Thursday, February 23, 2017

Galapagos Islands: 6 Tips for Visiting the Islands or How to be a Sustainable Eco-Tourist

Steven Beardsley

Seeing the male Frigate bird on North Seymour Island

I traveled to the Galapagos Islands while I had a vacation from my teaching job here in Ecuador. I was in the Galapagos for about 6 days, and I visited four islands: Santa Cruz, Isabella, San Cristobal, and North Seymour. These are my 6 tips for what to see and do and how to be a sustainable eco-tourist.

1. Do your planning when you get there

Arrow Marinero or Marine Rice; An expensive dish you can bargain
down to $10-15.
This tip might be counterintuitive for planners and people who like to work with travel agencies, but you save a lot of time and money just buying the plane ticket and then planning what you are going to do when you get there. Now, the Galapagos Islands do belong to Ecuador, so the locals speak Spanish, but they also speak plenty of English. I recommend learning some key words in Spanish such as “almuerzo” = “lunch” and “merienda” = “dinner.”

Otherwise, all of the guides are bilingual and will often translate what they say from Spanish to English. That being said, I booked my plane ticket through LATAM directly from Quito. If you are traveling from the United States I also recommend booking through LATAM. There is a $20 transit card fee that you buy at the airport and then another $100 fee to enter the islands. If you have a national visa or are Ecuadorian though, the fee to enter the islands is around $5.

2. Don’t Book a Luxury Cruise

You can see the launch in the very back; these launches are the best
way to get from island to island 
This tip is especially important because cruises that last between 5-8 days are not environmentally sustainable. I have also heard that the large luxury cruises do not benefit the local people, which is an important aspect of sustainable eco-tourism in the Galapagos. The cruises can also cost between $1000-$6000 dollars, and you do not necessarily get the same experience as going from island to island on your own.

For example, I paid $30 to go from Santa Cruz to Isabella and then another $30 from Isabella back to Santa Cruz. The money you pay for the launches does go to the local people as well as the $1 you would pay to take the water taxi to the launches. I will cover where to see all the different animals in a future post, but if you want to see the amazing frigate birds, especially the ones with the red neck pouch, you can book a day cruise that costs about $150. These kinds of cruises are more sustainable because a guide goes with you, the groups are smaller and between 10-20 people, and it benefits the community. Read more about why taking a larger luxury cruise can actually harm the islands:

Can Tourism ever be Sustainable in the Galapagos? 

3. Bargain, Bargain, and Bargain some more

This "almuerzo" includes fish with peanut sauce, fries, rice, and salad.
The first course is typically a soup, then the entree with a drink, and
sometimes a dessert to top things off.
An important tip I cannot stress enough is the importance of bargaining. If you are confident in your Spanish you can often reduce a hostel price from $15 to $10 or even an expensive seafood course from $18 to $15. I believe you can also try bargaining in English, though I mostly did it Spanish. Either way Ecuadorians expect you to bargain, so you should never accept the first price they give. Of course, this is within reason. If you pay about $3-5 in almuerzo that’s a pretty standard price. If you are like me and also enjoy trying out the local cuisine of a new place, bargaining is especially important for high cost seafood dishes.

4. Follow the Park Rules: Don’t feed or touch the animals

A Lang Iguana. One of many unique species you can see on the islands.
The temptation to touch Galapagos animals is strong, but don’t do it. For example, touching the babies of the Sea Lions is bad because our scent can rub off on them, making their mothers reject them. In other words, when you get to the islands don’t be like other tourists who get within a foot of the animals, try to feed them, or touch them. We need to respect that this is their habitat, and that we’re just lucky enough to be visiting them.

5. Spend about 6 days on the Islands

What you can see on the Tintoreras tour:
Galapagos Penguins and Blue-Footed Boobies
Now, you can plan what you want to do ahead of time. If you are interested in snorkeling and swimming with sea lions and sharks you can go on the Tunnels tour which is about $100 or the Tintoreras tours which is about $40. Both activities are on Isabella Island. You can also do plenty of free things such as visit the Charles Darwin Research Station at Santa Cruz or lay down on several of the beaches at Santa Cruz or Isabella. I recommend 6 days especially to get accustomed to boat travel between islands. You can certainly stay longer, but I found that I was pretty tired of the beaches after 6 days. I also recommend 2 days in Isabella, 2 days in Santa Cruz (1 day to do a cruise, and maybe 1-2 days in San Cristóbal.

6. Be a Sustainable Eco-Tourist:

Going with a guide is important;
you still get to take
great photos without
damaging the natural environment
The Galapagos Islands is an incredible place. It has some of the most unique animals on the planet from Darwin’s finches to Penguins and the Galapagos Tortoise. At the same time, The Galapagos is a fragile place that deserves care and respect while visiting. While on the islands I learned a little bit about sustainable ecotourism. Essentially, “sustainable ecotourism” is tourism that “Supports the protection of natural areas by generating economic benefits for host communities, organizations and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes”

In other words, tourism can be sustainable if it economically benefits a community, but not all tourism is “eco-tourism.” For the Galapagos Islands sustainable ecotourism is important for the economic well-being of the people and the environment. The Galapagos has a history of exploitation and degradation by pirates and buccaneers that have taken advantage of the Giant Tortoises oil and carapaces for commercial use. Being conscious of the water you use and making sure to turn the light off when you leave your hotel room are all important ways of being a sustainable eco-tourist. Also, be conscious about when and how you choose to visit the islands. Peak holiday seasons aren’t always the best because too many people can be damaging to the natural environment.

I hope these tips are helpful when you plan your own visit to the islands. I personally believe that everyone, natural lovers, naturalists, teachers, and conservationists alike, should visit the Galapagos Islands. But it’s up to you have an experience that benefits you, the local people, and the environment.
Look for future posts where I go into more detail about the animals you can see in the Galapagos and the kinds of activities you can do.

Thanks for reading and Hasta Luego!

Check out these additional resources on Eco-Tourism:

Who are Eco-Tourists? 

Eco-Tourism in the Galapagos

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