The Galapagos Islands are a small archipelago of islands belonging to Ecuador in the western Pacific Ocean. The islands are quite remote and isolated, lying some 1000 km (620 miles) west of the South American continent. The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller isles, which together embrace some 50,000 sq km (19,500 sq miles) of ocean.
The Galápagos archipelago is world-renowned for its unique and fearless wildlife - much of which was inspiration for Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. The islands are therefore very popular amongst natural historians, both professional and amateur. Giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and different bird species can all be seen and approached. The landscape of the islands is relatively barren and volcanic, but beautiful nonetheless. The highest mountain amongst the islands is Volcán Wolf on Isla Isabela, 1707 m (5600ft) high.
The Galápagos were claimed by newly-independent Ecuador in 1832, a mere three years before Darwin's visit on the Beagle. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the islands were inhabited by very few settlers and were used as a penal colony, the last closing in 1959 when the islands were declared a national park. The Galapagos were subsequently listed as a World Heritage Site in 1978.
Strict controls on tourist access are maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats and all visitors must be accompanied by a national park-certified naturalist tour guide. The islands currently receive an average of 60,000 visitors per year. Sadly most visitors simply take a boat tour and then depart, allowing very little money to flow to local inhabitants. By extending a stay in Puerto Ayora or elsewhere it helps add money to the local economy and demonstrates to locals the value of the park and the need to end illegal fishing and polluting.
Visiting the Galapagos is not cheap, owing to travel restrictions and the remote nature of the archipelago.
Flights to the Galapagos are relatively easy to arrange and depart from Quito and Guayaquil on a daily basis for the Isla Baltra airport, about two hours by public transport from Puerto Ayora, the main settlement of the Galapagos, on the central island of Santa Cruz. There are also daily flights to San Cristóbal. The airport is a 20 minute walk from the center of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
Both Aerogal and Tame TAME have flights to the Galapagos. The price is the same for both companies, for foreigners around $350 from Quito and slightly cheaper from Guayaquil. Eucadorians pay half the price and there is a 15% discount on TAME flights and a 20% discount on Aerogal flights if you have an ISIC studentcard. Icaro also has flights to San Cristóbal
It's not possible to buy a one way ticket without proof of transportation from the islands. It's easy however to change the date of your return ticket or to switch your departure to the another island.
It is possible to travel to the islands by boat from Guayaquil, but in general this option is a major hassle that won't save money.
Seeing the sites and wildlife of the Galapagos is best done by boat. Most people book their place well in advance (as the boats are usually full during the high season). Booking a boat tour with a company in your home country will usually be the most convenient, but is often considerably more expensive.
Boat tours can also be arranged from Guayaquil, Quito, and even from Puerto Ayora. While it is possible to get a last-minute deal, be aware that many budget tours may spend extra time in Puerto Ayora, might not always be on the best boats, and may only visit the inner islands.
In either case, when looking for a tour consider the following:
On each island, the number of visitors are limited and there are only a small number of official landing and visitor sites. You must follow the instructions of your guide to protect the wildlife and you are not allowed off the marked paths. This is not a problem as the animals are so tame they will sit right on the path or cross it without caring about mere tourists.
The Charles Darwin Foundation administers several research stations throughout the islands, including a large station in Puerto Ayora that is worth visiting for its animal and natural history exhibits.
Snorkelling & scuba diving
Snorkelling and diving are very popular activities as the sea life is so rich and colourful.
Snorkelling equipment should be available from your tour operator (but check first) if you don't have your own. You may also want to bring a waterproof camera. Remember to wear at least a T-shirt and suntan lotion if you are snorkelling, as it's all to easy to get sunburnt in the strong sun.
Diving in the Galapagos is incredible as noted by Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine. Ranked as the best dive destination in the world in the categories of Healthiest Marine Environment, Best Big Animal Dive and Best Advanced Diving.
There are hotels and other accommodation in the towns of Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, however if you really want to see lots of good wildlife, you are best taking at least a 3 day boat tour (see Boat tours above).
In general, crime is not a problem in the Galapagos. Petty crime may occur in the towns, and occasionally fisherman will stage strikes or demonstrations that affect tourists, but for the most part there is little to be concerned about. It should be noted, however, that some items that have been reported missing have been found in the crews` quarters! As most boats do not have lockable cabins, it might be advisable to keep your items locked away in bags in your cabins.
The animal life in the islands is mostly docile with the exception of the large bull sea lions. These animals will vigorously protect their harems, and can inflict dangerous and potentially deadly bites. Do not snorkel close to sea lion colonies. If a bull sea lion approaches you, swim away from the nearest colony. Note that it is only the bulls that are dangerous; swimming with juvenile sea lions can be one of the most exciting parts of a trip.
In addition to sea lions, there is a minimal danger from sharks. In general sharks will not attack unless provoked, although attacks can sometimes occur in murky water when sharks mistake humans for other animals. However, by exercising simple common sense experiences will be almost always be positive.
The park is strictly regulated. Outside of the towns visitors must be accompanied by guides, and visitors are only allowed on land from sunrise until sunset. Itineraries must be registered with the park prior to embarking on a trip, and animals should never be disturbed; while the wildlife in the Galapagos will usually ignore your presence, a general rule of thumb is that if an animal notices your presence then you are too close. Two meters is generally given as a minimum distance to keep away from animals; you will find that if you are calm and respectful that many animals will walk right up to investigate you.
One of the greatest dangers to the islands is introduced species. The park service is trying to eliminate goats, rats, cats, dogs, and introduced plant species on many of the islands, but it is a difficult battle; after evolving for thousands of years without predators, the Galapagos wildlife is not adapted to handle these new species. When traveling to the islands, do not bring any plant or animal life with you, and be sure to always clean your footwear when traveling between islands to avoid accidentally transferring seeds.
Illegal fishing is another threat to the park. Although park officials will deny it, illegal fishing for sharks and seacucumbers occur on massive scale. Most of the fishers don't have another option as the number of fishermen have increased rapidly the last few years while the number fish have plunged. The national park hardly takes any action against it.
Another big threat to the park is the growing population. Although new rules make it impossible for people arriving of the mainland to live and work on the islands, the rules are hardly enforced. Still lots of people come from the mainland to make quick money on the island.
According to local fishermen, corruption at the national park service is the main reason why nothing is undertaking to the treaths. Salaries of parkgaurds are huge even for Galápagos standards. For visitors park rules are enforced to make a well-organized impression. Shiny buildings and visitors centers and guards in uniforms helps to keep up this impression. Meanwhile almost nothing is undertaken against illegal immigration, illegal fishing and the heaps of garbage on the beaches outside the visitor areas. The occasional newsreport about a fishingboat filled with sharkfins and photos of heavy poluted beaches is better for the national park bankaccount than really solving these problems.
The codified park rules are: