Packing for a Galapagos Adventure, Part II: Shore Landings and Documents
Deciding what to take with you on a Galapagos Islands adventure can be as personal as your reasons for choosing the “enchanted isles” as your destination or selecting your travel companion. So, of course, there is no, one comprehensive packing list that will work for everyone.
But now that you have your clothing squared away, let’s focus on getting together some of the items that are the most likely to make your island explorations comfortable and that will ensure that you have the most essential documents in your possession.
Landings and shore excursions
For your shore landings, bring:
1) A bag and/or a backpack. To transport what you’ll want to take with you on shore landings, you’ll need a light backpack or a fanny pack. If you’re worried about your stuff getting wet, you may want to opt for a dry bag instead. Dry bags are also good for wet or dirty clothing and—like your backpack—can double as your airplane carry-on.
Make sure that your day bag is big enough to tote all the things you’ll need to have on hand when you’re hiking, such as your camera equipment, sunglasses, swimming gear and a water bottle. Some people prefer both a backpack and a small fanny pack.
2) Sunglasses with a security strap. The Galapagos sun can be pretty intense, and a good pair of dark sunglasses is recommended. Since it can be windy and you’ll be getting into and out of pangas (Zodiac-type boats), you’ll probably want a strap on your sunglasses so that you won’t lose them.
Having polarized lenses will help you see through reflections on the surface of the water, making spotting rays, turtles and other marine life during panga rides or kayaking outings easier.
3) Sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher. Because Ecuador is on the equator, your skin can burn very quickly—even before you know it. And, during most of your excursions, you’ll be completely exposed to the sun. Pack plenty of waterproof (or, at least, water-resistant), high-SPF sunscreen, as you’ll be applying it four to five times a day. Don’t forget the tops of your feet! Fragrance-free sunscreen will avoid attracting wasps.
Since you’ll be wearing the sunscreen when snorkeling and swimming, as well, check to make sure that it is reef safe; you don’t want to harm the very wildlife you came to see. ChapStick with an SPF rating of 15 or higher will protect your lips.
4) Reusable water bottle/sports bottle. The Galapagos Islands authorities have recently banned single-use plastics as part of their conservation efforts. But even if they hadn’t, it’s a good idea to carry your own eco-friendly travel supplies in order to help minimize your plastic waste and environmental footprint. Marine animals often mistake plastic for food, leading to their deaths.
Staying well hydrated during your two- to four-hour, daily outings is very important. Bringing along a high-capacity, aluminum or BPA-free plastic water bottle that you can fill from your boat, hotel or a larger water container is a must.
As a bonus, by bringing your own water bottle, while in flight you can save on the tiny, plastic cups the airlines sometimes use for serving drinks.
5) Cameras and associated gear. The Galapagos Islands are known for their one-of-a-kind wildlife and out-of-this-world landscapes. Taking photos is a great way to share your adventures with loved ones and friends back home. It’s highly recommended that you bring:
a) DSLR camera, point-and-shoot camera and/or cell phone. Whether you’re an avid photographer and want to bring your DSLR camera and full inventory of lenses, a point-and-shoot type of person or a cell phone-only image maker, carry a camera with you. (However, see no. 3 under “Optional items and miscellany,” below.)
As a reminder, the Galapagos Islands are a no-drone zone, so leave it behind.
b) Underwater camera. If you’re into snorkeling, an underwater camera will ensure that you don’t miss the colorful and playful animals waiting for you below the waves. If you don’t have an underwater camera, bring a disposable one (Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic and Polaroid are some brands); they work surprisingly well and will allow you to take photos of the shimmering angelfish that glint in your eye or the sea lions you befriend.
c) Video camera. Most cameras today have a video function, but if yours doesn’t, you may want to bring along a small video camera to capture moments such as the blue-footed-booby “dance.”
d) Lenses and filters. For those that have DSLR cameras, bringing a wide-angle zoom lens (28-75 mm) and a telephoto zoom lens (70-200 mm) will cover most situations. The zoom lens will let you frame animals at a variety of distances. A long telephoto lens is not vital since the wildlife will be relatively close, but bring it along if you like to take extreme close-up shots. A polarizing filter will help to reduce the glare of the sunlight on the water and make dolphins more visible, as well as helping with sunset shots.
