Galápagos Islands: Take a Sustainable Cruise

Giant land tortoises are one of the most famous residents in the Galápagos Islands. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

Snorkel with penguins, sea turtles and sharks? Check!

Laugh at baby sea lions playing in the sand just 10 feet away? You bet!

Snap pics of goliath-sized land tortoises? Absolutely!

Witness the blue-footed booby dancing for his lady? Love it!

Encounter prehistoric reptiles? Yikes! Cross the equator… four times? Wow!

There’s no place in the world more exclamation-point worthy than the Galápagos Islands. Located 600 miles west of Ecuador’s coast, these islands are populated by magnificent wildlife that has no fear of humans. My trip there was nature up close and amazing.

The stakes for conserving and protecting the Galápagos are high: a plant, bird or animal species that disappears here exits the planet forever. Major threats to these unique islands include introduction of alien species (including goats, rats, feral dogs and cats), illegal fishing and unsustainable tourism.

All the more reason I wanted to take a Galápagos journey in the most nature-respecting, ecologically-sound way: with Ecoventura, a family-owned company that’s led sustainability efforts on the islands since 2000.

Ecoventura’s eco-yachts approach Sleeping Lion Rock. Photo by Tony-Karacronyi for Ecoventura.

High Seas Adventure

I traveled on a seven-night adventure with Ecoventura several years ago—when it began carbon-offsetting its yachts, offices and operations (including business travel) through Native Energy Travel Offsets. Ecoventura is even greener now. (See below for a full list of its green initiatives.)

My husband and I were aboard The Flamingo, one of Ecoventura’s three 20-passenger motor yachts that transport small groups to the archipelago’s most spectacular islands.

This is no crowded booze cruise—although the ship’s bartender does mix up fabulous tropical cocktails. Nor is it a luxurious “Love Boat”: cabins are small, but quite comfortable. The only time we were in our cabin was when we were sleeping! Otherwise, we were outside hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, lolling in the sun or dining on fresh Ecuadoran cuisine.

Marine iguanas take a sun bath. © Laurel Kallenbach

Our fellow travelers aboard The Flamingo were outdoor adventurers who respected ocean and land—and we became fast friends.

Likewise, our knowledgeable guides, Harry and Orlando, were gems. They escorted us in small panga boats on island excursions, telling us about the diet and habits of every bird and animal — which we were able to carefully approach and stand quite close to.

Part naturalist, part cheerleader, Harry greeted us passengers over the intercom each morning by announcing, “Welcome to another day in The Paradise!”

(For more about what it’s like to visit the Galápagos, see my related post: “Close Encounters of the Galápagos Kind.”)

Ecoventura’s A+ Eco-Report

  • Runs a carbon neutral operation.
  • Is certified by SmartVoyager and complies with The Rainforest Alliance environmental regulations.
  • The Eric yacht is equipped with 40 solar panels and two wind generators.
  • Partners with the World Wildlife Fund to create the Galápagos Marine Biodiversity Fund, which supports marine conservation.
  • Practices Leave No Trace guidelines. Teaches visitors never to feed, touch or harass wildlife.
  • Manages water and solid waste responsibly.
  • Reduces fuel consumption with high-performance oil filters.
  • Hires local naturalist guides and ship’s crew, engaging them with careers in sustainable tourism.
  • Supports locally managed conservation projects.
  • Provides scholarships to local children to study conservation education.
  • Connects clients with local conservation projects and the Galápagos Conservancy.

    A visitor photographs a Nazca booby in the Galápagos Islands. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published November 2012.

Flavorful Agritourism: Sleeping in an Organic Vineyard

Pheasant Valley in Hood River, Oregon: a great B&B and organic vines. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love beautiful, rural settings and local, farm-to-table foods, which is why I’m a fan of the agritourism trend: visiting and staying at farms. I like that it puts me in contact with local agriculture, and I like that farmers benefit from the additional income that small-scale tourism brings.

Recently, my husband and I spend two nights at an organic vineyard in Hood River, Oregon: at the Pheasant Valley Winery B&B. This small, Columbia Gorge vineyard is run by Scott and Gail Hagee, who live right there amid the grapevines.

The Hagee house is lovely, and they have three guest rooms—the Tempranillo Room, the Zinfandel Room, and the Pinot Noir Suite.

