The Galapagos Islands & Life in Ecuador From a Local’s Point of View

Often when I ask travelers about their experiences, I like to see if they have accumulated any regrets from their trip. For most people it is a hard question to answer, or maybe in fairness to those that I’ve spoken with, maybe its just too personal to share with a stranger and his i-phone. If the question were posed to me, without hesitation I would have to say my biggest regret for this trip is not fluently speaking Spanish. Though I can order food, ask for directions, and exchange pleasantries with strangers, the interaction I’m able to have with locals living and working in the places that I’m visiting is severely limited.

The Rotonda monument on the Malecón 2000

The Rotonda monument on the Malecón 2000

While the focus of my project is centered around other traveler’s experiences on the road, I’m always curious about the lives of the people I see rushing past my bus window or casually walking by as I sit on a park bench. And every so often I’m lucky enough to meet someone who speaks English and can tell me a little bit about the part of the world they live in. Rodolfo Paz, the General Manger and Owner of a travel agency in Guayaquil, Ecuador is such a person.

Perhaps because this was as close as I would get to traveling to the Galapagos Islands and because so many people who I had spoken with had either been or were planning to go, I decided to see if I could speak to a travel agent to see if I could get an insider’s perspective to the islands and what it’s like growing up and living in Ecuador. A quick search for environmentally sustainable travel to the Galapagos returned a hit for Bambu Travel, and after a couple of brief emails, the owner agreed to meet and speak with me over a coffee.

A view from Las Peñas and Cerro Santa Ana

Standing on top of Cerro Santa Ana, next to the Rio Guayas, Ecuador’s largest city and most populous city, Guayaquil spreads out as far as the eye can see.

Here’s Rodolfo Paz’s story:

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Name: Rodolfo Paz
From: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Occupation: General Manger and Owner of Bambu Travel
Web Address: http://www.bambutravel.com

How did you get into tourism? Basically, I had a lot of freedom as a child from the age of 13. I’ve always loved traveling. I’m amazed by it. I used to work, because my father wouldn’t give me any money, you know for a 13 year-old to go travel around Ecuador . . . so I would do little jobs, here an there, and make some money and I would travel on weekends and holidays. So by the time I was 17, and graduating from high school, we were required to create a company. It could be real, or just in paper. I thought it would be too boring to just do something in paper, so I went to my graduate counsellor and she asked me what I liked to do and I said, “I liked traveling.” She suggested I get into tourism. So I launched my first project, a tour package that was commercialized amongst the teachers of the high school, and of course everyone was like, “you 17 year-old, what could you possibly know about tourism?” And no one bought the package from me, so then I went back to the counsellor and she said she was also the Director of International Studies and had group of Americans from Pacific University that come to Ecuador every year and they go on a trip that takes them to the beach, the Amazon, Quito, and Cuenca. So she told me to go and investigate the beach part of their trip and present a package with a final price. She said that if I took the group and if they were happy with me, then I could keep the other trips. And that University has actually been a client of mine until about four years ago when the University changed directors. And that’s how it started.

You said that you knew you liked traveling at a young age, what do you like about traveling? What do I like about travel? It just completely opens your eyes to new realities and different cultures from all over the world. You feel amazed by how much is actually out there that you can’t really perceive if you’re just living in one area.

Can you tell me about some of the travel experiences that you’ve had? Well the one that I will remember the most is a trip I did to Asia. I went to Palau. It was a diving trip and I was able to meet the Prince of Palau. He showed me around the island and he was very nice. I was treated like royalty, by him and his cousin. His cousin, she was a flight attendant on the flight to Palau. But, the one trip that maybe I liked more than Palau was Cambodia. Because it’s one of the poorest countries in Asia. The minimum wage there is around $30.00 a month and they have this huge temple. Currently the largest religious temple in the world. And it’s just completely amazing. The people were very authentic and the food was amazing. And when you see countries that are poorer than your own, you feel so blessed in where you live. We might not be Europe or the US, but we have so much more than those people over there.

Can you tell me about what it’s like living and growing up in Ecuador? Well it depends on who you talk too . . . I can tell you my personal perspective, I’ve actually had the opportunity to live in Europe and the States, but over there with the skills that I have . . . sure if I work hard enough I could be very successful, but here I think with the abilities that I have, I’m much more useful here because there is so much to be done here in Ecuador. I wouldn’t trade Ecuador because this is a country where we don’t have extreme weather. Like here in Guayaquil the coldest that it gets is round 70 degrees, that’s our winter. And during summer, it’s the high 90’s. So, we have good weather all year. I have a beach two hours away. I have the Andes three hours away. I’m a vegan so I have all the fresh fruits and vegetables that I could want. You can have a car here and a nice apartment. That’s me, though, If you talk to someone who has a less fortunate situation, then they might feel differently.

Is it easy to open and run your own business in Ecuador? Well back then it wasn’t such a formal process. I started working with that University as my main client. When I was 23 or 24 I met a guy who was interested in investing in a tourism company and he became my business partner. So we opened this company, which was mainly focused on Ecuadorian tourist going abroad, more than the other way around, which was my personal speciality. But he insisted on doing it that way first because it was a local market and we wouldn’t have to work so hard to get other agencies to work with us. But, our business almost went bankrupt and he said that he wasn’t really interested in the business anymore because it was costing him much more than he was making. I bought his half and became the sole owner, and the minute that happened the business started to go up again because I started to focus on what I enjoyed.

