What to expect visiting the Galapagos Islands
We did a lot of research and planning for this trip to the Galapagos Islands and I am happy to share everything with you! It is truly an incredible place to visit so if this destination is on your bucket list, here are some tips and tricks to help with your trip.
The language. Everyone around the islands speaks some level of English, enough for transactional conversations, but learning some simple Spanish will take you a long way. Outside of politeness and enabling your interaction with locals, many instructions and directions were solely dictated in Spanish so it is helpful to pick out basic words to understand.
Know the fees. There are a few fees to be aware of when traveling to the islands.
- The first is obtaining a Migration Card (Transit Control Card) at either the Guayaquil or Quito. This document permits you entrance to the islands and documents your presence there. The cards are $20 per person and there is an online form (instructions!) you can fill out in advance to expedite the process. Notify the migration officer of your complete online form, or else they’ll simply hand you a blank one to fill out! It is recommended to leave at least two hours between your arrival in Ecuador and your connection to the Galapagos to complete this process. You also have to get your bags checked for any products not permitted on the islands before getting in line for the Migration Card. We waited in line for about an hour, leaving us with an hour to get through security and to our gate. Do not lose this card! You must present it at the end of your trip when leaving the Galapagos at the security check point. I kept ours tucked inside our passports.
- The second fee is the National Park Entrance fee which is paid at the airport in the Galapagos- either San Cristobal or Baltra. Upon arrival, you hand the officer your newly obtained Migration Card and then pay the $100 per person entrance fee (for non-citizens of Ecuador). The big caveat with this is there is no ATM at either of the airports on the islands. You must have this money before you leave the mainland. Another issue is that bills greater than $50 are not accepted so do not plan on paying this fee with a $100 bill.
- Travelers insurance is required for entrance onto the islands. This is a fairly new regulation and we were not asked for proof upon arrival but I expect this to be enforced in the future. The regulation is vague on what is necessary for coverage but in addition to the basics of trip cancellation, luggage lost, etc, having medical coverage including transportation is critical since any major medical problem would require a helicopter ride to the mainland for treatment. We used World Nomads standard plan since we were not planning on participating in the explorer package activities. You do not want that bill sent to you!
Important Documents. It is vital to have important documents such as passports and travel confirmations. WiFi is very unreliable so it is best to take photos of these documents so they are on your phone without needing Internet. While printing or photocopying these are also helpful, they can also be lost or damaged. A surprise for us was that the entrances of the national parks require visitors to sign in- one column is for your passport number. I do not have our passport numbers memorized (perhaps I should) and so having the pictures on our phone saved us from having to go back to the hotel or carry the originals with us.
Booking excursions. While there are plenty of activities you can do on your own, most of the popular park areas require a Naturalist Guide escort to both educate tourists and protect the environment and animals. There are several considerations that can impact how you choose to book these excursions.
|Boat Trip||Constantly exposed to marine life
Great last minute deals
Quicker access to the parks
|Miss the spontaneous antics of the animals on land
Less flexibility (stuck on a boat!)
|Island Hopping||Wide variety of parks to visit, some not accessible by boat
Not set to a strict schedule
|Travel time increased||
|Booking ahead of time||Guaranteed spot on excursions- limited number of groups can go out to parks each day
Carry less cash since it is paid for in advance
Cannot change upon arrival for bad weather, sickness, etc
|Booking onsite||Last minute deals can be excellent in saving you money
Flexibility to do what you want when you want
|Risk of missing out on popular excursions due to full tours|
|Group tours||Meet new people
More cost effective
|With other people
Not a custom experience
|Private Tour||Experience to yourself||More expensive||
Don’t drink the water. It is not safe to drink the tap water in the Galapagos. The water is desalinated but not decontaminated. While this can make meal time tricky (rinsing and prepping foods, hand washing, handling food), bottled water is readily available for purchase. Hotels have large communal jugs of water that can be used by guests. We bought refillable water bottles to avoid spending money when dining. I recommend the refillable water bottle to hold at least 24 oz or a liter of water- especially for longer excursions that don’t have reliable access to a clean water supply.
