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The Galapagos Islands

On land and in the sea, the Galapagos Islands give the impression of a diabolic Garden of Eden. The islands’ tumultuous volcanic history of scorched earth and fiery flows are evident the moment
Top Activities and Attractions in The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands

Travel to the Galapagos Islands

On land and in the sea, the Galapagos Islands give the impression of a diabolic Garden of Eden. The islands’ tumultuous volcanic history of scorched earth and fiery flows are evident the moment you arrive. Inhospitable. Uninhabitable. Tortured. These are the adjectives inspired by the lava-sea-scape.

But look closer… this seemingly spartan landscape is, in fact, teeming with life; the first of the Galapagos’ many contradictions. Suddenly you realize that what you thought was a rock is, in fact, a sun-seeking marine iguana! And to add to your surprise, it doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed by your intrusive gaze… another Galapagos contradiction.

When Charles Darwin arrived at the Galapagos in 1835 he admitted to being a bit tormented by the thousands of iguanas laying about:

“One doesn’t get used to their hideous appearance, one is never entirely free of a sense of unease. Some say they look like guardians of Hell or condemned spirits or dragon spawn.“

The creatures of the Galapagos are survivors of a tortured landscape, an otherworldly archipelago nine hundred miles out at sea. And because of their long history of isolation from Homo Sapiens, both land and sea animals remain virtually fearless and unaffected by visitors. As a visitor to the Galapagos, you will swim goggles to whiskers with sea lion pups, penguins, and sea rays, in addition to turtles and tropical reef fish. On land, you will find yourself sidestepping over hundreds of Darwin’s dragon spawn, as well as nesting blue-footed boobies, sea lions, and scuttling Sally Lightfoot crabs.

The islands are fortuitously positioned at the confluence of three distinct oceanic currents, creating a sea of contradictions, as well as one of the highest levels of marine endemism anywhere in the world: nearly one in four species is unique to the islands.

In the Galapagos, expect the unexpected

Penguins swim through mangroves in the company of rainbow-colored reef fish, while whale sharks and schools of hammerheads circle in the same waters as the Moorish idol.

In 1934 the Ecuadorian government, in collaboration with the Charles Darwin Research Station, had the foresight to set aside a number of wildlife sanctuaries on the islands before finally declaring the Galapagos a national park in 1959. About 90% of the island territory is now protected and, thankfully, carefully managed. As a result, the park service only allows visits to about 50 sites, in addition to the islands’ few towns. Rest assured that although most of the park is off-limits, the sites available to visitors are among the most interesting: You won’t be disappointed.

The Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 906 kilometers (563 miles) west of continental Ecuador, South America. Positioned right on the equator, this volcanic archipelago straddles both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The islands are part of Ecuador and are situated at the confluence of three tectonic plates: the Nazca Plate, the Cocos Plate, and the Pacific Plate. The Galapagos consists of 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets, spread out over an area of about 45,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles). This remote and isolated location has contributed to the unique biodiversity and distinct ecosystems found on the islands, making them a living laboratory of evolution and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When traveling from abroad to the Galapagos Islands, the journey typically begins with a flight to either Mariscal Sucre International Airport (UIO) in Quito or José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport (GYE) in Guayaquil, Ecuador. These airports serve as the main gateways to the islands. Several airlines offer flights to the Galapagos, including Avianca, LATAM Airlines, and TAME. Flights to the islands depart daily from both Quito and Guayaquil, with multiple flights available throughout the day. It’s advisable to book flights well in advance, especially during peak tourist seasons, to secure the best options and prices. Additionally, travelers to the Galapagos must obtain a Transit Control Card (TCT) and a Galapagos National Park entrance fee. These permits are typically arranged by tour operators or airlines as part of the booking process. Once in the Galapagos, visitors will arrive at either Seymour Airport (GPS) on Baltra Island or San Cristóbal Airport (SCY) on San Cristóbal Island, depending on their itinerary. From there, various transportation options, including ferries and domestic flights, are available to reach the other islands within the archipelago.

The Galapagos Islands offer unique experiences throughout the year, with distinct advantages during both the dry and rainy seasons.

Dry Season (June to December):

The dry season is generally considered the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands. Lasting from June to December, this period features cooler temperatures, clear skies, and calm seas, making it ideal for outdoor activities such as snorkeling and diving. The Humboldt Current enriches the waters during this time, attracting a diverse array of marine life, including whales, dolphins, and colorful fish. Tourist traffic peaks during this season, particularly from June to August and December to January, resulting in higher prices and more crowded conditions. However, March, April, and May offer a respite from the crowds while still enjoying excellent weather conditions.

Rainy Season (January to May):

From January to May, the Galapagos Islands experience the rainy season, characterized by warmer temperatures and occasional showers. Despite the rain, lush landscapes and blooming vegetation create picturesque scenery, while underwater visibility remains excellent. This season is prime for spotting sea lion pups, as many are born during these months. The islands’ wildlife is also vibrant during this time, with opportunities to observe bird hatchlings and witness the courtship rituals of iconic species like blue-footed boobies and waved albatrosses. The rainy season typically sees fewer tourists and lower prices, making it an attractive option for budget-conscious travelers. Shoulder seasons, from April to June and September to November, offer a balance between favorable weather and fewer crowds, providing an excellent opportunity to explore the islands without the peak-season rush.

Galapagos Land-based Tours vs. Galapagos Cruises

The most popular way to see the islands is by boat on a Galapagos Cruise, although land-based and scuba diving tours are also offered. Due to the increasing popularity of the Galapagos, a variety of boats are available for cruises, ranging from rickety sloops to luxurious air-conditioned sailing yachts, to mid-sized cruise ships.

Most of the boats share similar itineraries, so boat quality, price, crew, and trip length are often more important considerations when booking a trip. Voyages vary in length from four to fifteen days.

One of the primary differences between the varying boat classes, besides the comfort of their accommodations, is the experience of the crew and naturalist guides. Top-end boats have top-end staff. Boats in the midrange category of superior tourist class (and up) have bilingual naturalist guides, usually with a university degree. (In the Galapagos, the adage, “what you pay for is what you get” couldn’t be truer).

To get the most of your Galapagos travels at least 6 days are recommended. Bear in mind that, the shorter the trip, the less you will see — and there are a number of “don’t miss” islands such as:

  • Española (natural wonder after natural wonder, from the immense blowhole to the thousands of nesting blue-footed boobies, to the world’s largest waved albatross colony);
  • Floreana (Devil’s Crown, flamingos, Flour beach and one notorious witch); Bartolome (spectacular views); and
  • Black Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz (mangrove maze chock full of sharks, rays and sea turtles).

Most landings are by panga (dinghy) onto sandy or rocky beaches; so be prepared for what are known as wet landings and dry landings. Wet landings require you to wade to shore in up to knee-deep water, while dry landings are made along rocky outcroppings, and require a bit of agile grace to avoid turning a dry landing into a wet one (watch-out for slippery seaweed!). In addition to naturalist-guided tours on land, you will have plenty of time for an underwater frolic with your snorkel, flippers, and mask — and the local sea lion contingent.

Advantages of Land-Based Tours in the Galapagos:

  • Flexibility: Land-based tours allow travelers to customize their itinerary and spend more time exploring specific islands or activities of interest at their own pace, while still benefiting from guided excursions usually included on certain packages.
  • Cultural Interaction: Staying on inhabited islands enables visitors to interact with local communities, experience their culture, and support the local economy through dining and shopping.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Land-based tours often offer more budget-friendly options, as travelers have the flexibility to choose accommodations and activities based on their preferences and budget.
  • Comfort: Accommodations on land-based tours typically offer more spacious rooms and amenities compared to the limited space on cruise ships.
  • Variety of Activities: Island hopping and one-day tours provide opportunities for diverse activities such as hiking, snorkeling, diving, and wildlife viewing, catering to different interests and activity levels. Additionally, guided tours with tour operators ensure informative and enriching experiences while allowing visitors to enjoy some leisure time on their own.

Advantages of Galapagos Cruises:

  • Access to Remote Locations: Cruises allow travelers to visit more remote and uninhabited islands that are not easily accessible by land-based tours, providing opportunities to explore pristine natural habitats and encounter unique wildlife.
  • Comprehensive Itineraries: Cruises cover a wider range of islands and sites within the Galapagos National Park, offering a more comprehensive exploration of the archipelago’s diverse ecosystems and geological features.
  • Guided Excursions: Experienced naturalist guides accompany passengers on excursions, providing insightful commentary and facilitating wildlife encounters while ensuring visitor safety and park regulations compliance.
  • All-Inclusive Packages: Most Galapagos cruises offer all-inclusive packages that include accommodations, meals, guided tours, and onboard activities, simplifying travel logistics and ensuring a seamless and hassle-free experience.
  • Exclusive Wildlife Encounters: Cruises often provide opportunities for exclusive wildlife encounters, such as observing rare species, nesting seabirds, and marine mammals in their natural habitat, away from the crowds typically found on land-based tours.
  • Galapagos Giant Tortoise: Found on various islands, these iconic reptiles are among the longest-lived vertebrates, with some individuals exceeding 100 years. Their unique shell shapes and sizes have evolved according to the habitats of different islands. They play a crucial role in ecosystem health and are emblematic of the islands’ conservation efforts.
  • Blue-Footed Booby: Nesting along the coastline of several Galapagos islands, these seabirds are renowned for their bright blue feet, used in elaborate courtship displays. Their precise diving skills and synchronized fishing techniques are fascinating to observe, making them a favorite among wildlife enthusiasts.
  • Galapagos Penguin: The only penguin species found north of the equator, these diminutive birds inhabit the western islands of Isabela and Fernandina. Evolved to thrive in warm climates, they offer a unique sight as they dart through the water in pursuit of prey, providing a stark contrast to the tropical surroundings.
  • Galapagos Sea Lion: With colonies scattered across the archipelago’s beaches, these playful and inquisitive marine mammals captivate visitors with their acrobatic displays and social interactions. They offer ample opportunities for up-close encounters, both on land and underwater, making them a highlight of any Galapagos trip.
  • Marine Iguana: Endemic to the Galapagos, these remarkable reptiles are the world’s only seafaring lizards. They can be found basking on rocky shores and foraging underwater for algae. Their ability to dive deep and hold their breath for extended periods makes them a fascinating example of evolutionary adaptation.
  • Galapagos Hawk: As the islands’ apex predator, these raptors are a symbol of the archipelago’s unique ecology. Endemic to the region, they inhabit various islands and play a vital role in regulating prey populations. Their distinctive hunting behaviors and territorial displays showcase the intricate dynamics of island ecosystems.
  • Waved Albatross: Breeding primarily on Española Island, these majestic seabirds undertake remarkable migrations across the Pacific Ocean. Known for their elaborate courtship rituals and graceful gliding abilities, they offer a spectacular sight as they soar effortlessly above the waves.
  • Galapagos Fur Seal: Found along the rocky coastlines of several islands, these charismatic seals are smaller and more reclusive than their sea lion relatives. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, conservation efforts have helped their populations rebound, providing hope for the islands’ fragile ecosystems.
  • Sally Lightfoot Crab: With vibrant red, orange, and blue colors, these agile crustaceans adorn the rocky shores of the Galapagos. Their nimble movements and scavenging behaviors contribute to the coastal ecosystem’s balance, while their striking appearance adds a splash of color to the volcanic landscapes.
  • Flightless Cormorant: Endemic to the Galapagos, these unique birds have lost the ability to fly, instead relying on powerful swimming and diving skills to hunt for fish. Their reduced wing size and streamlined bodies reflect the evolutionary pressures of their island habitat, offering insights into adaptive radiation.
  • Galapagos Land Iguana: These iconic reptiles inhabit several islands, where they play a crucial role in seed dispersal and vegetation management. Their striking yellow coloration and prehistoric appearance make them a fascinating subject for photographers and naturalists alike.
  • Nazca Booby: Alongside the Blue-Footed Booby, these seabirds are found nesting in colonies on various Galapagos islands. Distinguished by their white plumage and dark facial markings, they exhibit similar courtship behaviors, including the famous “sky-pointing” display. Their presence adds to the avian diversity of the archipelago, offering birdwatchers another captivating sight during their Galapagos exploration.
  • Galapagos Mockingbird: Endemic to the archipelago, these adaptable birds are known for their diverse vocalizations and curious behaviors. Found on multiple islands, they play a vital role in seed dispersal and pollination, contributing to the islands’ biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.
  • Red-Footed Booby: Nesting in colonies on several islands, these colorful seabirds exhibit distinctive plumage variations and mating displays. Their arboreal nesting habits and synchronized breeding cycles provide insights into the evolutionary pressures of island life and resource competition.
  • Galapagos Green Turtle: These ancient reptiles can be spotted in the waters surrounding the islands, where they feed on seagrass and algae. Their annual nesting migrations to sandy beaches offer a glimpse into the circle of life in the Galapagos, as hatchlings emerge and embark on their journey to the sea.
  • Santa Cruz Island: A hub of activity, Santa Cruz offers diverse landscapes, including lush highlands, iconic Giant Tortoise reserves, and the bustling town of Puerto Ayora. Visitors can explore the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about conservation efforts and visit the stunning Tortuga Bay for sunbathing and snorkeling. Additionally, the island’s rugged coastline provides excellent opportunities for coastal walks and wildlife spotting.
