But For the Sky

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From Floreana, With Love

The world is a small place, and there's one tradition in the Galapagos Islands that seeks to show visitors exactly that. In Post Office Bay on Floreana Island, one of the 18 islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago off the coast of mainland Ecuador, there is a barrel just inland from a beach where visitors can leave postcards for friends and family for hand delivery. The barrel is open, and when you arrive, tradition dating back to the 18th century says that you should look through the cards within, take any that are destined for near where you live, or near somewhere you'll be visiting, and hand-deliver them.

Postcard Barrel on Post Office Bay, Floreana Island

Floreana was one of the islands we visited in July 2011, so we had written and addressed a few postcards to family, and once we landed on the island, we placed them in the barrel, hoping for the best. I had read a short story once by an American woman who took one of these postcards from the barrel addressed to someone near Venice, Italy, because she was going to be  there later that year. She recounted her experience venturing to a small town outside of Venice just to deliver the postcard. She tracked the addressee down, who turned out to be a friendly little Italian nonna. The postcard deliverer was instantly welcomed like an old friend, invited for a home-cooked meal with the whole family, and ended up spending the rest of her vacation with her newfound Italian friends as they showed her around their region and fed her delicious foods. I pictured an American East Coaster, on vacation in the Galapagos, landing on Floreana Island and taking one of our postcards. He or she would knock on grandma and grandpa's door in Manhattan, be invited in for coffee, and become Grandma Myra's instant new best friend. They'd talk for hours and find out that they had much in common; perhaps it would turn out their lives had crossed paths before. I wanted our postcards to bring people together, to create a memorable story, and to be a happy reminder for us and those who happened to take them home that day in Post Office Bay.

Over a year went by, and much like the stamped postcards that we had mailed home from 'real' post offices, I had given up hope of them ever arriving to their destinations. Then, in December, we got an email from Nick's dad, Dan: Arrived today via USPS. Postcard is dated 7/28/2011.  It arrived in an envelope postmarked 12/4/12 from San Francisco.  Not delivered by hand as hoped for, but it did arrive.  A pleasant reminder for all of us. 

Galapagos Poscard

Our postcard never  set off some magical series of events resulting in cultural exchange or lifelong friendship, but sometimes, it's just nice to get a handwritten piece of  mail from loved ones who were thinking of you far away and long ago, isn't it? A few of our Galapagos postcards are still out there, sitting in an old barrel 600 miles off the west coast of South America, or perhaps being carried around in someone's purse, just waiting to be delivered to a warm household with a kettle of tea ready on the stove.

South America: Our Favorites

Ayahuasca Bar

Ayahuasca Bar

We really loved our three and a half months in South America, from the tropical shores of the Caribbean in Colombia, to snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands to hiking among 6000+ meter peaks in Peru. It's an immensely varied continent, and we barely even scratched the surface. We found nothing but warm and friendly people everywhere we went, and the wonderful food, comfortable accommodation, and quirky, unique things to stumble upon around every corner made it a perfect place to start our trip and one we hope to return to many more times. We wanted to share some of our favorite moments with you, and if you ever find yourself backpacking in South America, keep this list handy!

Best quirky restaurant/bar: The Alamo, Tupiza, Bolivia
Most gorgeous bar: Ayahuasca, Lima, Peru
Best night out: dinner and spontaneous live music at Las Molinas del Casona, Salta, Argentina
Best national beer: Bolivia
Best artisenal breweries: Argentina
Best microbrewed beer: Las Cascadas IPA, Baños, Ecuador

La Mar

La Mar

Best national drink: Pisco Sour, Peru
Best wine: Argentina
Best coffee: Colombia
Best cappuccino: anywhere in Argentina

Best meal: La Mar, Lima, Peru
Best meat: Argentina (interestingly enough, Argentina also has the worst napkins- they have the same absorbency as a magazine page)
Best ice cream: Ferrucio Soppessa, Mendoza, Argentina
Best chain restaurant: Crepes and Waffles (Colombia and Ecuador)
Best overused ingredient: dulce de leche/manjar (everywhere!)
Best tropical fruit: maracuya (passion fruit)

