Galapagos News

Tourism Service Providers Licensing Process Underway

The Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment reported yesterday from Galapagos that it launched the tender for the granting of Tourist Activity Operators' licenses in the park.   

A total of 31 licenses will be granted as follows:  

Scuba diving - day trips:    5 in Santa Cruz, 8 in San Cristobal, and 2 for Villamil on Isabela. 

Bay tours:  4 in Santa Cruz, 6 in San Cristobal and 6 in Villamil.

CNH Tours is always very pleased to see the government authorities establishing order in the tourism sector of Galapagos.    While cruise ship tourism has been highly regulated for many years, land based tourism has been a bit of a free for all.   Until the mid to late 1990's, the vast majority of visitors to Galapagos did a cruise ship visit, leaving only a very small land based sector.   But as demand grew and as the government kept a lid on the expansion on the number of cruise ships allowed to operate in the islands (over environmental conservation and visitor experience quality concerns), and as cruise ship prices rose, there has been a very rapid expansion of land based visitors to the islands.    This happened before the authorities could implement any measures to control the proliferation and quality of services. 

Yesterday's announcement is part of the effort to ensure that visitors to Galapagos will be well taken care of, that safety measures are in place and that all service providers operate from the same, level playing field.    This complements the Ministry of Tourism's OK Galapagos campaign, which provides the "OK Galapagos" label to all tourism service providers that operate according to regulations.    CNH Tours always encourages visitors to patronize legal and licensed service providers in Galapagos (e.g. hotels, bay tours, inter-island transport operators) to ensure that the tourism industry in the islands grows in a sustainable, safe way.

New Baltra Airport now fully operational - and taxable

CNH Tours is relaying information that it has just received - from Monday 25th March, the new passenger terminal on Baltra Island in the Galápagos was fully operational for both arriving and departing passengers.  It had been operational for only arriving passengers for several weeks prior to that. 

Though touted as an improvement to travel to and from the islands, having recently used the airport 2 weeks ago, CNH Tours is sorely disappointed in the overall look and layout.  While the previous airport was indeed reaching its limit in terms of passenger capacity (it was built a good 20 years ago, when there were just 4-5 flights a week arriving to Baltra, and now there are up to 6 a day...), it was at least built with mostly local materials, and fit right into the landscape as best an airport terminal could.

The new behemoth is at least 4 times the height of the old one, and built with large white panels, and filled with pipes and wiring - looking more like an manufacturing plant out of a Monty Python cartoon, than an airport terminal (at least when we saw it in early March - perhaps some aesthetic touches still remained to be completed).  It is even equippred with sprinklers in case there are fires - dangling from the rafters above - but frankly, beyond the Panama hats many visitors are donning, one is hard pressed to find any flammable material in sight.  And another thing - despite having an area of about 3 football fields, the toilets are tiny!

Oh well, such is progress we suppose.   To add insult to injury, visitors will have to pay a $26 tax to use the airport.  This will be automatically added to the price of your plane ticket (if bought after April 4th - otherwise you will be charged at the check-in counter). 

 

Old Baltra Airport below - built with local and natural materials - lava rocks, wood... a realy homey feeling!

 Old Baltra Airport

New Villamil dock "fee-tax" starts today

CNH Tours has been informed that local authorities in Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island, started charging a new tax / landing fee of 20 US dollars effective today.

This new fee will serve to ensure the maintenance of the town's main landing docks, where tourists disembark from cruise ships, day tours and inter-island trips.  The docks also serve as moorage for smaller fishing boats and other working vessels.  

It is not clear how visitors will be expected to pay - whether this will be incorporated into cruise prices, or other transport service prices, or if you'll have to pay $20 in cash upon arrival.   Only time will tell. 

The rates are $20 for foreigners, $10 for Ecuadorians and $2 for Galapagos residents if on a day tour or a cruise, and $5 for foreigners, $2 for Ecuadorians and $1 for Galapagos residents if just using the docks for inter-island transport, or work related purposes.  

