A beautiful, green country with one of the greatest treasures on Earth, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands are a must see for your bucket list. The country is pretty poor which makes it a cheap travel destination, but can be a bit challenging for English, food, water, and general safety. The country itself seems steeped in nature, although I spent the majority of my visit on the offshore islands.
The inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, this truly unique and magical place is like no other on Earth. It appears trapped in time and is the only place in the world that I’ve visited up to this point where you can observe wildlife unaffected by man and very up close and personal. There are species unique to these islands and the ecosystem where all animals live amongst one another in harmony is a sight to behold. Each island is different, offering activities like hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and tons of wildlife viewing. There are quite a few islands and some can be quite far by boat. Remember you are down at the equator so bring sun protection regardless of the weather. Although it is an expensive and logistically intense adventure, it is well worth it. You won’t find many, if any, places like this left on the planet.
Isla Lobos. One of my favorites. See the incredible blue footed booby which is one of the funniest birds I’ve ever seen. If you’re lucky enough to encounter them during mating season, it’s really something. Males and females will pair off and whistle at each other while making grand gestures. When the female accepts him, she will bring him a twig (how romantic) and they will start building a nest together. I saw one jump the gun in an attempt to mount one of the females, but she wasn’t having it. Although, I think after some more whistling she finally gave in. There is also other wildlife to observe.
Kicker Rock. Snorkeling, scuba diving. This was my favorite stop in the Galapagos. It’s an incredible rock formation out in the middle of the ocean where three currents intersect, making for an incredible diversity in marine life with a mix of cold and warm water. Swim through the giant rock walls and view the spectacular sights below. We went out late afternoon and were surrounded by a plethora of marine life. Swimming through a sea of over 30 majestic sea turtles, acrobatic sea lions, darting barracudas, floating groupers, menacing sharks, and tons of multi-colored fish was a truly unforgettable experience. After about an hour, our guide rounded us up and told us it was getting close to feeding so it was time to get out. We jumped up into the dinghy and headed back to the boat.
Punta Pitt. Scuba diving, hiking. Beautiful beach and also a hike into the hills where you might get to see the nazca boobies. If the timing is right during mating season, you may even get to see some fluffy white babies.
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Capital city, one of the few places with amenities.
Getting There. It is a 3-4 hour flight from either Quito or Guayaquil to either Baltra or Santa Cruz, the only two islands with airports.
Getting Around The Islands. There are only two main airports and a handful of towns, only a couple on which tourists are able to stay. You have basically two options. First, and most popular, charter a stay aboard boat for several days that will take you around the islands. Smaller boats will have smaller groups and allow access to places larger vessels cannot. Second, you can do a mix of land and day trips. Santa Cruz and San Cristobal are really the only islands to stay, and you then charter boats to nearby islands or other parts of the island you’re on. You will not be able to see islands that are farther away without staying aboard a boat as it can take 6-10 hours to arrive at a different island. I went on a tour with G Adventures which I loved and would highly recommend. I tried to plan on my own, but there is a limit on the number of people allowed to charter boats to preserve the islands along with other logistics that make it kind of a nightmare to plan on your own. So why not let the professionals handle it.
Cash Money. Only ATMs/banks are in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, so bring cash with you, about $300-$500 for tips, food, accommodations (if spending time on an island), and excursions.
Extra Fees. There is a $100 park entrance fee paid on arrival (CASH only), a $20 Transit Card paid at point of departure, and any tips for boats, guides, etc.
What To Bring. Shorts, t-shirt, hat, sunglasses, pants, long sleeves, raincoat, boots/shoes (lava rocks are sharp), swimwear, sandals, insect repellent, dry bag, day pack, flashlight. Optionally, bring binoculars (handy for wildlife viewing, especially birds), mask, snorkel, fins for snorkeling or scuba diving if you prefer your own.
Seasickness. I get sea sick easily and usually use Dramamine which is pretty magical. However, being on a boat for several days required something stronger. I used Transderm Scop (scopolamine), a patch that can be worn for several days without removing and is even waterproof. I wore it snorkeling every day and in the shower with no problems. It is the only way I would’ve been able to handle the trip. Consult your doctor as it requires a prescription and has some potential side effects. Important Note: Read the side effects, as there is increased sun sensitivity and also you might get sick when removing the patch. I was sick for an entire day, so play accordingly. Be on land if possible and don’t plan anything for that day. I picked a tour that was partially on land and then only 3 days staying aboard a boat to minimize the potential and duration for seasickness. Sleeping on the first level of the boat will be less rocky, as travel to the islands is done overnight.
