One “bucket-list” dream for many people is a trip to the Galapagos Islands. But, because it isn’t cheap, this usually means that it’s a once in a lifetime experience for those who decide to travel there. Therefore, it’s best to plan every detail before the journey to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
Lots of people have lots of tips for organizing your adventure in the “enchanted islands,” but here’s a list of the 10 basic aspects that will help you to better plan your travel and enjoy your stay.
1.- Up, up and away: Planning your flight
All flights to the Galapagos Islands leave from mainland Ecuador, from either Quito or Guayaquil. There are no direct international flights to the archipelago, so it’s important that you do a little research or ask your tour operator about the airlines that travel to Ecuador. You will also need to take into account that in the archipelago there are only two major airports: one on San Cristobal Island and the other on Baltra Island.
If you plan to stay a few days in the islands, it’s advisable to land on Baltra Island, as it’s just across from Santa Cruz, which is the busiest and most central island. The distance from Santa Cruz to the other inhabited islands (San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana) is approximately four hours. However, if you land on easternmost San Cristobal Island and want to visit Isabela and/or Floreana islands, you will have to travel through Santa Cruz anyway, thus increasing your travel time.
Another good option is to land at the airport on San Cristobal Island and finally leave the islands from Baltra (or vice versa).
The airlines that travel to the Galapagos Islands are TAME, LAN and Aerogal (Avianca), which have daily flights from Quito and Guayaquil. It takes about a half an hour to fly from Quito to Guayaquil, and about an hour and a half from there to the islands.
Dress for success: Types of clothes to pack
To travel to the Galapagos, you should note that airlines only allow one piece checked-in luggage of up to 20 kg (44 lbs.) and carry-on luggage of up to 8 kg. (17 lbs.). However, remember that while in the Galapagos, you’ll have to get around mainly on ships, which can be a big hassle if you’re lugging around a heavy suitcase.
Therefore, you should try to take lightweight clothing on your trip. Comfortable shorts and shirts, and short sleeve garments are ideal for excursions and tours of the islands. It’s very important not to forget a hat and a pair of sunglasses, with sunscreen completing your protective gear. Remember, you will be on the equator and directly under the sun.
On some cruises, you may want to bring clothes that are a little more formal — but also light and cool — for the afternoon or dinner time. But that is something that is strictly up to you, because there are no dress codes on the various ships.
Also, don’t forget that to get to the Galapagos Islands, you will have to go through Quito or Guayaquil. For the first city you will need some warmer clothes, possibly a light jacket or a raincoat, which will also come in handy for the islands’ afternoon and evening winds.
Footwear and swimwear
“Teva-style” sandals with straps are recommended for various activities during your trip in the islands. This type of footwear is perfect for volcanic rock and land excursions, as well as for “wet landings,” etc. You can also wear tennis shoes, if you want to switch up.
You will also need one or two bathing suits (depending on the number of days of your trip). If you have your own snorkel gear and prefer to use it, that’s fine. But if not, you can always rent this in the islands if it is not supplied by your ship. You can also buy or rent gear in Quito.
Say “cheese”: Your camera and accessories
The Galapagos Islands are ideal for getting close to — and in some cases interact with — unique wildlife species that can only be seen here. With volcanic landscapes, the vastness of the crystal clear sea, and sunsets from the deck of his ship – everything will present unique opportunities for taking outstanding photos. So don’t forget to carry a camera (better if it’s has a wide-angle lens) and/or a video camera that you already know how to operate. Likewise, don’t forget the respective recharging cables.
An apple a day: Medicine to bring
If you take any specific medication, you had better bring it with you because it is sometimes difficult to find special medications in the islands. Otherwise, all boats carry basic first aid supplies and equipment.
Bureaucratic heads up: Documents you’ll need
If you are a foreigner, you should always carry your passport or at least a photocopy of it. Nationals of the countries of the Andean Community (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia) are allowed to only carry their identity cards. To enter the islands you must acquire an immigration control card ($20) at the airport in Quito or Guayaquil. Please hang onto this card during your entire trip, as you will have to present it when you leave. Also, when entering the islands, you must pay the Galapagos National Park admissions fee in cash ($100 for adults, $50 for children under 12).
