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There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the Galapagos lately. Diego, the giant Galápagos tortoise credited with saving his own species after fathering hundreds of offspring in a breeding program, has returned to his homeland on Santa Cruz Island. AFAR magazine named Classic Journeys Galapagos tours the Best Wildlife Experience in the World. And on July 1, the Ecuadorian government reopened the national park after fully closing off the islands to protect it from COVID.
That’s big news for anyone looking to follow in Charles Darwin’s footsteps. From 1835 when Darwin arrived on his boat The Beagle until 2011, virtually everyone who visited the islands did so on a boat. Then, in 2011, Classic Journeys ushered in island-based travel to the Galapagos, staying in luxury boutique hotels and offering travelers the unrivaled opportunity to explore more of the birds, plants, animals and sea life than ever possible from a boat. While many people travel to Africa to see the “Big Five” on safari, the one place that consistently delivers incredible wildlife at the highest level of interaction is the Galapagos.
We sat down with Classic Journeys founder Edward Piegza, local guides Fernanda in Quito and Carolina in Guayaquil, naturalist guides Sebastian (whose grandfather was president of Ecuador) and Afredo in the Galapagos, and hotelier Pedro from his boutique hotel along the south coast of Isabela Island for a window into what the ‘new normal’ of travel will be like in the Galapagos.
We know one of the questions on everyone’s mind is, “When will countries allow entry to US citizens?” And we’ve been tracking the Galapagos reopening. Can you help us sort through all the news and statistics, and tell us what it means for our travels?
Edward: Happy to! Ecuador reopened its international airports on June 1. The Ecuadorian Government declared the Galapagos Islands Covid-free and reopened the Galapagos National Park on July 1. The first travelers returned to the Galapagos on August 9. When I checked this morning, the Galapagos has had 177 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in total, and the overall death toll has been limited to 1 person.
So, why is the Galapagos able to reopen for tourism?
Alfredo: First, and fortunately, the Galapagos islands are very well set up for social-distancing. The islands are much larger than what people imagine. In fact, they are very similar to Hawaii, with significant upland landscapes that flow down to their shores from volcanoes that created each of the islands. Continuing to use the Hawaii comparison, the Galapagos islands have about eight inhabitants per square mile of land, while Hawaii has about 128 inhabitants per square mile. And that’s even more amazing considering that the Galapagos is distributing those inhabitants and visitors across just 3% of its land mass, since 97% of the islands are set aside as national parks. With that, no matter where you go, you are much more likely to find yourself within six feet of a giant land tortoise or marine iguana than another human being.
Sebastian: Additionally, one of the main strengths that we have is that the Galapagos Islands are a remote destination and that there is no mass tourism. It’s an important advantage nowadays. I’d like to also emphasize that the Galapagos National Park has always been a benchmark for the world on preservation and disease control, and local people highly value the conservation of their islands.
That’s good to know about the Galapagos. What about Ecuador?
Carolina: Ecuador is the first country in South America to be officially recognized and certified for its health-security protocols for tourist operations. The certification, known worldwide as “Safe Travels,” was awarded by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). Since August 15, the mandatory quarantine of travelers arriving in the country was suspended as all visitors have been required to provide a negative PCR test for Covid-19 from their country of origin. As the main sites of visits in our country are part of natural reserves and national parks, there have always been very conscious and sustainable protocols applied for exploring. These have always included small groups and social distancing.
OK, you’re getting into a lot of details here. When did your team become epidemiologists or infectious disease experts?
Edward: We’re definitely not epidemiologists or infectious disease experts! So, we turn to many of the same experts that everyone else listens to: the CDC, the WHO, and the local governments for each of the locations where we operate our trips. Then, following the adage that has guided us for a quarter century “It’s not what we know but who we know”, we filter all of that information with the help of a 17x Classic Journeys guest, who also just happens to be an infectious disease doctor and the head of that department for one of the hospital systems in California.
She is a doctor, mom, wife, world traveler who brings a totally unique perspective to the whole #travelsafe and #safetravel mindset. We’ve turned to her repeatedly to walk with us through what she wants to see from a travel protocol when she is able to travel internationally again. (Ironically, even though she has 17 Classic Journeys trips under her belt, some with her husband and some with her family, she has not been to the Galapagos. It’s #1 on her bucket list.) With her we analyzed the data, created the “travel bubble” that you’ll read about here, and constructed a suggested timeline for our guests.
