The Ultimate Galapagos Travel Guide

Everything you need to plan your Galapagos odyssey

Welcome To The Galapagos

Step aside, humans. The protagonists of the Galapagos Islands’ history are the rare and endemic species that populate this far-flung chain of volcanic islands in the Pacific.

As Charles Darwin discovered on his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1835, the natural history of these dynamic islands reveals the fits and starts of evolution itself.

Humans only arrived on the scene fairly recently, all too often as the villain of the plot. 16th century Spanish explorers were appalled by the stark volcanic landscape, calling the islands a hell on earth. Pirates and whalers used the islands opportunistically, capturing and killing wildlife en masse. Most recently, habitats have been threatened by invasive species introduced by humans, as well as the strains of a growing resident population and tourism trade.

As part of the carefully-managed tourism model, guests are accompanied by local, certified naturalists guides. These guides bring the natural and human history of the islands to life. Visitors learn about their own complex role in the Galapagos narrative.

Fast facts about Galapagos

  • The Galápagos Islands were among the first group of sites added to the World Heritage List in 1978.

  • The archipelago straddles both sides of the equator, about 970 km (600 miles) west of continental Ecuador.

  • The islands were annexed by Ecuador in 1832 and was originally populated by convicts sent from the mainland.

  • 97% of the archipelago’s 18 main islands has been designated as national park and protected area.

Wildlife highlights

Some of the Galapagos’ most famous inhabitants:

  • Marine iguana. Evolutionary at work - these iguanas are found only on the Galapagos and have evolved the ability to swim and feed at sea - unique among modern lizards.

  • Flightless cormorant. Another endemic, and highly unusual, Galapagos species which has managed to lose the ability to fly while acquiring impressive swimming skills!

  • Sea lions. Abundant on the coasts and even in the port towns, Galapagos sea lions are known for their charisma. They’ll approach you both underwater and on dry land.

  • Giant tortoises. Docile and majestic, Galapagos tortoises were once used as a food source on whalers’ ships. They’re now a symbol of conservation’s ups and downs.

  • Blue-footed boobies. Perhaps the most iconic of endemic Galapagos species, these aptly-named birds have a goofy and endearing mating dance.

  • Galapagos penguins. The world’s second-smallest penguin species - a surprise to find so far from the Poles!

  • Land iguana. These brightly colored dragon-like creatures are vegetarian, feasting on cacti and succulents.

Other highlights

A few of the most postcard-worthy sites in the archipelago:

  • Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz Island)

  • Lava tunels (Santa Cruz Island)

  • Pinnacle Rock (Bartolome Island)

  • Post Office Bay (Floreana Island)

  • Charles Darwin Research Center (Santa Cruz Island)

How a Typical Galapagos Trip Works

Arrival and departure

The Galapagos Islands are only reachable by flight from mainland Ecuador.

  • Flights from Quito usually stop in Guayaquil to pick up additional passengers. Fight time between Quito is  about 30 minutes. Stop in Guayaquil is about 30 minutes (do not deplane).

  • Flights from Guayaquil fly directly to Baltra (main Galapagos airport) or San Cristobal (secondary Galapagos airport). Flight time is about 1.5 hours.

  • Most tour operators will insist on a full day in either Quito or Guayaquil before your flight to the islands, in case of delays on international flights - the cruise ships won’t wait for anyone!

Quito or Guayaquil?

When choosing which airport in Ecuador to choose, keep in mind the following:

  • Quito is a gem of a colonial capital city, worth spending at least a day and a night to visit. However, its new international airport is far from the city center, adding airport transit time to the itinerary.

  • Guayaquil is a more industrial-looking port city, without the charms of Quito. Advantages are more direct flights to the Galapagos and easier access to the airport.

  • When shopping for international flights, compare fares to both cities. A good combination is to arrive in Quito and depart from Guayaquil, or vise versa.

