LET ME SAY THIS UP FRONT: If you are fascinated by critters of all kinds, a trip to the Galápagos Islands will exceed your wildest dreams. There is no way to mentally prepare for your first close encounter with creatures that exhibit no fear or hostility. It’s almost like being invisible — but not really. They are aware of you. Some are curious, but most are more interested in their own daily affairs — feeding, resting, raising their young or attracting the opposite sex.
It’s an extraordinary adventure, and you’ll want to return with more than memories and souvenirs. Photography will allow you to capture magical moments you can relive and share with friends. Oddly enough, I have seen travelers on trips like this armed only with cheap disposable cameras. More on camera gear later. First, the destination.
The Galápagos archipelago — 19 islands ranging in size from small atolls to the 1,771-square-mile Isabela — straddles the equator 600 miles off the west coast of South America. Experts theorize the islands broke away from the mainland, carrying with them mammals, reptiles, birds and plants that adapted to the islands’ diverse environments and now exist nowhere else in the world. Other than the Galápagos hawk, there are no predators — though humans have always posed a danger. Crews from sailing ships used to stack live giant tortoises in their holds for food and slaughter seals for their fur.
Profoundly moved by a Galápagos visit in 1835, British naturalist Charles Darwin began to ponder evolution. Fortunately, Ecuador recognized the natural treasure lying off its shores and declared the region a national park in 1959. Since then, the government controlled human habitation and visitation and worked to remove non-endemic species such as goats and rats. The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz raises giant tortoises to bolster populations on several islands. Today, most visitors experience the islands as Darwin did, by boat. Vessels are limited to 110 passengers, who disembark in small groups to walk on marked paths, maintaining a six-foot distance from any critters.
And oh, the creatures you’ll see! Boobies with feet of red, black and teal blue perform mating dances while ebony frigate birds inflate huge scarlet throat bladders to attract the opposite sex. Sea lions bask on beaches, nursing their babies, and iguanas (marine and land) sun themselves on rocks. Colorful crabs linger at the surf ’s edge, and birds — including the many varieties of Darwin’s finches — twitter from gnarly trees. You’ll encounter playful young sea lions again while snorkeling or scuba diving, along with sea turtles, sharks and cute Galápagos penguins. The islands themselves are varied, ranging from the jade-green beaches of Floreana to the volcanic moonscape of Bartolomé and the red sand and ancient cacti forest of Rábida.
There is a 44-pound luggage weight restriction on flights to the Galápagos, so pack wisely: quick-drying shorts and shirts you can wash out in your shower, one pair of lightweight long pants, a light rain jacket, a fleece or sweatshirt, Teva-style sandals, bathing suit, hat, sunscreen, insect repellent — and a money belt for passport, credit cards and cash.
For peace of mind, take two digital cameras with zoom lenses (18–270mm, for instance) that you can shoot without a tripod, and a waterproof point-and-shoot for snorkeling. Pack manuals for cameras, chargers, extra batteries and memory cards — and a small laptop for downloading images. Add a backpack to hold gear during “wet landings” from inflatable boats and hiking. Include a couple of plastic bags to protect cameras from sudden rain showers. Flash photography is not allowed, so be sure you know how to turn it off.
Needless to say, obey all park rules, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.
Galápagos Info to Go
Bring cash (the U.S. dollar is the official currency). Not only will you need to tip the crew of your ship, you’ll need cash to enter the islands. Flights to the Galápagos depart from Guayaquil (GYE), including connections from Quito (UIO). When you arrive at either airport on mainland Ecuador, the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency will inspect your bag and issue you a $20 mandatory tourist transit card. Be prepared to show the card, your return air ticket and your hotel or cruise reservation. (This requirement became law in 2017 but was not enforced.) From Guayaquil, it’s a 90-minute flight to the islands of Baltra or San Cristóbal. There you will pay a $100 ($50 for children) entrance fee, in cash, to the Galápagos National Park. For details on park rules, weather and seasonal animal activities, visit the Galapagos Conservancy website (galapagos.org).
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