How to get a coveted "Galapagos Naturalist Guide" job (hint - don't even think about it)

“First, one now needs the permanent residency status to obtain a job”, says Alexandra Bahamonde, originally from Quito with a degree in languages (French, Italian, English). “I am very lucky, because I came to Galapagos before they changed the law, that is, before 1998.  Therefore, I could easily get my permanent residency, and so, work as a guide.   It’s much more difficult, if not impossible, for non-Galapagos residents to do that now”.

There are only three possible ways of becoming a permanent resident: being born in the Galapagos, marrying a resident, or proving one already lived in the islands prior to 1998.

In 1998, the government of Ecuador passed a law to reinforce the protection of the Galapagos.  One measure was the introduction of residence controls.  Imagine a country restricting the movement of its own citizens within it borders – that’s what Ecuador has done to limit the population explosion in the islands.  It would be as if the United States prevented mainlanders from moving to Hawaii.    There have been three categories of residency ever since: 

  1. Permanent resident, the only ones allowed to work and perpetually stay,
  2. Temporary residents, permitted to remain on a one-year contract, with the option of renewing it, but only when no permanent residents were found to fill their specific work-positions, and;
  3. Tourists / short term visitors, allowed to stay for no more than 3 months. People falling in this last category must pay $20 to obtain a visitor’s “Transit Card” – the size of a credit card, with your picture on it, before entering the islands. 

The second step to becoming a Galapagos naturalist guide is to take the guide’s course (usually lasting about 8 weeks) organized by the Galapagos National Park Service. Applicants must past various tests dealing with natural history, safety and tourism industry related knowledge.    

The issue here is that courses are only rarely offered.  The last course was held in 2009, as the Park considers that the 520 guides currently licensed and active are sufficient for today’s market.  So, in the past nearly 6 years, no new naturalist guide has entered into service in Galapagos.  

Still, even if you are resident, and you pass the rare Park Service training course, you have to be careful not to lose your naturalist guide status.   For instance, every two years naturalist guides must renew their licenses. This is not just a question of paying a few dollars and getting a new license.  Naturalist guides must attend a one-week workshop held in Galapagos, prove they have worked at least 120 days per year for the past two years (this is verified by the required weekly reports guides must submit to the Park service while working), or, if they have not been working, naturalist guides must have shown to have volunteered an equivalent amount of time for the Park. 

And there’s more!   “The real nightmare is to obtain the sea man’s book in order to work on board a ship”, adds Alexandra.    This is done through the Ecuadorean navy, and is a challenge to patience and endurance. It involves obtaining a number of various bureaucratic papers: 

  1. A health certificate every two years. This can only be done in one place, and it’s not even in Galapagos!  It is done at the navy hospital, in Guayaquil – meaning you have to spend quite a bit of money on flights and possibly hotels and restaurants if you have no family or friends in Guayaquil.  It can take from one to two days, and includes blood tests, X-rays, electrocardiograms and a psychological exam.
  2. A couple of International Maritime Certificates: Safety and Survival at Sea and the “3 in 1” which includes the management of passengers in case of crisis, protection of ships and their people, and safety of cargo and passengers. To obtain each certificate they must attend a one-week course either in Guayaquil or in any of the two largest Galapagos towns. 

So, if one did the calculations, one could easily come up with a cost of over $1,000 / year just to remain a naturalist guide (e.g. flights to the continent, cost of food and accommodation while attending courses, cost of courses / getting licenses and lost time for actually working on a ship). 

Despite all these complications, many guides have gone through it all for more than 20 years.   There are plenty of reasons. 

“I love being a naturalist, not just because of the beauty of Galapagos, but one can witness evolutionary processes, and meet people when they are in their best frame of mind” says Desire Cruz, a guide since 1987, former National Park deputy director, and old friend of CNH Tours owners, Heather Blenkiron and Marc Patry.  

Becoming a naturalist guide indeed means spending time attending to the necessary administration, in photocopy booths, waiting in lines etc.. this is a source of frustration for many guides, and understandably so.   Though the system has actually improved over the years, especially in the quality of the guides’ course and the simplification of paperwork through online applications, most guides feel there is still plenty of room for further improvement.  But being a naturalist guide also means having plenty of opportunities for encountering the unexpected along the island trails and sharing them with visitors, enjoying every day as if it was the first one through their fresh eyes – making this one of the best jobs in the world, according to most of us.


Juan Manuel Salcedo, an enthusiastic and passionate Galapagos native, and main naturalist guide on the Samba