  • Isabela Island: The largest island in the Galapagos archipelago, Isabela boasts stunning volcanic landscapes, pristine beaches, and unique wildlife such as Galapagos penguins and marine iguanas. Visitors can explore Puerto Villamil, hike to the Sierra Negra Volcano for breathtaking views of the vast caldera, or snorkel at Los Tuneles to encounter colorful fish and sea turtles. The Wall of Tears, a historical site built by prisoners, offers insight into the island’s past.
  • San Cristobal Island: Home to the provincial capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal offers visitors opportunities to explore historical sites, beautiful beaches, and the renowned Interpretation Center. Highlights include a visit to La Loberia Beach to observe sea lions in their natural habitat and a hike to Punta Pitt for panoramic views and encounters with nesting seabirds. The Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado provides a unique chance to see giant tortoises up close in their natural environment.
  • Floreana Island: Known for its rich human history, Floreana Island offers visitors a chance to visit Post Office Bay, snorkel in Devil’s Crown, and spot unique wildlife such as flamingos and giant tortoises.
  • Bartolome Island: Famous for its iconic Pinnacle Rock and stunning panoramic views, Bartolome is a popular stop for snorkeling, hiking, and photography.
  • North Seymour Island: Renowned for its abundant birdlife, including blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds, North Seymour offers visitors excellent opportunities for birdwatching and wildlife photography.
  • South Plaza Island: Characterized by its unique flora and fauna, including the vibrant yellow Sesuvium plants and land iguanas, South Plaza provides visitors with unforgettable hiking experiences and scenic vistas.
  • Santiago Island: With its dramatic volcanic landscapes and diverse wildlife, Santiago offers visitors opportunities for snorkeling, hiking, and exploring tidal pools teeming with marine life.
  • Rabida Island: Known for its striking red sand beaches and diverse marine life, Rabida Island is a popular destination for snorkeling, kayaking, and observing Galapagos sea lions.
  • Fernandina Island: One of the most pristine islands in the Galapagos, Fernandina is home to a large population of marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, and Galapagos penguins, offering visitors unique opportunities for wildlife encounters.
  • Española Island: Famous for its waved albatross colony, Española Island is a paradise for birdwatchers, offering opportunities to observe these majestic birds during their mating rituals and courtship dances.
  • Darwin and Wolf: These remote islands are renowned for their exceptional diving experiences, offering encounters with hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, and other pelagic species in their pristine marine environments.
  • Chinese Hat: This small islet, named for its distinctive shape, offers visitors opportunities for snorkeling with playful sea lions, observing Galapagos penguins, and exploring its unique volcanic formations.
  • Hiking: Explore the diverse landscapes of the islands by hiking along scenic trails. One popular hiking spot is the Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela Island, offering breathtaking views of the volcanic caldera.
  • Snorkeling: Dive into the crystal-clear waters to discover vibrant marine life and coral reefs. Enjoy snorkeling at Devil’s Crown off Floreana Island for encounters with colorful fish, rays, and sea turtles.
  • Diving: Delve deeper into the underwater world with a diving excursion. Explore the underwater caves and lava formations at Gordon Rocks near Santa Cruz Island for thrilling encounters with hammerhead sharks and eagle rays.
  • Biking: Pedal your way through the island’s landscapes on a biking adventure. Take a bike tour along the coastal roads of Santa Cruz Island to discover hidden beaches and scenic viewpoints.
  • Sea-Kayaking: Paddle along the coastlines and mangrove forests for a tranquil exploration of the islands. Enjoy sea-kayaking in the calm waters of Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, observing marine iguanas and shorebirds along the way.
  • Relaxing: Unwind and soak up the sun on the pristine beaches of the Galapagos Islands. Spend a leisurely day lounging on the white sands of Tortuga Bay, listening to the sound of crashing waves.
  • Photography: Capture the natural beauty and unique wildlife of the Galapagos through photography. Visit Punta Suarez on Española Island for incredible opportunities to photograph nesting albatrosses and colorful marine iguanas.
  • Bird-Watching: Witness the remarkable birdlife of the islands through bird-watching excursions.
  • Head to Genovesa Island, also known as Bird Island, to observe magnificent frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, and other seabird species.
  • Wildlife Observation: Observe the iconic wildlife species that call the Galapagos home. Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island to see giant tortoises up close and learn about conservation efforts.
  • Swimming: Cool off in the pristine waters surrounding the islands with a refreshing swim. Enjoy swimming and snorkeling with playful sea lions at Loberia Beach on San Cristobal Island.
  • Dinghy Explorations: Embark on dinghy rides to explore hidden coves, mangrove forests, and coastal cliffs. Take a dinghy excursion around Kicker Rock off San Cristobal Island to admire the towering rock formations and spot marine life.
  • Volunteering: Get involved in conservation efforts by volunteering with local organizations and research projects. Participate in beach clean-ups and habitat restoration programs to help protect the fragile ecosystems of the islands.
  • Highland Explorations: Venture into the lush highlands of the islands for a glimpse of the diverse flora and fauna. Explore the highlands of Santa Cruz Island to encounter giant tortoises roaming freely in their natural habitat.

