Planning Your Time
There are basically two ways to see the Galápagos: on a cruise or on a land-based tour.
Cruises have historically been the most popular, and advantages include the opportunity to travel farther, cover more sites, and spend more time without worrying about getting back to port at dusk. There are also many sites only accessible to cruise tours, and there is less environmental impact than staying on land and the associated pollution from hotels.
The drawbacks are that you are on a boat with the same group for several days with a fixed schedule, which doesn’t suit everyone. Seasickness is also a factor, even on the most luxurious boats. With the wide choice of classes available, it’s important to remember that, by and large, you get what you pay for. You could save a few hundred dollars by opting for the cheapest boat, but you’ll end up with a guide with less knowledge, far less comfort and, probably, worse seasickness.
Most cruises are 5–8 days. There are also four-day itineraries, but when you consider that half a day at the beginning and end is spent traveling, a minimum of five days is recommended, and eight days is preferable. In five days, the most common cruise itineraries start at Santa Cruz, taking in Puerto Ayora, the highlands, Seymour Norte, and Plazas, then heading either north or south. Northern tours usually include Bartolomé, Santiago, and Genovesa, while southern itineraries usually take in Santa Fé, San Cristóbal, Floreana, and Española.
There is also a slightly more expensive western itinerary that includes Isabela and Fernandina. Eight-day tours usually combine two of these three routes (north and west, north and south, or west and south). It’s not possible to see all of the above islands in eight days, and while cruises for longer than eight days do exist, they are rare and are mostly dedicated dive trips. These tours are the only ones that reach the most remote islands of Darwin, Wolf, and Marchena.
Land-based tours are becoming increasingly popular, particularly for those not suited to spending a long time on a boat. Many operators organize short tours based on one island, or you can do an island-hopping tour. However, with the wide availability of day tours in Puerto Ayora and regular ferries between the three most populous islands (San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela), increasing numbers of budget travelers are shunning tours and doing it themselves, and saving a lot of money. Bear in mind, though, that doing it this way restricts you to day tours close to the main islands, and islands such as Genovesa, Española, and Fernandina become off-limits.
Whatever you decide to do, it’s important that you don’t get preoccupied with a checklist. Eight days (or even five days) in the Galápagos is an incredible experience to be savored, so don’t ruin your enjoyment of it by becoming obsessed with seeing it all.
When to Go
Although the Galápagos is a year-round destination, the best conditions are December–April. The seas are calmer, the weather mostly sunny and hot, and rain on the larger islands leads to an explosion of greenery. This coincides with the busiest tourist period at Christmas, Carnival (usually in Feb.), and Easter. June–October the weather is cooler, so it’s more comfortable on land, but the landscapes are more barren and the sea becomes rougher, so seasickness is more of a problem.
The waters can be surprisingly cold for swimming and snorkeling, but on the positive side, the cooler temperatures usually bring higher numbers of marine life to watch. The islands have brief low seasons in May–June and September–October, either side of the July–August high season. These are the best times to secure last-minute availability. The ongoing global economic downturn has affected the islands, however, and cut-price deals can be found year-round if you look hard enough and are flexible.
Note that the time in the Galápagos is one hour earlier than in mainland Ecuador.
What to Bring
A trip to the Galápagos requires plenty of preparation. While summer clothes are clearly first in the suitcase, there are plenty more items you need to pack. Bring a light jacket or sweater for chilly mornings and cool evenings, plus a rain jacket for visiting the damp highlands. Along with flip-flops, good walking shoes should be packed for negotiating rough lava trails. Most importantly, bring a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunblock to protect you from the fierce equatorial sun, which is doubly strong at sea.
A refillable water bottle is very useful and also reduces the islands’ problem with plastic. Seasickness is a common problem on the Galápagos, both on cruises and particularly on the fast ferries among the islands, so bring seasickness pills. Bring a day pack to take on excursions, and don’t forget your swimming gear. You can bring your own snorkel, if you prefer, although tours usually provide them.
Last but not least, bring a decent camera. The Galápagos is hard to beat for photography, so if you were going to consider upgrading, do it before you visit. Also consider investing in a telephoto lens, bring UV and polarizing filters, and bring a decent bag to protect your equipment from water. Bring far more film or digital memory than you’ll think you’ll need, and expect to take several hundred photos.
Safety and Annoyances
In general the Galápagos is a very safe destination, but visitors do occasionally get into trouble or fall ill. If you’re elderly or have heart or blood-pressure problems, you need to pace yourself. You may be surprised at how tiring a trip to the islands can be—eight days packed with hikes, swimming, and snorkeling is a very full schedule. Don’t be embarrassed to opt out of a tour if you’re not feeling up to it, and always notify the guide of any health issues.
The most common problems are stomach-related or seasickness. For the former, you should carry rehydration packets, and if it’s more serious, the guide should be able to get antibiotics. Bactrim Forte is a good local brand to take if you have a food-related illness. For seasickness, eat lightly, drink plenty of fluids, sit in the center of the boat, or take a nap. Local brand Mareol can also help, but bear in mind that it can make you drowsy.
An unexpected annoyance in the Galápagos for women travelers is the unwanted attention of male guides or crew members. Remember that the Galápagos are part of Ecuador, and many local men are notoriously flirtatious and macho. This certainly doesn’t apply to all guides, but you may be unlucky enough to have your guide hit on you. If you’re traveling alone, you should make clear politely but firmly that you’re not interested—perhaps inventing a muscle-bound fiancé and transferring a ring to the appropriate finger may help.
Note that smoking is prohibited on any of the uninhabited islands and at all the visitors sites on the inhabited islands. Most boats have nonsmoking policies as well.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition