Doing the Galapagos right

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Growing each year in popularity, the Galapagos Islands are a highly sought-after vacation destination. It is also one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.

The appeal of this archipelago off of Ecuador’s coast can be likened to the goose that lays the golden egg. Becoming too popular, said Todd Smith, founder and president of AdventureSmith Explorations, means risking uncontrolled growth in tourism and infrastructure for this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“This could lead to eroding the very ecosystems that support the bird life, flora and fauna that people travel here to experience,” he said.

Following are the guidelines on how to do the Galapagos right.

– Go by small ship (12 to 100 guests). Small ships are at the heart of a Galapagos Islands vacation. Witnessing bird and wildlife in their unchallenged island environments is best accessed by small ship. Why? Covering more than 3,000 square miles with 13 major islands, the Galapagos archipelago is larger than you think, and many visitor sites are only accessible by water. Sleeping aboard a ship each night allows a broader range of exploration as you don’t have to travel back to a land-based accommodation each evening after day trips by boat.

The International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) reports that 100 percent of the growth in Galapagos tourism in the last decade came from land-based tourism at a time when ship-based tourism declined.

“Ship-based travel in the Galapagos is highly regulated to maximize guest experience and minimize impact on the islands,” said Smith, who also serves on the IGTOA board. Land tourism is currently less regulated, and it is a goal of IGTOA, UNESCO and other conservation groups to approach on-islands growth as carefully as ship-based tourism has been.

– Stay as long as you can. By allowing yourself more time in the archipelago you are going to encounter the most wildlife possible and see a wider range of islands. Allotting more time to understand the subtle ecological differences among the islands enhances the experience and assists conservation with fewer airline flights in and out. Air traffic along with increased cargo shipments are two of the concerns identified by UNESCO in its 2016 State of Conservation Report on the Galapagos Islands as these are primary vectors for the arrival of new invasive species.

Longer stays also help support the local community with more opportunities for meaningful interaction. “We recommend at least a 7-night/8-day cruise,” Smith said.

– Make conservation a priority. In advance of a Galapagos trip, people are encouraged to learn about conservation organizations and community needs and to donate time or money to them.

– Plan ahead, do it right once. Travel to a place as fragile as the Galapagos should ideally be done once, so make the selection process fun for this once-in-a-lifetime trip. “Shop for the best experience and seek advice from an expert who has traveled to the Galapagos Islands,” Smith advised. Booking early provides more date and ship choices, plus special offers like early-bird discounts.

– Snorkel! “If you don’t get in the water, you are missing half of the wildlife in Galapagos,” exclaimed Smith. “There is no shortage of colorful fish, but encounters with charismatic megafauna (playful sea lions, sharks, rays, turtles), prehistoric-looking marine iguanas and the only penguin that lives north of the equator are what really sets Galapagos snorkeling apart.” Snorkeling options range from deep-water to beginner-friendly shoreline snorkels. For those who really don’t want to snorkel, you may opt for a ship with a glass-bottom boat. “Interacting with the Galapagos wildlife and seeing them in such close proximity fosters a conservation mind as you bond with the fearless animals,” Smith added.

– Remember you’re in South America. Don’t rush the journey and miss out on exploring a bit of what else Ecuador or other nearby regions, like the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, Peru, have to offer.

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