The Galapagos is well-known for its incredible diversity of plant and animal species, which famously prompted Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution, but it's not exactly branded as a destination for outstanding food. That, however, is beginning to change.
San Cristobal, the easternmost island of the Galapagos archipelago, is now home to a hidden organic restaurant and farm. Located 20 minutes by car from the main port and accessible via taxi (or, if you're feeling ambitious, by bike) the open-air Otoy Restaurant is equipped with a full bar and can accommodate up to 100 people. Sitting on 54 acres of farmland, it's a neatly manicured destination with a spectacular ocean view, tucked into the highlands of the island.
Otoy is a must-visit for those looking for a great meal on the Galapagos because, generally speaking, food on the islands isn't particularly inspiring. Galapagos, after all, is one of the most protected areas in the world, and only a small percentage of the land is dedicated to agriculture.
Most of the food is shipped in from the mainland. Imported produce costs one quarter as much as local crops; it's cheaper to import food than to produce it and selections are extremely limited. Restaurant food, on a broad level, is quite disappointing.
Otoy is the exception, with 90 percent of its produce grown in-house.
Before it was converted into the organic farm and restaurant it is today, the land used to exclusively grow otoy (also known as xanthosoma or malanga). The restaurant's namesake is a hearty, potato-like plant whose leaves are used to feed Galapagos' famous giant tortoises. The rhizome itself can be transformed into a lovely mash flavored with basil.
Layered in with the crops of otoy were intense growths of blackberry—a wildly invasive plant considered by many conservationists as the worst weed affecting the islands. The blackberry plant, Rubus niveus, was introduced in 1968 and can grow up to three meters tall. It completely takes over the landscape and chokes out native species of trees.
"It took six months to cut down all the invasive species," 25-year-old Nico Kayser says. "We don't use any pesticides so that's why it took so long. You just got to fight with nature." The Kayser family, who are Ecuadorian-Americans by way of Florida, are the owners of property and bought it up three years ago. The patriarch of the family, Arturo Kayser, was one of the first surfers in Ecuador and had always loved Galapagos for its waves.
"When I came back to the Galapagos for the first time in many years, I saw a lot of construction that wasn't ecologically minded," Arturo says. He used to work in the seafood import business and consulted with Galapagos fishermen on sustainable fishing practices.
"What I saw infuriated me and at that moment, I knew I was going to come back here and build something the right way," he says.
Arturo moved back to Ecuador from Florida, bought up the land and found himself in farming and the hospitality industry. Nico moved to the Galapagos shortly afterward and became the de facto restaurant and farm manager.
Six months and years of planting later, the blackberry is nearly gone, though remnants of it are still evident on the farm. Nico admits that it's a never-ending battle.
And while otoy is still a mainstay on the property, there's now a diverse fruit and vegetable farm that includes chili, tomatoes, bananas, carrots, onions, corn, coffee, plantains, oranges, papaya, and passion fruit, among others. There's also giant bamboo forest, the stalks of which are sold for $15 apiece for construction projects. The farm isn't certified organic, but Nico insists that they abide by organic practices, which means no pesticides or additives to the soil.
"I learned a lot about the moon cycles and how to plant things from the local farmers here," he says. He notes that the best time to sow a seed is during a full moon, when soil productivity is at an all-time high.
"The soil is very nutritious because of the volcanic rock minerals," he says.
On the farm, productivity exceeds demand. Half of the produce grown there goes to the restaurant, while the rest is sold to local vendors. The farm's water is derived from local waterfalls, and three full-time farmers live on the land and tend to it daily.
At Otoy Restaurant, all the juices and coffee come from the farm, too. My lunch is beef with vegetables and mashed otoy—steak and potatoes, essentially. The farm doesn't raise or slaughter any protein itself (the chickens on the land are just for show), but the fish and beef is sourced locally. The menu is a standard mix of Ecuadorian and international pairings: proteins with vegetables, pasta, salads, and ceviches. The entire restaurant is designed with a cosmopolitan audience in mind; after all, it mainly serves tour groups. The Kaysers plan to hire a chef whose job will be to incorporate native Galapagos plants into the menu.
The family is also planning an eco-lodge called Cerro Verde just a couple miles away from the restaurant, due to open in 2018. And in a couple of months, the farm will start taking in giant tortoises from the neighboring nursery and rehabilitating them on their property.
The goal is for the property to be a one-stop shop for Galapagos tourists: responsibly produced fresh food, a view of the ocean, and giant tortoises for photo ops.
"We have the otoy already for them," Nico says, referring to the tortoises, not the tourists. "It just makes sense."