9 things I wish I had known before taking a Galapagos cruise
After a long pandemic of being landlocked in my suburban New Jersey home, my family and I were ready for an adventure.
We wanted an adventure that felt both COVID-19 safe and would be equally appealing to myself, my husband and my teenage son. The solution came in the form of a bucket-list idea that suddenly became attainable: a small ship cruise through the remote Galapagos Islands on Quasar Expeditions' Evolution.
Many (OK, most) travelers book an adventure cruise to the Galapagos well in advance. Not us. Enticed by special fares and a desperate need to get away, I finalized our travel plans just three weeks before we sailed to Darwin’s evolutionary proving ground. I was as enthusiastic about the wildlife I was about to encounter as I was about Ecuador’s mandatory vaccination policies, both for arrivals in the country and then again to enter the protected Galapagos Islands. (Extra bonus: To board our 32-person Quasar ship, everyone also had to present a negative COVID-19 antigen test.)
The trip exceeded all expectations: The abundant wildlife was surreal, the scenery stupendous and the guiding some of the best I’ve ever experienced (and I’ve been on dozens of African safaris). The small ship truly felt like home after a week, as we made friends with what turned out to be fewer than 20 fellow travelers ranging from 10 to 80 years of age. It was an amazing family vacation.
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In hindsight, though, even the most memorable getaway could have gone more smoothly. With just a few weeks to shop and pack for the cruise, I focused on what I thought were the necessities — and sometimes I went astray.
If I ever get back to see the playful sea lions, the easy-going boobies and the technicolor marine life, here’s what I would do differently now that I know the secrets to traveling in the Galapagos.
Prepare for the sun
Ecuador is on the equator. Yes, this sounds obvious, especially when I see it in black and white. I anticipated strong sun and made sure to load up on SPF 50+ sunscreen for my family, but we still felt the effects of the straight-on rays that are a hallmark of the destination nearly 365 days a year.
One afternoon, after peeling off the shortie wetsuit that Quasar issues each guest, I sat chatting in my bathing suit for about 10 minutes — and quickly turned the color of a Sally Lightfoot crab. Lesson learned.
Instead of simply bringing topical lotions, I’d recommend sun-shield clothing — including long-sleeved swim shirts — with built in SPF. For island explorations, a wide-brimmed hat (not just a baseball cap) should be mandatory.
While you’re at it, take a fashion note from the guides — who are usually covered head to toe in sun-protective gear — and throw in a neck gaiter, too, so the back of your neck doesn’t take on a ruby-red hue.
A lot of what makes a Galapagos cruise fascinating is the time spent exploring on the water, in the water and on islands close to water. Bring all the waterproof cases and pouches you might want to keep your belongings safe and dry.
I invested in a top-notch underwater camera and would recommend the same to anyone taking a trip like this. My photos of twirling sea lions, swimming sea tortoises and neon fish are my favorite trip souvenirs.
However, I left my waterproof phone case at home, thinking I’d only use the camera. Big mistake. The small ships in the Galapagos rely on pangas, or inflatable dinghies, to speed passengers from boat to beach. We also paddled kayaks — often alongside playful sea lions. I didn't need an underwater camera for these on-the-water rides, but I was afraid to pull out my phone to grab quick pictures for fear of it might get wet. Because I didn't have a waterproof case, I missed a lot of the action.
Another thing I’d pack next time: A waterproof stash bag to keep both my phone and my clothes dry on the bumpy pangas and on the beach.
Pack a guide to birds, plants and wildlife
The Galapagos authorities require that every visitor to the islands be in a professionally guided group of no more than 16 people and on a boat that doesn’t exceed 100 people. (Evolution assigns about 12 people to each guide). Our Quasar guides were fascinating career naturalists who had each been guiding in the Galapagos for more than 25 years.
However, there are a LOT of birds in the Galapagos, and a guide wasn't always available to point out each one. I'm talking 13 types of finches, each with a special niche, plus hundreds of other species of rare fauna and flora. At the end of the day, I often couldn’t keep my finches straight.
