Galapagos Islands Vacations & Tours
Custom Galapagos & Ecuador Tours
Witness natural beauty that spans from the legendary Amazon to the unequaled Galapagos with thriving latino and indigenous culture in between. Ecuador bursts with fantastic flora and intriguing fauna standing as a pillar of natural abundance. Unravel the secrets of this kaleidoscopic country with Zicasso’s premier custom itineraries.
ECUADOR & GALAPAGOS
Dramatic natural spectacles cover the Ecuadorian landscape, stretching from the volcanic Galapagos Islands to the ancient mystery of the Amazon. Hundreds of endemic birds whistle from lush green branches, bizarre reptiles poke their heads from fiery red rocks, and an eclectic marine world arrives on different currents. And you can get almost-impossibly close. Exploring Ecuador and the Galapagos isn't a glimpse at nature. It's an intimate journey, one where the only thing stopping you from reaching out and touching is your admiration and belief that such nature must remain unspoiled.
This single South American nation has come to epitomize the diversity of the planet's natural history. Lost in the Pacific Ocean lie the Galapagos Islands, volcanic shields and cones that have never been connected to any continental landmass. They're largely harsh and desolate, spread across the equator and hypnotically portraying the need to specialize. Iconic creatures have evolved in isolation, with distinct sub-species developing separately on each individual island. These islands epitomize nature's ingenious ability to surprise and create. Then carved around the country's south is the Amazon, where 50 million years of evolution are packed into dense carpets of trees and endemic plants. Conditions are favorable, and competition is severe, a different recipe in the evolutionary spell. It's hard to imagine two more diverse or distinct slices of natural history in such close proximity.
There's more. Separating the two destinations are Ecuador's highlands and lowlands, an Andean landscape dominated by snow-capped volcanoes and twisting valleys. Even here the natural spell is hypnotic, from the three-meter wings of soaring condors to gardens of a hundred orchid species. Continuing the theme of unique history, the capital city Quito was designated as the world's first ever UNESCO World Heritage site, its old city packed with charming remnants from the 16th-century onwards. Cuenca also presents these odes to Spanish conquerors and a colonial past, but you'll also discover ruins from an indigenous people who flourished long before the Incas arrived.
Yet perhaps Ecuador's greatest appeal is not its individual destinations. It's the country's compactness and accessibility. A 30-minute flight and short canoe ride takes you to the heart of the jungle. Cruises effortlessly connect distant Galapagos Islands. In just one week, you can journey through half a dozen of extremely unique ecosystems, experience the habitat of over 1600 birds, and discover accommodations that celebrate the opulence of yesteryear. Travel time is minimal, the locals gregarious, and the surprise continual.
- Galapagos cruise: Take a luxury boat through the archipelago and marvel at the endemic spectacles, from massive iguanas to diminutive penguins that dive from volcanic cliffs. Every island is unique in its evolution and every wildlife site has something fresh to observe, like the mass seabird breeding ground of Genovesa or the lava lizards of San Cristobal.
- Exploring the first World Heritage site, Quito: 16th-century palaces and churches dominate the first ever World Heritage site, their domes hanging above the central streets of Quito. Eclectic imported styles come together here, offering the largest collection of colonial architecture anywhere in the Americas. Large plazas offer atmospheric evenings while almost every street has a hidden 16th or 17th-century surprise.
- Birdwatching: Over 1600 bird species flutter across Ecuador, their vibrant wings often endemic to the country or region. They range from the red and blue-footed boobies of the Galapagos to the vivid displays of the Andean cock-of-the-rock. You can get remarkably close to their nests and breeding grounds, with mating displays being revealed just meters from your eyes.
- Underwater Galapagos world: The Galapagos is one of the only places on the planet where large pelagic species can be seen next to the shore. With just a snorkel or glass-bottom boat, you can marvel at numerous different species of sharks, rays, and large tropical fish. For non-divers, it's a very rare opportunities to get close with the ocean giants. And for divers, the spell spirals down into the deep abyss, where schools of hammerheads are not to be missed.
- Luxury historic accommodation: Ecuador's accommodations immerse you in a forgotten time, whether it's a converted 16th-century bishop's palace or a bucolic hacienda in the Andes. Open to discerning visitors are the weekend homes of ex-presidents and heritage buildings in the heart of cities. There's no monotony here as almost every overnight stay helps continue the impression of the country and its timeless history.
- Giant tortoises: 10 sub-species of giant tortoise are found on the Galapagos Islands, each endemic to the island from which it evolved. Shell size is dependent on the volcanic slopes the species fed on and the world's biggest tortoises weighs up to 550-pounds. You won't just see one in the Galapagos. At some famous spots, you'll have hundreds of them on the grass beside you.
- Wandering across volcanic slopes: In a country of 43 volcanoes, there's always an iconic crater or cone in view. Volcanic adventures are easy to find, whether that's taking the cable car to the slopes of Pichincha or hiking to the snow-capped summit of a distant dormant peak.
- Kayak with sea lions: Multiple water activities allow you to admire Galapagos life from many angles. Gently paddle through bays filled with Galapagos sea lions or fur seals, the playful creatures poking out their heads to inspect you and your kayak.
- Horse riding in the Andes: Ecuadorian horses mix the feisty roots of Spain with the durability required for the mountains, taking you on a fast yet elegant ride across Andean valleys and slopes. There's always a view as you ride to remote villages or thick forest reserves. And there's always a chance to gallop across the virgin soil.
- Historic train journeys: Thanks to a huge recent restoration project, Ecuador can be seen in a selection of historic train journeys. These zigzag through the Andes, connecting cute historic villages and stories with the country's past. Guides provide the narration, as you slowly rumble through the landscape.
- Colorful Otavalo Market: Traders from numerous villages descend upon Otavalo in their colorful fabrics, creating an ambient Saturday of treasures from across the slopes: tapestries, ponchos, alpaca-wool sweaters, handcrafted hammocks, carvings, and a redolent mix of everything else you could take home as a souvenir from Ecuador.
Five particular factors harmonize together to create the unique Galapagos experience. These islands have always been isolated from continental landmasses, fueling an evolution that's completely distinct from the rest of the planet. Such an evolution is intricately complex, creating not just one Galapagos ecosystem, but also a distinct world on each different island with an incredible diversity. Naturally, such idiosyncrasy has produced an iconic collection of endemic wildlife, far different from other destinations. A lack of predators mean this wildlife isn't fearful, helping to create an environment where visitors enjoy staggering intimacy and proximity to wild birds and animals. Wildlife has evolved over millions of years and guides know exactly where to find each species.
A Brief History of the Galapagos Islands and Their Wildlife
Through their unique isolation and separation from the rest of the world, the Galapagos Islands offer sites that epitomize what’s possible in nature. They're a chance to appreciate what occurs when human intervention is near non-existent. A sequence of volcanic islands straddles the equator some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. These isolated pinnacles are new, barely four million years old and still exploding with sheets of lava. Most importantly, they've never been connected to any continental landmass. The wildlife here arrived by water or air, and then evolved according to the unique conditions of each particular island. That seems plausible for marine and bird life. But on the Galapagos you also find reptiles, the descendants of creatures who arrived on uprooted trees that floated from the continent. Mammals couldn't survive such a long journey without food or water so they're not native to here.
When pirates and conquerors landed they found little fresh water and virtually no food, so it wasn't until the 19th-century when permanent settlements developed. Even today, only four of the 13 islands are inhabited. These are the same four islands where you can find fresh water. On other islands, marine iguanas have evolved to drink and utilize seawater, while many species survive off the water found in the plants and fish they eat.
Unsuitable for colonization (what was there to plunder?), the islands' remained mostly isolated. While agriculture changed the landscape on four islands, most of the archipelago remained free of introduced species. Evolution continued in its unspoiled way, something that inspired Charles Darwin when he visited in 1835. His most telling discovery was that animals had evolved differently on each of the different islands. Giant tortoises could be distinguished by the shape of their shells and finches by their beaks. This evolution remains today, as visitors can admire species endemic to tiny islands.
The islands are still evolving. To the east lie the first volcanoes that exploded from the Pacific Ocean crust. These have become fertile, the volcanic ash slowly blossoming to support unusual flora, like forests of daises that rise over five meters in height. Reptiles spread seeds across the islands and birds find their idyllic nesting sites. But to the west, volcanoes continue to leave fields of lava tubes. Some islands are unusually desolate, almost akin to the landscape of Mars. History is newer here, and by traveling across the Galapagos, there's a keen sense of exactly how nature has worked its magic.
The world beneath the surface is equally unique in its development. Three distinct ocean currents bring nutrient rich water from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, fueling reefs already reveling in the plethora of volcanic history. Marine worlds collide, and the Galapagos is the only place in the world where large pelagic creatures can be abundantly seen next to the shore. These islands offer such a unique wildlife experience because they've been born and evolved unlike anywhere else on the planet. You won't find hundreds and hundreds of different species, but what you do find is truly inimitable.
The endemic nature of the Galapagos means there is no single best island or site to visit. Each of these islands developed in isolation and there's no single place where all the iconic wildlife can be found. The result is something impossibly complex, something that can't be defined with a single photo or idea. On most Galapagos Islands, there are two or more wildlife sites that can be visited and each of these sites has its own highlights. This could be nesting sites for multiple bird species, sea lions on a white-sand beach, penguins, albatross, diving cormorant, iguanas, or endemic hummingbirds.
Most islands and sites offer their own distinct collection of Galapagos wildlife and you'll need a few days to really experience this diversity. Some species are more widespread; others are rare and uncommon. For example, the blue-footed booby is found on every island except Genovesa, which is one of only two islands where you can find the red-footed booby. Most Galapagos species have an extremely limited range, meaning you must travel to multiple islands to grasp the diversity of what's to offer. This diversity means that four to five days are considered a minimum when visiting the Galapagos, allowing you to see multiple sites and take in the breathtaking assortment of what's available. Eight or more days are required to explore the different regions of the archipelago.
Iconic and Endemic Wildlife
Native wildlife is the premier highlight of the Galapagos. A vibrant lava lizard picking flies that hover around sea lions; ten giant tortoise species, each with a different shaped shell dependent on its native island; the flightless cormorant, evolved by swapping aerial prowess for underwater skill. Many species found here cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Some can't be found anywhere but the tiny island you're to stand on. The wildlife experience on land is very much about the 15 – 20 iconic species that reflect Galapagos evolution and diversity; in particular, giant tortoises and endemic iguanas, three species of booby, plus other vibrant birds like the flamingo, hawk, and magnificent frigate.
Supporting the fauna is an equally unusual collection of flora. Just like the reptiles, seeds for these plants had to travel over 600 miles from the mainland, meaning a relatively low 600 species of flora can be found here – by comparison, mainland Ecuador has over 20,000 species. Such flora is wonderfully complex and fascinating, with 30% of it endemic to the islands. Even when there are no birds or animals around, the landscape enchants with its surreal unspoiled feel. The world's only cactus tree, daisies reaching some five meters in height, endemic mangroves, pega pega, Galapagos fern trees...each is as bizarre as the next and makes for hundreds of breathtaking photos.
The Galapagos experience combines the flora and fauna on land with marine life. At most sites, visitors are able to explore both on land and in water, through snorkeling, kayaking, glass-bottom boat and dinghy rides. An eclectic variety of tropical life thrives in the haven beneath the water; blue-chin parrotfish, streamer hogfish, stone scorpion fish, barracuda... Predatory threats come from above and below. Numerous rays and sharks arrive from the depths to scour shallow reefs. And from the sky come diving seabirds and fishing penguins. Whales and dolphins are also continual visitors to these shores, either huge species migrating past or resident pods enjoying the bounty. As three marine currents drift together, the water becomes a meeting space for species usually never found together.
Like the sites on land, every snorkel or dive site presents its own unique narration of natural history and development. Then there are those species that have flourished because of the combination of land and marine conditions. Sea lions inhabit most islands, great harems of females basking on one beach as boisterous males fight and posture on the other. Green sea turtles find ample deserted spaces to nest as well as to soar across the ocean floor. Diminutive Galapagos penguins dive and swim alongside snorkelers. Fur seals are notably memorable when they take their antics into the water. At every site, there is a new combination of these iconic and endemic characters, offering a continued array of undiscovered highlights.
Proximity to Wildlife
Life on the Galapagos is slow. Iguanas wait beneath prickly-pear cactus trees, patiently waiting the day when a fruit actually falls. Red-footed boobies guard a single egg after a long courtship process. Giant tortoises amble with characteristic sedateness, their heart beating just three times a minute and their life expectancy somewhere around 150 years. Food on land is slim, so these animals have evolved to preserve energy and go without it for extended periods. Their unhurried lifestyles are supported by the relative lack of predators. At the apex of the food chain is the Galapagos hawk, a menace to iguanas and eggs, yet unlikely to take on anything of adult size. Predatory mammals couldn't have survived floating across from the mainland, while the scarcity of food has kept larger predatory birds at bay.
This lack of predators and slow pace has a huge impact on the wildlife viewing experience. The birds and reptiles aren't flustered by human presence. In many places, you must watch where you're stepping to avoid standing on an iguana, nest, or even a fur seal. Get too close and some will react of course, like a sea lion grunting or a bird gesturing with its beak. But for most animals, you could easily approach and touch. Just remember, this isn't a zoo. It's a very accessible version of the wild. So nobody does actually touch. Strict regulations mean you have to stay five feet away and the beauty of the Galapagos quickly retract any thoughts of stroking a shell or feather.
This proximity is what the Galapagos is all about. Watch flamboyant mating displays just two meters from the trail, share comical moments with sea lions in the water, crouch to return the gaze of a marine iguana, or step gently to admire a giant tortoise. In most cases, there's no need for the camera to have a zoom lens. Such intimacy enables you to be completely immersed in the natural world. Watch emotion dance across faces, marvel at the intricate dots of an iguana's skin, and remember to look down, because there's plenty of life directly on the hiking trail.
Proximity also creates the underwater experience. The Galapagos is one of the only places on the planet where large pelagic species can be spotted in the shallows along the shoreline. This enables non-divers to encounters sharks, rays, and huge fish. They grace the same corals as fur seals and penguins, while seabirds pierce the water nearby as they dive for food. Staying dry in a dinghy or glass-bottom boat also allows you to encounter these species. Dive sites allow many of these pelagic species to be seen in incredible abundance, most famously the large shivers of hammerhead sharks. And again, there's an intimacy that struggles to be replicated elsewhere on the planet.
Predictability of the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos wildlife may be remarkably unique but it's also relatively predicable. The slow pace of life and challenging environment has made wildlife easy to follow. So there's little second-guessing about what you will see at a particular site; guides are confident in knowing exactly what's going to be found. Knowing where these animals are found helps you to plan a trip that focuses on your personal interests. Such predictability is another great asset to the wildlife experience. You don't come to the Galapagos hoping to see wildlife from binoculars; you're guaranteed a real close-quarters immersion with these iconic creatures.
Predictability doesn't bring boredom. What can't be foreseen is the behavior of these rare animals. On some days, you may find the seals to be lazing away the afternoon in the sun. On another day, there could be drama and noise as males fight as females release their mating pheromones. Different birds have different mating seasons, so the abundance of certain nests is dependent on the month you travel. The abundant marine life is heavily influenced by the currents. The time of day is also essential as it dictates how active a colony or individual will be. So while it's possible to envisage what you'll see, it's hard to predict the behavior or displays of the wildlife.
- Wander across white-coralline beaches and marvel at the antics of boisterous sea lion colonies
- Admire the flamboyant mating displays of unusual birds, like the inflating red sack of magnificent frigates and the hopping of blue-footed boobies
- Safely snorkel along pristine coral walls to discover pelagic giants that include multiple shark species and rays
- Watch where you step, as the trails are often covered with the camouflaged brilliance of land iguanas, prehistoric reptiles that are filled with intricate detail
- Kayak through calm bays and wait for the inquisitive sea lions to poke their heads from the water
- Marvel at the mass breeding grounds of various species, from the endemic waved albatross to the vivid red-footed booby
- Wander through the Highlands and enjoy incredible proximity to the world's largest giant tortoises
- Admire unusual birds that dive into the depths, like the Galapagos penguin or the flightless cormorant
- Ride in a glass-bottom boat to sea turtle feeding sites and sandy bottoms favored by camouflaged rays
- Walk across natural volcanic history on islands filled with lava tunnels, tuff cones, and breathtaking expanses of red scenery
From Amazonian mystique to Galapagos icons, Ecuador's great appeal is in its natural diversity. The scene is set with 43 volcanoes, the soundtrack is orchestrated by 1600 bird species, and all that remains is your presence to journey through five or six ecosystems within a week. Etched into the landscapes are colonial cities, indigenous tribes, and sublime haciendas, each a cultural imprint on nature's endearing spell. Ecuador is small and has excellent transport connections, meaning that all its destinations are within easy reach of each other.
The Galapagos Islands
Remarkable archipelago packed with endemic wildlife and intimate experiences.
Delightfully intimate and authentic, the Galapagos Islands are the premier highlight of visiting Ecuador. Whether it's cruising across the archipelago or exploring from a hotel base, there's always a rich mix of wildlife sites and experiences. Every island evolved separately and continues to offer something unique from the next. You'll get wonderfully close, whether on land or in water, and there's often an endemic surprise jumping out on your daily itinerary.
Quito and Surroundings
Unmissable capital that became the first ever World Heritage site.
Hypnotic volcanic craters gaze down on Ecuador's capital, standing above a city built into a narrow valley through the Andes. In Quito's heart, you'll find the largest collection of colonial architecture in the Americas, something that was internationally recognized when it became the first ever World Heritage site. Quito is an almost essential overnight stop on Galapagos itineraries, as flights to the islands leave early in the morning. Staying at least one extra day allows you to take a glimpse into its heritage and mountainous beauty. 16th-century palaces stand on atmospheric squares, a church is completely laced in gold leaf, and there are hundreds of historic buildings and courtyards to explore. With its elegance and calm, these streets are far more than a stopover.
Spend more time in Quito, and there is a succession of destinations for day or multi-day trips. Endemic wings fly through the cloud forest of Mindo, a natural reserve adored by birdwatchers. Hummingbirds flutter around orchid gardens, butterflies land on patient fingers, and zip lines take you far into the forest. Nearby volcanoes like Pichincha offer stunning panoramas and numerous hiking options.
Andean Highlands North of Quito
Beautiful haciendas and a relaxed atmosphere deep in the mountains.
A dramatic road meanders north from Quito, winding towards cute villages and vast stretches of bucolic landscape. Otavalo marks the arrival in a new province, one marked by indigenous groups and styles that come together on market days. This colorful town hosts the country's best market and is also a great jumping off point for relaxed itineraries in the Northern Highlands. Towns and villages are hidden deep in the Andes with most offering charmingly preserved streets and squares. From Ibarra, a historic train winds downhill into the old plantations, while rural roads take you to stunning views of some of the country's peaks.
