Ever since I read about the beauty of the Galapagos Islands in Rita Goldman’s “The Tales of a Female Nomad” two years ago, it has been my wish to visit the islands and its vibrant array of colorful wildlife. The blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises, and never-ending line of sea lions are enough to entice every different type of traveler.
However, after doing more research online I realized that the Galapagos Islands are so much more than a place to sightsee, snorkel, and have a good time. It’s also one of the most biodiverse places on the entire planet. In fact, this is where Charles Darwin conducted much of his research that led to his theory of evolution, hence the name of the famous Charles Darwin research station. The area spewed up after tectonic plates passed over a hot spot in the earth, creating a massive array of 13 volcanic islands. The older of the islands, such as San Cristobal and Santa Fe, have drifted away from the hot spot and are not as volcanically active. The islands’ remote location means that there are many animals that can only be found there. They are thought to have traveled to the islands by air and sea. Some scientists think that many plant seeds made their way to the Galapagos accidentally, but were unable to flourish because of the environment. This is potentially why many of the plant species that survived were more weedy and able to withstand different kinds of environments.
Knowing this, I became determined to find a tour or volunteer program that would allow me to have the most extensive and meaningful experience possible. The rare animals and wildlife means that the islands are heavily protected, so I wanted to do something that would help preserve the natural ecosystem while still having a good time. But though I signed up for many different Galapagos newsletters and discount alerts, every company seemed to offer the same sky-high prices and the same cruise vacation. This is why I finally decided on Lead Adventures’ Galapagos Volunteer Experience Program. The prices were a little more affordable for a stereotypical recent university graduate and it combined volunteering with traveling. The variations in the itinerary meant that I wouldn’t be spending all my time stuck on a boat!
After finally deciding on a program that fit my needs, it was time to prepare for the trip. Because visiting the Galapagos is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I wanted to make sure that I was well-prepared to make the absolute most of it. Talking to the staff at Lead Adventures and doing research online helped me gather everything I needed. Here are some things to keep in mind while preparing your Galapagos experience so you can have the best trip possible!
1. Book your spot in advance
Because the Galapagos Islands are so well protected and popular, a limited number of people are allowed to be on the islands. This number doesn’t only include tourists and volunteers-it also counts the large number of researchers and scientists that reside in the research stations. To make sure that you get your chance to go, try to book your spot about three or four months in advance, especially if you’re planning on going during busier months such as June or July. Giving yourself this time will also allow you time to book your flight and get the best deal possible. Spontaneous travel is definitely exciting and fun, but this is one place where you shouldn’t try to just run over to. Unlike some other famous destinations, the Galapagos requires a little bit more planning.
2. Decide on what camera equipment you’ll bring in advance
The exciting amount of endemic animals and wildlife means that you’ll want to take pictures after turning every corner. After all, some of these animals don’t exist anywhere else, so take the chance! But how you capture these sights is heavily dependent on the kind of traveler you are and what kind of pictures you want to take. For those who are only going for fun and don’t care much about having professional-looking photos, I recommend that you leave to DSLR are home (and definitely don’t buy a new one for this trip!). Many people of this kind bring these professional cameras but only shoot on “automatic mode,” which defeats the purpose of using one! Unless you’re going to deliberately use the various functions of a professional camera, a cheap point-and-shoot or even a phone is fine. In fact, Iphone 6s take stunningly great photos! Carrying around an expensive and big camera will only be annoying and hinder your experience. No one wants to spend too much time worrying about their equipment when they should be enjoying the experience. Just store your small camera or phone in a Ziploc or plastic grocery store bag to keep it safe. This will make it easy to switch from the land and boat experiences that the Galapagos Experience program offers!
That being said, there are many people who do want the professional photos and video footage. For these people, I recommend that you include a good zoom lens in your pack (depending on what you want to shoot). Unlike animals in other places, the animals that reside in the Galapagos Islands are used to people, and it can be easy to get up close to them. However, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be doing something that you want to shoot when you’re that close-that’s where the zoom lens can come in handy. But obviously this shouldn’t be the only lens you bring because you’ll be shooting more than just the animals-the landscape is not to be missed! Wide-angle lenses are great for capturing the beautiful scenery.
For particularly adventurous people, a GoPro is great for capturing footage of your activities. And many people enjoy bringing various kinds of underwater cameras because of the large amount of snorkeling that everyone loves doing. You’ll see a lot of amazing animals on land, but there’s an equally large amount to see underwater!
But no matter what, don’t forget to bring a rain cover or plastic bag (after all, you’ll be surrounded by water!)
And if you are bringing an expensive camera, try to bring a well-padded camera bag to keep all of your equipment safe, because you’ll be doing a lot of movement around the islands!
3. Research the rules in advance
The Galapagos Islands are not only a National Park, but also a World Heritage Site. This means that unlike other destinations, the islands have some rules that are a little stricter. These rules are essential to preserving the islands and keeping the natural beauty intact so make sure to keep these in mind! After all, part of the reason why The Galapagos Experience Program is so great is because it aims to be environmentally conscious.
