The Malta Independent 6 December 2022, Tuesday
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FIRST: The Galapagos Islands - When protected, nature gives back in abundance

First Magazine Saturday, 22 December 2018, 12:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

For this month’s travel diary, Gabriel Schembri writes about the wonders of the Galapagos Islands, an idyllic travel destination and nature haven. Words by Gabriel Schembri

There are very few places on earth that offer a genuine sense of untouched wilderness and jaw-dropping natural beauty and one of them is the Galapagos Islands, which still promise - and manage - to provide an unforgettable experience for those who love free-roaming animals and virgin wildlife.

The Galapagos archipelago lies almost a thousand kilometres off the coast of Ecuador and its unique settlement, cut off from the rest of South America, provides shelter for animal diversity like nothing ever seen in any other parts of the globe. The islands are home to hundreds of different land and marine species and that is why geologist and physicist Charles Darwin was left sufficiently inspired to write his famous Theory of Evolution.

To this day, even after years of exploitation from pirates and empires who tried to tame this beautiful landscape, 97 per cent of the islands' land is still protected as a national park by the Ecuadorian authorities. The Galapagos archipelago consists of no fewer than 20 islands but it is estimated that no more than 25,000 people actually live on the main islands of  Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, which is where visitors usually base themselves. These are, however, not the only islands one can visit and they all offer a unique and diverse list of attractions.

In this article, we will be looking at what you can explore in this Mecca for wildlife lovers and providing you with useful tips on how to make the most of your days in the Galapagos.

Getting to the islands

The best way to reach the Galapagos Islands is by flying through mainland Ecuador. Flights usually leave from either Quito, the capital of Ecuador, or Guayaquil - the latter being the more popular option. Round tickets for the Islands will usually cost you around €350 but, having said that, it is important to note that money in the Galapagos Islands evaporates quickly. Bearing in mind that it is a natural reserve and a protected area, and also because the island is so cut off from the mainland and provisions need to be shipped in, visiting the Galapagos Islands is an expensive treat.

And yet, even for backpackers, trips to this dreamland can be made possible if you act wisely. Just to put you in the picture, a pint of beer in the Galapagos is followed by a hefty bill of $9 or sometimes more. Eating out is not cheap either - unless you find some corner street vender who sells empanadas (pies) for a dollar or two. But these are not easy to spot. We quickly realised that the best way to stretch your money is to buy groceries and cook something in your accommodation. If you can afford to pay for a decent hotel that also serves food, you will find various options on the main islands without much trouble.

For those who are not freelance writers like me, and who can afford to spend an extra dollar or two, a lot of tour operators in the Galapagos main islands offer cruise excursions of up to eight days, or even longer. They are, of course, expensive but, as I'm going to divulge in the next part, the true gems of the Galapagos lie in its waters.

The Galapagos' secret is under water

Don't get me wrong. The islands offer pristine natural beauty. It is, after all, an archipelago surrounded by enormous volcanoes and wild vegetation. But to truly explore the beauty of the Islands, you have to immerse yourself in its waters.

For a glimpse of incredible submergible fun in the Galapagos, you will need to take a tour. There are day tours, which you will be able to find on the three main islands, and there is no need to pre-book, unless you visit the Islands at the peak of the tourist season. Prices will range quite a lot: it depends on the boat offered, the food and the time but prices are, in most cases, negotiable. If the demand is not that high, the tour prices can be reduced considerably, especially if you promise the same agency to take more than one of their tours. Usually, companies will offer only minor extras which are different from those of their competitors, but these are things that often make or break a deal. For instance, some tours will offer you a wet-suit and snorkelling equipment, others will not. This is something to consider because renting snorkelling goggles adds an extra $15 or more to the cost if it is not included in the list of items provided.

What to see for nothing and what is truly worth the cost

Even though a visit to the Galapagos will put you back a couple of hundred euros, there are things to do that are completely free. Observing the animals that roam the land is one such example. Once you land on one of the three main islands, you will  realise immediately that animals rule most areas - especially sea lions, which are, quite literally, at every corner. You will find some sleeping on public benches, others taking a slow stroll around the port and you might even find a couple sleeping just behind your hostel door. So, just to put your mind at rest, watching sea lions in their natural habitat is one of the major attractions you can enjoy without spending a cent.

Make sure, however, that you respect these wonderful creatures. Going further into the islands, you will be told that, according to the law, you must stay at least two metres away from the animals that roam around. Do not take this advice lightly. The islands' residents have learnt to respect their natural habitat by keeping a safe distance. And here, even the guides - who are usually very open to your close approach to animals - will tell you to keep back and stick to the rules. Every animal on the islands is, after all, protected and fortunately the locals take this principle seriously.

Apart from sea lions, iguanas and huge lizards can easily be found on practically every beach on the islands. These animals are used to people and taking pictures of these beautiful creatures will not be an impossible task. If you are lucky, by getting a snorkel and immersing yourself in the sea off one of the public beaches you can also see some sting rays, white tip sharks and even sea turtles. Remember, the Galapagos Islands are bustling with wild sea life and when nature is protected, it gives back in abundance.

If there are two particular snorkelling tours that I would suggest, I would say go for the Los Tuneles Tour from Isabela island and the Kicker Rock tour from San Cristobal island. They were by far the best marine life bonanza we experienced in the whole of South America. Also, the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island is worth a visit. You will get to see the famous giant tortoises and learn, even if it's only a bit, about Charles Darwin's inspiration.

Transportation

Beach-hopping on the islands is made easy thanks to bike rental agencies, which can be found in the main tourist areas. However, travelling between one island and another can get a little bumpy. To travel from one main island, for example Isla Isabela, to Santa Cruz, you will need to take the ferry. The journey is no less than two hours long and the sea is choppy, to say the least. What makes matters worse is the fact that the majority of these ferry boats are almost entirely enclosed, and bumpy rides with little air to breathe can make you seriously sick.

So here's a couple of tips. First, take an anti-sea-sickness pill and take it 30 minutes before your ride. It might make you feel sleepy but at least you won't feel like a bursting volcano. Second, try to fly into one island but leave from a different one. For instance, fly to the Galapagos to Isla Isabela airport but when you leave the archipelago, get a ticket for a flight that leaves from San Cristobal airport. This way, you will at least save yourself from an extra two-hour ordeal to travel to the next island from which you have to fly out.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure you soak in as much of nature's wonder as you possibly can from the Galapagos Islands. Experiencing nature in its untouched beauty is the most rewarding adventure you can embark on. 

 


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