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The Evolution Islands: A guide to the Galapagos

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Galapagos in your lifetime, do it. To help you on your journey, Liana Shaw has put together a handy dos and don’ts guide to make sure you get the most out of the experience.

After watching my first David Attenborough programme as a child, I had dreamed of visiting the Galapagos Islands. 20 years or so later, my backpacking travels around South America meant I finally got to see this ultimate bucket list destination – and it honestly is the most mesmerising place I have ever been. The Galapagos feels part of another universe. Some of the rocky, lava crusted terrain looks more like the surface of Mars. The animals are so unique to this environment, that I can see why Charles Darwin was so inspired to include the research from the Galapagos in his Theory of Evolution.

Do book early

The Galapagos is part of the Republic of Ecuador and is 563 miles west of the country. Due to the extreme protection of the environment, there are a limited amount of people allowed to visit during the year. Although there is a need for tourism in general on the islands, keeping the pureness of the land and sea is the priority, so make sure you get your permit before you book flights. This is one place you can’t just show up at the airport expecting to get in. Book well in advance of travel to avoid disappointment.

Don’t forget the cash

If you make it to the Galapagos Islands, make sure you take plenty of cash. There are only a few banks or ATMs servicing the islands, and the ATMs can be temperamental, especially with international cards. It’s best to get out money on the mainland. Take some large notes but mostly small bills and coins if possible. Again, this is due to the lack of cash being available in the islands and some places won’t have change. Don’t rely on paying everything by card.

Do check the time of year

Research when is the best time for you to go – what is your priority? Wildlife? Sunshine? Some months are hotter than others (see next point) and the seas can vary in roughness throughout the year. June to November is cooler and can be constantly misty, but December to May is much warmer. The downside to that is there is no wind, so it is hot. If you are sailing and are prone to motion sickness (like me), then best to stick to the fairer weather seasons and take motion sickness medication.

Don’t underestimate the sun

If you go in the sunnier months, believe me, there is no heat like it. I was in the Amazon a week or so before but that paled in comparison to the Galapagos. Some of the islands you might visit are arid, with very little shade. I used the highest factor sunscreen I could find, but I would recommend buying proper sunblock. Take a hat, sunglasses and water everywhere you go, especially to the uninhabited islands. Clothes wise, long sleeved light tops will protect you from the sun and biting bugs, and light waterproof shorts are really useful. You may have to do some wet landings to reach some of the islands, so clothes that dry quick are best.

Do go sailing

The Galapagos is expensive, there’s no way around that. The best way to see the Galapagos is to sail around it, which is also very pricey. The cheaper option is camping or staying in a hotel/ hostel on one of the main populated islands, but then you are limited in what you see. There’s nothing like sailing from island to island, getting joined by schools of dolphins or being escorted from the air by frigate birds. Shop around and see if there are good deals on getting there; early morning or night flights could mean more money to spend on a sailing option.

Don’t touch the animals

One of the most infuriating things I saw when in the Galapagos (and in all my travels for that matter) was the disrespect towards the wildlife. Unfortunately, you can’t keep out some people. Sealions, iguanas and birds are everywhere and are pretty fearless of humans – keeping about 6 feet distance is the general rule. Whilst out snorkelling a penguin nearly headbutted me while it was fishing and a few of us came across some sealions in a little cove. It was an incredible experience - they came right up close to us (and they are huge), but we remained still, and eventually they went about their day. I saw too many people poking animals in the face with a selfie stick. It’s not okay. Don’t be one of those people.

Do visit the Darwin Research Station and the Interpretation Centre

Situated on Isla Santa Cruz, The Darwin Station is where you’ll get to spend some time amongst the wonderful giant Galapagos tortoises, which is one of the main draws to the Galapagos islands. The centre carries out research and educational projects to support conservation efforts in both the Galapagos Islands and worldwide. Isla de San Cristobel is home to the Interpretation Centre, which displays the fascinating but turbulent history of the islands and the people who have tried to make the Islands their home.

Don’t forget to relax

If you’re looking for a bit of downtime and social life amongst the nature, head to the beautiful port town of Puerto Ayora on the Isla Santa Cruz. The most populous town in the Galapagos, the main road is lined with shops, cafés, restaurants and bars on one side and the broadwalk and sea on the other, so you’ll never be short of a view whilst sipping a Cubre Libre. Watch the fishermen being pestered by sealions for their supper and listen to local music talents in a café while watching the sunset.

Do appreciate and accept the good, the bad and the ugly

Things can be a bit unpredictable – a snorkelling session might be called off suddenly because of sharks being spotted in the area (I’ve never swam so quickly!) Seeing animals in distress may also be an unfortunate incident. When out on a dingy expedition, our group spotted a baby sealion chewing on some plastic sheeting washed onto the rocks. It was very upsetting, but as there was nothing we could do. From abandoned bird’s eggs and underweight sealion cubs, the Galapagos wasn’t all cute pictures of animals and beautiful sunsets. It’s a very raw place, but in a way, that’s part of the beauty and experience.

And, finally...

The animals and nature I saw in the Galapagos brought home for me that we are all part of something much bigger. The incredible work in research and conservation that is being done on the islands is applaudable. I naively put to the back of my mind that my impact doesn’t matter to places as far away as the Galapagos. It does, and I saw it first-hand. We need to make sure that unspoilt places like this are still around in the future for people to see.

Despite the potential sea sickness and sunburn, it is worth the long travel hours and the money – there’s truly no other place on this Earth like it.

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