Though we understand the need to have users pay for the upkeep of facilities, CNH Tours is starting to wonder over how far this will go.  The Park fee is $100, the tourist card fee is $10, there is a new aiport tax of $24 in Quito...  We suggest that the Galapagos authorities arrange for the unification of Galapagos related taxes and fees so that visitors do not feel they are being asked, every time they move, to pay yet another tax.   This will have (and may already have had) and dampening effect on visitation to the islands.  

 

Correa wins elections - good for Galapagos

Economist and US educated Rafael Correa was re-elected as president of Ecuador over the weekend in the first round of presidential voting - indicating widespread support from Ecuadoreans.   He first came to power in 2007, then basically strong armed a constitutional review, which allowed him to present his candidacy for the 2009 elections (he won) and now again in 2013. 

CNH Tours has been following Ecuadorian politics (in no great depth admittedly, but following nonetheless - and we're sure some of our friends in the islands will disagree with us!) since 1998, when we first moved to Galapagos.   During our first four years there, we got to see at least 5 presidents (at one point, there were 3 joint presidents!), many ministers of the environment, massive inflation, a run on the banks and the abandonment of the national currency for the US$.  The 3-4 years after we left in 2002, the Galapagos National Park Service had a revolving door directorship, with 13 directors or interim directors in 3 years.  

Since Correa came along in 2007, things have calmed down tremendously, both in the country and in Galapagos.   One of the first moves we took note of under the Correa administration was the ending of fuel subsidy cheating for cruise ships.   Fuel in Galapagos was subsidized, but this was for fishing boats.   Under the lax regimes prior to Correa, many ships somehow managed to get access to fishing boat fuel subsidies - essentially resulting in the poor taxpayers of Ecuador subsidizing profits of the ship owners, and lower cruise prices for international visitors.   No more - and that's a good thing.  

The new constitution of Ecuador also removed the "Provincial" status for Galapagos.  This small territory, with a population of under 30,000, had the same constitutional status as other mainland provinces, with populations of up to 3 million people.  This had led to completely warped politics in the islands, with plenty of destructive in-fighting amongst small minded politicians, who exploited various interest groups to make a name for themselves.   Things have been quiet in the islands over the past several years - that's good for local residents and good for visitors.  Galapagos is now managed by a governing council, comprised of national administration and local representatives.  This seems to be working. 

CNH Tours had the pleasure to have known the minister of environment under Correa, Marcel Aguiñaga, who was a tough cookie and did her job well.  She was a colleague of ours ' when we worked at the Charles Darwin Research Station, she was the legal advisor with the Galapagos National Park Service.  She resigned from her ministerial post last November to present herself as a candidate for the National Assembly in this election - and we note that she was duly elected. 

Correa has invested a good deal of the country's oil revenues in infrastructure and services (sometimes via massive advance selling of oil to China).  Roads have been built, teachers hired.  In Galapagos, a modern hospital will be built for the first time.  All this isn't to say that Correa is perfect - his relationship with the press is worrying - he has bullied owners of newspapers and television stations into submission, or forced them to sell their businesses.   It is ironic that while his administration has brought in measures to ensure that government is more transparent on the one hand, he is making life more difficult for the press to verify that.  

But given the choice between Correa and the previous administrations we've known to have run Ecuador, we will stand with Correa.  He has been better for Ecuadorians in general, and better for Galapagos. 

 

Comet makes a pass in mid-March

Comet PanSTARRS will be making a (modest) showing mid-March, just after sunset, low on the western horizon.  It's worth making a special effort to spotting it.  It may be hard to see with the naked eye, as there will be the glow of dusk to mask it.  That's why looking for it on the Equator, at sea, gives you the best viewing potential.  Binoculars will help tremendously though!

Comet track

 

German Iguana Smuggler Gets 4 Years!

German national Dirk Bender, 32, finally got his just desserts.   He was sentenced to 4 years in prison (the maximum penalty) on Monday this week, after having been found guilty of attempting to smuggle out very rare and endemic Land Iguanas from Galapagos last July.   He has been held in pre-trial custody in Galapagos since then, but will now be moved to Guayaquil to satisfy the judgment.  His time already spent in custody will be deducted from the sentence, meaning he's looking at a July 2016 release from prison. 