Santa Cruz Trek

Santa Cruz Trek

Best accommodation: our San Telmo apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina (honorable mention: hammocks in Tayrona National Park, Colombia)
Best hike: Santa Cruz trek, Cordillera Blanca, Peru
Best wildlife viewing: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Best waterfall: Pailon del Diablo, near Baños, Ecuador
Best buses: Argentina (honorable mention: Peru)
Best bus ride to gaze at scenery: Riobamba to Cuenca, Ecuador

Beers of South America

From Baños to Huaraz

It feels like we've been covering a lot of ground in the last two weeks. After spending over five weeks in tiny Ecuador, we realized we needed to get moving if we want to make Patagonia by early October. Baños was pretty much the last place we wanted to spend time in in Ecuador and the first place we wanted to see in Peru was Huaraz; the two are separated by about 600 miles apart (as the crow flies) and a border crossing. We knew we were in for dozens of hours of buses (it ended up being 34 hours), so we picked a few places along the way that seemed to make good stopping points and started on our journey.

Our first stop was only two hours away from Baños: a town called Riobamba. From there begins a supposedly scenic and exhilirating train ride called the Devil's Nose Train. However, when we arrived we found out that much of the route is currently under construction and we'd have to take a bus two hours away to catch the only part of the line that is in operation. This meant that taking the train would only be a scenic ride and not a form of transportation taking us further south and closer to Peru, so we opted not to do it. We left Riobamba the next morning and headed south to a town called Loja, stopping only to switch buses in Cuenca-- 11 hours of buses in total. The plan was to spend one night and the following day (which happened to be my birthday) in Loja, and then get on an overnight bus that would cross the border into Peru that night, arriving in Piura, Peru the next morning.

Arriving in Loja on the Friday night of not only a national holiday weekend (Ecuador's Independence Day), but also the start of a local holiday, we expected to find some action, or at least people out in the streets. The town was bewilderingly dead. We found a hotel that wasn't fully booked after stopping into a few and then set out to find dinner. The few restaurants that we could find were either closed or almost totally empty, so we settled on some chifa (Chinese food), and hoped we wouldn't wake up with food poisoning. The next morning (no food poisoning!), we checked out of the hotel room, left our backpacks behind the desk, and decided to check out a few of the parks on the outskirts of the city. To make a long story short, even though the commercial markets and all the stores were packed with people, all the cafes, sites, and parks we tried to visit were either closed or completely empty. The one place we did end up spending a bit of time in was a park that had llamas hanging around the paintball area (?!) and a fenced off section containing two ostriches. After a few hours of somewhat aimless wandering and admitting that we just didn't really "get" this city, we finally headed to a restaurant for a snack. It was only 3:00 pm and we had eight more hours to kill in a town that didn't even seem to have an open cafe where we could kill time. I began to feel as though this place was boring me to death, and if it hadn't been my birthday and our last day in Ecuador, it might not have mattered too much, but I guess I didn't want to end our five weeks in Ecuador or my 31st year on a bad note. So I said to Nick, "Why don't we just go to Vilcabamba for the night and rescue this awful day? We can sit by a pool, go out to a decent dinner and just go to Peru 24 hours later than planned."

Paintball and Llama

Paintball and Llama

An hour later, we had grabbed our backpacks from our hotel, switched our bus tickets to Peru for the next night, and gotten on a bus to Vilcabamba, which is only an hour south of Loja. I had heard Vilcabamba was somewhat of an old hippie hang out, but most of the hostels had pools and the weather was supposed to be good there, so I didn't really care too much what the town really had to offer as long as we got out of lame Loja. We arrived into the tiny town and immediately spotted groups of tie-dye-clad ex-pats of all ages playing guitar, devil's sticks, and poi in the main square. This is usually an indication that there's a good vegan restaurant or at least a yogurt and granola shop in the area, so I laughed and took it as a good sign. Our hotel had a pool, sauna, and five small hot tubs, which we immediately got into. Over the next 24 hours, we ate tacos, had the best soft serve ice cream I've ever had in my life, played foosball, hiked through a nature preserve, hung out poolside, and tried Snake Juice. Overall, I'm glad we went there and ended our Ecuador leg on a relaxing and fun note. However, unless you're in the area and have time to kill, or have always wanted to learn how to hackey sack, I think Vilcabamba (and of course Loja, ugh) is pretty skippable, especially compared to the rest of lovely Ecuador!