Ways to see the Galapagos

  • Cruises are organised in itineraries of 8 days, 5 days, and 4 days. Longer cruises have the benefit of reaching farther, less-visited sites. Shorter cruises are easier to combine with a land-based experience of the Galapagos and other travels in Ecuador and South America.

  • Hotels-based / land-based trips on Santa Cruz Island are often organised as packages as well. Package length is more flexible, but usually start at 4 days/3 nights. The hotel will organise daily excursions such as speedboat trips to neighbouring islands.

  • Island hopping allows you to stay at lodges on various islands linked by short flights or speedboats. Only four islands are inhabited, with hotel options: Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, and San Cristobal. Lodges on the less-populated islands of Isabela and Floreana tend to be more simple, with fewer amenities.

Visitor regulations

As a largely protected area, tourism in the Galapagos is strictly regulated and controlled. Although the total number of visitors to the area isn’t capped and continues to grow, here are the ways that visitor impact is managed:

  • Entrance fee. To fund conservation, the Galapagos National Park entrance fee is $100 per passenger, on arrival. Some cruise ships and lodges include this in their package price.

  • Transit control card. There are also immigration controls on all arrivals, which currently costs $20. Some operators will include this in the package price.

  • Environmental inspection. Upon arrival, visitors are checked for introduction of non-native species.

  • Licensed guides. Visitors must be accompanied by a licensed Galapagos National Park Guide when visiting protected areas.

  • Visitor site schedule. Each recreational visitor site is regulated by a control booth, which counts and limits the volume of visitors over a given period of time.

  • Size of cruise vessels. Vessels vary in size from 12 to 100+ passengers.

Galapagos Cruise Or Land Tour?

The Galapagos Islands present an important choice when planning a trip; by land or by sea.  Both styles of travel have their advantages. Ultimately, it comes down to tastes and travel style.

Galapagos by cruise

Galapagos by land

Fixed schedule. Cruises take the guesswork out of the equation with set itineraries.  Small motorboats (called ‘pangas’) shuttle small groups of passengers at set intervals, with an expert guide in the boat to point out the creatures of the region while making sure that the trips goes smoothly.

Flexibility and freedom. When staying on land at the hotels that dot the landscape of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela, guests dictate the schedule. Day trips are arranged to the nearby islands by boat in the morning, leaving the afternoon and evening free for doing your own thing.

Cover more ground. Boats travel at night, and drop anchor off of the shores of a new destination each day. This gives passengers a broader view of the islands.

Zoom in. Land-based trips put you side by side with the local communities by exploring towns and tagging along with fishermen on the morning’s journey.

Fine facilities. Luxury cruises have opulent amenities and attentive top-notch staff, but space is limited.

More room. Land accommodations give guests the room to stretch their legs at the end of the day.

Caution: wet landings. Inflatable motorized boats take travelers from the ship to the shore. Visitor sites have dry and wet landings; wet requiring wading through knee high water to disembark.

Caution: small speedboats. When island hopping, shuttle-style speedboats ferry passenger between islands. The journey is often choppy and it’s wise to come prepared with Dramamine.

A final consideration when choosing between land and sea options is the footprint you leave after the trip is done. Cruises add to the pollution of the Galapagos’ waters (although many are eco-certified and mitigate their impact). Hotels on land encroach upon the natural habitats of the creatures that surround them. Pay attention to each option’s certifications, awards, and ecological credentials.

The Galapagos: Island By Island

The Galapagos archipelago comprises six major islands, 14 minor islands, and over 40 islets. Having emerged from volcanic activity over a huge span of time, each island is unique in its age and natural history. Each one has something a little different to offer visitors. Here are the most accessible islands to visit and a few of their highlights.

Santa Cruz

Puerta Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz island, is the tourist center of the islands -- tour agencies, airline offices, restaurants, banks and shops line the streets. It’s a stop on most tour itineraries and the place to finalize travel plans, find gifts for friends and family, and sample local cuisine.

