Have you ever wondered what Charles Darwin was thinking as he first set eyes on the Galapagos?
Right now could be the best opportunity you’ll ever get to visit the Galapagos in a state that’s as close to when he arrived on his faithful Beagle in 1835.
You see, one of the biggest threats to the Galapagos is from overtourism. So, visiting during a time when tourist numbers have plummeted has many benefits for both the visitor & the local economy.
We cover these benefits below, but of course any travel during Covid carries heightened risks, which we’ve also covered.
The catalyst for this article was a friend’s visit to the Galapagos February - March 2021 during COVID. We’ve featured his stunning photos throughout this article which really highlight how magical the Galapagos are right now. Go check out his blog for more beautiful pics of Ecuador & beyond.
The COVID 19 pandemic forced the Galapagos Islands to go into lockdown like most of the world. This lockdown has since been lifted, and a plan put in place to manage COVID outbreaks on the Galapagos.
This lockdown forced tourists to completely stop. Tourists are once again allowed to visit the Galapagos provided strict protocols are followed.
Pre-pandemic, 70% of the population relied on tourist based activities such as land or boat based tours. When tourists stopped coming, these activities also stopped. This means there is now a lot less human activity in general on the islands, helping to create the following opportunities.
Close encounters with some of the Galapagos’ endemic animal species are definite highlights for many visitors.
Whether it’s sea lions hanging out by the pier at San Cristobal, marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins, giant tortoises or any other species that calls the Galapagos home, you have a better chance of finding them right now.
Towards the end of 2020, researchers found Galapagos penguins at their highest numbers since 2006 and flightless cormorants were at their highest numbers ever. And, more tortoises have been returning thanks partly to tireless conservation efforts.
There are many human-made threats to the Galapagos. These include climate change, overfishing, plastic pollution & invasive species hitching a ride on a supply boat.
But, one of the main threats that can be hard for tourists to see is the impact from not managing human activity on the islands sustainably.
A common example of this is in some of the harbours of the towns where boats regularly stop. Even with all of the regulations and protections in place, you can sometimes see a thin film of oil accumulating on top of the water because of the boat gasoline runoff.
Right now the boat activity has come screeching to a halt. Which means the gasoline runoff has also subsided, making for a more rewarding experience as a tourist.
This is one small example of how the conditions have been improving due to less human activity on the islands.
Once mass tourism recommences, you can be sure that many of these improvements will start to recede to their former state. So, your window for enjoying these pristine conditions will close. And, as the COVID vaccine rollouts continue to accelerate, your window of opportunity closes.
Whilst the Galapagos does try to limit tourist numbers, this doesn’t mean that some of the most popular spots can feel a little crowded.
Take Kicker Rock as an example. I went diving there last year and it was fabulous. We saw a bunch of hammerheads and just mountains of fish. Beautiful. But, if there was one area where the trip could be improved, it would be if there were less boats also doing a similar dive. It’s nothing like other popular spots like Koh Tao in Thailand where you can find yourself crawling over fellow divers, but it’s just enough to remind you that you are not alone.
The experience would have been absolutely perfect if I was able to enjoy it in a more intimate manner. Right now you can.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you will never again be able to find the same value as you can right now. Many tour operators and hotels are currently offering very steep discounts just so they can make enough money to pay their bills.
We’ve seen many cruises priced at around 50%-70% of their normal price. Some cruise companies have suspended operations, but those that are still operating are aggressively pricing their cruises.
Private cruises in particular have become a popular option because they are now more affordable and because you aren’t sharing with other tourists, they can be the safest option.
There are numerous tour operators and agencies on the islands where you can book day tours. These have also needed to price their tours as low as possible in order to attract as many tourists as they can.
Discounts of 20-25% are now relatively common for day trips, so don’t be afraid to negotiate what you think is a fair price.
Unlike some tours and cruises that will only operate with a guaranteed number of tourists (and hence a guaranteed profit margin - even if this is reduced), hotels have considerable sunk costs that need to be recouped. They really need your business to cover these costs and are willing to throw you some very good deals.
Michelle works for a Galapagos land-tour operator and she has seen even some of the very exclusive hotels offering discounts of 50%. These types of discounts were largely unheard of before COVID.
