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 adventure travel destination, where visitors can hike, swim, scuba, snorkel, and sail alongside exotic species found only there.
Take a trip and explore dramatic landscapes on the different islands, with everything from lush rainforest to idyllic beaches, volcanoes, and dramatic lava formations. The sea between the islands is a protected marine reserve, with crystal waters that allow exploration to continue on and offshore.
Galapagos tours are led by guides 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. Well-preserved and protected, the Galapagos Islands are every wildlife-lover's dream, promising an experience you won't find anywhere else.
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), or choose to stay on an island and book individual day tours (just a couple islands have this option). While island hopping via cruise certainly saves travel time, packages are often all-inclusive (or close). Those who prefer a DIY approach can book tours individually.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
The Galapagos Islands are special for both visitors and wildlife. Without many predators to instill fear, marine life often feel comfortable getting quite close to swimmers. This makes scuba diving and snorkeling adventures a top activity for tourists. You'll find large sea turtles, sea otters, marine iguanas, sea lions, schools of brightly colored fish, and more. Special spots to visit underwater are Islas Lobos, Darwin's Arch, and Cape Marshall.
Exploring the Islands
While most Galapagos tours begin on Santa Cruz Island, there are many other islands to explore once you are there. You can stay at a hotel in Puerto Ayora and choose to book short excursions each day. Besides taking day hikes along volcanoes on Isabela Island, walking nature trails, and exploring coastlines, you can 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.
Your Galapagos experience isn't complete without wildlife tours. Join a day trip to observe blue-footed boobies and mockingbirds; spot bright red and green marine iguanas during mating season; and watch the albatross mating rituals on Espanola Island. Tagus Cove on Isabela Island has the best offering of Penguin and Tortoise interactions.
When you visit the Galapagos, you'll want to share your experience with friends and family back home, naturally. While you can't take the wildlife home, there are a number of charming places to explore and buy souvenirs from. The Tortoise Gallery, for example, is the perfect place to purchase (or browse) 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!
What to Look For In a Trip
Most travelers book their Galapagos excursion ahead of time. If you decide to do this, make sure your package includes pickup from the mainland, flights to the Galapagos, accommodation, and meals. Some may not include flights and meals, so keep that in mind when price comparing. Many three to five day packages begin at $1,000 (not including flights and transportation). Other travelers visiting Ecuador who decide to head to the Galapagos last minute might have more luck scoring a sweet deal on the spot (this can often be done in Quito).
Best Time to Visit
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.
Generally the cost of the Galapagos feels astronomical to a backpacker’s budget. A way to get around it: be flexible. If you are in the midst of a gap year or taking an indefinite sabbatical from work, try playing it by ear when you get to Quito.
Generally, one to seven days before a cruise is set to sail, operators lower their prices sometimes by as much as 50 percent. Head over to the Mariscal district in Quito and you’ll find tons of shops with whiteboards outside their front door advertising the sale price and how many spots are left. In these situations, a discounted seat is better than an empty seat (for the company), so see what you can get.
Transportation & Accommodation
Luckily, most Galapagos packages are all inclusive so you don’t have much to worry about. Careful when booking a really good deal: make sure airport pick-ups and drop-offs, transportation between islands, and activity gear is included. If it isn’t, be sure to have a price breakdown of additional costs—they can add up quickly!
Some visitors may not want to have a luxury or all-inclusive experience. For a more budget-friendly solution, it is possible to get to the Galapagos on one's own. Visitors can fly to Quito or Guayaquil to connect to flights to the Galapagos. Most likely, you'll have to stay one night in town and make your connection in the morning.
While the Quito airport is most popular (and often has better airline deals), Guayaquil is closer to your destination. You can fly domestic from either location to Baltra Island or San Cristobal and connect to tour departure points on Santa Cruz by ferry.
In addition to cruises, many islands in the Galapagos offer hotel accommodations. These hotels are often eco-friendly with often 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.
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.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Be prepared to hike, trek, swim, snorkel, and adventure throughout the Galapagos Islands. Bring light-colored clothing that will cover your skin but still keep you cool while you explore (you’re right by the equator). Here are some supplies and gear to bring with you, buy on the mainland, or rent from your tour company (check that they have it beforehand):
- 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
- Light, cotton clothing
- Water shoes
- Hiking shoes
- Poncho or rain jacket
- Waterproof bag
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, including measles-mumps-rubella, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chicken pox, and polio vaccines. You’ll also want to ask your doctor about Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccines before you visit.
Try your best to reduce your exposure by washing your hands regularly, staying up to date with vaccinations, watching what you eat and drink, and avoiding unsterile environments. The CDC offers great detail on more vaccine and health recommendations for Ecuador. Here are more tips on staying healthy:
- Carry a small bottle of soap with you (there's hardly ever any in public bathrooms)
- 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 (you will be under equatorial sun!)
- Bring medication is you are susceptible to seasickness
Common Safety Concerns
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 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; sometimes it is too good to be true.
Since you are exploring a very natural, 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.