What are the latest updates for international arrivals and protocols for visiting Ecuador and the Galapagos?
Fernanda: As you can imagine, regulations are being updated almost continuously. So please make sure to check for any update to this timeline by the US State Department, Ecuadorian government, and the local Galapagos National Park.
• All passengers arriving into Ecuador must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken no more than 10 days before entering the country. And so long as the arriving person doesn’t present symptoms of COVID, there is no quarantine.
• Anyone who arrives into Ecuador without a negative PCR test must undertake, at their own expense, a PCR test upon arrival. And they must quarantine until they have a negative result.
• For all travelers who are continuing to the Galapagos Islands, a negative PCR test taken within 96 hours (4 days) of the departure time of their Galapagos flight is required.
• All arriving passengers fill out a Health Status Declaration form and present that to the Ministry of Health staff who meet everyone on arrival. The Ministry of Health staff also check all arriving passengers for symptoms.
• Travelers who arrive into Ecuador with COVID symptoms are required to take a PCR test at their own expense and quarantine, even if they have a negative PCR test from their country of origin.
• Everyone arriving into Ecuador must also have proof of travel insurance with medical coverage.
Classic Journeys is creating a sort of “travel bubble” for its guests as they make their way from the mainland of Ecuador to the Galapagos. Can you tell us about that?
Edward: The Galapagos is different from any of our other tour regions around the world. In many locations where our tours take place, there are a myriad of ways to arrive to the starting point of the trip. That’s not the case with the Galapagos. First, it is a national park and access to it is heavily regulated; you have to have a permit just to fly to the islands and enter the islands. Then, 100% of all travelers fly through Quito or Guayaquil to reach the Galapagos. This means that we have the unique opportunity to funnel our guests into a Classic Journeys “travel bubble” as soon as they clear customs and immigration in either Quito or Guayaquil.
How will the travel bubble work?
Fernanda: I remember seeing a commercial in the US for a company and their slogan was “You’re in good hands”. That’s how to think about when you arrive into Quito or Guayaquil. You’ll be in good hands right away. You’ll clear customs and immigration as always, and then one of the Classic Journeys team members will meet you at the airport. From there, we’ll take you to your Classic Journeys airport hotel in Quito or Guayaquil. We’ve arranged for a testing company to have a representative waiting for you at your hotel to administer the PCR test right there. No having to go to a clinic. No having to make an appointment or go online to request a test kit be FedEx’ed to you. While we take care of your arrival to the hotel through our Invisible Check In, they help you with the test and send the results to the lab for quick turnaround.
Walk us through the whole timeline leading up to departure for the trip, the time in Quito or Guayaquil and arrival into the Galapagos.
Edward: Happy to do that. Again, we turned to our infectious disease doctor – guest and asked her based on what testing is available now and what she would want in order to feel most confident, what steps she would want to take and what assistance would she want in the days leading up to and during her travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos. Here is that timeline:
• Departure day from the US to Ecuador + 10 days →
Request a testing kit online from LabCorp
. There are other companies that do this as well. We have found from firsthand experience that LabCorp represents a turnaround time of 24-48 hours for results once sample is received and that they were able to deliver on that timeline in our own tests. Some other companies also provide in-home tests and represent 24-72 hours turnaround time. • Departure day from the US to Ecuador + 7 days →
Take the test at home and send the results to the testing company by the included FedEx mailer. • Departure day from the US to Ecuador + 6 days →
Testing company should receive the sample by FedEx and send you an email confirming receipt of sample. • Departure day from the US to Ecuador + 4 to 5 days →
Testing company should email you with your result. If your result is negative, you now have a negative PCR test within 10 days of arrival into Ecuador, which means you do not quarantine. • Departure day from the US to Ecuador + 0 days →
Bon voyage! You’re on your way to Quito or Guayaquil. Flights generally arrive in the evening. As you clear customs and immigration, look for your Classic Journeys team member who is waiting to welcome you into Ecuador. While they get you checked in at our airport hotel in Quito or Guayaquil with our Invisible Check In
