|Shooting the Boobies -- Typical Day
What to expect on a typical tour of the Galapagos Islands.
Galapagos Islands are isolated and remote, thus it takes quite some time
to get there. From the US, for example, most tours book evening flights
from Miami to Quito (recommended) or Guayaquil (not recommended), then provide
you with a day or more in that city before your flight to the Galapagos.
About the only US option other than Miami is Dallas-Ft.Worth. Thus, if you
start in San Francisco in the morning--as I have on all my trips--you end
up in Quito just past midnight the next day, having flown for double-digit
hours and crisscrossed through multiple time zones. Thus, spending some
time in Quito is quite welcome.
Unfortunately, Quito's elevation is 9300 feet, so you're going to suffer from the sudden shift to high altitude. Most tours start slowly, and don't have you doing anything strenuous that first day. Take your time, and be sure to drink plenty of fluids, as you'll dehydrate quite rapidly if you're not careful.
Your flight from Quito to the Galapagos begins in the morning, and is on the airline that exhibits the most "I don't care" attitude I've encountered, Tame (tah-may). Tame is part of the military (the airport on Baltra is a military base; most of the boats are based at nearby Puerto Ayora) and has the exclusive rights to fly between the mainland and the Galapagos. If you can, try to sit on the left side of the plane leaving Quito, because if the volcanos are out (Cotopaxi is the world's tallest active volcano) the view from the air of this part of the Andes is remarkable (and fleeting, you parallel the Andes for only a short time). The plane makes a brief stop at Guayaquil, and then heads across the Pacific to the Galapagos. On the ocean leg, there isn't much to see until you're almost there (sit on the left side of the plane to see San Cristobal just prior to landing), so sit back if you can (cramped seats) and try to pretend the plastic-encased food is edible (it isn't, and if you're quesy about eating anything other than cow, well, don't ask what the meat came from).
Upon landing on Baltra, be prepared for the typical South American airport wait. Your tour guide needs to pay the park's entrance fee, the baggage handlers probably need another half hour to finish their nap, and the bus drivers are all having a drink at the cafe. I've seen it take 30 minutes to get from plane to a moving bus and I've seen it take two hours. There's really not much you can do at the airport other than buy expensive souvenirs, so be forewarned, bring reading material or use the time to practice meditation.
Eventually, you'll get on a bus that will take you on the very short drive to the docks. There you'll meet up with your boat's crew and have your first panga ride from dock to boat. Welcome to the Galapagos!
If the plane was reasonably on time and the airport wait didn't extend more than two hours, your boat will head to a nearby visitor site for a late afternoon visit.
A Typical Day
For the duration of your stay, the typical day is remarkably similar, though the sites you visit are quite diverse. In the morning you'll awake to find that you've either arrived or are about to arrive at a new site. You'll have breakfast on the boat, then board the panga to head to shore. You'll know ahead of time whether you're in for a "wet landing" (you'll get wet wading ashore, typically on a sand beach) or a "dry landing" (there's a rock formation that's used as a dock and you can step from the panga directly to the shore). Either way, I suggest you always prepare for getting dunked. I've seen people slip off the rocks into the water on dry landings and I've seen waves drench others on what should have been a simple knee-deep wade up a beach.
Your shore visit typically lasts one to three hours, with two being the norm. Some sites have trails that you'll follow, others are "go anywhere within the staked boundaries." Your naturalist guide will be with you on every visit and give you instructions on what to look for and any additional restrictions that might apply to the current site. Often, the guides will spend some time early in a visit to give lectures on unusual features or a short talk about the history of the site. Pay attention, the guides are all quite well-informed, engaging, and can answer virtually any question you can pose. If they don't know the answer, most will ask other guides they encounter, and I'm almost sure you'll have the answer by the time you leave the islands.
After your shore visit, you'll head back to the boat. Sometimes there's time for a quick snorkel before lunch. If not, there's often time after lunch. Either during or after lunch, the boat will move to the next site. Sometimes these trips are short, sometimes they take hours. In either case, you'll have plenty of time on your own on the boat during the midday hours. Most boats have VCRs, a small library, and a few games to whittle the hours away with, but think about what you want to do with spare time on the boat before you head to the Galapagos, and make sure you bring any necessary accessories.
By mid-afternoon, you're at another visitor site, and the morning process repeats itself. Into the panga. Land. Lectures and walks up trails or through bounded areas. Back to the panga. Back to the boat. Again, you may have time for a late snorkel before dinner. Note, however, that a few visits are panga-only (e.g., Tortuga Negra is a panga ride through mangroves to view green turtles and shorebirds), so be prepared to shoot from a small boat once in awhile.
During or after dinner, the boat again heads for the next site. Overnight is when the boat does most of its long hauls. If you're prone to seasickness, note that many of the longer passages are through open ocean water between islands, which can be quite choppy. On the Reina Silva, the owner's cabin is on the top level of the boat (two decks above water), and on our overnight to Tower Island the couple using it discovered what every sailor knows: the roughest ride is at the top. They spent the night with one arm wrapped around their camera bags and the other firmly grasping the headboard. Meanwhile, at the bottom rear of the boat, I fell asleep to constant drone of the engines and the intermittent shake of the hull breaking through another wave.
It's Your Tour
I learned a valuable lesson on my very first trip to the Galapagos. We had anchored in beautiful Elizabeth Bay on the Western side of Isabela and it wasn't quite time for dinner. The sun was setting in the west in a dramatic fashion as the captain (Fiddi Angermeyer, one of the storied Angermeyer family, who are pioneers in the Galapagos tourist business) and I stood on the deck. I swore under my breath. Or so I thought.
"What's the matter?" asked Fiddi.
"Well, I wish we were still onshore so I could get a shot of the boat at sunset."
Fiddi got one of those Mona Lisa grins on his face and said "Well, it's your vacation."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"If you want someone to take you in the panga so you can get a shot of the boat, all you have to do is ask."
This all was prior to the existence of Homer Simpson, but I think I let out a "D'oh" anyway. Within seconds I was on the panga with Fiddi attempting to line up a shot (see shot, above, taken in haste from a moving boat literally right at sunset).
The moral of this story is simple. Galapagos tours are not inexpensive, and it's your money that's being spent. Most tours try to accommodate every reasonable request. Don't ask for the impossible or the illegal, and you'll probably find your wish granted. Sometimes the crew and guides have to say no, but more often than not, they are predisposed to help you. Most count on the tips they earn at the end of a cruise to supplement their meager pay, and they've learned that if they satisfy their customers, they get bigger tips and repeat business (if only some American businesses were so savvy).