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May 30, 2011 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Tips for travelling to the Galapagos Islands?

I would like to visit the Galapagos Islands with my father, an evolution buff. He's a pretty spry senior citizen (although sometimes his knees hurt and his hearing isn't the best).

Has anyone been? Any advice for-
How to get there & specific companies to book with,
What to do or avoid while there,
Best time of year to go,
Ways to travel frugally?

Prime interests include seeing animals and learning about Darwin's travels. As for food, accomodation, luxuries, etc, we're not picky and can be frugal.

Any advice would be appreciated- thanks!
posted by pseudostrabismus to Travel & Transportation around Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I went a few years ago with my mom, and it was amazing. She was in her late fifties at the time and really enjoyed it. She only opted out of one or two of the hikes which were quite steep but otherwise it wasn't a physically demanding vacation.

Most of the people who were traveling to the Galapagos do so as part of a cruise because only a few of the islands are inhabited and to get to the good places you need to be on a boat.

This means that the tour company you choose will determine most of what you see and do. The boat we went on was smaller and went to some of the smaller islands which was nice. We met some people who went on larger cruise ships who didn't like it as much as they ended up going with larger groups and didn't end up spending as much time on land doing this.

I would be careful however about who you book with as you'll spend the majority of your time on the boat and will want to have a good guide and a pleasant ship. We went with Gap Adventures and the boat was nothing like we were promised and while we still had a great time I would avoid them as they radically failed to live up to their advertising and I'm sure you can get many opinions on things like TripAdvisor these days.

As to frugality there was no money to spend except for a half day in port. We spent most of the money for the trip on the cruise and in Quito which was a little pricey for South America but still a nice place to visit. If you have the time buses are cheap and some of the smaller towns in Ecuador we went to were really nice and less expensive.

Have fun!

and our guide was pretty poor, he actually quit when we were leaving which left the next group without a guide - who is mandatory.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 8:34 AM on May 30, 2011

I went to the Galapagos Islands with a group from my college five years ago. It was partly a research trip. I can't give specific hotel recommendations but I have some general tips.

Bring lots of sunscreen. You will need it.

Make sure you have antibiotics with you. All of the water is imported from Ecuador, and it's frequently suspect.

North Seymour is a tiny island just north of Baltra, where the main airport is. It had the most spectacular wildlife viewing, and is an utterly alien landscape. Nowhere on the Galapagos Islands are the animals afraid of humans, but on North Seymour, you can get within inches of them. The snorkeling is great too. Getting to the island requires a 5 hour boat ride.

The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz is worth a visit.

The Santa Cruz lava caves are fun to see. Wear long socks - there are fire ants.

I was taken on two guided nature walks on Santa Cruz. Unfortunately I can't remember exactly where they were. One featured a rocky, scrubby landscape right near the beach and ended in an extremely deep canyon full of very cold, clear water. The other was a wetland populated by enormous tortoises. Both walks were given by a tour guide who pointed out plants and animals. I would recommend both if you can figure out where they were.

Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz is a beautiful beach, and very relaxing, crawling with marine iguanas. We got to play soccer with some of the locals too.

Feel free to message me if you have any more questions. The Galapagos are really incredible, and everybody should be so lucky as to see them.
posted by Cygnet at 8:46 AM on May 30, 2011

Oh- it's probably obvious from my post but I stayed on Santa Cruz. I would definitely reccommend staying on land. The locals really appreciate it too - a lot if business in the Galapagos is conducted by external companies, usually foreign, which doesn't do much for the local economy. I really enjoyed the conversations I had with the people I met there because I was staying inthe area.
posted by Cygnet at 8:56 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I interpret this correctly, you want to travel frugally and hence not use a tour group (there are very very few times in my life when I have a tour group and this was one of them--it worked well for me). So using that approach. Also, I went there for the same reasons (animals, to learn more about Darwin).

I really, really enjoyed a trip that I went on with this company (in the link), but since you will probably be arranging this on your own to save money, I'm going to point out the things that I really enjoyed using their itineraryand perhaps you can find a Let's Go/On a Shoestring to the Galapagos type book and find out how to get to these places (please confirm your guidebook states that these locations and things match up):

--Sierra Negra is a volcano that you hike along. Really, really beautiful and unique landscape.
--Get very close to the Galapogas tortoises (Campo Duro) -- you know, we took a van to get there and Idon't know if one can get there that easily.
--Snorkel at the island of Santa Fe. This was a highlight because sea lion pups would swim around you....inches from you. You also see a lot of other sea life.
--The island ofTintoreras was also a high. Water was very clear and you could see white-tipped reef sharks (but you were not in th water)

There was more that we went to but I don't see it defined on their itinterary. You may have to pick this out of a book (I can't remember), but I would snorkel at another island, too (you just have more of a chance to see something). This is the one time I would splurge for a guide because they know the places that you can see more. Also, we did go to an island/park with lots of blue-footed boobies and equivalent to a park guide explained their life cycle to us. It was a high but I can't remember where it is.

Nthing what SpaceWarp said; the only way I could find to get tomany islands with limitted time was a tour. I liked the group linked to above (Row Adventures) because I had read this NYT story and knew this how i wanted to travel, although please note it was costly. However, this group did take a few days to do kayaking (only a few hours max), you camp on the beahc for a day or two, and it was always a small group (12 people) vs having the large boats with a billion people.