Next up: Peru. Our overnight bus from Loja to Piura stopped at the Macará-La Tina border at about 3:00 am, formalities lasted about an hour, and off we were to Piura... or so we thought. About 40 minutes before the bus was supposed to arrive, it stopped, we were abrubtly woken up, and people got off the bus, so we did too. We were immediately confronted with five loud and pushy cab drivers, asking us where we wanted to go. "We need a bus to Chiclayo," we said sleepily while getting our luggage out from under the bus. Before we knew it, we were in a cab paying our last US Dollars (which are used in Ecudor) to a cab driver to drive us two blocks to the bus station where buses depart to Chiclayo. It started to dawn on us during this short cab ride that we were not in Piura, as we looked around the streets, which were unpaved, and as I glanced at my map of Piura and realized that it didn't match where we were. Ugh: we had gotten off the bus a city too early, it was 6:30 am, I didn't know what town we were actually in, and we didn't have a cent of Peruvian cash on us. Not knowing what city you're in can be a bit discomforting: you don't know whether you're in a sketchy or safe part of town, and (concerning for us) you don't know where the ATM is. The bus company that runs to Chiclayo wouldn't accept credit cards (a recurring challenge in South America), so we were going to be stuck there until we found an ATM where we could withdraw Peruvian currency. So we reluctantly hopped on a moto-taxi with all our stuff and asked the driver to take us to the nearest ATM. Half an hour later we were back at the bus station with tickets to Chiclayo in hand. Turns out we were in Sullana, a small city about 40 minutes north of Piura. We didn't get mugged, the bus station sold very good banana chips, and an hour and a half later, we were on a bus to Chiclayo. Bottom line: buses stop in way more cities than just the destination. Ask a local before you de-board the bus, especially if you're half asleep :)

We spent less than 24 hours in Chiclayo, a coastal city in northern Peru. Peru's coast is not the most scenic: it's a desert, and during about half the year it is overcast, but it doesn't rain. This makes for a very drab and depressing landscape, at least during winter (i.e., now). To add insult to injury, the desert on both sides of the Panamerican Highway, which runs along the coast, is extremely littered. The area around Chiclayo has some Inca and pre-Inca ruins, but we did not take the time to explore them. It is also known for a type of sweet made with layers of shortbread-like cookies filled with manjar (dulce de leche). The city's streets are full of little shops selling different variations of this basic recipe. I'd say this sweet is probably the highlight of Chiclayo, at least for us!

The next day we were off to Trujillo, the next big city south on the Panamerican. We had decided to set up a tour of Chan Chan, a huge pre-Inka adobe city just outside of Trujillo. Chan Chan itself was interesting, at least in terms of its sheer size and its bird and fish motifs. Plus, we were blessed with the precense of a French guy who was dealing with gringo stomach and kept vomiting througout the tour. Charming! Poor guy...

Chan Chan

Chan Chan

After the tour and a stroll through Trujillo's attractive colonial center, we boarded a bus for Huaraz, finally on our way to our first "real" destination in Peru! More on that later...

Trujillo Arch

Trujillo Arch

Yum: Licor de Serpiente

Travel rule #1: When you're in a restaurant owned by a guy with a Stetson hat and an epic handlebar moustache, and the drink list contains a house specialty called Licor de Serpiente (Snake Juice), you order it.

Shanta with Licor de Serpiente


Had the proprietor, Shanta, showed me the bottle of yellowing liquor with the actual, full-grown Coral snake in it, I might have reconsidered, but thankfully he only took it out after I ordered the drink.