e) Chargers, extra batteries and power adaptors. Pack extra battery packs so that you don’t have to worry about running out of life just as you meet your first, iconic Galapagos giant tortoise. Bring all chargers, and make sure that you’ve packed the correct adaptor plugs for your power source. Check with your travel company for what power sources are available on your particular boat.
f) Photo storage space. The Galapagos Islands are one, large photo opportunity after another, and you’ll return with hundreds—if not thousands—of photos. You’re going to need lots of storage. Pack some high-capacity, high-speed memory cards (32-64 GB) or even a small, portable hard drive, just in case.
g) Weather protection for your camera. You will be traveling on boats and in pangas, and rain showers can occur at any time. If you’re exploring an island when wet weather rolls in, there may be no place to find shelter out of the rain. Some photographers won’t set foot on a boat without putting their camera gear in a dry bag (see no. 1 under “Landings and shore excursions,” above), because whether it rains or not, you never know when a wave or a rogue sea lion is going to splash you.
h) Optional tripod. If you bring a tripod, make it a lightweight, nonbulky one that is easy to carry when hiking.
6) Binoculars. Galapagos animals usually aren’t hiding, and you’ll most likely be able to see everything up close. But a pair of binoculars can come in handy for spotting a soaring hawk or a whale from the boat.
While most tour operators will have a pair of binoculars on hand, by the time it’s your turn to use them, the wildlife in question may have already vanished. Bring your own, and you’ll be sure not to miss any animal that’s within a one-mile radius.
Toiletries and medications
While on your boat or in your hotel room, you’ll need:
1) Toiletries. Your toiletries—such as deodorant, hair brushes and combs, razors, shaving cream, toothbrush, toothpaste, and any aerosols and liquids over 3.4 ounces—are best to pack in your checked luggage. Remove all packaging from toiletries and do not dispose of it in the Galapagos. Take such trash back with you to the mainland. If you plan to carry toiletries onto the plane with you, make sure you follow all airline regulations.
a) Shampoo, conditioner and soap. Most cruises in the Galapagos Islands will have shampoo, conditioner and soap available for your use. If they’re provided, use them, as these products will be biodegradable and will work with local water systems. But you may need these things for your stay in mainland Ecuador. A good, leave-in conditioner will help to nurture your hair after swimming and snorkeling in saltwater. But remember that anything that you put on your skin or hair before you get in the ocean will be ingested by the marine animals you’re here to see. Please don’t wear chemical-laden products while in the ocean (see no. 3 under “Landings and shore excursions, above).
b) Hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizers, such as Purell, are a quick way to keep your hands clean when traveling.
c) Washcloth. Some boats do not provide washcloths, so if you prefer using them, bring one along.
2) Medications and first-aid. Make sure that you check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for any vaccines you need to get prior to traveling to the Galapagos Islands. And, it’s always a good idea to travel with a basic first-aid kit that includes standard items, such as Band-Aids, blister Band-Aids (such as moleskin or molefoam), antibacterial ointment for any cuts and pain relievers (such as acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen). In addition, you may want to carry:
a) Prescription glasses and contact lenses. If you have spare pairs of glasses or contact lenses, pack them in case yours get damaged.
b) Seasickness medication. Seas are generally calm in the Galapagos, and boat captains take great care in choosing protected anchoring spots. However, if you’re prone to motion sickness, over-the-counter remedies, such as Dramamine, candied ginger or ginger tablets, or pressure wristbands (that stimulate acupuncture points to combat nausea) work well for mild symptoms. Prescription preventions may be required for more severe cases. Check with your physician before leaving home.
c) Altitude sickness medication. If you’re going to Quito, which is at 9,350 feet, you may experience symptoms of altitude sickness. In most cases, this can be treated by drinking lots of water, getting plenty of rest or taking aspirin. If you experience headaches, Diamox is available in Quito pharmacies. Diamox decreases dizziness, headaches, nausea, tiredness and shortness of breath that can occur when you climb quickly to high altitudes (generally above 10,000 feet). It is particularly useful in situations when you cannot make a slow ascent.