Please tip! Excursions typically consist of a driver or boat crew and a Naturalist Guide who facilitate the experience. It is customary to tip these individuals as they are usually freelancers on behalf of a tourist booking company. There are also a limited number of groups that can visit destinations in a day. These individuals often work very hard to ensure you have a safe experience and the best chance of seeing wildlife. A good place to start is $5 per person for the drivers/boat crew and $10 per person for the naturalistic guide. We tipped more when we had private excursions or if the service was exceptional.
Food variety. Lots of rice, fish, and beans on this trip! Seafood is common but the default fish our time of year visiting was tuna. Lobster is coveted but is only available from September to January. Chicken is also found on occasion with high frequency on Isabela Island. As mentioned, poor water safety or improper food storage can contaminate food, leading to a higher likelihood of food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea.
Know your physical capability. Despite being in good physical shape and decent swimmers, we went to bed every night completely exhausted! From hiking the Sierra Negra Volcano, hours snorkeling in waves and strong currents by Kicker Rock, paddle boarding across the bay to the Tintoreras, bike riding through sand and hills over 5 km to the Wall of Tears, climbing an infinite number of stairs to Frigate Hill and much more, there is no shortage of physical activities so know your limits before you overbook your body. And while this trip could be a relaxing beach trip, you would miss the tremendous wildlife that makes Galapagos so unique.
Invest in gear. Packing light is critical for this trip as the luggage weight for all of our flights was 8 kg/17.6 pounds for a carry on. Each item was specifically chosen for its vitality on the trip. Here is a packing video, accompanied by a detailed packing list for this trip.
- Good shoes. I was determined to only bring one pair of shoes so I needed something lightweight and functional for hiking volcanic rock and water landings at the shore, all while maintaining comfort for miles of walking a day. While I did not think I could obtain such a shoe, I finally found Xero shoes which has far exceeded expectations as the perfect shoe for our trip. These puppies are a permanent item for our adventure packing!
- Quick drying microfiber towel. There are a ton on the market- we chose this one and it was definitely up for the job. It was our first time using a microfiber towel and it was essential for our water activities. It quickly dried us off and also dried on its own overnight, ready for the next day.
- Waterproof/resistant day bag. Since we would be out all day in the water for excursions, having a bag that was actually waterproof rather than resistant was important to me. While I struggled to find a truly waterproof bag that was also portable, I found this well rated waterproof bag that ended up working out great. It folds up into itself so it stays compact during travel!
- Sun protection. You did not travel all the way to the Galapagos Islands to ruin your time with sunburn. The sun really is more intense at the equator and you will be vulnerable, especially if you are not used to it. We took sun protection very seriously- brought our trusty solid sunscreen stick, his and her UV protective shirts, wide brim hat with for Kevin and for me.
- Medicine. I will elaborate on this in more detail in another post but prepare yourself for sea sickness. Meclizine is a great over the counter option and it is chewable! As a pharmacist, I also packed everything short of antibiotics and it helped since I did get sick.
Cash only. The currency in Galapagos is the US dollar. It is extremely uncommon for businesses to accept credit cards and if they do, there can be a service charge that sneaks its way onto your bill. While Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have ATMs on the island (and by ATMs it is one or two ATMs on the entire island), Isabela does not have ATMs- plan accordingly! Be smart on how you store your cash while you are traveling. While most hotel rooms had safes, we utilized the locks on our backpacks while distributing the money in various spots (my favorite being inside my Coobie!). Only take what you need on excursions as your stuff remains exposed on the boat or in a car while you are out and about. Also, have plenty of smaller bills such as $5 and $1 for tipping.
No guarantee in nature. Time of year, time of day, water temperature, air temperature, food supply, previous visitors, forecasted weather, low tide – just some of the factors that can impact your ability to see everything on your wildlife list. Our Naturalist Guide could not make hammerhead sharks appear (Kicker Rock) nor the fog evaporate (Sierra Negra) for the perfect shot. Of note, the rule is a 2 meter / 6 foot distance between yourself and the wildlife. And do not worry, you will see plenty of wildlife all around you regardless of when you go!
To read an overview of the trip: Galapagos Islands