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Exploring the Galápagos | Perspectives for Student Programs

For many educators and global studies leaders, the Galápagos Islands represent the pinnacle of experiential learning. The Galápagos provide the ideal setting to help students make connections between the classroom curriculum and a living laboratory.

But how can you make your educational program innovative and affordable? How can you go beyond the traditional tourist cruise on a yacht? A successful educational program to the Galápagos should approach learning through an interdisciplinary academic model - connecting classroom subject matter with the unique natural wonders – and having fun!

The history of the islands and the “origin” of Darwin’s research provide the perfect situation for these connections to come together. Through a blend of classroom instruction, interactive activities, real-life adventures, and focused reporting, students expand their knowledge in both the sciences and the humanities.

Developing a learning curriculum for your program

In partnership with your educational travel providers, a successful Galápagos Islands program should bring in potential activities that support the learning curriculum. Supporting activities that Holbrook has developed include: learning about conservation initiatives and visiting a tortoise breeding facility at the Charles Darwin Research Station; participating on a family farm in Guayaquil for an introduction to the crops grown there; snorkeling in Tortuga Bay for the chance to swim with sea turtles, sea lions, and other marine life; teaching the concept of “World Heritage” through visits to local NGOs while focusing on topics like history, science, and culture.

Incorporating service learning

Teaching students to be global citizens and stewards of conservation is often best done through genuine service projects. For example, by working with an organization like FUNDAR-Galápagos—a non-governmental, non-profit organization that aims to make the Galápagos Islands a model of harmony between humanity and nature—students can engage with local communities and contribute to protecting the environment through activities such as hands-on reforestation. Other types of service learning can include organic farming, community education, and other aspects of sustainability. Working with an established educational travel partner can bring these opportunities to the forefront and blend into your curriculum.

The rise of land-based programs

In the past, Galápagos tourism both originated and developed with boat programs, to an extent in which the two phrases were nearly synonymous. “Everything grew with the cruises,” says Pelin Karaca, Vice President of Program Development at Holbrook Travel. “There were many locations in the islands that were only accessible by boat, so cruises were the best way to see them.”

Today, cruises still provide the same opportunity to visit the islands easily. But in recent years, land-based programs have grown in number and popularity. Like with many circumstances in the Galápagos, this was the result of resources: supply and demand. There was simply a need to expand tourism on the islands due to interest and revenue – and subsequently an opportunity to expand the positive impact to Galápagos residents. Land-based options were therefore developed as a viable way to engage local communities with tourism, and provide increased access to the associated economic benefits.

Land vs. cruise: choosing your trip

When it comes to choosing a land or cruise program, however, it all depends on your priorities. Every Galápagos experience, land or cruise, is designed to focus on the unique wildlife and natural history of the archipelago. Many differences between the options are simply a matter of logistics. A clear benefit of a cruise is the built-in ability to cover more territory in a shorter amount of time. Transfers happen at the end of the day and overnight while passengers are sleeping, whereas a land program involves more time transferring during the days.

But a land program offers more flexibility, and is therefore more customizable for a travel planner. Where a cruise adheres to a strict schedule, a land program can accommodate custom adaptations for different interests, like an extended visit to a local organization, or even a volunteer opportunity. There’s also the added benefit of spending more time among the locals. “On a boat tour, you’re never going to be able to explore in the evening,” Karaca advises. “But on a land-based program, you have an opportunity to get out of your hotel, interact more with the locals, and learn about daily life on the islands.”

Then, of course, there’s the idea that land programs are less expensive than cruise programs – but that might be misleading. Depending on what you are doing, a land program may or may not be less expensive.  Because of the tourism expansion in Galápagos, land-based opportunities are becoming available across every price point. Hotel options are emerging in the luxury market, and while there are certainly more budget-friendly choices, the expectation of “dirt cheap” accommodations is an increasing misconception. Plus, land-based travelers who want to venture to the other islands still require boat transfers, which can add up. So with these costs in addition to meal and room rates, it is possible in some cases for a land program to be comparable in price to a cruise program.

Balancing economy and ecology

Now that land-based tourism has opened more opportunity on the islands, both travelers and locals are reaping positive results. But there’s another important outcome to consider: are the islands themselves benefiting? Expanded traveler footprint in the Galápagos raises questions of environmental impact, which is particularly significant for local organizations as well as the conscientious traveler.

The Galápagos in particular pose a sensitive situation, due to the risk of invasive species threatening the local flora and fauna and affecting the fragile ecosystem. An increase in human traffic on the islands also increases the chances that invasive species could be introduced, and potentially wreak havoc on a delicate natural balance. Extinction is a realistic concern, unfortunately.

Ultimately, tourism’s involvement on both land and sea can play a positive role in the Galápagos ecosystems – with attention, diligence, and care. In fact, care is perhaps an invaluable impact that travel alone can impart.


See all of Holbrook's Galápagos programs to plan

main photo by Randy Moore