  • Hike to Tortuga Bay on a path that ends at beaches perfect for snorkelling.

  • The lava tubes in the highlands are some of the largest in the islands.

  • The wharf off of the main drag pits the local fish merchants against the sea lions that vie for the daily catch.

  • The Charles Darwin Foundation is the original rallying point for scientific and conservation efforts in the islands. Don’t miss the Giant Tortoise Reserve!

San Cristobal

San Cristobal is the provincial capital of the Galapagos. One of the oldest islands, it was Darwin’s first stop on his historic journey. It’s the home to government and educational institutions.

  • Puerto Baquerizo Moreno acts as the second tourist center for the islands. Offices of tour agencies, foundations and branches of banks are open during the week.

  • Sapho Bay and the waters around the adjacent Kicker Rock are popular places for snorkeling to see rays, Galapagos sharks and the occasional hammerhead.

Isabela

Originally named Albemarle Island by pirate Ambrose Cowley, Isabela is one of the youngest and largest of the Galapagos archipelago. It was formed by six volcanoes:  Sierra Negra , Wolf, Alcedo, Cerro Azul, Darwin and Ecuador. All are active except Ecuador; Wolf erupted most recently in 2015.

  • Take a horseback ride to the top of the Sierra Negra Volcano.

  • Spot Humpback Whales off the western coast of the island from June to September.

  • See the Galapagos penguins near Tagus Cove. The cove was a favorite of pirates and whalers; names of ships dating back to 1836 are carved into the nearby cliff sides.

Floreana

After being marooned on Floreana in 1805, Irishman Patrick Watkins became the first known Galapagos resident. Post Office Bay is also here, an informal mail system started in the 1700s by whalers. Mail was left for ships returning home in a barrel by those headed out to sea. The tradition lives on today.

  • Leave postcards at Post Office Bay for others to pick up and deliver once home.

  • Cormorant Point has two contrasting beaches; a green sand beach caused by olivine crystals and Flour Beach, made from crushed white coral.

  • See pink flamingos at the nearby Flamingo Lagoon.

  • Watch for Green sea turtles nesting on the sands of Flour Beach.

  • Take a short hike and a small decent by ladder, leading to a lava tube that extends a few hundred yards underneath the surface.

  • Take a panga ride to Gardner Inlet for a view of the large caves and rock formations of the island.

Española Island

On this island, you’ll be greeted by colonies of sea lions and Española lava lizards lounging freely. It’s also known for its nesting sites of Blue-footed and Nazca boobies.

  • Hike the Punta Suarez trail to the edge of a cliff overlooking a natural lava blowhole.

  • Waved Albatross breeding colony. The world’s population of the species migrates here during April and December. Elaborate mating rituals lead to partnerships for life.

  • The white sand beach at Gardner Bay is one of the longest in the islands.

  • Sea turtles bury their eggs on the beach during mating season between January and March.

Bartolomé

One of the sites used in the movie “Master and Commander,” Bartolomé is famous for Pinnacle Rock, a volcanic outcrop formed after lava erupted from an underwater volcano. The iconic formation was used for target practice by US airmen during WWII, adding to its unique shape.

The colorful scenery of the beaches on either side of Pinnacle Rock is contrasted by the barren landscape of Bartolomé’s interior. It’s often compared to the moon or Mars due to the red lava rocks away from the shore.

  • Climb to the top of the island’s summit, ascending a wooden staircase through the stripped-down landscape. A panoramic view awaits.

  • See Galapagos penguins, sea turtles, parrotfish, and small sharks in the shallow waters between the landing point and Pinnacle Rock.

North Seymour

North Seymour is home to one of the island’s first conservation projects. In the 1930s, the crew of Captain Alan Hancock’s ship transferred 72 land iguanas from the nearby Baltra Island to North Seymour in the hopes that the reptiles would fare better without the feral goats competing for food. At last count in 2014, there were 2500 land iguanas on the island.

  • Visit a flamingo lagoon on the isolated Bachas Beach.