Water. On the ship, they use a desalination system for fresh water. It is limited how much can be produced at a time and has residual taste of the ocean, at least to me. If this would bother you, I recommend bringing a water purifier, I use Grayl, or bring bottled water. Most people didn’t have a problem, but I apparently have sensitive taste buds and after already feeling queasy most of the time, I ended up filtering all of the water through my own water filter which helped. I think bottled water if you have the space is probably the way to go. It’s possible different boats have different fresh water sources, so ask before you go.
Wetsuit/Rashguard. If you have a skin (thin wetsuit) or a rashguard and some extra space, you might consider bringing it. The water can be cooler in the early months and even more importantly will provide valuable sun protection for snorkeling. I had a full body skin and was the only one on my tour who’s back and legs didn’t get burnt. Plus it helped keep me warm and offered a bit of flotation. We were, however, offered shorty wetsuits for snorkeling on the tour and full ones for scuba diving.
Horse Flies. Watch out for these bastards on the beaches. Their bite hurts!
Mating Season. If you want to see some activity, go around May when it’s blue footed booby mating season (the funniest ritual I’ve ever seen), waved albatross lay eggs, sea turtle hatching, and marine iguana hatching. I even saw tortoises going at it which was odd to say the least. Like two fat rocks moving in slow motion making noises resembling someone having a heart attack.
Quito is the capital of Ecuador and is a great jumping off point to explore the country. There are many available flights to and from the city and the surrounding area outside the city is very pretty and green. It’s a fairly large city, but I wouldn’t say there is much in the way of attractions. You may find some interesting day trips if you ask around.
See & Do
Colonial Quito. Historic quarter.
Old Town. Old are of the city.
Basilica del Voto Nacional. Old cathedral. You can climb up in the rafters and also up the towers on the outside of the cathedral for some stunning views of the city.
Cafe Imperio. Authentic, cheap Ecuadorian food inside the mall by the main square.
Safety. Ecuador in general is a fairly impoverished country and in certain areas of the city, be watchful for prostitutes, drugs, etc. In the neighborhood of a hotel we stayed at, shops closed up when it got dark, not at a specific time. So ask the locals about safety around where you’re staying for more information.
Food. I got sick a couple times in Ecuador. A general rule of thumb is to only eat what has been boiled, cooked, or can be peeled. The water isn’t great and the meat is pretty rough looking in some places, which you can see just by looking around at the state of the animals in the taxi coming from the airport. Event at a well reviewed restaurant I researched (Fried Bananas) I was ill for our flight to the Galapagos. My friend was fine though.
Taxi. Not sure if this is common, but the taxi drivers seem to be very friendly. Ours gave us his card and we were able to book him for rides to the airport, even at a very early or late time. If you like your taxi driver, consider getting his number and then using your hotel/hostel phone to ring him if you want to book him to the airport or around the city.
While a yellow fever vaccine is not required to enter the country, it may be required to leave, depending on your destination after Ecuador. Because there is a very small part of Ecuador that is part of the Amazon Rainforest, which is susceptible to Yellow Fever, some countries will not let you enter without this vaccine. Be aware that you may experience signs of a fever after a few days of getting the vaccine, so ask a doctor about how it works and what you should expect.
After our time in the Galapagos Islands, my friend and I headed to the airport. He was flying back to the U.S. and I was on my way to Costa Rica. While my friend had no issues, I was stopped at the counter during checkin because I could not produce the “yellow card” that proves administration of the vaccine. After finally figuring out what they were even talking about and explaining that since they didn’t know I wasn’t in the Amazon, I had to delay my flight a day, pay the change fee, and head back to Quito to get the vaccine. Although it was a royal pain in the ass, the medical center I went to was great. It was clean, the vaccine was only around $35, and the lady who administered was super nice. This was a very important lesson learned that luckily didn’t cost me too much, but certainly could have.