An Interview with Local Travel Pros in the Galapagos Islands

  • WHL Group
  • 24 May 2011

Every month, we delve into the travel experiences of people in the extended WHL Group network. This month we talk to Jessica Saltos and Steve Nomchong of Yacu Amu Experiences, the whl.travel local connection in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.

Jessica is a native of the Galapagos Islands. For the past two decades she has specialised in organising tours to the archipelago and is currently responsible for operating the Insider’s Galapagos tour. She also works with her team to implement sustainable tourism practices across their entire operation. When travelling, she loves the experience of meeting locals and learning about all aspects of their cultures – an approach that is reflected in the itineraries she develops for like-minded travellers that wish to visit Ecuador.


Says Jessica Saltos, pictured here on the west side of the Tortuga Bay beach, where the waters are calm: "This is my favorite place in Santa Cruz Island of the Galapagos. The fabulous white sandy beach is where the sea turtles go for nesting." Also frequently found are the Darwin Finch, marine iguanas, flamingos, endemic lava gulls and much more. Photo courtesy of Jessica Saltos

Steve Nomchong is the Australian-born founder of Yacu Amu Experiences. He began working in tourism as a whitewater rafting and kayak guide when he took a year off from a postgraduate research degree to which he never quite made it back. He now divides his time between the jungle, the Andes mountains and Galapagos Islands of Ecuador; his native Australia; and as many other places as he can visit. His latest passion is developing a pilot educational project that will improve teaching standards and provide quality teaching resources to a school on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos.

WHL Group: Which is your favourite WHL Group destination and which would you most like to visit?

Jessica: The Galapagos Islands have always been my favourite because I was born there and someday I would like to go back to live there. I would also really like to visit Brazil, which strikes me as an amazing country full of traditions, cultures and incredible nature.

Steve: My favourite is of course the Galapagos Islands. Dramatic landscapes, incredibly tame land and sea life, and laid-back locals make it a paradise that is truly worthy of its World Heritage status. Bhutan has also long been on my bucket list of destinations. I’m drawn by the fascinating culture, mountains and rivers on a grand scale and the fact that relatively few people get to visit the country.

WHLG: What would you never travel without?

Jessica: A camera. I love to have the beautiful places that I visit always fresh in my memory.

Steve: A notebook and pen to jot down lightbulb ideas, random thoughts, travel tips from locals, addresses, phone numbers etc. And my Swiss Army knife, which I use every day whether I’m travelling or not.


Steve Nomching and his old university paddling mates were a little rusty when they tackled the Tamur River in Nepal, but all survived to tell the tale. Photo courtesy of Peter Benyon

WHLG: What do you miss most about home when travelling?

Jessica: Friends.

Steve: Family.

WHLG: What’s the most adventurous trip you’ve ever taken?

Jessica: Rafting on the Blanco River in Ecuador.

Steve: Trekking into and then kayaking down the Tamur River in eastern Nepal with some friends from my old university canoe club. We stayed at guesthouses in small villages along the trek route and then paddled about 100 kilometres of fantastic whitewater, camping by the river each night. The reason the trip was adventurous was not so much because of the whitewater per se, which was admittedly challenging, but rather because none of us had paddled any serious whitewater for some time. Nevertheless, we all survived to exaggerate the tale.

WHLG: What is your funniest travel experience?

Jessica: Flying from LAX (the Los Angeles, California, airport) to Quito via San Jose, Costa Rica. The plane took a detour to somewhere in Mexico when a crew member got really sick. As a result, we arrived late in Costa Rica and the Ecuadorian passengers missed the connecting flight to Quito. Since nobody had visas for Costa Rica, we were escorted by a guard to a hotel where we weren’t allowed to leave the rooms. We were held prisoners in a five-star hotel.


Steve Nomchong finds that the most striking thing about the animals he encounters in the Galapagos Islands, like this masked booby, is how apparently uninterested they are in the presence of people. Photo courtesy of Steve Nomchong

Steve: Turning up at LAX at 8:30pm for what we thought was a 10:30pm flight back to Brisbane, Australia. Plenty of time, right? The problem was that we’d misinterpreted the departure time of 20:30 hours (8:30pm, not 10:30pm). We were a group of raft guides from Cairns, Australia, on our way back home after the Project RAFT festival in Costa Rica and had spent our stopover day being big kids at Disneyland. Due to our error, we arrived at the check-in desk just as our plane was taxiing down the runway ready for takeoff.

