The Galápagos is one of the world's most unique destinations, where you experience utterly pristine landscapes and come face to face with Darwin’s giant tortoises. But deciding whether or not this journey — which is more of an expedition — is right for you depends greatly on your expectations. Planning a trip to the Galápagos can be tricky due to regulations, travel logistics and weather patterns. Here are ten things to consider before you make the decision to go.
The Galápagos is often thrown into the general pot of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like, say, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and the Serengeti. And while the landscapes here are uniquely pure and pristine, the overall destination is, in fact, not a good fit for everyone. Visitors who will be most happy are people who are truly passionate about ecology, science and preservation, and who can go without high-end luxury in exchange for seeing a natural habitat that has been virtually undisturbed since the dawn of time. Serious scuba divers will also love the Galápagos – the marine life here is among the best in the world.
2. It's not a high-luxury destination (though the price tag implies it is). Especially travelers who are used to combining bucket-list sites with uber-lavish accommodations (Aman in Cambodia; Singita in Tanzania; Taj in India) need to consider whether the Galápagos is right for them. Even the newest hotels, all located on Santa Cruz island, offer uneven experiences, so knowing which rooms to book is key (contact Indagare's Bookings Team for help). Despite offering somewhat lackluster hotel experiences, the price tag at most properties during high season will hover around $1,000 per day.
Banish all thoughts of do-it-yourself exploration. The Galápagos is an enormous national park, with 97 percent of it completely restricted. It's impressive to be sure – including seven eco-systems that can be traversed via a 30-minute drive. But how you are experiencing this natural wonder is controlled: tourists cannot drive themselves and land excursions on the islands are done in groups led by official guides and rangers.
Travelers who like getting off the beaten path to avoid the crowds have to accept that this is a difficult — if not impossible — undertaking in the Galápagos. In order to protect the natural habitat, excursions are organized and restricted. This combination makes for busy touring, especially at such famous sites as the Darwin Station, where you can see the Galápagos Tortoise. Expect to be among groups of other guests on buses and boats, or to pay significantly more to arrange private and semi-private excursions with your own guides and vehicles.
Generally speaking, the best time of the year to go is December through March, when temperatures are in the 80s and 90s; and the water temperature is around 70 degrees, making it a great time for swimming and snorkeling. (The water is also more calm this time of year, a bonus for travelers who tend to get seasick). April and May are great months for spotting baby land animals, but if marine mammals are what you're after, then consider visiting July to December when the Humboldt Current comes up through the islands bringing cool, nutrient-rich waters that are perfect for whale-watching and diving.
5. Know the pros and cons of being land-based. Land accommodations are often more spacious than a small ship or boat charter, and the touring pace tends to be more relaxed. (Land-based tours are also often more ecofriendly.) However, by staying stationary, you will lose valuable time in transit on day trips; for example, it can take four hours round trip from Puerto Ayora to Isabela Island. Land-based tours cannot reach some of the more remote islands, such as Genovesa (the so-called Bird Island) and isolated Española, home to such endemic species as the Española Mockingbird and the waved albatross.
Most travelers opt to spend the majority of their time in the Galápagos on a small ship or charter (cruise ships contribute to a lot more pollution and are therefore discouraged). The biggest plus is that you can reach the remote islands, but the major cons are that you are only off the boat a few hours each day and they are more expedition vessels than luxury charters. Another of the great advantages is that a boat is the ultimate way to get away from the crowds, and you'll spend more time at the sites instead of in transit. Plus, you are with the same naturalists every day, so you get to know them and they you.
7. Those with sea-sickness should not sign up for a water-based itinerary. Anyone prone to sea sickness should consider that the distances between islands are vast (4-6 hour night passages are not uncommon) and the water is choppy for most of the year. Many sea-based itineraries include two to three landings a day, which means that you're seeing the islands at quite a fervent pace. And, finally, most sea-based itineraries require at least a five-day minimum (with some of the best private yachts requiring seven), so you’ll need at least one week to participate even in the shortest ones.
Visiting the Galápagos requires a fair amount of walking and the terrain and temperatures can be brutal. Getting in and out of a Zodiac during the island landings can be challenging for older visitors and kids; while the uneven terrain and steep volcanic islands can also present challenges. Be realistic about your physical limitations (and the aforementioned sea-sickness factor).
9. Scuba diving requires additional planning. Those who want to scuba dive should plan to spend a few days before or after touring in Puerto Ayora or San Cristobal. It is very hard to arrange any scuba time in conjunction with a cruise because of debarkation and embarkation times – it also means you would miss some of the great land-based sites. Be aware that some of the best sites in the Galápagos have additional certification requirements, and some sites have currents and surge that require more experience.
10. You should plan in an extra night getting there. You can fly direct to Ecuadorian cities Quito or Guayaquil from major US cities (New York, Miami, Houston) and then connect to the Galápagos' San Cristobal airport or Baltra airport off the coast of Santa Cruz. The flights for the Galápagos often leave in the morning, so plan to spend a night in either Quito or Guayaquil. For those with more time to travel, we recommend hacienda and Amazon excursions as well. Indagare Tip: If you have a history of altitude sickness at elevations below 9,000 feet, we recommend flying into Guayaquil.
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