Mr. Bender had been caught doing the same thing in Fiji in 2011, trying to smuggle local reptiles out of that country.   One wonders how many times he has been successful in doing so at other places.    Clearly, the Fiji experience did not discourage him from continuing this abhorrent practice.  CNH Tours hopes that Ecuador's environmental justice will be more successful, and congratulates the lawyers and judges involved in applying a law that too often is disregarded or considered unimportant.

The illegal trade of protected species around the world contributes to the decline in population numbers for many rare plants and animals.  Most of these die while being smuggled, but the practice continues.    These species are best observed where they live, not in people's homes as conversation pieces.   

For more information on illegal wildlife trade, consult TRAFFIC (The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network - www.traffic.org). 

 

Below:  Dirk Bender goes to trial on Monday, February 4th, 2013

Dirk Bender Goes to Jail

 

Below,, the CNH Tours "Picture of the Year', the moment Dirk Bender gets caught by the authorities, in July 2012:

Dirk Bender

 

New Quito Airport to Start up on 20 February

According to the latest information available from Quiport, the company charged with operating the new Quito airport, operations are finally set to start on 20 February.    They were supposed to start last year, but for various reasons, the opening has been delayed.   CNH Tours feels confident that this time, the start date will be honoured.

The new airport is quite a bit further away from downtown Quito - you will need to plan for a transfer time of between 1 and 1.5 hours, depending on traffic, according to Quiport.  Though an express road is planned between the airport, which is down in a valley, to Quito, which is up higher, it is not yet completed.

Quiport also notes that all flights to and from Quito in the evening of the 19th of February will be cancelled and indicate that airlines have already planned around that closure.  If by chance you a scheduled to be flying into Quito in the late afternoon or evening of the 19th, please double check with your agent.

Alcoholic drinks ban during upcoming elections

On Sunday 17th February Ecuadorians will head to the polls for presidential and legislative elections. A "dry law" goes into effect from midday on Friday 15th February until midday on Monday 18th. This measure prohibits businesses in Ecuador from selling alcohol during this period.

This ban does not apply to people on board ships, but does apply to everyone else. 

 

Helicopter emergency services and new hospital in Galapagos

A new hospital is being built in Galapagos, in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal Island.  This is the capital town (not quite city!) of Galapagos, though smaller by far than the main tourist town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz island.

The US$8.1M investment will lead to a new and modern facility, part of the government's plan to improve health services in the islands.  Last year, it spent US$5million on equipment and personnel. 

Of particular importance to tourists on ships in remote locations, there is now a Navy operated Bell-430 helicopter that is available for emergency evacuations, in operation since last August.  It has already carried out ​​48 missions (38 interisland emergency evacuations, 5 rescues at sea and the transport of 5 medical teams to attend to emergencies in situ).

2014 Active Galapagos now taking bookings

CNH Tours is pleased to announce that dates for its highly acclaimed "ACTIVE GALAPAGOS" trips have just been posted on our website.   We have been custom designing the ACTIVE itinierary for 10 years, growing from 2 cruises a year to a record 14 planned for 2014.

This trip consistently attracts a like-minded group of inquisitive carpe diem guests from the US, Canada, the UK, Europe and beyond who want to make the most of what will usually be a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Galapagos in an "up close and personal" way.   Our ACTIVE guides receive rave reviews and are often cited in the bulletin boards. They are hand picked and among the very best in the islands. The Samba crew and on-board experience receives consistent positive comments.  Altogether, these elements combine to make this an intimate and ideal way to see the islands. 

"I want to thank you for organizing such a wonderful trip to Galapagos for me.  Juan and the rest of the crew of the Samba were amazing.  Thank you for helping me realize a dream adventure."  Holly, on a 2012 Active Tour

 

Recent group photo: Crossing the Equator, we all dress up accordingly.  Spot Juan Salcedo, as Neptune, and Samba guests as various Galapagos animals. neptune

 

Best Galapagos Picture of 2012

CNH Tours has unilaterally (we are not very democratic it seems!) decided that the picture below is the best Galapagos picture of the year, courtesy of the Galapagos National Park Service.

