How Tourists Are Destroying Ecuador

Climbing aboard a yacht with an assortment of young backpackers from Chile, Colombia, and Argentina, we all make ourselves comfortable for the quick journey to Isla Salango over choppy waters. The guides point out the locally famous rock formations that look like King Kong and a giant turtle.

Isla Salango Ecuador tour

can you see the turtle?

15 minutes later, the boat sidles up to the rocky coast of the island. Eager visitors cannonball into the bottomless ocean, wondering what sea creatures they will see from behind their goggles.

In an attempt to conquer my fear of deep waters, I buckle up my life jacket and ease my way down the four-step ladder. On the bottom rung, I have a panic attack and cling to the boat in terror.

The guides’ prodding and reasoning is fruitless, and they eventually help me scramble back onto the boat. After recovering, I snap photos of the tops of snorkeling heads and admire the pelicans and albatrosses that are soaring overhead and pooping on the side of the coast’s mountain.

After a long hour, the sightseers scramble aboard with their new finds – coral, starfish, and other bits and pieces that they’ve robbed from the ocean.

I am shocked that they show such little respect for a protected area. What use would an ocean find be to them? Back home, they will show it off to disinterested friends and family, and then it will sit on a dusty shelf, abandoned and unloved, until it is tossed into Sunday’s garbage.

“Why are you letting them take that?” I say to one of the guides, pointing to the treasures left on the bench. “They’re robbing the ocean, and if you keep letting people do that, in a few years there will be nothing to see here.”

“I know,” he says, in artificial agreement. “But they want to take it.”

I proceed to give him a mini lecture on the consequences of his lie-down-and-take-it attitude. But the look on his face is one I have seen before. It is the false nod of concurrence men give annoyed women until they’re done ranting and raving.

I sigh in irritation, feeling helpless in the face of such apathy and passiveness.

Ecuador tourism

the boat captain takes a nap

Unfortunately, the evidence of ignorant consumption practices doesn’t end here. We pull around the side of the island to a tiny beach to relax for a few minutes before we head back to Puerto Lopez.

To my dismay, the beach is absolutely littered with trash – empty water bottles, styrofoam plates, and napkins are strewn all over the island, left by unconscious visitors.

I give myself a headache trying to figure out how people can possibly take a boat trip out to a destination promoted for its natural beauty and animal spotting opportunities, and then contribute to its ruin with their nasty garbage.

Highly agitated and confused, I bring a plastic bag from the boat and stuff it as full as I can with trash to take back to town.

On board I say, “How can people throw out their garbage like that? It’s pure laziness!”

Again, I receive the look of mock agreement that strives to mask the real sentiment – indifference.

Zooming back towards Puerto Lopez, I allow my irritation to fade and give way to gratitude that I had the opportunity to see the island before it’s closed off to the public for good.

  • Wow I am surprised that the guides would let them do that! I know when i went we were told a few times not to and pretty much everyone knew that anyways. I mean you can’t take that crap home anyways, as if you get caught with coral at the airport, it’s a huge fine and not worth it (think $10k+ plus jail time maybe).

    I do have to say though I know what you mean about the trash on the beach and to be honest, thats not just tourist either. That stuff washes up from all over and you can blame the locals on the main land for that as well. It’s not merely tourist showing up and tossing water bottles but locals who do it at Montanita too, that later end up on islands else where… sad but true.

  • You’re totally right, and when I say tourists I mean domestic tourists too. There is garbage strewn all over the beach at Puerto Lopez and the streets of Montanita, especially on the weekends.

  • Anonymous

    This really angers me.

  • Yeah, not only the tour guides but the visitors as well. I’m honestly surprised to see this kind of behavior in 2011.

  • ditto

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  • Jill – Jack and Jill Travel

    That’s sooooo sad. I can never understand the short-sightedness that the local guardians of these treasures seem to posses. It’s their own livelihood that they’re destroying…

  • That sounds really frustrating! Maybe you need to start up a local education nonprofit to help people see the importance of protecting the natural resources…. I’m sure there are a ton of people there who feel the same way.

  • This reminds me of a time I was taking a speed boat tour around islands in Thailand — beautiful blue waters, and there was an Indian couple on board. I’d just come from India, but it still surprised me to see them hold up a candy wrapper and let it drift out of their hands in the wind. Having just come from India, I knew it was all but normal to litter like that, but I couldn’t believe they were doing it in the middle of such beautiful waters.

  • Yeah I’d love to do that if I had the time/resources… would be a great expat project for sure.

  • I know what you mean… The first time I saw something like this was in Indonesia, taking a ferry between Bali and Lombok. Everyone was tossing their garbage in the ocean off the side of the boat. As a foreigner I didn’t feel like I could say or do anything at the time. It’s hard to know when you’re crossing the line in that kind of situation.

  • the Father

    I remember vividly driving with my Uncle sometime in the 1970s up in Ohio (USA). He just rolled down a window in his mustang and tossed a McD’s bag out the window as he cruised down the highway. It still occasionally happens here, but it took 30 years and at least 1 generation having grown up with a more ecological ethic to make that a crime today.

  • Yeah, unfortunately littering is not a social taboo everywhere… hopefully it will be while we still have a planet to live on

  • Scott

    You have to start teaching the childrne TODAY! It’s their future. I remember the first Earth Day, when I was in 10th grade. It took a generation or two to change peoples attitudes about where they live and the future for all. Oh, bu=y the way, there is tons of trash in the ocean and it washes up anywhere and everywhere. Sounds like what you picked up was from people’s excursions to the island. But there is tons of trash in the ocean which eventually will reach the shore somewhere. I read an article about a hugh amount of trash, cars and junk from the tsunami in Japan that is heade for the west coast of the U.S., Mexico and probably Central and South America. Good article!

  • Yes, and things won’t change until we all, individually, take personal responsibility for the future of the planet.