We’ve even seen some quality deals from LATAM offering reduced fares to the Galapagos for both Ecuadorian residents & tourists.
The Galapagos needs tourists. Why? Because the $100 park entrance fee from foreign visitors is the main revenue source the islands use for their conservation efforts. Without tourists, conservation funding dries up, decreasing the overall protection for this vulnerable flora & fauna.
It’s all about balance. Too much low-value, mass consumer based tourism will absolutely hurt the islands. But, right now there are next to no tourists visiting the islands.
So, I’m going to argue that the funds you’re providing to conservation right now are perhaps even more meaningful because of the huge decline in tourist numbers.
One of the most surprising facts for many visitors to the Galapagos is the human occupation of the islands. 4 of the islands are habited and there are 3 main towns where the majority of the 25,000 inhabitants live in the 3 main towns on the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal & Isabella.
70% of this population relied on tourism to feed their families. But now, they are really struggling. Some have left in search of more opportunities on the mainland. Whilst others have turned to farming vegetables & tropical fruits like bananas & pineapples. Some have also started hunting goats and pigs for food.
If you’ve visited the Galapagos before, then there might be the temptation to say; “you’ve been working in one of the easiest places to make money - an island that sells itself to tourists with strict migration control which effectively prohibits competition. You should have saved more money whilst the times were good!”
And honestly, a part of me has the same reaction. But, this really only applies to those at the top of the hierarchy that owns the business. There are many workers that have always been living hand-to-mouth and these are the workers that really need your support now because they will never be able to save enough to get them through a multi-year pandemic.
In an effort to curtail the spread of COVID, there are additional precautions that you need to take if visiting the Galapagos.
The main requirements are:
This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but these are just the Galapagos requirements. Let’s say you live in the USA and want to visit the Galapagos, then you also have the entry requirements from Ecuador & the US on either side of your trip to consider.
Your COVID test schedule then looks something like this:
This strict COVID testing regime is proving to be difficult for international travelers to organize their trip around. We know this because part of Michelle’s role is to sort out logistics for passengers.
And, these are some very difficult requirements to work around when you have very limited time for your holiday. Some travelers are finding it hard to fit in an additional 2-3 days at the start & end of their trips just to get more COVID tests.
All of this is to say that international travel to the Galapagos is still difficult for international tourists. To the point where many would-be tourists have been delaying their trips for later in 2021.
But, local Ecuadorians and expats living in Ecuador do not have these same restrictions. Sure, we still need to undertake one COVID test within 3 days of arriving in the Galapagos. But, this is a lot easier to organize than multiple stop-overs.
The other logistical issue that COVID presents is the risk that the islands themselves go into a quarantine. You see, there’s been several breakouts on the islands and the authorities have generally been quick to put the affected island(s) into quarantine. This is a necessary response.
However, it also means that international tourists need to factor in a substantial risk that they will also be quarantined for a period of time and this will cause havoc to the rest of their travel plans and ultimately not be the amazing experience they’ve been eagerly awaiting.
What are we left with? A perfect storm where:
Of course, any travel during COVID is going to carry additional risks. There is the obvious risk of yourself or your traveling party contracting COVID.
There’s also the secondary risks that are caused by trying to contain any outbreak such as being stuck in an unfamiliar environment whilst the breakout is contained. This can also cost a considerable amount of money in hotels and rearranging your ticket home.
Our family is planning to take advantage of what we see as a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the Galapagos in its most natural way possible.
The timing for this trip is going to be critical as we want to plan it when:
This ideal window is fluid, making it a little difficult to pinpoint our exact departure. But, given that the international tourists are once again booking their trips starting in March 2021 (for Michelle's company anyway), we’re planning on this ideal window being June - September 2021.
We realise that there are many people that won’t be comfortable with any sort of travel during COVID, even if it is on the backend of the pandemic.
However, if you are comfortable with this risk then your best opportunity to visit the Galapagos awaits.
What do you think? Are you thinking of visiting the Galapagos soon? If so, please share your main concerns in the comments below.
Guides from a mixed expat & Ecuadorian family. 🇦🇺🇪🇨
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