Written by Tom Thrun.
Galapagos—if it has not been on your travel bucket list, I am sure that you have been intrigued. It has been at the top of my wish list for my entire travel career and we finally made it happen. I must say that it exceeded all expectations. We sometimes enjoy trips that involve a certain amount of eco-tourism and the Galapagos Islands are unlike any other place on Earth. With my grandfather and uncle both being biology professors, I grew up with some appreciation and understanding of this unique destination. But like everything in travel, you have to see it to believe it.
There are several different ways to experience the Galapagos, but cruising is the most efficient way to take full advantage of the many different islands. From small personal yachts to larger expedition ships, there is something for every taste and budget. After extensive research, we decided on Celebrity Cruises 7-day outer loop itinerary on the 100-passenger Xpedition.
It is surreal sailing and visiting the largely uninhabited islands. No people, no buildings, no electricity, not a trace of litter, just unspoiled nature. Of the 21 total islands, five are inhabited. 95% of the islands are designated National Park. There really is no best time to visit the Galapagos, just different conditions. The warm rainy season is from January to June, and the cool dry season is from July to December. During our trip in November, the water temperature was cool, wetsuits were required for diving excursions, and a lot of wildlife babies being born.
Prior to our Galapagos adventure, we spent a few days in Quito—this sprawling capital of Ecuador is stunningly beautiful, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. We visited the Virgin of the Apocalypse statue overlooking the city, as well as the equator just outside of town.
From Quito, we took the 2 hour flight to Baltra Island, the beginning of our cruise. From the airport, you are transferred to the dock where you board a zodiac and then are taken to the ship.
All transfers between land and ship are done via Zodiacs (pangas). On the islands, there are wet and dry landings depending on conditions. Wet landings consist of getting off the Zodiac into the water and walking to the beach. On dry landings, you step directly onto the shore or lava fields. Once on land, you will usually embark on a hike of some kind, so proper shoes are essential.
On every stop we were broken up into smaller groups of 16 and escorted by an expert naturalist on each excursion. All of the guides were knowledgeable and extremely proud to be connected to this unique place.
Our first stop was Española Island. Here we had our first beach snorkel and encounters with the ever-curious Galapagos sea lions.
They own the place and just might take a nap on your backpack.
Here we hiked to Punta Suarez and saw endangered Galapagos albatross, blue-footed and nazca boobies soaring over the cliffs. We even had an up close and personal experience with an albatross chick.
The next island we visited was Floreana, one of the four islands visited by Darwin on the HMS Beagle in the 19th century. Floreana was the first capital of the archipelago. The island is also home to the famous Post Office Bay. This site features the old barrel that has been used for mail delivery since 1793. Pirates, buccaneers, whalers, and others could leave their mail for outbound ships. The tradition continues today, as visitors leave addressed postcards in the barrel and sort through left mail to deliver at home—and it works! Cards we left in the barrel were delivered to our nephews in Grand Rapids two weeks after we returned home!
We next visited the lava fields of Isabela Island. Walking sticks were necessary to navigate the brittle lava trails. After an exhilarating hike, we were rewarded by a visit to a seaside grotto where white-tipped reef sharks and sea turtles came to rest in the crystal clear water.
On our afternoon hike, we encountered our first giant tortoise and several land iguanas.
Next stop was Fernandina Island—the youngest of the Galapagos Islands. Fernandina hosts the largest colony of marine iguanas in the archipelago and is a nesting site of flightless cormorants. Here we had the special experience of deep water snorkeling with sea turtles and marine iguanas. Surfing in on a wave eye-to-eye with one of the world’s rarest creatures was a dream come true.
Then it was on to Santa Cruz Island for our most comprehensive giant tortoise experience. Santa Cruz has the largest human population of the five inhabited islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, Floreana, Baltra) and home to the National Park Service, Tortoise Breeding Center, and the Charles Darwin Research Station.
After visiting the breeding center and learning about these fascinating creatures, it was off to observe them in the wild. Santa Cruz is home to a healthy population of giant tortoises. Since it was the end of the dry season, these enormous reptiles were congregating around water sources in the lowlands. They were everywhere, it was a virtual tortoise-palooza.
We also had the opportunity to plant trees in the Scalesia Reforestation Project in the highlands.
For nature lovers, the Galapagos is a must. Since the animals are totally unafraid of human contact, it is probably the most effortless wildlife viewing on the planet.
To get the most out of your adventure, do your homework and let a travel professional handle the details, and don’t wait too long to go.
