Getting Up Close with Nature

Getting Up Close with Nature

Taya Puner

Wild Galápagos: Eco-Service in Ecuador 2022

Images have been provided by Taya. Read her story below!

There was some uncertainty surrounding Taya Puner’s trip to Ecuador. Strikes on the nation’s mainland were raising questions about the itinerary for the Wild Galápagos: Eco-Service in Ecuador.

Luckily, the Galápagos Islands were not affected by the strikes – so it was decided the students would spend the whole program there. Rustic’s staff scrambled to reconfigure the program to work around any closures and revamp the activity plans. The quick changes gave Taya and the other students a unique experience.

“I honestly kind of like that the trip ended up not being what was expected because I think getting to spend two weeks on the islands was such a privilege,” Taya said. “Most people don’t get to do that.”

The only travel inconvenience was that the students had to sleep on an airport floor between travel legs. But Taya says she felt like they were very lucky to get a flight change to the islands. Once there, the students quickly adjusted to their new environment.

“Being in the Galápagos was a completely different world. At home I feel like people need more stuff all the time. We are huge consumers,” Taya said. “In the Galápagos there was a mutual respect for both people and animals. Also, people lived more to just enjoy their lives.”

That approach impacts everything on the islands from the laws to the activities. Not surprisingly, protecting animals on the islands is an important part of the culture.

Wildlife Encounters & Lessons from Lonesome George

Taya says their local program leaders shared regulations in each area they visited. These included important guidelines to protect wildlife, including strict rules that forbid people from touching animals.

“They are so cute so you want to touch them, but you can see the effect of rules… You could get very close to the animals because they knew you weren’t going to threaten them,” Taya said.

The animals Taya saw included flamingos, penguins and tortoises on land. In the water, they encountered sea lions, sea turtles, many fish, and hammerhead sharks.

She says each beach and snorkeling site they went to offered a unique experience, The animals varied as did the water color and activities. However, Taya says that a definite highlight was snorkeling off San Cristobal Island.

“That was my favorite because we got to be closest to the wildlife. We went to a really cool snorkeling spot where the sea lions would come very close to your face, and then they would dive under you. It was such a cool experience,” Taya said.

On the land, the students visited the famous Charles Darwin Center to learn more. While there they were told about another regulation that helps preserve the local environment.

“We learned that when we got to the Galápagos we each paid a tax to get in. What I thought was really cool is they walked us through how they use those taxes in the wildlife centers. It showed us how the tax was going to meaningful things,” Taya said.

The students also learned about the different stages of life for tortoises and how the center works to save threatened species. One of those crucial lessons centers on “Lonesome George.” He was a male Pinta Island tortoise that was the last known one in his subspecies. Scientists found George on Pinta Island, which is a small island in the Galápagos chain.

His subspecies was destroyed by invasive feral goats that were brought to the island. Despite many efforts, scientists could not find another tortoise like George. Eventually scientists discovered hybrid turtles that were descended from George’s line and another extinct species.

Human actions also unexpectedly played a role in this development. The hybrid turtles were born after pirates and whalers moved tortoises to a volcano area on Isabela island.

Such stories gave more purpose to the students’ service work – illustrating what human actions help and hurt nature. That inspired Taya who enjoyed service projects like removing invasive plant species.

“I really love traveling but it gives me more of a sense of purpose when I’m doing service,” Taya said. “I like working with the environment because I feel like I’m doing something productive.”

The service was one thing that differed from a journey Taya took to Puerto Rico with Rustic Pathways in 2021.

Memories from a Puerto Rico Journey

Taya traveled on the Puerto Rico Paradise program with a friend. Service was not part of the itinerary, but one of the program leaders added an impromptu cleanup on a beach that sparked Taya’s interest in giving back.

The students also got their share of adrenaline. They went ziplining “superman” style, which encouraged them to go head first. They visited a bat cave, beaches, and a swimming hole where they jumped off a high rock.

But Taya says her most memorable moments came when doing something rather simple.

“My favorite time was when we stayed in little cabins that were in the middle of nowhere  – up on a hill. We didn’t have any internet service, and it was cool being with everyone,” Taya said.

That realization inspired Taya to pursue the opportunity to travel alone to Ecuador the next summer.

“Going to Puerto Rico was a good first Rustic trip experience, but I really enjoyed going on my own to Ecuador because I was able to branch out and make friends,” Taya said.

She says she still communicates everyday with the students she roomed with. It helps that they had plenty of time to connect while they explored the scenic sites of the Galápagos Islands.

Natural Wonders on the Islands

The students spent time on three of the main islands in the Galápagos  – Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela. They went snorkeling three times, including time spent at the famous Kicker Rock where they saw sharks.

They also had surfing lessons, tried kayaking, relaxed on the beaches, and went swimming. Among the well-known places they visited were Puerto Chino Beach on San Cristobal Island and the Las Grietas swimming hole on Santa Cruz.

Taya says Puerto Chino was a nice stop since unlike other beaches on the islands it had waves. Las Grietas is a picturesque spot that Taya described as being “so pretty.” There the students swam in areas flanked by volcanic walls.

The students also trekked through a cave and went on a hike that included a challenging stair climb that was rewarded with a scenic island view. In between the activities, they had time to hang out with local teens and play basketball and other games. That helped the students witness the sense of community on the islands.

Throughout the experience, their program leaders and local guides were able to roll with the punches. Their local knowledge enabled them to provide the best opportunities for the students as the itinerary evolved. For Taya, that was one of the main reasons her Rustic Pathways journey was so worthwhile.

“I really enjoyed going through Rustic because if I had my family we wouldn’t have had these guides 24-7 like we did… They could show us the best spots because they knew so much about the islands,” Taya said. “It was really, really fun. I liked all of it.”