Preparing and Planning for a Galapagos Trip

sleeping baby sea lion

The Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador are the kind of place you are thrilled to get to visit once in your life, like we were, over Christmas and New Year of 2013/14.

Visiting once means you want to get it right in terms of what you take with you, the kind of trip you do, and what to expect when you arrive.

So this post is a little cheat-sheet to help you prepare for your trip, based on our experiences, which will ensure you get the most out of your adventure.

Our experiences are from a ten day adventure tour with GalaKiwi, which included hiking, biking, snorkelling and kayaking – after which we tacked on a couple of weeks of time to the end of the tour where we largely planned our own activities.

sunset galapagos san cristobal

Let’s start with the gear you might want to take, and being a photographer, naturally I’m going to start with:

Photographic Gear for the Galapagos

You’re going to want to take a lot of pictures in the Galapagos. Everything is so photogenic, from the landscapes to the wildlife. Here’s an idea of the sort of gear you might want to consider taking:

An underwater camera like a GoPro:

The marine life in the Galapagos is amazing, with the snorkelling experience we had at Kicker Rock easily the best I’ve ever done anywhere in the world. If you want to document this, then a camera like the GoPro with underwater housing is the way to do it.

A “normal” camera with a good zoom range:

If you’re a serious photographer, then you’ll probably already have an idea of the sort of gear you’ll want to take with you.

The good news is that you can get very close to nearly all of the wildlife, with just the odd bird proving a tad elusive.

We took a range of lenses, covering a variety of focal lengths (17mm to 300mm) on our full frame camera (a Canon 6D) and our crop sensor mirrorless Sony NEX-6 – between them they let us get all the shots we wanted, from close ups of boobies to wide angle landscape shots.

For most of the shots on the site I was actually using either a wide angle (17-40mm) or an 85mm prime on the full frame Canon – everything was that close!

Male frigate bird flies past Galapagos

Only for some shots of further away birds did we need to switch to the 55-210mm on the Sony (full frame equivalent up to 300mm).

We also took a tripod and wireless remote release, which let us capture some great star shots and play around with timelapse a bit.

If you’re not into photography quite as obsessively as us, and just want to capture some great moments from your trip, then take a camera with a good “zoom range” that will let you get all the wildlife and landscape shots you want whilst not breaking either your back or bank account. Nikon’s Coolpix range are both affordable and offer decent image quality in a portable package.

If your back or bank account aren’t an issue, then something like this with this would probably go down nicely!

Sea lion close up galapagos

Plenty of storage media:

We took well over 100GB of photos and video during our time in the Galapagos, although we might be a special case! We back this all up onto two ruggedized external terabyte hard drives and a laptop, to keep it all safe should anything fail.

If you’re shooting JPG format stills on a recent camera, you’ll want to take at least one 32GB memory card, and more likely two, to be on the safe side. If you’re planning on doing a lot of video, then you’ll want to take a lot more.

That’s enough on the photography side. If you want to read more about the photography gear we travel with, check out our full photography gear guide. Now let’s talk about getting some other gear you should consider taking:

Clothes and other gear for the Galapagos

The Galapagos is bang on the Equator, meaning it gets hot and humid around the coastline, although if you go higher up on the islands, it can be cooler. Depending on the time of year, night-time can also be cool enough to warrant a fleece.

In addition, the climate can change rapidly, from glorious sunshine to rain showers in a matter of minutes. On the plus side, it’s not a location where you’re likely to be attending any balls, so you can pack functional rather than fashionable.

