Almost one thousand kilometers off the coast of Ecuador lies the ancient archipelago of the Galápagos Islands. The islands are famed for their incredible diversity of fauna and flora. Many of the species inhabiting this remote archipelago aren’t found anywhere else on earth.
Here are a few things to consider if you plan to visit one of the world’s most unique and secluded UNESCO World Heritage sites.
1. It’s REALLY expensive.
The two-hour flight from Quito or Guayaquil, a tour package, and the obligatory tourist tax — a trip to the Galápagos doesn’t come cheap. All tourists are subject to a National Park fee of $100 and must purchase a Transit Control Card (TCC) on arrival. Bear in mind that these fees can only be paid in cash.
2. But totally worth it.
The unique wildlife, landscapes, and values of the Galápagos Islands have elevated the archipelago to a subject of fascination spanning hundreds of years. From Charles Darwin, whose study of the native wildlife significantly contributed to his theory of evolution, to David Attenborough, who brought us the infamous scene of a hatchling marine iguana being chased by snakes on Planet Earth II, there’s nowhere else quite like it.
3. You’ll need to bring cash — and lots of it.
In addition to the National Park fee and TCC being cash-only transactions, there are very few ATMs on the islands. While many shops, restaurants, and cruise liners do take credit cards (Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted), it’s wise to stock up on US dollars, Ecuador’s official currency since 2000.
4. You require a tour guide by law.
In order to preserve the beauty and diversity of the islands, protected areas in the Galápagos National Park can only be visited with a licensed guide. This doesn’t mean you can’t travel the island independently — just be aware that you may have to hire a guide for certain parts of your trip.
5. There are a few ways you can choose to see the islands.
There are three options here: land-based tours, independent island hopping, and cruises. A land-based tour would entail basing yourself on one of the main islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, or Isabela) and heading out on day trips. Cruises are generally more expensive but allow for explorations further afield — although be aware that restrictions reducing traffic in tourist hotspots require cruise companies to modify their routes every fortnight. If you prefer to travel solo, there are buses, taxis, and places to hire bicycles and snorkels — plenty to help the independent traveler get around.
6. And there’s a LOT to see.
Leave yourself enough time to do everything you have planned — at least a week if you can. Flights, transfers, and water taxis all take precious time away from your chance to explore, and while it may look small on a map, the archipelago is actually made up of 13 major islands and 6 smaller islands. It’s also worth bearing in mind that you can’t go diving the day after or before your flight, so be sure to factor that into your plans.
7. Pack seasickness medication.
While the water is said to be calmest between January and June, the waves can catch you out any time of year. If you’re prone to seasickness, bring medication to ward off dizziness and nausea on cruise ships and the small passenger ferries which transfer you between islands.
8. Bring an underwater camera.
Pack your GoPro or pick up an underwater camera at one of the stores in town. You’ll need one to capture memories of swimming with sea lion pups, floating above sea turtles, and diving with hammerhead sharks. Remember that flash photography is not permitted anywhere on the island.
9. Spend a morning in Puerto Ayora.
Watching sea lions queue up at the fish market on Santa Cruz is an experience unique to the Galápagos Islands and one that shouldn’t be missed. There are lots of local shops in Puerto Ayora, too. It’s a great place to pick up a few things to take home and support the local economy and craft.
10. And an afternoon in Tortuga Bay.
White sand, turquoise ocean, marine iguanas, reef sharks…Tortuga Bay is a very special place. Wear comfortable walking shoes to tackle the long path to the beach, take plenty of water, and use the restroom before embarking on the walk (there are no facilities on the beach).
11. Remember to ask for a passport stamp on arrival.
You won’t automatically receive one since you haven’t left Ecuador, but as one of the coolest stamps on the planet, it’s definitely one you’ll want for the collection.