If you begin to have severe headaches or respiratory problems, you should consult a doctor immediately.
d) A small water filter, water purification tablets or a SteriPen-type UV (ultraviolet) light. The water in the Galapagos Islands, much like the rest of Ecuador, is not safe to drink. While your boat will have drinkable water, when staying at a hotel, a UV light that will zap all bacteria in fluids may come in handy. Some water bottles, such as the LifeStraw, have built-in water filters.
e) Antidiarrheal medication. Even if you’re super careful about sterilizing your water, traveler’s diarrhea is still common. You may want to bring an over-the-counter product, such as Imodium, to have on hand; or get a prescription antibiotic from your doctor to take with you, just in case.
f) Earplugs. These are useful for blocking out boat noises.
g) Insect repellent. Despite their equatorial latitude, the Galapagos Islands don’t have a lot of mosquitoes or biting bugs. But since some of the islands do have a few flying insects, it’s worth packing some insect repellent. If you’re combining your Galapagos cruise with a land tour on the South American mainland, then insect repellent is essential for many destinations, including the Amazon, Guayaquil and Machu Picchu.
h) Sunburn remedies. High-quality, aloe vera gel could save you a lot of aggravation, if you forget to put on enough sunscreen (see no. 3 under “Landings and shore excursions,” above). Some people like to take along a small amount of apple cider vinegar—which has been used as a natural, folk remedy for thousands of years—in a mister bottle to soothe sunburns and heal rashes.
Travel documents and money matters
1) Any reservation or booking information. Make sure you have all reservation confirmation numbers and flight boarding passes. If you decide to travel with your cell phone, some smartphone apps, such as Passbook, allow you to store boarding passes and ticket information all in one place on your phone. Physical passports, however, still must be in hand to travel internationally.
2) Passport. Your passport must be valid for six months after departure from Ecuador. Keep spare photocopies of your passport in various compartments of your luggage.
3) Cash. Cash is vital. The official currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar. Budget enough for your airport travel, plus $100 per person for the Galapagos National Park entrance fee (which must be paid in cash). Other fees, such as the $20 INGALA Transit Control Card, and any spending money for drinks, food, souvenirs and tips are also factors to consider.
4) Credit cards and/or debit cards. The most often accepted credit cards are Mastercard and Visa. While there are ATMs at all Ecuadorian airports and in the Galapagos Islands, international transaction fees for withdrawals can be steep.
Carry your cash, credit cards, debit cards and important documents in a money pouch that is worn close to your body.
Optional items and miscellany
1) Journal or digital recorder. A journal or notebook in which to jot down your experiences and reflections can be invaluable when you get home. Most days, your senses will be on overload, and you may find it hard to remember all the details of what you saw, where you were and when. Which island were you on when you passed by that frigate bird? Which species of Darwin finch did you capture in that close-up photo? How many iguanas did you spot when you first got onshore? Keeping a journal of your trip will preserve those memories and help you to organize your photos when you get home.
2) A book. With all of the activities you’ll be engaging in, you may not have much time for reading. But, if you do find some quiet moments, a good book can be a respite after an exciting day.
3) A battery-operated alarm clock and/or a waterproof wristwatch instead of your cell phone. You won’t want to use your cell phone near the water just to check the time. Consider wearing a waterproof wristwatch instead. And, if you do leave your cell phone at home, a battery-operated alarm clock will help to keep you on time for your cruise’s breakfast or a snorkeling session.
4) Headlamp or solar-powered flashlight. While it’s not pitch-black at night, some sort of travel flashlight might be useful for making your way back to your hotel after dinner or to keep you from stumbling on a darker ship in the late evenings.
5) Collapsible walking stick or hiking poles. If you’re not sure-footed, hiking poles may help you to navigate the terrain a bit faster.
6) Sewing kit. In case of a “wardrobe malfunction,” a needle and thread may be just the thing to come to the rescue.
7) A pocket-size Spanish/English dictionary. Another option is an electronic pocket translator. If you choose to travel with your cell phone, a translation app may work, as well.
8) Carabiner. If you wish to kayak, a carabiner can attach your water bottle to the boat.
9) Laundry detergent. Some of what you bring may get sweaty, wet and possibly mildewy due to ocean sailing. You will also encounter dust, sand and salt, making your apparel feel a little grubby from time to time. If you bring a small amount of laundry detergent, you’ll be able to wash out clothing in your sink and dry it on a line on the ship’s deck.
Most importantly, pack whatever else you think will make your weeklong cruise in the remote and alluring Galapagos Islands the most meaningful it can be for you. And lastly, bring along your best and most curious self, and smooth sailing will be almost guaranteed.
Here’s to those who cannot live without wild things,
Feature image: Most importantly, pack what you think will make your trip to the Galapagos Islands—and its exceptional wildlife—the most meaningful it can be for you.