While there’s a library on board, I found myself jealous of the younger kids who brought along checklist books and simple guides to keep track of wildlife. Next time, I’ll stock up on basic bird and animal guidebooks and bring a journal to keep notes and lists.
Invest in binoculars for everyone in the family
One of the truly unique aspects of touring the Galapagos Islands is how unfazed the birds and other wildlife are when humans approach. You can walk right up to a nesting Nazca booby and it will simply tilt its head and look at you. Wander up to sunning sea lions and they’ll act like you’re not there.
But not all of the action happens up close. Some birds are more majestic soaring in the air. You might need to watch a whale crest a wave or a penguin perch on a glistening rock from afar. In these instances, it helps to have binoculars.
Although you can borrow a pair for a bit, you’ll want your own to take in all the scenery. We had one pair for the three of us, and I wished we had two more, so we never had to share or miss out on far-away wildlife sighting.
Bring more U.S. currency than you think you’ll need
Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as currency, so I didn’t need to exchange money before or during my trip. Therefore, I mistakenly thought my travel finances would be smooth sailing.
Not so. ATMs are scarce in the capital city of Quito where I started my trip and almost nonexistent on the islands. Yet cash is king at small, family-owned businesses and when it comes to tipping. I had counted on withdrawing more dollars from ATMs as needed, but found myself rationing my bills instead. Next time, I’ll stash more cash in my wallet before I leave the U.S.
Prepare for seasickness
In my years as a travel writer, I’ve sailed on all sorts of ships — a tall-masted sailboat around the Greek Islands, an expedition ship in the Arctic Ocean, cruise ships big and small — and never been seasick. I even got married on a yacht on the Hudson River. I have never experienced the wave of nausea I experienced mid-way through my Galapagos cruise.
I’ve been on rough seas, but my trusty acupressure point bracelets always got me through, as they were evidently doing for the first part of this adventure. Then I stopped wearing them because I was spending so much time snorkeling that it seemed like too much “work” to keep taking them off and putting them back on.
Don’t make the same mistake. The animals on the islands may be peaceful, but the Pacific Ocean can be rough, especially when the ship is covering long distances. Keep seasickness medications close at hand and acupressure bracelets on any time the ship is moving.
Power up for a cruise
Ecuador uses the same electrical current as the U.S. — 110 volts — so I left my converter at home. I forgot that my travel converter has several lightning cord slots, so it doubles as a plug extender, allowing me to power up all my devices at once when I’m on the road.
With only one plug in the room, and two people sharing the space, we were constantly shuffling our electronics. Next time, I would bring a small multiplug power strip (a good hack for any cruise -- just make sure it's one without a surge protector).
Download entertainment ahead of time
One thing I learned to love during my time on Evolution was the ability to unplug completely. No Wi-Fi, no cell service— a truly disconnected vacation. Every mealtime was marked by a lovely exchange of conversation without the distraction of pinging phones.
However, I didn’t plan ahead for evening downtime. For the future, I’d load up my iPad with entertainment options ahead of time, which would have been helpful for the plane ride home, too.
Take baby steps back to reality
The most important thing I would change if I could do it all again? Not head right back home after our bucket-list cruise.
We gently eased into Ecuador at the beginning of our weeklong cruise, spending two nights nestled in the heart of historic Quito, exploring the architecture and enjoying a stay at the iconic Casa Gangotena. But the last day of the cruise, we flew back to Quito at night and stayed at a hotel in a far corner of the city. It was too late to do anything but eat in our room, and then we headed back to the airport in the dark early morning hours.
In retrospect, we should have spent an additional day easing back into reality and exploring the surrounding cloud forest — which would have been a much more relaxing and special way to end our adventure. Of course, it’s a good excuse to plan a return visit to Ecuador, and hopefully the Galapagos Islands, in the future.
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