CNH Tours Galapagos Business Trip Report

I went to Galapagos and Quito on November 9 for a two-week visit.  My objectives were to:

  1. participate in the Charles Darwin Foundation's Annual General Meeting (I'm a governing / voting member)
  2. inspect some ships so that we may be better positioned to comment on them;
  3. meet with our service providers to ensure all was running smoothly and to identify ways to improve the experience for our guests and;
  4. see our old friends and acquaintances, to strengthen our personal bonds with the islands and the community there.  

For posterity, and for those who might be interested, here is a short report on the trip.

  1. Charles Darwin Foundation’s Annual General Meeting

This was my first AGM as a voting member of the governing council.   The CDF is emerging from a financial straightjacket.   A few years ago, several large projects were coming to an end, and the CDF was faced with a severe cash flow shortage.  Due to new labour laws, the cost of laying off staff had skyrocketed, resulting in a downward spiral in terms of cash flow issues.   Thankfully, a last-minute donor kicked in several hundreds of thousands of dollars to help with the costs of laying off staff.   Over the next 2 years, the CDF was able to get back on to its feet, and as of this financial year, it is back in the typical NGO financial situation – budgeting for $4M worth of activities in 2017, but with a pretty much guaranteed income of $3.3M – hoping to raise additional funds along the way.  

The 2-day AGM ended with a feeling that things were back to normal after having run a painful cash flow gauntlet.  This doesn’t mean that the sailing will be smooth, but only that legacy issues, the proverbial albatross around its neck, had been successfully dealt with.   CNH Tours is a strong supporter of the CDF and wholeheartedly encourages others to support its good work as well.   Of note this year was the on-going effort at finding a solution to the invasive fly (Philornis downsii) which lays its eggs in the nests of native birds, resulting in a huge mortality.   Our old friend Charlotte Causton is leading an international effort at dealing with this extinction threat.  

 

  1. Ship Inspections

I boarded and inspected 9 ships (I could have inspected more – but after 9, things start to blur and it is hard to maintain a clear impression on one ship over another).  The following ships were on my list:  Nemo I, Nemo II, Passion, Integrity, Majestic, Origin, Grace, Tip Top II, Tip Top III.  I would have no problems recommending any of these ships – as long as expectations and ship amenities / budgets were matched.   Some of things that were highlights:  Nemo I:  Small, cozy and intimate – good for small groups; getting into the cabins requires a certain physical dexterity.   The Origin’s captain showed me around his ship – Pablo Salas.  His regular job is 2nd officer on one of the 5,000 passenger Celebrity cruise ships – but as he is a Galapagos resident, he likes to captain the Origin from time to time.   The Passion is the lowest capacity (12 passenger) luxury vessel in the islands – and recently partnered with the international conservation organization Wild Aid – Fiddi Angermeyer, the owner and an old acquaintance, was on board supervising some refurbishments.  I was taken by the Integrity, well recommended by an old friend of mine – and we are considering it for a future “comfort + Active Galapagos” package.   The Majestic had wonderful floor to ceiling windows in its top deck cabins.  I could go on.

 

  1. Meeting with service providers

The owner of the Samba, Juan Manuel Salcedo (with his family), the ship we have been chartering for over 10 years, invited me out on a sport fishing outing (run by his brother-in-law, Nicolas Schiess on the Tesoro ship) with Scott Henderson, and old friend who is currently vice-president for Latin America at Conservation International, based in Galapagos.   We talked non-stop for a few hours while Nicolas and his crew piloted the ship, managed fishing lines and caught a dolphin fish (mahi-mahi).   We proceeded to a cove for some snorkeling (there were at least 50 turtles with us, and a dozen white tipped reef sharks, sea lions and more) and to eat our fish.  This was a great opportunity to get updated on island and national politics, trends in the tourism industry and conservation issues in the islands.  I met up with Juan and his wife Erika again later in the week, and we reviewed our work together, suggesting improvement for the highlands tour, and increasing efficiencies in terms of invoicing etc.  

I also met with the owner of the Hotel Fernandina to discuss improvements.  This family run hotel, started in the 1970’s by don Fernando, has grown from 4 to 26 rooms.  We’ve been using it for 12 years or so.  It is a simple hotel, no frills, but well managed and very reasonably priced – ensuring that we can keep the price under control for our signature “Active Galapagos” trip, which includes 2 nights in Galapagos after the cruise.   Don Fernando was kind enough to host me for the 9 nights I stayed in the islands.  This gave me the opportunity to inspect the hotel and its operations.  I left them with a list of suggested improvements – which we discussed.  Don Fernando is 70 years old, and remains the owner of the hotel, though his 3 children are now running it.  I noted some challenges ahead in terms of the succession and we’ll be keeping an eye on things there.   I visited a few other hotels to enhance our personal knowledge of other accommodations opportunities in the islands.

I had a long chat with Paulina, the niece of the Mansion del Angel’s owner (who has no children of his own).  We reviewed our business relationship and came up with minor improvements to what we concluded was a very good relationship.  The Mansion del Angel is a unique hotel – chock-a-block full of early 20th century charm – an historic mansion in Quito, with lovely grounds in the back (and a spa – book your massage).   The location is not ideal in the sense that a taxi is required to get anywhere – but it’s a small price to pay for such a memorable hotel experience.  The food is also very nicely prepared and presented. 

