What It’s Actually Like to Live in the Galapagos Islands

An AFAR staffer spent months studying abroad in this cluster of Ecuadorian islands and fell in love with their way of life.

What It's Actually Like to Live in the Galapagos Islands

A Galapagos Sea Turtle swimming in the waters of La Lobería, on San Cristobal

SAmantha Juda

In our past issue, we featured a stunning photo essay on the Galapagos islands. It gave a look into a family trip to the Ecuadorian islands—but what’s it like to actually live there? One of our colleagues, Samantha Juda, did—here’s her story.

My three months on the Galapagos Islands were filled with wonder. Yet, slowly the unreal became the norm, as I was accustomed to life in the middle of the Pacific.

My mornings began with my host family. The roosters outside would squawk and wake me, usually early enough for a run. I would run out to the beach on the far side of San Cristobal, La Lobería, and watch the waves crash over the volcanic rock and sea lions before turning around for the run home. The house, up on a hill in the middle of the islands, would often be out of fresh water, so a shower at the end of my run wasn’t always possible—but I knew a dip in the ocean would be in my future, so it didn’t matter (kind of gross, I know). I ate breakfast with my host brothers and mother before leaving to walk to the university for my classes.

After class, I spent my day at the beach or walking through town. Puerto Baquerzo Moreno, the main town on San Cristobal, has a small Malécon (boardwalk) with lots of shops and plenty of restaurants where both tourists and locals would hang out. After a stroll through town and some lunch, I’d return to the university and snorkel at the beach across the street, Playa Mann all afternoon. I couldn’t get enough of it: the fish were everywhere and the sea lions were so playful. My classmates and I would dive down as far as we could, for as long as we could, and swim around in the bay. Afterwards, we’d join in on a pickup soccer games on the beach. After dinner we’d wander to the local bar, Iguana Rock, for some salsa lessons and to play pool with the locals.

I became a part of the community, and the island became my home. The odd animals who had evolved to be so unique to the rest of the world became normal to see on a daily basis, and it was not rare to have sea lions take over our towels while laying on the beach, or crawl on our feet while practicing yoga. My classes focused on ecology, so I was able to recite the names of every plant I walked past on my way to town. I tutored local students in English, and we even carved a watermelon together for Halloween (it was hard to find a pumpkin on the island!).

But the normalness that I soon felt, and that the locals feel every day on these odd islands, still puzzles me. When I tell people I lived in Galapagos, most are shocked to hear that there are places where people live there, year-round. Although only four of the islands have residents, (about 20,000 on Santa Cruz; 6,000 on San Cristobal; 1,000 on Isabela; 100 on Floreana), the residents do meaningful work—with many studying the environment and trying to help save the natural land (although, sadly their work is proving to be not enough).

Many tourists don’t get to see this side of the islands, as they stay on cruise ships and explore only the tourist shops in the Galapagos’ few towns. If you go there there, I urge you to do it the AFAR way. Find your way to Iguana Rock. Talk to the store owners (even in the tourist shops), and get to know the community that is the Galapagos outside of what Darwin made famous.

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