*Lead Image Photo Credit: Troy Glennon, Seattle, Washington
Long after Charles Darwin studied the finches, both adventurers and nature lovers are drawn to see the giant tortoises, iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and other wildlife on the remote Galápagos Islands.
The greatest thrill for Calgary resident Deborah Lewis was swimming with the sea lions. “They just came into the water to swim with us,” marvelled the retired educator after her trip this year. “I will admit to being a little unnerved at the beginning, not knowing what to expect, but they never nipped at us or anything like that. They are uninhibited I guess, not aggressive in any way. It was really, really cool for a landlocked person.”
She and the others in her group were supplied goggles, snorkels, flippers, and wetsuits to protect them from the harsh equatorial sun. They were coached to hook arms and float along the surface to look down and watch or photograph aquatic life, including hammerhead sharks, Galápagos sharks, a variety of rays, and many brightly coloured fish.
One man swam with his three-year-old son on his back, and his seven-year-old son swam along with the adults. “You never knew where he was going to be,” Lewis recounted. “At any point in time, you might get [his] flipper in the face.” Other days, small groups from their ship would travel ashore by rubber raft to view exotic wildlife that included flightless cormorants, Galápagos penguins, fur seals, mockingbirds, hawks, lava lizards, magnificent frigatebirds, large painted locusts, waved albatross, and Sally Lightfoot crabs.
Be sure you can “manage the rigour”
No physical activities are without some danger and the islands being more than 1,000 kilometres from mainland hospitals could heighten the risks associated with injury or illness. Calgary student Danielle Kendall died in a freak accident earlier this year as she descended after a guided climb up a volcano in mainland Ecuador.
Even so, Lewis admits, “I never felt unsafe.” She was impressed by the care taken by their tour operator, Quasar Expeditions, and their well-trained Galápagos naturalists when providing safety and health advice and the effort made to protect the local wildlife. There was also a doctor on board their 32-passenger ship, a converted Japanese fishing trawler.
“When you go on a trip like this you have to be pretty darned sure you can manage the rigour of it,” Lewis cautions. “Once…we got off on an island and I saw two people were escorting this very elderly man back to his boat. I cannot imagine why anyone [so physically compromised] would go on a trip like that.”
Ask for a referral before trusting a local driver
Riki and Howard Dixon of Toronto arrived in Ecuador shortly after Lewis and her husband had departed. Like Lewis, Riki Dixon was impressed by the help local travel agents provided, including finding knowledgeable, English-speaking drivers. This makes sightseeing on the mainland far safer than hailing a taxi without a recommendation from a hotel or restaurant, says Nicole Will, co-owner of Amazon Andes Sky in Ecuador. “It’s just so much more fun to have someone who knows the environment, understands the culture and speaks Spanish fluently [to act as translators],” says Dixon. “The guide we were with in the Andes told us so many background stories; history, myths, and legends. It was just a more complete experience.”
Ecuador has had taxi drivers participate with other men in so-called kidnap express abductions, which involve coerced trips to automated teller machines to drain a passenger’s bank account. Two Japanese honeymooners were attacked, and the husband killed, earlier this year. Others have reported pickpocket thefts, as visitors to many other large cities have experienced. Fortunately, after a labour dispute in 2010, police in Ecuador are back to full force and better able to fight local crime. Meanwhile, the capital city Quito has launched a ‘safe taxi passenger’ campaign and the national transit agency has stepped up safety and security measures.
Ecuador’s air evacuations are free—and not just for billionaires
Remarkably, Ecuador’s navy and ministry of health launched a free medical evacuation service for both Galápagos residents and visitors in 2012. Within the first 20 months, a total of 127 persons were either transported by helicopter to receive care at a basic Galápagos medical clinic or catch a flight to the mainland via fixed-wing aircraft. Even multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com was impressed.
Bezos experienced severe abdominal pain during a Galápagos vacation early in 2014. So a navy helicopter flew him from Santa Cruz Island to Baltra Island, where he happened to have a private jet and crew to fly him back to the US. He texted in reply to reporters’ questions: “Galápagos: five stars. Kidney stones: zero stars.”
Ecuador’s cultural attaché to Canada, Isabel Aguirre, verified that the helicopter ride was not just free to Bezos: “The fact that Mr. Bezos is one of the wealthiest men on the planet is nothing more than a coincidence,” she wrote by email. Most travellers would, however, need travel medical insurance to pay for an air evacuation to a hospital in their home country.
Ask if there’s a doctor on board
“Many small ships with 32 or more guests now have doctors on board. While these doctors don’t have the facilities to deal with serious injuries, they can treat a variety of common medical concerns and can help stabilize a patient in need of further medical care,” says Todd Smith, whose California company, AdventureSmith Explorations, specializes in arranging small-ship travel tours.
“Our preferred [hospitals] in Ecuador would be either the Hospital Clínica Kennedy in Guayaquil or the Hospital Metropolitano in Quito,” Smith wrote in reply to an email. “The patient would be treated, stabilized, and prepared for their return to their home…[with] the majority of patients [travelling] via commercial air, with either a nurse or non-medical escort.”
Visitors to the Galápagos will find a wide choice of tour operators, ship sizes, luxury levels, prices, and recommendations for how to plan a trip. They will have to book well in advance to have their choice of ship, room size, and travel dates, then make plans for any additional activities they have in mind for the mainland, such as a side trip to the historic ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru.
The Dixons used airline points to travel to Ecuador, then paid $8,400 for their flights from mainland Ecuador to the Galápagos and for an eight-day trip on a 16-passenger catamaran. They also spent about $3,200 for several days of sightseeing in Ecuador.
They found it less stressful to arrange for their mainland activities through the Ecuador agency Amazon Andes Sky than to use Andando Tours, the agency that booked their Galápagos trip. Similarly, Lewis and her companions asked their Calgary travel agent to work with an Ecuadorian agency, Senderos Naturales, which is run by an acquaintance of hers. Senderos made the arrangements for their mainland lodgings and travel.
One trip of a lifetime, then another
“If you ever want to take an outstanding trip, [the Galápagos] would be one,” Lewis advises. She does imagine, however, that taking an African safari would be an equally wonderful experience. So, in the third and final installment of our Wild Things series, we will take you to eastern Africa with the help of one Toronto writer’s vivid recollections of safaris in Tanzania and Kenya, and the story of a pair of retirees who showed no fear. We will also share with you the advice and recommendations from a travel agent in Dar es Salaam.