Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are a small archipelago of islands belonging to Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The islands are quite remote and isolated, lying some 1000 km (620 miles) west of the South American continent. The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller isles, which together embrace some 50,000 km2 (19,500 sq miles) of ocean.

Galapagos Islands satellite photograph, NASA

Understand

Galapagos tortoise on San Cristobal Island

The Galápagos archipelago is world-renowned for its unique and fearless wildlife, much of which was inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. The islands are therefore very popular amongst natural historians, both professional and amateur. Giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and different bird species can all be seen and approached. The landscape of the islands is relatively barren and volcanic, but beautiful nonetheless. The highest mountain amongst the islands is Volcán Wolf on Isla Isabela, 1707 m (5600 ft) high.

The Galápagos were claimed by the newly independent Ecuador in 1832, a mere three years before Darwin's visit on the Beagle. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the islands were inhabited by very few settlers and were used as a penal colony, the last of which closed in 1959 when the islands were declared a national park. The Galapagos were subsequently listed as a World Heritage Site in 1978.

Strict controls on tourist access are maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats, and all visitors must be accompanied by a national park-certified naturalist tour guide.

Climate

The Galapagos Islands have a highly variable climate, as does Ecuador's mainland. There are two seasons in the islands: the hot/rainy season from December to June, and the cooler season from June to November.

In the hot season, from December to June, the humidity is high, and the average temperatures are in the 80s F (26°-30°C). There may be occasional showers, but the days are generally warm and sunny.

In the cooler season, from June to November, you can expect cool winds, occasionally bringing with them a light misty-type drizzle called "garúa." Temperatures average in the 70s F (20°-24°C) during the day and lower at night.

Each month brings unique climate variations and wildlife viewing opportunities. Peak season for naturalist tours is typically December through May when the seas are the calmest and the weather the warmest. However summer months June, July and August are also very popular as the animals are more active. September through November is typically low season when most boats will leave the islands for dry dock. For divers peak season is from July to November, when whale sharks can be found at Wolf & Darwin.

The Islands

Fresh Water Swimming in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos on the Island of Santa Cruz.
The marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) on Tortuga Bay
Puerto Ayora at night on the Island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.
The beach at North Seymour Island - Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

Towns

Get in

Visiting the Galapagos is not cheap, owing to travel restrictions and the remote nature of the archipelago. The only way to get in the islands from the main land is by plane from Guayaquil or Quito airports. Flights travel to the Galapagos in the morning and return in the afternoon, typically requiring a forced overnight on the continent in each direction.

By plane

Flights to the Galapagos are relatively easy to arrange and depart from Quito and Guayaquil on a daily basis for the Isla Baltra Airport, about two hours by public transport from Puerto Ayora (the main settlement of the Galapagos) on the central island of Santa Cruz. There are also daily flights to San Cristóbal. The airport is a 20-minute walk from the center of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

Flights from Guayaquil are slightly less expensive than from Quito, however as there is more availability from Quito as there are typically two flights a day from Quito and only one from Guayaquil. Most flights from Quito route through Guayaquil.

Aerogal, Tame and LAN Airlines have flights to the Galapagos. The price varies a bit between companies, for foreigners around $457 from Quito in low season / $505–$512 in high season (July, August and December) and less from Guayaquil, $419 low season to $522 in high season. Eucadorians pay almost half the price and there is a 15% discount on TAME flights and a 20% discount on Aerogal flights if you have an ISIC studentcard.

It's not possible to buy a one-way ticket without proof of transportation from the islands. It's easy however to change the date of your return ticket or to switch your departure to another island.

Inter-island flights are available to both major airports (Baltra and San Cristobal) for flights between islands. There is also a small airport in Isabela. Flights usually range $160–$170 each way or $260 round trip.

Step-by-step procedures at Quito airport

Procedure for flying from Quito airport to Galapagos. (This information is from July 2011. Since then Quito has a new airport. While the sequence is probably the same, the locations are not.)

