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Columbus sure gets a lot of credit for places he’s never been.
And while Columbus didn’t actually make it to the islands named for him, you can. Traveling to Ecuador is more affordable than you might think – especially if you can haul yourself to the East Coast to grab a great deal. The best fares to Ecuador depart from New York’s JFK airport or from Miami. You’ll fly into Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Flights from Miami to Quito are approximately 4 hours long and (bonus!) Miami and Quito are on the same time…negating all of those nasty jet lag symptoms I get when flying to Europe.
As a nature and animal lover, the Galapagos has long been on my travel bucket list, so when a friend of mine called last year to inquire if I’d like to join her on a 9-day trip to Ecuador and the Islands in February, I said (screamed) yes immediately!
After spending an interesting day in Key West, FL, we packed our bags, grabbed our snorkel gear and hopped on our flight to Quito. (If you don’t know, interesting is a Midwesterner’s way of saying weird.)
All traffic to the Galapagos Islands must arrive by air to Baltra Island – site of the airport and not much else. Upon landing in Baltra, I decided it looks very much like Tucson, Arizona to me – except that it’s much more humid. (More about the stifling humidity later).
Before navigating your way through Customs, where you’ll present your passport and declaration form, you need to purchase a Tourist Control Card ($10) and a Galapagos Islands National Park Pass ($100). (PS: Ecuador’s currency is the American dollar. An economic crisis in the early 2000s prompted Ecuador to abandon its own currency and make a deal with the good ol’ US of A to begin using ours). The tourist card and parks pass are required for entry into the islands. If you are part of a tour group, as we were, your tour company has most likely made arrangements for these two items. Customs agents will search your bags looking for organic items that can damage the ecosystem in the Galapagos.
The Galapagos Islands consist of 13 major islands, 6 minor islands, and a whole lotta rocks. You’ll need to arrange for transportation on land and on water and this is easily done. We visited 4 islands: Baltra, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Tintorera. From the airport at Baltra, we hopped on a short (and, I mean short) ferry ride over to Santa Cruz Island. I think we were in the water all of 5 minutes.
I was excited about Santa Cruz because it’s the home of the Giant Tortoise. Seeing these gentle giants was on the top of my list. Having had a couple of rough years in which I questioned pretty much every decision I’d made both personally and professionally, I was seeking a wise tortoise (they can live more than 150 years!) to deliver to me some kind of intrinsic truth or message from the universe. As directed by a close friend, I set out to find the wisest tortoise: “The one wearing the monocle,” she said. If you’re like me, seeking messages from wise tortoises, you may be disappointed. Giant Tortoises are, it seems, more interested in eating grass and farting in mud puddles than talking to humans looking for divine guidance. But, in all honesty, they’re still amazing. It’s a wonderful experience to watch these old creatures.
At this point I should point out a few things: The Galapagos Islands are beautiful. Green. Vibrant. Lush. And HOT. There is a price to pay for all of this gorgeous vegetation and it’s called humidity. Temperatures in the Galapagos in February range from 75-86 degrees F. (If you need Celsius temperatures, you’re gonna have to Google.) You think, well those temperatures sound delightful! I can’t wait to escape the cold in (insert your cold city here). I’ll remind you that you are going to add two things to your 80 degree day: 100% humidity and intense equatorial sun.
You are going to sweat. A lot. You are going to sweat a lot. Do not bother bringing hair products or make-up. Really. Don’t do it. You’re going to sweat it all off in a matter of moments. I gave up trying to look presentable about 5 minutes into this vacation. What you are going to need is deodorant (lots of it!) and sunscreen (even more than you think you need).
You’re also going to be tempted to touch the tortoises….you’ll in fact be tempted to touch all the critters you see in the islands, but you cannot. You must maintain a respectful distance of 2 meters (about 6 feet for my fellow Americans) from the animals. Don’t worry, you’re still close enough to view these animals in all their glory and to get incredible photos.
Santa Cruz will be your first opportunity to meet two unique kinds of locals: the sea lion and the marine iguana. Sea lions are not seals, nor are they walruses (an excited woman at the airport told us she had seen walruses. Nope.). The sea lions and marine iguanas are plentiful on Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Tintorera islands. Animals in the Galapagos are largely unafraid of people because there are no land predators. The sea lions are usually very vocal in letting you know when they plan to make their way up stairs or onto a pier. Females and pups are pretty easy going, but the males can be aggressive, so be aware. Marine iguanas are maybe the coolest animal I’ve seen. They look like miniature, black Godzillas with strange turned in feet, but they can swim like nobody’s business and dive underwater to eat algae.