This area is also home to some of the continent's finest haciendas. These converted farmhouses offer indulgent luxury and the chance to sleep in the finest of Ecuadorian history. Most are tucked away in vast private grounds and there's always a view of the Andes. No two haciendas are the same. The style is always reflective of a distinctive era and there's even the chance to sleep in the home of a former Ecuadorian president. Outdoor adventures like hiking and horse riding are usually available as you settle into luxury.
Central belt of historic towns, stunning mountains, and charming sights.
The Andean Highlands stretch across the heart of Ecuador, where winding roads take you across the slopes of various volcanoes and snow-capped peaks. This is the country's cultural route, and there are dozens of potential places to stop when you travel. Cuenca, another World Heritage site, offers the discovery of streets from a distant era, with its quaint ambiance ideal for a few days relaxing in a town. A classic four or five-day journey takes you from Quito to Cuenca, stopping at historical towns such as Banos and Riobamba.
This route always offers customizable choice. Excellent museums are tucked away in the 17th-century facades of numerous towns, mountain slopes and nature reserves can be explored on foot, and offbeat routes take you to perfectly preserved villages. Furthermore, Ecuador's size means you won't spend too long actually on the road. Many choose to continue the journey from Cuenca to Guayaquil, the second departure point for Galapagos flights.
Easily accessible wilderness and immersion in indigenous cultures.
Thousands of green shades flicker across the world's greatest wilderness, the Ecuadorian Amazon always alive with the subtle shades of nature. Strange birds call from the trees, while unusual hogs scurry across the floor. Traditional canoes take you even further from modern civilization and it's always natural calls and sounds that create the daily rhythm. The Amazon Rainforest stretches across numerous South American countries but is most easily accessible from Ecuador. A short domestic flight and canoe ride means you can be deeply immersed in the jungle within half a day.
This accessibility is complemented by the quality of the luxury jungle lodges. They're well regarded as amongst the best on the continent, and an easy way to mix comfort with genuine jungle adventure. Your guides are usually indigenous locals, masters of the forest that openly offer their cultures and lifestyles. Hike along tangled trails to staggering views over the Amazon where you hear echoed birdcalls as you travel by traditional canoe. Spend the evening with an indigenous tribe's community, and paint your face with red achiote as you explore the forest with a blowgun. The Ecuadorian Amazon is the same jungle that exists in a travel reverie, one that mixes isolated nature and culture. It's just made a little easier than expected in Ecuador.
Often overlooked but packed with beaches, fishermen towns, and wildlife.
With the Galapagos Islands offering coastal stretches and the interior shimmering with culture and nature, the Pacific Coast rarely features on travel itineraries. But those that venture here find a coastline that quickly endears. Surf beaches mix with deserted strips of sand, while fisherman villages are combined with modern cities. The wildlife at Puerto Lopez is loosely comparable to the Galapagos – not on the same scale or complexity, but still wonderfully enchanting. While Ecuador is generally uncrowded, anyone coming to the Pacific Coast can explore delightful destinations devoid of tourists.
13 islands and 50 islets rise in the Pacific Ocean, creating the rare Galapagos archipelago. Only four are inhabited and offer hotels; the rest are without fresh water and continue an uninterrupted showcase of evolution. Young islands to the west continue to erupt, uplifting from the ocean crust or creating fresh flows of lava to walk on. To the east, older islands have flourished into havens for millions of rare nesting seabirds. These are barely three or four million years old, a mere snapshot into the earth's history. Most of the islands are small, and other than central Santa Cruz, there's little human development on any.
Perhaps it's the giant tortoise that epitomizes the diversity of these islands. New sub-species evolved on 15 islands and islets, with shells reflecting the volcanic shape of their island. Darwin wrote that locals could quickly identify the species of tortoise by glancing at the shell. Unique conditions developed on every island, bringing an idiosyncratic mix of flora and fauna, much of it endemic to the Galapagos or the individual island. The result is that even neighboring islands present a very different collection of wildlife. Some are remarkable havens for bird lovers, while others display the easily observed role of evolution, and others are famed for their marine worlds.
Visiting the Islands
Visiting these islands is well controlled and monitored by national park authorities. Each site must be visited with a guide and must be approved by the national park. Tour itineraries are structured so different groups don't explore the same site at the same time, reducing impact and ensuring no destinations feel crowded. Cruises and land-based tours have set itineraries, while day trips are restricted to a few national park sites.
As a general guide, bird lovers favor the eastern islands, as they contain the largest diversity of species and premier breeding grounds. The western islands have fabulous underwater worlds and rare marine sights. Many of the archipelago's famous dive sites are found in the far north. Then the central islands offer an excellent mix of the Galapagos’ appeal. However, there is no dull or inspiring location in the archipelago. Endemic birds are found across all islands and there is always intriguing marine life to discover.
Airport and military base that's only seen when entering or leaving the islands.
Baltra's harsh and unforgiving landscape isn't the most inspiring introduction to the Galapagos. There's a sense of desolation and it's hard to imagine that wildlife abundance could be found anywhere near such a cracked desert landscape. Baltra Island is only used as an airport and military base. Visitors are quickly whisked off to the dock where a three-minute boat ride takes you across the bay to the south of Santa Cruz Island.
Red volcanic island home to iconic panoramas and wonderful snorkeling.
Walking across Bartolome Island feels a little like exploring Mars, with tumbling red lava tubes covering the landscape. A wooden staircase takes you to the island's summit, where the most famous Galapagos photo can be taken, that of two golden beaches separated by the dramatic tower of Pinnacle Rock. Numerous volcanic formations are spotted on the walk, including tuff cones and twisting lava tubes. Galapagos penguins dive from the cliffs around Pinnacle Rock and they're easily spotted on dinghy rides. These diminutive characters can sometimes be seen mating and they're one of many highlights when snorkeling or glass-bottom boat riding from the beach. Rays and white-tip reef sharks inhabit these nutrient rich waters, along with a huge assortment of tropical fish. It's one of the best snorkeling sites in the Central Galapagos.
Daphne Major and Daphne Minor
Widely photographed and extremely protected tuff cones with outstanding dive sites.
These soaring volcanic cones are an iconic photo opportunity for those cruising around northern Santa Cruz and Santiago islands. Extreme fragility means they're well protected by the national park and special permits are required for any visit. It's rare for cruises or day excursions to stop here. These islands are central to a 40-year evolution study that's provided compelling evidence of the change in Darwin's finches. Two dive sites are found here, both excelling in offering the iconic marine species of the Galapagos, including hammerhead sharks.
Abundant marine life makes for exceptional diving, but no land access.
This far-northern island offers some of the Galapagos', and perhaps the world's, best diving. Vast numbers of hammerhead sharks patrol the site, joined by huge numbers of pelagic fish species, and manta rays. Whale sharks and dolphins are also regularly spotted. There's no land access to the island, although its inhabitant sea birds can be seen from the water.
World-class beaches and wonderfully diverse wildlife on the oldest Galapagos island.
This four million year old shield volcano is one of the archipelago's most diverse, making it an excellent stop for anyone on a short itinerary. Variety makes Espanola so appealing, with its two visitor sites combining an iconic overview of Galapagos species. Endemic tortoises, marine iguanas, and mockingbirds are easy to find, while a colony of languid sea lions provide an inquisitive first impression. This is also the only breeding ground on the planet for the waved albatross, with around 25,000 of this critically endangered bird found on Punta Suarez from April to December.
To the east, Punta Suarez offers a walk that involves large sea lion colonies, Galapagos hawks, Galapagos doves, and the vibrant Espanola lava lizards. Crossing a dramatic but easy to climb cliff you see nesting sites for blue-footed and Nazca boobies, before the huge waved albatross breeding colony. Their flamboyant mating dance lasts five days and involves much beak-kissing and noise. In December, you can also witness youngsters taking their first flight. In the west, Gardner Bay's stunning coralline-sand beach provides a lazy few hours on white sand, although any repose might be interrupted by sea lions. Most cruises have a flexible program here, with snorkeling, sunbathing, glass-bottom boat rides, kayaking, and dinghy rides.
Historic island once-favored by pirates, home to endemic plants and snorkeling.
For over 200 years, a wooden barrel on Floreana served as a post office for whalers and pirates in the area, with each ship taking out any letters it was able to deliver. You can also leave or take a postcard from the barrel at Post Office Bay, a site that provides opportunity for guides to narrate the human history of the Galapagos. One hotel is also found here, along with a permanent population of around 100. Most of the island's interior was decimated by introduced species, but a number of endemic plant species have survived, visible at the island's highland site Cerro Alieri. Tortoises are also seen on the mainland.
Punta Cormorant is the major wildlife site on Floreana. Landings are made at a green-sand beach or a strange coral beach, where an easy hike takes you to a brackish-water lagoon populated with greater flamingos. Sea turtles nest here and can be regularly observed. From Punta Cormorant, most itineraries will include marine exploration at Champion Islet, perhaps the most impressive underwater site on the southern islands. Glass-bottom boat rides and dinghy rides are possible here and the conditions are easy for snorkelers.
Over a million birds inhabit this island's cliffs and it's the best place for red-footed boobies.