  1. Begin at the domestic ("national") terminal.
  2. Before going through the main door, look for a smaller door to the right. Note: If you go through the main door you will see a large sign overhead saying that the first thing you do is go to the ticket counter. Don't believe that sign.
  3. Go through the smaller door and have your bags checked for banned agricultural products. The exit to the agricultural inspection will put you inside the terminal.
  4. Go immediately to your right to yet another small door. Here you will pay a $20 fee and get a "visa" for Galapagos. There is a separate $100 park entrance fee to pay when you land in Galapagos. Make sure you have cash for that as they will not accept Visa.
  5. Now you proceed to the ticket counter and do the typical ticket counter things.
  6. Then go through security opposite the ticket counter. They are only looking for metal. So you don't need to take off your shoes (unless they contain metal), remove your computer from your bag, or empty your water bottle.
  7. You will then proceed to a large open room with four gates. The intercom doesn't work well and is in Spanish. And flights can depart without much notice. So double-check your gate and keep a steady eye out for your departure.

By boat

Private yachts can arrive into any of the five ports in Galapagos while in transit and remain at that port for a maximum of 21 days. Boats wishing to visit more than one site or cruise the islands may do so but only by special permit from the national park and by working with a licensed yacht agency.

There are cargo boats that travel to the Galapagos each week. However, these boats are not allowed to take travelers on board.

Get around

By boat

Seeing the sites and wildlife of the Galapagos is best done by boat. Most people book their place well in advance (as the boats are usually full during the high season). Booking a boat tour with a company in your home country is usually the most convenient, but is often considerably more expensive.

There are a VAST number of companies that can book accommodation on a Galapagos tour either in Puerto Ayora or from Guayaquil or Quito. While it is possible to get a last-minute deal, be aware that many budget tours may spend extra time in Puerto Ayora, might not have the best boats, and may only visit the inner islands. Last minute 4-day cruises can be organized in Puerto Ayora for around $400–1800.

When looking for a tour consider the following:

Note that while the majority of the islands will be off-limits without a guide, it is possible to travel via speed boat between the towns on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela; trips to Floreana can also be arranged. Speed boats cost $30 one-way, or $50 both ways with an open return date. Each of these islands offers the possibility of joining organized local daytrips or of traveling on your own while within the town limits.

Hotels and hostels are available on each of these islands from $10–$500+, while hotels along the water are generally full especially in Santa Cruz. During peak season (Christmas & Easter weeks) as well as during special events, all hotels are frequently sold out well in advance. However, if you are traveling at other times of the year, you may be able to find availability by just showing up.

From Santa Cruz it is possible to book day trips to the uninhabited islands of North Seymour, South Plazas, Santa Fe and Bartolome. Advance reservations are normally required; however, on occasion you can find space due to a last-minute cancellation the night before.


Budget

Mid-range

Splurge


See

Magnificent frigate bird on North Seymour Island
A red crab on a rocky background
A red rock crab (Grapsus grapsus) in the Galapagos.
(Spheniscus mendiculus) - A juvenile Galapagos Penguin before it has banding markings.

On each island, the number of visitors are limited and there are only a small number of official landing and visitor sites. You must follow the instructions of your guide to protect the wildlife and you are not allowed off the marked paths. This is not a problem as the animals are so tame they will sit right on the path or cross it without caring about mere tourists.

The Charles Darwin Foundation administers several research stations throughout the islands, including a large station in Puerto Ayora that is worth visiting for its animal and natural history exhibits, the Galapagos Interpretation Center in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and the Tortoise Breeding Center are the most interesting of the breeding centers in Puerto Villamil.

Do

Cruises

Cruises are the only option to see the majority of remote islands. All cruise ships are required to have a certified naturalist guide. Each cruise ships has a fixed itinerary for the year which is set by the Galapagos National Park, with the purpose being to control the number of tourists arriving at any time on each island. Cruises are available in 2,4,5,8 and 15 day options. The following is a list of typical sights:

Snorkeling & Scuba Diving

Snorkeling and diving are very popular activities as the sea life is so rich and colourful.

Snorkeling equipment should be available from your tour operator (but check first) if you don't have your own. You may also want to bring a waterproof camera. Remember to wear at least a T-shirt and sunblock if you are snorkeling, as it's all too easy to get sunburnt in the strong sun. Snorkeling offers a way to be in the water with fish, sea turtles, sea lions, and other creatures and is a great option for those who don't have scuba certification. The islands that are older (further to the west) often have cold temperatures. Wetsuits can be rented at the same locations as snorkeling equipment.

