Galápagos Checklist: Six Points to Remember

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Karla Gachet / Polaris

Puppy Love Sea-lion pups play on one of the Galápagos' many white-sand beaches

The frustrating thing about once-in-a-lifetime destinations is that only after visiting them do you really know how to do them right. Take the Galápagos Islands, which I went to earlier this year. I learned a lot about how I should have gone about my trip — but I'll never return. (As wonderful as it was, there's too much else in the world to see.) Maybe you can benefit from my newfound knowledge.

1. Go for a Smaller Boat
Ecuador licenses 77 boats to sail to the islands. My partner and I were on the Eclipse, which holds 48 passengers. While there were moments when the number of people came in handy — if I grew tired of someone, I could avoid them at the next meal — I occasionally felt like I was spending more time studying humans than the animals for which the islands are famous. Plus, the more people, the more time you'll spend waiting — at meals, to disembark, to rinse your wet suit and so on. One day, we spotted a catamaran that our guide said held 14 passengers, and it looked like heaven on water.

2. Get Used to Being Herded
When I travel, I like to explore. That's impossible to do in the Galápagos, and for good reason. The plants and animals on the islands thrived because of isolation; invasive species, tracked in by humans, are a threat to their existence. As a result, travelers cannot wander off trail.

3. The Water Is Your Haven
My favorite moments involved kayaking (we ducked into a cove where the guide, back on the dinghy, couldn't see us, making him very anxious) and snorkeling. When you're in the water, you can drift to the edge of your group, where you'll feel much more alone — and you'll likely see animals no one else sees. Don't forget to splurge on an underwater camera. While snorkeling, I had a play session with a baby sea lion that I wish I'd photographed.

4. Your Cabin Isn't Important
Our cabin was neither the largest nor the smallest, but size is irrelevant. We were never in it except to sleep. When we did have downtime, we spent it on deck because the scenery was nonstop gorgeous.

5. Guide Quality Is Variable
We had three (you couldn't choose whose group you'd be in on any given excursion). One was obsessed with snorkeling, one came most alive around the birds and iguanas, and one — well, one wasn't great. In fact, at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, he announced, "Personally, I just don't believe that human beings evolved from worms." What?!

6. Research Your Timing
One of the photos that made me want to go to the islands in the first place was of male frigate birds puffing out their red chests. Well, that tends to only happen during the peak of their mating season, which is around March and April. We saw much more that was exciting and strange, but if there's something you really want to experience — hammerhead sharks, baby sea lions, whatever — make sure you're going during the right time of year.