The drink itself was good: smoky, and very, very strong (Shanta said that after two of them you're sure to be muy, muy borracho), but the experience was priceless.

Yum: Canelazo

A warm drink made with sugar cane liquor, freshly squeezed orange and passion fruit juices, and cinnamon. Shown here from the Cafe del Cielo, with Baños in the valley below. Rainy days beware!

Drinking a Canelazo at Cafe del Cielo with Baños in the Background

Drinking a Canelazo at Cafe del Cielo with Baños in the Background

 

Baños: Spanish Lessons and a Homestay

After several weeks in South America, I decided it was time to stop muddling through with my mixture of English and Italian and get some proper Spanish lessons. We chose Baños (full name: Baños de Agua Santa) as the spot, because it is surrounded by mountains, hot springs, and there are tons of outdoor activities to do in the area, which would keep Nick busy while I was in class, and also give us something to do in the afternoons. So, after two days of dealing with our broken camera in Quito, we hopped on a 3-hour bus and headed south. I had arranged to stay with the director of the Baños Spanish Center, where I would be taking four hours of classes every morning. We were greeted by the friendly, bubbly Liz Barrionuevo, and were given a huge room with our own bathroom in her lovely house, which is directly behind the school. She made us a delicious breakfast every morning and also cooked us either lunch or dinner every day. I really enjoyed living in a house and eating home-cooked meals, not to mention conversing in Spanish with Liz and her family at the dinner table. Staying in one place for nine days was also relaxing (no buses for nine days!). Liz was extremely helpful, hospitable, a wonderful cook, and even gave us a salsa lesson. I spent my mornings in my one-on-one Spanish class with my teacher Emma, and in the afternoons Nick and I went hiking, rock climbing, or biking in the area.

Nick and Claudia with Liz

Nick and Claudia with Liz

Baños is known for its thermal baths, which are fed by very hot water that is warmed by the nearby Tungurahua volcano. This volcano, which towers above the town but can only been seen on cloudless days, is active, and its last violent eruption was in 1999, when the town was evacuated for months. Liz told us about the economic and sociological effect this had on the town: some residents lost their lives trying to break past military barriers to get back into their homes, many residents never returned back when the town was re-opened, utilities and services were scarce for months, and the town's economy took a huge hit since it is almost entirely based on tourism. However, in the past few years the tourism economy has bounced back, and it's a very popular destination for lovers of the outdoors. Hiking, climbing, biking, river rafting, and 'puenting' (jumping off a bridge and swinging, attached by a rope) opportunities abound.

For those less inclined to adventure sports, there are five or six hot springs and countless waterfalls to be seen. Oh, and there is no shortage of sugar fixes for the sweet tooth: melcoches, a taffy-like candy that will pull out your molars, is made on the street and sold in candy-bar sized portions. It tastes better and is way more dentist-friendly when eaten fresh, but in my opinion the stuff is probably popular more for the fun of watching it being made than for its taste.

I highly recommend Baños to anyone who loves the outdoors and striking mountain backdrops. The highlights for us were rock climbing alongside the Río Pastaza, biking along the waterfall route and experiencing the Pailón del Diablo waterfall up close and personal, enojoying the views of the valley from hikes and the Café de Cielo, and taking a dip in the 118°F hot baths. And best of all, now I can (sort of) speak Spanish and people actually understand what I'm saying!

View of Baños from Cafe del Cielo

View of Baños from Cafe del Cielo

Claudia Rock Climbing

Claudia Rock Climbing

Biking Along the Waterfall Route

Biking Along the Waterfall Route

View the photo gallery for Baños (and please excuse the quality of the photos, since most of them were taken with an iPhone)

Yum: Sanduiches de Higos y Queso

Warm figs simmering in a sweet sugary syrup. With cheese. On warm bread. For $1. Sold on the street in Quito. Need we say more?

