Galapagos

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Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
South America | Nature | SCUBA | Wildlife


Galapagos Islands
Where: Pacific Ocean, off coast of Ecuador
Trip purpose:
- Wildlife encounters
- SCUBA diving
Pros:
- Iconic place of Darwin's discoveries
- Abundant and some unique wildlife
- Abundant large pelagic marine life for SCUBA diving
- Breathtaking views
Cons:
- Need to live-aboard/cruise on a ship for visiting different islands
- Multi-segment travel
"Galapagos"

Why visit Galapagos Islands?

The Galápagos Islands and the surrounding waters are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are included in the the Galápagos National Park, and the Galápagos Marine Reserve. The area represents one of the world’s unique ecosystems with rich biodiversity. Not surprising Charles Darwin collected material and thoughts for his discoveries in evolution. You have to visit Galapagos islands at least one time if you are interested in nature, wildlife and biology. There is no other place on our planet in terms of wildlife, on land and in the water. You can visit one or several islands, on land only or on a small cruise ship. For divers, best SCUBA diving is from a live-aboard ship.

Where in the world?

"Galapagos Islands on OpenStreetMap"
Galapagos Islands on OpenStreetMap

Location

The Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, 906km (563mi) west of Ecuador coast. They belong to Ecuador.

Getting there

Up until 1969 the only way to reach the islands was on a ship. Presently there are regular flights to the islands. First you will need to fly to an international airport in Ecuador, either the capital Quito (UIO) or Guayaquil (GYE). Unless you live in South America there will be a stop to change planes. After arrival in Quito or Guayaquil (most likely Quito) you will need to fly with a domestic flight to either Baltra (GPS) or San Cristobal (SCY) islands in Galapagos. The place of landing depends on your land or cruise itinerary. Please double check from which island you start your tour in Galapagos. The international flights can take anywhere from 8+ (North America) to 14+ hours (Europe) and longer from Asia. The domestic flight is about 3 hours. We booked through GalapagosIslands.com who took care of all logistics, stopover hotels and even trip extensions to Machu Picchu and Amazon.

Electricity

"North American electrical plug"
North American type electrical plug

120 volts, 60Hz, socket with two flat vertical slots, the same as in Canada and US.

Language

Spanish but tourist businesses operate in English unless you prefer Spanish.

Currency

United States dollar (USD). The local currency was abandoned in 2000 after a sharp devaluation.

Vaccination and infections

According to CDC, in addition to the routine vaccination established in most countries (subject to your country of origin and your personal vaccination), typhoid , yellow fever and hepatitis vaccines are recommended. There IS a risk of malaria in some parts of the country, especially in the Amazon areas. Please consult with a travel clinic for possible prophylactic medications if you plan to go to these areas. Protect yourself from insect bites to avoid insect transmitted infections. Yellow fever is also required for entry if you come from an endemic area. Rabid dogs are commonly found, but treatment is usually available. Please see updated information for health at the CDC site or health authority in your country.

Visa

Visa is not required for stays of less than 90 days for travelers from most countries. Please check updated information from your country of origin and time of travel. All travelers are required to have passports with a remaining validity of at least 6 months beyond their travel dates and at least one blank page in the passport. You also need to have proof of return flight and travel arrangements. Travelers may be required to have medical insurance for the entire duration of the stay. Please check updated information at the time of travel.

When to go?

"Weather averages Galapagos"
Weather averages, Galapagos

Winter is reverse to travelers from the Northern hemisphere. The islands are on the Equator, but the Humboldt current brings air and water from the Antarctic and this cools down air and, to a greater degree water. The warmest water is between February - April, but this is also the slightly more rainy period. There is also another current from the north which brings warm air and water to the northern islands such as Darwin and Wolf. If you are not a diver you can come at any time, but for divers colder months mean diving in a dry suit and possible rough sea.

Where to stay?

Giant tortoise

There are several options to explore the islands. The most popular is a cruise on a medium size ship. Some ships are luxurious. As there are different islands with different wildlife, cruising gives you best chances to see and explore the full range of Galapagos biodiversity. If you prefer to stay on land you can stay at one island (Santa Cruz) or do island hopping. The Darwin's Station, the headquarters of the National park, the lava tunnels and the Giant tortoises are on Sana Cruz island. All trips include this island as a must do stop.

What to do?

Sea lion

The main activity is to explore the wildlife and enjoy the majestic views. However, ways to explore the wildlife is a bit different land and cruise based trips.

Land based

Tortoise shell
Galapagos penguin

Santa Cruz is the island you need to visit through any itinerary. We stopped there on our SCUBA route. There are a number of points of interest:

Charles Darwin Research Station

At the Charles Darwin Research Station you can see animals and read about the biodiversity of the islands, their history etc.