You’ll want to bring:

  • Hiking pants, or trousers as we Brits call them. Something that dries quickly, maybe with those handy zip off legs that let them turn into shorts
  • Swimsuit

  • T-shirts – the hiking variety that wicks moisture away is ideal, but any t-shirt will do  
  • A thin fleece for when it gets cooler in the evenings or at higher elevations
  • A raincoat for when the weather turns inclement
  • Lots of waterproof sunscreen, ideally factor 30+ as well as sun protection lip balm. If you’re snorkelling, don’t forget to apply this to exposed regions like the backs of your arms and legs 
  • Insect repellent, although depending on the time of year you visit this might not be necessary. If you are planning any trips to the higher parts of the islands this might come in handy. 
  • A dry bag for putting your gear in if your trip includes boat rides between or onto the islands (it will!)
  • Flip flops for everyday use, trainers for general trail walking, hiking boots if you’re planning any serious hikes, although these are unlikely to be necessary if you’re just doing a couple of day hikes 
  • Water bottles / hydration pack systems. You’ll need to drink a lot of water, and every hotel has large canisters of drinking water available from where you can fill up your containers and save generating plastic bottle waste
  • Travel insurance – there’s no real hospital on the island, so if something happens to you, you’ll want to be covered for medical evacuation expenses
  • The aforementioned camera gear


Of course, the above list will vary depending on the type of trip you are going on. Any reputable tour company should be able to provide you with a detailed list of what you should be packing to ensure you are fully prepared.

Now you’ve got your packing list sorted, let’s talk about how you are going to get around the Galapagos:

Getting around: It’s not just boats – but a ride on one is fairly likely!

dinghy at sunset with kicker rock Galapagos

One thing that I think surprised most of the folks I know when I told them about my trip to the Galapagos with GalaKiwi was that it wasn’t a boat based trip – we did the whole thing staying in hotels on the four islands we visited, just using a boat to get between them and for snorkelling excursions.

Four of the islands in the Galapagos are inhabited, and if you are particularly adverse to boats, you can even charter private planes between three of them for fairly reasonable prices.

Boats are tough to avoid though – particularly if you want to go snorkelling or diving, to visit the uninhabited islands, or to get between the major islands (around $30 per person one way, trips vary from 2- 4 hours depending on distance and weather).

Tips for making the boat ride as comfortable as possible include:

Go to the loo before you board – whilst most boats have a loo on board, if the seas are choppy then you will be trying to “go” into a target which has a desire to regurgitate everything from previous occupants all over you. Yes, in the name of research I had a face full of what I hoped was “only” wee. No, it wasn’t fun. Go before you board, and then try and hold it in if you can – or only go if it’s calm weather!

Sit near the back for a smoother ride – the further to the back of the boat you sit, the less bumpy the ride will be if the sea is choppy. The front of the boat will crash over the waves, meaning that the further forward you are, the more up and down you go. You are likely to get much wetter at the back though. You can’t have everything!

Galapagos Boat ride

Prepare for sea-sickness – If you get motion sick, then take the necessary precautions. Pop those pills, wear those wristbands, apply the patches, take a plastic bag just in case. I generally find that just staring at the horizon and avoiding activities like reading is the best option for staving off motion sickness. You’ll also want to avoid heavy drinking the night before – being out on a boat with a hangover is a sure-fire recipe for turning green!

On the inhabited islands themselves, getting around is easy, either walking (distances aren’t very far), hire a bike, or grab a taxi to reach further away destinations.

Pre-trip knowledge

I chatted with the guys who run the 10-day GalaKiwi tour that we did, and also spoke with other folks on our trip, and the one thing that really came out in terms of enjoying a Galapagos trip was to do the pre-trip research and know what to expect.

Accommodation

The Galapagos is a wilderness and wildlife destination with accommodation to match. The prices are generally higher because of the remoteness and uniqueness of the islands, not because they offer five star pampered luxury.

On the islands most of the hotels are comfortable, with air conditioning, clean rooms and hot showers. They’re places to get some sleep and wind down after a day of adventuring. There are some more upmarket places with pools and the like but this is the exception rather than the norm – and if that’s what you’re after, make sure you book on a tour which features five star accommodation.

Activities and choosing the right tour

Beyond accommodation, it’s really important to know what to expect from the tour that you book (a tour is by far the best way to see the islands, letting you get the most out of your trip with the minimum of hassle).