Why did you chose Bambu as the name for your company? Well Bamboo is a universal planet. Everyone knows it. It’s a plant that helps the environment. It’s easy to remember. It’s a sustainable resource and that’s pretty much what we try to promote in the business. High-end sustainable travel.

An Iguana basking in the sun in Parque Bolivar

An Iguana basking in the sun in Parque Bolivar

Give me an example of a high-end package that you provide to your clients? Well, we started with Ecuador and the Galapagos, just doing tours to the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon, the Andes, and the coast pretty much. Basically we take care of everything for the guest from the minute moment they arrive in Ecuador, we pick them up at the airport and take them to their hotel, we arrange all the travel within the country and when they go back, we practically leave them on the plane. As time went on clients that had taken our trips and liked the service we provided started asking if we did tours to other countries, so we started making alliances with other travel agencies in Central and South America. So now clients who come to Ecuador might add an extension to Peru to see Machu Picchu, or Easter Island in Chile, or Patagonia in Argentina. So there are all sorts of combinations that you can do now.

Can you tell me a little bit about your client base and their demographics? Most of my clients are 40 and up. We do get 30 year-olds every now and then, but usually that age group, they’re starting a family, buying a house, or paying student loans . . . so they aren’t going to have as much income as someone who’s a little older and all done with their debit.

Are you personally interested in the type of travel where you are picked up from the airport and then taken around a place until its time to put you back on a plane? Me, personally? No. When I go somewhere, I pretty much do whatever I want. I like doing things on my own.

What can you tell me about the Galapagos? Unfortunately it’s not in my budget for this trip, but it seems like it’s on a lot of people’s list to visit. The Galapagos, from a scientific point of view, you know the theory of evolution from Charles Darwin, that’s its main attraction. You are going to see species in abundance, in high concentration, that are not afraid of you. That’s the main thing about the Galapagos. So if you’re a biologist . . . I mean there are people who go traveling for days just to see a bird. So if you have that kind of interest, it’s amazing. The animals aren’t afraid of you because their ecosystem depends on the ocean and the abundance of seafood, so the animals don’t have to worry about predators on land and you get really close, like a meter away from a blue footed booby for example. Which is pretty amazing because you don’t see that anywhere else. Like when you’re eating, you actually have little finches that come to your plate to eat. The wildlife is just amazing. Of course there are beautiful beaches, but its a controlled National Park, so you must have a guide, so it’s very organized. But, it’s very beautiful. Personally, I’ve been to the Galapagos like 20 times and the true treasure for me lies underwater, I mean the sea is abundant, you have schools of sharks that are 250 count. There are whales, there are manta-rays, It’s just amazing. You never know whats going to come up.

A Blue Footed Booby from Isla de la Plata

A Blue Footed Booby on Isla de la Plata

When someone buys your package to the Galapagos Islands, what are they actually purchasing? Most people go on a cruise. It’s not . . . I know when a lot of people think of a cruise they think of Royal Caribbean or Carnival, but the capacity of a boat to the Galapagos is one hundred passengers and there are only three boats that size, most of the boats are 16 passenger boats. So, regardless of whether the boat is big or small, you get picked up at the airport and taken to the boat and fed lunch. Then you have an excursion in the afternoon that could be snorkeling or hiking, or both. And every day the same pattern of activities repeat but at a different location. Some people also do land-based tours, but most people don’t like the land-based tours because it involves a lot of traveling, leaving at five or six in the morning. But some people like having a hotel on land at the end of the day instead of cruise.

Is it possible to visit the Galapagos as an independent traveler? Perhaps because this was as close as I would get to traveling to the Galapagos Islands and because so many people that I had spoken with had either been or were planning to go, I decided to see if I could speak to a travel agent about the Islands and to a greater extent what it was like growing up, working, and living in Ecuador.Sure, but I would say more during low season. Because during low season you’ll find more availability for hotels and excursions. And like I said with the excursions, it’s very organized so there are only certain boats that can go to certain places as a day tour. And normally those boats are packed, and there’s only about five so during low season, you have a better chance of getting a boat at the last-minute, but during high season its impossible. So you could just go, and you’ll see stuff because you’re there, but you want to see the best stuff.

Why are the islands so regulated? Well the Galapagos, as a National Park has a lot of international pressure, which is good for preservation, they don’t want a higher load of tourists. So the Galapagos won’t except one more boat, one more day tour, or excursion. So in order for a new boat to come in, one has to come out. So you can’t expand the capacity of tourism in the Galapagos. It’s just an environmental thing.

Do you ever envision a career change? Yes.

What are you thinkings? Well the environmental . . . what I’m doing right now is very nice, and I have a career that is much more joyful than I don’t know being a lawyer. . . so I do like my job, but I really want to do good things for the world, like to use tourism as a tool to develop places that have amazing natural resources so that they don’t get destroyed.

Does working in tourism affect the way that you travel? Yeah, like I said, I don’t like my trips organized. I like to do my own thing. I like to book my own things, so to that extent that’s how it affects me.

Is there anything else you want to share about what traveling means to you? Well traveling is probably one of the most enriching things a human being can do. Like I said, it opens your eyes to so many different realities and it makes you sensitive to things that most people are not in large cities. It gives you larger a more honest view of what the world is going through and like you, for example, you’ve traveled a lot so I’m sure you have a pretty good idea that the third world is not only drugs and crime, there is a lot more there to see. A lot of beauty to be discovered.

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