Also, researching these rules in advance can help save you a lot of trouble! For instance, smoking and campfires are not allowed on the park grounds because they can be dangerous to the ecosystem. So if you’re a smoker, make sure that you’re prepared by leaving the lighters at home. And photographers keep in mind that flash photography is not allowed when taking pictures of the animals. Professionals who want to use certain equipment that goes beyond simple personal photography, need to receive special permission from park officials. For a full list of the park rules, visit the Galapagos Conservatory website so that you don’t end up making any mistakes. http://www.galapagos.org/travel/park-rules/
4. Prepare for potential motion sickness or altitude sickness
Not a big deal for most of travelers, before going to the Galapagos Islands, you will have to spend a night in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. http://lead-adventures.com/blog/ecuador/15-things-to-do-in-quito-before-your-galapagos-experience-program.html The city is 9,350 feet high, so many visitors often feel a little bit dizzy or sick when they first arrive. Other symptoms often include a loss of appetite or an inability to sleep. So make sure to drink lots of water and don’t plan to do too much on your day there in case you start feeling sick! Quito is a beautiful city with a lot to offer, but try not to see everything all at once-pick your favorite attraction and stick with that. Some great activities include a city bus tour, a visit to Old Town, and more!
Once you get to the islands, try to make sure you have good medication if you tend to be susceptible to motion sickness. Although Lead Adventures’ program doesn’t require you to sit on a boat for too long, you will have to hop on a speedboat sometimes, such as when you travel around the different islands. Preparing for this will prevent you from spending your vacation feeling and nauseous when you could be having fun instead! If you do end up forgetting, there are some places in the Galapagos Islands that carry a motion sickness medication called Mareol.
5. Double-check everything you pack!
Some travelers like to rough it with only a couple of shirts, while others prefer to have more things on hand. However, no matter what your travel style is, make sure to double-check everything you pack and try not to plan on buying too many essential items in Ecuador in an attempt to save space. Although Quito is a big city, many items, such as clothing and electronics, are much more expensive then they are elsewhere. You’ll want to save money for the things that you can’t get anywhere else, such as cool souvenirs from the Galapagos Islands.
6. Bring some cash
Although there are ATMs in the Galapagos, you don’t want to have to pay those huge international bank fees. Most restaurants and such do accept credit cards, but have some cash handy for places that don’t take them or have a credit card minimum. Also, try to have bills in smaller denominations, such as $10, $5, and $1 to make things easier because sometimes places may not have much change. And especially make sure not to don’t $100 bills because they are not accepted by Ecuador’s commerce systems. Another important thing to keep in mind is that the national park entrance fee ($100) can only be paid in cash, so have it on hand before your get there. Much of this fee goes toward the preservation of the islands’ ecosystem and Ecuador’s municipal government.
7. Make sure to have travel insurance!
Although Lead Adventures offers a very safe Galapagos Experience program that provides a lot of assistance and includes a free travel insurance if you request it!, it’s still always good to have travel insurance just in case. After all, traveling to different countries and doing new things can be unpredictable! The Galapagos Islands have two hospitals, but you wouldn’t want to pay the high prices if anything happens. Lead Adventures automatically includes two weeks of health insurance into the programs, but if you’re staying longer than that make sure to talk to them about extending that coverage or find another provider. Their insurance provider is US/European-based, but they work with a local broker to make sure that everything gets processed efficiently, quickly, and reliably.
8. Bring insect repellent
Although the Galapagos isn’t necessarily known for having a massive amount of bothersome insects, it’s still a good idea to bring it for certain days and locations. Usually there are more mosquitos flying around during the wet season (around December to early May). However, don’t be scared because these mosquitos aren’t known to carry malaria or dengue fever, so there is no need to be paranoid or bring malaria medicine. Bringing insect repellent will just help you avoid any itchy problems or annoyances. However, it is advisable to ask your guide about the area in which you are going each day because again, some islands and locations will have more bugs than others. If you are particularly skittish about mosquitos or don’t want to use repellent, taking B or B12 vitamins approximately 15 days before your trip is rumored to work as a natural repellent. Although I have never tried this myself and there are no specific scientific studies that back up this theory, there are some people who swear by it if you wanted to give it a try.
9. Study up on your Spanish
While you don’t need to be completely fluent in Spanish in order to successfully navigate your way around, it’s always helpful and interesting to learn at least some of the language of your destination. Brush up on some useful phrases before you go so you don’t have to scramble around in phrasebook every time you need it. Learning many travel phrases, such as those that have to do with asking about prices and destinations, can help save you a lot of time and effort. However, also remember to bring that phrasebook and Spanish dictionary for when you can’t remember or need to say something you haven’t learned! Many language apps, such as “Duolingo”, are free, easy to use, and can be used while you’re going about your daily activities, such as commuting to work on the train. With “Duolingo” and other apps, you can practice speaking, writing, and reading. And because you’re going to the Galapagos, try to pay specific attention to the words for animals because that’s what you’ll be seeing a lot of!