Red-footed boobies have come to symbolize the strange wildlife of the Galapagos and there are over 200,000 of them on this relatively young island. This is one of only two islands where they can be spotted (San Cristobal is the other). Genovesa revels in its reputation as the bird island, and its distant northern location is prime for seabirds with long feeding ranges. A lack of predatory hawks helps sustain a bafflingly large bird population. Nazca boobies nest in abundance as do swallow-tailed gulls, storm petrels, frigate birds, and mockingbirds.
The island is only accessible by cruise, and visitors usually see two distinct sites after the long journey north. Darwin Bay Beach provides an easy walk to see thousands of frigate birds, red-footed boobies, gulls, herons, and more. Swallow-tailed gull eggs cover the trail and there's an additional hike across lava flows. Prince Philip's Steps also dances with bird life, with huge colonies of boobies and the flying antics of storm petrels. It's a steep and uneven walk but most cruises also offer dinghy rides along the cliffs so those who are less mobile can also admire the seabirds. Kayaking and snorkeling are both possible here, with numerous shark species found at both Genovesa sites.
Largest island that's still erupting, numerous marine and land sites to explore plus hotel options.
A succession of six volcanic domes rise across Isabela, some of them continuing to erupt and leaving fields of lava across the landscape. A hike here, particularly to Darwin Crater or Sierra Negra, offers a wonderful example of how geology has shaped the archipelago. Marine sites are dotted around the island, with the most impressive being towards the northwest. There is a large number of land-based visitor sites along the eastern and southern shores as well. Hotels are found in the south, and the diversity of land and underwater life makes this an excellent base for anyone not on a cruise. Note that southern sites are mostly visited on land itineraries, while those in the north are typically accessed by cruises.
Framed by white sand and flamingo-filled lagoons, this cute town is home to a number of hotels and restaurants. The relaxed atmosphere and broad range of easily visited wildlife sites make it a good choice for those not on a cruise. Within walking distance of the town are the Isabela Tortoise Center and the historic Wall of Tears. Sierra Negra is the world's second largest volcanic caldera and can be visited on foot or horseback from Puerto Villamil. The views from here are staggering and really showcase how the island developed. But the main attractions are the white-sand beaches and series of lagoons found around the town. These are a haven for thousands of migratory birds and one of the best Galapagos sites for those interested in peculiar birdlife. Just off the coast, the Tintoreras islets offer a trail through sea loins, marine iguanas, and sharks swimming in narrow crevices.
Isabela is home to seven dive sites, each of them providing an eclectic mix of local favorites: rays, penguins, sea turtles, and sharks. Sea lions and diving cormorants also captivate, while the Roca Redondo site is exceptional for shark sightings. These dive sites are within a day trip reach of Puerto Villamil, and some hotels offer combined dive and land-based itineraries.
The National Park authority restricts land access to this bay, but a dinghy ride along the shore is a prime location to spot both seabirds and marine species. Penguins and cormorants dive beside pelicans, their feeding set against a backdrop of red and black mangroves.
Punta Vicente Roca
Green sea turtles clean and feed beneath the surface at this northern snorkeling site, a real treasure for those wanting to see outstanding marine life without having to dive. There's no landing site along the towering volcanic cliffs but dinghy rides take you across the water, with the antics of various seabirds clearly visible all around. This site really showcases the geology of the islands, with its lava flows and tuff stone layers making for many iconic photos. However the true highlight is the chance to witness a marine feeding frenzy, with the seabirds diving down as dolphins and whales trap fish along the surface. This is also a premier Galapagos dive site.
Landing at Tagus Cove allows you to hike uphill to the rim of Darwin Crater, where there are stunning views across Isabela's summits. An eclectic mix of species is found along the trail, including flightless cormorants, penguins, and land iguanas. A huge assortment of land birds are spotted around Darwin Lake, with yellow warblers and the woodpecker finch considered revered sightings. After hiking, it's possible to snorkel and glass-bottom boat ride in the area.
The ocean floor is exposed at Urbina Bay, where a geological uplifting brought up coral and shells from beneath the surface. Flightless cormorants and Galapagos penguins are equally impressed by the site and you'll spot them diving down to fish. There's an easy hike to enjoy, where the strange wildlife mix continues with giant tortoises, yellow land iguanas, Galapagos albatross, blue-footed boobies, and frigate birds. Snorkeling is possible here, but no other marine activities.
The largest northern island is closed to visitors although two excellent dive sites are found.
Introduced goats and fire ants have changed the natural course of Marchena and today the island is chiefly home to two eradication programs. Offshore, Punta Espejo is a popular site for diving with hammerhead and Galapagos sharks, while Punta Mejia offers numerous rays, eels, and fish species.
North Seymour Island
Extremely important island famed for its huge concentration of bird nesting sites.
For local naturalists, North Seymour is a very special place within the archipelago. The red chests of magnificent frigates cover the island, each male attempting to be bigger and brighter than the next. It houses the largest colony of these iconic birds in the archipelago. Huge numbers of blue-footed boobies nest alongside the hiking trail, their colorful feathers contrasted against the fluffy white of babies. Nazca boobies also nest here, while both land and marine iguanas can be spotted in large numbers. The intimacy is scarcely believable. Birds perform mating dances just two meters from your camera while blue feet seem to guards white eggs everywhere. It's an essential stop for bird lovers visiting the Galapagos.
Off bounds to tourism but home to an important restorative conservation project.
Lonesome George was the last of the Pinta tortoises, a sole male that scientists tried admirably to mate with similar species. When the great saddleback died, the number of endemic giant tortoise sub-species dropped to ten. His death was a reminder of how human intervention has permanently altered some of the Galapagos Islands. Grazing goats have destroyed (but not removed) many endemic plant species, and the island is now home to an ambitious conservation project aiming to restore the island to its pristine past. This makes it currently off bounds to visitors.
No visitor sites on this small central island.
Waters around Pinzon are fished by locals and the island's limited wildlife means it's far down on the list of desired islands to visit. As it stands, there are no land sites, although there is a conservation project attempting to revive the Pinzon giant tortoise.
Distinctive red island home to fabulous bird life and marine opportunities
Rabida Island's red imagery cascades from sandy beaches to rugged rocks, providing a curious and photogenic introduction to the island. Endemic mockingbirds flutter above sea lions on the beach, while marine iguanas feast in the shallow waters. Head inland to a vast pelican nesting site, where the eggs are guarded just meters from the trail, then enjoy blue-footed and Nazca boobies on the cliffs above. Snorkeling and swimming from the beach is excellent with the sea lions regularly playing in the same water. Glass-bottom boat and dinghy rides are also popular here.
San Cristobal Island
An airport, hotels, and iconic wildlife sites on the extinct volcanoes of this easternmost island.
San Cristobal is home to the Galapagos' second airport, making it a common stop on many cruise itineraries. The island’s capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, is also found here, and there's a huge selection of hotels, restaurants, and shops to choose from. A plethora of iconic wildlife can be found, including red-footed boobies, endemic iguanas, giant tortoises, and sharks, making the island a good base for short land-based itineraries. Cruise itineraries often stop at more isolated eastern sites before or after the airport.
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
This small capital is dominated by tourism and the number of hotels and restaurants has blossomed over recent years. San Cristobal is a small island, so staying in Puerto Baquerizo allows you to see many famous species in a relatively short amount of time. Surfing adds to the town's appeal. The Galapagos' second airport is located here, adding to its accessibility and making it a convenient start or end point so cruises don't need to return to Baltra.
Close to town, a coral beach is home to large sea lion colonies, frigates, and various Darwin's finches. A one-hour walk leads you along the coast to the Tortoise Reserve where the friendly giants can be seen in their natural habitat. Other endemic reptiles, like the San Cristobal lava lizard, bewitchingly dot the trail. Cerro Colorado is a second tortoise reserve that can be visited and its information center provides a background to sub-species development. The Galapagos National Park Visitor Center is also situated in Puerto Baquerizo and presents an excellent history of both the history and future of the archipelago. From here, a hiking trail leads up to large numbers of both great and magnificent frigate birds. All these sites can be visited without a guide.
One of the first sites visited by Darwin, a menagerie of seabirds flanks the coral-sand beach of Cerro Brujo. Pelicans and blue-footed boobies are observed, while marine iguanas creep past as you're sunbathing on the sand. Sea lions also dot the beach and are the highlight of a snorkel here.
Four dive sites are dotted around the northeast of the island, the most famous of these being Kicker Rock. All have similar appeal, with sharks, manta rays, and huge pelagic fish, spotted in abundance. Kicker Rock is the most visually dramatic, with its vertical cone also supporting great numbers of boobies and sea lions. Dive schools in the capital run daily excursions to these sites.
El Junco Lagoon
From Puerto Baquerizo the road to El Junco passes through multiple ecosystems. The drive allows you to experience different vegetation zones as well as the impact of agriculture in the area. Various endemic birds can be seen around the lagoon, which is actually one of the only freshwater lakes in the whole archipelago. Frigates prune their feathers in the water while ducks and mockingbirds regularly fly along the shore. This is a common land excursion for any itineraries crossing San Cristobal.
A bachelor sea lion colony welcomes you to Punta Pitt, their intense sound and smell filling a small beach. This is not a relaxed group and you're likely to witness much barking and fighting. Hike uphill and you find the only place in the Galapagos to see all three species of booby together. This is also the second exclusive place on the archipelago to see red-footed boobies. They all nest on a busy breeding ground far above the water, where a quick glance down allows for more photos of the boisterous sea lions. Frigate birds and marine iguanas are also witnessed, and you'll see a strange collection of endemic wildlife flourishing amongst the eroded volcanic ash cones. It's one of the Galapagos' best wildlife locations.
