In the Footsteps of Charles Darwin


I had booked at the Floreana Lava Lodge beforehand ($138 per night), as it was the only lodging on the island for which I could find contact information. The lodge consists of luxury cabins complete with air conditioning (however the electricity is unreliable — it is run on local pine nut oil). I was the only one staying there, mimicking my protagonist Frances’ isolation in a way I wasn’t altogether comfortable with, but the next morning Claudio Cruz, who manages the property, sat down with me to a wonderful breakfast of fresh fruit grown on the island and local yogurt and cheese, to talk about his life.

Mr. Cruz is a native of Floreana, the son of 1940s settlers. He and his wife also own a guesthouse, the Casa Santa Maria. Besides Mr. Cruz’s properties there are five other lodging establishments; the most famous is the Hotel Wittmer, right on Black Beach (named for its black volcanic sand), which heats up to infernal temperatures and is overrun twice a day with groups of tourists who come and snorkel and then go back to their boats. Each room at the Wittmer has a balcony with a hammock. The other guesthouses are clean and comfortable, with bathrooms en suite. Some have air conditioning and include breakfast, at $30 to $40 a night. There is usually a vacancy, unless there is a school group or a large scientific research community. Each guesthouse consists of two or three rooms atop the proprietor’s house.

Floreana, with a small population of about 200, is not for the easily lonely. There are no stores and no real restaurants, and you are not allowed to bring any produce to the island (though granola bars, instant oatmeal and other packaged foods are fine), for fear of contamination. Erika Wittmer and her mother Floreanita will make dinner for $10 and, if you sweet talk them into it, lunch ($6). Oddly, if only because the Fräuleins Wittmer have never lived there, it is German food: pork, spaetzle, overcooked vegetables, a bit heavy for a tropical island. Claudio Cruz’s sister, Aura, cooks tastier food out of her home and restaurant — you’ll see the sign marking La Canchalagua. She will serve you at one of the two tables on her front porch if arrangements are made with her in advance. Meals are local fish and simple grilled meats, rice and vegetables (lunch $6, dinner $10 to $12). Nowhere on Floreana do you get to choose your meal (though accommodations may be possible for vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions).

Photo

A marine iguana.

Credit
Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

The main attraction is Asilo de la Paz (Haven of Peace), site of the first human settlements on Floreana, in a cave near the only source of fresh water on the island. It’s about five miles up the only road. You can take the workers’ bus, which leaves at 7 a.m., and ask to be dropped off ($2). Technically it’s national parkland, so you’re not allowed there without a guide, but I went several times and was questioned only once. The cave is empty now, and just big enough for five people to stand — it’s hard to believe an entire family once lived there. Also at the summit is an abandoned resort that the Wittmers built but never actually used, as well as the Floreana tortoise breeding corral, where you can commune with (and get close enough to touch) giant tortoises, cousins of the “originals.”

Better still: Attach yourself to a group. One day I caught a ride with a class of Ecuadorean fifth graders and listened as their guide explained the site while we shared lollipops. Another day I was invited to join a German group, and we stopped at a farm to examine the plants that provide the food to islanders. A third day, I asked Mr. Cruz to show me his farm, and the site of some of the human settlements that provide Floreana’s historical lore (I paid him $20 for his time).

Floreana has some of the most interesting human history in the Galápagos, and was the site of the possible murder of three flamboyant characters, entertainingly chronicled in the 2013 documentary “The Galápagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden.” (I fictionalized them in my novel.) Originally occupied mostly by marauding pirates and buccaneers (who are said to have eaten all the tortoises, and released goats and rats), consistent human settlement on Floreana only dates back to 1929, when a German doctor, Friedrich Ritter, and his companion, Dore Strauch, decided to follow his nativist philosophy by leaving their respective spouses (who conveniently moved in together), pulling out all their teeth to seal their commitment to vegetarianism, and moving there. Their solitude was disturbed by the arrival of the Wittmer family in 1932. Relations between the two German families were tense, and the discord was further fueled when Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, an Austrian “baroness,” arrived to stake her claim to the island. Competing narratives can be compared in Margaret Wittmer’s memoir, “Floreana,” and Strauch’s memoir, “Satan Came to Eden.”

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At Claudio Cruz’s farm.

Credit
Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

Arriving with two German lovers, the self-proclaimed baroness antagonized both families by stealing provisions and otherwise attracting attention. After a split in the ménage à trois, the baroness and one of her partners vanished. Everyone on the island would seem to have had motive and opportunity for their disappearance, but accidents can also happen on volcanic islands. In the wake of her disappearance the spurned lover caught the next boat. His desiccated body was found on a deserted island nearby, six months later. Not long afterward, Dr. Ritter died from eating spoiled potted meat (despite his professed vegetarianism). Amid rumors that she had poisoned him, Dore Strauch returned to Germany, leaving the Wittmers briefly alone on the island. The Floreanita mentioned earlier is Margaret’s daughter.

If the murder stories don’t scare you off, the snorkeling is terrific around Floreana. It’s best to bring your own equipment, though there is usually some knocking about that you can borrow at hotels. There were five foreigners staying on the island the week I was there, and two Argentine girls negotiated a snorkeling trip with a local resident. The American couple who joined us were avid snorkelers, and they pointed out manta and eagle rays, small sharks and different kinds of colorful fish as well as spectacular underwater volcanic rocks.

In addition to the road that goes to the top of the island, there is a second one that runs parallel to the shore and ends in La Loberia, a sea lion nursery. I had been warned that the 800-pound bull that lives there is territorial, and when he barked at me angrily I knew I’d gotten too close.

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