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Penguins and dolphins, sea lions and iguanas, tropical birds and giant tortoises—this bizarre collection of species comes together in a single destination on the equator. You can walk right up to most of them and look them in the eye. There aren’t many places in the world where you can swim alongside a family of sea lions. The Galapagos Islands are one of those places, and so it’s no surprise that these islands, 600 mi/970 km off the coast of Ecuador, are so special. Their remoteness from other landmasses and the absence of human settlements until the past century allowed their animal inhabitants to live with little fear of predators. As a result, the islands have an abundance of animals, birds and reptiles that are easily viewed, with or without binoculars.
The islands are best known as the home of giant tortoises that can weigh as much as 600 lb/272 kg and live 150 years. But you’ll also see marine iguanas (they resemble small dragons and are the only seagoing lizards in the world), scarlet-breasted frigate birds; blue-footed, red-footed, masked and Nazca boobies; tiny penguins at home in the tropics; and giant, graceful albatrosses. About half of the species are endemic to the islands, found nowhere else on Earth.
Volcanic in origin, the archipelago has 13 large (and scores of lesser) islands whose terrain is mostly stark and barren, consisting primarily of a lava rock- and cacti-filled landscape hosted by an arid climate. However, the highlands of the larger islands are dominated by cloud forests, with lush vegetation and cooler temperatures. The islands themselves are interesting geologically, although most people go to see their rare fauna and flora.
One of the most famous visitors was Charles Darwin, whose five-week stay in 1835 led him to note that some species of birds had changed both physically and behaviorally as a result of their environment, and over time evolved into distinct species. His famous book The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and the theory of evolution were influenced greatly by what he saw there.
These days, most visitors see the islands as part of a cruise tour. Small boats, or pangas, drop travelers off on individual islands, where knowledgeable naturalists introduce the lifestyles and mating rituals of the native species. Swimming and snorkeling are possible at most sites, often accompanied by curious sea lions, sea turtles, an occasional penguin and scores of tropical fish. The marine environment of the Galapagos is also a protected area; it is the largest marine reserve in the Western Hemisphere, and the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef.
Outside of the inhabited areas of islands (which include portions of Isabella, Floreana, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal) you cannot wander about on your own—it is not allowed. Though it may seem unlikely, some people have died after venturing off on their own and becoming dehydrated or eating fruit of poisonous plants.
Strict rules imposed by the Galapagos National Park require that licensed guides accompany all visitors and that you stick to the 60 designated sites on the islands, most of which are uninhabited. You may walk only on marked trails, and you cannot touch or feed the animals—even allowing a bird to drink from a water bottle is forbidden to avoid making the animals the least bit dependent upon humans.
As you’ll soon discover, however, some contact cannot be avoided: You’ll be amazed at how close some of the animals will come to you. Darwin’s famous finches occasionally land on your shoulder, and sea lions lounge next to you on the beach.
The entire chain of islands is the result of volcanic activity that began from 5 million to 9 million years ago. There is an oceanic “hot spot” where the islands of Fernandina and Isabela are now located, and where all islands to the east once were. There, magma rises from the Earth’s mantle to form the volcanic islands. As the Nazca plate moves slowly southeast, at approximately 1.6 in/4 cm per year, it takes the islands with it. Over time, this combination of events has produced the current archipelago.
The climate of the islands is regulated mainly by ocean currents. The cooler dry season, determined by the Humboldt Current and the southeast trade winds, starts in July and continues through December. During this time, temperatures hover close to 72 F/20 C, and a misty blanket of precipitation known as garua lingers over the highlands. The warmer wet season lasts January-June, when the southeast trade winds lessen and warmer waters surround the islands. This season is characterized by warm and sunny weather, air temperatures as high as 86 F/30 C and short but intense rain showers.
Every three to seven years, El Nino events disrupt these two seasons and last for as little as a few months or as much as more than half a year. During El Nino times, the Galapagos waters become very warm, with resulting warmer land temperatures and increased precipitation.
Years of human destruction of Galapagos fauna left fur seals nearly extinct and approximately 200,000 tortoises dead. At various times, sailors released goats onto some of the islands; this provided meat to passing ships but led to the elimination of many native Galapagos plants. Today, the tortoises, seals and other Galapagos animals are highly protected, but the eradication of goats is still in progress.
The islands’ first known resident was Patrick Watkins, an Irish castaway who arrived on the island of Floreana in 1807. Watkins didn’t stay long, only eight years, nor did many others, until Darwin arrived on the HMSBeagle in 1835. Darwin’s writings about evolution stimulated interest in the islands among scientists, as well as among wealthy explorers and several groups of eccentrics.