Santa Cruz Island
Central Galapagos tourist hub with multiple national park sites, hotels, and giant tortoises.
The Galapagos' most populated island is also its tourist hub. The proximity to Baltra Airport and the range of hotels in Puerto Ayora, the archipelago's largest town, make Santa Cruz an inevitable stop on most itineraries. A long history of human settlement has caused introduced species to permanently alter the landscape, and large highland areas are now dominated by agriculture. However, remote spots offer intriguing endemic wildlife. Giant tortoises also thrive and it's hard not to encounter their endearing shells. Furthermore, Santa Cruz is one of few places where it's possible to explore without a guide, an advantage for those on land-based itineraries. Many divers also use Puerto Ayora as a base to make day trips to surrounding dive sites.
Puerto Ayora and Charles Darwin Research Station
The archipelago's largest town is a narrow and compact collection of tourist shops, restaurants, and small hotels, mostly fanning out from the pier. This pier is the most common starting point for Galapagos cruises and the town is the best place to buy souvenirs. Budget to mid-range hotels cascade around the surrounding streets, but the nicer upmarket hotels are found on quieter beaches along the coast. A ten-minute walk takes you to the Charles Darwin Research Station, a museum and scientific base with multiple exhibits, the highlight being the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center. Different giant tortoise sub-species are bred here in an effort to ensure their long-term survival, and these can be seen in large tortoise pens. Two other sites close to Puerto Ayora can be visited without a guide: the freshwater and saltwater mix of the Las Grietas crevices and the lava tube of El Mirador.
Around Santa Cruz there are six remarkable dive sites, all within day trip access from Puerto Ayora. Gordon Rocks is the most famous, due to the huge schools of hammerhead sharks that circle through the waters. Galapagos sharks, manta rays, eels, and large fish are found at all the sites. Dive schools on the island usually rotate their program to visit these six sites over four or five days of diving.
The healthy population of land iguanas at Dragon Hill is predominantly the work of the Charles Darwin Research Station, which managed to revive a species decimated by introduced dogs. Their nesting sites and burrows are a wonderful sight here. Beside the landing site there's an excellent snorkeling point while flamingos are spotted in the salt-water lagoons behind the beach. From here, dinghy rides through the volcanic islets of Venecia offer sightings of sharks, rays, and occasionally sea turtles.
Highlands and Manzanillo
As the road climbs to the Central Highland forests, you can witness how Galapagos flora changes with altitude. This is where you'll find the largest collection of wild tortoises in the Galapagos, with hundreds of them slowly munching their way across a carpet of green. Many cruises stop here due to the abundance and accessibility of the tortoises. Hundreds of land bird species are also spotted, including Darwin finches, yellow warblers, owls, and Vermilion flycatchers. There's a mix of native and agricultural vegetation, all of it seemingly covered in the lumbering steps of the giant tortoise. Vehicles often have to stop to allow them to cross the road.
Accessible only by boat, this coral-sand beach is a prime spot for cruise itineraries. Nesting sea turtles are often found along the sand. Meanwhile there's excellent snorkeling available directly from the beach, with opportunity to see rays and turtles in the water. Behind the beach, bright pink flamingos can be spotted in two lagoons and land iguana nests are hidden amongst the rocks. The remains of a WWII U.S. barge are visible and give the site its name.
A popular first stop on cruise itineraries, as it's halfway between the airport and the Puerto Ayora pier. These dramatic craters provide an introduction to the surrealism of the Galapagos landscape. The craters are surrounded by a large Scalesia forest, floral relatives of the daisy that climbs high above the road.
The two sublime beaches of Tortuga Bay are reached via a one-hour trail from Puerto Ayora that passes by many different land birds. Swimming is only possible on one beach, but both are wonderfully preserved. Marine iguanas and crabs are found along the shore and there are regular visits here from giant tortoises. Snorkelers at the smaller beach can encounter a large diversity of fish as well as white-tip reef sharks. The bay can be visited without a guide but the trail is closed by the national park at 6 p.m.
Santa Fe Island
Tiny island home to an endemic iguana and a huge sea lion colony.
Sea lions dominate the beach at Santa Fe, flopping across the sand and twisting their necks to inspect human visitors. Mothers nurse babies and inquisitive members of the harem often waddle towards people. These sea lions also dot the surrounding rocks, joined by the endemic Santa Fe iguana, a reptile so camouflaged it's easy to step on when you're walking. Hawks soar overhead and some boobies can also be seen. There are also multiple marine activities here. Kayaking in the quiet bay is a good chance to experience sea lion antics, as is snorkeling from the dinghy. Sea turtles and rays are also spotted here and glass-bottom boat rides are popular. The nearby North Plaza islet is equally impressive but currently closed to visitors.
Spectacular lava flows, huge iguanas, and a dazzling underwater world.
Multiple visitor sites offer very different experiences on Santiago Island. To the east, Sullivan Bay allows you to walk on a recent lava flow, one devoid of wildlife but stunning in its portrayal of a volcano's power. Other than the odd sea lion at the landing site, there's no wildlife, nor is there much vegetation. However, experiencing the otherworldly landscape is one of the archipelago's most memorable experiences. While Santiago is uninhabited, the island has felt the influence of introduced species due to salt mining in the 1930's. However, native wildlife has recovered and it's epitomized by the huge land iguanas at James Bay. The trail here heads from the sea turtle nesting site of Espumilla Beach to flamingos in a seasonal lagoon, and then a rocky coastline dotted with fur seals. Various migratory birds can be spotted throughout the year.
Sombrero Chino (literally Chinese Hat) lies just off the southeastern coast, where a narrow turquoise channel provides some beautiful and easy snorkeling. The islet's lava cones give the island its name, and there's also a short walking trail. Buccaneer Cove on the island's northern tip is also an excellent snorkeling site, frequented by manta rays, sharks, and curious sea stars. This site is visited by cruises and is also home to one of the island's seven dive sites. Dramatic underwater rock formations and a large assortment of pelagic giants make the island a popular selection on many dive itineraries.
Sea lions, seabirds, and yellow iguanas on this fascinating volcanic islet.
Uplifted from the ocean, this enchanting islet is home to an impressive diversity of sea birds as well as a boisterous colony of sea lions. Yellow land iguanas wait patiently beneath the branches of prickly-pear cactus trees, waiting for its fruit to fall, while the islet's cliffs are home to large groups of blue-footed and Nazca boobies. A hiking trail takes you across the islet, offering sweeping views of dramatic volcanic remnants. Magnificent and great frigate birds offer a final mystical attraction, especially when their chests are colorfully inflated. Across a small bay, the smaller North Plaza Island isn't open to visitors but used for by researchers.
Isolated northern island with excellent diving and no land access.
The El Derrimbe dive site on the southern tip of this island is one of the best in the Galapagos, particularly for seeing the large species of sharks and rays. There's no on-land visitor site.
The Galapagos ecosystem blurs from the strange to the surreal, its collection of characters unlike anything seen elsewhere on the planet. These are the truly unique specialists, the species that have evolved in isolation from the world, those that have found a niche within an often harsh volcanic environment. The wildlife you experience is incredibly individual and there's an abundance of it. Few predators exist above ground, enabling many birds and reptiles to flourish in the thousands. On some islands, you find over one million nesting birds, seemingly free from threat. This lack of predators is one of the reasons you're able to get so close to Galapagos wildlife.
Yet the Galapagos is a fragile microcosm where the threat to its lifestyle is one that's barely visible. Small changes to the ecosystem can bring terrible devastation. Introduced species have decimated but didn't destroy endemic life on some of the islands, something that scientists are slowly trying to revive. The sporadically warm currents of El Nino can spell disaster for sea lions and many marine species. While the national park does admirably in controlling and preserving the Galapagos wildlife, like many places on our planet, nobody can be sure how long this remarkable haven will last.
Visiting the Galapagos is centered on an intimate experience with the archipelago's unique wildlife cast. You won't see hundreds of different species. But the few dozen creatures you experience are amongst the most unique on the planet. Some are fairly widespread across the archipelago, but many have a limited range, another factor making them vulnerable to extinction. Each illustrates nature's innate ability not only to survive, but also to thrive and adapt to distinct conditions. These are the brightest, weirdest, most complex species around, and you've always got a front row seat to their eccentric theater.
Rare pink bird found in isolated lagoons.
The pinkest of the flamingos is also one of the tallest of all Galapagos birds, reaching almost one and a half meters in height. Only around 300 of them live in the archipelago, and you'll see them in lagoons located in the north of Santa Cruz and Floreana, plus the south of Santiago. Their mating dances are especially flamboyant, with males cocking their necks and presenting the brightest of their feathers.
Famous and unusual bird spotted all over the Galapagos.
With their colorful feet and beaks, blue-footed boobies are one of the islands' most conspicuous species. Widespread across the archipelago, these birds are seen making spectacular plunge dives or comically waddling across beaches and cliffs. The blue feet always fascinate, especially when they're guarding a couple of white eggs. Mating displays are also peculiar, with the males hopping from foot to foot to showcase that they have the most turquoise colored feet (deep blue is a no-no when it comes to luring a female). These shades reflect how well the male can dive and feed itself. Virtually every Galapagos visitor will see them, but the main nesting site is on North Seymour Island, where these mating displays are regularly observed.
14 curious birds that showcase natural selection.
