Our 2015 trip to the Galapagos was my wife’s choice. While I had an interest in the ecology and evolutionary history of the islands, my preferred vacation would have been more urban and more culturally focused. But both my wife and I found the Galapagos to be a spectacular trip. Never before had we been immersed in a natural environment where the animals were so oblivious to your presence and the range of geology, plants, animals, marine life and sheer beauty of the islands were spectacular.
The Galapagos Islands are located about 1,100 kilometers/600 miles west of Ecuador and are easier to reach than most people realize. You will need to look at a map to believe this, but Ecuador on the west coast of South America is south of the U.S. east coast and in the Eastern Time Zone. The Galapagos are in the Central Time Zone. Travel time from Miami to Guayaquil, Ecuador (its largest city and a port from which many Galapagos trips depart) is about 4.5 hours and the flight time from Guayaquil to one of two spartan but relatively modern airports in the Galapagos is about 2 hours on modern 737s.
The entire Galapagos Islands group and all of the waters surrounding them are a national park and marine reserve administered by Ecuador, of which they are part. From what we could see, the park is very well managed despite pressures from a booming tourism-based economy which accommodated about 220,000 visitors in 2014. Since 1998, when Ecuador passed a constitutional amendment giving the government greater power over the Galapagos, the number of ships visiting the islands have been monitored and the visits to individual islands and islets by each ship is controlled on an hour by hour basis. This limits the number of visitors on any given island at any given time. The Park Service limits visits to certain islands, requires all visitors to stay on designated paths and requires well-trained licensed guides to accompany all visitors on land. Fishing around the islands is largely limited to what is needed to support the local population and immigration to the islands of foreigners and Ecuadorians from the mainland is controlled to prevent over-population and over-development. Several of the islands are inhabited with the largest city having a population of about 25,000.
Fees paid by tourist to visit the islands are used for research and breeding programs, to improve tourist facilities and to eradicate non-native species, such as goats and donkeys, improving prospects to unique native species to survive. Special efforts are taken to limit contamination from additional non-native species to the islands and from island to island.
There are both land-based and ship based options for seeing the Galapagos but since the land-based options require day trips by ship to see the diversity of the Islands, the ship-based options allow you to see more and seemed generally more attractive than the guest houses and hotels on shore we saw during our visit. There are a wide ranges of ships, from one’s accommodating a dozen or fewer to one’s with about 100 passengers.
We visited the Galapagos on a National Geographic tour on the Islander managed by Lindblad Expeditions, which operates ship-based tours for National Geographic. The Islander can accommodate up to 48 passengers, comes with a tour director and three guides/naturalists who lead excursions and the ships crew. It is a well-appointed ship that you can see on www.expeditions.com.
We found the Lindblad/National Geographic tour to be very well done, with comfortable accommodations, good food, excellent tour staff and crew. However, it is important to understand that this is an active tour, with twice-a-day hikes sometimes over hilly and rocky terrain, snorkeling and transfers to and from shore on zodiac boats. You don’t have to do everything and in a number of instances there were less strenuous options for those that did not want to do the full hike. But if you are not at least an active walker, you will miss much of what the tour has to offer.
One travel magazine recently indicated visiting the Galapagos is the number one bucket list trip for tourists worldwide. I would definitely have it on my bucket list and as a near-retiree when I took my trip to the Galapagos I was glad I did the trip sooner, rather than later, while you I was still able to handle the physical demands of the trip. Ages of those on our trip ranged from about 8 to 80 with most in their 50s and 60s.