We stayed one night in the small, but comfy Zinfandel Room, and spent our second night in Pinot Noir, which is definitely worth the extra expense. The spacious suite has a private balcony with sweeping views of the countryside and the always-mesmerizing, snow-covered Mt. Hood. It also has floor-to-ceiling windows with the same view, vaulted ceilings, a sofa/sitting room, and a huge, luxurious bath with a walk-in shower and a Jacuzzi tub.

Hood River's peaceful and sustainable wine country ©Laurel Kallenbach

Whether or not you opt for the big digs, the house has plenty of shared space: an open, gorgeous living room, a front porch with that sweeping view of the volcanic mountain, and a shady back patio with tables. And a real bonus is Gail’s breakfasts. We dined on French toast one morning and a Mexican-style omelet the next.

Tasting the Grape

Another bonus: When you stay at the B&B, you get a free wine tasting—your choice of any six of Pheasant Valley’s vintages. We walked through rows of grapevines to the tasting room and sat outdoors on the patio overlooking Mt. Hood and the pine forest on a warm summer afternoon.

Whether you stay at the B&B or not, Pheasant Valley Winery's tasting room is worth a visit. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If the weather isn’t great, the indoor tasting room is quite atmospheric with its European décor, huge stone fireplace, and wine-barrel tables. (If you prefer to eat while you sip, Pheasant Valley Winery sells antipasto platters and ploughman’s lunches too.)

I enjoyed the refreshing, citrusy 2012 Estate Organic Pinot Gris; the 2011 Organic Pear Wine (great for dessert or with a light lunch); the berryish, oaky 2009 Tempranillo; and the smooth 2009 Syrah.

Between the wonderful wine and the beautiful surroundings, Ken and I loved Pheasant Valley. Flavor and relaxation…organically.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Organic grapes at Pheasant Valley. ©Laurel Kallenbach

See my other blog posts about agritourism on “Laurel’s Compass”:


The Star-Spangled Banner Goes Solar

Soaring above historic Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, the birthplace of the National Anthem, is a flag representing The Star-Spangled Banner. It’s pretty cool that this American icon is illuminated by solar power.

The Fort McHenry Guard fires a cannon in honor of the Star-Spangled Banner flag.

Four LED lamps draw their power from a pair of low-profile solar panels to shine the light on the landmark 30-by-42-foot flag.

The  lights save energy and money, and they better enhance the colors of the flag. Officials at Fort McHenry report that the solar lights do not intrude on the historic character of the fort, unlike the old, ground-level, incandescent floodlights.

History of the Flag

In 1814, amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay. His impressions of seeing the tattered flag in “the rocket’s red glare” during the Baltimore Battle of the War of 1812 eventually became the words to America’s national anthem.

The flag flying at Fort McHenry, though symbolic, is not to be confused with the actual Star-Spangled Banner relic, which is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Red, White, Blue and Green

“By using solar power, we  harness ‘the dawn’s early light’ that enabled Francis Scott Key to see the Star-Spangled Banner and use it to power the lights that allow us to view it ‘at the twilight’s last gleaming,’” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “It is just one of the many ways that we are incorporating renewable energy and sustainable practices into park operations.”

The “greening” of Fort McHenry has also included converting most of its external lighting to solar power, installing high-efficiency HVAC units and storm windows, setting up a geothermal heat-pump system, purchasing electric utility vehicles, and constructing a LEED-certified visitor education center.

The Star-Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry

July 4th celebrations at Fort McHenry include fife and drum music, cannon firing, a musket salute for 18 states, period dancing, and a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Photos courtesy: National Park Service

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Stories from Ute Mountain Tribal Park

The beautiful mesas and canyons of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park in southwest Colorado have many secrets to tell.

The red rocks and blue skies in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park are spectacular.

The red rocks, blue skies and yellow rabbitbrush in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park are spectacular.

There’s the ancient epic of primordial oceans creating the flat sedimentary stone that makes up this gorgeous country. (You can still find fossilized shells and bones of sea creatures here in this now-dry country.)

There’s the story of burnished-gold chamisa (also called rabbitbrush) shining in the Indian-summer light of early October. And the sagebrush, cacti, yucca and cottonwoods (and invasive, nonnative tamarisks) growing along the Mancos River. And the cry of a hawk or crow echoing through the canyon.