Diving in the Galapagos is incredible, as noted by Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine. Darwin and Wolf Islands have been ranked as the best dive destination in the world for several years in the categories of healthiest marine environment, best big animal dive and best advanced diving. That said, the Galapagos is not necessarily the right place for beginners or novices. Currents, surge, cold water, and sometimes poor visibility and depths make this a challenge. Certification courses are available in both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal for those looking to learn, and there are several dive sites that are relatively beginner-friendly.

There are 2 ways to dive in the Galapagos Islands:

  1. Daily dives with a local tour operator from Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal.
  2. Galapagos liveaboards. Only liveaboards reach Darwin and Wolf. These 2 sites are the reason most divers come to Galapagos.

Two of the world's premier diving destinations, Darwin Island and Wolf Island, are accessible only via live-aboard. These islands present challenging currents and are not suitable for beginners, but offer amazing opportunities to see huge schools of hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, Silky sharks and whale sharks in season (July-Nov), in addition to other pelagic life like giant mantas, eagle rays, sting rays, huge schools of jack and tuna, sea turtles, sea lions and more.

Note that park regulations may change unexpectedly; in 2007, many divers were caught unaware as the National Park withdrew diving permits from quite a few cruise ships without notice, leaving many divers without dive cruises they had booked far in advance. For this reason, travelers are advised to get the most up-to-date information possible when planning a dive trip to the Galapagos Islands. As of 2010, the National Park is now regulating land-based diving for the first time and few of the many shops operating have the necessary permits. It is best to ask if an operator has a dive permit, otherwise you may be turned back by Park Rangers and not permitted to dive. As of 2011, the National Park no longer permits dive live-aboards to offer land visits, except for the Highlands of Santa Cruz, which is on all itineraries.

Fishing

You can fish in the Reserve, for marlin, tuna, wahoo and many other species but only if you are using an operator and boat that have the requisite "Artisanal Vivencial Fishing" licences issued by the Galapagos National Park. "Sport Fishing", as such, is prohibited. The Galapagos National Park publishes a list of Vivencial Fishing licence-holders and their boats but, unfortunately, they do not keep the list up to date.

When Vivencial Fishing, you can keep a limited quantity of fish for personal consumption but all marlin must be released unharmed.

Vivencial Fishing was conceived with the purpose of providing local fishermen with an ecologically sustainable alternative to commercial fishing. However, there is constant pressure, both political and commercial, to legalize "Sport Fishing" and open the market to better financed and better connected outsiders.

Hiking

Hiking is often included as part of organized cruises or tours of the highlands. Although you will often see fewer animals during these tours, you will often gain a greater understanding of the difference in terrain and vegetation as well as the formation of the islands. Hiking is restricted in all National Park land; however, several sights, like the Wall of Tears on Isabela and Cerro Tijeras on San Cristobal can be hiked independently.

Biking

Biking provides quicker access to far sites from the ports. Bike rentals are available on Isabela, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz for around $15 per day.

Surfing

The Galapagos provides some good waves and many locals make it a daily activity. Boards can be rented by the day or month at port towns. In general sites are marked with a place to rest surf boards as to not damage the land. The following are beaches that allow surfing:

Volunteering

To minimize the impact of sightseeing on the unique ecosystem and mitigate issues with introduced species, several organizations provide conservation-based volunteering.

Kayaking

Kayaking allows you to navigate more of the water without a boat. Kayaks can be rented at Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz and the port at San Cristobal to navigate the nearby beaches. Fish and sea turtles can often be seen while kayaking; however, conditions should be checked before renting.

Horseback riding

Horseback riding can be organized to allow you to see the highlands in greater detail. Tours are roughly $50. Additional tours may be found through taxis or local tour agencies.

Sleep

There are hotels and other accommodation in the towns of Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno; however, if you really want to see lots of good wildlife, you will need to combine your stay on these islands with daily boat tours to other islands.

Hotels and hostels are available on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Florena from $25–$500+, while hotels along the water are generally full especially in Santa Cruz. During peak season (Christmas & Easter weeks) as well as during special events all hotels are frequently sold out well in advance. However, if you are traveling at other times of the year you may be able to find availability by just showing up.

