Volunteering in the Galapagos

In June, I flew to the Galapagos for two weeks of adventure. The first week, I volunteered on a nature reserve on the island of San Cristobal. The second week, I went island hopping with Vince. Today I'm writing about my time volunteering on the Jatun Sacha reserve.

Jatun Sacha may be remote, and full of spiders the size of my palm, but it was an oasis in its own right. Just see for yourself:

I spent the week learning about conservation efforts on the islands. Invasive species, mostly introduced via cargo planes and ships bringing supplies to the islands, have dangerously crowded out some of the Galapagos' most treasured and rare species. Blackberry bushes are the worst offender since they spread so quickly.

Our primary goal on the reserve was to reverse these harmful effects. Our efforts included projects like collecting endemic seeds to help repopulate the neighboring national park, building a new pigpen (to reduce Jatun Sacha's reliance on imported food), helping neighboring farms clear fields to grow sustainable crops, and going on nature hikes to learn more about the islands. 

 Clearing a field for a neighboring farmer.

Clearing a field for a neighboring farmer.

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 Pausing on a nature hike for a snack.

Pausing on a nature hike for a snack.

 Hiking to the coast to see sea turtles.

Hiking to the coast to see sea turtles.

 Cooling off in nature's bathtub.

Cooling off in nature's bathtub.

Jatun Sacha has been around for over 15 years. Everything in the reserve has been built by volunteers, from the bunk houses to the kitchen to the bathrooms. It was really cool getting to live in a place where the marks and memories of those before you were so apparent. It's the perfect example of people working together to improve the lives and comfort of future inhabitants.

 Our kitchen, where twice a week each volunteer helps Sonya prepare meals.

Our kitchen, where twice a week each volunteer helps Sonya prepare meals.

 The oven out back.

The oven out back.

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 Our home for the week. (Note the makeshift gym in the foreground)

Our home for the week. (Note the makeshift gym in the foreground)

 Our bedtime oases. Everyone had a full bunk: luggage stayed on the top bunk (so critters wouldn't get in) and mosquito net caves were constructed on the bottom bunks (so critters wouldn't get in).

Our bedtime oases. Everyone had a full bunk: luggage stayed on the top bunk (so critters wouldn't get in) and mosquito net caves were constructed on the bottom bunks (so critters wouldn't get in).

The reserve had a pig named Chuleta and five sweet piglets! One of our projects was expanding their pigpen so they could have more room to roam around. Chuleta's fate was pretty clear (her name literally translates to pork chop), but we weren't quite sure if the baby chicks were pets or eventual food. They were cute regardless.

We also had a guard dog named Gringo (the volunteers named him). He was the absolute sweetest dog and he did a great job guarding us - especially at night from the wild boar that had moved into the area.

 Sweet baby piggies!

Sweet baby piggies!

I've never felt more restored, inspired, or rejuvenated by a vacation. My time at Jatun Sacha not only introduced me to amazing people, but it also reset so many harmful habits in my life. Because we were so far off the grid (seriously, only three cab drivers on the island know how to get to Jatun Sacha) we had absolutely no cell phone use. For the first time in my adult life, I had no access to the world beyond my view, and it was intoxicatingly relaxing.

The freedom I experienced from the tethers of my cell phone and email helped me realize how few of my daily stressors are really worth the pain. So many of them temporarily melted away while I was on the reserve; I realized that every single one of them could wait until I was back in the United States. It's so easy to lose sight of this relaxed pace of life when you're constantly on the move and constantly behind schedule in the everyday world.

Our schedules were simple: breakfast at 7 AM, work until lunch at noon, siesta until 2 PM, work until dinner at 6 PM, socializing and relaxing until bedtime (usually around 9 PM), repeat. It was that simple. Not once did I feel the all-too-familiar tug of a thousand to-do's pulling me in every direction. Every minute of the day, I had only one task to do or one thing to think about. During my free time, I actually read a book. I haven't been able to sit down and concentrate on a book in months. I've missed recreational reading so much, and it's great to have that back in my life.

 The view from our bunkhouse.

The view from our bunkhouse.

 The most relaxing place in the southern hemisphere.

The most relaxing place in the southern hemisphere.

Our cab driver told us on the way to the reserve that we'd be sad when we left. After only a week? I thought skeptically.

But when Erlin came to pick us up after one short week, he was right. I was sad to leave, and in some ways I was embarrassed that we'd only stayed a week (some volunteers stay up to two months). I had barely made a dent in the efforts of the reserve. Hopefully someday I'll get to go back to make an even deeper impact.