Guatemala: Friendly Faces

GUATEMALA CITY has the quiet air of a village grown over-large. The narrow streets, paved in concrete with high, red-painted curbs, struggle to cope with the mass of traffic. The sidewalks are narrow and shops spill out onto them, with black-clad armed guards a presence in many. Sun-faded paint covers walls that are broken up with iron-barred windows and bursts of political graffiti.

The city market is crammed with a mass of colours: the bright indigenous fabrics the country is famous for, and shiny fresh fruit and vegetables. Men meet and part with a gentle open palm slap and fist bump. Stoic faces break into a friendly smile at the slightest provocation.

“The city is Guatemala’s fourth capital, after a massive earthquake in 1773 laid waste to the previous one, Antigua Guatemala,” says Miguel Alvarez at the National History Museum. “At that time, the capital governed a territory that covered most of modern Central America. The new city’s location made it the perfect place to guard the main route down the Central American peninsular from New Spain (Mexico) to Peru, as well as being within easy access of the Atlantic coastline along the rivers that flowed north. That was the same reason the Mayan established themselves here, with the extra attraction of rich deposits of obsidian and jade nearby. Obsidian was used for tools, while jade was reserved for royalty; it was the Maya gold.”

When I ask him what is his favourite piece in the museum, he walks off to bring me an exquisite gold-plated silver chalice of 1560, made by Spanish artisan Lorenz de Medina. “The borders of modern Guatemala were drawn by the Conquistadors,” he says. “They were arbitrary, following rivers or other geographical features. The Maya region was present-day Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. We had more than 30 Mayan languages and the Maya cities were fighting each other over control of the commercial routes. The best thing the Spanish did was to bring the Spanish language and unite us. They did not destroy Maya culture; they just drove it underground.”

The most obvious reminder of Guatemala City’s Spanish history is found in its central plaza, dominated by the twin towers of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Inside the church, vast pillars reveal an obvious strength that is more impressive than its looks, despite the many ornate altars, dark wood statues and rich side chapels. It is no surprise to hear it has withstood numerous earthquakes. Outside, a series of tall pillars is carved with the names of thousands of those who were killed, tortured or “disappeared” during Guatemala’s 36-year Civil War. More than 200,000 people, 80 per cent of them Maya, were killed in a war that lasted from 1960 to 1996, with the government responsible for the vast majority of deaths.

A visit to Kaminaljuyú, a once-great Maya city now buried by the modern one, shows how their culture survives. The archaeological park has a small but impressive acropolis covered in ramshackle sheeting and some other grass-covered remains. Then, in heavy rain, I spot a series of round altars under some trees in a remote corner. On one, a street hawker is making offerings for better trade and, when he asks who I am, adds a long series of prayers for my future safe travels.

I feel as if I need some of that credit with the ancient gods when I take the anarchic road to Antigua, which climbs through the neighbouring city of Mixco, now effectively absorbed into Guatemala City itself. Shops are crammed together by the roadside behind narrow sidewalks, offering the bright Chinese plastic and cheap clothing that mark poor areas worldwide. There are more tyre shops than seems economically feasible, while suicidal motorbikers and tuk-tuks fight for road space.

We speed past the ubiquitous Central American camionetas, recycled from former American school buses. The familiar yellow paintwork has been replaced with all the colours of the rainbow and their sides bear names such as “Carmalita”, “Esmeralda” or “Jesus Es Dios”. “The buses are painted different colours because a lot of people can’t read,” says my Guatemala friend, writer and historian Norman Raxon. “Illiteracy is around 60 per cent in rural areas as education is in Spanish, not Mayan languages.”

They have “Speedy Gonzales” mud flaps and belch smoke from engines that throb with a Detroit beat I can feel in my chest. A conductor hangs from the open door, urging passengers aboard. “We call him a “brocha” or paint-brush because his hand flaps up and down to call you,” says Norman. The brocha jumps down before the camioneta stops to hoist sacks and bags onto the roof, bringing the clichéd Central American souvenir “chicken bus” to life.

The road descends into the shadow of four volcanoes, one active enough to be sending a puff of smoke high into the cloudy sky. Antigua’s cobbled streets are teeth-achingly rough but very much part of the town’s character. It retains its handsome colonial one-story buildings that spread away on all sides down narrow streets.

“A lot of people who visit go home, sell everything and move here to stay,” says Norman. Ninett de Córdova, originally from Guatemala City, is one, having settled here to manage a boutique hotel. Maison de la Luz, like several other upmarket hotels in the town, is stylishly converted from a former colonial house. “I loved Antigua when I visited and, now that now I live here, I love it even more,” she says. “Younger people like the bars and clubs but I enjoy just walking around appreciating the atmosphere. It is very relaxed and you feel safe, which you do not always do in Guatemala City, like any big city. The people are pure-hearted.

“I also love the colours; the colours of the walls and of the women in the market. Their clothes are rich and intense, with the sort of palette you would never find in a shop. Then there are the smells, like in Holy Week when the roads are carpeted with pictures made from flowers or sawdust. When the procession goes by, the aroma that rises is amazing.”

The town’s people are as much part of its appeal as anything else. They smile easily and are happy to draw me into their life. When I show interest in a school, I am invited to watch morning assembly, when white-gloved students earnestly carry the national flag to the stage as all sing the country’s and school’s anthems. In the evening, the central plaza is filled with more students studying under streetlights and a group of youths practicing hip hop moves with great athleticism. All are friendly and happy to chat.

The evening light smooths out the town’s ruins, some dating to the 1773 earthquake, to show it at its best. “The town has been recognized by Unesco, so there are a lot of rules to preserve it,” says Ninett. “There are six or eight colours that you can paint your house and you will have to repaint it if you use the wrong one. That happened to my poor neighbour.”

From Antigua, the road west climbs steeply again. Huddling together against the merciless traffic, a group of racing cyclists attack the steep incline, heads down but keeping up a punishing pace. Then the road passes into rolling open countryside where over-large groups of workers harvest carrots by hand into plastic bags that are stacked high into pick-up trucks. Patches of flatter land appear, then hills again in a landscape where stands of spindly trees hint at what once was.

Suddenly, the land bursts into life, even greener and more fertile than before: more like English parkland than a volcanic landscape. Just off the main road is the modern Maya town of Tecpan, a place that makes me wonder why anyone would live there. A grid of narrow streets is lined with tiny one-room shops that give the impression the inhabitants make a precarious living selling basic food and clothing to each other.

One of its reasons for existence is the Iximche archaeological site where a few scenic ruins hint at the grandeur of Maya culture at its height. The pyramid bases of some temples and the remains of two ballcourts stand out in the grass that softens the outlines of the former city. Despite the lack of grand structures, there is a definite air of history hanging over the sprawling site. Once again, I find a set of Maya altars in a tree-shaded spot where the incense hangs heavy and the prayer is intense.

“This was the first Spanish capital,” says Norman. “In 1524, its Maya rulers allied themselves with the Spanish Conquistadors whose Aztec allies called it Guatemala, so it has given its name to the whole country. The Spanish later had to move the capital to Ciudad Vieja because of on-going resistance.” They chose a safer site in a nearby valley but that capital was in its turn destroyed by the mudslide from a volcanic eruption in 1541, leading to the move to Antigua.

A mudslide seems a very real risk as the road rises again towards Chichicastenango. It climbs through almost sheer embankments carved into the hillside. Signs warn drivers to “Frene Con Motor” and of “Curvas Peligrosas”. Billboards advertise fried chicken, prosperous politicians, steel roofing and English classes. More tire shops sell well-worn, second-hand rubber.

There are massive stacks of firewood for sale, then piles of concrete blocks for house building. Rainwater cascades down the roadside and backs up into a gully. We pass a jumble of half finished concrete houses thrown on top of each other. Wood smoke hangs over rusty tin roofs, while neatly turned-out school children wait for the bus. Mist hangs in the trees with, in the distance, the cloud-capped cone of a volcano. The beauty of the landscape alternates with the ugliness of urban poverty.

Chichicastenango is almost impossibly picturesque, with a colourful market built around a church that in its turn stands atop a Maya pyramid. The steep steps of the pyramid are filled with women in traditional clothes selling vegetables while a Maya priest throws candles and seeds on an altar, then waves smoke over it from a rusty perforated tin burner. Inside, the nave is filled with similar shrines, each lit with many candles at which worshippers pray with marked devotion. Christianity and a much older religion blur in a cloud of incense.

