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The Galápagos Islands, in Ecuador, offer wildlife and landscapes found nowhere else on earth. But before you swim with the sea lions and marvel at dramatic evidence of the area’s volcanic provenance, you’ve got some planning to do. Our guide to the Galápagos Islands is your comprehensive starting point.

November 04, 2016

Between 3 million and 5 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions formed the Galápagos archipelago, a chain of 19 islands and dozens of islets. The area is still volcanically active, and the islands endure a constant cycle of uplift and erosion. Fresh eruptions are still seen.

Located in the Pacific Ocean roughly 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands existed mostly untouched for millions of years as an all-star cast of plants and animals found their way there and thrived. In the 1800s, humans started arriving, including pirates and explorers. The most famous early visitor was Charles Darwin, a young naturalist who spent 19 days studying the flora and fauna of the Galápagos in 1835. In 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, which introduced his theory of evolution—and the Galápagos Islands—to the world.  

The fame of these islands has steadily grown since then. The archipelago became Ecuador’s first national park in 1959, and the Galápagos were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Today, more than 200,000 people visit the Galápagos every year to see the animals and landscapes that are unique to this region.

As amazing as you think the Galápagos Islands will be, they routinely exceed expectations. It’s a place where lizards swim, birds walk, and humans, for once, don’t take center stage.

How to Get There: Land or Sea?

The first decision you have to make about visiting the Galápagos Islands is also the most difficult. Do you want to be based in a hotel on one of the three inhabited islands, exploring other islands and areas via day-trip boat rides? Or do you want to be based on a live-aboard boat, which provides your accommodation and your mode of travel from island to island?

There are three main differences to consider when choosing between land and sea.

  • Cost: A trip to the Galápagos Islands is pricey. However, it’s easier to craft a less expensive Galápagos experience if you choose to be land-based. These days, there are hotels and restaurants at many price points on San Cristóbal Island, Santa Cruz Island, and (to a much lesser extent), Isabela and Floreana islands. Live-aboard boats come in a range of price points, too; however, all but the most bare-bones boats still add up to more than a land-based vacation.

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  • Time management: If you choose a land-based vacation, you will spend a lot of your time in the Galápagos getting from your hotel, onto a day-trip boat, out to the day’s destination, then back to your hotel. On the other hand, travelers on live-aboard boats sleep in cabins on the boat, which does most of the navigation from place to place during the night. This means passengers wake up in a new destination ready for a full day of exploration.
  • Access: Because land-based explorations are limited to the five islands that can be reached in one day, land-based travelers will never be able to visit the more distant islands that boat-based itineraries include.

Bottom line: Unless you’re terrified of boats, suffer from seasickness, or hate the idea of being on a boat for a week, book a cruise. You’ll waste less time running back and forth, and you’ll ensure that you will see as many distinct areas of the Galápagos Islands as possible.

Scuba divers who want to focus on underwater adventures have a few options in the Galápagos Islands as well. The Galapagos Sky, Galapagos Aggressor III, Humboldt Explorer, Galapagos Master, and Nortada are live-aboard boats that were designed specifically for scuba divers. They ply the waters all the way to the little-visited northernmost islands in the Galápagos archipelago, where deep, cold, current-filled diving yields time with manta rays, whale sharks, sunfish, and hammerhead sharks. These are for experienced divers only.

Land-Based Logistics

Most of the islands in the Galápagos archipelago are uninhabited. However, a wide range of hotels exist (primarily on Santa Cruz Island and San Cristóbal Island), and a range of day-boat options operate out of harbors on those islands as well. Be sure to book a hotel that’s located near the harbor (not in the highlands) so you’re close to where you’ll be boarding your boat for day trips.

For example, the 21-room Golden Bay Hotel & Spa is located right on the harbor of San Cristóbal Island. You can watch sea lions cavort on a small beach directly in front of the hotel, and day-trip boats leave from a dock that’s no more than a three-minute stroll away. Book the corner suite with a living-room bathtub with a view and glass walls that slide fully open to eliminate all barriers between you and the world-famous nature outside.

The Angermeyer Waterfront Inn is right on Puerto Ayora (also called Academy Bay), on Santa Cruz Island. Their newest room has been cleverly fashioned inside a beached wooden boat.

