If you want to marvel at unparalleled wildlife and incredible terrain, look no further than the Galapagos Islands. Made up of 19 rugged and isolated islands, the archipelago off the coast of Ecuador is considered to be a unique place on earth that’s completely unrivaled. It’s the home of animals like giant tortoises, marine iguanas, seals, and penguins, and unlike most places, these creatures are easy to spot. In fact, it’s a place where humans are not the center of attention.
The Galapagos isn’t a destination you can book last-minute, though. Doris Welsh the director of sales and marketing at the Galapagos Network and Ecoventura Tours says it requires serious planning, but with some foresight, it can be one of the most rewarding trips you make in your life. Here’s what you need to know before your travels in terms of getting there, how to get around, and what to bring to ensure you have the best time.
There Are Only Two Cities With Flights to the Galapagos Islands
When you travel to Galapagos, you will be coming in on a flight from one of two Ecuadorian cities—Quito or Guayaquil. They are both beautiful yet very different cities. Quito, Ecuador’s capital, is in the Andes Mountains, and it lies at almost 10,000 feet altitude, while Guayaquil is located at sea level. If you fly to Quito, there is a chance you may develop altitude sickness when your body does not have time to acclimate for a few days.
If you’re planning on just spending one night in either city, Guayaquil may be a better option for you. “The hotels are located closer to the airport, which makes it more convenient,” says Welsh. “Also, all flights originate in Quito and connect in Guayaquil to go to Galapagos.” Make sure to allow for ample time between your flight into either city and your subsequent flight to Galapagos—delays and cancellations are frequent here. You don’t want to miss several days of your cruise because your flight didn’t get in on time.
Cruises Are the Way to Go
Speaking of cruises, they are one of the most popular ways to explore Galapagos and allow you to visit various islands, which is great since many islands are only accessible by boat. Keep in mind though that these are not the massive cruise ships you see on television commercials. The largest ones carry 100 people, but most are in the 20-passenger range, making for a more intimate experience.
You'll Want to Book 6 Months to a Year in Advance
Don’t try to book a trip to Galapagos on a whim, particularly during the holidays. “Christmas through August is our peak season,” says Welsh. “Christmas and New Year’s sell out a year in advance, and the other months sell out six months in advance.” If you want to book your ideal Galapagos vacay, expect to plan way in advance. The only exception to that rule is fall, which is the slowest season in Galapagos. You may be able to find good last-minute deals and can afford to be a little more spontaneous.
Book Your Cruise First, and Then Book Your Flight
So you found a great flight to Galapagos and are thinking of booking immediately, and then find a cruise right? Wrong. You can find yourself in a real pickle if you book your flight first because the cruises may already be all booked, making it impossible for you to arrange your stay. “We can hold a cabin for a few days while you find your flights, whereas the airlines aren’t going to do that for you,” says Welsh.
You Need to Pack Smart
A great Galapagos trip is filled with activities—snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, and biking should be on your list of things to do. You need to pack for both land and water accordingly. Make sure you bring hiking shoes, water shoes, two swimsuits (so one can dry while you use the other), and a rain jacket. You’re also located near the equator, so bring enough waterproof sunscreen to prevent a sunburn. A wide-brimmed hat is also always a great idea to protect your face and eyes.
Be Aware of Wildlife Rules
Galapagos is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, and you would be amiss to not make wildlife spotting part of your trip. You can go up to animals fairly closely here, but make sure to follow certain rules. First, make sure you get a credible guide to show you around. Second, make sure you remain on the trails while exploring, as this keeps the animals and yourself safe. Third, keep a healthy distance of around six feet between you and the animals—while they are likely accustomed to humans, their behavior can be unpredictable. Lastly, do not use flash photography.
There Can Be Hidden Costs
The Galapagos islands are protected, which can mean there are extra costs for travelers. You may have to pay an entrance fee ($100) and a fee for tourist cards ($20). Check with your tour operator first, and be sure to bring cash so that you’re never in a situation where you can’t pay for a fee.
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