In the market, packed with stalls selling Maya cloth in rich colours, I meet Elena Guit and Alfonso Coc, a married couple in their 40s with seven children. They have worked 20 years in the market but complain about competition from cheap imports that undercut the handmade fabrics they sell. They buy shawls for around $14 around Lake Atitlán and sell them for $15. Most of their customers are local women, a sign of how the tourists who do make it here have yet to affect its authenticity.

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Plunging 340 metres, Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America and has been compared to Italy’s Lake Como for beauty. On an overcast day, admittedly also common in Northern Italy, that description is a bit of a stretch but it is certainly a dramatic sight as the road winds down to it. A boat trip across the lake to Santiago Atitlán reveals more of its charm, with heavily wooded shores and dramatic glimpses of cloud-wrapped volcanic peaks.

The Maya people here wear more subdued colours than in Chichicastenango, with the men sporting cowboy hats and rubber boots, a form of dress that reflects the number of men who go to Texas to find work. “The economic situation in Guatemala makes life hard for women so we decided to start this project to make some money for our family and our kids,” says Maria Francisca Hernandez, who is president of the Heart of the Lake Community Association, a weaving co-operative of 33 women.

“Anyone can join as long as they work hard. We weave at home because we have to take care of the family, cook and look after the house. When we sell anything, 90 per cent goes to the woman who makes it, while the rest goes to pay taxes and the running costs of the shops, marketing and so on. Our men work in the corn and coffee fields and make about $4 a day. That’s not enough to live on.”

She tells me their biggest problem is finding customers. “We produce a lot of goods but don’t have the people to buy it,” she says. “We need good roads first, so we can get out to market, and also a university so our children do not have to travel to Guatemala City. University costs about $60 a month and that takes too much of our income. We want to study but it is difficult when it costs so much.”

The road back to Guatemala City takes me past Pacaya Volcano and I climb its 2,500-metre summit to take in the view and the experience of flirting with danger. The smell of sulphur wafts from gaps in the earth that give forth steam and enough heat to toast marshmallows. Near the summit stands an unlikely craft shop selling exquisite jewellery.

“People don’t understand what a store is doing next to an active volcano but that is what makes it unique,” says owner David Flores, who was born in California but has come back here to embrace his Guatemalan roots. “The shop was inspired by an eruption in 2010, after which a group of artists decided to do something to help those people affected. We recycle the lava stone that fell into the pieces we produce, which are all hand-made. The proceeds help educate Maya children.”

I ask him why people live so close to a volcano that could erupt at any moment. “They have owned their land here for hundreds of years but the volcano did not become active until the 1960s,” he says. “Their cows used to graze here where you see the lava field. They are not going anywhere.”

His love for the land of his ancestors is evident and I ask him what it is that makes it so special. “I feel so much warmth here,” he says. “It is a country that has so much tradition and is so authentic. You have the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the culture, the Maya ruins and Spanish colonial history. It is a hidden treasure. The downside is that it is a country still trying to find an identity for itself. It is still coming out of its legacy of internal warfare but the potential is incredible.”

David comes up the volcano at 6am and leaves at around 5.30pm in high season. The store has moved about four times as the volcano erupts. “We get some warning of when it will erupt but they cannot gauge how large it will be,” he says. “I’ve witnessed a few things most people wouldn’t see but you gain lots of respect for the volcano. It gives you enough time to evacuate.”

In Guatemala, it seems that even the volcanoes are friendly.

Galapagos: Enchanted Islands

AT THE top of Bartolomé Island, my legs aching from the long climb up its steep wooden stairway, I look out over the Galapagos Islands. The black volcanic landscape at my feet looks otherworldly, relieved by a flash of greenery between the two beaches that curve away far below. The horizon is filled with islands and a single cloud, dark with the elusive promise of rain, that hangs over a tranquil ocean living up to its “Pacific” name.

At the end of the beach, Pinnacle Rock leans drunkenly to one side, its sharp point thrusting to the bright blue sky. A few figures walk, rest or snorkel along the sand and my boat waits quietly offshore – abandoned by all but its captain and a few crew. A lizard rests in the sun, blue-footed boobies squawk and whistle and even the insects seem to be taking it easy in the heat. It is a vision of Paradise, albeit a rocky, somewhat barren one.

