Travel health considerations
Initially, I had figured we’d need some kinds of vaccinations. Since we signed up for the trip relatively late (about 10 weeks in advance), I was concerned that we might be running short of time for vaccinations to take effect. I figured out where the best place would be to get them—for us, it was going to be the county health department. However, in an e-mail to the travel coordinator about some other issue, I happened to ask her about vaccinations and/or anti-malarial medications. She wrote back promptly that no new vaccinations were required for the trip, although they suggested that routine vaccinations such as tetanus be up-to-date. And of course, to check with your local health provider to see if any other issues might be of concern. She also noted that we didn’t need to worry about malaria in Quito, Guayaquil, or the Galápagos Islands. Our day trip to the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve presented no problems either, since malaria didn’t exist in the mountainous regions. Excellent! However, you should always check with your health provider and/or the excellent CDC travel health Web site for the latest information.
We had thought that we would be able to handwash some things (mostly shirts and socks) on the boat. We even brought along some biodegradable detergent (good ol’ Dr. Broner’s!). But at least on our boat, that wasn’t the case. (And it would have been hard to hide dripping wet clothes that took several days to dry. If you were traveling during the warm/wet season, the humidity would have rendered the drying process almost interminable, even if you could wash and hang clothes out.) Our boat had a line along the roof handrail, with clothespins attached. However, that was meant to hang out wet bathing suits and wet suits. Some of our group confessed to taking showers in their clothes/underwear as one way to handle that issue. Not something that appealed to me, though. Luckily, I had brought 8 shirts and 8 pairs of socks; so I had no worries. We had washed out shirts and socks in the Quito hotel room the night before we headed to the Galápagos, so we hit the islands with a full complement of clean clothes. Larger boats and those at the higher end may have laundry facilities for passengers, so this wouldn’t be an issue on those boats. Even other smaller boats may not have the “no laundry” restriction; but given the attention to water conservation, I suggest you either check it out very carefully with the company you’re dealing with or simply pack enough clothes to last you the length of the cruise.
A personal preference, to be sure, but I recommend you bring as many quick-dry clothes as possible. Since it generally doesn’t get very cold, the hypothermia risk that accompanies wet cotton clothing doesn’t really come into play. But it is a humid climate, especially during the warm/wet season; the boat and the outings are a wet environment; and your clothes will likely get wet on the panga rides or when making wet landings. Cotton clothing will dry more slowly than will nylon or polyester clothes. Shorts are especially likely to get wet on the panga rides; I, for one, am not very fond of walking or sitting around in damp shorts. And although I had brought 2 pairs of quick-dry long pants, 1 pair of jeans, and 1 pair of lightweight sweatpants, I used only the last item for lounging around the boat—and even that, only a couple of times. Shorts worked fine for me everywhere we went. However, as one traveler commented, lightweight nylon long pants could come in very handy to avoid “lobster calves” if you know that you can’t be trusted to apply sunblock diligently.
I found shorts with pockets that snapped shut (in my case, these were cargo shorts) very handy. I always carried a small stick of lip balm with a high SPF, for reapplying on my nose and lips. With the shorts I had that didn’t have secure pockets, I had to keep checking my pocket to make sure the lip balm hadn’t slipped out while I was sitting on the panga.
What I did need to hunt for, though, was a bathing suit. Ugh. I hadn’t owned a bathing suit in almost 2 decades. I originally thought I would just do whatever swimming was involved in a pair of nylon shorts and a polyester top. But I studied the photos in the materials that Elderhostel sent us and I saw that all of the women at beaches were in bathing suits and most had bodies even less ideal than mine. Hmmmm… I decided I should at least think about getting a bathing suit. (Many travel sites suggested bringing 1 or 2 bathing suits!) I scoured several catalogs (mostly L.L. Bean and Land’s End, both known for their bathing suits’ kindness to and consideration of normal, non-model-like bodies). Since I was looking in August, the local stores didn’t have much available but these vendors still had a wide variety of styles and some serious sales going on. I found people’s comments on the stores’ Web sites to be very helpful in judging issues of fit, coverage, comfort, etc. I settled on a tankini style with a slender skirt bottom that could be cinched higher or lower, depending on how daring I felt. It arrived, fit perfectly, and didn’t look terrible on me. Unbelievable. I used a nylon shirt with long sleeves that could be rolled up as a cover-up when we were traveling to snorkel spots via the pangas. It provided cover from the sun and a bit of warmth during the rides; and since it was nylon, it dried quickly. Since we were traveling during the less humid season, the suit dried pretty well each day. But if you’re traveling during the warmer (and therefore more humid) months, you might consider bringing more than one suit—if getting into a dry-ish suit is important to you. Odds are, your suit won’t dry in one day. (NOTE: For our return trip in 2013, I bought a pair of “hydro short”—the kind that folks use for paddleboarding. They were a bit longer than a typical women’s bathing suit bottom, made of 0.5ml neoprene (what wetsuits are made of) and fit perfectly under my shortie wetsuit. I then just wore the top of my tankini under the wetsuit.)