Or you can book a hotel that owns and operates its own boats to ensure a seamless standard of service and the most practical and convenient itineraries. For example, the unparalleled Pikaia Lodge, in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, has its own boat that is used exclusively for guests on packages that include land and sea adventures.

The Finch Bay Eco Hotel, on Puerto Ayora/Academy Bay on Santa Cruz Island, also has its own boat. The Sea Lion has its own chef and a capacity for 20 passengers and two guides (many other day-trip boats carry 16 passengers and just one guide). Sea Lion itineraries also encompass all five of the islands that day-trip boats are allowed to visit.

Boat-Based Logistics

Most live-aboard boats offer five- to eight-day itineraries, with set departure dates and set routes. Routes are dictated by Galápagos National Park officials to mitigate crowding and environmental stress. Your boat will offer a northern itinerary or a southern itinerary (sometimes called eastern and western itineraries), alternating weekly. Both itineraries offer wonderful land excursions, plenty of time in the water, and ample opportunities to see the famous and distinct flora and fauna of the Galápagos.

If you’re set on seeing a particular species in the Galápagos, talk to the tour operator to pick the month and the itinerary that will give you the best chance of a spotting. Some species are seasonal, and many exist only on specific islands. For example, the waved albatross, also called the Galápagos albatross, is not a full-time resident. They just show up for mating in the spring and summer.

Boats in the Galápagos Islands are limited to a maximum of 100 passengers, but most boats carry substantially fewer than that. The benefit of traveling on a smaller-capacity vessel is a more intimate onboard experience and faster transfer times between your main vessel and the rubber dinghies. Smaller boats also tend to have more character and history. For example, the 18-passenger M/Y Grace was a wedding present from Aristotle Onassis to Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III. The newlywed couple honeymooned on the boat, and some say their daughter Stéphanie was conceived aboard.

Larger-capacity boats tend to have more onboard services, like guest lectures and medical facilities.

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When to Go to the Galápagos

There is no bad time to visit the Galápagos Islands. I’ve visited in March, May, and December, and the adventure was unique and wonderful in each season.  

June through December are the cooler and dryer months. Even though it’s the dry season, a garúa (or light, misty rain) is still possible, particularly in December. Skies can be cloudy and gray.

January through May are the warmer and wetter months, but the rain creates brilliantly clear blue skies between showers—great for photography.

March and April tend to be the hottest and wettest months. August tends to be the coolest month.

Water temperatures vary as well because of the powerful ocean currents in the archipelago. In the cool and dry season (June through December), the colder currents dominate and the water temperature dips lower. A wet suit (provided to you) may be required while snorkeling during those months, but the upside of colder water is that the cold current brings in huge quantities of plankton, which attract hungry marine life in abundance.

Booking in Advance

Last-minute deals are sometimes available for travelers who have the time to arrive in the islands and spend a few days searching for sales. However, the Galápagos Islands are a major tourist destination, so book well in advance. Dive boats, in particular, tend to fill up fast because there are so few of them.

What to Bring to the Galápagos

Basic supplies are available at small shops on San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz islands, but prices are high and the selection is limited. It’s best to have the essentials with you, including:

  • Sturdy closed-toe walking shoes with a durable sole. Though land excursions are generally short and trails generally tame, you may be walking over jagged volcanic rock and other obstacles from time to time.
  • Sandals or flip-flops to wear in towns and on board boats. Leave the heels at home, especially if you’ve booked a boat-based itinerary. Even the most luxurious boats have narrow, steep stairways which are nearly impossible to navigate safely (or gracefully) in heels.
  • Lots of water-resistant and high-SPF sunscreen. Ecuador is on the equator, which magnifies the strength of the rays, and most Galápagos excursions are completely exposed to the sun.
  • A hat with a brim for sun protection during land excursions.
  • A skin to wear during snorkeling excursions for sun protection during kayaking and snorkeling excursions. When water temperatures are colder, a wet suit will be provided for you to wear. When water temperatures are warmer, however, you may want to skip the bulky wet suit and just wear a skin instead.
  • Insect repellent. I was never particularly pestered by insects in the Galápagos, at any time of the year, but it can happen.
  • Seas are generally calm, and boat captains take great care in choosing protected anchoring spots. However, if you’re prone to motion sickness, bring some Dramamine with you. Prescription preventions like Scopolamine patches work well, too. Note that Scopolamine is generally not available for sale in Latin America.
  • If you have fins, a mask, and a snorkel that you love, bring them with you. Snorkeling gear is provided, but the quality and cleanliness varies.
  • Rain gear and good weather protection for your camera. You will be traveling on boats and in dinghies, and rain showers can occur at any time. If you’re exploring an island when wet weather rolls in, there will be no place to shelter out of the rain.
  • There are ATMs on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal islands, but they can run out of cash, so bring some with you to cover tips. Credit cards are also often accepted at shops and restaurants. The official currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar.