, the representative from the testing company meets you at the hotel to help you with the test and send the results to the lab for quick turn-around. • Departure day from the US to Ecuador - 1 days →
Wake up in Quito or Guayaquil. After breakfast, it’s your choice to relax at the hotel today or to join one of our local guides for a socially distanced walking tour of Quito or Guayaquil. Return to the hotel later in the afternoon. Dinner is on your own. You can even elect to have room service if you prefer to keep a low profile. The testing companies we work with in Ecuador are seeing turn-around times of approximately 24 hours on their tests. So, before you drift off to sleep tonight, you should receive an email with your test results. • Departure day from the US to Ecuador - 2 days →
This is your second morning in Ecuador. And it’s your last scheduled one on the mainland, as today you are flying from Quito or Guayaquil to the Galapagos. Your Classic Journeys team member will meet you at the hotel lobby and escort you to the airport, where they will even check you in for your flight to the Galapagos. You won’t even be alone while you are standing in line, as they are with you to take care of your Ingala Card, Galapagos permit and presentation of your negative PCR test to the airline. Once you are checked in for your flight, they’ll escort you to security and send you through to your departure gate for your flight to the Galapagos. On arrival of your flight in the Galapagos, your Classic Journeys naturalist guide is waiting for you to spend an unforgettable week with you exploring the birds, plants, animals and sea life of the Galapagos
This travel bubble sounds great for someone who is not able to get their PCR test results within 96 hours prior to their flight departure from the Ecuadorian mainland to the Galapagos. But I can. Do I still need to take the in-country PCR test?
Carolina: If you are able to get a more rapid result on your PCR test in the US prior to departure to Ecuador so that you fly to Ecuador, overnight in Quito or Guayaquil, and then board your flight from Ecuador to the Galapagos within 96 hours, you are not required to take the PCR test in Ecuador on arrival. In that case, you can consider the in-country PCR test as a ‘Plan B’ in case you have any delays on your test results in the US or with your flight(s) from the US to Quito or Guayaquil that put you outside of the 96 hours before your flight departure to the Galapagos.
And what if somebody tests positive?
Alfredo: Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will remain quarantined until they are no longer infectious.
That makes sense. So, after you are deemed negative for coronavirus, what does traveling around the Galapagos look like?
Alfredo: The Galapagos are incredibly isolated islands, about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. And the feeling of being far away from everything and everyone is one of my favorite things about it. You see schools of fish and flocks of birds. You even see families of tortoises and sea lions. But you don’t see crowds of people, even in ‘normal’ times. And the landscape is so vast and open that you just don’t feel cramped. Staying six feet apart is so easy here!
Sebastian: As noted earlier, some of our guests compare their experience here in the Galapagos to being in Hawaii. And they are always amazed at how few people we have here. We have about 25,000 inhabitants and Hawaii has 1.4 million. We get about 275,000 visitors in a ‘normal’ year, and Hawaii gets 9.4 million!
What about once I’m there, do I have to share a mask and snorkel?
Edward: Absolutely not! It’s your choice to bring your own gear that we’ll move around for you, or to use the brand new mask and snorkel that we have waiting just for you. It’s all part of the Gear Valet approach to handcrafting trips of a lifetime at Classic Journeys.
That all makes sense when we are outdoors, but how are hotels ensuring a safe stay?
Pedro: “Even before COVID, hoteliers in the Galapagos took great pride in maintaining the highest standards of cleanliness and hygiene. Then, in response to the virus, the team at Classic Journeys headquarters sent us the guidelines from the Adventure Travel Trade Association that they helped to formulate for safe travel. We used that plus the Safe Travel health and hygiene protocols created by the WTTC (World Travel & Tourism Council), which take into account recommendations from both the WHO and CDC, to become the first country in South America to be Safe Travel certified.
Thank you, Edward, Alfredo, Carolina, Sebastian, Fernanda, and Pedro. You’ve answered all of our questions, but our guests may still have more. Can they email you with any questions they have?
Edward: Of course! Send any questions firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to get the gang together to reply.
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