Who: Travel Deals Editor Caroline Morse, 27, and friend, 26.
Where I Went: Galapagos Islands via Quito, Ecuador.
When: Mid-February 2011 (Shoulder Season).
High Points: Getting to snorkel with tiny penguins (yes, they live in the warm Galapagos) and giant sea turtles. I also loved hiking the 14km around the colorful Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela Island, despite getting caught in a torrential rainstorm (usually a once-daily occurrence on the islands) halfway through and having to hike back through rivers of mud. You can see old lava formations, as well as layer upon layer of rainbow-colored rocks. Sierra Negra is so quiet and isolated that it feels as if you're on another planet. And, snorkeling near the Devil's Crown—a sunken volcano with tons of marine life, including sea lions—was unforgettable. Dolphin sightings were frequent on the way to and from the Devil's Crown.
Low Points: I wish that I spoke Spanish, because many of our guides and the locales did not speak English. Luckily, my traveling companion is fluent in Spanish. Unluckily, she was roped into being the translator for me and a few other non-Spanish speakers on our tour as well.
My least favorite part of the Galapagos was the Giant Tortoises Reserve. Although it was interesting to see the animals in person, it was depressing to learn how endangered the species is. (They also smell pretty bad.)
I would also not recommend spending more than a few days in Quito. Although parts of the city are beautiful, and the Equator is fun to have checked off my list (well, sort of: The tourist trap that is the Equator is apparently not the real thing), the city itself is extremely polluted. We were also warned multiple times to avoid many areas. I would instead opt to spend any extra days in the Galapagos.Savings Strategy: I booked this trip on a whim after spotting a LAN airlines sale to Quito for about $400 round-trip from New York. We then bought flights from Quito to Baltra Island on AeroGal Airlines for about $330 round-trip. Prices between mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos are pretty set, with different prices for foreigners and Ecuadorians. You won't see much fluctuation between the airlines that fly there.
In Quito, we hired taxi drivers for around $30 per day to drive us around the countryside and to the Equator—we could have taken buses for about $1, but again, we had heard that these were less safe. Plus, it was nice to be able to stop at anything that caught our interest.
The Galapagos Islands are a National Park, so you'll have to go around with a guide for most of the sights. We shopped around tour groups and cruises a bit before leaving the U.S., but were quoted extremely high prices for five-day tours. The best advice we got was to wait until arriving to book a tour, and we ended up walking in to one of the numerous tour operators that line the streets on the main island and booking ourselves on to a four-day, three-island tour with everything (meals, accommodations, tours, snorkeling, boat transfers, et cetera) included for just $200 per person.
Be prepared to pay a $100 National Park fee upon arrival at the Baltra airport and a $30 entrance fee if you go to San Cristobel Island—there's no way around these.
Where I Stayed: I've reached the stage in my life where I'm too old for hostels, especially on an intense trip like this one, where a good night's sleep is essential. However, my budget doesn't extend much to fancy hotels, so I compromised on a private, ensuite room in the Hostal Marsella in Quito.
I shared a room with two twin beds with my friend, and we each paid $7 a night—a bargain for our huge room that overlooked a quiet rooftop with a hammock. The property was centrally located, clean, and quiet, but the workers did not speak English—so if I had been traveling alone, I would have had much more difficulty here.
In the Galapagos, we stayed three nights in a beautiful "Honeymoon Suite" (why this was assigned to two friends traveling together, I'm not sure!) at a hotel on Isabela Island, which was included in our $200 tour price.
After our tour ended, we stayed for one night on Santa Cruz Island, where we paid about $15 each for an air-conditioned, ensuite room with three beds. This was a room that was rented out by a woman who lived on Santa Cruz Island and recruited people getting off the boat to stay with her. Regular hotels on Santa Cruz Island were fairly pricey.
If You Go: Vegetarians, be prepared for few options, especially in the islands. Every meal I was offered (including breakfast) was some combination of rice and eggs, so vegans will have even less luck. Be specific about what you can't eat—at a seafood restaurant, I was offered a ham omelet as an alternative. On the bright side, I'll never forget what huevos means now!
Pack everything that you need; places to buy supplies are very limited, and many of the tours are so jam-packed with activities that there isn't time to run out and buy something you forgot, such as sunscreen. On the flip side, be careful what you pack—they will search your bags at almost every island to make sure you are not bringing any food or wildlife that could introduce new species of plants or animals to the delicate ecosystem.
Bring a waterproof camera—I wish I had invested in a disposable one to capture the amazing underwater life. Also, bring a waterproof case or cover for your regular camera; getting caught in daily rainstorms and bringing my digital camera on boats prompted a few near-misses.
Have a question for Caroline about her trip to the Galapagos? Planning a trip yourself and need advice? Want to share your own Galapagos experiences? Leave a comment below!