The Baltimore Sun

Magical is the most overused word when writing about the Galapagos, those magical islands off the coast of Ecuador. Oops! Sorry, but there really is something about these islands that gets under your skin. One visit and you're hooked. Two visits morph you into a passionate advocate.

On my last visit, I tried to figure out just what is so alluring about the Galapagos. Compared with the lush majesty of the Hawaiian Islands, they rank a distant second. They don't boast four-diamond restaurants or five-star hotels, and there is not a shopping mega-mall or multiplex anywhere.

What does make them so special is that they are situated directly on the Pacific equator. Deep-ocean currents well up all around them, bringing tons of nutrients to support plankton, fish, sea lions, humpback whales, sea birds and iguanas. Unfortunately, the very wildlife that makes the Galapagos so attractive may be its undoing. Today, more than 148,000 visitors flock to the islands yearly, more than double the number that visited in 2000.

This influx of tourists has been responsible for a corresponding spike in residents, both legal and illegal, who cater to the tourist trade. The environmental stresses associated with that level of human activity - think housing, roads, pollution - have brought this fragile ecosystem to imminent crisis, with UNESCO recently adding the archipelago to its endangered list.

When locally owned and run boats handled all tourism, there were fewer problems. But the advent of mega-ships, each unloading hundreds of tourists at a time, exacerbated the environmental damage. A side effect of the overpopulation is that marine stocks are being overfished, prompting restrictive government regulations. In January, 53 sea lions were slaughtered. Suspicion for the act has fallen on local fishermen upset with those new measures.

Concerns over the fate of the Galapagos have prompted the tourism industry to band with Galapagos National Park administrators and scientists to develop sustainable eco-tourism standards. It is now possible to be an eco-conscious Galapagos tourist.

First, and most important, choose a locally owned and operated smaller boat, one that holds 10 to 30 tourists, with 20 being the ideal number. Such boats have far less impact on the environment and can place you on island locations that the larger ships cannot access.

Probably the oldest company serving the Galapagos is the venerable Metropolitan Touring ( www.metropolitan-touring.com). Metropolitan operates a huge recycling center that converts all of its plastic waste to pavers that are used in street construction in Puerto Aroyo, the main port of the Galapagos. It also recycles paper and donates money for environmental conservation through its private foundation.

Probably the most eco-conscious tour company is locally owned and-operated Ecoventura (ecoventura.com), which operates a fleet of three boats that each accommodates 20 people. The accommodations are rustic, and the food, while good and plentiful, is not gourmet. But the guides are terrific, and you will always be in an excursion group of no more than 10, which in itself minimizes the effect on wildlife.

Ecoventura has been cited repeatedly for its forward-thinking environmental agenda that includes a 10-point program to reduce the impact of its tours. The company recently entered into a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund that places it on the forefront of environmental stewardship.

Ecological concerns about the Galapagos, coupled with more stringent protective regulations, make it incumbent on tourists to be sure they get what they expect during their visit. For example, as of 2008 the number of tour boats has been capped at 85 as of this year. But certain islands or sites are available only to boats carrying 20 or fewer passengers. In addition, there are regulations pending that may limit each tour boat to a prescribed two-week rotation, so that environmental impact can be closely monitored.

And remember, because the number of boats are capped, so are the number of visitors. Reservations are often made a year or more in advance.

The best advice I can offer is that you read up on the Galapagos, make a wildlife wish list and then correspond with your operator to be sure you will see the animals you want to see before putting down a deposit. You will never get closer to exotic wildlife than you will in the Galapagos. However, you are not allowed to touch any of the wildlife there. By abiding by tour restrictions, you will reduce stress on the wildlife and the transmission of disease to animals.

Because the Galapagos archipelago is a living laboratory, regulations change, although usually with some warning. For example, Fernandina Island is currently off limits to snorkeling because of the stresses that activity placed on sea turtles and other wildlife. Parts of Isabella Island are off limits until a problem with non-native goats is solved and endemic plants recover. That might take several years.

There is one non-ecological issue that travelers to the Galapagos should be aware of. Recently, tour operators have become increasingly concerned about liability issues.

As a result, some are requiring tourists to sign what could only be considered onerous release forms. The maddening thing is that these are not mailed in advance. The first you will see of them is when you land in the Galapagos, just minutes before boarding your boat. I have seen some pretty irate tourists facing a dreadful choice of signing or going home. My recommendation is that you demand to see any releases before putting down your deposit.

Once you visit the Galapagos, you will understand why I say that any hassles you might have had getting there will fade quickly into the background. You'll carry the pungent smell of sea lions in your memory bank for a lifetime. Ditto, the sights of a baby albatross spreading its wings or hundreds of marine iguanas basking in the sun, or the sounds and sights of thousands of frigate birds nesting.

Oh, and did I say that these islands are just magical?

5 things to know before you go

The Galapagos archipelago consist of 19 islands, directly on the equator. It is some 650 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and covers an area of nearly 20,000 square miles of ocean.

A dollar is a dollar Ecuador uses the American dollar as its currency, making it an easy travel country for Americans. And, speaking of currency (sort of), Ecuador uses standard 110-volt current, the same as the U.S.

Mask yourself Be aware that every plane is sprayed inside with 2% D-Phenothrin (an insecticide) before arriving in the Galapagos. That's good for the Galapagos wildlife, not so good for you. Bring along a bandanna, disposable breathing mask or breathing filter to wear when spraying begins.

Plan a side trip Most Galapagos tour companies will arrange side trips to Ecuador's Amazon and Otavalo highlands regions. Take advantage of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I would recommend Sacha Lodge in the Amazon ( www.sachalodge.com). For an over-the-top, upscale, but moderately priced, experience in the Otavalo region, which is attractive to shoppers as well as hikers, try the five-star La Mirage Garden Hotel & Spa, a Relais & Chateaux property in Cotacachi-Imbabura ( www.mirage.com.ec).

Bring a good camera and at least twice as many memory cards as you think you will use.

Go snorkeling. Even if you are a timid swimmer, this opportunity is not to be missed. Sea lions dart around you, sea turtles glide effortlessly below you, and marine iguanas will swim right by you en route to their seaweed grazing beds down deep. And that's in addition to schools of colorful fish and corals. Magical, really.

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