Sanduich de Higos y Queso

Sanduich de Higos y Queso

Galapagos Island Hopping

Although we had originally planned to volunteer right up until we had to leave for our cruise, due to unfavorable ferry schedules and our long weekends off at Jatun Sacha, we decided it made more sense to leave the reserve the Saturday before the Wednesday our cruise left (so, ok, we're also at fault for the fact that we volunteered less than we expected to). Thus presented with three or four unplanned days, we decided to head to Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos, and one we had heard great things about, but wouldn't be visiting on our cruise.

Galapagos Penguins

Isabela is a beautiful place, with a charming small town: most streets are sand, and the island doesn't even have an ATM. We really enjoyed the slow pace of life and the less touristy vibe, with no lack of natural splendor to enjoy. Here we quickly checked two sought-after animals off our imaginary Galapagos species checklist: the Galapagos penguin and the flamingo. The former are very cute and very impressive swimmers, and the latter are very dignified, statuesque birds, if a bit awkwardly-put-together.
Our favorite activity on the island was just a short water-taxi ride from the main port, where there is a group of small rocks and tidal islands called Las Tintoreras, a part of the national park. Here we spent half a day snorkeling and hiking. The snorkeling was something of a revelation for me: partly thanks to the good suggestion from a member of our previous snorkeling trip to shave my moustache, and partly because the tour outfitter had better than mediocre gear, I was able to get my mask to seal properly on my face, and had an irritation-free 45 minutes of snorkeling. We saw about about 8 giant sea turtles, marine iguanas swimming in the water, a marbled ray (not to be confused with a marbled rye), three kinds of sea urchins, two kinds of starfish, and innumerable tropical fish. After the quick dip, we took another short ride on which we saw many shorebirds, and the adorable Galapagos penguin. Finally, we took a short walk around a path where we saw a deposit of lichen-covered aa lava (apparently so called by the Hawaiians because it's sharp and makes you go "ah-ah" when you walk on it), many marine iguanas (they nest on these islands, but it wasn't the right time of year), and several white-tipped sharks which swim into a shallow crevice for the warm water, and can thus be seen from land during low tide.
Our other excursion on the island was a 6-km bike ride to the muro de las lagrimas, or the "wall of tears", a 9-m high, 6-m wide, and 190-m long stone wall which was apparently built by convicts on the island, both to hold them in, and simply to give them something to do. On the walk back (yes, I said walk, as my five-dollar rental bike decided to derail and get the chain hopelessly stuck between the wheel's hub and gearbox (yes, the bike decided to derail; I'm sure I had nothing to do with it)), we stopped at a few beaches, a lookout point, an endemic cactus patch, a mangrove forest with a brackish lagoon where a handful of curious and playful sea lions paid us a visit, and a lava tunnel. Lava tunnels (which we would see again, and in larger form on the island of Santa Cruz on the day before our cruise began) are an interesting geological occurrence, which are the result of a past river of lava. As the river flows, the lava exposed to the air cools and hardens more rapidly than the center of the flow, so when the flow eventually ceases, it leaves a hollow shell that can be several meters across, and several hundred meters long.

Lava Tunnel

The last notable thing about Isabela was that we were joined by some friends from Jatun Sacha, who decided to stay at the same hostel as us. On our last of three nights on the island, we decided to make a homecooked meal for the group. We've really missed having a kitchen and cooking for ourselves (and have even missed doing dishes just a little bit), so we're glad we took the opportunity.

With all that done, we were on to the next and final part of our Galapagos adventure: a cruise which advertised itself as five days, but with only one short activity the first day and last days (on the last day we were at the airport by 8:30am), we feel that it was more accurately described as a four-night cruise. Our new camera decided to break about one hour after we boarded the cruise, so our photos from the cruise were taken with Claudia's old iPhone and are not of very good quality. Serious first world problems, I know. The cruise started on the island of Santa Cruz and took us to the following islands: Floreana, Española, Isla Lobos, Santa Fé, and North Seymour. I won't bore you with the day-by-day recap, but here are some highlights:


