Talk with other Travelers
Travelers who have been to the Galapagos and tour operators both recommend talking with people who have already been to the Galapagos. Reading travel blogs and travel information websites can be useful tools to help you plan for your own Galapagos journey. Don't be afraid to reach out to previous visitors to ask for their advice.
Hiking the Galapagos
Matt Long and Dalene and Pete Heck recommend determining the amount of land-water ratio that's important to you, and ensuring that the activities on your itinerary match your expectations. Land time will be spent hiking; in the photo above, guests of Yacu Amu traverse the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela island. For travelers who want to dive the Galapagos, be sure to ask your tour operator if they are authorized to offer diving.
The Galapagos Islands are fragile. Despite strict regulations governing the number of visitors and the scope of tour operators' activities, tourism can have an adverse impact. Choose an environmentally responsible tour operator. Abercrombie and Kent and Yacu Amu Experiences are Smart Voyager-certified; their companies and vessels comply with strict conservation standards (pictured here is A&K's Eclipse). Other companies contribute to conservation efforts. Lindblad Expeditions founded the Galapagos Conservation Fund in 1997; 100% of on-board donations—which have totaled more than $4 million in its first 10 years—go toward local projects, including the eradication of wild pigs on the island of Santiago.
Flights to Ecuador and onward flights from Quito or Guayaquil to the Galapagos are not included in the price of a tour operator's package. Steve Nomchong of Yacu Amu Experiences, says “Logistics are very dynamic. Airlines change schedules and prices without notice [and] regulatory conditions can change with little or no warning.” He advises choosing a tour operator who can offer advice about air and other logistics even if those items aren't included in the price. Nomchong says tour operators who are “on the ground and on top of the changes enables a good outfitter to adapt traveller's plans in order to minimize disruption to their vacation.” Yacu Amu and Abercrombie and Kent both have offices in Ecuador.
Time of Year
One of the first decisions to make is identifying the time of year you want to visit. Summer months and winter holidays are the busiest time for tour operators, and reservations may need to be booked as far as one year in advance. The “best” time of year depends on the experiences you want to have. If diving is a must-do item for you, experts recommend visiting between June and November. This is also the mating season for the iconic blue-footed booby. December to May is peak season for flowers and mating of other bird species.
Get Exclusive Access
The Galapagos archipelago is comprised of 20 islands (13 “major” and seven smaller); tour operators' permission to access different areas varies considerably. Companies like Abercrombie and Kent, which have strong reputations and a long history in the islands, are likely to be able to offer access to areas that other companies don't have permission to visit. A&K, for example, can take its passengers to Albemarle Point, Fernandina, Black Turtle Cove, and Elizabeth Bay, which, it says, are not visited by the majority of travelers to the Galapagos.
Numbers are Everything
Numbers are everything when planning a Galapagos trip. Ask the operators you're considering about the maximum size of the group who will be on your vessel. The smaller that number, the better. You should also ask about the staff-to-guest ratio, as well as the distribution of staff (ie: crew vs. certified naturalists). The higher the staff-to-passenger ratio, says Abercrombie and Kent, the more personalized attention you can expect to receive.
Snorkeling with Penguins
Keep in mind that traveling by water is different from traveling on land. Does your tour operator include the gear you'll need for water activities? Plan for your health needs, too: for people who are prone to seasickness, a trip can be ruined if appropriate medication isn't packed.
A Galapagos trip is high on the bucket lists of many travelers, and with good reason. But planning a trip there, isn't like planning most vacations.