I found treasure – a battered copy of “The Curse of the Giant Tortoise” by Octavio Latorre – in a book exchange in Cuenca. Having recently visited the Galapagos and been fascinated with what (little) I learned about Galapagos history, I picked up the book immediately. The contents were a fascinating mixture of betrayals, murder, and just plain bad luck that seems to befall all people who attempt to exploit natural resources of the Galapagos. The message, is “All attempts at blind exploitation, with no regard for the environment of the islands, will end in failure or death.”
Not convinced? Here’s some of the most bizarre stories…
Pirating Fail – What to do with 600 jars of quince paste
17th century pirates attacked Spanish merchant ships seeking gold, silver, and other plunder-worthy booty. Unfortunately, they found that the ships were carrying a large statue of the Virgin, a mule, and several tons of quince paste. They dumped the jars of quince paste on the Galapagos and continued their way in search of more lucrative booty. The 600 ceramic jars were found on the Galapagos islands by Ecuadorean archaeologists.
A man who died for dyes
In the 1800s a Spanish settler, Don Jose Valdizan operated a farm and a won rights to “mine” archil, a lichen used in the dyeing industry at the time. He accepted prisoners from a jail in Guayaquil – mainland Ecuador – who he hoped to rehabilitate through employment at his farm. A group of conspirators formed under the leadership of Anatolio Lindao – who wished to return to the mainland. The group murdered Valdizan with a dagger, as well as many of his loyal workers. They were eventually captured and tried in Guayaquil.
Failed Utopian society
In 1959 the Galapagos was promoted in the 1960s as a Utopian society Don Harrsch. Harrsch was a hippie from Seattle Washington who had dropped out of high school and been dishonorably discharged from the military. He was an atheist and believer in free love, and envisioned a model society that included laboratories for biological and scientific research. The slogan was “Filiate Science Antrorse” or “Together with Science we move forward.” $2,500 was the requested investment to join. He accepted 106 people out of the more than 300 applicants. The failure of various projects- the planned sale of lobster, visa issues for the American colonists, the purchase of a refrigeration plant which proved irreparable left the colony in ruins. The colonists abandoned the Galapagos by 1961.
Marine found dead without clothes after Marine training
In 1979 the Ecuadorean marines attempted a training exercise in which they would cross the lava fields of Isabela Island. They estimated it would take 36 hours to cover the 28 km. They arrived with many men already seasick, advanced only a few kilometers the first day due to the extreme heat and difficulty walking over the jagged rocks of the lava fields. The eventually got lost, severely dehydrated, and ended up on the wrong beach, not where they were to rendezvous with the navy. Luckily they were rescued by a passing tourist boat. The rear guard arrived in a total of 9 days, compared to the planned 36 hour hike. Only one man died, found inexplicably naked at the bottom of a cliff, dead.
Tourists refuse to rescue stranded castaway
Camilo Casanova was exiled to Santa Cruz island by Manuel Cobos (the owner of Hacienda El Progreso on San Cristobol Island) in 1900 for threatening to kill the same. He had only a canteen of water, two knives, a machete, and some matches. Over the course of three years he found a way to survive, cultivating yuca, sweet potatoes, bananas, and eating tortoise and fish. A year later he was excited to see an elegant yacht moored in the harbour. However the visitors only gave him some cookies and matches but refused to take him with them. The same happened in 1902 and 1903 with more and more ships coming to the island. Finally in 1904 the Ecuadorian navy came to rescue him, since the person responsible for his banishment (Cobos) had died. Sailing away from the harbor, he saw a large sign directed at incoming ships that read in many languages ... “Please do not take this man off the island because he is twenty times a criminal.” That is why no one would rescue him!
The mystery of the “Duchess”
“Duchess” Eloise Wagner arrived on Floreana with her three lovers wanting to open a luxury resort, much to the dismay of the island’s existing residents. At the time the island was only inhabited by just two other families – Friedrich and Dora Ritter, and Heinz, Harry and Margaret Whitmer. Dr. Ritter died mysteriously from food poisoning, and the Duchess disappeared, never to be found. Read about the story here.
Want to read more? You can find the unabridged version of these bizarre stories in the book.