As a traveler, is there any better feeling than finally crossing a trip off your bucket list? I did it myself last week with an expedition cruise to the Galapagos Islands aboard the 32-passenger Evolution; the trip was run by International Expeditions, which offers nature-based trips around the globe.
After so many years of building up expectations in my head about this trip, I can confirm a few things: the wildlife was just as exotic and unafraid of humans as I’d been told (swimming with sea lions is a memory I’ll never forget), and all those light-colored, quick-drying clothes I was advised to pack were definitely useful under the harsh equatorial sun. But as with any trip, there were a few lessons I could only learn through experience.
1. Bring an umbrella (and not just for rain).
Are you sensitive to the sun? Bring your own beach umbrella! I’d initially packed an umbrella in case of rain in Guayaquil (where I spent a few nights before and after the cruise), but I ended up using it to provide shade during a few ultra-sunny beach days. It can also be useful for hikes, as trees can be scarce on the more arid islands.
2. Always keep your camera with you, even at meal times.
You never know when a pod of dolphins or a magnificent frigate bird will cruise by the bow of the ship, and you might miss a sweet photo op if you have to run back to your cabin to grab your phone or camera.
3. Arrive at least a day early.
This advice applies to anyone boarding a cruise ship or joining an organized tour, but it’s particularly important in the Galapagos, where flights are limited and not all islands have airports. One family on our sailing arrived a couple of hours too late to catch our flight from Guayaquil to the islands, and ended up missing two full days of our weeklong itinerary.
4. Pack properly for snorkeling.
While your ship may provide wetsuits for snorkeling, consider packing a dive skin to wear under it both for warmth (especially between June and November when the water is colder) and for sun protection. Also, don’t forget your head! One fellow passenger, whose hair was thinning a bit, said that he wished he’d brought a swim cap to protect his scalp from the sun. Finally, consider bringing some alcohol-based drops to help dry your ears after snorkeling; this can help prevent swimmer’s ear and other infections.
5. Consider altitude sickness when planning your route.
The two gateway cities for flights to the Galapagos are Quito and Guayaquil, and they each have their pros and cons. While many travelers consider Quito to be the more interesting city, keep in mind that it’s located at an altitude of more than 9,000 feet, while Guayaquil is at sea level. Not everyone suffers from altitude sickness, but it can be debilitating — something to consider if you’re only going to be in town for a day or two.
6. Put the camera away.
When you’re standing incredibly close to an animal, it’s tempting to keep click-click-clicking away with your camera. But at one point, when I found myself watching a pair of albatrosses courting each other through the lens instead of with my own two eyes, I decided it was time to drop the camera and simply drink in the experience for a few moments — because who knows when I’d ever have this chance again?