Galapagos Islands


Overview

Galapagos Islands travel guide, including map of the Galapagos, top Galapagos travel experiences, tips for travel in the Galapagos Islands, plus the best wildli

The remote Galápagos archipelago was discovered in 1535, and named Las Encantadas (The Enchanted Isles) by passing Spanish seafarers. Charles Darwin's survey voyage aboard the HMS Beagle  and later publication of The Origin of Species helped cement the Galápagos Islands' reputation as a magical land.

Straddling the equator 1,000km west of mainland Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands were pushed up out of the Pacific by volcanic eruptions around five million years ago; the younger islands remain very active. The scenery is arid along the coast, with lush, forested highlands and turquoise lagoons, while the beaches are some of the finest in the world.

These unique climatic conditions, combined with the lack of dangerous predators, few human inhabitants and protected status, make this Pacific paradise an utterly unique wildlife destination.

Evolving in the isolated Galápagos, the animals are fearless: here you can walk among reptiles and swim with sea lions, watch iguanas sit motionless on black lava, step over nesting boobies, be licked by curious seal pups and come face to face with giant tortoise.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Dock at little-visited Genovesa to see the biggest colony of red-footed boobies, plus frigatebirds and tropicbirds
  2. Walk amid the land iguanas and prickly pears of South Plaza
  3. Stop in at the Charles Darwin Research Centre, Santa Cruz, to visit the captive breeding programme for tortoises
  4. Climb the peak on Bartolomé islet for the ultimate view of the archipelago, then snorkel with penguins and white-tip reef sharks
  5. Kayak around the mangrove lagoon of Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island, to get close to turtles, sea lions and penguins
  6. Hike over the lava at Punta Espinosa to see the largest congregation of marine iguanas

Wanderlust tips

Consider taking/hiring a wetsuit so that you can snorkel for longer if the water is chilly. You can choose between three-night, four-night or seven-night cruises – try to stay for a full week: much of the first and last day is spent travelling, so on a four-day trip you will only get two full days actually exploring the islands.

The best three visitor sites are on Española, Genovesa and Fernandina – pick an itinerary that includes these islands. Specialist cruises – for divers, bird-watchers, anglers etc – are available.

Further Reading

Travel in the Galápagos Islands: vital stats

  • Capital of the Galápagos: Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristóbal); Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz) is the main hub
  • Population of the Galápagos: 30,000
  • Language in the Galápagos: Spanish
  • Time in the Galápagos: GMT-6 (GMT-5 on mainland Ecuador)
  • International dialling code for the Galápagos: +593 52
  • Voltage in the Galápagos: 110V, 60Hz AC
  • Visas for the Galápagos: Ecuador visas. Note that admission to the national park is permitted on payment of an entry fee on arrival.
  • Money in the Galápagos: US dollar. There are few places to withdraw money on the Galápagos, but you won’t need much once on your cruise boat – just enough for drinks and tips.
  • Travel advice for the Galápagos: Foreign & Commonwealth Office
  • Galápagos Islands tourist information: Ecuador Tourist Board

When to go to the Galápagos

The Galápagos is exciting year round. If you like it hot, go between December and March, when average temperatures range from 25-33°C, and the sea is ideal for snorkelling and diving. Land-based creatures thrive at this time of year, as there is plenty of food for insects, seeds for birds and fruits for iguanas. At sea, marine turtles come to mate and lay their eggs along the sandy beaches.
From April onwards the weather is cooler; there is lots of activity on land and at sea, and the islands are still green with plenty of flowers and insects. It’s also the time when albatross come back to Española to start their courtship.
By June many trees have shed their foliage and the islands take on a more arid appearance with no rain but a morning mist. Tortoises and sea lions begin breeding, as do many seabirds such as boobies and frigates. The seas get quite choppy between July and September and temperatures drop to 18-23°C.

Galápagos international airports

Baltra (GPS) on Baltra Island, one hour from Puerto Ayora

Getting around in the Galápagos

Domestic flights to the Galápagos Islands from Quito or Guayaquil are generally booked in conjunction with your cruise. Practically all visitors to the Galápagos get around by boat, joining a multi-day cruise. Tourism is strictly controlled on the Galápagos, with visitors only allowed at certain sites. The national park administration controls the routes of all boats in order to prevent overcrowding. The individual boats all follow their own set itineraries and are not allowed to deviate from them.

Galápagos accommodation

There are a few hotels on the Galápagos, on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana. However, most visitors stay on boats. There are broadly three categories: small (12 to 20 passengers); medium (about 50 passengers – these include the most luxurious vessels); and large (about 100 passengers – which are all first- to luxury-class cruises).

The cheaper boats are generally the smallest and least spacious, though most have cabins with private bathrooms. One advantage of small boats is that much less time is spent embarking and disembarking, meaning you get more time ashore and you will have a more intimate experience with the islands.

If you’re after comfort and a firm hull for unsteady sea legs, opt for a bigger ship.

Galápagos food & drink

Food on Galápagos cruise ships varies depending on the class of boat. The more expensive and luxurious vessels will serve up large, Western-style meals of excellent quality – mostly meat or fish with plenty of salads, vegetables and fresh tropical fruit; ceviche (raw seafood marinated in lemon) is a delicious speciality if prepared properly. There will be three main meals a day, plus snacks between shore landings and snorkel dips. Cheaper boats will offer more basic fare.
Food in general is quite expensive on the Galápagos – most produce has to be imported. Wine (often shipped up from Chile) is fairly pricey; local beer is a cheaper option.

Vegetarian food isn’t commonplace but if you notify your cruise operator before departure you will be well catered for.

Health & safety in the Galápagos

No inoculations are required and there are no nasties to catch, except the usual stomach bugs. Seasickness is an issue, so if you are prone take some remedies and consider a bigger boat if travelling during the cooler, rougher season. For mainland Ecuador hepatitis A, typhoid and dengue are present so consult your doctor before you go.

Further reading on travel in the Galápagos Islands

  • Galápagos Wildlife: A Visitor’s Guide (Bradt Travel Guides, 2005)
  • Ecuador & Galapagos Handbook (Footprint, 2009)
  • Ecuador including the Galapagos Islands (Rough Guides, 2010)
  • Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands (Lonely Planet,2009)
  • The Voyage of the Beagle (Penguin, 1989) by Charles Darwin