I visited two hotels near the Quito airport.  We will be recommending a hotel for those people spending just one night in Quito, and not wanting to take the 45 minute (or more) journey from the airport down in the valley, up to Quito city.   I visited the airport Wyndham hotel – quite new, and a very decent business type hotel, almost a walking distance from the airport ($3 by airport taxi).  All the rooms are facing away from the airport – ensuring that you are not bothered by the noise (I stayed one night).  I also visited Rincon de Puembo (15-20 minutes’ drive from the airport).  Though further than the Wyndham, it makes up for it 10 times over for the charm and coziness.   This is an old country estate, turned into a modern 35 or so room hotel, fully respecting all the architectural niceties.   The ideal hotel would be to have the Rincon de Puembo located where the Wyndham his – but you can’t have it all I’ve been told.

 

  1. Old friends and acquaintances

In Quito, I dined with Adriana Vallejos, our long-time CNH Tours agent there.  We first met her in 2000, when she helped book a jungle logde for our first ever Galapagos charter.  She is a ball of energy, our “eyes and ears” in Quito.  When we want something done, nothing will stop her.   Adriana is both a friend and part-time employee.  We reviewed how things were going and agreed on some minor improvements.  

Eliecer Cruz:  Governor of the province of Galapagos.  Eliecer had been my boss when I worked in the islands – Park director at the time.  He then took up the job of head of the WWF office, and then was appointed governor by the president of Ecuador.   We had the opportunity to chat during the Darwin Foundation AGM.

Walter Bustos:  Park director – I was invited to his office for a courtesy visit.   We had met a few years earlier while I was still working at UNESCO and he was an assistant to the minister of the environment.   When I mentioned that I was working a lot with the Samba, he exclaimed that it was a good ship – that the Park had given it an award recently for service to the community.

Veronica Santamaria:  Galapagos National Park tourism and public use director.  I just wanted to say hello, to let her know of our concerns over the uncontrolled growth of the land based tourism in the islands.  She was new to the job – it was a good chance to have her hear from cruise agencies such as ours.  

Mathias Espinoza:  This handsome green-eyed Ecuadorian-German Galapagueño, and his wife Maria Agusta, are old friends from my Darwin days.   He owns the Scuba Iguana dive shop and his wife, a marine biologist, is now raising 2 boys and helping with the dive business and with their newly opened hostal (La Casa de Mathias) – very nice and located on a quiet dead end street next to the park boundary.  

Gaby Bohorquez:  Gaby is a naturalist guide, based in the UK, where, with her husband Paul McFarling (also a guide) they are raising their children.  Gaby continues to guide, and I caught up with her as she disembarked from the Endeavour.  She and Paul are our old friends – we visited them last summer in the UK, and they dropped in on us frequently when we lived in the Paris area.  They also run a hostal, the "Cactus Pad", just near to Mathias' place.

Ivonne Torres:  A naturalist guide, now working for Puerto Ayora city hall, she’s in charge of sustainable development issues.  It was her birthday, and I was invited to celebrate with her and friends on the rooftop of a newly built hotel in the far end of Puerto Ayora.  Good to  catch up on what the town is doing these days.

Scott Henderson and Maria Elena Guerra (MEG): Former Darwin station colleagues and friends, they now live on their 40 acre farm in the highlands above Puerto Ayora.  Scott is now the VP for Latin America at Conservation International, and MEG is the administrative officer for WWF Ecuador.   They have 10,000 coffee plants and produce the delicious Lava Java coffee of Galapagos.    I’ve asked them to receive our Active Galapagos guests during their highland visits – we are working on the details.  They have a fascinating life story – Scott was born and raised in Ohio but ended up on a coffee farm in Galapagos!

Charlotte Causton and Heinke Jagr: My old Darwin Station colleagues continue to carry the torch.  Heinke lives in a charmingly dilapidated A-frame house on the shores of Academy Bay.  She invited Charlotte and I for a dinner on the concrete platform by the sea, under the stars, for dinner, where we discussed the latest goings-on and conservation challenges. 

Godfrey Merlen:  He also looks like Merlin the magician – Godfrey is the Godfather of behind the scenes marine conservation work in Galapagos.  He landed there in the 1970’s I believe and over time, burnished his reputation as an action oriented can-do mariner.  Hired to carry out sperm whale research, to help oversee the construction of Park ships and to run the Wild Aid office, Godfrey is a fixture in the islands with an unusual wit and a sharp eye.  It’s always great to catch up.

Arturo Izurieta:  The Charles Darwin Research Station director – we had some good chats on the health of the Foundation, and how CNH Tours could help.  Arturo had been park director on two occasions prior to taking up this latest post, where he has his hands full. 

Over the course of my 9 days in the islands, I ran into so many other old friends and colleagues:  Wilson Cabrera, one of the lead hunters in the goat eradication project I help develop; Karl Campbell, one of the masterminds of the goat eradication strategy; Macarena Iturralde, who runs her own Latin American tour agency; Cristina Paz and Champi, her husband:  both guides, Champi often guides on our Active Galapagos trips and Cristina is currently helping me develop a ratings system for visitor sites; Paola Diaz, in charge of public relations at the Station; Hugo Echeverria, a lawyer who worked with the Sea Shepherd Society and who almost singlehandedly helped change the attitude of the Ecuadorian legal community in regards to environmental crimes; Jose Gallardo, the owner of the best hardware store in town (Bodega Blanca) and so many more.   All of these people make up our home away from home in Galapagos. 

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