  • Great Frigate birds have the largest nesting colony to be found on the islands.

Family-Friendly Galapagos Trips

The Galapagos offers families a break from the everyday; it’s an adventure best taken together, where the stars of the show are the animals. Friendly sea lions greet the intrepid in exotic coves and a visit to the Charles Darwin Foundation puts giant tortoises at arm’s length. Day trips explore the natural playground of the archipelago and give way to land and sea activities for all ages of explorers.

Top activities for kids in the Galapagos

  • Spotting charismatic wildlife. Small children visiting the Galapagos are amazed by the animals found around every bend. The Tortoise Projects on Santa Cruz and Isabela reveals the natural wonders of the islands at a safe distance. Elsewhere in the islands, colonies of sea lions and penguins greet guests, while whales and dolphins swim in the channels nearby.

  • Snorkeling off of the beaches of Santa Cruz and Isabela puts pre-teens in the same waters with sea lions, schools of colourful fish, rays and the occasional shark. On cruises, daily activities send young adventurers on scavenger hunts. On-site photography lessons immerse the curious in the day’s itinerary.

  • Surf lessons. For older kids/younger adults, snorkeling in the tropical waters leads to surfing. Local athletes hold lessons in the bays of Isabela and Santa Cruz. Surfing may be arranged on some land-based tour programs.

  • Kayaking the channels between the islands, kids and teens can visit the home of nesting endemic birds, where Blue-footed boobies dive into the sea after fish to feed their young onshore.

  • Biking through the highlands of the islands explores the lush landscape, passing giant Galapagos tortoises and colourful land iguanas en route.

  • Journeys by horseback ascend the steep slopes of volcanoes of Santa Cruz and Isabela, where the view from the high vistas stretches past nearby islands to the horizon beyond.

Galapagos For Senior Travellers

Traveling in the Galapagos is an active endeavour with a range of activities that challenge and inspire. The Galapagos National Park is the grandfather of national parks; exploring it is an experience that gives a stunning perspective only found after a boat ride and a hop onto the shore. Few are disappointed and many can’t believe what they find.

Trails range from rocky paths to wooden stairs, extending into the interior of islands including Bartolome, Santa Fe and Floreana. The rewards of these walks exceed expectations -- colonies of sea lions and frigate birds accompany viewpoints of the exotic horizon that rival narratives from the journals of great explorers.

While conquering the terrain is part of the program, the adventure is less daunting once you realize that, even on uninhabited islands, there are different activities for all levels of agility.

Top activities for seniors in the Galapagos

  • Day trips. Excursions whisk travellers to coves alongside beaches where short walks reveal nesting endemic birds, scores of iguanas, brightly coloured crabs and penguins at rest.

  • Snorkeling. The shallow waters of bays on cruise routes make for a fun morning of snorkeling or getting your feet wet with the friendly animals.

  • Short hikes. For hikers, leisurely walks explore the nooks and crannies of the interior. Guides escort their guests past Blue-footed boobies and slow-moving tortoises to rewarding vistas and hidden outlooks.

  • Bike rides. For those keen on a full day on the go, try a bicycle trip into the highlands.

  • Horseback rides. This is a good option for reaching the tops of volcanoes or other climbs that horses manage with ease.

  • Kayaking. Sea kayaking through the inter-island channels is a peaceful activity that keeps things moving at your own pace.

Mobility issues: double check the details

Luck shouldn’t be a factor for finding the right tour that matches mobility issues. A large percentage of those who visit the islands are seniors.  An operator that is well-versed in the needs of their clients should not only tell you what they can provide, but also what they can’t.

Ask at the onset about the facilities available and the capabilities of the staff to accommodate your needs.  A well-equipped operator has the ability to turn a perceived mobility issue into a positive aspect of the trip by offering options that don’t push your limits.