  • Our guide, Juan, was great. We got a briefing every night after dinner with the next day's activities: "Maybe, maybe, maybe, we see the land iguana. We definitely see many beautiful turistas."
  • The Darwin Center on Santa Cruz island, where we learned about the Darwin Foundation's many conservation efforts, and saw possibly the most famous of the Galapagos tortoises: "Lonesome George" ("Solitario Jorge"!), a 90-some year old Pinta Island tortoise who is suspected of being the last of his subspecies. Many efforts have been made to mate him with females of the most closely-related subspecies, but so far he hasn't been interested. Good thing he'll probably live another 60 years!
  • Many sea lions. Our favorites were the ones that frolicked with us while snorkeling (they especially liked to nip at our flippers), and the newborn we saw on Isla Lobos, not more than a few hours old, right next to its mother and still attached to its placenta.
  • Too many birds to count: blue-footed and masked boobies, great- and magnificent frigate birds, lava gulls, albatrosses, Galapagos hawks. We got extremely close views of nearly all of them, many not much more than an arm's length away, often in their nests, and sometimes sitting on eggs or their young. We saw entire families of albatrosses and boobies-- sometimes the parents were even kissing with their beaks right in front of us. Even in this vulnerable position, most of them seemed to pay us little mind.
  • Seeing the animals interact with each other was a real treat. For instance, we saw sea lions chasing marine iguanas for fun, sea lions bickering with pelicans (who are actually quite intimidating when they want to be!), and Galapagos hawks swooping down to snatch lizards for lunch.
  • Post Office Bay on Floreana Island. In a tradition dating back to the 18th century, there is a barrel just inland from a beach where visitors can leave postcards for friends and family for hand delivery. The barrel is open, and when you arrive, tradition says that you should look through the cards within, take any that are destined for near where you live, and hand-deliver them. Because of our extended absence and uncertain travel plans, we were unable to take any, but some of our lucky readers can expect such a hand-delivered message (if the system works as advertised).

View the photos for the Galapagos

Videos: Bogota, Salento, Galapagos

While we put the finishing touches on our next and last Galapagos post (and a few other goodies we're working on for you), here are some videos we've taken on the trip. Uploading videos takes a long time and a lot of patience with the hostel and cyber cafe Internet connections we've been forced to use, so while we'd love to upload videos faster so that we can include them in the post where we're talking about the subject matter, it won't always be possible and we might have to resort to a video dump like this at times when our Internet connection is more reliable.

You can always view all our videos on the butforthesky youtube page.

Here is a video of an exhibit at Bogota's gold museum. We were in a round, enclosed room with the walls covered in ancient gold artifacts. For about 3-5 minutes, lights lit up and then dimmed again around the room, above and below us, and the sound of pre-Colombian priests chanting came from all sides.

Here's a silly little video I took of people waiting in line for the funicular to descend Monserrate in Bogota.

Here's a few seconds of our open-air jeep ride with around 12 other people from the Valle del Cocora back to Salento, Colombia.

And finally, here is a video of the daily migration of marine iguanas on the beach on Isabela island in the Galapagos. Every afternoon, hundreds of iguanas made this trek from the safety of the ocean to the porches and walls of our hostel. By all moving at once, and gathering in just a few spots, the young are safer from introduced predators such as dogs and rats.

Volunteering in the Galapagos

We knew we wanted to volunteer in a few places when we first started planning out our trip several months back. We also knew we wanted to spend a good amount of time in the Galapagos, so one of the first things we did was apply to be volunteers with an Ecuadorian organization called Jatun Sacha that does reforestation and eradication of invasive species work on San Cristobal Island. We applied, were accepted, and then secured a 4-night cruise that would start when we were done volunteering for 2 weeks. The organization has its headquarters in Quito, so we went there for an orientation the day before we flew to San Cristobal. We were told the goals of the program, some ground rules including working hours and where we'd be living, and then off we went!

