Saturday, February 07, 2015

Top 5 Tips for Visiting the Galapagos

When my cousin and I booked a holiday for our respective birthdays to the Galapagos last year, I knew that the trip would be somewhat outside of my comfort zone—but not for the obvious reasons. As the longest tour I’d ever taken, it would mean being on someone else’s schedule for 10 days straight, all while stuck on a boat with a dozen strangers. 

I can’t say it was my ideal mode of travel, but it was definitely the trip of a lifetime. However, there were a couple of things that I was totally unprepared for.

Here are five things Katherine and I wish we had known before leaving for the Galapagos:

1. You need to know how to snorkel. 

Mention the Galapagos and you'll immediately conjure up images of giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and iguanas. And while this is totally accurate, all these creatures have one thing in common; they all live on land.

It had, for whatever reason, never occurred to me that “wildlife watching” in the Galapagos would include animals in the water. When we booked our trip, we thought that we’d have the opportunity to get in the water on occasion. As it turned out, we snorkelled every single day, sometimes multiple times a day.

Although I love swimming, I have a bit of a fish phobia and I’m not entirely comfortable in snorkelling gear. After being stung by a jellyfish in Mexico when I was 13, I’ve never been particulary keen on the activity. In fact, I’ve successfully avoided snorkelling at half a dozen destinations known for their reefs, including Thailand and the Great Barrier Reef. But when we received our daily itinerary, it was clear I was going to have to learn—and fast.

Getting over my phobia was totally worth it. Although I was usually the first one out of the water and back in the raft, I had sea turtles brush up against me, penguins dive into the water beside me and even managed to catch sight of a massive seahorse.

Bottom line? Bring swimsuits. Lots of swimsuits.

Oh, and there’s sharks. You gotta be okay with sharks.

2. Long-sleeved shirts are your best friends—including in the water. 

Katherine sums up the number one thing we wished we had known about the Galapagos before we left: “I wish I had known how bloody hot and intense the sun is,” she says.

One of us is fair-skinned and one of us is not. We both got brutally burnt. And although we both love hot climates, passing out from the heat during our first guided tour seemed like a very realistic possibility. It was, as Katherine says, intense.

Snorkelling every day is amazing and a great opportunity to cool off, but it leaves you exposed to the sun for hours at a time. In addition to waterproof sunscreen, a long-sleeved UV shirt for swimming is well worth the investment.

For on-land adventures, pack a light scarf (for covering your shoulders and neck), quick-dry clothing (you’re going to sweat a lot), lightweight long-sleeved shirts with collars, a wide-brimmed hat and a refillable water bottle.

Finally, you know that “air-conditioning” that is supposed to be in your cabin? Don’t get your hopes up, especially if your room is in the lower berth.


3. You're on a boat. And guess what? The boat is on water.

Katherine and I both struggle with motion sickness, so we were well stocked with Gravol before we left for our adventure. Seasoned sailors, we knew roughly what to expect.

What we didn’t anticipate? In order to reach our next destination by morning, the boat would often move at night and sometimes this would involve the open ocean.

Be prepared for huge rolling swells that make you feel like you’re going to fall out of your bunk. Some nights, you might not get a solid nights’ sleep—or much sleep at all.

4. You're probably not going to see giant tortoises in the wild.

Maybe our view of the Galapagos was formed largely on PBS documentaries from the ‘80s, but nearly everyone on our boat thought that we were going to see the islands’ giant tortoises chilling on the beach.

This was not the case. Depending on what islands you visit, chances are that you’re not going to see the Galapagos’ most famous resident in the wild.

Here's the first thing you need to know about tortoises; they’re pretty shit at reproduction. They’re lazy about it, which is fair enough considering that it takes hours. Laying eggs—which you already know about from all those documentaries—is a whole other set of trials and tribulations.

So, since humans are partially to blame for their reduced numbers, several breeding centres have been established where you can see the giant tortoises in captivity. However, the captive giant tortoises—through no fault of the these centres—look like the most miserable creatures to roam the earth.

Your other option for seeing giant tortoises (notably much happier-looking tortoises) is at farms owned by land-based tour operators.

While these tortoises are technically “in the wild,” it’s worth noting that land-based tourism is not well regulated by the government. It's arguably responsible for contributing to the islands' ecological destruction, which is worth considering if you want to make a trip to see the creatures. (I wrote an article about this for the last issue of Verge. However, if you want a quick rundown of the issue, you can check out this article from the Galapagos Conservancy or this great interview with Jim Lutz, a member of International Galapagos Tour Operators' Association.)

5. You'll learn about survival of the fittest, which looks surprisingly different in both theory and practice. 

Be prepared to see some dead stuff. Worse, be prepared to see some dying stuff. (Emaciated baby sea lion that's been attacked by a shark? Par for the course.)

However, on the subject of tortoise breeding programs, there’s this fun fact: After they’re born, the tortoises live in captivity for the first seven years of their life because they can’t survive in the wild. Seven years!

Survival of the fittest? If that were the case, tortoises would be extinct by now.

If You Go: 

Tour Providers: Knowing that we wanted to visit the Galapagos in the most ethical way possible, we booked our 10-day holiday with G Adventures. It was expensive, but it was also an investment into making the most responsible travel decision possible.

Where to Stay: Before you meet up with your tour in Quito, check into Gerardo and Irene’s Colonial House. Centrally-located near La Mariscal, it’s comfortable accommodation within walking distance of the Old Town. Irene will go above and beyond to give you directions and help you out. (She even made me an appointment with her hairstylist when I told her that I wanted to get a haircut!)

“Practice your singing before going because there are loads of karaoke bars,” adds Katherine. Consider that a word of caution: bring your ear plugs.

Where to Eat: Ecuadorian cuisine is a must and Achiote in La Mariscal is the place to try it.

Quito Day Trips: Take a packed lunch and spend the afternoon at Termas Papallacta. The scenic two-hour bus ride cost $3.00 and is worth the trip alone. Mitad Del Mundo is also a must-see. If you go, make sure you go to both parks. Next to the state-funded site with the giant monument is a separate privately-run park. Inti-ñan  is the site of the actual equator. (Confusing, I know.)

Birthday Bonus: If it’s your birthday, be prepared to drink. . .or eat. Each restaurant in Quito will offer you a free shot or dessert for your birthday. Make a night of it and create your own mini pub crawl.

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