While Darwin's On the Origin of Species focused on giant tortoises and mockingbirds, it's perhaps these small birds that most aptly reflect evolution on the islands. Each species differs by beak size, dependent on their habitat and food they eat. You'll need keen eyes and observation skills to spot the differences but seeing them always provides an opportunity for naturalist guides to narrate the story of evolution.
Flightless Cormorant (Galapagos Cormorant)
Incredibly unique bird reflecting the possibility of evolution.
Having evolved over two million years, the flightless cormorant has traded one unique skill for another. Its wings are just a third in size of those of its relatives. In return, the cormorant developed larger and denser bodies, allowing it to dive to far greater depths. The absence of terrestrial predators makes this adaptation safe, and when food is scarce in the shallows they'll plunge to depths of 80 meters. Seeing one in the water when you're snorkeling is an astonishing experience. Also unique in the bird world, the gender roles of the cormorant's courtship displays are reserved, with females competing aggressively for males. The flightless cormorant is only found on the far west of the Galapagos, on Fernandina Island and the western coastline of Isabela Island.
Galapagos Fur Seal
Smallest seal species that's playful both on land and in water.
Fur seals are a recent arrival to the Galapagos and are much closely related to their mainland cousins than the Galapagos sea lions. Males weigh around 175 pounds and females just 65 pounds, making them the smallest of all seal species. They're mostly playful creatures, whether you encounter them on the beach or in the shallows. However, the September to December breeding season brings noise and competition, with solitary males attempting to defend their territories. Most of the population of 15,000 is found on Fernandina and the western side of Isabela, but you'll also encounter them at Puerto Egos, North Seymour, and Genovesa. They're usually nocturnal offshore hunters, seeking marine prey that rise from the depths at night. However a bright moon disrupts their food from rising, meaning that around the full moon you're likely to spot a greater abundance of fur seals on land.
Famous reptile with sub-species for every island.
The world's largest tortoise weighs up to 550 pounds, and once numbered 200,000 across the Galapagos. Distinct sub-species evolved on each of the islands, with the shape of their shells dependent on the microclimate; domed shells and shorter necks for humid conditions and saddleback shells and long necks for dry climates. On Isabela, the shape of the volcano they fed from dictated their shape. Tortoises are the islands' dominant herbivore and play the essential role in spreading flora; tortoise dung contains both seed and fertilizer. Now there is only around 20,000 remaining, and five of the fifteen sub-species have gone extinct, mainly due to introduced species and their desirability as food for pirates and whalers. Recently, a long research program was unsuccessful in its attempts to get the last Pinta Tortoise – Lonesome George – to reproduce.
Giant tortoise breeding programs are helping to stabilize the population, and you can visit various tortoise centers across the Galapagos including the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz and Cerro Colorado on San Cristobal. In the wild, they're best encountered in the highlands of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, where hundreds of them slowly march across lush landscapes. Individuals can also be seen on Isabela, Santiago, and Espanola. Their eyesight is terrible and they sense movement through vibrations on the ground. By tiptoeing around, you can get to within two meters of a tortoise without it hiding in its shell.
Apex predator that's endemic to the Galapagos.
The Galapagos hawk's position as apex predator epitomizes the Galapagos ecosystem. There's no dominant land predator, and once most animals reach a certain size, they're immune from the hawk's threat. Endemic to the islands, this hawk feeds on iguanas and hatchlings, and its presence has a keen impact on wildlife populations. It's absent from Genovesa, a large factor in the island having over a million other seabirds. They're most commonly seen to the east of the archipelago, from Santiago across to Isabela and Fernandina. You're also likely to spot them on Santa Fe and Espanola .
Galapagos Sea Lion
Playful character found along the shore of most islands.
Perhaps the Galapagos' most conspicuous resident, these blubbery characters are the smallest of the sea lion species. Having adapted to thrive in hot conditions, they're found on beaches and cliffs all over the archipelago. The majority of the 20,000 individuals lives around the central islands, and are often found basking on the piers, making them impossible to miss on most itineraries. Sea lion pups are commonly seen between October to November but the breeding season continues almost year round on South Plaza. On a cruise, you're likely to encounter harems protected by a single dominant male, as well as bachelor groups of boisterous and often aggressive males.
They're always an enchanting sight, especially when contrasted with the brilliant white of a coralline beach. Approach slowly and the far from bashful sea lions will twist their necks and stare straight back. Swimming or snorkeling with them is another premier Galapagos highlight; it's common for them to play in the water with people, swimming up close, somersaulting, and then gliding away... only to return half a minute later. They're also fond of following kayaks, poking their heads from the water to inspect the paddlers.
Galapagos Land Iguana
Large colorful reptiles that look a little different across the archipelago.
Clinging to rocks with their alert yet languid style, land iguanas are an essential key to the Galapagos ecosystem. These resident herbivores spread seeds while also attracting the predatory hawk. Introduced species like rats, donkeys and dogs, means the population is in decline, but they're still widespread across the islands. In particular, large numbers of them can be spotted along the trails at South Plaza, North Seymour, Las Bachas, and Urbina Bay. Watch where you step, as the Galapagos Land Iguana’s camouflage is often wonderfully effective. Being slow and deliberate in their movement means you can carefully inspect their intricate dotted detail. By feeding on cactus and succulent plants, these reptiles can survive without fresh water for extended periods of time.
Diminutive bird spotted diving off cliffs and swimming past snorkelers.
Encountering these diminutive creatures is always a charming experience. Weighing under five pounds, they are the only penguin found north of the equator. These tiny playful birds are a revered highlight of the Galapagos. The population of this endemic endangered species is around 1500, mostly distributed across Fernandina Island and northwest of Isabela Island. A small number can also be seen around Santiago, Bartolome, and Floreana. They also occupy volcanic rocks and dive into abundant reefs, meaning snorkelers regularly spot them. Especially when some are visible on the cliffs, it's easy to predict where they'll be feeding under the water.
Iconic Tropical Birds
A colorful and eclectic collection found across the archipelago.
The Galapagos doesn't have a staggering number of bird species. Less than 100 are found here, which is a fraction of the 1600 different avian species found across all of Ecuador. However, 80% of the 56 native bird species are endemic. A journey through the islands is always dotted with the resonant tweets or distant color of some of these winged creatures: yellow warbler, red-billed tropical bird, storm petrel, vermillion flycatcher, swallow-tailed gull, ovstercatcher, lava heron, common egrets, white-cheeked pintails, and the Galapagos dove. There are many and while their appearance is sporadic, they provide a sublime surprise on most excursions.
Tiny colorful reptiles endemic to the islands.
Seven species of lava lizard are found across the Galapagos, although visitors mostly miss them. Feasting on small insects, they're often spotted hanging around sea lions and picking off the troublesome flies. These are also one of the only animals you'll see when you're on desolate volcanic islands like Bartolome or Sullivan Bay on Santiago.
Magnificent and Great Frigates
Spectacular birds with inflated red chests when breeding.
Inflating a red heart-shaped throat sack is the iconic mating strategy of frigate birds. The bigger and brighter the better, and you're likely to encounter many of these birds presenting their chests to the world. These sacks can be left inflated for up to four days at a time. Great frigates have a slighter shorter and warmer-colored sack compared to the magnificent frigate. Both also exhibit huge wing spans and can be seen dive-fishing from the cliffs. They're found all over the archipelago, although a few sites offer exceptional intimacy and virtual guarantees of spotting their red chests: North Seymour, Genovesa, sites on the northwest of Isabela and around Santiago. While not endemic to the Galapagos, the islands offer a unique chance to see their breeding sites at close proximity.
Incredible endemic species that's adapted to drinking salt water.
Marine iguanas epitomize the astonishing adaptations made by Galapagos wildlife. A super-sized supraorbital gland allows them to extract salt and sneeze it out, enabling them to live without fresh water. Reducing their heartbeat and constricting blood vessels allows them to limit oxygen and temperature loss. You'll find them on all Galapagos Islands, usually sedately resting beside a beach or along the rocky shore. But they vary in size and color dependent on the island; Floreana and Espanola have the most colorful subspecies. These slow prehistoric-looking reptiles can be easily approached and seen from just a couple of meters away.
Many endemic sub-species of this small bird are central to Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
Important for historical reasons, the endemic species and subspecies of mockingbirds are seen almost daily on cruise itineraries. Four recognized species exist, all descendants from the same ancestors, while further subspecies are endemic to their own islands. They produce one of the most elegant sounds of the archipelago, and their wide-ranging chirrups alert you to their presence.
Resplendent and boisterous white fluffy bird.
Nazca boobies are usually heard as well as seen. These bossy competitive birds share breeding and feeding grounds with their more famous Booby relatives. Rather than develop colorful feet, these boobies are recognized for their brilliantly white weathers. They shout and squawk, fighting for every nesting inch or chance at food. Nazca boobies are seen all across the archipelago, although the main nesting site is on Northern Genovesa. Two eggs are often laid, but the first-born will push the smaller sibling to its death without hesitation, an indication of their domineering temperament.
Bizarre seabird only found on Genovesa and San Cristobal.
Bright red feet, white claws, blue beaks, and dullish grey feathers... the red-footed booby is perhaps the most iconic of Galapagos sights. The color mix is both comical and beautiful, making you wonder just how evolution chooses to work its spell. Red-footed boobies are open ocean feeders, specializing in catching flying fish. This means they're seen only on the very eastern outskirts of the archipelago, on Genovesa and Punta Pitt on San Cristobal. Despite this, they're the most numerous booby species, with 200,000 of them living and nesting on Genovesa alone. Encountering their mating displays and bush nests at close proximity is a major highlight of Genovesa and the entire Galapagos.