WHLG: What is your scariest travel experience?

Jessica: While travelling by bus in Colombia, we were assaulted by guerrillas. It was very fast, but I imagined being kidnapped and driven to the mountains. Luckily I didn’t lose my things, but the situation was really scary.

Steve: Dodging hippos on the Omo River in southeastern Ethiopia. The first time we tried to avoid a young male by rowing our rafts down the opposite bank, he swam across and cut us off. We worked out a strategy whereby one raft drew him over to the left bank so the other could zip down the right. By the time he turned and crossed back over to the right bank, that raft had made it past and provided the opportunity for the first raft to slip down the left. It worked every time.

WHLG: If you could go on holiday with anyone famous – living or dead – who would you take?

Jessica: John Malkovich, because he is my favourite actor. I met him when he came to film a movie in Ecuador and I guided his trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Steve: Charles Darwin. His observations of the flora and fauna both in the Galapagos Islands and in my native Australia were enormously influential in shaping our understanding of the way species adapt to fill ecological niches. His insights travelling anywhere in the natural world would be fascinating.

WHLG: Describe the best and worst accommodation you’ve ever stayed in.

Jessica: The best was spending time on a cruise in the Galapagos Islands and watching the beautiful stars at night. The sight was a unique Galapagos moment. The worst was on the coast of Venezuela at a small town’s only hotel. There were leaks in the roof of our room. When it rained during the night, it also rained inside our room. We woke up wet and with water up to our ankles.

Steve: I’ve spent many nights on the ground under the stars and some of those nights count as the best. The worst was a hotel in Jinka, a small town in Ethiopia, where I woke in the morning to an unusual smell. I found rat droppings on my pillow. It wasn’t so much the droppings as the thought that the rat had been practically on my face at some time during the night that gave me a bit of a shiver.

WHLG: Describe your earliest travel memory.

Jessica: Fishing on a Zodiac in Punta Borrero in the Galapagos Islands with some friends. I caught a delicious groove that we cooked for dinner when we came back to Puerto Ayora.

Steve: I recall fishing near Forster on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia, and getting so sunburned that the skin on my back blistered. Ouch! Our family would go up there to spend a couple of weeks of the summer holidays in a caravan near the beach. I loved it!


This picture was taken on Punta Estrada of Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos. As it's the site of the Charles Darwin Research Station and headquarters of the Galapagos National Park Service, marine iguanas resting in the mangroves are a common sight. The beach is ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Photo courtesy of Jessica Saltos

WHLG: Please briefly explain what you think local travel is.

Jessica: It’s the kind of travel that gives an idea of what we have and how lucky we are, living in a beautiful small country. It gives us the opportunity to learn about customs, regions, different people and also many new dishes.

Steve: The nature of local travel is that experiences are authentic. It entails going behind the facade and the stereotypes that are ordinarily presented to tourists. It can mean conversing, eating, travelling, playing sport, having a drink, celebrating a festival, or engaging in other day-to-day activities with local people. It aims to develop some understanding of the life of the people that live in a place by interacting directly with them, exploring a shared curiosity about one another and discovering what local individuals think, how they spend their weekends, what’s important to them, etc.

WHLG: In what ways do you see local travel benefiting the country in which you live?

Jessica: Local tourism supports the economy of our country. It allows for the development of new small businesses and provides the opportunity for many people to benefit from more income.

Steve: By seeking out experiences off the beaten track, your spending reaches areas and – more importantly – people that ordinarily miss out on the lion’s share of tourist dollars. Those same dollars can also have a doubly positive effect by providing some local people with a sustainable income to replace that which they might earn from less sustainable activities, for example commercial fishing within the Galapagos Islands National Park.

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WHL Group

WHL Group is the largest local-travel company in the world, a global network of companies that help travellers find unique ways to experience a destination through local tourism professionals. WHL Group companies empower local partners who have practice in experiential and mindful travel and a local's knack for identifying, explaining and sustaining the distinctive qualities of a place. Visit the WHL Group website.
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adventure travel, beaches, Ecuador, interview, islands, local knowledge, opinion, personal experience, South America, WHL Group newsletter, whl.travel,

One Response to “An Interview with Local Travel Pros in the Galapagos Islands”

  1. Retreat says:

    Jessica’s care for the local culture is praiseworhty

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