Ecuador, which claimed the islands in 1832, officially designated about 97% of the islands a national park in 1959 to protect them from development. In 1978, UNESCO made the islands a World Heritage site. The Galapagos Marine Reserve was created in 1998, the world’s second largest after the Great Barrier Reef. Approximately 160,000 people visit the islands each year.
The islands’ growing popularity as an ecotourism destination has created its own set of problems, however. Since the 1970s, population growth on the islands has increased by 6.2% each year as the result of births and immigration. About 25,000 people, many of them impoverished Ecuadorians, now live on the islands. Many have moved there seeking a better life and jobs, at first in fishing but now in tourism. Along with them have come nonnative animals and plants that are altering the unique heritage of the islands.
The Ecuadorian government has taken steps to limit immigration and eradicate such animals as feral goats. It also regulates the number of visitors and the size of boats allowed to tour the islands. Fishing boats caught in park waters have been detained and their owners fined. But tensions run high in the islands regarding their management. There have been several strikes by fishermen, as well as by national park wardens. However, the evidence seems incontestable that the Ecuadorean government, according to many sources, is still falling short of adequately safeguarding this unique archipelago for future generations.
In March 2007, the same year the World Heritage Committee added Galapagos to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, the Ecuadorian government signed a national decree putting the islands’ management as a top priority, favoring its conservation and protection. Initial results are hard to quantify, but this at least implies that beneficial changes will occur and that stricter rules will be put into effect for all areas that involve development on the islands.
Current tourist operations are not going through any kind of suspensions or ceasing of licenses, but future tourist operations may meet stricter rules or even bans on development. Naturally, illegal immigration to the islands, illegal fishing, introduced species and poor education of the local population remain dangers to the Galapagos.
But legislation to further protect the Galapagos’ fragile ecosystem is now in place. As of 2012, no vessel is permitted to visit the same site more than once in a given 14-day period. The hope is that this will keep visitor traffic dispersed throughout the islands and prevent some of the more threatened areas from becoming too crowded.
When booking a cruise to the islands, you’ll want to consider the environmental standards of the cruise or hotel operator, as well as whether it contributes to environmental education on the islands.
The late Kurt Vonnegut wrote the novel Galapagos in 1985 about the last survivors of the human race being shipwrecked on the islands and evolving to be more like the happy creatures that live there today.
The Galapagos Islands is the only place where penguins live north of the equator. This makes the species the only tropical penguin on Earth. The bird is also the world’s second-smallest penguin.
There were once up to 15 subspecies of giant tortoises on the islands. Only 10 of those species remain today.
The only nonflying cormorant in the world lives in the Galapagos Islands. It evolved to hunt fish by diving from shore and eventually lost the use of its wings for flight.
The life span of a Galapagos land tortoise may be as high as 150 years. Adult males can weigh 600-700 lbs/272-317 kg, and the females can weigh 300-400 lbs/136-181 kg.
The archipelago was known as the Enchanted Islands because of the way in which the strong and shifting currents made navigation difficult. After he visited the islands, Herman Melville used this name as the title of a short story he wrote about the Galapagos.
A bus or taxi transfer from the Baltra or San Cristobal airport terminal drives cruise travelers to a nearby port or dock to board a waiting Zodiac, which will take you to a boat anchored offshore. There are no docking facilities for ships on the islands—not even in populated areas. Ships must anchor offshore.
The largest and most popular beaches, however, both with white sand and clear waters, are Tortuga Bay, a one-hour walk from town, and El Garrapatero, located in Bellavista. There is also Playa de los Perros (Dogs Beach), which requires a short boat trip, but it provides an opportunity to see a blue-footed booby nesting area and a mangrove-surrounded whitetip-shark channel.
If you’re interested in cliff diving, Las Griatas is the perfect place. To get there, go to Playa de Alemana and follow the rocky trail to the cliffs (you’ll pass several saltwater lagoons, great for birding).
For hiking, you can visit El Puntudo and Cerro Crocker, the highest peak on the island (2,821 ft/860 m). Other attractions include Los Gemelos, two giant pit craters in the midst of the Scalesia forest; the Zona de la Reserva, a wildlife reserve where you can view such wildlife as giant turtles and vermillion flycatchers; El Mirador, existing lava tunnels; Cerro Dragon, named after the land iguanas that inhabit the areas, has two small saltwater lagoons where you may see flamingos; and the Charles Darwin Research Station, a wonderful place to learn about evolution, species endemic to the Galapagos, the geology of the islands and more.