Santa Fe Land Iguana
Brown iguana endemic and adapted to Santa Fe Island.
This brown iguana blends into its surroundings, making it easy to miss and also easy to step on when you explore Santa Fe Island. Endemic and vulnerable, it's another example of how evolution has thrived on the islands. As well as the different color, this iguana has smaller dorsal spines and a tapered snout, and survives almost exclusively off the prickly-pear cactuses found on Santa Fe.
Waved Albatross (Galapagos Albatross)
Archipelago's largest bird but only seen on Espanola Island.
The islands' largest bird has a monumental eight-foot wingspan, allowing it to soar as far as Southern Peru in the search for food. Around 35,000 breeding pairs exist and they all nest on Espanalo Island. Having a single breeding site makes them extremely vulnerable, and they're considered critically endangered. During April to June, you can watch these birds perform dramatic drawn-out courtship displays, with breeding pairs squawking and beak kissing for five days. Part of the population leaves to find food, but you'll see a large number of waved albatross on Espanola all year round, either nesting or soaring high with their phenomenal wings. Like many Galapagos bird species, you're able to get extremely close to the nesting site.
Three underwater currents converge in the Galapagos, bringing diverse nutrients and underwater life. These feed into volcanic pinnacles and shields rich in nutrients, helping to create the unique and eclectic range of marine life. The variety at a single site can be breathtaking, with hammerhead sharks swimming past barracuda schools and 50 fish species engulfing a reef wall. You don't need to be a diver to take in the moment. One of the great Galapagos attractions is the opportunity to witness deep-water species in the shallows. Many snorkeling sites encounter large pelagic creatures like rays and sharks, while the clear-water visibility making this marine life easily accessible with glass-bottom boat rides.
Several species visit the archipelago throughout the year.
Dolphin pods are a highlight of cruise itineraries throughout the year. While their appearance is unpredictable, it's not uncommon to see whole pods performing aquatic stunts as they pursue boats. Bottlenose and common white-bellied dolphins are the most prevalent, but a whole host of species make migratory visits to the archipelago. Kayakers, divers and snorkelers, can very occasionally experience them at much closer quarters than on the boat.
Often camouflaged marine life sought by snorkelers.
The distinctive shape of stingrays is easily missed. They bury themselves into sand, an effective camouflage when waiting for prey. Look closely on a snorkeling excursion and you'll see the eyes and outline of the tail. Less abundant numbers of manta rays and spotted eagle rays can also be found, although the chances are far higher for divers than snorkelers. Large schools of small golden rays are also a highlight of diving in the Galapagos.
Hundreds of different species found across the reefs.
The eclecticism is staggering and the kaleidoscopic colors can be baffling to anyone exploring the marine world. Hundreds of different tropical fish inhabit Galapagos' reefs, ranging from those that hide in tiny crevices to large schools of vibrant creatures bumping into the coral. Detailing all these species would require an encyclopedic-sized book, but the following are some of the most commonly spotted tropical fish when snorkeling or taking a glass-bottom boat ride in the Galapagos: bacalao, azure parrotfish, balloon fish, barracuda, blue-chin parrotfish, bumphead damselfish, bumphead parrotfish, creolefish, dog snapper, dusky chub, flag cabrila, galapagos grunt, giant damselfish, harlequin wrass, hieroglyphic hawkfish, moorish idol, rainbow wrasse, stone scorpionfish, streamer hogfish, and white salema.
Galapagos Green Sea Turtle
Endemic species nesting on Galapagos beaches and swimming in shallows.
Elegant and indelibly slow, this green sea turtle is seen on most cruise itineraries. It's often spotted in waters just offshore and guides are customarily experts at taking visitors to favored sea turtle feeding grounds. The most famous is at Punta Vicente Roca, near northern Isabela, where many turtles come to feed and be cleaned. Small fish pick parasites from the turtles, and it can be seen when snorkeling. Green sea turtle nests can be found across the archipelago, notably around the central islands at Punta Cormorant, Puerto Egas, and Las Bachas. Around these sites, you've also got a good chance of spotting the turtles in the water.
Abundant, diverse and a revered highlight for divers.
The abundance of sharks in the Galapagos makes the area one of the world's most unique dive sites. A multitude of species can be found, including the white-tip reef shark, black-tip reef shark, Galapagos shark, and large schools of hammerhead sharks. Note that national park authorities keep careful track of any potential danger to people, and some dive sites have been closed due to the presence of more dangerous species like the bull shark. Snorkelers and those on glass-bottom boats can also encounter these sharks, especially the shallow water-favoring reef shark. Large shivers of hammerheads make the northern dive sites some of the best in the world for sharks.
A wonderful treat on any cruise itinerary.
A series of whale species pass through Galapagos, making for an endearing spot when you're on a cruise. Humpback whales are the easiest to identify, regularly breaching before splashing loudly onto the water. Others migrating through include sperm whales, killer whales, false killer whales, and pilot whales. They're more commonly spotted around the fringes of the archipelago, rather than the central islands.
There is no single best time to visit Ecuador and the Galapagos. When to go is very much dependent on your personal interests and what you'd like to see. Named after the equator, the country has no defined summer or winter seasons. Climate is defined by altitude rather than the month, and there are various microclimates, including those on the islands.
On the mainland, the Pacific coast has a defined wet and dry season; alternating blue skies and showers mark December to April, while May to November is overcast and cooler. In the Andean Highlands, June to September are the warmest and driest months. Throughout the rest of the year, you'll often get clear sunny mornings followed by clouds and wet afternoons. Quito's altitude means it's cool most of the time, but just an hour away you could drop 3000 feet and find scorching high-80's heat. As you might expect, the Amazon Rainforest sees rain throughout the year, but it's wettest from March to June. While it's understandably humid, the Ecuadorian Amazon lies at an altitude that makes it cooler than the forest in surrounding countries.
While the Galapagos Islands straddle the equator, the weather isn't overly tropical. Humidity is low and temperatures rarely exceed the mid-80's, with the climate split into two seasons detailed below. The nesting and mating rituals of different species are found throughout the year and there is no “bad month” or wrong season.
Warm Season (January to May)
The Galapagos warm season runs from January to May, with highs peaking in the mid-80s. While this signals the arrival of rain, precipitation in the whole archipelago is extremely low – an island like Bartolome receives just 2 inches of rain a year. Most rain is found on the highlands of the three largest islands, nourishing the lush grass that giant tortoises slowly graze upon. When you're along the coast or at sea, you can expect blue skies, sunshine, and the occasional misty haze. The sea is usually calmer and at its warmest during these months, making it easy to snorkel for long periods without a wetsuit. This is perhaps the major factor in making this season the busiest for tourists.
Cool Season (June to December)
June to December brings the cool season, although the daily highs still hover around the high 70's. Cloudier hazy skies help to repel a little of the sun's intensity which makes land excursions a little easier. You may want a wetsuit for snorkeling, which are generally offered by cruise ships. The El Niño current has disrupted this climate in recent years, bringing warmer waters and more rainfall, meaning this season is more prone to unpredictable turns.
Special Events Through the Year
Each species runs to its own timetable, a million years of evolution played out on the same minute changes in climate. Each mates and breeds at different times, meaning there's also something extra special happening while you're there. A few special events are worth considering depending on your interests.
- January to February – Land birds start nesting after the first rains, and sea turtles arrive to lay eggs on various Galapagos beaches. Flamingos can be seen nesting on Floreana Island. These months offer the most ideal conditions for snorkeling.
- March to April – Waved albatross arrive on Espanola and you can see their incredible five-day courtship displays. Hatching season begins for sea turtles in April.
- May to June – Sea turtles continue to hatch and marine iguanas eggs are also cracking open with newborns. Blue-footed boobies mate in mass numbers on North Seymour, while June brings the beginning of giant tortoise courtship.
- July to August – Whales are regularly seen in the west while masked boobies and swallow-tail gulls begin to nest on Genovesa. Sea birds are also very active during these months.
- September to October – The coldest months mean that penguins, sea lions, and whales are most active in the archipelago. Fur seals begin mating, boobies are raising their chicks, and marine birds remain at their nesting sites.
- November to December – Sea lions pups can be seen on the beaches, protected by often-aggressive mothers. Giant tortoise eggs begin to hatch and will continue to do so
An Introduction to Galapagos and Ecuador Itineraries
The Galapagos Islands offer a world untamed and unspoiled, its landscape and wildlife evolving in quasi isolation for over a million years. These are fragile and precious ecosystems that are vulnerable to any imported presence. The national park authorities regulate all the visits, and there are very few options to explore without a guide. For this reason, almost all visitors arrive with a pre-planned itinerary. Cruises offer access to more remote and diverse sites. Land-based itineraries involve excursions to wildlife sites within a day trip reach of the hotel. A combination of the two is possible.
Combining Galapagos with Mainland Ecuador
As travel reveries bloom, there are a thousand preconceptions of outlandish Galapagos wildlife, incredible marine adventures, or admiring whales from a cruise ship's sundeck. The unique archipelago dominates the canvas, creating travel daydreams from its swirl of the endemic and iconic. But Ecuador isn't only about the Galapagos Islands. From the world's first UNESCO World Heritage site to the wilds of the Amazon, this tiny country can encapsulate the appeal of a whole continent. The mainland helps epitomize the idea of customized handcrafted travel, with dozens of hidden destinations and luxurious accommodation options able to bring sublime surprise to an itinerary. At every turn, you'll find charming villages and off-road destinations.