No one who visits what early seafarers called “The Enchanted Islands” can escape thinking of Eden, with its stories of how man and nature living in harmony. The hazy images planted in my mind in dozy Sunday Schools sprang into sharp focus the first time I stepped ashore to find that the flocks of birds and sunbathing marine iguanas just stay where they are, completely undisturbed by the presence of man.

The most famous visitor to make the connection with Creation was naturalist Charles Darwin who, after his visit in 1835, wrote: “We seem to be brought somewhere near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth.” It was the genesis of his On the Origin of Species.

“Darwin would be amazed at what we have learned about Evolution in the meantime,” says Swen Lorenz of the Charles Darwin Foundation. “He thought that evolution only took place over very long periods of time. We now know that species can change incredibly fast, and in Galapagos in particular, you can literally witness evolution in front of your eyes.”

But every Paradise needs its serpent and, just as that cloud darkens the horizon on Bartolomé, so the Galapagos cannot escape the shadow cast by humanity. The island had no indigenous population but, for centuries, it was a sort of giant supermarket for any passing ship in need of food and water. The giant tortoises, who could live for a year on-board ship without food and drink – and tasted delicious – were reduced from a population of more than 250,000 to around 3,000.

The most famous of those tortoises was “Lonesome George”, who was photographed by countless visitors – myself included – to the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz, the second largest Galapagos island. He lived there for almost 40 years after being relocated from Pinta Island in 1972, the last of his subspecies, but died in 2012, at the age of 100. That is relatively young for an animal that can live to 200 years old.

“It is amazing to think that there may be tortoises still living who were here when Charles Darwin visited,” says David Horwell, an expert on Galapagos wildlife who takes visitors there several times a year. “It was the differences Darwin saw between the distinct species of birds, lizards and tortoises on each island that led directly to his Theory of Natural Selection. Lonesome George was the last Pinta Tortoise that we know of and his death is a lost battle in the long war to save the Galapagos as one of the world’s greatest wonders.”

George’s replacement in the affections of tours to the CDRS includes “Super Diego”, who came from San Diego Zoo in 1977 and now has some 1,700 children. He has singlehandedly brought the Española tortoise back from the brink, after it was down to two males and 12 females in the 1960s. They were relocated to the research station to ensure their survival but Super Diego’s offspring have now been released back onto Española Island and are repopulating it.

Their return was made possible by the removal of the last goat in 1978, one of the great success stories of Galapagos. Efforts on Española are now directed to preserving the world’s only breeding site for the waved albatross, as well as restoring the cactus forests that existed before the goats were landed by sailors wanting to create a larder for return visits.

At Punta Suarez on Española, I have to make my way carefully through the sea lions who litter the landing site while I resist the urge to take yet another picture of the bright red and green marine iguanas who also bask on the rocks. We walk to a lava blowhole on the southern side of the island, where ocean waves break against the cliff to send a spray of water tens of meters high in the air. On the way I pass through nesting blue-footed and Nazca boobies, and see red-billed tropicbirds, Española mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls and soaring Galapagos hawks as well as many other species.

The waved albatrosses are a comic sight as they waddle clumsily on land before launching themselves off the cliff, miraculously transforming into creatures of beauty and power once airborne. “Up to 30,000 nest here from April through December,” says my guide. “Each pair incubates a single chick that flies off in December and remains at sea for about five years before returning as an adult to find a mate – one they stay with for life.”

For most visitors, such stories and such species on land are the attractions, but David finds the underwater world just as fascinating. “One of my most memorable moments was when a pod of pilot whales approached my boat,” he says. “The captain suggested I jumped in with them and, as I was hesitating at the rail, gave me a friendly nudge so I was soon in the deep blue alone with them. I’m glad he did as I got a glimpse of a mother whale with her baby – something I’ll never forget. Just like on land, the sea creatures seem not to be bothered by humans and this includes sharks, turtles and the many sea lions.”

Near Pinnacle Rock, I plunge into the sea to snorkel with a group of friendly sea lions. The clear blue water – surprisingly cold – holds clouds of fish, rays and octopi that seem as unafraid as their fellow creatures on land. A group of Galapagos penguins add to the surreal experience by swimming past – penguins on the equator – while a turtle feeds delicately on the algae waving from an underwater rock, paddling gently to hold itself in in place. White-tipped sharks pass deep below – seeming to be relaxing on a day off.