What Not to Bring to the Galápagos

The introduction of nonnative plant species is considered a top environmental threat to the Galápagos Islands, so do not bring any fruits, vegetables, or plants of any kind with you. Anything that might have seeds or spores clinging to it, such as the soles of your shoes and any outdoor gear or camping equipment, should be washed and inspected thoroughly before bringing it to the islands. The threat of invasive plant species is so great that visitors arriving to the Galápagos have to sign an affidavit swearing that they’re not bringing in any food, animals, seeds, or dirty camping gear.

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Getting to the Galápagos Islands

Flights to the Galápagos Islands depart multiple times each day from Quito or Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador. Flights from the U.S. are plentiful to both cities. Hotel options are better in Quito and, in general, Quito is a more compelling city with a stunning colonial center, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. It has enough good museums, shopping, and restaurants to easily fill a few days. However, Quito is located at over 9,000 feet, so altitude can be a problem for travelers arriving from lower elevations. Steamy Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, is at sea level, so altitude is not a problem. However, the hotel and restaurant selection is much more limited in Guayaquil.

Recommended hotels and restaurants in Quito

Casa Gangotena, on the newly restored Plaza San Francisco in the heart of the colonial center of Quito, is the best hotel in Ecuador, combining history, style, and service.

In 2017, a 10-room boutique hotel will open in the city’s central San Marcos neighborhood. Each floor of the three-level Illa Hotel Boutique, located in a renovated mansion, will offer different décor around the architectural themes of colonial, republican, and contemporary.

Zazu is the only Relais & Châteaux restaurant in Ecuador. For a more casual experience, head to sister restaurant Zfood, where a Hamptons-style fish-shack vibe is replicated perfectly and seafood reigns supreme. Don’t miss their reinvented Bloody Marys.

Under the guidance of chef-owner Daniel Maldondo, Urko stays focused on showcasing Ecuadorean ingredients and flavors. Go for the tasting menu to get a full sense of what Maldondo calls cocina local.

At Lua Restaurante, Peruvian and Ecuadorean flavors meet and mingle—the crowd here is very sophisticated.

Recommended hotel in Guayaquil

Hotel del Parque, in a restored building on the city’s leafy Parque Histórico, is the only sophisticated boutique hotel in the city. The hotel has 44 rooms in a building that dates back to 1891 and includes a spa where you can book a massage in a repurposed church bell tower.

If you’re booking your own flights from mainland Ecuador to the Galápagos Islands, remember that there are two airports on two different islands in the archipelago. San Cristóbal Airport is on the island of the same name. Baltra Airport, which runs entirely on sun and wind power, is on tiny Baltra Island, which is separated from Santa Cruz Island by a narrow channel. Be sure you’ve booked flights to the same island you will be based on, or where your boat departs from and returns to.

In 2012, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa abolished fees at national parks and reserves in the country; however, Galápagos Islands National Park was not part of that exemption, and still requires a $100 entrance fee per person, which is payable only in cash upon arrival at either airport in the Galápagos Islands. In addition, each visitor must buy a $20 transit card, which is also payable only in cash at the airport.

Before you Go to the Galápagos

Read:

My Father’s Island by Johanna Angermeyer
Published in 1998, this book is an account of the author’s German ancestors, who were among the first to settle on Santa Cruz Island. Their challenges and triumphs will humble you and give you valuable perspective about the hand of man in the Galápagos. Members of the Angermeyer family still live on Santa Cruz Island, where they run the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn.

Watch:

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden
Released in 2013, this documentary cleverly splices video footage, letters, and other archival material to recount a real-life murder mystery involving a self-proclaimed baroness, her lovers, and other settlers on Floreana Island in the 1930s. Cate Blanchett narrates one of the main characters.

Study:

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
This classic and its author will be referenced repeatedly during your time in the Galápagos. Bone up on Darwin’s seminal theory of evolution, which was inspired, in part, by observations he made in the archipelago.

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