Stay safe

In general, crime is not a problem in the Galapagos. Petty crime may occur in the towns, and occasionally fisherman will stage strikes or demonstrations that affect tourists, but for the most part there is little to be concerned about. It should be noted, however, that some items that have been reported missing have been found in the crews' quarters! As most boats do not have lockable cabins, it might be advisable to keep your items locked away in bags in your cabins.

The animal life in the islands is mostly docile with the exception of larger sea lions. Bulls, in particular, will vigorously protect their harems, and can inflict dangerous and potentially deadly bites. Do not snorkel close to sea lion colonies. If a bull sea lion approaches you, swim away from the nearest colony. While the bulls can be dangerous; swimming with juvenile sea lions can be one of the most exciting parts of a trip.

In addition to sea lions, there is a minimal danger from sharks. In general sharks will not attack unless provoked, although attacks can sometimes occur in murky water when sharks mistake humans for other animals. However, by exercising common sense, experiences will be almost always be positive.

Be careful with the tap water, especially in Puerto Ayora. It is not recommended to drink it or brush your teeth with it.

Respect

A male lava lizard on Santiago Island

The park is strictly regulated. Outside of the towns visitors must be accompanied by guides, and visitors are only allowed on land from sunrise until sunset. Itineraries must be registered with the park prior to embarking on a trip, and animals should never be disturbed; while the wildlife in the Galapagos will usually ignore your presence, a general rule of thumb is that if an animal notices your presence, then you are too close. Two meters is generally given as a minimum distance to keep away from animals; you will find that if you are calm and respectful that many animals will walk right up to investigate you.

One of the greatest dangers to the islands is introduced species. The park service is trying to eliminate goats, rats, cats, dogs, and introduced plant species on many of the islands, but it is a difficult battle; after evolving for thousands of years without predators, the Galapagos wildlife is not adapted to handle these new species. When traveling to the islands, do not bring any plant or animal life with you, and be sure to always clean your footwear when traveling between islands to avoid accidentally transferring seeds.

Illegal fishing is another threat to the park. Although park officials may deny it, illegal fishing for sharks and sea cucumbers occurs on a massive scale. The number of fishermen has increased rapidly over the last few years, while the number of fish have plunged. Due to ongoing tensions between fisherman, tourism, and science, the level of enforcement of fishing laws can vary greatly, but even when policies are put in place to limit fishing, enforcement is difficult due to the resources required to patrol the vast park area.

Another big threat to the park is the growing population. Although new rules make it impossible for people arriving from the mainland to live and work on the islands, the rules are poorly enforced, resulting in many people immigrating from the mainland to make quick money on the islands.

Rules

The codified park rules are:

  1. To visit the National park you must always be accompanied by a certified Galapagos National park guide.
  2. Galapagos is a unique and fragile environment. Take only photographs and video. Professional shooting needs authorization from the National Park.
  3. Please stay within the limits of the walking trails, for your safety and that of the flora and fauna.
  4. To avoid affecting the wildlife's natural behavior please avoid getting closer than two meters to the animals.
  5. Camping is only allowed in specific sites. If you wish to camp, you must first obtain a permit from the Galapagos National Park.
  6. Help conservation by cooperating with the authorities in their inspection, monitoring and control duties. Report any anomalies to the National Park.
  7. Do not introduce foreign organisms to the islands, as these can have a negative impact on the ecosystem.
  8. Please do not buy souvenirs which are made from black coral, sea shells, sea lion teeth, tortoise shell, volcanic rock or endemic woods.
  9. Galapagos animals have their own feeding behavior. Never feed the animals. Feeding them can be detrimental to their health.
  10. Galapagos landscapes are beautiful and unique. Do not spoil them by writing or etching rocks or trees.
  11. Do not litter while on the islands. Always dispose of rubbish in a safe and appropriate way.
  12. Smoking or making camp fires in the national park areas is forbidden and can cause devastating fires.
  13. Fishing is strictly forbidden, except on those boats specifically authorised by the Galapagos National Park.
  14. Jet skiing, submarines, water skiing, and aerial tourism are all forbidden.
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