Ecuador

In the Galapagos, where tourists deliver the mail

by Simon Willis  |  Published April 9, 2015

The Galapagos is known as one of the finest locations for extraordinary endemic wildlife on earth. While this is undoubtedly true, there is one island in the famous archipelago with much more. Floreana is not only an island of intrigue and mystique but its mailing system allows visitors to carry on a tradition dating back over 200 years.

Post Office Bay in Floreana Island. (Photo: claumoho via Flickr)

Post Office Bay in Floreana Island. (Photo: claumoho via Flickr)

Delivering a letter is usually a job for a person carrying a brown satchel and driving a little red van.

Not in the Galapagos.

Here at Post Office Bay on Floreana Island, visitors are in charge of delivering the mail. And there’s no facebook, texting or tweeting allowed.

Started by whalers in the late 1700s, this mailing system – possibly the oldest in the world – requires visitors to take a postcard with a local address, and hand deliver it upon return to their own country.

The tradition has existed ever since tourism began on the islands in the 1960s and for over 200 years before. English whalers and seamen travelling through the bay would leave letters to family, then those travelling in the opposite direction would deliver them back in England.

Today I’m delving into the same wooden barrel, looking for a postcard to take back to Yorkshire, or if I’m feeling adventurous anywhere in the north of England.

Our Ecoventura guide Ivan, mid-30s with strap-round sunglasses and tree trunk legs, has also given us our own postcards to leave, ensuring the chain of mail continues.

He flips open the pale grey hatch on the barrel and dishes out the stacks of letters.

Before arriving on Floreana, our group of 20 had floated above white-tipped sharks, seen the blue-footed booby dance, snapped baby sea lions playing and swam alongside a pod of dolphins – all after two days. But now, faced with an old wooden barrel, people are grabbing the stacks and hurriedly searching with wide eyes and smiles, like we are searching for treasure.

“If you find one close to your region, take it. Otherwise, help others find theirs,” Ivan says dishing out two more stacks to eager hands.

“I have one here from New York,” someone yells.

“Austin.”

“Seattle.”

“London.”

“Ooh, close. Any from Yorkshire?” I shout.

“Nope, sorry.”

After 15 minutes, we are beckoned to leave the letter hunt and head along a sandy path, snaking further inland to a lava tunnel.

These tunnels, sometimes running for several kilometres, are found on many islands in the Galapagos and resemble an abandoned underground line crossed with Batman’s cave. They were formed when the outer layer of a lava flow cooled then turned to a crust, leaving a hollow middle.

A rickety set of stairs, then a rope aids our descent down the slippery surface and into its black belly.

“Only come down if you feel up to it,” Ivan says, switching on his flashlight.

He leads the way, illuminating the grey and brown lumpy walls. Although the iron stairs require tentative footwork, the cool crisp air inside offers relief from the pounding sun above. Everyone’s walking shoes scrape along the scratchy surface as we descend further.

I reach the bottom and plunge into the freezing waist-high water. A few others join me, sucking in air and flapping their hands up and down like birds learning to fly. The sensible ones stay clinging to the stairs flashing photos of us splashing and cursing at the cold.

Of course, there is more to Floreana than an ancient mailing service and an eerie underground tunnel.

Close by, is Devil’s Crown – a jagged peak of volcanic rock, teeming with sharks, sea turtles, manta rays and multi-coloured fish. This morning we drifted around here with snorkel gear, and diving trips can be arranged into the depths of the crown.

Floreana itself is the sixth largest island in the archipelago at 173 square kilometres, but the smallest of the inhabited islands in terms of population – just 120. It was the first island to become populated and has a history as mysterious as an Agatha Christie novel.

Last night, during our customary briefing on the next day’s activities, Ivan told us the story of Floreana. How the islands were inhabited by three groups of people in the 1930s, and how a series of unsavoury events occurred, resulting in three deaths and two disappearances. The unsolved story known as the ‘Galapagos Affair’ was made into a feature-length documentary in 2013.

But even before the events of 1934, Floreana had been blighted by disappearances with several animal species becoming extinct.

Today major restoration projects on various species are underway to redress the balance of the ecosystem. Dr. Linda Cayot, a senior advisor at the Galapagos Conservancy, works closely with some of these projects and knows more than most about the environmental issues on Floreana.

“The island is probably one of the most derogated islands of all; meaning it has lost the most species,” she said.

One of the major projects is the restoration of tortoises to all islands in the archipelago. The population of these reptiles has been reduced to just 10 per cent of what it should be due to whalers taking them on board and eating them.

While restoration of tortoises to all island is set to take 10-20 years, Dr. Cayot believes that the Floreana Giant Tortoise, which had been extinct for over 150 years, could make an appearance in just 5 years.

“Later this year we will be coordinating a trip to Wolf Volcano on northern Isabela to collect some of the hybrid (mixed genes) tortoises which have been found there. Those will be brought into captivity and then the offspring will be released onto the island.”

Until recently it was unlikely that the giant tortoise of Floreana would ever be seen again. However, after finding a bunch of tortoises wandering around Wolf Volcano in 2008, scientists took blood tests and found tortoises with genes from other islands, including over 80 from Floreana.

But how did these tortoises travel 200km to the north of another island?

“It turns out that hybridization began 200 years ago,” Dr. Cayot said. “This is about the time that whalers were taking tortoises off Floreana and other islands. It’s very likely that the whalers took these tortoises, then dropped them off on another island to lighten the load.”

Back in the lava tunnel, I illuminate my watch. It shows 4pm – time to climb back out into the intense hair dryer heat.

We follow the guides along the sandy trail, brushing past bushes and ducking under two swooping finches. The members of our cruise ship Letty are still playing their game of shirtless football on a thirsting pitch along the coast.

Before reaching the beach we pass another group at Post Office Bay, stood around sorting through postcards. I decide to have one last look.

Toronto, no…Tokyo, no…ah ha! Sheffield – that will do.

I claim the postcard and make a promise to maintain the tradition: to hand deliver it when I get back to England.

On the front of the postcard is a tortoise, stretching its wrinkly neck up to eat a leaf from a bush above. It suddenly dawns on me that delivering this postcard might encourage someone to visit these enchanted islands, and maybe when they come there’ll not only be a new stack of postcards to excite over, but a new population of tortoise too.

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