Blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and sea lions. The incredible wildlife you’ll see in the Galapagos hasn’t changed much, but how travelers explore the islands has been transformed in the last decade. As the Myths and Mountains Galapagos Islands expert, I visited the islands for the 14th time in December, 2016 and explored three emerging trends that affect how Galapagos itineraries are evolving.
While most of the 250,000 tourists who visit each year still navigate the islands by ship, there is a noticeable increase in visitors who extend their stays to lodge in upscale hotels on several of the populated islands.
On Santa Cruz Island, the Galapagos Safari Camp masters the ambiance of an African glamping experience in a tropical paradise. Yes, there was a rare, endangered wild tortoise relaxing under my tent!
Since the camp hosts just a handful of guests at a time, the camp manager meets with you when you arrive to get a sense of your priorities and preferences. During my stay, a small group wanted to experience the local culture. The staff arranged for a high school dance troupe to stop by before dinner. The beautiful lobby turned into a spectacular stage as guests and students joined together for a joyful, impromptu party.
On an excursion to see the lava caves, I was surprised to see a small cave roped off just for me and my travel partner. Deep inside the cave, dozens of candles flickered while the Safari Camp staff presented guests with an afternoon tea, complete with fresh fruit, tea, and biscuits. They also covered the rocks with blankets to make perfect seats. Just for us! Such a special treat.
Most people travel from island to island on a ship, but a more unusual way to see the islands is from a six-seater prop plane. You first fly from the mainland on a jet and then hop onto a smaller plane to fly between the islands of Baltra (the main hub) and then on to the islands of either San Cristobal or Isabela.
Is it island hopping? Technically, yes. For example, I flew from San Cristobal to Isabela, jumped off and waited for three other folks, and then jumped back into the plane and continued to Baltra. Such air “taxi” flights last 20 minutes to about an hour. En route, you’ll see jaw-dropping sights of minor islets and ancient volcanic craters from the air. Bonus: It was incredibly fun to be in such a tiny plane! Flights currently run under $200 per leg.
PRO-TIP: If you are flying on one of the prop planes, keep in mind that you are allowed only one, carry-on bag weighing 5 lbs. or less, and one checked bag, weighing no more than 20 lbs. (Excess weight fees apply).
LESS ISLANDS, MORE TIME
Most ship itineraries are designed to cover as many islands and visitor sites as possible. Sailing itineraries are dictated by the Galapagos National Park to ensure that the human impact at designated visitor sites is as minimal as possible.
Now more travelers are embracing the idea that “less is more.” By concentrating on a few islands and spending days on them rather than hours, visitors enjoy an in-depth, leisurely experience in the Galapagos. On longer stays, you overnight at a hotel on one of the four inhabited islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, Floreana) and explore nearby islands on day trips. You’ll have time for a half-day kayak trip, too. (Ship passengers can kayak for only a brief time.)
If you overnight on San Cristobal, you can snorkel the deep water around Kicker Rock, a volcanic tuff cone that most ships sail by. Imagine swimming through colorful walls of tropical fish as sea turtles and hammerhead and white tip sharks glide by you. It’s a scene to rival one in a National Geographic documentary. You’ll likely see Mexican hogfish, yellowtail surgeonfish, parrotfish, Sergeant major fish, pufferfish, hawkfish, and rainbow wrasse.
Nearby is one of the most spectacular and rarely visited beaches in the Galapagos Islands – Playa Cerro Brujo. We spent a few hours here with six others, and we humans were far outnumbered by the sea lions. The opportunity to spend an unrushed afternoon there was truly a gift.