“The Galapagos Marine Reserve is as important as the terrestrial if not more so,” says marine biologist Alex Hearn, who has spent seven years at the CDRS Marine Reserve. “A lot of the iconic land-based animals – the flightless cormorant, the Galapagos penguin and the marine iguana, just to name three – live from sea animals. Without a healthy ocean, forget it. Although it is quite a large marine reserve, the second largest in the world when it was created, it is actually a small area of ocean but with a huge biodiversity.

“It is a meeting point of three oceanic currents: the warm Panama Current from the north, the cool Humboldt from the south and the deep upwelling Cromwell Current that comes along the equator. So you get huge spatial and seasonal variability and these avenues from which species can arrive. It is one of the few marine areas left in the world that is close to pristine. And the fact that it is the path of major climatic events like El Niño also makes it exciting for scientists interested in climate change.”

Aboard my cruise boat, I try not to think of the ocean as just the dull, moving bit to be crossed to reach an island. We go from one to another, landing from rubber dinghies. Sometimes it is a “wet” landing on a rocky shore, less often a dazzling white sand beach, and sometimes “dry” on a wooden jetty, lined with basking sea lions reluctant to move even when the guides clap their hands to clear a way. At North Seymour, I actually have to step over a number of the comical boobies who are nesting on the path. One makes a half-hearted stab at my legs, then gets on with the more serious business of courting his partner.

Evenings are spent poring over the day’s photos, and nursing a cold drink while watching the sun set into the Pacific, creating a light show of reds, crimsons and blues. At night, I am lulled to sleep by the sound of the ship’s engines, to be awoken to a new view from my cabin’s porthole, another island to be explored. Each is different. Santa Cruz is a large long-extinct volcano now covered with dense vegetation. Isabela is much younger, with six volcanoes – most still active – glued together by lava. Fernandina is a highly active volcano, with rivers of black lava that look like they cooled yesterday and the only island uncontaminated by introduced fauna.

“Ever since humans first arrived, they have left behind domestic animals and plants which have caused havoc,” says David. “Goats, rats and dogs are a major problem. The National Park, with help from the Charles Darwin Foundation, has been eradicating these aliens and now many of the islands are as in good a state as when Darwin saw them.”

All this has been a huge financial cost, to which tourism has been the major contributor. “The idea of banning tourists has been mooted,” says David. “But this would actually have a detrimental effect as locals would turn to non-sustainable sources of income. Tourism is part of the Master Plan; it has just got to be in a controlled way.”

The islands lie roughly 900 kilometres off Ecuador, to which they belong, and many Ecuadoreans have fled the economically depressed mainland in search of jobs in tourism and fishing. The permanent population is now more than 27,000 and this boom has caused serious environmental damage, through seemingly harmless actions such as importing invasive plant species for gardens, which then spread into the wild to threaten native varieties.

Everything to support the tourists and the increasing numbers of people who make a living from them has to be shipped or flown in. The islands remained such a haven for wildlife because they were so barren and uninhabitable, with little water and infertile soil. They are one of the few places in the world that had no indigenous population.

“The main source of invasive species, from fungi to rats, is the cargo boats which now arrive almost daily,” says David. “The other is the growing number of flights. The islands now have three airports.”

The islands were put on Unesco’s World Heritage in Danger in 2007 and removed in 2010 after the Ecuadorian government made efforts to clean up such problems as cargo boats described as “breeding grounds for all types of potential invasive species and diseases, as organic residues rot among pools of stagnant water in their rat and cockroach infested holds.”

“I am not sure it should have been taken off the danger list – that was a political decision,” says Alex. “Some things have improved. The government has sorted out the institutional mess of competing regulatory bodies and there is now a very strong quarantine. But if we get something like West Nile Disease in Galapagos, then we are going to lose species. The risk is there and is not going to go away, not the way tourism is growing.”

The fishermen are another problem, harvesting sea cucumbers and shark fins for the seemingly bottomless Asian market. “Fishing for sea cucumbers was a lot of money for very little effort,” says Alex. “They were pretty much wiped out over a period of about ten years. When the government tried to control it, the fishermen went on strike and closed down the park. The social implications of that have not really been calculated. The merchants financed the fishermen, so the fishermen were in debt. How do you even deal with that with these grand ideas of sustainability?