There are plenty of opportunities to hike, swim, and kayak on Santa Cruz Island, including activities along the gorgeous white sands of Tortuga Bay. Tortuga Bay boasts a lovely, calm and shallow swim beach about 50 meters off the end of the trail. Just know, that the trail, from park entrance to the ocean, is about a 45 minute walk and it can be very hot. (It was so hot on the day we attempted this walk that our entire tour group almost revolted).
When you’re ready to do a bit more exploring, you can easily arrange boat transportation from Santa Cruz to Isabela. It works a little bit like this: you take a water taxi out of the crowded port, a speed boat pulls up next to your taxi, you crawl off one boat and onto the other. A 2-hour ride brings you to Isabela where you’ll do the speed boat/water taxi shuffle one more time. Isabela felt more “Galapagos” to me and was much less populated by human standards. There are some great opportunities to swim and snorkel off of Isabela and you may well find yourself in the water with sea lions, iguanas, penguins, rays, sharks, sea turtles, pelicans, and the comical blue footed booby.
We snorkeled and swam every day. Beware the sun! Now that you’re on the water, you’re getting the heat, the sun and the reflection of the sun off the water. You are going to get sunburned. If you’re of the fairer skinned persuasion, like me, you are going to get downright crispy without major intervention. So please, do yourself a favor: take sunscreen and lots of it, take a giant beach hat (who cares if you look ridiculous?!), and take some long sleeved t-shirts to swim and snorkel in. Despite my best efforts, I still ended up with a sunburn, negating all the work my esthetician had been doing to even out my existing freckles and sunspots (sorry, Sandra). If I had it to do over, I’d invest in some gauzy pants and long-sleeved shirts to remain both covered and cool. And aloe. Damn it, I’d bring lots of aloe.
Let’s talk about bugs, baby. Ok, so tourism in Ecuador is down because of the concern around the Zika Virus. In reality, Ecuador has only had a couple of confirmed cases of Zika and they have been on the coast of the mainland. There are mosquitoes, of course, but the largest bug problem I encountered in the Islands was horse flies. Horse flies bite and it hurts. So, take some insect repellent with you. (Shameless plug for my favorite: Sawyer Insect Repellent).
And what about the accommodations?! Hotels, you’ll find, are basic, but nice and clean. I was elated to find air conditioning units in both my room in Santa Cruz and in Isabela. You may find refrigerators in some rooms and an occasional tv (but you won’t need that.) Surprisingly, you’ll also find Wifi at most hotels. Given your location on the globe, connections may be spotty, at best, but we could get a signal long enough to post to our various social media sites. Hot water was also intermittent – but not to worry, with the heat, you’ll find yourself craving cold showers like a crazy person.
Here are two things you need to know. 1. You cannot drink the tap water in Ecuador. You shouldn’t even use it to brush your teeth. You’ll find bottled water or a pitcher of purified water in your hotel room. You would also do well to take a reusable bottle with you, as most hotels, bars, and restaurants in the Galapagos will happily refill it for you with purified water. 2. You cannot flush toilet tissue. I know, I know, it sounds so gross to those of us living in first world countries, but it’s really not the end of the world. Bathrooms are all stocked with toilet tissue and a small trashcan next to the toilet where you’ll toss the tissue after doing your business. Note that in some public restrooms, the toilet tissue is on the wall before you go into your stall.
This trip was a once in a lifetime experience. If you get the opportunity to go to the Galapagos Islands – – – DO IT! Before you go falling in love with the Islands, there are only two ways to be a resident of the Galapagos: (a) be born there or (b) marry a Galapagueño. (I attempted to marry my friend off to our tour guide to no avail. Sigh. Guess I’ll be paying for my room again next time.)
The Galapagos Islands are an incredible place to be. I am eager to return. I got hot, I got sweaty, I got in ocean water (which has its own funky smell) and I enjoyed every single second of it. To the good people of Ecuador: Thank You! And if I smelled remotely like my dirty laundry, I apologize.