Costs

There’s no doubt that the Galapagos Islands are expensive to visit. As with most travel, you get what you pay for, including the quality of your naturalist guides and the comfort of your tour. The costs include the Galapagos National Park fee that helps maintain the islands, staff salaries on tours and the overhead of operating.

Expect to pay more for quality and responsible services, but also vet operators based on their priorities to find a tour that considers the wellbeing of the islands. Ask about their commitment to the Galapagos and the people who live there, the programs that they participate in and the measures they take to offset the footprint they leave behind.

The answers to these questions should give you an impression that the operator is investing money into the Galapagos beyond what is required. Using this rule of thumb weeds out tours that take more away from the islands than they contribute.

Conquering Mobility Challenges in the Galapagos

Hailing from Oakland, CA, Creighton Wong has built up an impressive travel resume. His first trip overseas was a summer in Taipei, Taiwan during college, which ignited a lifelong curiosity about faraway places.

Creighton is a right-leg above-knee amputee from a technical standpoint. Even more specifically, he’s a “congenital amputee”, meaning he was born with his condition. He’s also missing digits on both hands. He needs to consider more logistic details than the average traveler, like keeping his prosthetic safe from water and keeping it charged every night. The Galapagos by cruise vessel proved the perfect opportunity for a fun outdoor adventure that could meet his needs.

On his right leg, he uses a prosthesis with a microprocessor knee by Ossur. His prosthetic foot employs cutting-edge spring action, which costs Creighton less energy per step and also allows the foot to contour to the ground for more stability. This technology, combined with his incredible spirit and enthusiasm, has enabled him to get out into the world.

Q. Creighton, tell us a little bit about yourself

A. I’m a lover of adventure, learning, great food and wonderful company. On a mission to live an extraordinary life, I am currently trying to build two businesses that can be run remotely. This way, I can pursue my love of travel -- to learn new cultures, to eat the most amazing cuisines, and to meet wonderful people along the way.

Q. What were your biggest concerns about travel to the Galapagos?

A. Going to the Galapagos was a big step for me.  First, it was my biggest solo journey at the time. Second, it was “adventure” travel, so there were going to be times of physical activity.

Q. What was the most challenging part of the visit?

A. The lava fields. The rocks were extremely unstable and very sharp and jagged. My guide told me three times that there was nothing we would see on that hike that we didn’t already or wouldn’t eventually see on the trip. I got the hint. It worked out, as a fellow traveler and I ended up getting a private zodiac tour around the island. I also learned that I needed to take a walking stick with me on all the hikes.

The wet landings were also a challenge. It takes a village. Having a prosthetic that couldn’t get wet, some of the wet landings could have been a big challenge. However, one fellow traveler would bring my camera bag onto the island. Another would carry my prosthetic.  And another would give me a shoulder to balance as I hopped onto the beach. I was really incredibly blessed to be around such seasoned and helpful travellers.

Q. Biggest surprises or disappointments about accessibility?

No surprises really. For the most part, the majority of the tour is pretty easy walking. And though there were some challenging terrains, none of it was unexpected. Plus, there are so many elements to the trip that missing out on one or two was not a big deal.

Q. Most rewarding moments of the trip?

Too many to mention! Meeting wonderful world travellers to share a great experience with.  Getting up close with land iguanas and giant tortoises. Swimming with marine iguanas and dolphins. Living on a boat in the middle of the ocean for a week. The amazing staff.

Q. Any tips for travellers with special mobility needs?

Honesty.  

I think you need to be honest with yourself in terms of what you can and cannot do. And know which parts are going to be challenging.  

Then, be honest with the tour group and let them know what your needs may or may not be. If they are reputable, they will shoot straight with you.

Lastly, be comfortable with the fact that you may not do 100% of the activities. There was an older woman on our trip that would rather sleep in and have her morning coffee on the boat than go on a morning hike!

Don’t be a jerk. If you are cool and grateful, people are willing to give you a hand. If you are a whiner, they are going to silently wish for you to fall off the back of the boat!

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