“In retrospect we were talking to the wrong people, it should have been the merchants and not the fishermen. The merchants moved on to shark fins and sea horses. There were illegal fishing camps on Isabela Island and these guys were not dealing with quarantine: they were bringing in all their own fruit and vegetables and who knows what? So there were all these knock-on effects of the fishing that we are still dealing with now.”

He suggests that a reverse psychology took hold, with the fishermen saying “The worse the resources, the better because the NGOs will pay us not to fish.” He points out that the simplest argument against fishing is the economic one. “The entire Galapagos fishing industry – sharks, lobsters, white fish etc – now is worth a few million dollars. Just the diving industry is worth many times more than that. There is another couple of million dollars on merchandizing like shark T-shirts. It doesn’t make any economic sense to fish for sharks when you can make so much money from them in other ways. Conservation is worth much more than all the fishing.”

While a set of shark fins may sell for $100, the average diver in Galápagos will have paid out around $5,000 before seeing a live shark in the water. However, Alex recognizes that the problem is not simply a matter of enforcing the marine reserve better. “The hammerhead sharks, for example, are the main species of the reserve but it does not look like they reproduce in Galapagos,” he says. “Juveniles congregate along the coast of Panama and Costa Rica where they are being really heavily fished. How do you tell fishermen in Panama not to fish for juvenile sharks because some big tourism company in Galapagos is going to make millions from them?”

At Puerto Ayora, the largest town and home to more than 18,000 people, sharp knives flash at the fish market as fishermen gut the day’s catch on concrete stands. Customers waiting in line have to shoo away pelicans and frigate birds – and a pair of sea lions – all as unafraid as their relatives elsewhere on the islands, who ignore the camera-snapping tourists to beg for the scraps. The market is right beside the beach where the fishermen draw up their boats and the water is slick with oil. The peeling blue paint and air of neglect seem to suggest that not many of the tourist dollars pouring into Galapagos are making their way here.

“We used to refer to Galapagos as paradise,” says former naturalist guide Pepy Madunich, who lived there from 1989 to 2007. ”Our town was unique, very few roads and many bicycles, you could really feel you were in a very special place, you knew everybody. The arrival of modern life changed all that. The population grew because of the tourism and the fishery business, but very few companies are actually supporting the community. They basically make money and invest outside of the islands. Galapagos changed abruptly and exponentially after a few events: the Asians contracting fishermen to exploit sea cucumbers, the arrival of the internet and a major bank, facilitating business. Cars started to arrive in each cargo boat, as well as many new residents. In 1989 we were 2,000 people on Santa Cruz; by 2007 we were 15,000. Soon, we started to have huge social problems: a little town with huge city problems, including drugs and gangs, but a major one is the lack of good schools. The main reason we had to leave the islands was to give my daughter a good education.”

“The Ecuadorian Government is caught in a squeeze,” says David. “They do not want to encourage more settlers, but any reluctance to build an infrastructure that might attract more can be seen as neglecting the ones they have. Local politicians seize the opening to press for more tourism, bigger boats and more hotels, with the idea that will create wealth for local people. Of course, that’s not always true. Larger cruise ships, for example, may appear to bring in more money but much of the revenue does not reach the islands. Locals are trying to get a bigger slice of the action by building hotels and offering day-trips, but if this is left unregulated it will kill the golden goose.”

“The key is education,” says Swen. “The islands now have the most successful recycling program in the entire country and young people are learning from a very early age that they must not bring any prohibited organic matter to the islands. Many invasive species once came to Galapagos as decorative garden plants, but there is now huge awareness of the subject and it has become fashionable to create gardens using only endemic species. There is a new generation of young island residents who want to make a difference.”

“The biggest problem is globalization,” says Alex. “The issues with fishing and with tourism are both symptoms of the same problem. How can you have a set of local resources that have a global demand? The fishing resources have global markets for shark fins, sea cucumbers and lobsters – some legal and some illegal. And tourism is a global market that is driving population growth on the island. That is putting pressure on water and driving the risk of invasive species. The more airplanes, the more boats that come in, the greater that risk. But it is all this globalized world we live in.”

As tourist numbers increase, the quality of the experience for the tourist goes down. And there is no doubt that the quality of tourists goes down as well. Despite repeated warnings from the guides, a couple in my group continually strays off the path and annoys nesting birds to try and get a “better” photograph. The guide, reliant on tips and with the rest of the group to keep informed, can only do so much. But is the answer to raise entrance fees or impose a quota?

