Planning my trip to the Galapagos Islands sounds daunting at first blush. Connecting flights in Ecuador, getting to and from the airports, picking which islands to travel to, it could make even the seasoned of travelers back out and go to Jamaica instead. Take a deep breathe and take down some notes because a once in a lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands is easier than you think.
Do: Your Homework
A knowledgeable traveler is a smart traveler. Do your due diligence and research the islands beforehand and tell the broker where exactly you want to go. Figure out which animals you want to see the most. If you want to see Blue-footed Boobies you need to know where they hang out. You could go on a National Geographic sponsored trip (read: $$$$$) or you can find a local travel broker on the Islands. We got in touch with Galapagos Alternative because their reviews were fantastic on tripadvisor.com and they were reasonably priced. Our 7 day tour with airport shuttles, hotels, tours everyday came to about $1,000 per person and that was with the upgraded hotel accommodations! The most appealing aspect of Galapagos Alternative is that we gave them a list of the islands we wanted to visit and they made it happen.
Do: Pack a Flashlight and Look Up!
The Galapagos Islands are 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The light pollution on the main island can be difficult to escape but if you have a flashlight and a sense of adventure you will see a night sky very few have ever seen.
Pro Tip: Google when there will be a meteor shower and try to plan your vacation around them. I went when the Lyrids meteor shower was happening and we caught 11 shooting stars.
Do: Tour North Seymour Island
It's this simple: If you want to see Blue-Footed Boobies and Frigate birds you will book a tour to North Seymour Island. Contrary to popular belief the wildlife on the islands are spread out. You can't see Frigate birds anywhere else but North Seymour Island.
Do: Go to Bartoleme Island
To get to Bartolome Island you need to get on a boat at 7am, which means getting up around 5:30am on your vacation. It's a long boat ride, but worth every minute! Around the island there are a lot of different animals swimming around. We glimpsed a few sea turtles in the water as well as sea lions and gigantic sting rays. The real treat was swimming with Galapagos penguins and sea lizards on the beach across from Pinnacle Rock.
Do: "Rent" a Good Camera Lens
Chances are if you go to the Galapagos Islands it will be a once in a lifetime trip. While you're there you should document everything. Find a good Macro lens and a high quality wide angle lens so you can get close up shots of the exotic birds and the expanse of the nature around you. Do a quick google search and you can find some reasonable camera lens rental sites or buy a lens from Amazon and return it when you get back all for the price of shipping.
Don't: Forget a Waterproof Camera
Snorkeling is great in the Galapagos. The variety of marine life in the water is akin to a good aquarium. We're talking about Galapagos Penguins, Sea Lions, sharks and exotic fish! I picked up an underwater camera case for my old point and shoot on amazon for $40 and I love the results. Not feeling an underwater case? Pick up a disposable underwater camera. They work great and are pretty inexpensive.
Do: Tour the Charles Darwin Station on your own
If there's anything you want to know about the fragile and distinctive ecosystems in the Galapagos this is the place to go to. The scientists here are very informative and they have various types of tortoises in all ages and shapes. You'll be humming the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle theme song as you leave.
Pro Tip: Across the road from the main entrance is a little beach where you can get out of the heat and swim in the clear blue water.
Don't: Forget your sunscreen and an umbrella
The islands are right smack on the equator, give or take a degree or two. The weather is usually a balmy 87 degrees, but it feels like it's 95 and the sun is relentless. Apply sunscreen early and often. Did you take a quick dip in the ocean? Apply sunscreen. You applied sunscreen 4 hours ago? Reapply some sunscreen. I can't express the importance of sunscreen on this trip enough. In case you were wondering: Sunscreen costs $10 for a little tube on the main island. Money well spent.
Pro Tip: Pack an umbrella and bring it on your excursions. Why pack an umbrella? Because while you're touring a volcano and the sweltering sun is beating down on your tour group they'll be dreaming of diving in the water to escape the heat while you'll have instant shade and be able to take in the beauty around you instead of frying like an egg on the stove.
Do: Take cabs everywhere
Whether in Ecuador or the Galapagos you should take cabs everywhere. For some reason they're incredibly inexpensive. A taxi from Quito airport to the hotel was 7 bucks. A taxi on the main island is 1 dollar around town. One! My cab ride from my apartment in Brooklyn to JFK was 50 bucks, needless to say I miss Ecuador for that reason alone.
Don't: Fall for the "Ketchup Trick"
This tip is for the mainland of Ecuador. Ecuadorian thieves work in pairs. One person squirts you with salad dressing or ketchup behind your back and the other alerts you to the mess. While you're disoriented and trying to clean up they will take your camera or anything else that is hanging off your person. If they can't grab anything (like what happened to me) they will offer to help clean you up on the side of the road. Don't follow them. Just keep walking and clean yourself off at the hotel or next to some policemen. Some travelers we met on our trip got their camera stolen by this trick. As always, be alert and keep your belongings close to you.
Don't: Get a hotel that is right next door to a bus terminal.
Seriously, Samantha Brown? You recommend this hotel and fail to mention the loud bus station next door? The hotel, Culture Cafe, is known for not having any televisions in it either. So the buses idling outside can't be hidden by any other noises besides your groans.
Do: Splurge on a boutique hotel in Quito.
My friend had to twist my arm to make the reservation, but in the end it was well worth it. Even though she frowned on me jumping on the bed upon arrival. Everything in Mansion del Angel smelled like chocolate. Including the soap! The breakfast here was fantastic too. Sometimes you just need to be pampered.
Do: Use Frequent Flier Miles
Flights can get expensive, but with a few months of planning you can nab some cheap airfare to Ecuador using miles. I signed up for an American Airlines credit card a year ago and with that initial bonus they laid out I was able to purchase two roundtrip flights from NYC to Quito, Ecuador for 45 bucks! Taxes included! Use those miles and spend money on what you really want to be doing: having an adventure that you'll never forget!