Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands are known for unique wildlife: boisterous sea lions, giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas among them. But in the highlands of San Cristóbal, add a whimsical treehouse to the list of fascinating sights.
“When [my father José Luis Cornejo Ubillus] saw this tree — this huge tree — he fell in love,” tour guide and ESL teacher José Luis Cornejo Ortiz tells The Post. “Immediately it came to his mind to build a treehouse, because that’s pretty much the dream of every child, of every person — to have your own treehouse.”
The treehouse sits atop of a 200-plus-year-old, 27-foot-wide Kapok tree, on property owned by the father, son and their family. The tree is so massive that it is believed to be the widest in all of Ecuador.
The tree caught Cornejo Ubillus’ eye when he first arrived on the island. In the 1980s, he arrived from capital Quito and had a vision.
“Having the beach, the ocean, close by every day, it gets a bit — not boring — but you look for something different, right? So going to the highlands and having a place to spend the weekend was [my father’s] idea — and having this tree and with the idea of the treehouse sounded like a perfect plan,” says Cornejo Ortiz, 35.
After buying the land that the tree was on, Cornejo Ubillus and an engineer friend built the treehouse, equipped with a bridge leading to the entrance, two beds, a little working kitchen, fully functioning bathrooms, a shower and a balcony. There’s even electricity. Construction took just four months.
The family lived by the water but used the treehouse as a weekend retreat, relatives and close friends only. But in 2008, Cornejo Ubillus turned the private haven into the island’s first man-made hot spot for tourists.
Thanks to the patriarch, now 60, the giant tree is now outfitted with all kinds of activities, like a zip line, where visitors whiz from tree to tree, and a sturdy rope, where people of all ages swing away. Guests, who pay just $2 to enter, can also rappel down the tree. It’s also possible to stay overnight in the treehouse — dubbed Casa Del Ceiba after the tree’s species, ceiba pentandra — upon request.
The land on which the tree sits, though, is part of a grim chapter in the island’s history.
According to Cornejo Ortiz, in the early 19 century, a businessman named Manuel J. Cobos decided to start a colony called El Progreso, now the name of town where the tree is planted. He produced sugar, leather, oranges, coffee and oil from animals and exported them to the Ecuadorian mainland.
Cobos was the first person to lay a modern road on the island, with a rail system to take all of his products from the highlands to the pier, where they could be loaded onto boats. He also made currency out of leather. But his workers were treated like slaves. Those who didn’t complete their jobs to his satisfaction were lashed and lynched on the tree.
“On one hand, he was a great businessman, but on the other hand, the system was very cruel,” says Cornejo Ortiz, adding that there are rumors it is haunted. “Neighbors around that tree do mention that once and a while they hear the sound of chains, the sounds of people yelling, and crying and stuff like that. … To us— to my family, to our beliefs — we have never, ever heard anything. But neighbors around kind of like to talk about that.”
Most of the reaction has been positive.
“When I take visitors as a guide, It’s really cool to see how many people say, ‘Wow I wish I had a treehouse when I was a little kid,’ or ‘I wish your father was my father,’” says Cornejo Ortiz. “And they don’t want to leave the place and they want to keep playing.”
The treehouse property itself is 90 percent made of upcycled materials and filled with unique items Cornejo Ubillus and his wife found around the island. For example, lifeboats from cargo ships sometimes wash ashore. Now, one sits in a nearby tree. Wind chimes made from beer bottles make for a cheery soundtrack.
“Once a month my parents go to this recycling plant and find things to use as lamps, to use as signs to write things on, and so on,” says Cornejo Ortiz.
Back when the treehouse was relatively new, the family decided to open a tiny restaurant with unusual ice cream flavors and other snacks, so they asked bars around the island to donate their empty bottles. From 22,000 green vessels, they created the walls of the dining area.
“It’s a visitor site, but [it’s also a place] to leave a message to people — to local people, too, about recycling — and about being aware of how much trash we are using,” says Cornejo Ortiz.
The family believes the tree is good luck because they and others enjoy it today. “For some people, it’s been good. For other people, it’s not been very good,” Cornejo Ortiz says. “It’s this majestic tree that has seen everything since humans arrived on the island.”
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