The biological station is located about a 40-minute drive in a pick-up truck from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main town on the island and where the airport is. The climate in the islands is very dependent on proximity to the coast and elevation. When you're on the coast, it's generally sunny and warm, but when you start going inland and higher in elevation, it gets cooler, more humid, and often overcast or drizzly. The station is located at the end of a dirt/gravel road, on 200 hectares of land. The buildings are simple-- one kitchen/dining area where we ate and spent most evenings, two houses with dorm-style rooms (bunk beds and simple shelves) for the volunteers, and one house for the employees. The buildings are all connected by muddy paths, with tons of banana, orange, lemon, passion fruit, and papaya trees along the way.

Dining Area

Hammocks at the Old House

Our Room in Old House

The Dreaded Mora

Also on the property are two nurseries/vegetable gardens, and tons of mora plants. "Mora" is an invasive raspberry plant-- it grows tall with white, thorny stems and branches. It grows quickly in thick patches, and it's a major problem for the island, as it just takes over huge patches of land, strangling any existing plants and starving them for light, and not allowing any new plants to grow. Jatun Sacha's goals include cutting down and clearing as much mora as possible, and planting native or endemic plants in its place, including the poison apple tree (poisonous to humans, but one of the land tortoise's favorite snacks). Volunteer tasks therefore include cutting mora with a machete; collecting seeds of the poison apple tree and coffee plants; working with the National Park, who has a large nursery and uses the seeds that we collect; and upkeep of the biological station, which means helping in the kitchen, cleaning, composting, collecting fruit, setting rat traps (another invasive species that causes a lot of problems), maintaining the water collection infrastructure, carpentry, etc. There is also room for volunteers to work on a "personal project": one they're interested in, or one they have particular skills for. To this end, I worked for a morning on making new signs for a new compost heap (while I don't have a particular skill for painting I do love the sorting of trash!), and Nick spent parts of a few days starting work on some benches in a grove of trees with a view of the ocean. The work can be hard (it's mostly manual labor, after all!), especially due to the relentless swarms of "carmelitas" (a cross between a mosquito and a fruit fly) that don't seem to be too repelled by DEET, mosquito coils, cigarette smoke, or any of the usual mosquito tricks. We pretty much wore full body armour the entire time we were there-- long pants, high socks, long sleeve shirts, face nets, and hats. Even with all that, most people were still covered in bites. It got annoying, to say the least.

Nick

Machetes

Me, My Signs, and Miguel

At our orientation, we were told we'd be working from 8 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 4:30 pm, Monday to Friday. When we arrived, we soon realized that this was not exactly the case: in the one and a half weeks we were there, we only worked one or two afternoons. All the volunteers and staff head down to the port town for the weekend on Friday morning and return to the station on Sunday evening. So, while the work was hard, we didn't end up doing that much of it, and many long afternoons were spent reading or napping in hammocks (covered in a mosquito net of course!).
I have mixed feelings on the experience.
On one hand, I really enjoyed getting to know the other volunteers. They ranged in age from teenagers in high school to adults in their 30s, and were from various countries (mostly North America, Europe, and Australia). The atmosphere at the station was similar to summer camp: we all lived together, worked together, ate together at long picnic tables, and played cards, charades, or watched movies after dinner. On the weekends we went to the beach, hung out in town, went out to dinner, and went to the bars together. We met some awesome people and traveled a bit with some of them to other islands. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the friends we made, but on the other hand, I felt that the volunteers were underutilized. People come there with the expectation that they'll be working, and while I definitely don't think that volunteers should be worked to death, I also don't think that we signed up to sleep in bunk beds, get mauled my carmelitas, be covered in mud, and take cold showers just to work 3 hours a day and spend the rest of the day doing nothing. I think the organization has its heart in the right place, and it's clear they have already made a ton of progress toward their goals, but I feel that a lot more could get accomplished with 25-50 volunteers. We were only there for just under two weeks, which is definitely not long enough to make conclusions, but I think it was long enough to get a feel for how things generally work.
In the end, I'm glad we decided to volunteer. We learned first-hand about some of the challenges the islands face, met lots of great people, and experienced the islands much more intimately than the average traveller does during a 4- or 8-day cruise. Plus, I learned that it is possible to eat rice two times a day for two weeks and not die!

View the photo gallery for the Galapagos