Is it just us, or is that sea lion giving us side eye? | guenterguni/E+/Getty Images
Is it just us, or is that sea lion giving us side eye? | guenterguni/E+/Getty Images

Here’s What It’s Like to Live on the Galápagos Islands

It's not just for inebriated sailors anymore.

The first human inhabitant of the Galápagos Islands was kind of a mess. That honor belongs to sailor Patrick Watkins—“Irish Pat”—who somehow lost his boat and was stranded on the black sand beaches of Floreana for two years, from 1807 to 1809, a strange new animal amongst the sea birds, turtles, and iguanas. 

Though there was scarce drinkable water on Floreana, save for a pond that filled up with rainwater during the rainy season, Watkins made do. He drank mostly rum, for one, and grew vegetables on a small patch of land, trading them for more rum from passing sailors. By all accounts, he was blitzed for most of his time there, and according to journals by Captain David Porter—who only heard stories of the notorious Watkins floating around and decided to record them—he was a sight to behold, a beast in ragged clothing “sufficient to cover his nakedness, and covered with vermin; his red hair and beard matted, his skin much burnt from constant exposure to the sun, and so wild and savage in his manner and appearance that he struck every one with horror.” (Well, okay, but understandable.)

Watkins was also wily, somehow managing to kidnap sailors by getting them drunk enough to miss their ships when they took off. He acquired four friends through this method, and they eventually got it together enough to steal a boat and head to the mainland of Ecuador. Strangely, only Watkins made it to Guayaquil (it is assumed that the rest either perished, or, more likely, Watkins killed them over the lack of fresh water). He moved to Peru, and convinced a woman to return with him to the Galápagos. But before they could leave, local police found him hidden in a small boat, assumed foul play, and threw him in jail. And nothing has been heard about Patrick Watkins since.

Marine iguanas are total hams. | Maridav/Shutterstock

It’s still not known whether Watkins actually lost his boat or deliberately asked to be left on Floreana, but his desire to at least return to the islands is now shared by many more. “People want to move here—it’s beautiful, it’s safe, there’s so much nature. It’s peaceful,” says Adriana Aguirre, Galápagos National Park naturalist and recently a guide on the inaugural Hurtigruten expedition cruise to the islands, where we met. After growing up in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, she now lives on the island of Santa Cruz with her husband, three children, and mother.

“For someone who spent most of their childhood in a big city, you know it can be dangerous. When I came here, I felt so free. Free to walk on the streets without fear: of cars, of thieves, of any danger. You don’t feel any threat to you.”

Today, there are a little over 30,000 inhabitants of the 13-island archipelago (plus hundreds of outcrops and droplets of rock), spread out among four main islands: about 24,000 on Santa Cruz; 6,000 on San Cristobal; 1,000 on Isabela; and around 100 on Floreana. 80% work in tourism. It’s surprising to some that there are any inhabitants at all on these idyllic volcanic plots, straddling the equator about 600 miles off the western coast of South America. Isn’t this the place where animals roam free, basically a Planet Earth episode? Isn’t this the place that informed Darwin’s theory of evolution, ideas of natural selection, and so much more? (Yes… but humans.)

And tourism isn’t exactly new to the Galápagos: The first tourists arrived to the islands by cruise ship in 1834. But it wasn’t until WWII—when the United States opened up a strategic military base on the island of Baltra and built an airstrip in response to Pearl Harbor—that the Galápagos was seen as accessible to the world. (You might still land at an airport there today, though not the same strip the US built.)

Alien world? Nope, just the gorgeous South Plaza island. | Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten Expeditions

In 1959, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Ecuador declared the islands a protected national park—97% of it, anyway. The other three percent is inhabited and used by those 30,000+ residents and about 250,000 tourists annually. There would be a lot more inhabitants, but in 1998—the same year the Galápagos Marine Reserve was created—the government enacted a residency law to curb the human population.

To be there, you can obtain a work visa for up to five years, or anyone can visit up to 60 days annually. But there are only three ways to legally live on the islands. The first is by right: If you can prove you were living here before the residency law was enacted in 1998, you’re free and clear. The second is by lineage—if your father or mother passed on their permanent residency to you—and the third is by marriage, for a minimum of ten years. “If you get divorced for any reason before that, you can’t stay,” says Aguirre. “It used to be five years, but there were lots of fake marriages and people receiving money for documents. The government will actually do home visits to see that indeed you are a couple and that your marriage isn’t fake.”