For those seeking an unparalleled adventure amidst the pristine wilderness of the Galapagos, a Galapagos cruise offers an extraordinary experience. Cruises navigate through the archipelago’s diverse islands, allowing passengers to explore remote and untouched landscapes inaccessible by land. Aboard luxurious vessels equipped with modern amenities, guests can indulge in gourmet dining, relax on spacious decks, and enjoy panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Expert naturalist guides lead daily excursions to pristine beaches, lava fields, and volcanic craters, providing unique opportunities for wildlife observation, snorkeling, and kayaking in the company of endemic species found nowhere else on Earth.

Check out some of the Galapagos cruises recommended by Ecuador Explorer.

Nestled amidst the natural splendor of the Galapagos Islands, Galapagos hotels offer a comfortable and convenient retreat for travelers seeking rest and relaxation after days of exploration. From eco-friendly lodges perched on volcanic slopes to boutique hotels overlooking turquoise bays, accommodations in the Galapagos cater to a range of preferences and budgets. Guests can unwind in cozy rooms adorned with local artwork and furnishings, savor delicious cuisine crafted from fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and recharge with a variety of wellness amenities, including spas, yoga classes, and infinity pools. With personalized service and warm hospitality, Galapagos hotels provide an inviting sanctuary amid one of the world’s most extraordinary natural landscapes.

Choose from one of the Galapagos Hotels recommended by Ecuador Explorer.

Enjoy an Unbelievable Galapagos Trip

The Galapagos Islands stand as one of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. While many visitors opt for a cruise to explore these unique islands, an increasing number of travelers are choosing land-based tours and hotel stays, which can offer a more economical alternative. Additionally, last-minute deals to the Galapagos are sometimes available, but it’s advisable to book your vacation well in advance, particularly during peak seasons such as summer (in the northern hemisphere) and the Christmas to New Year period. Cruises often fill up months or even years ahead.

For diving enthusiasts, the Galapagos offers some of the most exceptional underwater experiences on the planet, renowned especially for encounters with mega species like whale sharks and hammerhead sharks. Explore a list of reputable Galapagos diving tour operators to enhance your exploration of these mesmerizing marine environments.

Explore the most popular things to do in The Galapagos Islands

Explore the secrets behind The Galapagos Islands

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Related Pages

Provider Spotlight

Free Galapagos Trip Planner at Galapagos Islands .com – easily plan your Galapagos vacation online, find great value, and a wide selection of customized Galapagos cruises and vacations.

Galapagos Tour Experts – Adventure Life Specialize in luxury Galapagos cruises, and land-based Galapagos tours. Adventure Life can help you design the perfect trip to Ecuador. As seen in Outside Magazine, NatGeo, and the New York Times.

Voyager Galapagos Tours haS excellent Galapagos cruise deals & last-minute offers, and land-based Galapagos tours (aka Island Hopping).

Galapagos & Ecuador Insiders use their local expertise to assist you in planning the perfect Galapagos cruise or Ecuador tour for your precise budget, needs, and interests.

Latin Trails craft customized journeys to the Galapagos Islands, the Ecuador mainland, the Amazon rainforest, and Peru. They operate the highly-rated Galapagos cruising yacht: Seaman Journey and the day tour yacht the Galapagos Hopper.

Andando Tours – Pioneers in Galapagos tourism. Two generations of sailing and shipbuilding showcase unparalleled knowledge in creating the most unique Galapagos Cruises. Owners & Operators of S/S Mary Anne & M/Y Passion.

Gulliver Expeditions – Learn more about our Ecuador ToursPeru ToursEcuador Climbing Expeditions, Galapagos Land Tours, and Machu Picchu Tours. Gulliver Expeditions offer fantastic travel experiences since 2005.

Surtrek Galapagos Cruises – has offered exceptional custom-designed trips to the Galapagos for over 20 years. They now bring their brand of off-the-beaten-path trips to other countries in South America such as Peru’s Machu PicchuBolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats, and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

ViaNatura – provides excellent value Galapagos cruises on the Monserrat yacht, a luxury cruise experience on the Hermes yacht, and a variety of tours in Ecuador and Peru.

Exclusive Galapagos Cruises, part of the EQ Touring group – specializes in private Galapagos yacht charters. They can help your group find the perfect yacht that matches your needs at a price negotiated by a true insider who has been doing charters in the Galapagos for decades.

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