I feel I did get much about the life of Darwin on my trip and to be honest, the knowledge of most guides were very lmited or sometimes erroneous. Do brnig a nature book and read up on it on your own. Seeing the animals is still1000X better than reading about them.
posted by Wolfster at 8:57 AM on May 30, 2011

I went on a tour with INCA. The guides were extremely knowledgeable, the accomodations fine, the logistics seamless. It was as close to perfect as you could hope for.
posted by Jode at 10:21 AM on May 30, 2011

I just went in December and had an amazing time. (Like SpaceWarp13, I went with Gap Adventures. But I thought the boat was great, the crew very friendly, and the guide incredibly well-informed; there were just some relatively minor annoyances. So, different strokes, etc.)

December/January was great because the weather wasn't too hot. On the flip side, some of the water was pretty chilly for snorkeling, but you can always wear a wet suit. We had a little bit of drizzle, but not enough rain that it affected any of our plans.

When/how soon are you planning to go? Our guide said that the Galapagos authorities are trying to shift the way that people visit the islands in order to minimize environmental impact. So they're trying to decrease the number of cruise ships (even the little ones) and instead concentrate people in the few towns, and run day trips out from there. I'm not sure what the timeline is for this shift, though I imagine it's fairly gradual.

As from the environmental impact of the boat, though, I thought it was a fabulous way to see the islands. You get to hop from one to the other, and it's fascinating to see the stark contrasts between them. You get to take the little zodiacs out to beaches and mangroves and snorkeling spots. There are walks/hikes on most of the islands; it sounds like your dad is much steadier on his feet than some of the elderly people I saw tottering along. Tour groups really do have an advantage here, at least small ones. (More than about 15 would be too big for my taste.)

If you do go on a group trip, ask them if everyone on the trip is there for the same amount of time. I learned that halfway through my trip, we'd be killing half a day in port to drop off most of our passengers and take on new ones.

The guides are a mixed bag. I had a very knowledgeable, intellectually curious guide, but I overheard some that I would have dreaded being stuck with for eight days.
posted by bassjump at 10:30 AM on May 30, 2011

My family went with Lindblad Tours several years back. An ideally sized ship, extremely knowledgeable staff, and overall probably the single best vacation I have ever taken. not cheap, but worth it.
posted by samthemander at 2:39 PM on May 30, 2011

Seconding INCA - we had a fabulous trip with them in 2005.
posted by mozhet at 7:06 PM on May 30, 2011

I went within the last year. We found it was much less expensive to stay on land and much less expensive not to plan too much of anything until we arrive. We had friends in Guayaquil who put us in touch with a local guide on Isabella- we spent an awesome several days there hiking volcanos, seeing all of the animals, snorkeling and chilling out at the one local bar.

We also spent a few days on Santa Cruz, which was great, but much more populated than Isabella.

With respect to booking a cruise ship, if that's the way you want to go, booking from the US is more expensive than booking from Ecuador once you arrive in the country, which is still more expensive than taking the risk, flying to the Galapagos and jumping on a ship last minute. Heaps less expensive. But you have no guarantees as to quality or availability if you fly by the seat of your pants that way.

Memail me if you want the name/contact info of the tour guide in Isabella.

The Galapagos are amazing and surreal and relatively untrammeled by the masses. You'll have a great time.
posted by slateyness at 11:28 PM on May 30, 2011

I'm in the adventure travel industry and have been to the Galapagos at least 13 times, so I'd be happy to steer you in the right direction. I talk about the Galapagos and South America all the time and I am one of the few people I know who get to say blue-footed booby every day.

How to get there: You first fly into Quito or Guayaquil. Flights to the Galapagos run in the morning and run about $400-$500 on average. Most Galapagos flights are booked through your cruise to guarantee passengers spaces blocked in advance.

Specific companies to book with: I recommend you go to IGTOA and book a company that is a member of this organization. These are the companies that have demonstrated the most concern for the wildlife and people of the Galapagos. Don't just go with the cheapest ship you can find. Please. They are the ones that tend to be the least likely to follow the strict regulations in the Galapagos Islands and have terrible safety records. An average of one to two ships a year sink in the Galapagos. Don't risk your life to save a few hundred dollars.

What to do or avoid while there: Use a certified guide, at least a Level 2 guide. They will help you understand how to best enjoy the Galapagos without harming the very fragile wildlife and environment.

Best time of year to go: There are 2 high seasons. The first high season is Dec-Mar, which is their summer. It will rain more during this time, but the water temps are the highest. The second high season is Jun-Aug, our summer but their winter. You might want to go during the shoulder seasons, April or May, or Sept or October when discounts might be available.

Ways to travel frugally?: What is your budget? Before you even step foot on the islands, you have to spend about $600 for the privilege of doing so. That's just the local airfare from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos plus the $110 in the Galapagos National Park fee and migration card. If you decide on a cruise (the best way to see the most wildlife and variety of landscapes), an average superior class tourist boat runs about $300 per person per day. This usually covers all your meals, activities, fuel surcharges, etc. Hotels average about $200 a day. Everything is expensive here, being so remote.

Feel free to MeMail me for more help. I'm sorry that the Galapagos is just not a budget destination - that's a whole other discussion, but I try to help people get there with a realistic idea of costs without sacrificing quality. There are good deals to be had if you work with the right company who knows the ships and cabins on them and can search out some good deals for you. Be flexible with your dates and be patient, and you'll make it there!
posted by HeyAllie at 9:05 AM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

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