What to Bring (and Avoid) when Packing for the Galápagos

What to Bring and What to Leave At Home

There are lots of foods that are prohibited, primarily because of the risk they pose as possible invasive species on the islands. (Guava and blackberries are REALLY bad for endemic species, who knew?) It may be inconvenient, but it limits the impact of tourism on endemic flora and fauna.

As a quick rule for bringing your own food, you are basically good to go if it is processed and packaged. For the most part, I would plan to buy most perishables on the island if you are saving money by cooking for yourself. There are also places where you can buy food fairly affordably on the islands if you have access to a kitchen at your accommodations (fresh fish from the open air fish market; permitted fruits and vegetables from the mainland at the downtown market in Puerto Ayora).

What to Bring With You

In terms of food goods, we will be bringing olive oil for cooking (as we found this hard to locate at the market near our airBNB), salt, pepper, protein bars and instant coffee. If you are only bringing processed and pre-packaged goods, such as protein bars, you should be fine. Powdered or packaged processed goods, such as roasted and/or instant coffee and powdered milk are also permitted.

A note on coffee: It is hard to find a good cup of coffee outside during certain times of the day when hotels and cafes are not open to the public. So, come prepared if you cannot go without. We loved this cute little coffee and smoothie shop at the end of Av. Darwin (across from Lonesome George Outfitters), but we often had to get on the water before the shop would open.

There is a kiosk near the skate park by Puerto Ayora dock that serves watery instant coffee and hot tea to locals early, but other options are fairly limited. There was one horrible day where I had to have an early morning soda (which is not my thing at all) just to have any caffeine before our early morning departure. We will definitely come better prepared for this early morning transfers before the shops awaken.

If you plan to do self-guided tours like we are, bringing your own snorkel equipment is a way to save money. You can rent wetsuits, snorkels and masks on the island (I think it was $20 for two days of snorkel and mask rental without fins from a shop on Av. Darwin), but whatever you have space to pack is money saved on rentals. If taking a multi-day cruise, expect some hidden extras including for wet suit rental, which is absolutely essential in some of the more remote visit sites, particularly those most affected by the Humboldt Current.

Rental fees can top $20 per person per day for wet suit rentals alone. It is also possible that these rentals are included in the price you paid for a day trip or cruise, but that the ship does not have adequate sizing. I barely squeezed myself into the largest wet suit that our tour guide had and I was very glad to have it. Two people had symptoms of hypothermia from a cloudy and cold November snorkel trip that they undertook without wet suits.

In short, if taking self-guided tours, bring a mask and snorkel and consider bringing a wet suit; if taking day trips and cruises, bring a wet suit and consider bringing a snorkel and mask. Yes, it is inconvenient to bring this bulky gear with you, but fit is key to a positive experiences.

What to Leave at Home

Prohibited produce. Seemingly innocuous fruits (and things I commonly eat when travelling to save on money) are some of the worst offenders. Apples, bananas, dairy, flowers, meat products, most all fruits, any types of seeds/plant matter, some nuts are all strictly prohibited without permits. You can find these once you are on the islands, but they will be slightly pricey (especially compared to produce on mainland Ecuador) since they require special permits and extra inspections. A complete list of both permitted and prohibited food/produce goods can be found here.

Drones are also prohibited in the national park (which is basically everywhere). Technically, you are allowed to fly into the Galápagos carrying a drone, but you can only use the drone in urban areas outside the national park (basically just the city portions of Puerto Ayora itself). Unless you are traveling on elsewhere after the Galápagos where you can fully utilize the drone, there’s not much point in bringing it with you.

Pets. Though some locals have domestic dogs on the islands, pets and dogs are strictly prohibited from visiting the islands. I’ve seen a growing trend of van-steading travelers traveling abroad overland, but this bucket list trip is strictly pet-free.

