Christmas is a time of year that, for many people, means replaying the same traditions over and over again, year in year out. Are you looking to mix it up and try something new and exciting for the festive period this year? Tempted by a Christmas holiday that leaves you with some truly once-in-a-lifetime memories, surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery and wildlife our planet has to offer? Then spending Christmas in Galapagos may be for you.
A rocky archipelago made up of over 100 islands, the Galapagos Islands are famous around the world for containing some of the world’s most diverse and beautiful wildlife. It is easy to see why 17th century pirates who used the islands to store plundered treasure dubbed them “Islas Encantadas” (“the Enchanted Islands”).
As land-based tours only provide a limited experience, the best way to explore the Galapagos Islands is by boat cruise. Galapagos cruises run all year round, but for many people, the high season of Christmas and New Year is the best time to go. Here are just some of the many reasons why a Galapagos Christmas cruise may be for you.
Like much of the world – Christmas (or Navidad as it is known in Spanish-speaking countries) is typically the most celebrated holiday of the year in the Galapagos Islands. Being a part of Ecuador, a primarily Catholic country, there are many religious celebrations such as Novena (a nine-day prayer ceremony from December 15th to 24th), Pase del Nino (a Christmas Eve parade re-enacting the nativity), and Misa de Gallo (a midnight mass on Christmas Eve).
There will be some familiar Christmas traditions such as Christmas trees and nativity sets. However, barring an apocalypse event, the chances of snowfall on the Galapagos Islands at Christmas are pretty much zero, so packing your wooly Christmas jumper is not advised. Worry not though, as legend states that Santa Claus still pays a visit to the islands using sea lions to travel around, giving Rudolph and co a well earned day off!
On Christmas Eve, families traditionally come together to enjoy a big Christmas dinner known as the cena de Nochebuena. The dinner will typically include ham or turkey but could also include Ecuadorian specialities such as hornado de chancho (roasted pork leg marinated in beer with garlic and herbs) or pernil lojano (pork loin in a sauce of orange, onion, cloves and cinnamon). You may also come across a traditional warm cinnamon cocktail known as Canelazo, which is traditionally drunk at Christmas, much like mulled wine or eggnog.
The Galapagos Islands are largely protected nature reserves now – 97.5% of the land area is protected, as well as 99% of its surrounding waters. Many extremely rare birds also call the islands their home: the waved albatross, the comical blue-footed booby, the Galapagos penguin (the only penguin species north of the Equator), the Galapagos dwarf heron, and many more. The Christmas period can be the best time of year to see a lot of these birds, and the Darwin Foundation runs an annual Christmas Bird Count from 1st-31st December. Anyone can get involved and it can be a great way to enhance your visit to the islands. More information on the survey and how you can get involved can be found on the Darwin Foundation website.
Whilst many New Year celebrations across the world focus on looking to the future and making plans and resolutions, the New Year celebrations on the Galapagos Islands tend to cast a retrospective eye on the year that has just passed. The towns transform into a riot of color over this period and everywhere you go there is a real festival party atmosphere.
If you see a large, creepy, scarecrow-like effigy being burned, don’t worry! It is likely to be the Años Viejos, which is a very popular Ecuadorian New Year tradition. These huge models represent a negative aspect of the past year and usually take the form of an unpopular politician or celebrity figure. The construction of these huge dolls tends to be a family activity and they are made of old clothes and rags, paper and wood, and stuffed with sawdust. Sometimes people also write negative memories and experiences from the past year on to small pieces of paper and stuff these into the dummies. The burning ceremonies are certainly a sight to behold and usually take place between 11:30pm and midnight on New Year’s Eve.
You may also be approached by a child or woman (or indeed a man dressed as a woman!) dressed all in black begging for money or candies. This is the traditional “Old Year Widow” – another representation of the negative aspects of the past year fading away. A Spanish tradition that has passed into the culture is to eat twelve grapes, one for each stroke of midnight, for luck in the coming year. The night air is usually pretty mild at this time of year so wrapping up tends to not be necessary.
The heady mixture of incredible wildlife, vibrant culture and tradition, and amazing food makes the Galapagos Islands at Christmas a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. So whether you want to spend the festivities kayaking among the inquisitive sea lion pups, attending one of the unique religious ceremonies, or just relaxing on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world – a Galapagos Island Cruise for Christmas and New Years could be just the thing!
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