Galapagos Islands – 5 Things to Know Before you Go

The Galapagos Islands are a dream destination for many, so when the time finally arrives for you to visit this archipegalo made famous by Charles Darwin here are a few things Bruce and I learned when we visited Ecuador.

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penguins in the galapagos isalnd

Money Matters in Ecuador

The Galapagos Islands are located roughly 850 miles from the coast of Ecuador. There are 16 islands of any significant size and about 300 more smaller little islets that make up the national park that is the Galapagos.

The nice thing for American travelers is that Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency. You don’t have to do quick math converting another currency in your head.

However, many restaurants and shops are not equipped to use credit and debit cards. Where the U.S. has become a cashless society in many places, Ecuador is a cash-only society in many places. Put away your plastic and be prepared by carrying plenty of green.

We flew into the nation’s capitol of Quito. You don’t want to come all of this way and see only the islands when the nation of Ecuador has so much to offer.

Leaving Quito to fly through the coastal city of Guayaquil on to the islands, you first must pay an entrance fee of $100 U.S. cash before to enter the national park. It must be paid in cash before your board the plane. And save the receipt. You’ll need it later to exit the islands.

There’s also a $20 per person fee that is a carbon footprint tax. That, too, is payable in cash only before you board the plane and arrive in the Galapagos Islands.

While there are not an over abundance of gift shops on the islands to buy souvenirs, most of those we encountered did not take plastic. However, we bought an obligatory T-shirt for Bruce on Isla Isabella from a shop that was using its dial-up credit card machine for the very first time. They were training staff and we were among the first transactions.

And along that line, there are not ATMs on every corner, so plan ahead, estimate a little more than what you will need and travel with plenty of cash. That is not something we would recommend in a lot of countries.

Speaking Spanish in Ecuador

Many Americans are accustomed to non-English speaking world to have some basic knowledge of English. People who work in the tourism and hospitality business usually have some degree of fluency in English. However, that’s not necessarily the case in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

Bruce and I speak very limited Spanish – face it, we say “please” and “thank you” and “where are the bathrooms.” We were fortunate on this trip that many of those around us spoke Spanish, otherwise we would have struggled.

It’s always a good idea to learn at least the basics of the language in which you are traveling. But it’s a particularly good idea to enhance your Spanish speaking skills when traveling in Ecuador.

What to Wear in the Galapagos Islands

I packed shorts, T-shirts and athletic shoes for our trip to the Galapagos Islands. I had a couple of swimsuits, two hats and environmentally-friendly sunscreen with SPF 50 protection. I did OK, but if I were to take this trip again, here’s what I would have packed:

UV protective clothing with long sleeves. This is the equator, for goodness sake, and the sun is intense here. I got a sunburn. Locals wear a combination of long and short pants, but most wear long sleeved shirts. Most don’t wear ball caps like I did, but heavy duty hats to protect your face, ear and neck from the sun. Many people who work near the water wear gators to protect their neck and lower faces from sun glare.

Blue footed boobies in the Galapagos Islands.

I also wished I had packed my hiking boots. Much of the surface you’ll walk on is either volcanic sand or volcanic rock. We wore our basic athletic shoes and did OK. The few days we wore sandals, we were annoyed by the very gritty sand rubbing on our feet.

The volcanic rock in the Galapagos is considered young at about three million years old. That means its not smoothed out and easy to walk on. In many of our shore excursions, we watched our steps very carefully as we picked our way through the rocks.

A woman in our group was from Colorado and she wore the same boots she hikes the Rocky Mountains in. She moved with greater certainty than I did in many places.

Along that line, if you have collapsible hiking poles, you might want to bring those along. Our cruise ship, the Galapagos Sea Star Journey, offered hiking sticks for guests. If I hadn’t used them, I would surely have fallen on my rear-end or ripped open a knee or two.

Finally, if you happen to own your own wet suit, pack it as well. We don’t own them and I gladly paid $30 to rent one for our snorkeling adventures. Even though this is the equator, the water is still pretty cold here.

Seeing the Galapagos Islands

If you’re planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands, you already know what a fragile eco-system and protected scientific resource this is. Therefore, you can’t go out willy-nilly and explore like you are encouraged to do in most of America’s national parks. Face it. We can’t trust most humans to behave responsibly.

About 95 percent of the land that is the Galapagos is national park land. You can’t just go for a hike on your own or rent a boat to find your own snorkeling spot or sea lion colony.

The law requires you be with a licensed guide or naturalist at all times. These individuals will remind you to keep your distance from wild life and where not to walk, while providing you with the detailed information about the flora and fauna that make you appreciate the space that you are in.

Cruising the Galapagos Islands

To truly experience the Galapagos Islands, including all of the little remote islands and sandy beaches where the wildlife is at its best, we recommend you take a cruise. Sure you can do day trips here and there, but why not get out on the water and away from it all. Do it the Charles Darwin way.

We booked our trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands through Latin Trails, owners of the Galapagos Sea Star. The 16 passenger ship is just the right size for exploring here and there. Several times a day, we found ourselves loading up in rubber rafts to nudge up against islets covered in marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and more.

We traveled in December, which is considered the beginning of the rainy season. One night we had rain, but the rest of the six day cruise was sunny to partly cloudy. There’s really not a bad time to explore the Galapagos Islands.