As a child, I watched a TV program showcasing the “wildlife wonderland” of the Galapagos Islands.
The archipelago was depicted as an exotic, animal-filled paradise of unique flora and fauna. Though I had no idea what either of those words meant, I didn’t need to. The vivid video clips of dolphins, sea lions, and penguins were enough. SOLD! I wanted to go to THAT place!
The following years I spent daydreaming about the Galapagos slowly cemented an expectation of the Galapagos islands in my head. Admittedly, the childhood imaginings of smiling penguins and dancing dolphins matured a bit.
But through NatGeo, travel blog research, and conversations with travelers, I truly thought I possessed a pretty realistic idea of what I’d experience when I finally made it to the Galapagos.
Boy, was I ever wrong! So many preconceptions about the islands shattered during my 10-day SUP adventure with Galakiwi, it’s almost embarrassing.
What did I learn about the Galapagos that most surprised me?
The islands aren’t entirely crazy wild and uninhabited.
I imagined the islands like these scenes: vast expanses of untamed, prehistoric land
Maybe I read too much National Geographic and watched too much Animal Planet, but I had a crystal clear concept of the Galapagos Islands basically as complete wilderness. I expected to be staying in rough and tumble cabins in the middle of jungle, and having to machete my way through the underbrush to breakfast.
San Cristobal looks like any other seaside town
While the islands have done a commendable job of preserving their forests , beaches, and wildlife areas (for the most part), several are quite developed. All four of the inhabited islands I visited have a range of accommodation options on offer. Santa Cruz and Isabela are especially well-developed, though not over-developed — YET.
this is a Carioca-level caipirinha I enjoyed on the beach of Isabela island
I was most (pleasantly) surprised by the nice smooth roads, bike paths, bars, and a variety of restaurants. It was just bizarre to me to enjoy a caipirinha with real cachaca on the shores of Isabela island. Mind. Blown.
A cruise isn’t the only way to visit.
there are plenty of comfortable, welcoming hotels
I always thought the necessity for a Galapagos cruise came from the fact that the islands were unliveable.
But as we both now know, that’s not true (the islands have even got cachaca). A cruise is therefore entirely unnecessary, and I’d argue not even preferred.
Land-based tourism allows you to connect to the land so much more, and fully immerse yourself in the experience. Maybe that sounds hippy dippy, but it’s really true.
walking the trails with Pablo and learning about the local fauna
Staying on terra firma also gives more money to local businesses — you’re staying in local hotels, eating at local restaurants, renting local bikes and equipment, and meeting local guides. All this commerce helps support and encourage the responsible preservation of the area. For example, fishermen and potential poachers are provided alternate, steadier sources of income through tourism while also utilizing their deep knowledge of the land.
Going land-based also ensures smaller groups, which means more face-time with the animals and a closer experience with the guides.
why ditch the Isabela beachfront for a cruise ship?
Finally, the really practical side of me has to point out: if you’re spending all this money to be in the Galapagos, why not really BE in and on the islands? Why waste every night on a cruise ship that could really be anywhere in the world?
6 year old imaginations aren’t wrong: the animals really are friendly.
Tim of Galakiwi getting some paddle time in with his new friends
Dolphins will come right up to your boat (or paddle board). Sea lions will want to play with you while you’re snorkeling.
Sea turtles won’t dart away in fear, and neither will the fish.
You are guaranteed to have the best and closest wild animal experiences of your life. I did, without a doubt.
the coolest snorkeling buddy ever
While getting up close and personal with animals is OH MY GOD SO COOL, remember it’s important to maintain a healthy sense of respect for the wildlife. Don’t feed them, don’t touch them, and keep a respectful distance.
Going with a guide makes an exponential difference.
Pablo’s knowledge and passion for the Galapagos was unbeatable
And going with a high quality guide makes an even bigger difference.
Our Galakiwi naturalist guides were amazing. Pablo and Pepo live and breathe everything Galapagos (literally, they live there) and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more knowledgeable. They could point out hiding animals, identify plant species, and explain the human history of the land in one breath.
If I’d tried to DIY it, I might have gotten lucky and had some cool guides on various day trips.
But being with the same guides (from sun up to sun down, pretty much), provided an opportunity to form a relationship. We could prepare for the day over breakfast, ask questions about what we’d experienced that morning over lunch, and discuss Galapagueno life — and life in general — over dinner.
One of my favorite parts of any travel experience is human connection. In the Galapagos, I was planning for animals to be more of the focus, but I was mistaken. My Galakiwi guides were an absolute highlight of my experience in the islands, providing everything from information on turtle breeding to a physical bail out when I got caught in a current snorkeling… and a snorkel lesson on how to use fins.
The food did not suck.
There’s this huge and totally wrong rumor that the food in the Galapagos (and Ecuador in general) is bad but ESPECIALLY for vegetarians.
I didn’t find this to be the case at all. I enjoyed every meal in the Galapagos more than I enjoyed any meal I had the entire time I was living in Brazil.
Even as a vegetarian, I felt very accommodated and never like I was missing out an anything. I had delicious soups (double-checked the soup stock was veg as well), tasty salads, lots of pasta and rice, and tons of veggies. Every meal was well-rounded with vegetables and a protein.
I was eating a TON because adventuring is awesome but exhausting, yet I wasn’t gaining any weight because everything I ate was so wholesome, nutritious, and delicious (aside from maybe those desserts).
A guided trip is actually affordable.
it is SO worth it to save up your money for a memorable experience like paddle boarding with sea lions
I’d been shell-shocked by the steep Galapagos prices I’d come across (more than $10,000 for a week), one of the many reasons I put my trip off for so long.
But I knew that I didn’t want to half-ass this trip. I knew that when I visited the Galapagos Islands, going on a guided trip was a priority for me. With such a once in a lifetime, special experience, I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I wanted to do all the snorkeling, all the hiking, see ALL the animals, and not skimp out on an incredible experience based on cost.
That’s not small change, but it’s also not un-doable with planning and saving. And goodness gracious, is it ever worth it!
There’s no better place to get over fears.
It’s even more incredible than imaginable.
I’m a chatty Cathy, and even I was brought to stunned silence more times than I could count on my Galapagos trip.
I also have notoriously high expectations (sometimes too high), and yet the Galapagos entirely surpassed anything I could have ever dreamed up.
Words won’t do enough to explain what a life-changing, soul-touching experience this was, so I’ll try to describe just one of the many moments that were so deep for me.
As our boat cruised along from San Cristobal to Floreana, an excited voice roused me out of my sleep (I fall asleep on every boat ever).
There were dolphins following our boat.
I’ve been obsessed with dolphins since I was a little girl. (I’d beg my dad to save dolphins in our pool.)
I immediately crawled to the front of the boat to sit on the bow, dangling my legs over the edge, for a front-seat show of their acrobatics.
They leapt out of the water, spun underneath, and surfaced right below my feet. I don’t know if this continued for 10 minutes or 30, because I lost all track of time. Here, these beautiful, wild animals are choosing to engage with us. Out of the entirety of the ocean, they’re choosing to come here, to play around us. To jump up next to us, to look at us, and to connect with us in this way.
What is more awe-inspiring than that?
I had tears in my eyes (and I do again, just typing this), experiencing a thousand emotions that couldn’t be put into words.
Pin 7 Ways I Was Wrong About the Galapagos Islands