Info for Travelers to Galapagos
April 12, 2010
Staying Safe in the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos archipelago is located more than 600 miles to the west of continental Ecuador. Geographic isolation and the lack of local resources place at risk those U.S. citizens who choose to travel to the Galapagos Islands. International visitors should be aware that local medical capabilities are severely limited, and access to even basic medical care may be at least 48 hours away. Serious injury or illness must typically be treated on the Ecuadorian mainland. Regulations to preserve the environmental integrity of the islands, and local permissions required to permit aircraft to land in Baltra or San Cristobal, may delay air ambulance flights even in the case of serious medical emergencies.
The U.S. Embassy in Quito and U.S. Consulate General in Guayaquil strongly recommend that U.S. visitors to the Galapagos Islands register online with the U.S. Consulate General in Guayaquil prior to their trip, and to always leave an emergency contact with their hotel or tour operator. Given the limited medical care available on the archipelago and the costs related to air ambulance services, visitors to the Galapagos are strongly encouraged to purchase traveler’s insurance that includes air ambulance services. Medical evacuations by air ambulance to the mainland take at least 48 hours to arrange. More information on short term insurance that includes medical evacuation / air ambulance service may be found on the U.S. Department of State’s Travel website.
Selecting a Reputable Tour Provider
A significant number of Ecuadorian tour vessels operating in the Galapagos Islands are neither inspected nor operated in accordance with U.S. regulations, and do not meet U.S. safety standards. The Government of Ecuador requires that vessels carrying more than 16 passengers comply with the International Safety Management (ISM) code established by the International Maritime Organization. However, the quality of inspections, oversight, crewmember proficiency evaluation, and other requisites for safe vessel operation may vary substantially.
Tour boat accidents are more frequent among small vessels (those carrying 16 or fewer passengers), but travelers should inquire about safety features of any vessel, regardless of size. When boarding vessels be sure to look for the life boats, floatation devices and, if possible, take a moment to inspect the life vest you would be using if there were an accident.
Strikes and Civil Unrest
Strikes and disturbances by local fisherman in the Galapagos Islands have become violent on occasion. While tourists have not been targeted, the incidents affected their movement and access to some sites. Such disturbances have been minimal since April 2004, but the issues remain unsettled and could resurface at any time.
There have been at least three cases in which small quantities of drugs have been placed by unknown persons in unsecured pockets of tourists' checked bags, including backpacks, en route to the Galapagos. Upon arrival, these drugs have been detected by police canine units, and the owners of the bags have been arrested and detained for months while the cases are resolved. Travelers are advised to secure all parts of their bags thoroughly before checking them on flights to the Galapagos. International visitors who attempt to smuggle out the island’s flora and fauna in their luggage or on their person face serious sanctions and jail time.
Medical Facilities & Hyperbaric Chambers
In the Galapagos Islands, medical resources are severely limited. Acute surgical, cardiac, and specialty medicines are not available. The only hospitals are located on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands. These facilities have limited resources, and often do not have the basic medical supplies required to treat serious injuries. Some cruise vessels have on-board physicians available for fee-based services. Serious injury or illness in the Galápagos typically requires costly medical evacuation to the Ecuadorian mainland or the United States for treatment. Medical evacuations by air ambulance take at least 48 hours to arrange. For that reason, the purchase of traveler’s health insurance that includes air evacuation is strongly recommended.
Scuba divers in the Galapagos Islands should be aware of limited facilities for decompression. A privately-owned hyperbaric chamber is available in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. The Ecuadorian Navy operates a second decompression chamber at the San Eduardo Naval Base in Guayaquil. Due to the high costs for these services and associated emergency transportation, divers are advised to obtain adequate medical evacuation and diver’s insurance.
Medical & Medevac Insurance
Because serious injury or illness in the Galápagos typically requires costly medical evacuation to the Ecuadorian mainland or the United States for treatment, the purchase of traveler’s health insurance that includes air evacuation is strongly recommended.
The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to consult their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to determine whether the policy applies overseas and whether it covers emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation. For more information, please see our medical insurance overseas page.
Emergency Contact Information
In the case of an emergency involving a U.S. citizen in our consular district, please contact our 24/7 hotline:
From within Guayaquil: 371-7000
From within Ecuador, but outside of Guayaquil: (04) 371-7000
From the United States of America: 011-593-4-371-7000