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Volunteer Review: Catherine B., Galapagos Island Conservation in Ecuador

An iguana on a beach in Ecuador

My name is Cath and I am from Australia. I volunteered on the Conservation Project on San Cristóbal Island, Galapagós for four weeks in January 2018. I had just graduated with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in biology, and having been immersed in the world of Darwinian evolution and the many marvels of the natural world for the last four years, living and working in the Galápagos Islands was a dream come true.

My first impressions

After three days of travelling and nearly thirty hours of airtime, I touched down on San Cristóbal Island. Nearly asleep on my feet, I proceeded to line up with the Ecuador nationals, and only after some serious staring, I realised my mistake. Next thing I knew, I was given a huge hug by a Projects Abroad staff member, and was off in a taxi to meet my host family.

My new home, the Reserva, was in El Progreso, in the Highlands – about a ten-minute taxi ride from the main town, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. I was introduced to my lovely host family and the language barrier very rapidly became apparent. My host family spoke no English, and I soon realised how very basic my basic level of Spanish was. With the aid of the other volunteers, however, we were genuinely able to interpret the language, and to communicate quite effectively ourselves.

My first afternoon was packed full of orientations about the accommodation, the conservation activities that the volunteers perform, and the role of Projects Abroad volunteers on San Cristóbal Island. I was given every opportunity to ask questions and was made to feel welcomed and appreciated for giving my time to come to the Galápagos Islands. I was then given a tour of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and seeing the beaches and shorefront covered in sea lions, and the black volcanic rocks covered in huge red crabs, I finally felt like I had arrived in the Galápagos Islands.

That night the staff and volunteers across the different projects came together for a welcome dinner and a farewell for the volunteers leaving the island. With the aid of the extremely friendly staff and host family, and the other wonderful volunteers, it was incredibly easy to settle into life on San Cristóbal.

My Conservation Project

Catherine spending time by the sea on the Galapagos Islands

In general, the Conservation placement consisted of labour-intensive mornings carrying food out to the giant tortoises and machete work to control the invasive plants in the national park and around the Highlands. These intensive mornings were generally followed by much more relaxed afternoons spent on the beaches monitoring sea lions, marine iguanas, and the many bird species seen around the island.

We also spent a lot of time in the greenhouse watering endemic plants and preparing bags of soil for seedlings. We got involved in beach clean-ups, re-filling rat traps around the Highland forests, and setting up endemic plant gardens in a local school. There was plenty of variation in the weekly activities, and we were even able to suggest new activities that we would like to perform.

A typical day

Giant tortoises eating at a local wildlife reserve

Three days a week, we were up at 5am to visit various beaches around the island and monitor the sea lions. The multitude of adorable sea lion puppies and the gorgeous sunrises never failed to make these early starts worthwhile.

Then after breakfast, it was time to whip out the machetes and cut down and bundle up the otoy plant for the giant tortoises. After delivering their food, we were always allowed to sit and watch them eat, and even by the sixth time, this was always a treat. Then we would pick up the machetes and head further into the national park to cut down invasive plants for an hour, and then out to the greenhouse to water the native plant seedlings.

After lunch and a shower, and a few free hours to do our washing, we would head back to the same beach as the morning to spend a couple of hours monitoring sea lion behaviour or sitting on cliffs to count birds (whilst also spotting sea turtles and enjoying the incredible views). Then we would meet the rest of the volunteers for a drink and to watch the sunset, and silently appreciate how incredibly lucky we were to be in the Galápagos Islands.

Accommodation and food

As a Conservation volunteer, I lived in a small building of several rooms, each with two beds and a bathroom, and a communal area with tables and hammocks. The accommodation was clean, with hot showers and plenty of drinking water provided. Our host family lived in a house right next door and would call us in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our host mum was a great cook, and she was very keen for us to help her cook our favourite meals from our home countries.

Living in the Highlands also meant we were on a small farm and had plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables each day. However, there was no escaping the huge amount of white rice that made up the majority of most meals, so be prepared for that!

Free time during weekends

Sea lions spotted during a volunteer Conservation Project in Ecuador

Weekends were always action packed days of fun and adventure. We would explore the island, hiking to its many breath-taking beaches to go snorkelling and then laying around in the sun. There is a fantastic day boat tour that goes all around the island and stops at the main snorkelling areas to see sharks, rays, turtles, and many, many fish.

We were also able to take a couple of days off work and visit Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela, where we saw penguins and flamingos, and hiked up Sierra Negra volcano. There were also many social activities organised for us and the other volunteers, including sports, salsa lessons, and kayaking.

Tips for future volunteers

If you are trying to decide on whether to go or not – just do it! I would do it all over again in a flash. It does not matter at all whether you have a background in the field, are interested in conservation, or you just want the perfect way to experience the Galápagos Islands.

My advice for this project would be to prepare yourself for some intensive activities (although you are always given the option to opt out), bring comfortable walking shoes, outdoor work clothes that you don’t mind getting destroyed, sturdy work gloves (more than one pair if you’re staying more than two weeks), lots of blister pads, and always wear lots of sunscreen!

Be prepared to never want to leave, and to spend the rest of your life planning when to go back.

Catherine B.

This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.

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