Isabela Island: At the southern end of Isabela is the only village on the island, Puerto Villamil, which is also the archipelago’s second-largest town. The beaches there, surrounded by palm trees, include La Playita (“the little beach”), where you can observe marine birds resting, Playa del Amor (Love Beach), where you can see marine iguanas on a close-by rocky coast, and Barahona Beach, an important site for breeding turtles.
Bahia Concha de Perla (Pearl Shell Bay) is a perfect place to snorkel. This bay has clear, shallow waters that host an abundance of marina fauna, including sea lions and sea turtles. Another snorkeling site is Punta Loberia Grande (Great Sea Lion Point), where you can swim with sea lions and penguins.
The proximity of nearby Isla Las Tintoreras (Sharks Island) to Isabela Island forms a canal for resting whitetip sharks. It has two white-sand beaches, one with black stone that is home to colonies of sea lions and marine iguanas. The main breeding ground for flamingos is on Isabela at Paza Las Diablas (Devil’s Lagoon). There is a freshwater spring that at low tide forms a river and flows to the sea, forming El Estero (“the estuary”).
A 3.7-mi/6-km walk from town is the historical site Muro de las Lagrimas (Wall of Tears), the remnants of a penal colony used 1946-59. Prisoners there were forced to construct a wall made of huge lava rocks without the use of cement, and a number died during the work. The wall is about 23 ft/7 m tall, 10 ft/3 m wide and 328 ft/100 m long.
Two other must-sees are Volcano Sierra Negra, the oldest volcano on the island, and Volcano Chico. Both can be reached by horse or on foot. There is also a breeding center (Centro de Crianza) for giant tortoises where you can see and learn about them.
San Cristobal Island: If you’re staying in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, you may want to start your journey at the Interpretation Center, where you can learn all about the history of the islands in terms of both man and nature. Then you can go hiking behind the center at Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Bird Hill) where you can see their nesting sites as well as a statue of Charles Darwin. Another great hiking site, ending at a beautiful beach, is Puerto Chino. On the other end of the island you can go hiking at La Galapaguera Natural, where you can see tortoises in their natural habitat, and Punta Pitt, where three species of boobies nest.
There are three small islands off San Cristobal that tourists can visit or snorkel near. They include Isla Lobos (Wolf Island), where blue-footed boobies and frigate birds nest; Kicker Rock, where you snorkel around two huge rocks that reach out of the ocean and form a narrow channel passable by small boats; and La Loberia, which hosts colonies of sea lions.
Like the other islands, San Cristobal also has very nice beaches, many of which are accessible only by boat. From Puerto Baquerizo Moreno you can walk to Playa de Oro (Gold Beach) and Playa Man (both good for swimming), Playa Cabo de Horno (Great Horn Beach), which is great for snorkeling, and Punta Carola, a surfing site.
San Cristobal has the only freshwater lake in all of the Galapagos—El Junco Lagoon (Reed Lagoon), which has formed naturally within an inactive crater.
Although most people regard the Galapagos as a cruise destination, the larger island of Santa Cruz is popular for land-based tours. Horseback riding, mountain-bike riding and trekking are the main activities, as well as bird-watching, surfing, sea kayaking and sailing. These are best organized with a local tour operator such as Moonrise Travel. Phone 5-252-6589. http://www.galapagosmoonrise.com.
This agency and many other local tour operators have offices on Santa Cruz Island, along Avenida Charles Darwin, the main street in the town of Puerto Ayora. Other reputable local agencies are Galakiwi (phone 5-252-1562, http://www.galakiwi.com), Lonesome George (phone 5-252-6245) and Sharksky (phone 5-252-1188, http://www.sharksky.com). Several other operators are located on Isabela as well. You can also arrange trips through your hotel.
SCUBA & SNORKELING
The Galapagos archipelago is regarded as one of the world’s best scuba-diving sites. Diving there is not for beginners because of strong currents, varying visibility and cool waters, but the range and number of large marine mammals and fish on show is stunning.The Galapagos is the only place on Earth where a crossroads of currents has brought together four animal groups: tropical species of fish (such as in the Caribbean), subtropical species of fish (such as around Baja California), sea lions (such as in California) and penguins (such as in Antarctica). The islands are not as famous for colorful reef fish, although there are plenty to see, but rather for the schools of larger underwater creatures such as rays, sharks, jacks (trevally) and tuna.