Lava tunnels

Lava tunnels are interesting geological phenomenon that looks like a subway tunnel, except it is natural.

El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve

The reserve is right next to the lava tube. Giant tortoises roam free in the area.

Black Turtle Cove

A mangrove area with many aquatic animals.

Tortuga Bay

A beautiful white sandy beach where you can also see land and aquatic life.

La Lobería, San Cristóbal Island

A beach where sea lions are resident. Ample opportunities for interactions. You may also see wild iguanas, lava lizards, yellow warblers and frigates. The beach is close to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Bird watching

Ask about bird watching tours at the hotel where you stay.

Snorkeling and diving

You can snorkel and dive from general cruise ship or as a day trip. For example, there are SCUBA day trips from Santa Cruz island. Obviously will have access only to local areas. The most impressive diving is at the northern Wolf and Darwin islands. Only dedicated SCUBA liveaboards venture there (see below).

SCUBA liveabaord

Hammerhead sharks
New Year day

Diving in Galapagos is challenging. Our advice is that you go on a liveaboard only if you are comfortable and experienced, at least at basic level, to dive in cold water, strong currents, limited visibility, and a chance to get separated from the group.

Water temperatures

We were diving in January, at the beginning of the calm and warm period. Water temperatures still could drop to 16 degrees Centigrade (60 Fahrenheit) at the south-west coast of Isabella Island. Water around Wolf and Darwin islands was warmer but we still needed a 7mm semi-dry suit + vest + gloves + hood. At Isabella island we could not stay longer than 20 min as temperatures dropped to 13 degrees below second thermocline. Filling your suit with warm water right before you jump into the water buys you extra 2-3 min. Be careful interpreting water temperature posted online, it usually represents surface temperature while most diving is below thermocline. Our conclusion was that a dry suit is a must between May - November. Personally, I would take a drysuit all year round. A 7mm semi-dry suit + vest + hood + gloves is not less in terms of hassle, limits flexibility, chokes you if it is small and lets cold water in if it is large.... but still does not save you from cold.

Diving conditions

Getting lost is a real possibility. They give you GPS beacons, to find you if you get swept away. We where lucky, there were no big waves as we went during the calmer period. However, currents were strong. There are no corals and they do not use reef hooks. So, I would either have to wedge a knee between the rocks or deflate and ground myself to stabilize for filming and photo. Several times my wife and I would simply drift away from the group and do our own route, where the current drifts you. The boatmen were good, they followed bubbles and we would see a boat almost every time we would surface. However, a couple of times we needed to blow a sausage and float on the surface for some time. All was doable and safe because we were prepared and experienced but a complete novice or an occasional tropical all-inclusive diver may get in trouble. Another point was sea sickness. We never get sea sick, but the first long overnight passage to Darwin & Wolf made all divers sea sick. At some point we actually wanted to be in the water as soon as we could, to stop the feeling. The rest of the trip was calmer and we slowly adjusted. So, you need to be dedicated to diving. It was worth it though (see below).

Marine life

The main point to dive in Galapagos is to see LARGE marine animals in LARGE numbers. The amount of fish around Wolf and Darwin is overwhelming. Schools of hammerheads could fill your entire "sky", like those bombers filled the sky in the WWII movies. At times, it was likely 50+ of hammerheads within our visibility. As they were moving over us, we realized that it could be over 100. As we stayed on the rocks we were surrounded by smaller fish and watched the big game behind the wall of small fish. The Galapagos sharks are also large and impressive. They get closer to people. Sometimes, when we were drifting alone they would circle around us. The sharks get scared by the faster moving animals like dolphins and sea lions. We saw first time in our diving experience how fast sharks get be chased. They can move fast as well when get scared. We also saw turtles, rays, barracudas etc. We did not see whale sharks as January was not a good season for them. A good place to see whale sharks is in Papua. Our surface intervals were filled with boat excursions to watch iguanas, penguins, sea lions and the birds. There was also the famous Darwin's Arch for photo opportunities. Diving at Isabella island was cold, very cold. We had to sink through the second thermocline to see the large sea horses. We also saw the highly unusual large Mola-Mola fish and were played by sea lions. The lions were fast moving and playful. It is very difficult to photograph them as they fly by around you, sometimes touching you. At another dive spot were encountered a large school of medium size fish, a bit larger than sardines. The amount of fish was comparable to the sardine run. The place had low visibility, and together with fish surrounding you at 360 degrees the only way to know where is up and down was to watch your bubbles. Ovearall, if you are an experienced diver the trip is very much worth it. It was one of our most memorable diving trips.

Sea of hammerheads
Northern islands
Marine iguana and a blue footed boobie



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