With all of the unique diving and hiking opportunities, you don’t want to miss anything. It really helps to be in relatively good shape, but not necessary. Hiking and diving excursions were offered in varying degrees of difficulty. After reaching the age of a famous Beatles song, I am glad that we did not wait too much longer to embark on this exhilarating experience.
Before going, I thought that I had a grasp on what lied ahead, but like every trip, there are many surprises. I was hoping to see marine iguanas in the wild, little did I know that we were going to see thousands—some of which were sunning themselves on Darwin Ave. in the middle of downtown Punta Arroyo. I was hoping to see giant tortoises in their natural habitat, but I had no idea that they would be crossing the street on Santa Cruz with road signs warning you of the possibility—talk about slow traffic!
There are many ways to experience this wonderful part of the world and a travel professional is essential in assisting with the details. It is a complicated destination, but it does not have to be. We would be thrilled to be a part of your trip of a lifetime. Our planet is changing fast and the Galapagos Islands are no different. Go before it changes too much. After all—here, like nowhere else, evolution is the name of the game!
GALAPAGOS PACKING TIPS
A trip to the Galapagos Islands is a once in a lifetime experience. To get the most out of this unique adventure, it is important to be as prepared as possible. This diverse destination requires careful planning and packing for ever-changing conditions on land and at sea. After just returning from a bucket list cruise of the Galapagos, here are a few of our suggestions.
Clothing is the most important part of preparation. If your feet are not comfortable, nothing is comfortable—proper shoes are essential. When visiting the islands, you will experience both wet and dry landings. A wet landing consists of stepping off the zodiac into the water and walking to the beach, so water shoes are a must. We wore closed-toed water sandals. Once on shore, you will typically go on a hike, so take water shoes you can walk in, or change into hiking shoes on land. The terrain on the hikes can be anything from packed gravel to brittle lava. Sturdy comfortable walking shoes will take you anywhere.
Neutral colored clothing is advised on land due to the possible presence of insects—take some bug repellent just in case. A small backpack to carry essentials and water during excursions is a must. We used a waterproof backpack for our land and sea adventures. The weather in ports of call can be unpredictable, so layering of clothes is recommended. A lightweight breathable rain jacket is at the top of the list. You may not see any rain, but the Galapagos is famous for “Garlia”, a light mist that blows in and out during the day. Take lightweight shorts and pants, as well as both long and short sleeved shirts. A jacket or sweater will come in handy for cooler days and the evenings.
Rain or shine, you are on the equator, so protection from the sun is first and foremost. All of the naturalists on our trip were covered from head to toe, and we followed their lead. Hat, sunglasses, sunblock, and neck protection was the uniform during hikes. Because the sun is so intense, it reflects up from lava rocks and can burn your neck. To prevent this from happening, get yourself a Galapagos “buff” which is a small scarf that is both functional and fashionable. A wide brimmed hat is an absolute must for sun and rain protection. Pack your own or wait and buy one when you get there. They have all kinds of expedition hats with cool logos, or you can get a handmade Ecuadorian Panama at that will last a lifetime. Nylon cargo pants with zip-off legs that convert to shorts are also very useful as they are good in all conditions and dry quickly.
The diving in the Galapagos is unique to anywhere else in the world. Due to the convergence of currents and indigenous species, the experience is like no other. During our snorkeling excursions, we saw flightless cormorants fishing, marine iguanas feeding on algae, and frolicking sea lions. Wet suits and equipment were provided and both beach and deep water snorkeling trips were incredible experiences.
The Galapagos features some of the most effortless wildlife viewing and photo opportunities on the planet. The animals are essentially unafraid of human interaction. The rule is that you stay at least eight feet away from any creature that you encounter. But that does not mean that you will not be approached by an inquisitive baby sea lion, or get stepped on by a marine iguana lumbering by on a mission. Always have a camera ready, photo ops pop up at a moment’s notice. We had a couple of lenses, a point-and-shoot pocket camera, and cell phones, and we used them all. For digital cameras, pack plenty of memory cards, we took close to three thousand photos and videos, it’s that kind of experience. Binoculars are helpful on hikes for spotting that Galapagos hawk soaring overhead, or a white-tipped shark patrolling a crystal clear grotto.
So, ultimately, what does one pack when visiting the most unique, unspoiled islands in the world? Basically, many of the same things you would take with you to visit any foreign destination. There is no bad time to visit the Galapagos, just different conditions. There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. However, when deciding what to pack, keep one word in mind—practicality.