Several operators run land-based and live-aboard dive trips in the Galapagos, and some yachts offer scuba diving as an extra on regular cruises. Both Scuba Iguana (phone 5-252-6497, http://www.scubaiguana.com) and Galapagos Sub-Aqua (phone 5-252-6350, http://www.galapagos-sub-aqua.com) are very professional and experienced.
Becoming a certified diver is a possibility there, but you will need to arrange it in advance with a local dive company and plan an extra two weeks at the beginning of your trip. Santa Cruz Island offers the best options and the most rewarding dive sites nearby.
For what passes as nightlife in the Galapagos, options are limited. Try Lemon y Cafe, Bongo or Panga bar (all on Avenida Charles Darwin) in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, Calypso and Iguana Rock in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal, and Beto’s Beach Bar in Puerto Villamil on Isabela.
The best place to buy books about the island and the obligatory T-shirts is the gift shop at the Charles Darwin Research Station—the quality is high and the proceeds benefit the station’s preservation efforts. There also are several shops near the harbor of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island. For last-minute souvenirs, both the San Cristobal and Baltra airports have several gift shops.
If you are looking for an everyday necessity, the best place is Avenida Baltra on Santa Cruz, which begins at the harbor and runs perpendicular to Avenida Charles Darwin. There, local tiendas (shops) sell food, clothing, kitchen essentials and a lot more. There are also several pharmacies there.
Do not, however, purchase items made from black coral, turtle shells or any other living creature—all these species are protected.
If you want an inexpensive meal, and one that is more traditional to the islands, try one of the restaurants at the kiosk street off Avenida Baltra—you can’t miss it because it’s lined with people dining in the streets. These restaurants are all owned and operated by locals and are where you’ll find most locals dining. Other restaurants are found around the islands, but it takes some exploring. There are even pizza restaurants, ice-cream shops and bars.
There are still a few substandard ships floating around the islands, so it is worth researching what a company’s safety standards are and what international certifications the operator has. There have been stories—although they may by now be as much legend as fact—that occasionally a boat has capsized or run out of such basic supplies as food and water. Keep this in mind if you are bargain shopping—the cost savings for the operator is coming from somewhere. Be sure that it doesn’t come from hiring unqualified guides or through the continued use of old equipment.
Your biggest health concern in the Galapagos is the intensity of the sun. Apply plenty of sunscreen and always wear a hat. Avoid drinking water from a tap. Most boats and ships supply all food and drinks, along with bottled water to take on shore excursions, and you can also get water on the inhabited islands. Be sure to drink plenty of liquids.
Rough seas can occasionally be a problem. Most ship crews are equipped to deal with seasickness, but you may want to talk with your doctor about possible preventive measures before you go. If you know you are susceptible to seasickness, take care to pack medications such as Dramamine or herbal remedies such as ginger tablets. Some travelers claim pressure bracelets help as well. Medications must be takenbefore you fall ill, however.
Biting insects can be found year-round near areas with mangroves, but generally it is only during the peak months of the hot season (February and March) that insect repellent is a must. Malaria and West Nile virus have never been reported on the islands. It is not a good idea to take any spray repellent, since it can harm native insects or plants: Use a (preferably herbal or nonchemical) repellent in lotion form.
DOS & DON’TS
Do listen to your guide for safety procedures. Do not take food or plants to the islands.
Do pay attention to information from a guide who is very knowledgeable about the region. This will enrich your experience.
Do not stray off the indicated paths or venture out on your own.
Do pack plenty of camera memory cards—expect to take far more pictures than you would normally. Many travelers will use up half their stock in just their first couple of amazing encounters with the animals.
Do not ever feed or touch the animals, no matter how friendly they may seem. It is critical that animals do not come to depend on humans or associate them with food or water, or as threats.
Passport/Visa Requirements: All U.S. citizens must have a passport when traveling by air to or from Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America and Mexico. Citizens of Canada, Mexico and the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda also must have a passport or other designated secure document to enter the U.S. Passports are required for land crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders with the U.S. and for cruise passengers returning to the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada or Bermuda. Reconfirm travel-document requirements with your carrier prior to departure.
Time Zone: 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-6 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 110 volts.
Telephone Codes: 593, country code; 5,Galapagos province code; 2,Quito city code; 3,Guayaquil city code;
The U.S. dollar has been the official currency of Ecuador since 2000. Any non-U.S. dollar bills (of any denomination) are no longer legal tender. U.S. coins are also widely used, alongside Ecuadorian centavos, which are minted in units of 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50.