“I would hate to think of Galapagos as a place that only the rich can visit, so I imagine some sort of lottery is needed,” says Alex. “We could cap visitor numbers at about what they are now and concentrate on improving quality. But any limits should apply only to foreigners. It is really important that Ecuadorians have the chance to visit Galapagos.”

“At one time it was enthusiasts who saved up for years to come here,” says David. “The emphasis was seeing wildlife that you could find nowhere else. Now it has become a destination that many people are just ticking off their ‘bucket list’. What is needed is a return to emphasis not on quantity but on the quality of visitors – and the quality of their experience when they are here.”

I have a quality experience of my own when, on my last day in the islands, I go snorkelling at Tortuga, an islet off Española and find myself above a giant ray. At least five meters wide, it flows gracefully though the water, rippling silently. Continually in motion, they can only swim forwards. As I stroke down for a closer look, the ray wheels around in a loop. Its dark eyes fix me for a moment in perhaps a pitying gaze as my exhaled air bubbles to the mirrored surface. Then it turns, flicks its wings and is gone, leaving only a beautiful memory.

Virginia: Civil War

IN RICHMOND, the Museum of the Confederacy occupies a Colonial brick building that sits back from the White House of the Confederacy next door. Both huddle in the shadow of the skyscraper blocks of a modern hospital, cast high and dry by the passing tide of history in the century and half since President Jefferson Davis made his home here in 1861. He lived in this White House for the next four years of what later came to be called the “War Between the States“ during which some 620,000 soldiers died – one in four of those who fought. Continue reading “Virginia: Civil War”

Alberta: Calgary Stampede

THE TRIO of steer and two horses explode out of the box at a hard gallop, throwing dust as they chase across the dirt arena. In an instant, the first cowboy has lassoed the steer’s head, then keeps tension on the rope so it is presented in proper position for his partner to lasso the back legs. Continue reading “Alberta: Calgary Stampede”

Cayman Islands: Lion Hunting

“WE WATCHED them coming through the Bahamas, which they just devastated,” she says. “They lay 25,000 eggs every four days and have no predators here. They will literally eat everything on the reef.”

I am sitting on a shady terrace in the Cayman Islands, watching the sun ripple off the Caribbean and sipping a fruit punch, while Nancy Easterbrook tells me about the threat to local coral reefs from the invasive lionfish. She is a dynamic bundle of energy who, with her husband, runs local diving company Divetech and their livelihood depends on preserving some of the best diving in the Caribbean. Continue reading “Cayman Islands: Lion Hunting”

Panama: Canal Zone

THE TRUCK, belching black diesel smoke, slithers and slides as it struggles up the steep incline of the wet road. It is not much of a road, although it used to be once, sure. Then the weather and the jungle got at it, patiently aiming to outlast it. Now this stretch is a collection of potholes stitched together with some tar, tiptoeing past dramatic gullies washed away by landslips.

Continue reading “Panama: Canal Zone”

Washington DC: Monumental City

PERHAPS the best place to appreciate Washington, D.C., is from the heights of Arlington Cemetery. Here, looking out over the city spread before me, I can see the National Mall, stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and beyond. The rows of marble gravestones, laid out with military precision around me, echo the mathematical layout of a city designed by French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant to have the grandeur of Paris. Diagonal avenues bisect the grid of streets that run north-south and east-west, wide boulevards that stretch out to symbolically reach the rest of America. Of course, the reality is that they just run into the Beltway, the congested ring road that has become a symbol of Washington’s isolation. Continue reading “Washington DC: Monumental City”

Nicaragua: Keeping Faith

“THE GUYS were lying down behind the barricades and a woman started shouting at us,” says Francisco Roiz. A guide at León’s Asociacion de Combatientes Historicos Heroes de Veracruz, a museum of the 1972–1979 Revolution, he is telling me about his experience in this revolutionary stronghold as government forces attacked. “She was cursing us and asking us if we were waiting for everyone to be killed. Then she picked up a .22 rifle and started shooting at the National Guard. That made us all get up and fight. She saved our lives.”

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Arlington, Virginia: Past glories

THERE is nothing like Arlington in Britain, a national cemetery for all who have died in the service of their country. London has St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, with their grand memorials, and the great graveyards of endless war dead in Flanders, Changi and Normandy. But Arlington is all those, and more.

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