Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Insider Travel Tips from a 40-year Veteran of the Galápagos Islands

By Russell Maddicks

The weird and wonderful Galápagos, located nearly 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is a volcanic archipelago that is home to sea lions, marine iguanas, giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies that are so unafraid of man that modern visitors can get up as close to them as the first recorded visitor, Spanish Bishop Tomás de Berlanga in 1535

British author, photographer, tour operator and wildlife expert David Horwell has been travelling to the islands ever since the 1970s, when he worked there as a naturalist. 

David was a pioneer in bringing escorted tours to the Galápagos back in the 1980s. He's so passionate about these unique volcanic islands that he chose @TheGalapagosMan for his Twitter account.

He currently organizes tailor-made trips to the whole of Latin America, with his tour company Select Latin America, but his affection for the archipelago is clearly as strong as ever.

The Bradt Guide to Galápagos Wildlife, the book David co-authors with Pete Oxford, is widely recognized as one of the best introductions to the amazing creatures that inspired Charles Darwin to come up with his game-changing Theory of Evolution

So who better to ask for some insider tips on the Galápagos experience:

Q: Nowadays, the Galápagos Islands are considered a must-do, bucketlist destination for any travellers interested in a unique wildlife experience. What was it that first captured your interest in the islands? 
I always was fascinated by islands as a kid with stories of ship-wrecked sailors and pirates; coupled with living not far from Darwin’s house in Kent and learning about his famous finches at school. The mention of the name ‘Galapagos’ was a magnetic draw for me; I always dreamt of going there one day. Little did I know how much impact on my life the archipelago would have... 

Q: Things must have changed so much since the 1970s, is it still as exciting as when you first visited? 

As the plane lands in the somewhat barren island of Baltra, my heart still starts to beat hastily, as I know the delights waiting a short boat ride away (on the uninhabited islands), the animals and underwater life have not changed. Some of the fearless creatures are even more approachable. Unfortunately on the islands where people have colonized the population has grown exponentially, the worse are all the cars and trucks on the main island Santa Cruz. There is some good news, plastic bags have been banned and conservation groups are working to restore eco-systems.

Q: Your book Galápagos Wildlife describes the birds and beasts found in the air, on land and in the sea. Do you have a favourite creature or creatures? 

Swimming with sea lions has got to be number one, close encounters with dolphins and whales is always a bonus, but it is a toss-up between the blue-footed booby and waved albatross for most amusing courtship dispay. 

Q: For many people considering a trip to the Galápagos the big decision is whether to book a land-based trip or a cruise? What advice would you give them? 

No contest - if you can afford it a boat cruise will take you to the more remote islands and visitor sites. There is no substitute for arriving at dawn and seeing an island appear through the mists, and then landing before all the day-trippers arrive. There are some nice hotels now but you are surrounded by concrete not nature. You would still need to do a boat trip to see the main species. 

Q: Is there any Galápagos experience that you encourage people to include? 

Swimming with sea lions again! Seriously it is worth having a go at snorkelling even if you have never done it; you will see a whole new world such as a penguin ‘flying’ underwater. Another fave is a dinghy ride, or even better kayaking through a mangrove lagoon. Here you will be greeted by turtles coming up for air, herons keeping a beady eye on you and with luck the chance of seeing one of the rarest birds in the world, the mangrove finch. 

Q: Do you have any tips on things people should pack to make the most of their experience? 

Good comfortable shoes or sandals that you can get wet, it will save having to dry off your feet when landing in the surf. A waterproof camera can be great fun and one that takes video as well. A wide hat and plenty of sun cream is essential, as the Equatorial sun is unforgiving even when it is cloudy. 

Q: Ecuador has so many interesting tourism destinations that can be combined with a trip to the Galápagos Islands, what are your personal favourites? 

The Amazon headwaters are only a 45 minute flight (or a day’s drive) from Quito. There are wonderful lodges with excellent naturalist guides like in Galapagos. If you have less time the cloud forest ( 2-3 hours drive) is hummingbird heaven. For those who like hiking or horse-riding there are some fantastic haciendas (historic country ranches) where you can pretend that you are an explorer like Humboldt or Whymper. 

Q: With your books, photographs and work as a tour operator you've made an important contribution to the growth of tourism in Ecuador and the Galápagos. How have your experiences in Ecuador enriched your own life? 

For sure Ecuador is my second home, (I often wonder why I came back to London). I still return to the islands and mainland at any chance I get. I have made life-long friends with Ecuador and its hospitable friendly people. It is hard to beat for diversity and the locals know how to enjoy life.

For more tips on planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands visit the webpage of Select Latin America 

Related articles:
The Wonders of Galápagos Laid Bare by British Author Henry Nicholls

Ecuador Launches Arty "Feel Again" Tourism Campaign

Guayaquil Prepares for FITE 2015 - Ecuador's International Tourism Fair

Follow me on Twitter: @EcuaTravelGuide
Follow me on Instagram: @LatAmTravelist
Purchase a copy of my book Culture Smart! Ecuador


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