a handful of fincas visible from the street and one of two shops, there is now a whole village. I didn't recognize Santa Rosa and Bellavista anymore!
And the inability to recognize extended to the entrance to Puerto Ayora, the harbor village of Santa Cruz. 13 years ago, Puerto Ayora was a small village catering to the people working on the tourism boats, that hosted the approximately 100.000 annual visitors. Today, Puerto Ayora is a small town with all amenities and problems typical tourist towns have. The population almost doubled, the number of hotels and guesthouses increased at least 5fold, the number of stores with unnecessary stuff increased a felt 100 times, and the number of tourists doubled. Since 2013 more than 200.000 guests visit the archipelago every year, more of them island-based or island-hopping than ship-based. A whole new economy was established in the past decade, all around the new type of tourism, some of which is more beach-type than nature tourism.
The increased permanent and tourist population obviously puts quite a strain on the natural resources and infrastructure, as well as on importation of food, necessities and luxuries. More guests means more flights to and from the islands, with all ecological damage they bring. More guests also mean more cars and island transport, as well as inter-island transport and more cargo ships. As every ship releases some oil and chemicals in the water, the waters of the archipelago get more and more polluted, which endangers the fragile marine ecosystems. And more ships increase the risk of accidents like the Jessica oil spill in 2001. So yes, generally the increase of people on the islands is something not so positive, although more tourists also mean more financial means for the national park to perform conservation and research projects.
But lets move to the protected areas of the archipelago, the national park sites that can be visited. Most of them are still only accessible by boat, but especially the ones on the central islands are now also open to day tours and not only multi-day cruises, putting more pressure on the sites, despite the strict management how many groups are allowed at each site per day. The new measure especially important at these sites is not only how many groups per day are allowed, but how many at a time, forcing the several day cruise island visits into the hours before 10 am and after 3.30 pm, to leave the middle of the day for the day visitors.
Anyhow, what do the sites look like? Most of them are still very much like 13 years ago, to my great relieve. In some places the trails for visitors got wider, trampled down by people not staying on the track. But overall, it is a rather small impact. But on islands like Seymoure Norte, as well as just out on the ocean between islands, the lack of blue-footed boobies is apparent. Where they were all around and a daily sight almost everywhere in the Galápagos, now they are rare and a group of ten blue-footed boobies makes me smile. 13 years ago, a group of 30 didn't turn my head.
The same is true for Galápagos sea lions. This endemic species of pinnipeds used to be very common, not only on the sandy beaches, but also in the harbor of Puerto Ayora. There are still sea lion colonies around, but they are much smaller. Where the red beach of Rabida was a smelly mess of huge bodies basking in the sun, today 3 or 5 sea lions rest between their foraging trips. A lot of the sea lions seems to have eye infections, causing red and teary eyes. I don't know if that was already the case back in the days. And when snorkeling, sea lion encounters aren't common anymore. Luckily they still happen, and sometimes the young sea lions are still as curious as years ago, watching us as much as we watch them, and eager to play.
But when snorkeling the lack of sea cucumbers is what got me most. Sea cucumbers used to litter the sea floor. In about 20 snorkeling trips in the past 4 weeks I saw approximately ten sea cucumbers all together.
But not all animals or plants seem to disappear. There are also conservation successes quite apparent. One caught my eye directly in the highlands of Santa Cruz: while in the past you had to know where to find the giant tortoises and sometimes had to go on quite some hike to encounter them in the farmland area, they are now taking strolls along the main street. Instead of just one farmer seeing the opportunity in leaving former farmland open for tortoises and charging tourists and tour groups for access, there are now at least five farms appreciating tortoises on their land and providing access for tortoise watching. A very good development, especially in the light of exhaustion of soil and other resources, which are rendering many former farming areas useless or less profitable.
Another effort transformed one of my least liked national park sites into a new favorite. Back in the early 2000s, Urbina Bay on Isabela Island was devastated by introduced goats. No leave up to shoulder high, the bark stripped from tree trunks and branches, the soil without shrubs or undergrowth. When I saw Urbina Bay again 3 weeks ago, I couldn't believe it to be the same place. It is green and lush, shrubs and trees are growing, grass covers part of the ground and tortoises were walking around, enjoying the shade and fresh food. Additionally, the place is covered with land iguana burrows and huge iguanas were all around. The most amazing recovery, made possible by the eradication of goats, that were originally introduced 100-200 years ago by whalers or buccaneers.
So, yes, there are changes. A lot of them. Some good, some bad, some to be further investigated. But all together, the islands are still a paradise for nature tourists with nerdy tendencies!