Credit cards are generally accepted (often with high service charges added), but it is generally “cash only” at smaller operations. It is best to ask before purchasing. Banco del Pacifico only has branches in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where you can cash traveler’s checks and find ATMs.
Don’t forget that you will need to pay a US$10 INGALA fee, in the Quito airport, and a US$100 park fee, in the Galapagos airport. You will need cash for both of these.
It is customary to tip the crew and guides on boat tours separately. What you pay depends on the level of service you received, of course, but a general guideline is US$10-$15 per day per traveler.
It’s drier but cooler July-December, with high temperatures generally staying in the 70s F/25 C. The seas are roughest August-October, but the effects of this really depend on the size of the boat. The islands are not a seasonal destination like Alaska or Antarctica, and there really isn’t a bad time to go.
What to Wear
Despite the islands’ proximity to the equator, the water is not always warm. During much of the year, you’ll be more comfortable wearing a wet suit for snorkeling and swimming. Check with your tour operator to see if suits are supplied, or take your own along. Tours are generally casual, and shorts are acceptable there. Evenings onboard cruise boats can be chilly and breezy, so a light jacket or even a sweater will be helpful.
If you have an unrestricted quad-band cell phone, you will be able to use it, as it can connect to the local networks. Price-per-minute is often expensive with cell phones, so be sure to check with your service provider before leaving. Keep in mind that island coverage may be erratic at times because of signal availability.
Most people call outside the country using the Internet program Skype, and most Internet cafes on the inhabited islands have this program downloaded on to each computer. You may need to bring your own headset, however.
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The Baltra airport, which was built by the U.S. during World War II to defend the Panama Canal, is near Santa Cruz, one of the main tourist islands. Most ships depart from the small port on Baltra, but very few will require you to travel across Santa Cruz Island to reach the town of Puerto Ayora, which is on the island’s south side. Such arrangements happen when your boat requires logistical support (fuel, food, water and so forth).
The trip from the Baltra airport to Puerto Ayora takes about an hour. From the airport, you first take a 10-minute bus ride to the Baltra-Santa Cruz canal (free of charge), where you get on a ferry for a canal crossing of about five minutes (US$1). Once on Santa Cruz, you can get to Puerto Ayora by bus (US$3.50 per person) or by taxi (US$15 per five-passenger vehicle).
The airport on San Cristobal is close to the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where most ships anchor in the harbor. Transportation from the airport to the ship is always included. Once you step out from the National Park counter, you will be met by your guide or a ship or hotel representative. Taxis are permanently available from the airport down to the main dock.
Most people visit the islands as part of a prearranged tour, but you can also use one of the islands as a base and take day trips to visit the others. Lately, the fashion of visiting the Galapagos has drawn attention to new markets; visitors who prefer a less-regimented schedule than what ships typically offer may choose to stay at a local hotel and plan an itinerary from there. Some yachts and small boats offer day tours. Small private planes also provide transportation among islands such as San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela (at Puerto Villamil).
In theory, it is possible to rent a pickup truck or van in San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, but only for in-town transport. However, there is no conventional car rental agency anywhere on the islands, and in any case vehicular traffic is closely regulated to protect the environment.
For More Information
The three inhabited islands offer places for tourists to visit for maps and general information on the islands. On Santa Cruz, visit the Galapagos Chamber of Tourism on Avenida Charles Darwin. On Isabela, stop at the Interpretation Center on El Gaviotin, located at the center of town. On San Cristobal, you can check out both the Chamber of Tourism, on Avenida Charles Darwin, and the Interpretation Center; there are two, one close to the intersection of avenidas J. de Villamil and Alsacio Northia, and the other right outside town, where Alsacio Northia ends.
For more information on the islands, visit http://www.govisitgalapagos.com, http://www.darwinfoundation.org, http://www.viveecuador.com, http://www.metropolitan-touring.com, http://www.fundaciongalapagos.org and http://www.galapagospark.org.
A Traveler’s Guide to the Galapagos Islands by Barry Boyce (Non-Series Guidebooks).
Galapagos Wildlife: A Visitor’s Guide by David Horwell and Pete Oxford (Bradt Travel Guide).
Galapagos Reef Fish Identification by Paul Humann.
A Guide to the Birds of the Galapagos Islands by Isabel Castro.
Galapagos: A Natural History Guide by Michael H. Jackson.
Charles Darwin Slept Here by John Woram.
The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.