By Stacey Leasca and Karen Catchpole
December 27, 2019
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The Galápagos Islands, located roughly 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, remained a closely-guarded natural secret for millions of years. Over that time, the archipelago evolved into a home for an all-star cast of plants and animals. Sometime in the 1800s, some swashbuckling pirates and intrepid explorers started arriving in the Galápagos Islands. The most famous early visitor was Charles Darwin, a young naturalist who spent 19 days studying the islands' flora and fauna in 1835. In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which introduced his theory of evolution — and the Galápagos Islands — to the world.

Since then, word of these islands and their magnificent beauty has steadily grown. In 1959, the Galápagos became Ecuador’s first national park, and in 1978, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, more than 275,000 people visit the Galápagos every year to see those incredible animals and landscapes for themselves.

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 to the Galápagos Islands: Land or Sea?

The first decision you have to make about visiting the Galápagos Islands is also the most difficult. Do you want to stay 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 accommodations and transportation from island to island?

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

  • Cost: A trip to the Galápagos Islands can be pricey. However, it’s easier to craft a less expensive 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.
  • Time Management: If you choose a land-based vacation, expect to spend a lot of time getting from your hotel, onto a boat, out to the day’s destination, then back to your property. On the other hand, live-aboard boats do most of their navigating during the night when travelers are asleep in cabins on board. 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, travelers won’t be able to visit the more distant islands that boat-based itineraries include.

Bottom Line: Unless you’re terrified of sailing, 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, plus you’ll see as many distinct areas of the Galápagos Islands as possible.

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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 archipelago, where deep, cold, current-filled diving yields time with manta rays, whale sharks, sunfish, and hammerhead sharks. Note that these are for experienced divers only.

Land-Based Logistics

Many of the islands in the Galápagos archipelago are uninhabited. However, a wide range of hotels can be found on Santa Cruz Island and San Cristóbal Island, and several boats 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 can be close to the boat's boarding spot for day trips.

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

Meanwhile, the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn is right on Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Their newest room has been cleverly fashioned inside a beached wooden boat.

Or, 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, located 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 Galapagos Hotel, set in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, also has its own yacht, dubbed the Sea Lion. This vessel can hold up to 20 passengers plus two guides (many other day-trip boats carry 16 passengers and have just one guide). Sea Lion itineraries also encompass all five 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 routes. Routes are dictated by Galápagos National Park officials to mitigate crowding and environmental stress. Your boat will provide a northern or southern itinerary (sometimes called eastern and western itineraries), alternating weekly. Both include wonderful land excursions, plenty of time in the water, and ample opportunities to see the famous flora and fauna of the Galápagos.

If you’re set on seeing a particular species in the Galápagos, talk to the tour operator and pick the month and itinerary that will give you the best chance for a sighting. 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. These birds 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 carry 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.

Ecoventura, which has several vessels that allow for up to 20 passengers at a time, is another excellent operator. In addition, two naturalists take guests onshore and explain every animal and plant in great detail. The boats also offer some of the most eco-friendly options around, which are of growing importance to an area already seeing the negative effects of climate change.

And if you’re traveling with a big group, don’t worry, as 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 Islands

There’s no bad time to visit the Galápagos Islands. No matter when you go, the adventure is sure to be unique and wonderful.

June through December are the cooler and drier months. Even though this is 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, while August tends to be the coolest time.

Meanwhile, water temperatures vary throughout the year 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 low. A wet suit (likely provided by your boat or hotel) may be required while snorkeling during these months. However, the upside is that the cold current brings in huge quantities of plankton, which attract hungry marine life.

Booking in Advance

Last-minute deals are sometimes available for travelers who can afford to spend a few days searching for sales after arriving. 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 Pack for the Galápagos Islands

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

  • Sturdy closed-toe walking shoes with a durable sole. Although land excursions are generally short and trails 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 boats. Leave the heels at home, especially if you’ve booked a boat-based itinerary. Even the most luxurious boats have narrow, steep stairways that 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. We also recommend purchasing reef-safe sunscreen to help protect the coral, animals, and waters around the islands.
  • A hat with a brim for sun protection during land excursions.
  • A rash guard for sun protection during kayaking and snorkeling excursions. When water temperatures are colder, a wet suit will be provided. When water temperatures are warmer, however, you may want to skip the bulky wet suit.
  • Insect repellent. I was never particularly pestered by insects in the Galápagos at any time of 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 vary.
  • A reusable water bottle, so you can fill up for day-long excursions and reduce your plastic waste.
  • 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 Islands

The introduction of non-native 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 being brought 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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Traveling 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, this city is more compelling with a stunning colonial center, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. It’s also home to ample museums, shopping, and restaurants to easily fill a few days. However, Quito is located 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 an issue. 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 Quito’s colonial center, is the best hotel in Ecuador, combining history, style, and service.

Another top option is Illa Experience Hotel, a 10-room boutique hotel in the city’s central San Marcos neighborhood. The property sits in a renovated mansion, and each floor presents different décor, including colonial, republic, and contemporary styles.

When it comes to dining, 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 Maldonado, Urko stays focused on showcasing Ecuadorian ingredients and flavors. Go for the tasting menu to get a full sense of what Maldonado calls cocina local.

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

Recommended Hotel in Guayaquil

Hotel del Parque, located in the city’s leafy Parque Histórico, is a sophisticated boutique property with 44 rooms. The restored building dates back to 1891, and houses 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. Seymour Airport, which runs entirely on sun and wind power, can be found on tiny Baltra Island, which is separated from Santa Cruz Island by a narrow channel. Be sure to book your flights to the same island you’ll be based on, or where your boat departs and returns.

In 2012, Ecuador’s then-president Rafael Correa abolished fees at national parks and reserves in the country. However, Galápagos 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. Also of note, Ecuadorian officials are considering increasing park fees to $400 per person as a way to reduce overtourism.

Before Visiting the Galápagos Islands

Read:

My Father’s Island by Johanna Angermeyer

Published in 1998, this book provides an account of the author’s German ancestors, who were among the first to settle on Santa Cruz Island. Their challenges and triumphs are humbling, offering valuable perspective on the Galápagos. Members of the Angermeyer family still live on Santa Cruz Island, where they run the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn.

Watch:

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. Read up on Darwin’s seminal theory of evolution, which was inspired, in part, by observations he made in the archipelago.