In it, we see the moment in which inspectors at the Baltra airport have discovered live iguanas stashed away in the suitcase of Dirk Bender, a German national about to embark on his flight to the continent, and beyond.   Mr. Bender, in the background, looks like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.   This happened last July 8th, and Mr. Bender has been in detention at a Puerto Ayora prison ever since, awaiting trial.   There is a 6 month statute of limitations in Ecuador, and if he's not tried before the 8th of January, he goes free.   The Park Service announced yesterday that a trial is scheduled for tomorrow, January 4th.

Mr. Bender was caught doing exactly the same thing in Fiji, on December 3rd, 2011.  In that case, he was trying to smuggle a Crested Fiji Iguana.  He was liable for a fine of up to $20,000 - but CNH Tours has not been able to determine what his sentence was exactly.

It's very nice to see the law being fully applied in Galapagos, particularly when it comes to environmental crimes.  Infractions of environmental laws are not often taken seriously by courts in many countries.   The work of the judiciary in Galapagos is becoming increasingly sensitive to environmental issues - a good thing for this very fragile natural area. 

Dirk Bender

Sir David Attenborough’s latest 3D Documentary

British nature documentary superstar Sir David Attenborough presents the 2nd of his 3 part series on Galapagos tonight in the UK (Sky TV), but this time in 3D.   "It is usually a mistake to go back, but I have now returned three times to the Galápagos Islands since my first visit in 1978 and each time the excitement has been undiminished. On my latest trip, indeed, it has been heightened, for I have had the opportunity not only to film the islands in a new medium but - as we disclosed earlier this week - to film an entirely new species" he stated.  He refers to the pink iguana, first documented a few years ago. 

Galapagos documentaries remain very popular, and CNH Tours certainly appreciates the free publicity for this (truly) unique place.  I recall once, after 3 years in the pressure cooker that is Galapagos conservation life in the islands, I took a Christmas holiday in Canada with my family, and we went to the extended family retreat, a small lakeside cottage in the snow.  We started a fire, and distractedly turned on the television, only to be confronted by a, you know it, Galapagos documentary!  

Tourist dies after tripping

The Galapagos National Park reports that a 74 year old woman died after tripping and falling on the boardwalk at the Cerro Colorado Semi-natural Tortoise Breeding Centre on San Cristobal island yesterday.  Jane White from the USA was on a cruise on the La Pinta ship.  While visiting the tortoise centre, she decided to join a group of three other visitors who were headed off to the restrooms.    She appears to have tripped and knocked her head against the boardwalk as she fell.  She was pronounced dead at the hospital in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, 24 kilometres away.   

No place is risk free, and Galapagos is perhaps a bit riskier than your typical cruise experience.  Not only does a cruise include several short hikes on what can be uneven trails, but you may also find yourself quite far away from professional medical attention.  Anyone considering a Galapagos visit should take that into consideration and be willing to accept these risks.   Of course, the trails are not "death defying" -  thousands of visitors walk over them every year, many well into their 70's and often into their 80's (CNH Tours has no doubts that sprightly folks in their 90's also frequent them).   But accidents may happen.    We are sad to hear of this accident.  

Galaven Yacht Damaged and Out of Service

The Galapagos Port Captain reported yesterday that the 20 passenger, tourist superior Galaven yacht had hit some rocks at the Cerro Dragon (NW sector of Santa Cruz Island) and was taking on water.  Passengers were on land while this happened.   The crew was able to control the leak and took the ship to the Canal de Itabaca (which separates Baltra, the airport island, and Santa Cruz island).  The passengers were later taken back to Puerto Ayora.  

Based on this information, it would appear that the Galaven may be out of service of a while.  If you planned to cruise on the Galaven in the next few weeks, CNH Tours recommends you get in touch with your agent as soon as possible.

 

Mangrove Interpretive Boardwalk Inaugurated in P.Ayora

The town of Puerto Ayora (the main tourist service centre in Galapagos) recently inaugurated a nice "Laguna Las Ninfas" mangrove interpretive boardwalk/trail, with nice panels explaining the ecosystem, both in Spanish and English.  It's just a short walk (e.g. 10 minutes) from downtown - well worth a visit. 

 

Las Ninfas

No More Airport Departure Taxes!

