Travel Smart – Galapagos Islands

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The Galapagos Islands straddle the equator 600 miles west of Ecuador. Discovered in 1535 by a Spanish Bishop and made famous by Darwin’s visit in 1835 and subsequent publication of The Origin of Species, the islands comprise an archipelago of 19 extraordinary islands. Each island is unique and offers a stunning variety of wildlife and scenic vistas. Well acclimated to visitors, the wildlife is always out and waiting for you. Watch out for nesting birds as you hike along the many trails, and then swim with the acrobatic sea lions as they dance through the clear waters. Tortoises roam the highlands, while marine iguanas feed on the green algae near shore. The Galapagos Islands are an exceptional year round destination and one that everyone should visit in their lifetime.

The Galapagos are also wonderful family destination. What better classroom than the “Enchanted Isles”, where young people can explore and learn in a safe and exciting environment. Some operators offer dedicated family departures while others offer discounts for people under 18.

It is possible to visit the Galapagos on your own, but traveling with a guide can enrich your experience immeasurably. Ferries link several of the islands together, but to visit most of the outer islands, you must be on a cruise ship of some sort. Keep in mind that, as in most places, you get what you pay for.

Some expeditions offer the option of camping on shore for a night in a specially designed tented camp. Others offer pre or post extensions visiting Macchu Pichu in Peru. This is a great combination and definitely something to consider if the timings work for you.

Some ideas to consider when choosing a Galapagos Cruise:

1. Boats. From Sail boats, to motor yachts, to luxury ships, the Galapagos has them all. They come in different sizes and price ranges, with large ships (100 passengers) offering all sorts of extra amenities, and smaller ones, a more intimate setting. While sailboats have a romantic charm to them, the cabins are usually a bit smaller, the deck space a bit more limited, and because of the distances, they usually only sail once or twice on a cruise. Motor yachts usually offer a more stable ride than sail boats, though in the Galapagos, this isn’t usually a major issue. That said, there is nothing like the feel of the wind through your hair as you silently glide through the rich waters of these enchanted isles.

2. Itinerary. In an attempt to limit the number of visitors at each landing, every ship has a fixed itinerary, so you must find the best combination of ship and itinerary that works for you. If all of the control seems a bit much, consider that by limiting the number of people that visit each landing, each day, and ensuring that they have a trained guide with them when they visit, the islands and wildlife are still thriving today despite an increasing number of visitor each year. Visiting the Galapagos today, is not far from what it was twenty years ago, and that is due in large part to the local efforts to maintain the pristine environment.

3. Guides. The quality of the guide is paramount to your experience, so it is important to ensure you have the best guides available. That said, there is a very good training program for Galapagos Guides, and so most guides are top notch. Each ship will have guides on board that will split the group into smaller groups. Even on larger ships, you will still be in a small group, thereby maintaining the intimacy of your adventure.

4. What will you see? Wildlife, and lots of it. Each island boasts a variety of wildlife and some that can only be found on specific islands. If you are visiting the Galapagos to see specific birds or animals, make sure that the ship you are on visits the islands you need to go to in order to find what you are looking for. Most wildlife is out and about and not afraid of humans. This is one of the things that makes a trip to the Galapagos so special, but keep in mind that the wildlife is still ‘wild’, and it’s never a good idea to approach wildlife. In some cases, it’s possible to sit near an animal and then let them approach you. The difference is that the animal gets to make the decision whether to approach or not. If it’s not comfortable, then it can move away, but if you are calm and quiet, sometimes wonderful things can happen.

5. What is a trip like? Generally, for the week that you are there, you will sail in a circle around the archipelago and visit different islands each day. You will usually venture out in the early morning for a walk followed by some time snorkeling. Then it’s back to the ship for lunch and a siesta. In the afternoon, you will likely visit another landing site for some snorkeling followed by a nature hike. This is all done to take advantage of the cooler hours of the day. Most itineraries visit the Charles Darwin Research Station which is a great place to see the tortoises from each island, and visit an actual town in the Galapagos.

6. What should I bring? In some areas the water can be cool, so if the ship you are on does not provide them, you might consider bringing a thin wetsuit . Flip flops or ‘water shoes’ are great for the beaches, but it’s better to have a full shoe for the hikes since you may walk over lava which can be sharp in some areas. Bring a hat for the sun, a light sweater for the evenings on the boat and in the mountains before and after your trip. Sunscreen is a must for everyone. Definitely bring a camera and if you are serious about your photography and ready to carry it, don’t forget your tripod. Binoculars are definitely a good idea too.

Do some research before you go to find the combination of boat, itinerary, and cost that works best for you. With all of the available options, you should be able to find something that suits you. This is a destination that everyone should visit in their lifetime, so get moving!