Items that Will Be Expensive to Buy on the Islands

Bulk Alcohol. If you want to buy alcohol, particularly liquor, at a market place to consume at your accommodations, expect to pay a hefty premium. Large beers are fairly affordable to find at bodegas around the downtown tourist areas which you can bring with you when dining at the open-air kioskos. Many restaurants offer all-day happy hours specials or two-for-one drinks, advertised by signs and also by the chatty individuals manning the entrances to the restaurants lining Av. Darwin in Puerto Ayora. Expect to pay more for food if there is a good drink special, however, and know that your drinks may not be as potent as the price point would suggest. Note: Don’t be rude and keep it light even if you aren’t interested in their fare – you will inevitably be seeing the same individuals day after day and being a friendly face can go a long way in a tourist town.

Fresh produce. It won’t be unreasonably expensive, but as mentioned above, you are paying for the transit, permits and additional inspections that are required to bring these possibly invasive species to the closely protected islands. And as a result, expect food prices to be higher than mainland Ecuador, as all the ingredients are also more expensive for the restaurants and merchants to procure. Like all islands, everything comes at a premium.

Sunscreen. Expect to pay an arm and a leg if you wait to buy on the islands. The equatorial sun is brutal and I got a pretty awful sunburn during my first day on Santa Cruz. I’m prone to sun burns anyway, but no one likes to start their trip with a burn. If you know you’re prone to burn like I am, I would also recommend bringing an aloe-based lotion or other after-sun care product. It isn’t a bad idea to come prepared for the worst case scenario so that you don’t blow $$ on products you can buy at the dollar store back home. Sunburned new arrivals are a common sight walking down Av. Darwin in Puerto Ayora, so don’t underestimate that sun.

On a side note: I was surprised to find out that there aren’t regulations about the type of sunscreen used before visiting marine visitor sites in the national park, so conscientious travelers should consider reef-safe and marine-safe sunscreens that limit your ecological impact when visiting these incredible sites.

Toiletries. Anything that may have slipped your mind in your last-minute packing (shampoo, deodorant, face wash) will inevitably come at a premium price if stocking up on the islands before your cruise.

Insect Repellent. I would also recommend bringing bug spray, as this would also be pricey on the islands. Paper wasps are an invasive species and a known problem on several islands; some islands and areas are also prone to mosquitoes, particularly during wet season and near brackish lagoons. You may not need it, but better safe than sorry. Apparently those wasps are no joke, though we didn’t encounter them often during our time on Santa Cruz. Just like the note on sunscreen above, eco-conscious tourists should avoid the gnarlier repellents than may also harm endemic and other non-invasive species. We strive to find the balance between protecting ourselves, but not at the expense of the natural world around us.

Over-the-counter medications. Be sure to bring plenty of anti-nausea, anti-diarrheal, sea (and possible altitude) sickness medications, ibuprofen, etc. I have read online that bonine, a common sea sickness medication, cannot be sold OTC in Ecuador, so definitely make sure to bring this from home.

Cigarettes. Smoking is strictly prohibited within the 97% of the islands that are designated national parks. Smokers, however, can be found in the urban centers outside of the national parks, including Puerto Ayora. Expect to pay a premium typical for any specialty good when visiting islands. Loose tobacco is strictly prohibited, so those who roll their own will have to make due with packaged cigarettes during their Galápagos stay.

Things You Might Not Have Considered

Chaffing. I had underestimated how often I would want to walk between sites and how easy it was to navigate all of downtown Puerto Ayora by foot). Even on cruises, you will be taking hikes at many of the visitor sites where you are allowed to make land.

I faced chaffing between my thighs (no thigh gap here, folks) and Alex ended up spending almost $10 to buy a small travel-sized Johnson&Johnson baby powder bottle from the market near the docks to ease my suffering. I will be bringing Arm&Hammer’s anti-chaffing spray this time around and opting for longer shorts and/or activewear capris to cut down on chaffing this time around.

Consider altitude sickness pills, particularly if travelling through Quito and the northern areas of mainland Ecuador. Altitude sickness may be a lingering issue depending on where you connection and if you add a land extension to your trip. Quito (9,350ft / 2,850m) is the second highest capital city in the world behind La Paz, Bolivia and altitude sickness is no joke. I have great sea legs but it turns out I’m particularly susceptible to altitude sickness; the altitude coupled with poor air quality and pollution in Quito proved a formidable challenge.

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