Ecuador no longer has an international airport departure tax.  Until recently, this tax (up to $41) was applied to all out-going travellers.   So, it will be one less hassle to worry about as you make your way through the usual airport gauntlet of line-ups, check-in counters, passport control and security!   This doesn't mean you're necessarily saving money though...  typically, it means that Ecuador was able to reach an agreement with the airlines and their ticketing services so that the tax could be included in the price of your air ticket.  Sorry!  

If it's any comfort, the new airport in Quito (presumably payed in part with airport taxes?) should be opening soon and should offer more comfort and modern services.   The bad news is that the new airport is significantly furhter out of town.  The logistics of all of this in terms of getting people to and from the airport are still being ironed out by the entire tourism (and other) industries - but CNH Tours is sure things will quickly settle in.

Massive Rat Eradication Effort Under Way

We are taking the liberty to copy/paste a good article from the Huff Post on-line, below.   More evidence on the fact that it's a lot better to keep the critters from arriving in the first place, than to try to clean up after they've arrived.  So, when you're going through the bio-security check at the Quito or Guayaquil airport on your way to Galapagos - please take a moment to appreciate the very hard work involved in setting up and ensuring the effective operation of this very complex multi-institutional effort.   It was developed during the years CNH Tours was working at the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park Service (1998-2002). Our firiend. close colleague at the time, and master entomologist, Charlotte Causton, played a key role in the process (along with many others).  She left Galapagos several years ago, but recently returned to head the Station's Research Department.

From Huff Post On-line

Nov 15 2012

The unique bird and reptile species that make the Galapagos Islands a treasure for scientists and tourists must be preserved, Ecuadorean authorities say - and that means the rats must die, hundreds of millions of them.

A helicopter is to begin dropping nearly 22 tons of specially designed poison bait on an island Thursday, launching the second phase of a campaign to clear out by 2020 non-native rodents from the archipelago that helped inspire Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

The invasive Norway and black rats, introduced by whalers and buccaneers beginning in the 17th century, feed on the eggs and hatchlings of the islands' native species, which include giant tortoises, lava lizards, snakes, hawks and iguanas. Rats also have depleted plants on which native species feed.

The rats have critically endangered bird species on the 19-island cluster 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from Ecuador's coast.

"It's one of the worst problems the Galapagos have. (Rats) reproduce every three months and eat everything," said Juan Carlos Gonzalez, a specialist with the Nature Conservancy involved in the Phase II eradication operation on Pinzon island and the islet of Plaza Sur.

Phase I of the anti-rat campaign began in January 2011 on Rabida island and about a dozen islets, which like Pinzon and Plaza Sur are also uninhabited by humans.

The goal is to kill off all nonnative rodents, beginning with the Galapagos' smaller islands, without endangering other wildlife. The islands where humans reside, Isabela and Santa Cruz, will come last.

Previous efforts to eradicate invasive species have removed goats, cats, burros and pigs from various islands.

Pinzon is about seven square miles (1,812 hectares) in area, while Plaza Sur encompasses just 24 acres (9.6 hectares).

"This is a very expensive but totally necessary war," said Gonzalez.

The rat infestation has now reached one per square foot (about 10 per square meter) on Pinzon, where an estimated 180 million rodents reside.

The director of conservation for the Galapagos National Park Service, Danny Rueda, called the raticide the largest ever in South America.

The poisoned bait, developed by Bell Laboratories in the United States, is contained in light blue cubes that attract rats but are repulsive to other inhabitants of the islands. The one-centimeter-square cubes disintegrate in a week or so.

Park official Cristian Sevilla said the poison will be dropped on Pinzon and Plaza Sur through the end of November.

A total of 34 hawks from Pinzon were trapped in order to protect them from eating rodents that consume the poison, Sevilla said. They are to be released in early January.

On Plaza Sur, 40 iguanas were also captured temporarily for their own protection.

Asked whether a large number of decomposing rats would create an environmental problem, Rueda said the poison was specially engineered with a strong anti-coagulant that will make the rats dry up and disintegrate in less than eight days without a stench.

It will help that the average temperature of the islands is 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius), he added.

The current $1.8 million phase of the project is financed by the national park and nonprofit conservation groups including Island Conservation.

