Ten Things to Ponder Before Visiting Galápagos

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(Cecilia Alvear and friend–Galápagos 2012)

When people meet me and find out I was born in Galápagos, many want to pick my brain about going there. It’s on everyone’s bucket list these days–a lifetime dream for many. I first played tour director in 1996 when I took a group of 15 friends there aboard a boat we chartered. All of us were delighted with the experience. While I’m not in the business of promoting tourism, something I think should be held in check in an environmentally sensitive area, I’ll give you ten helpful hints:

1. CONSIDER THE COST Going to Galápagos can be expensive. Week-long cruises can run around $5,000. That usually doesn’t include the cost of airfare from your home country to and from the mainland of Ecuador, where Galápagos tours begin and end. When you get to Galápagos, there’s a $100 fee to enter the National Park, a fee that tour operators often pay. But don’t count on that.

You can opt for something I call “Galápagos Lite:” flying to either Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal Island, staying at onshore hotels and taking day trips to the unpopulated islands. For this, you have to have a sense of adventure and a willingness to endure bumpy ocean trips on small boats. You’ll save a bit of money but won’t get the full Galápagos experience. Another caveat: all tourism leaves a footprint. The growing tourist population staying on land taxes the shaky water and sewer infrastructure of the populated islands.

2. READ UP ON THE PLACE You’ll get so much more out of your visit if you study about the islands, their individual characteristics and the unique animals that populate the archipelago. Find out about how Darwin studied the differences in the finches from island to island as he began to piece together his theory of evolution. We’ve posted a bibliography of “Recommended Books” here on Galápagos Digital to help you learn more.

3.REMEMBER THE RULES This is not a Disney theme park. It’s a World Heritage Site that needs plenty of tender loving care. You’ll have to travel the National Park lands with a guide who will insist that you stay on the marked paths and trails. Don’t touch or try to feed the animals. Don’t smoke in the park and do pick up all your trash. Responsible tour operators will ask you to wash your shoes as you move from island to island to avoid contaminating the flora and fauna.

4. OH, THE HUMANITY! Galápagos gets more than 150,000 visitors each year. The peak travel seasons are June-September and December-January because everyone wants to go when the kids are out of school. So don’t be surprised if your shot of that rare marine iguana is populated by fourteen fellow tourists playing paparazzi. Consider going in the off season. The fall months bring dry weather to Galápagos, if sunshine really matters to you. Some divers like the rainy season from December to May because the seas are calmer.

5. IT’S A WORKOUT You should be prepared to do a fair amount of hiking on rocky, hilly trails. Landings on unpopulated islands are usually via rubber dinghy and you need to be able to scramble into and out of them as you travel. There are “dry landings” where the dinghy pulls up onto the sandy beaches and “wet landings” where you have to wade through shallow ocean waters. You can always opt out of the tougher landings and read a good book. If you have physical limitations, you should discuss that thoroughly with your tour operator. Some companies offer special tours for people with disabilities.

6. MURPHY’S LAW APPLIES Remember that old chestnut that says: “If anything can go wrong, it will?” In my native land, Ecuador, things don’t always operate with speed and efficiency. The tour that’s supposed to begin at 8:30a.m. sometimes gets underway an hour or so later. Itineraries may change at the last minute. The power may go off and the hot water may not be so hot at times.

While U.S. dollars are now the official currency of Ecuador and Americans don’t have to do any currency conversions, shops in Galápagos often don’t have small bills and many don’t accept plastic.. When I visit, I normally carry at least $100 in ones. It’s good to adopt a Zen attitude about all this.

7. WWW-WHAZZUP? There’ll be a bit of a break from email, Facebook and Twitter for most people. Internet connectivity is hard to come by in the unpopulated parts of the Galápagos. There are wi-fi connections at hotels, restaurants and Internet cafés on the populated islands but bandwidth is limited. Your smartphone will work some of the time if you’re willing to foot the bill for international roaming or use an unlocked phone with a local SIM card. You can also just unplug completely and enjoy the solitude.

8. MAKE TIME FOR ECUADOR Try to spend a few days on the Ecuadorian mainland. The capital, Quito, has a wonderful old Spanish colonial quarter, beautifully restored, with ornate churches and grand plazas. Ride the teleférico–the aerial tramway–to get a spectacular view of the city. Go to the equator line and get your picture taken with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and another in the Southern Hemisphere. Visit the native markets in Otavalo, a picturesque city at the foot of the Andes. Go to the cloud forest at Mindo and marvel at the exotic birds and flowers. Hey, you’re this far away from home, live it up.

9. CONSIDER GIVING BACK TO GALÁPAGOS If you’ve enjoyed your time on the islands, you might want to think about donating to one of the organizations that’s trying to preserve the Galápagos for future generations. End of sermon.

10.AFTER ALL IS SAID AND DONE, IT’S STILL WONDERFUL! I’ll never forget how the dolphins escorted our boat into my birthplace, San Cristóbal, when we visited there in 1996. It was as if they were saying, “Welcome Home!” Also unforgettable was the sight of my nephews frolicking in the water with a young sea lion, or the climb over mounds of lava that looked like giant coils of black rope. There were evenings when we would sit on the deck of the boat and marvel at the blazing equatorial sunsets. We forgot all about deadlines, projects, to-do lists and just took in the amazing beauty of the place.