Shoes, socks, and hats
Your footwear for the landings will vary by the type of landing: dry or wet. (Your naturalist guide will always tell you well in advance which to prepare for.) Dry landings occur when the panga is steered up close to rocks or a stone outcrop; you then hop onto shore, with the help of the panga crew members, without getting your feet wet. Everything I read recommended sturdy shoes for the island outings; my experience recommends close-toed shoes for the dry landings, for scrambling a bit over boulders and rough lava. Most people in our group wore sneakers of some sort or some other simple walking shoes. But I had a low pair of rugged hiking shoes that I took along; I do a lot of walking in them and I knew that my feet would be familiar with and comfortable in them. (If you decide to buy some new shoes—by all means, buy them early and wear them around a lot, to break them in!) I also had a large number of crew-length acrylic hiking socks; they too dried quickly if they got wet from the post-walk hose-off back at the boat. What you don’t need are heavy-duty, leather, built-to-take-you-to-the-mountain-top-and-back hiking boots. You are restricted primarily to well-groomed, relatively wide, cinder-covered paths, with an occasional stretch of walking of a few large-ish boulders. But no scrambling, no creek-hopping, no wandering off the path to chase down that elusive bird. (Actually, with the exception of the songbirds, all of the wildlife pretty much just sit there by the path—and sometimes right on the path–and stare back at you. No chasing down needed at all.) Lightweight hiking shoes should be more than ample for most people and sturdy running shoes are probably the modal type of footwear we saw. And keep in mind that you’ll need to hose off your footwear every time you get back to the boat and possibly leave them on the fantail of the boat at all times (see below)—something your trusty leather hiking boots may not appreciate. (NOTE: By 2013, our return trip, closed-toe water sandals such as Keens had become widespread and worked well for both wet and dry landings, if your feet don’t need a lot of support. Many of our group used them for all of the landings.)
Wet landings entail hopping off the panga directly into the water and wading, usually just a short distance, to the beach. For the wet landings, I brought a pair of Teva sandals, designed for walking in water. They didn’t provide as much support, but they’re sturdier than many sandals. (Don’t forget to put sunblock on your feet anytime you’re wearing sandals!) Even though the walks after wet landings tended to be relatively flat and easy, my feet were much less happy in the Tevas than they were in the hiking shoes. (Also, since I don’t wear the Tevas very often or for extended periods of time, my feet weren’t nearly as accustomed to those shoes as they were to the hiking shoes.) An alternative is to just tackle a wet landing in your bare feet; you could then dry your feet off on the beach and put on sturdier shoes and socks there (and reverse that process when heading off the island). If you do this, bring a small towel—e.g., a lightweight super-absorbent “pack towel” that is easy to wring out thoroughly. (We brought a couple, which we bought at REI.) I never did this, even when I was developing some hot spots from the sandals. (Somehow, it seemed better to jump off the panga, wade to the shore, and start walking.) I probably should have. We even brought the pack towels for drying our feet after landings. But alas, I didn’t use them.
On the Tip Top II, any shoes used on an island walk were sequestered under the benches on the fantail after being hosed off to prevent carrying particles of whatever from 1 island to another. We also didn’t wear them into the inside areas of the boat, to keep the influx of gritty sand down. (This practice may not hold for all boats, though—especially the larger boats, where lots of shoes on the fantail could be quite a mess. So check to see what’s the rule for your boat.) I had brought a pair of light-weight sandals to wear around the boat. Since I love going barefoot, though, I never wore them at all. But if you’re not at ease in bare feet, bring a spare pair of “house shoes” if your boat will require you to leave your shoes outside.
And bring at least 1 hat! Hats are very important throughout Ecuador and the archipelago. (Contrary to other countries, in Ecuador you take off your hat when you enter a cathedral, rather than covering your head. Since those who work outdoors always wear hats in the strong equatorial sun, the way to show reverence is through removing your hat.) Even during the cool/dry season, the sun is directly overhead every day. The paths on the islands don’t have much in the way of shade, even during the warm/wet season. So you will be in the sun pretty much any time you’re not inside on the boat. (One of our guides noted, “In the Galápagos, you pray for clouds.” This is probably especially true during the warm/wet season (Jan. – May).) Be sure you can secure your hat, either by tightening it or by using a chinstrap—especially important on the panga rides. Many in our group had hats with brims that went all the way around, to protect their necks. If you’re very sensitive to the sun, you should definitely bring such a hat. I’m not all that sensitive; I wore a ball-style cap, without a brim in the back, that was easy to make it tight enough that I wouldn’t lose it in the wind. However, I remained vigilant about applying sunblock on my neck.
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