There’s the mystery of Ancestral Puebloan pottery sherds, petroglyphs and cliff dwellings found abundantly throughout the park, which is on the Ute Mountain Reservation.

And there are the stories that our Ute guide, Marshall Deer, told about the distant and recent past.

Tourism That Supports Utes

Before I get to that, though, there’s also the tourism tale. A visit to Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park is a great example of sustainable tourism.

Why sustainable? When tourism dollars go into the pockets of outsiders, foreign investors or far-away corporate owners, the money doesn’t help the local economy. The best types of “ecotourism” aren’t just environmentally friendly, they’re beneficial to locals or indigenous people.

Marshall Deer explains the meaning in a prehistoric petroglyph.

Marshall Deer explains the possible meaning of the symbols in this prehistoric petroglyph.

To experience the cliff dwelling ruins, ancient rock art and gorgeous scenery at Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, you sign onto a half-day or full-day tour led by a tribal member. The proceeds help support the Utes, and leading tours through this inspiring country seems a far better way to make a living than working at the casino in the nearby town of Towaoc.

How the West Was Lost

While driving and hiking through the Ute Tribal Park, I listened carefully to Marshall’s stories. He grew up on the Rez, attended college in Gunnison, Colorado, and worked on regional archaeological digs. He had many insights to share, ranging from an explanation of how to “read” a wall of ancient petroglyphs depicting the origin of the world to stories of the Wetherills, the family of ranchers who explored the ruins in the Mesa Verde National Park area a century ago.

(John Wetherill was known as the “human plumb-bob” because he dangled on a rope as his brothers lowered him over the side of cliffs to access the 700-year-old ruins.)

The Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Tribal Park are more than 700 years old.

The Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Tribal Park are about 700 years old.

There were sadder sagas too: how the U.S. Army forced the Utes out of the mountains (where they lived in summer) and into the desert mesas (their winter homes). And the tragic tale of how the Utes hid their children in the cliff dwellings from U.S. soldiers who came to forcibly remove children from their parents to take them to boarding school. There, they’d cut the children’s hair, make them wear European clothes, forbid them to speak their language, and separate them from their spiritual and cultural heritage.

(Normally, the Utes avoided Ancestral Puebloan (or “Anasazi”) sites because the Utes aren’t the descendents of those prehistoric people, who lived in the region until the mid-1200s. Modern Puebloan tribes include the Hopis and Zunis.)

I learned about the Ghost Dance, a tribal ritual performed to wash away the evil in a place. It was most done in hope of ridding the land of European oppressors. I also witnessed protest art that the Utes painted on rocks during the 1960s and 1970s.

Language and Freedom

Marshall also said something that I’ve been mulling for weeks. I asked whether young people on the Rez still speak Ute, and he said many did. He also mentioned that less than half the Ute language is written down; it’s mostly passed along orally. He made the case that if language isn’t written, then outsiders can’t use it against its speakers.

This is one reason, he said, that some Native Americans are people of few words, at least in the company of non-Natives. Marshall explained that by withholding knowledge—even by withholding their words—the Utes feel they protect themselves against cultural “invasion.”

Pottery sherds are everywhere. You're allowed to look but not to remove them from the place you found them..

Pottery sherds are everywhere. You’re allowed to look but not to remove them from the place you found them.

“They can take away our hair, our traditions, but if we withhold our language, it can’t be taken away from us,” Marshall said.

As a woman of words, I’m sad that whole cultures are so threatened that they must to hide their words in the name of self-preservation, yet that is the case in many places around the world.

Part of me is happy, however, that some people realize that language is power, that it’s identity, that it’s the marrow of our Selves.

I’m also profoundly grateful that the Utes revere and preserve their Tribal Park land and that they’re willing to share it—and their stories, or at least bits of them—with us outsiders.

If you’d like, leave a comment about how language affects who you are or how it shapes your identity. Do you have a secret language all your own? And how does keeping it private help you?

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

In the Ute Tribal Park, you climb ladders and hike to prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.

In the Ute Tribal Park, you climb ladders and hike to prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. It’s customary to thank the ancestors for your visit.