Lets be honest – how many places are there on earth where you can wander amongst puzzled wildlife, who have no apparent fear of you? Welcome to the Galápagos Islands.
I haven’t travelled to the island destination myself, but my sister and her husband visited the Galápagos Islands earlier this year and loved every second of it. She was kind enough to share some of her photos with me, and I thought I’d combine them with some information on the Galápagos Islands, its history, and how you can travel there.
WHAT ARE THE GALAPÀGOS ISLANDS
The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of about 20 islands, plus many small islets, located about 1000kms off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. It is a double World Heritage site, protecting both the land and the sea. The individual islands each have a unique landscape, with some looking like the surfaces of the moon, or completely barren. Others host white sandy beaches leading to a blue-green oceanscape, and the vast majority of the islands are covered with relatively tame and unique wildlife species.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF THE GALÀPAGOS ISLANDS?
The Galápagos Islands were discovered by the first Bishop of Panama, Tomás de Berlanga, completely by accident in 1535. This occurred when he drifted off course on his way to Peru. He didn’t think much of the islands, considering them to be pretty desolate, isolated and worthless. However, in his correspondence to the King of Spain, Charles V, he described the harsh conditions of the islands and its fascinating tortoises, birds and marina iguanas.
The Galápagos were subsequently used as a base by buccaneers, sealers and whalers. Much like the Kakapo of New Zealand, the giant Galápagos tortoises offered an abundance of fresh food. The poor tortoises were caught and stacked to the rafters, still alive, in ships’ holds. Over 100, 000 tortoises are estimated to have been taken overseas on voyages between 1811 and 1844. Because the tortoises could live for a long time with relatively little care, they provided fresh meat for sailors for months to come. “Lonesome George,” the last of the Pinta Island tortoise breed, died in 2012. In 1832, Ecuador decided to claim the islands.
If you’ve heard of the Galápagos islands, its probably because of Charles Darwin. The visit of the HMS Beagle in 1835 is the most important event in Galápagos history. The 22 year old naturalist Charles Darwin was on the Beagle, and took part in a study of the islands. In his studies, he noted the differences between the birds on different islands. He was later informed that tortoises had developed in a similar way. His observations helped lead to the formation of his theories on natural selection and evolution. He published The Origin of Species in 1859.
HOW DID THE ISLANDS REMAIN UNTOUCHED?
Over the centuries, travel to the Galápagos Islands was rare, due to their remote location and difficulty of access. However, damage still occurred to the islands over the years.
The Ecuadorian government declared parts of the islands wildlife preserves in 1935. In 1959, the Galápagos Islands were declared a national park by Ecuador. In the same year, the Charles Darwin Foundation was founded. The Charles Darwin Research Station opening four years later. Work focussed on trying to rebuild the tortoise population which had been severely decimated. Later, they began a similar effort with the land iguanas. A park service was established in 1968, and in 1978, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Later, 138,000 square kilometers of the ocean surrounding and containing the islands was declared a marine reserve.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT OF TOURISM ON THE ISLANDS?
Tourists started coming to the islands in 1970, but this was limited to only small numbers. Up to 200,000 tourists per year visit the islands now, but this is heavily regulated. These limits ensure that operators are controlled, tourists are limited to visiting certain islands and they must be with licensed guides, visitor sites are carefully monitored, and controls on migration have been implemented.
HOW CAN I VISIT THE GALÀPAGOS ISLANDS?
Being one of those ‘once in a lifetime destinations’, travel to the Galápagos Islands is expensive. This is in part due to the travel restrictions put in place to protect the islands, and also because they are rather remote! You have to travel by plane from Guayaquil or Quito airports. Once you are there, you can choose to stay on one of the islands available to tourists, or to take a boat trip around several islands, staying on board.
WHAT ARE MY DIFFERENT TRAVEL OPTIONS?
As noted above, your main options are to travel by boat – sleeping onboard – or to stay on one of the islands where you are allowed to do so. When I say ‘boat’, these are boats rather than ships. The largest takes no more than 110 people, due to operator restrictions.
Most people visiting the islands do so on small ship experiences, lasting from four days to 12 days. Boat travel takes advantage of night hours to travel long distances between islands. If you have a large group, you can even consider chartering your own boat. If you have more than 12 people, this can work out cheaper.
Another option is to stay ashore in a hotel on one of the larger populated islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, or Isabela) and take day trips to nearby uninhabited islands. You will be more limited in what you can visit, due to the proximity of the islands that can be reached in a day trip, and you might miss out on seeing some of the local animals.
Island-hopping tours are becoming more popular and allow tourists to see the islands without staying on a boat for the whole time. Island-hopping is mainly based from San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz, with accommodation also available on the islands of Floreana and Isabela.
My sister and her husband opted to stay on a boat for the duration of their stay. The company they travelled with was Rolf Wittmer Cruises, and the boat was the Tip Top 2 Catamaran. While small, the boat was comfortable, and they were very happy with their trip. They travelled the Northwest itinerary which went from Baltra Island to Santiago, up to Genovesa (land of the Nazca and Red Footed Boobies!) then back to the western side of Santiago, and then around the western side of Isabela Island and to Fernandina Island. It was a seven night itinerary.
WHAT ANIMALS AM I LIKELY TO SEE?
The most famous inhabitants of the Galápagos Islands are undoubtedly the Galápagos Islands Tortoises, its boobies and marine iguanas. But this is just a small number of the animals you may see! With a huge range of sea birds and marine animals, the islands offer a unique glimpse of eco-diversity in action. The Quasar Expeditions website has a great list of birds and animals you will encounter on a trip to the islands.
WHAT ACTIVITIES ARE THERE TO DO?
Activities are based around outdoor exploration, with boat trips, kayaking, swimming and snorkeling, diving and hiking the most popular. My sister and her husband had the opportunity to snorkel around eight times on their seven day voyage. They even saw the dreaded sunfish!
IS THERE A GOOD TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT?
The good news is – anytime! Really, you should plan your trip around the activities you are most interested in. Water activities will be less fun during the choppy ‘cooler’ season. The high season runs from mid-June to early September and December through January, so prices might be more expensive then. Because the national park regulates the number of people that can visit, however, the islands never feel overcrowded.
WHAT SHOULD I BRING WITH ME?
Outdoor wear! Seriously, don’t show up in your fancy clothes. Given that you will be trekking, swimming and climbing, you need comfortable clothing, a good backpack, a water bottle and hiking boots. Bring a light waterproof jacket incase of rain or rough seas. Make sure to take seasickness tablets if you are prone to nausea on boats. Being situated right on the equator, you need to take strong sunscreen with you, and a hat for sun protection. Of course, taking the best camera you can manage to get your hands on will be a good idea. You won’t want to miss getting those animal shots!
ANY OTHER NEED TO KNOW INFORMATION?
Speaking of animal shots, Conde Nast Traveller recommend the following spots for the ultimate holiday snaps!
Punta Suárez, Española: Known as “albatross airport,” this site features the largest breeding grounds of the waved albatross in the Galápagos. Consequently, it’s a great spot to capture the albatross as it lands and takes flight. Punta Suárez is also home to a number of other bird species, including Galápagos doves, finches, oystercatchers, and Galápagos hawks.
Isla Seymour Norte: Located next to Baltra, this small island is another prime spot for birding. Get up close and personal with blue-footed boobies and frigates, whose scarlet chests inflate like a balloon during mating season.
Punta Espinoza, Fernandina: Marine iguanas are the main attraction here. This is reportedly the largest marine iguana colony in the Galápagos Islands.