Our 10 day adventure tour with GalaKiwi for example  had a detailed itinerary on the GalaKiwi website, so we knew exactly what to expect on a day by day basis. Expectations in terms of lodging and food were also laid out on the site, and we were even sent a packing list. Pretty thorough stuff, and something you should expect from any decent operator.

Kayaks on beach san cristobal Galapagos

Naturally an adventure tour involving volcano hiking, mountain biking and kayaking isn’t going to be for everyone, but there will no doubt be a tour and company that will exactly meet your needs and interests – just make sure you pick carefully and know what you’re signing up for to avoid disappointment!

Practicalities on the islands

Water

The Galapagos is hot (apart from in the highlands where it can be quite cool), so staying hydrated is essential. See our guide to dealing with dehydration for more information on that subject. The water in the taps isn’t drinkable, so you’ll need to drink bottled water.

Man Drinking water in the Galapagos

Our GalaKiwi trip offered unlimited drinking water from large water containers – as did all the hotels we stayed in. We recommend you take re-usable water bottles with you to minimise waste on the islands.

If you’re more serious about your water packaging, then a hydration system such as those from Camelbak may be the way to go. I find them essential for hands-free water consumption without needing to think about it!

Money

As with the rest of Ecuador, the currency in the Galapagos is the United States Dollar. ATMs are available on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, and usually accept all major foreign card types including Visa and Mastercard.

ATM’s in Ecuador can be a bit picky in terms of giving you money though, so if you have any problems, you might need to go into a bank branch with your passport, and withdraw money with a teller. Check with your bank before heading out what the fees are for withdrawing via an ATM or a teller to avoid bill shock when you get home.

Finally, everything in the Galapagos costs a bit more than the mainland, with beer running around $3 – $4, and meals in the region of $7 and up. If you shop around though, you can usually find daily lunch specials (Almuerzos) from small, local spots, which will usually be a soup and a main dish. These will normally be meat or fish based.

Tipping

Tipping in Ecuador isn’t mandatory, although it’s always appreciated. Sometimes it will be automatically added to the bill at 22% – 12% of this is tax, with 10% being the tip. If it’s not added to the bill, then tipping in the region of a dollar per person at your table will do – depending on the meal this will usually work out to 10%.

For tours – on a day tour you should probably tip in the region of 10-15 dollars. On our GalaKiwi trip, all tips were taken care of apart from for the tour leader, for whom a tip of up to 10% would be reasonable.

map of the galapagos

 

Food / Drink

The Galapagos is a popular destination, which means that on the three larger inhabited islands, you generally have a decent choice of places to eat, from more traditional Ecuadorean cuisine (sea food features heavily!) through to Western style food including pizzas and burgers.

tuna steak galapagos

If you’re a vegetarian then it would be wise to learn the appropriate words so you can express what you will and won’t eat. If you’re vegan, or have other dietary requirements, make sure the restaurant / tour operator is well aware of this, and maybe get it clearly translated into Spanish and written down so you can make yourself understood if you don’t speak Spanish.

Drinks are widely available from bars and shops, including beers and cocktails, as well as a variety of milkshakes (batidos) and juice based drinks (jugos). We drank these all around Ecuador and the Galapagos and had no stomach problems – your mileage may vary.

Generally in countries where the tap water is not safe to drink, it is recommended to avoid any food items that may have been washed in the water, such as salad or unpeeled fruit, as well as the ice in drinks as you don’t know what it was made from. Again – we were fine, but it’s a risk you have to decide to take for yourself!

Finally, if you're looking to do a more self-planned trip, it is entirely possible to do an independent trip to the Galapagos without an operator if you're so inclined. Here's my full guide to an independently planned trip to the Galapagos for further reading on that topic, covering everything from budget, to accommodation, to planning activities. Enjoy! A detailed guide to preparing and planning for a Galapagos trip.

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