The upturned saddle back allows him to reach higher for food. Though it looks like he's cool with just grass. | Maridav/Shutterstock

Aguirre got to the Galápagos by lineage. Born in Guayaquil, in 1988 her parents moved to the islands, when she was one year old. They divorced soon after, and Aguirre moved back to the mainland with her mother, but returned to the Galápagos at sixteen. “My dad invited me to come to the islands for a month, and he took me to do my first diving course,” she says. “And for someone who grew up in a city, that was it.” She then got her first taste of what it’s like to be a guide, with a visit to Bartolomé Island. “We went snorkeling, we went hiking; I remember looking at the guide and thinking, ‘this is a wonderful job!’”

She moved back to the islands at the age of 18, and in 2017 completed the Galápagos National Park Naturalist Guide’s Course, a major and somewhat rare accomplishment. There are only about 1,000 naturalist guides total—a small fraction of them women—with the stipulation that they be Galápagos residents. And opportunities are rare. “This is not something that occurs regularly; it’s up to demand,” she says. “The last course before mine was seven years before that, and before that was ten years before that. I think I was the first one to sign up!”

The Blue-footed booby knows you laugh at his name. | Photo courtesy of Hurtigruten Expeditions

On Santa Cruz, where she lives, there are salty lagoons, frolicking sea lions, giant Galápagos tortoises, and even bigger lava tubes. She’s near the Charles Darwin Research Station, with breeding programs to grow the population of said tortoises. She can spot wildlife on her time off. On hot days, her family goes biking in the highlands, stopping for Creole food and chocolate bread. For her, though Santa Cruz is tourist-heavy—which, because it’s less-regulated than cruise ships, does come with its problems—life in the national park is the best of all worlds. “You have all the advantages of a small town: super safe, everyone knows each other,” she says. “It’s a closed community, but you still have all the advantages of a big city, because it’s a tourist destination. There are very good restaurants.”

And there are hardly any cars, as they cause harm to the environment and are quite expensive. Most people obtain them for business purposes. For the rest, biking is the preferred mode of transportation. “The amount of cars allowed on the island is regulated by the government,” she says. “If you want to get a car, you either have to prove that you live far away, like in the highlands, and you need transportation.”

Santa Cruz has other environmental measures in place, like a ban on single-use plastics, and a progressive recycling system, implemented with the assistance of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and now the model for future recycling in all of Ecuador.

Floating in Las Grietas (The Cracks) in Santa Cruz. | Fernando Espinosa/Shutterstock

But living there does come with its obstacles. The sewage system, for one. Meaning there’s not one. “There is a plumbing system. We have a big hole in our house where the solid stuff accumulates and the municipality comes and sucks it all out,” says Aguirre. “Showers and all the rest of the liquid just goes back to the plumbing and unfortunately goes back to the land, and back to the sea.” Which leads to the second problem: no potable water. “It’s quite contaminated,” she says. “So we never drink water from the tap—every household on the islands buys drinkable water that’s been purified. You can still take a shower and brush your teeth with the tap water, but I don’t even use it for cooking. I cook with purified water just in case.”

There are two hospitals in all of the archipelago, for basic ailments only. Anything big and you have to go to the mainland, like when Aguirre’s son broke his arm. There is limited cable, but as expected, the Internet is slow. (“I call it ‘tortoise-net.’”) Non-local resources are limited, as the majority have to arrive by cargo ship. Products from the mainland come with an exorbitant markup—a 25-cent Coke on the mainland can be up to $2.00 on the island. And that’s if they can even come at all. “There are many products that are not allowed to be imported to the island because they could bring organisms or parasites that could become invasive or harmful to the wildlife on the islands,” says Aguirre. “Just as an example, mangoes. Almost every single mango that arrives to the islands has been checked almost with a microscope, to make sure it doesn’t transport any fruit flies or any other species that might become a problem.”

This lava lizard found himself a good sun spot. | Stubblefield Photography/Shutterstock

To compensate for the markup, government employees like Aguirre are paid about 80% more than their counterparts in Ecuador, but if you’re doing the math, it still doesn’t really even out. However, for Aguirre—and the rest of the archipelago’s 30,000+ residents, and the even more that yearn to live in this natural, wholly unique place—it doesn’t matter.

Ask her about her favorite animal on the islands—the mischievous Galápagos lava lizard—and she’ll be effusive. “I have a little obsession. They do push-ups everywhere, and just run in between your legs.” Or her favorite bird, the waved albatross. “They’re giant, turkey-looking birds. They’re so big and when they walk, they wobble from side to side.” The only tropical albatross, their eyebrows are full of expression. And they mate for life, one of her favorite things about them. “They’re very romantic in their courtship,” she says. “They do this dance and they work so hard to raise this one chick, and they repeat it all over again, every single year. They trust that their partner is going to come back to the exact same spot, every single year.” Sounds like what Irish Pat was trying to do. Paradise calls to all types. 

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. A sea lion once lunged at her in the Galápagos, but they're friends now.