The Galapagos were declared protected as a UNESCO Natural Heritage site in 1978. In 2007, UNESCO declared them at risk due to harm from invasive species, tourism and immigration.

 

 

"Miss Reef" 2013 Calendar set in Galapagos.....

This is not usually something CNH Tours takes much interest in.  Still, we couldn't help but notice that "Surfing Magazine" has selected the Galapagos Islands as the backdrop for its 2013 calendar "Miss Reef" calendar - you can imagine what that's all about!  We won't grace our website with their pictures - sorry!  They announced this today - it's part of a "five-year series of Miss Reef Calendars shot entirely in Latin America, an effort to bring the brand back to its Latin roots" they say.

Still, we think it's worth noting those efforts to educate the surfer community on the natural values of those areas they surf in - no matter how they do it.   One concern for the conservation of Galapagos is the growth of land based tourism - it has been growing so fast in the past 10-15 years that the government authorities has had troubles managing it, resulting in hotels being built without permission, or even onto park lands - a growing underground tourism sector, operating outside the law, undermining the establishment of standards and depriving local communities of tax contributions to building schools and maintaining municipal services. 

It's important for the surfer community to understand these issues, and play an active part in ensuring that the tourism services they rely on in Galapagos (hotels, restaurants etc.) are part of the formal economy, and having a positive impact on the communities in which they are embedded.  

South Plaza Island Closed for Rat Eradication

The Galapagos National Park Service announced yesterday that it will close South Plaza Island to tourism from November 17 to December 17th this year, to carry out a rat eradication campaign there.

Besides the small rice rat (not present on South Plaza), other rats are not native to Galapagos.  The black and norway rats were introduced as early as the 17th century, when various ships began stopping in Galapagos in the search for fresh water or food.   Highly invasive, these rats represent a major threat to many native Galapagos species, including ground nesting birds (rats will kill and eat chicks), baby giant tortoises below the age of 2 or 3 years (they will also be eaten) and various other species. Because the also climb trees, rats are also predators of tree nesting eggs and chicks.

Eradicating rats from an island (e.g. making sure you leave not even one rat alive) is a very tough job.  The Charles Darwin Research Station has developed various techniques designed to ensure that only alien rats are targetted, and that do not harm other wildlife. The Park Service with the support from the Station have successfully eradicated rats from other small islands - and now it's South Plaza's turn.

If South Plaza was on your itinerary during this time, you will instead be taking a panga ride around the island, and do some snorkeling there.

Plump Pepe Put into Park Pen

After 60 years of (literally) religious care, Pepe, most likely the plumpest Galapagos tortoise alive, is being moved from the backyard of the local church in San Cristobal island (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno) to a more natural environment in the Galapagos National Park Service's tortoise pen.

CNH Tours first met Pepe in 1998 and has visited him a few times since. He was kept in a large enough enclosure with a big tree and a pond. But given his condition, we didn't think he was too interested in stretching his legs too much! As a local "off the beaten path" attraction, Pepe was often visited by families, children and the occasional tourist who somehow found out about him. For a very modest fee, the local pastor and his staff would let you into Pepe's enclosure, giving you a few bananas to feed him.

Having grown accustomed to being fed bananas by visitors, Pepe always greeted people by extending his neck as far as possible, and by opening in mouth as widely as possible, giving the casual observer the best opportunity ever to inspect the anatomy of the soft tissues inside a live Galapagos tortoise's mouth. However, he also started "running" towards visitors that way - as much as a tortoise can run that is. So, inside his pen, holding a banana, you had to be on your guard. You couldn't simply just move ahead of him to get out of his reach, and then get distracted, because before you knew it - Pepe would be upon you! It gives credence to the "Tortoise and the Hare" fable indeed!

Over the years, with this kind of diet (remember, in the wild, they eat grass or cactus leaves…), Pepe developed a double, even a triple chin! As much as the late George may have been lonesome, Pepe can be considered happy - Happy Pepe! We'll see how he likes his new "natural" home at the Park offices, and what kind of diet he'll have to get used to!

CNH Tours recommends you take the time to visit Happy Pepe if you are in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Just keep a step ahead of him!

 

Pepe

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