3.- When to make your move
The Galapagos Islands are characterized by pleasant weather all year round. However, there are slight variations to be taken into account. For example, from June to December is a period known as the “dry season.” This condition reaches as far as the northern Galapagos Islands, driven by southerly winds of the cold Humboldt Current and its cool waters. Nonetheless, the afternoons are sunny during this period, though a layer of fog can be seen across the islands. Also during this time, mammals and land birds are very active, and visitors can observe the courtship rituals of many species.
The period between December and May is known as the “warm season,” as the climate becomes more tropical and the sea’s temperature is warmer, which is nice for those who like swimming or diving. However, this period is also characterized by more rainfall.
Despite the relatively stable climate, there are some things to consider in choosing when to travel. The months of April and May as well as September and October are considered “low season” by most tour operators. In these months there are less tourists, therefore you can get better prices – though you will still need to make your reservation well in advance.
4.- Getting a good night’s sleep: Hotels and cruises
The Galapagos Islands have a wide variety of accommodations, from budget hostels to luxury hotels. Most accommodations provide free breakfasts, which are usually varied. As the demand for accommodations in the inhabited islands is high, try looking ahead of time for a place to stay and be sure to reserve a room. You can also opt for a cruise, which is an excellent option for visiting several islands in a short time and also not having to worry about room reservations or meals – you can simply enjoy the islands.
5.- Getting around between islands
When in the Galapagos, the best way to travel between the inhabited islands is by small boats (known as “fibras”), which head out every day. Most boats leave at dawn when the sea is calmer.
When traveling on these boats, try taking a seasickness pill. Since the movement of the ocean can be strong, this can be physically upsetting if you’re not used to spending several hours at sea.
If you want to avoid a long boat trip (it usually takes four hours to travel between islands), you can go by plane. The company that provides this service in the Galapagos Islands is EMETEBE.
You also have the option of taking a cruise, which will even take you to those islands seldom visited by tourists.
6.- Dinner time!
The islands have a host of restaurants, especially ones serving coastal cuisine and fast food. Most hotels have restaurants or dining rooms for guests. Also, you may find shops where you can buy a variety of food. Note that the food in the Galapagos Islands is a bit more expensive than on the mainland, but the prices don’t increase much. If you go on an organized excursion lasting several hours, you will be provided with a box lunch, which is usually a light and served cold.
If you go an excursion on your own, you should bring something light to eat – but don’ forget to also bring a small garbage bag.
7.- The almighty dollar
The official currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar, although you can exchange other currency in airports and on the islands. In any case, you should also bring some dollars with you in case you need to make some urgent purchase.
Only San Cristobal and Santa Cruz islands have banks and ATMs. So, if you visit Floreana or Isabela, you’ll need to carry cash. While credit cards are accepted in most places, try to bring cash to avoid any inconveniences. Of this cash, carry denominations of no more than $20 dollar bills, because larger banknotes are not accepted in some places.
8.- Guides and diving
Most tours and excursions in the Galapagos cannot be undertaken without the company of a certified naturalist guide, which is especially important given that 97% of the land area of the archipelago is part of the Galapagos National Park. In fact, this is the institution that certifies guides and coordinates visits with operators. For each visit, there are marked trails that must be respected by visitors, but this doesn’t prevent tourists from witnessing many species of wildlife from close up, and in some cases even interacting with them. Iguanas, herons, Giant tortoises, all kinds of birds, sea lions, and lava lizards … are some of these creatures.
As many know, the Galapagos Islands are considered a paradise for divers. Sea lions, sharks, turtles, mantas, rays, reef fish, seals, colorful coral and all kinds of marine life can be seen under the sunlit waters of the islands. It is important, however, that activities be conducted as safely as possible. Any tour operator that offers diving as part of its services must be authorized by the Galapagos National Park. It is important that you consult your tour operator to find out if they have their permission to perform this activity.