A Smart Traveler's Guide To Visiting The Galapagos Islands
One of the most importing things you can do to prepare for a trip to the Galapagos is print out a map. There are plenty online, and having one is eminently useful. As you plan for the trip, you will probably look for other maps with greater detail, including visitor sites, geographic features, plant cover… the more detail the better.
As for the actual planning, I’ve always taken care of my own arrangements. This has led me to wait in airports where no one but the person picking me up spoke English and other various and sundry adventures. I can get around, but the Galapagos Islands are pretty regimented. Each visitor’s site can only accommodate a certain number of people on a given day. And the park service coordinates ship’s itineraries, dictating who goes where and when, so it’s a big plus to have an established tour operator who knows the ropes so you are able to visit the best sites. It would be a shame to go that far and not see what you’d like.
Rather than critique the whole gambit of tours and options out there, I’ll just offer the choices and tell you why I went with the one I ultimately chose.
Peter, Chuck and Fred in Vilamil, preparing for their adventure.
A tour group, rather than an ad-hoc choice from column A and column B, offers you a seamless package. If you put together the hotel and all of the separate tour options, there is a chance that you might save some money, but not necessarily. And you will definitely miss something worth seeing or doing. It’s comforting to have one entity responsible for everything. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong, they will definitely make it up to you.
To Island Hop or Not
The next choice is whether to island hop or hop on a boat for the whole time. Again, island hopping may save you a small bit of money, but you’ll do your traveling during prime sightseeing hours and will need to pack and unpack daily. Then you’ll need to slog your gear to transportation and along to the next site. Most travelers advise that if you are susceptible to seasickness, you should go with a land-based approach. Unfortunately, this means you must take day trips from Santa Cruz to the other islands and do so in very small boats, which will only exacerbate seasickness. Some of the larger ships, on the other hand, are more stable in rough seas. But the smaller tour boats can also take advantage of small sheltered harbors. So, with that being pretty much a wash, other factors will likely decide that matter.
I found it really convenient to board a ship for the entire time and just be done with it. It also gave me the opportunity to get to know the crew of the boat and there’s a lot to be said for that. They really took care of me. They let me in on things only the locals know and most of the smaller boats are all locals. If you’re looking for something in particular – souvenir, sundries, supplies – ask and you shall receive. They even went out of their way to pick up a few things I didn’t find.
Large vs. Small Boats
Next on the list is selecting between a large or small boat. Small boats are more personal, really allowing you to get to know fellow passengers and crew. There is less of a wait going to and from landing sites, but there may be fewer amenities. Our boat didn’t have the exercise room or pool common on many of the larger vessels, but twice-daily hikes and snorkeling made up for that. I was on one of the smaller vessels, the 125-foot Tip Top IV. With a crew of eight, it carries 16 passengers in 10 air-conditioned double cabins. All accommodations had two twin beds, which can be combined to a double, and private bathroom with a shower. The interior is very comfortable, with a library/ conference/video room and a spacious dining room. The food was great. And it wasn’t just the main meals. Every time we came in from a jaunt, Curly (the chef) always had some local delicacy to sample. The exterior is the same with a myriad of options for viewing/lounging from comfortable, cushioned chaises topside in both sun and shade. Beer is available for a nominal fee and the perfect place to consume it is on the top deck. The crew dries their laundry up there and gladly shares their clotheslines with guests. Shore landings are made via two pangas (17-foot, inflatable zodiacs). There is also a desalination system onboard, so there is plenty of drinking water. The first day, we even received a Tip Top IV water bottle with a tortoise pictured on it (another good – and free! – souvenir). There are eight double kayaks and basic snorkel gear available, but I would recommend bringing your own snorkel gear and a good rash guard or neoprene shirt. The water can be a bit cool.
