The Galapagos are a series of volcanic islands located in Ecuador, whose diverse plant and wildlife became famous for having inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Now the archipelago is a premier travel destination where visitors can hike, swim, and sail alongside exotic species unique to the islands.
Take a trip and explore dramatic landscapes: from lush rainforest to idyllic beaches, volcanoes, and dramatic lava formations. The surrounding sea is a protected marine reserve, with crystal-clear water that allows exploration on and offshore.
Whether you visit for adventure, wildlife, or a taste of local art, the Galapagos Islands promise an experience you won't find anywhere else. Use this guide to help you prepare for your trip and choose between activities and tours to the Galapagos.
Adventure Sea Tours
Without many predators to instill fear, marine life in the Galapagos Islands often feel comfortable getting quite close to swimmers -- and are just as curious as you are. This makes scuba diving and snorkeling tours a top, engaging activity for tourists.
Jump into the sea to find large sea turtles, sea otters and lions, schools of brightly colored fish, and more. Special spots to visit underwater are Islas Lobos, Darwin's Arch, and Cape Marshall.
Most travelers who visit the Galapagos come for the wildlife (including on land): an experience you likely won't find elsewhere. Join a day trip to observe blue-footed boobies and mockingbirds; spot bright red and green marine iguanas during mating season; and watch albatross mating rituals on Española Island. For a great offering of penguin and tortoise interactions, visit Tagus Cove on Isabela Island.
Island Day Tours
While most Galapagos tours begin on Santa Cruz Island, there are many other islands to explore once you are there -- perfect for an island excursion. You can stay at a hotel in Puerto Ayora and choose to book short trips each day.
Take a day hike to volcanoes on Isabela Island or walk nature trails, visit the Darwin Lake, kayak Tortuga Bay, and head to the Charles Darwin Research Station. There are also surfing opportunities on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz Islands.
When you visit the Galapagos make time to experience Ecuadorian art; there are a number of charming places to explore and even buy souvenirs from. The Tortoise Gallery, for example, is the perfect place to fall in love with unique Ecuadorian handmade jewelry. The Galería Aymara is also a great gallery of crafts, ceramics, and other handmade art. Don't forget to mail postcards from Puerto Ayora!
Planning Your Trip
Planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands is difficult. From flights, boats, and cruises to accommodations and tours, you'll need to do lots of advance booking and have an organized plan. Here are the most important details to know if you're considering booking a trip to the Galapagos.
Best Time To Visit The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are most popular during June and September, and December – January. While this hints at the best time to visit the islands, know that the crowds are plentiful and the tours must be booked well in advance.
What to Look For in a Tour to The Galapagos
Galapagos tours are led by guides who are experts at spotting animals in the wild, helping visitors have intimate encounters with giant tortoises, penguins, dolphins, sharks, and monkeys -- to name a few. Make sure your tour opertator offers certified guides who have good reviews and experience.
When choosing a tour, also confirm whether your package includes pickup from the mainland, flights to the Galapagos, accommodation, activities, and meals. Some tours may not include some of these items, so keep that in mind when price comparing.
Typical Galapagos Tour Costs
When it comes to visiting the Galapagos, you can join a mid-range to luxury cruise and take small boat tours daily (you sleep on the cruise ship). Alternatively, you can stay on an island and book individual day tours instead (just a couple of islands have this option).
Many 3-5 day packages begin at $1,000 (not including flights and transportation). Travelers visiting other parts of Ecuador who decide to book a tour to the Galapagos last minute might have more luck scoring a deal as a tour office walk-in (this can often be done in Quito).
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Be prepared to hike, trek, snorkel, and adventure throughout the Galapagos Islands. Bring swimwear, water shoes, and light-colored clothing that will cover your skin but still keep you cool (you’re right by the equator so watch out for the sun).
Here are some supplies and gear to bring with you, buy on the mainland, or rent from your tour company. Keep in mind flights from the mainland have luggage weight restrictions (44 lbs.) so minimalism is best:
- Sunblock and lip balm with SPF protection
- Snorkeling gear and fins (available for rent)
- Waterproof camera / Camera with good zoom
- Flashlight or headlamp
- Bug spray
- Wetsuit or rash guard (may be available for rent)
- Walkie-Talkie (optional)
- Brimmed hat
- Hiking shoes
- Poncho or rain jacket
- Waterproof bag
Other Tips For Travel in The Galapagos
- Currency & visas: Ecuador uses the US dollar. Because of the location, network connections aren't always reliable, therefore making cash the best form of payment. Visitors from the United States, Canada, and most European countries can explore Ecuador for up to 90 days without a visa.
- Transportation: Visitors can fly to Quito or Guayaquil to connect to flights to the Galapagos. You can fly domestic from either location to Baltra Island or San Cristobal and connect to tour departure points on Santa Cruz by ferry. If this feels as complicated as it sounds, luckily many Galapagos tour packages are all-inclusive (or offer assistance) so you don’t have much to worry about. On the more populated islands, you can get around by taxi, bus, bike, and foot. To get between islands, boat tours or ferries are necessary.
- Accommodation: In addition to cruise cabins, many islands in the Galapagos offer hotel accommodations. These hotels are often eco-friendly with spotty wi-fi. The Royal Palm, Red Booby, and Finch Bay Eco Hotel are popular Santa Cruz hotels. Iguana Crossing and La Casa de Marita are popular on Isabela Island.
Health & Safety
Health safety and requirements for the Galapagos Islands are pretty similar to most Latin American countries: all travelers visiting Ecuador should have their routine vaccinations up to date. You’ll also want to ask your doctor about Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccines before you visit, especially if you'll be visiting the Amazon.
Stay well by washing your hands regularly, watching what you eat and drink, and avoiding unsterile environments. The CDC offers great detail on vaccine and health recommendations for Ecuador. Here are more tips on staying healthy:
- Carry a small bottle of soap with you
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth if you haven't been able to wash your hands
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Don't touch, play with, or feed any animals (unless with permission, under supervision, and in a controlled environment)
- Wear sunscreen and remember to reapply every 2 hours
- Bring medication is you are susceptible to seasickness
You may be anxious to explore Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, but don’t let that excitement distract you from your surroundings. Pickpocketing is common throughout Ecuador, especially in crowded cities like Quito and Guayaquil, so it is important to stay alert and prepared. As usual, make a copy of all of your important documents, have someone at home know your full itinerary, and try to only travel during daylight hours.
For your Galapagos trip, you should be aware of safety concerns for your own behalf and the wildlife you encounter. To ensure a safe tour, prearrange your itineraries and transportation with your hotel or tour group and double-check the license and reviews of a tour company. Know that the lowest price may not always be the best deal.
Since you are exploring a preserved, somewhat untouched region, remember to minimize your footprint by only walking in designated areas, follow directions from tour operators, and refrain from touching wildlife and flora unless you've been instructed otherwise by an authorized guide.