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October 23, 2011

Exploring the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

by Anne Paddock

The Galapagos Islands are located approximately 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean on the equator.Consisting of 18 islands of various sizes and more than 100 large rock formations and islets, the Galapagos Islands are collectively a national park and marine reserve managed by the Galapagos National Park Service who strictly control the population of and access to the islands.

Famous for the vast number of animal species, the Galapagos Islands gained recognition after Charles Darwin based his theories of evolution and natural selection based partially on his observations in his voyages through these islands.

mapgalap-1Most exploration is from private charter or cruise lines although no boat with more than 100 passengers can enter the marine reserve surrounding the islands.  The islands (outside of the populated villages of the five inhabited islands) can only be explored with a National Park certified Tour Guide which are typically arranged by the boat charter or cruise ship.

canstockphoto5562084The uniqueness of the Galapagos is how the islands have been allowed to maintain their natural environment.  Most of the islands are not inhabited by people and limited to the native species of animals: Blue Footed Boobies, Waved Albatrosses, Swallowed Tail Gulls, Frigate Birds, and other birds, penguins, sea lions, giant tortoises, iguanas, and more.  Many of these animals don’t possess the fear that animals in other parts of the world have because they have not been hunted.

canstockphoto9010628Charles Darwin made the Galapagos Islands famous when he based his Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection on his observations of the species living on the islands nearly 200 years ago.  Visitors are encouraged to observe, photograph, and interact with the animals but not to feed or give water to them because, as the park ranger explained – the animals have to be able to find food and water on their own to survive in this natural habitat. Curious baby sea lions freely approached my daughter while very large (and intimidating) mother sea lions watched closely from a few feet away.

canstockphoto7949724Celebrity Cruise Lines (www.celebritycruises.com) offers a 7-day cruise (from $2,849 and above per person) through the Galapagos on a 300 foot ship called the Xpedition that holds approximately 90 passengers. Guests are met at Baltra airport and transported to the cruise ship.  The 7-day cruise offers both morning and afternoon expeditions to 14 ports on 10 of the islands including the Charles Darwin Research Center and the Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island.

canstockphoto5762482Well organized with the focus on the animals and the environment, guests can choose to snorkel in shallow or deep water, hike, or swim while observing and interacting with the wildlife on the various islands. The views are often spectacular. Between ports, guests can take advantage of the pool, hot tub, sauna, bar, or treadmill (although I don’t recommend this as I was running and went flying off the machine while the ship was navigating through rough waters). All meals and snacks are served on the ship. In addition, room service for any meal or snack is included.

Helpful tips and recommendations include:
  • There are several airports in the Galapagos Islands but the largest is on Isla Baltra and is referred to as Baltra. Most cruise ships exploring the Galapagos start from Baltra.
  • Fly into Guayaquil Airport on the western coast of Ecuador and connect to a 2 hour flight from Guayaquil to Baltra.  LAN and AEROGAL airlines have flights daily.
  • If possible, avoid Quito Airport in central Ecuador.  The airport is at 9,200 feet above sea level and is in the middle of a city surrounded by mountains. Most long distance international flights departing from Quito are not direct (except to Miami) because the fuel requirements make the plane too heavy for takeoff.
  • Many cruise lines or travel agents will try to convince tourists to take a 2 day trip to Quito in central Ecuador before exploring the Galapagos Islands – skip it.  We took this add-on and although there are a few interesting sights in Quito, it’s not worth flying into the Quito Airport or spending two days before flying into Guayaquil and on to Baltra. Better to spend the extra days in the Galapagos Islands.
  • If possible, schedule your flight to arrive early in the morning in Guayaquil to catch a mid-morning flight to Baltra so you don’t have to spend the night in Guayaquil. If you have to spend the night in Guayaquil, there is a Hilton, Marriott Courtyard, and a Sheraton but beware of credit card account theft. The only place I used my American Express on the trip was at the Hilton Hotel and 2 weeks later, American Express called me to confirm two attempts at large ticket purchases in Guayaquil which of course, I wasn’t making.
  • Whatever you take on to the islands, take off.  There are no garbage receptacles.
  • If prone to sea sickness, the bigger the boat the better.  Even on the Celebrity Xpediation which holds 90 passengers, I was queasy most of the trip. Land expeditions were a welcome relief.
  • Bring lots of sunscreen.

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