Where to Begin
I chose Galapagos Travel (galapagostravel.com), a small, but well-established operator offering really personal service. There was one person who I dealt with (Julie) who handled my concerns and idiosyncrasies, answering my somewhat mundane (read that stupid) questions like it was the first time she had ever heard them – and it was pretty clear that she had heard them again and again and again... They were cheaper than the big boats/tours, and in addition, included a several-day hotel stay on Santa Cruz, either at the beginning or the end of the trip. In my case, both, as I bundled two tours together and saved quite a bit of money.
Each tour was eight days and seven nights aboard the yacht, which allowed visiting all the significant outer islands and provided a maximum of wildlife observations and encounters. Each day we went ashore twice for hikes, typically just after dawn and just before dusk, providing the optimal setting for observing and photographing the unique wildlife at peak animal activity times. There were also generally two snorkeling trips each day. And most days, there was also time to do some exploring via kayak. Each evening, there was a short natural history talk and an outline for the next day’s activities. And, of course, for those inclined, more beer. Star viewing was amazing without ambient light sources outside of the luminous jellyfish. Trips generally range more than 13 days total, with eight days aboard the yacht, two days in Puerto Ayora, two days in Quito, plus travel days. I stayed for a few extra days in Quito to see the city and travel to the Otavalo market – both well worth it.
You’ll start at the airport, where you will be greeted by flocks of Darwin’s finches and it’s off via bus to the ferry, then to another bus to the highlands or your hotel. Guests ride in an air-conditioned bus with the luggage in a pickup to be claimed on-board or at the hotel, depending upon your next stop.
The two days on Santa Cruz were amazing. That island really requires several days to explore with the town of Puerto Ayora, The Charles Darwin Research Station, Gemelos craters, and several areas in the highlands (where you will see plenty of tortoises)–to say nothing of the great places to eat and shop. Galapagos Travel includes an amazing, appropriate Darwin quote from 1845 on their brochure, “It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality than they are hurried from it...”
I never felt hurried. We had plenty of time for almost everything. There seemed to be just the right amount of time for each site. And our guide, Martin, was stellar. I watched other guides slog along unenthusiastically, as if they were little more than babysitters, but Martin was always animated and excited. He even snorkeled with the Orcas–yes, in the water with them–and lived to tell the tale. That’s not to say that he didn’t keep us in line, away from the verboten areas, but he did it in a less intrusive way, never raising his voice or overtly expressing anger, like I noticed with some of the other guides–at least he did it that way most of the time.
When to go? It seems that any time is a good time to go to Galapagos. Peak season is mid-June to early September and mid-December to mid-January. December to May brings warmer air and water and there is a chance or a bit of rain every day. Warmer water is better for snorkeling, but there are fewer fish, yet more sea turtles (often nesting) and breeding land birds with their bizarre mating rituals. February to April sees a 20-minute or so rain shower every day or so–flowers blooming and seas calming so it’s less likely that you’ll get seasick. March to May is tortoise mating season. March to April brings sea lion pups at their most playful. June to November greets the Humboldt Current, bringing clouds with colder water and weather, but the water rich in nutrients so more fish and birds. I visited in January. We had very little rain other than the garua (a kind of misty rain) on one of the islands, and what we had was more refreshing than irritating.
Put a luggage tag (with your itinerary included – boat, hotels, etc…) on everything (especially small bags, like camera cases) and in a few pockets. This way, at least there is a chance you might get lost items back. Email yourself your itinerary, credit card numbers, phone numbers… just in case. You can get email almost anywhere. Bring a travel wallet, either a neck wallet or money belt, as any airports, but especially the one in Quito (and the city of Quito itself) can be filled with pickpockets and losing a camera or bag can really ruin your trip. Don’t panic, but keep a close eye on your stuff.
No shots are needed, but antibiotics for treating traveler’s diarrhea are helpful. I also brought Ibuprofin, Kaopectate, Pepto Bismol, allergy pills, seasickness pills (or wristbands), Neosporin, Cortisone, Chapstick, sunburn cream, and Chafe Eez (for those long hikes in hot humid weather). I didn’t need the sunburn cream or seasickness deterrents, but more than half the folks on my trip did.
