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4 Things You Didn’t Know About the Galapagos Islands

Penguins welcome you to the island of Isabela

The cold water of the Pacific Ocean envelops me, and I can hear myself breathing through my snorkel mask and tube. The calm waves sway me back and fourth as I search the ocean below me filled with fish, sea turtles, and sea lions. I spot a school of fish below me, and start a surface dive to check it out while I motion to my friends nearby to join. With my underwater camera in hand, I start to explore, snapping pictures of the busy ocean now above me. As I start to run out of breath, I push myself back up to the surface, and discuss the recent sightings with my friends.

I often have flashbacks like this; to my afternoons spent snorkeling at Playa Mann, a beach on the edge of town in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos Islands. In the Fall of 2011, I had the pleasure of living there for four months and studying at the local University, Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS), part of the Quito-based Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Prior to my trip there, I knew very little about the islands (well, compared to now). I knew they were monumental for Darwin, with incredible species and amazing views, but while living there I got to know the locals (yes, there are locals), and the land on a deeper level. Here are 4 things about the islands you may not know.

1. There’s a Human Population

Most people think of these islands as a place where Darwin adventured, but where no humans have been since. That, however, is not the case. Although 97% of the islands is national park land, the other 3% is residential. With populations on 4 of the many islands, there are close to 28,000 people who call the Galapagos home (around 10,000 on Santa Cruz; 6,000 on San Cristobal; 1,000 on Isabela; and 100 on Floreana). Residents run tourism shops, hotels, and restaurants. Many are tour guides, adding some local insight to tours.

2. You Don’t Have to Take a Cruise to See the Islands

Because there’s a local population, there are places to stay on the islands—a more economical and flexible way to travel than a chartered cruise. Buy a flight to the islands on TAME or Avianca (typically around $425 RT from Quito). Once there, you can stay in hostels or hotels (here’s a list of some of AFAR’s favorites) on Santa Cruz, Isabela, or San Cristobal, and take day trips on commuter boats (around $25 per ride) between islands. It’s a great way to get to know the locals, see the national park (and residential land), and explore at your own pace. Just be sure to research before you book anything, and choose your itinerary wisely to avoid any unintended negative environmental impacts.

3. Not Everyone (or Everything) Can Go

Humans are welcome, but only a limited number. Everyone who lands on the islands must pay a $100 entry fee (cash, at the airport). The Galapagos National Park Service has a limit on the number of visitors each year, but if you can get a flight, that means you made the cut. Non-human species, however, need to also beware. No animals, produce, seeds, or bugs (basically anything living that could threaten the lives of native species) are allowed to enter the islands. Every flight that goes to the islands must first stop in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to be sprayed by flight attendants to kill potentially invasive species (think bugs and bacteria). And not all programs for reducing invasive species are quite as…uh, nice. Project Isabela, completed in 2006, eliminated an estimated 100,000 feral goats from Isabela Island, after they caused unwelcome competition for endemic tortoises. Other eradication projects have taken place on the islands since (like the elimination of rats in 2012), as there are constant battles between land conservation, tourism, and growth. When traveling, be conscious of your impact—and remember, what makes the Galapagos so unique is the biodiversity among the islands.

4. There are Lots of Volunteer Opportunities

Volunteering at Hacienda Tranquila

Volunteering at Hacienda Tranquila on San Cristobal

Looking to “travel deeper”? There are tons of volunteer opportunities to get involved with in the Archipelago. Local schools are always looking for English teachers, and organizations like Hacienda Tranquila, on San Cristobal, are always looking for volunteers to help both environmental and social issues on the islands. While I was there we helped cut down invasive plant species and planted more local plants on the Hacienda property, and I tutored some local girls learning English. Find an organization on the islands you want to help, and they might even sponsor your trip, or give you room and board. Here are some other ideas to get you started.

Feeling inspired? The AFAR Guide to the Galapagos Islands has more great tips to help you plan your trip!