Israeli Adi Aidinger welcomes Jewish travelers to her remote hotel in this wildlife wonderland
January 1, 2022
PUERTO AYORA, Ecuador – When Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands on his historic voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1835, he marveled at the diversity and abundance of wildlife he found in this archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of mainland South America.
Darwin observed everything from giant tortoises and iguanas to numerous species of birds found nowhere else in the world. His journey here led to the landmark book “Origin of the Species,” which put forth the theory of natural selection, revolutionizing the field of science.
Nearly 200 years after Darwin’s visit, I also had the opportunity to gaze at some of the Galapagos’ magnificent creatures – on land, in the sea and the skies above – while on a one-week cruise aboard the Ecoventura Origin, a 20-passenger yacht.
As I photographed playful sea lions, blue-footed boobies and pink flamingoes, I wondered about the diversity of a different type of species found in the Galapagos – human beings.
Might this remote cluster of islands with less than 30,000 inhabitants be home to any Jews?
Turns out, there is Jewish life on the Galapagos. But it’s not exactly abundant.
Meet Adi Aidinger, believed to be the only Jew living in the Galapagos.
I found out about Adi on our final day of the cruise. The Origin was anchored in the harbor of Puerto Ayora, the largest “city” in the Galapagos with a population of around 12,000, located only 50 miles south of the equator.
Our stop in Puerto Ayora marked the first time since the cruise began a week earlier that we actually set foot on pavement. The rest of the week had been spent on mostly uninhabited islands hiking, snorkeling, kayaking and consuming way too much food prepared by the boat’s onboard chefs.
Ivan Lopez, one of the naturalists on the Origin, had recently visited Israel and told me he had Jewish relatives through marriage. I asked him if there were any Jews living on the islands; he said that he heard there was a grand total of one — the owner of the Hotel Solymar on Santa Cruz Island.
After spending the morning visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora where Galapagos tortoises are bred and studied, my wife and I set off to find the Hotel Solymar. Ivan told us the hotel was on the main drag – fittingly called Charles Darwin Avenue – two blocks past the fish market.
Sure enough, at a prime beachfront location in the heart of downtown Puerto Ayora, we found the Hotel Solymar (Spanish for “sun and sea”). As we entered the lobby, I noticed a huge sea lion camped out on the floor. Apparently, the animal is such a permanent fixture in the hotel that it’s been given a name – “Wendy” – by the hotel staff.
Adi was out-of-town during our visit, but the hotel receptionist was kind enough to call her. So, during an illuminating phone call in the lobby of the Hotel Solymar, I learned how Adi came to live in the Galapagos and what life was like as the only known Jew on the islands.
Adi was born and raised in Haifa, Israel. She and her family were on a cruise in 2004 when she met an Ecuadoran named Renato Perez. The two fell in love and decided to build a life for themselves in Puerto Ayora, where Renato’s family owned the Hotel Solymar.
“In the beginning, everything was magical,” Adi recalls. “I saw the fact that I lived in the Galapagos as a unique adventure. Very quickly I had my group of friends who were foreigners like me, and I fell in love with the quiet and nature-filled life of the islands.”
During the first six years of their marriage, the couple lived full-time in Puerto Ayora while focusing on a massive construction project. The old Hotel Solymar was torn down and a new building – with 17 rooms – opened for business in late 2006. Five years later, a second four-story “tower” with 14 additional rooms and a space for large events opened across the street.
Now with three children, Adi and Renato go back and forth between Puerto Ayora and Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, about a 90-minute flight from the Galapagos.
“It’s really hard, but really beautiful,” she told me about being a Jew in this remote archipelago governed by Ecuador.
Challenging, she said, because there are usually no other Jews with whom to pray and celebrate Jewish holidays.
“Of course, it was difficult on special dates like Rosh Hashana and Pesach,” she said. “On those dates, I always went to Guayaquil to celebrate with the Jewish community or to Israel to celebrate with my family.”
But at the same time, Adi said she’s felt uplifted by the interest and warmth of other residents of the islands, who continually express curiosity—and respect – for Judaism.
“Everybody is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish,” she said when I asked if she experienced any anti-Semitism here.
Adi says she didn’t grow up particularly observant in Israel. But once she found herself living in the Galapagos with no other Jews around – aside from occasional tourists — her Jewish background became much more important.
“Living outside of Israel, you always look for a connection to your roots,” she said.
Adi began to light Shabbat candles and put up Chanukah decorations in the Hotel Solymar. Occasionally, she serves Shabbat dinner to Jewish guests.
The hotel has become the one place in the Galapagos where travelers can take a break from nature hikes, birdwatching, snorkeling and diving, and just hanging out in a jacuzzi next to a sea lion named Wendy — while experiencing at least a small flicker of Jewish life.
“When we have Israeli groups or Jewish groups, I’m the happiest person,” Adi said. “It’s an honor for me to give them a place that they feel comfortable.”
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© 2022 Dan Fellner