I was there for three weeks, only bringing two long-sleeve shirts, a Hawaiian shirt, two t-shirts, a rashguard for snorkeling, two zip-off pants, a belt and three pairs of underwear. All were made of quick-drying synthetics and I brought a large plastic bag to wash them. Add to that three pairs of hiking socks, a wide brimmed hat (with a chin strap), raincoat/windbreaker, sweatshirt and travel vest. Bring a few clothespins with 20 feet of paracord and, in the equatorial sun, all or your wash will be dry in an hour or two. I saw people with two bags full of clothes. This packing plan will make your life much easier. Good low hiking shoes and flip flops fill the footwear bill. This might seem somewhat Spartan, but dress is very casual, and you know you are going to buy some t-shirts along with the inevitable souvenirs.
You will definitely be taking lots of pictures, so a waterproof camera (some friends had the GoPro Hero, which seemed to take great pictures), a digital SLR with all the trimmings (lenses, case, batteries, charger, memory cards), a dry bag (there may be some rain), extension cord (some outlets just aren’t convenient), surge protector, and portable hard drive (1TB is the size of a pack of cards and I took several thousand pictures). A portable computer (don’t forget charger and accessories) is handy for managing your pictures, contacting home (although internet is erratic in Galapagos), flash drive (for transferring friends pictures), headset (as long as you have a computer, put some music and movies on it), and your phone (it’s an alarm clock too). Pocket and full-size notebooks (with pens, pencils, post-it notes) allow you to chronicle your trip – and you really will want to do this! A field guide/guide book and a book or two to read (you can always leave them there) are handy.
Miscellaneous gear should include sunglasses with a lanyard (an extra one for your eyeglasses if needed), as you will be climbing in and out of boats, making somewhat rough beach landings, climbing, jumping and playing; extra reading glasses; binoculars; a compass and a whistle, even though they weren’t really needed here, as the guide stays with the group the entire time; sunscreen; and a small repair kit, which would include click ties, 10-meter nylon paracord, baggie ties, rubber bands, sewing kit, leatherman tool, duct tape and zip ties (to secure your luggage on the flight to the Galapagos – and lots of other uses). A few ziplock bags are also very handy (in addition to the large one for washing clothes). And small gifts for the crew go a very long way. I brought inexpensive LED hat clip lights that were greatly appreciated.
For the plane, consider taking a neck pillow and ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones, along with a few snacks and a water bottle. When you get to the airport, pick up a bottle or two of your favorite beverage. I got Barcelo Imperial rum. The selection is larger and cheaper in the duty-free store than in the Galapagos. Most boats provide soft drinks but not beer or alcohol.
There are a few handcrafts still made in the Galapagos and in Ecuador in general– wood carvings, paintings (there’s a great place, a block away to the right, as you come out of Quito’s La Basilica, which you will want to visit to see the gargoyles representing native animals – tortoises, iguanas, etc.), tagua carvings (you can get them singly or in chess sets in both Quito and Otavalo), alpaca sweaters, woven wall hangings and my favorite – small, woven turtles for the kids. The relatively inexpensive field guides found in Quito are rare and expensive in the States, so they make great keepsakes.
Skipping the lurid details of flight delays and gate changes, I strongly suggest that your carryon have wheels so as to ensure that you can easily transport items not readily replaceable with you as well as a change of clothes. Airlines do lose luggage. And having a tour group that meets you at the airport and makes all of your arrangements is worth its weight in gold. Although I’ve always handled my own arrangements, I would have been lost there. If your trip takes you through Quito, be prepared for a semi-sleepless night and a bit of altitude sickness. I generally travel by myself, but in this case, having a group leave together with a guide from the hotel was refreshing and much more secure. There is a fair amount of petty crime in Quito, so watch your bags and pockets, but again, having an experienced guide is a godsend.