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On the Radar: The Galapagos Islands & Ecuador

Is 2012 the year for your Darwin-inspired island adventure? With expedition size ships, otherworldly landscapes, and awe-inspiring wildlife, your inner explorer will love this classic trip. Our video’s giant tortoises and famous finches are sure to inspire you, so we’ve done the research on Ecuador’s newest hotels, travel regulations, and flights to help plan your Galapagos trip.

A Glimpse into the Galapagos

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Recommended Fodor’s Video

Join Fodor’s Travel for some Enchanted Island wildlife sightings during an Adventure Associates cruise on Yacht La Pinta: A Glimpse Into the Galapagos Islands.

New Galapagos Island Itineraries Explained

Because of their remoteness, diversity, and protected nature, the most popular way to explore the 13 major islands of the archipelago is a multi-day cruise on a small yacht that carries from about 10 to 100 passengers. (The alternative is to stay on one of the few inhabited islands, like the Finch Bay EcoHotel in Santa Cruz). Effective January 2012, the Parque Nacional Galapagos has modified its cruise itinerary regulations—and the changes have led to a lot of confusion.

Basically, ships are now limited to visiting most popular sites only once in a 14-day period so many are changing from a one- to two-week circuit. These changes help to spread out the environmental impact at popular stops like Bartholomew’s Pinnacle Rock and North Seymour’s colony of blue-footed boobies. Sites like Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island are now open to larger ships; there are also more opportunities for water activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. The new rules do not mean that your only option is a two-week tour . Operators can have up to three itineraries within each circuit—though 5–7 days is best for this once in a lifetime trip. We recommend booking with an outfitter that is among the most-experienced and also has a strong commitment to conservation: Adventure Associates.

More Reasons to Stay in Mainland Ecuador

Discover why there’s so much more to explore in Ecuador—it’s come a long way from being just for backpackers and Spanish language students. From the Andes to the Pacific, hotels and attractions are meeting grown up traveler’s needs and even the country’s restaurants are becoming more sophisticated as Ecuadorian chefs have stepped up to showcase their heritage and compete with their well-known Peruvian neighbors.

Colonial Quito continues to live up to its reputation as the first city to be declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978 and fresh off the title of American Capital of Culture 2011. The capital’s newest boutique hotel, Casa Gangotena, opened its stunning wooden doors in October 2011 after being converted from a historical mansion. Relax in luxurious rooms with stunning period details and a quiet dining room; outside is one of atmospheric Old Town’s bustling squares and Casa del Albodo is just around the corner for a unique display of pre-Columbian artifacts.

Guayaquil is another popular Ecuador stop for its modern and convenient airport, but be sure to also visit the Malecon, a vibrant waterfront walkway. Elsewhere in Ecuador, Mashpi Lodge, scheduled to open mid-April 2012, offers a great opportunity to combine your trip with a rainforest adventure—or just relax and enjoy the spa after all your exploring.

New Flights and Airports

Because of the Galapagos Island’s distance from the mainland (612 mi or about 1,000 km) and the country’s mountainous interior, flying is the way to get around Ecuador. While LAN has been serving the Galapagos since 2010, in December they added two weekly flights between Guayaquil and San Cristobal to their schedule, giving Galapagos travelers more options beyond local carriers. The expansion of this Chilean-based airline throughout South America has brought increased competition and lowered prices on popular regional routes. Also, popular Quito is scheduled to get a new airport—Aeropuerto Internacional de Quito to replace Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre—in late 2012 at this writing, though delays are not to be unexpected.

Fine Print

The Galapagos Islands have two seasons: the wet and warm high season (Dec.–May) and the dry and cooler months (June–Nov.). Ecuador’s mainland is in the Eastern time zone with the Galapagos just one hour behind. Little to no time difference combined with the fact that the national currency is the U.S. dollar makes it an easy transition for many. Common health concerns are seasickness on cruises, some altitude sickness in Andean areas like Quito at 9,200 feet (2,800 meters), and sunburn across the equatorial country. Travelers should take care with valuables and exercise caution while exploring cities, especially at night; cruises are much more relaxed with many having keyless cabins.

Thinking of a Trip to the Galapagos?

For up-to-the-minute recommendations and planning information, check out our Ecuador Travel Guide.

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