Why can’t I travel directly to the Galapagos Islands?
The reason why people can’t travel directly to the Galapagos Islands is mainly for conservation purposes. Galapagos’ fragile environment is protected through luggage screening processes, plane disinfections, limited flights per day, and so much more. Travel to the Galapagos Islands is only allowed from the Ecuadorian mainland’s two main cities: Quito and Guayaquil. That said, we’ll explore why you can’t travel directly to the Galapagos Islands from other locations abroad in this blog. Keep on reading for more information!
The Fragile and Delicate Ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are located about 600 mi (1000 km) off the coast of Ecuador and are part of this small and biologically diverse nation. Though rich in native and endemic flora and fauna, the archipelago has a very small population of around 26,000 human inhabitants that reside on some areas of only four islands: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana.
Part of what makes the Galapagos Islands such a unique destination is the remarkable native and endemic flora and fauna that populate this group of 19 islands and countless islets. The ecosystems are impressive yet quite fragile and delicate.
When visiting locations in the Galapagos, one must abide by Galapagos National Park rules, given that 97% of the archipelago is governed, protected, and regulated by the Galapagos National Park (GNP) and the Galapagos National Institute (INGALA). Some of these rules are meant to protect the species that roam freely on the islands, who don’t perceive people as a threat. One of the many charms the Galapagos Islands have is seeing these species in their natural environment, without cages or fences. The reaction of the animals is usually friendly and curious!
Site visits to destinations within the National Park are closely regulated and must meet specific criteria before the GNP board permits them. This criterion includes the fact that all park visitors must be accompanied by a park-certified naturalist guide at all times, with excursion groups limited to 16 or fewer people.
The Galapagos National Institute: Protecting the Archipelago
The Galapagos Islands have a regulated entry process, not just for physical products but for persons, whether visitors, residents of Galapagos, or Ecuadorian mainlanders. This is, in part, to ensure that the population of the Islands does not create an imbalance that would impinge on the wellbeing of native and endemic species, nor create any sort of dangerous competition for resources.
Additionally, limiting the number of visitors to the Islands and the number of visitors to the Galapagos National Park is essential in ensuring that the archipelago is spared from mass tourism. This is achieved through careful screening of all passengers and their respective luggage, in addition to some fees like the INGALA transit control card fee and Galapagos National Park entrance. The proceeds go to support conservation efforts, maintain the trails, conduct research, monitor the wildlife and environment, protect the marine reserve, and so much more.
Why are certain items prohibited from being brought to Galapagos?
So, why are certain items prohibited from being brought to the Galapagos? Well, to answer this question, we have a couple of real-life examples.
The first case dates back to the 1920s and 1940s when goats were introduced to Santiago Island, near the center of the archipelago. These goats ran free, multiplied, and nearly destroyed the island’s flora. They competed with native giant tortoises for resources. In 2009, the last of the goats were finally, and humanely, eradicated from Santiago Island. You can read more about this case here.
The second example is that of the Andean blackberry. While blackberries are a rather delicious and exciting food found throughout much of Ecuador’s hilly mainland, in the Galapagos, this invasive species has done a lot of damage to the native flora of the islands.
These shrubs were brought over to the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal circa 1970. They have also been found on the Islands of Isabela and Floreana—something attributed to human activity. When these shrubs grow, they can be very dense, and hard to eradicate. They compete with native plants for water.
As you can see, the Island’s delicate ecosystems are extremely fragile. They are one of the Galapagos National Park’s top priorities. The Park also works hard to educate the local population so that they can be vigilant partners in the prevention and eradication of invasive species.
Prohibited items are often identified via the luggage screening process, which takes place at either of the airports in Quito or Guayaquil. After luggage is examined, it is sealed with a special tag before passengers are allowed to proceed with checking in for their flights. This process takes place on the mainland and is performed by INGALA agents.
Ecuador’s Other Treasures: Traveling through Quito and Guayaquil
So, now that you understand why you can’t travel directly to the Galapagos Islands from anywhere other than Mainland Ecuador, why not take a moment to explore touring one or two of Ecuador’s largest and most exciting cities: Quito and Guayaquil.
Quito is the nation’s capital located in the Andes Mountain region. It boasts one of the most impressive sceneries in all of Latin America. Snowcapped mountains, lush green valleys, and a vibrant city that includes South America’s most well-preserved historic quarter: Old Town Quito. When visiting this stunning place, leave a little time to explore some of the colorful marketplaces and the Monument at the Middle of the World.
One of the additional benefits of visiting Quito is the proximity to incredible nature reserves, parks, and forests. Consider a visit to the Andean Chocó bioregion—one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet—within the Metropolitan District of Quito, just a few hours outside the city. Here, you can explore lush cloud and rainforests from the comfort of Mashpi Lodge.
This hotel sits right at the heart of the Mashpi Reserve. This conservation project aims to generate natural corridors for animals to transit freely and safely while preventing trees from being taken down. From the elegant, hermetic, and comfortable Mashpi Lodge, you’ll explore the surrounding trails, waterfalls, and rivers via guided excursions. The reserve is home to more than 400 species of birds, fascinating mammals, insects, reptiles, and countless more.
In comparison with Quito, Guayaquil sits at sea level and is considered Ecuador’s most important port. This city sits along the banks of the Guayas River. Here, the boardwalk, or Malecón, offers visitors the opportunity to stroll amid lovely markets, shops, and colorful attractions. Guayaquil is also renowned for its amazing cuisine. If fresh seafood is your thing, this is the town for you!
There are numerous hotels and tourism activities located in and nearby these two fantastic cities, so, planning to spend a couple of days in either of these mainland metropolises on either side of your Galapagos vacation can be a very sound and rewarding idea. After all, the point is to enhance your trip to Ecuador and really make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
José Ayerve enjoys traveling. After graduating with a degree in Romance Languages and Latin American Studies from Bowdoin College, Ayerve spent many years touring around North America as a musician while telecommuting as a Spanish language translator for a public school system. In 2015 he returned to South America. He spends a lot of time in Quito, Ecuador, though his mind and heart belong to the islands of Hawaii and the Galapagos.