Handbag.com: Galápagos

[As written for Handbag.com, May 2013]
Galápagos Islands giant turtle

It might be a good few years since you were taught about Charles Darwin, his journey to the wild Galápagos Islands and his theory of evolution – but if you’re anything like us, it’s probably stuck somewhere in your head that these islands might just be the coolest place to visit, ever.

Well now, it’s easy to follow Darwin’s lead and to meet the incredible species that call Galápagos their home…

Why go?

Made up of 18 main islands, over 100 islets and located 605 miles off the Ecuadorian coast, the Galápagos Islands are home to a selection of endemic animals – including giant tortoises, the Galápagos penguin, the Blue-footed booby (these are birds, FYI) and the Galápagos shark – species which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Some species here have fallen onto the endangered list, which led officials to get strict and decree that no one can visit without an official local guide. So, that’s where adventure organisers Contiki come in.

Galápagos Islands giant turtle

© Karen Edwards

The itinerary…

Contiki are all about joining together travel-loving 18-35 year olds from around the world for big trips – and the latest addition to their books is the 11-day Ecuador & Galápagos Island Hopper itinerary. They’re known for taking conservation seriously – and work with local guides to encourage groups to practise responsible travel.

Quito

© Karen Edwards
Start your adventure in Quito

You’ll begin by meeting your fellow group-members (typically around 20-25 in a group) in Quito. Then you’ll head off to explore the historical old town, take part in salsa lessons and even visit a thermal spring before jumping on a plane to three of the Galápagos islands – Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal – where you’ll get to hang out with those giant tortoises we mentioned earlier, as well as crawling through eerie lava tunnels, snorkelling with sea lions and turtles and photographing dozens of birds and marine iguanas.

There’s also a friendly local team with you on the islands called Galakiwi, who will teach you about the wildlife, as well as helping everyone on and off boats, arranging meals and generally making sure you’re looked after.

Where you stay…

Remember, you are on an island off the coast of South America, so accommodation is basic. But Contiki trips include a clean and comfortable room, usually with air conditioning – and with breakfast. Wifi is sporadic, but there are internet cafes on-hand if you can’t wait to tell everyone on Facebook about what you’re up to!

Blue footed Booby Galapagos Islands

© Karen Edwards

Where you eat…

Each night, the group will gather for dinner – which is a fab way to share pictures and stories from the day with the rest of the Contiki gang. The restaurants are chosen by the Contiki team leaders and will serve up local produce, so be prepared for delicious seafood, chicken and rice. Our favourite was the rooftop dining at ‘Pelikan View’ on Santa Cruz – and our top nosh was the Ceviche (fresh seafood marinated in lemon juice with added chopped onion, tomato and spice). Wash it down with a rum-infused coco loco at the Beto Bar on Isabela, or the freely available fruity guanabana and strawberry mixed juices.

Where to shop…

Markets are everywhere in Ecuador – so make sure you leave room in your suitcase for souvenirs. The Artisan market on La Reina Victoria, Quito will satisfy all your Alpaca sweater, blanket and scarf needs, while the cute souvenir stores on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal are perfect for gifts.

shopping in Ecuador

© Karen Edwards

Don’t miss…

If there’s one thing you have to do during this Galápagos adventure, it’s the snorkelling with sharks at Kicker Rock. Yes, we know it sounds a bit terrifying (read: a lot terrifying), but trust us when we say it’s the most exhilarating experience of the whole trip. You won’t be dwelling on your nerves when you’re watching scores of Galápagos Sharks, Black-Tips and if you’re lucky, Hammerheads, cruising around below you. The sharks are pretty uninterested in humans so won’t bother you – and the guys at Galakiwi and the fab marine conservation group Shark Savers will be in the water with you, making sure you’re well equipped with snorkels and wetsuits. We recommend investing in an underwater camera to capture this pretty amazing sight.

Kicker Rock, travel, Ecuador

© Karen Edwards

The Facts

Contiki’s 11-day Ecuador & Galapagos Island Hopper itinerary costs from £2,045 per person, excluding international flights. It includes two internal flights and transfers, English speaking local guides, hotel accommodation, 16 meals, sightseeing and an experienced and professional tour manager. For more information and to book a place on the next trip, visit Contiki.com.

STA Travel offer flights with KLM to Quito via Amsterdam from £770. Find a deal at STAtravel.co.uk.

In addition to Latin America, travellers can choose from over 190 itineraries throughout Southeast Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA & Canada with Contiki. They are also a founding member of the Treadright Foundation, which encourages conservation and marine preservation in Latin America.

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