Conventional flight times mean that almost every itinerary must include an overnight stop in either Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland. That stop in Quito can easily be extended for up to a week, given its World Heritage Center and extensive range of destinations within a two hours drive. An Amazonian journey is also a hypnotically wild experience, showcasing a contrasting wilderness that's equally authentic. There are phenomenal birdwatching opportunities in the highlands, wildlife along the Pacific coast, ancient cultures and cities, as well as luxurious haciendas deep in the Andes.
And not only is Ecuador's appeal widespread, it's also easily accessible, with everything available within a few hours of the main cities. Within three days, you can traverse cloud forests, volcanic craters, historic towns, and sites from a pre-Inca indigenous culture. Allow yourself four days, and you could be completely immersed in the Amazon, exploring the vast wilderness from some of the continent's finest luxury lodges. Such diversity means there are a couple of classic itineraries through the country; the combination of Quito and Galapagos, plus a journey that mixes the Amazon and the archipelago. Furthermore, this is a country that delights in the unknown and often unusual, a country that encourages visitors to revel in the recommendations of the day by specialist travel agents.
Where to Go
The Galapagos’ diversity is phenomenal, stretching from diving flightless cormorants in the far northwest to waved albatross breeding grounds in the southeast. While certain species occupy numerous sites, some of the archipelago's wildlife is endemic to a single site or island. Most itineraries offer as broad an overview as they can, but none can take in all the islands. Choosing where to go is therefore about finding an itinerary that reflects your own interests.
As a very rough overview, the central islands offer an iconic snapshot of the whole archipelago, and is home to a large number of different species and beautiful underwater sites. The majority of the archipelago's most revered dive sites lie to the north of the equator. The older eastern islands are a haven for famous Galapagos birds, stretching from Genovesa in the northeast to Espanola in the southeast. The west offers outstanding snorkeling and a number of species that are difficult to see elsewhere in the archipelago. But this is merely an overview. There are vibrant marine sites everywhere and each island has its own peculiar resident wildlife.
Mainland Ecuador's great appeal is in its compact size and accessibility of its destinations. From Quito, it's possible to reach the untamed Amazon in around six hours, a journey that culminates in a two-hour boat journey, so you're a long way from modern civilization. Branching out from the capital are another half dozen destinations that can be either day or multi-day trips. Follow the road across the Andean Highlands, and a private tour can connect five or six destinations in under a week.
If it wasn't for the fame of the Galapagos, perhaps mainland Ecuador would receive more attention. Many consider mainland Ecuador as merely a jumping off point for the islands, meaning that much of it is left unexplored and untouched. This only adds to its appeal. Haciendas offer blissful repose, while historic train journeys cross the Andes; 1600 bird species flicker across the trees and tiny villages reveal a 17th-century colonial past.
National Park Regulation in the Galapagos
Local national park authorities impeccably supervise visits to these majestic sites. Access to sites is monitored and controlled, visits to national park sites must be with a guide, and there's little opportunity for visitors to explore on their own. Organized guided itineraries are practically the only choice for exploring wildlife sites. The only exceptions to this are those within walking distance of the towns: Puerto Ayora, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and Puerto Villamil. Even on a land-based itinerary, daily excursions to a national park site must be sanctioned by the national park and led by a Galapagos guide.
While this regulation can sound overbearing, it's an essential step in protecting an ecosystem that was never connected to any continental landmass. Furthermore, it ensures the authenticity and intimacy of the wildlife experience. Visits are scheduled so no two groups are at the same site at once. There isn't a line of visitors waiting to gasp at the same natural sight. On a cruise, you'll only see a couple of other boats and people throughout the whole itinerary. Each excursion is organized to an almost fastidious detail. Just as you're taking the dinghy back to the ship, you might see the next group arriving at the site you've just explored.
Getting to the Galapagos
Two airports connect the Galapagos to mainland Ecuador. One is in the islands' capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. The other is on Baltra Island. From here, it's a five-minute boat transfer across a narrow channel to the south of Santa Cruz Island. There are no direct flights to the islands from the US or Europe. All flights must go through Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland.
Aero Galapagos and Tame operate daily flights to both Galapagos airports from Quito or Guayaquil. There are an increased number of flights on Friday to Saturday. All flights depart in the morning, meaning an overnight stopover in either of the two mainland cities is virtually inevitable when you're coming from the US or Europe. Most flights depart from Galapagos in the late-morning, arriving on the mainland around mid-afternoon. Note that most cruise itineraries will specify the arrival flight or include the arrival flight, so that all passengers arrive at the same time.
Overview of Costs for Visiting the Galapagos
The Galapagos revel in their role as exemplars of evolution, offering an untouched journey into iconic and endemic worlds. Frigate birds posturing for a mate, red-footed boobies dancing on the spot, hammerhead sharks swarming in abundant numbers, giant tortoises unique to their resident island... the Galapagos experience is one that can't be found anywhere else on the planet. The landscape and wildlife can't be replicated and the tales of natural history are found at every turn. Visiting the Galapagos can’t be compared to visiting the zoo. These are wild animals and birds, witnessed without fences and accessible from an astonishing proximity. Such experiences are memorable forever, so it’s best not to be frugal. The Galapagos authorities have a clear focus towards upmarket tourism, preferring to limit access and the impact of tourism while still generating funds for conservation.
Indicative Prices for a Galapagos Trip
As a very rough indication, cruise itineraries start at around $500 per person per day, but are more likely to cost in the region of $700 – 900 per person per day. This is applicable to both classic cruises and diving live-aboard trips. These are inclusive of all activities, meals, transfers, and some drinks. Land-based itineraries are cheaper. A multi-day itinerary including all excursions for a luxury lodge will top out at around $500 per person per day. More inexpensive accommodation options are available in the three Galapagos towns and itineraries can cost much less than this. Note that most day tours by boat cost upward of $200, which must be factored in when planning a hotel only trip. In addition, return flights to the Galapagos from mainland Ecuador cost around $450 – 500.
Conservation and Tourism in the Galapagos
For hundreds of years, visitors arrived to plunder and alter the Galapagos ecosystem. Pirates and whalers took tortoises for meat, settlers brought agriculture and animals that devoured flora, and many species struggled to adapt to the sudden competition and change. This unique chapter of the planet's natural history was spiraling towards devastation. But the change over the last 50 years has been phenomenal. Scientists have helped species recover from the brink of extinction, eradication programs have cleansed islands of introduced species, and funding by tourism is playing an essential role in preserving the islands for generations to come.
In 1968, the Galapagos Islands became Ecuador's first national park. 97% of the archipelago is now protected as part of the park, with the remaining 3% accounting for the area around the three major towns. It became one of the world's first natural World Heritage Sites in 1979, increasing the focus on conservation. But it is the success of tourism that has had the most profound effect in maintaining the Galapagos’ untouched appeal. Park fees provide funds for science and protection of the park. A tourism based economy offers livelihood for locals, so they don't need to farm or overfish. Without tourism, it's hard to know what the islands might look like.
National park fees and licenses are expensive. There's a $100 park entry fee plus a $20 transit tax for every foreigner visiting the archipelago. In addition, tour operators pay large conservation fees to visit national park sites and operate within the national park. The price of these permits is based on a clear understanding that a handful of tourists paying more is better for conservation than an abundance of tourists paying less. Fragile and isolated national park sites wouldn't be able to withstand the impact of mass tourism, so the Galapagos offers an elite experience. The number of daily visitors to each site is carefully controlled, helping ensure these unique worlds continue to evolve without human interruption.
This national park focus ensures the Galapagos experience is firmly in the mid to high-end categories. It ensures an overarching quality of services; cruises won't skimp to save a few dollars on food when the permit for its journey runs into five figures. And it helps guarantee the quality of the experience. With fewer tourists on the islands, there's little interruption to your journey through evolution and wild natural scenes. You're crossing islands that have never been inhabited, wandering past breeding grounds for millions of birds, snorkeling alongside marine greats, and there's hardly another person in sight.
Cruises have always been the classic way to experience the islands. Elegant and generally upscale, they predominantly offer set itineraries ranging from three to ten days. Boats can be distinguished by size – from small 12-16 passenger boats to large 90-100 passenger ships – and in luxury. More expensive boats offer improved facilities, better guides, and a more professional experience. However, note that boat size, luxury, and itinerary selection are not necessarily correlated. On most cruises, you'll visit two different wildlife sites each day, with land and marine activities available at the majority of these.
Land-based itineraries use a hotel as a base for exploring the surrounding area. For the same price, hotels rooms are far more luxurious than cruise ship cabins. There's also a space and freedom preferred by some couples and families. Daily excursions take you to different wildlife sites, although you're restricted to sites within a short radius of the hotel and can't explore more distant parts of the archipelago. You can also walk to a few wildlife sites that are accessible without a guide. Many people undertake set itineraries that include accommodation and excursions.
The Galapagos offers some of the most revered diving locations on the planet, with an abundance of sharks and rays combined with a dazzling diversity of tropical fish. Diving is not possible on a cruise. It's only possible on dedicated dive boats that have specific permission from the national park. These are either live-aboard boats or small boats making day trips from a Galapagos town.
Planning a Galapagos Cruise Itinerary
A Typical Day on a Cruise
It's elegant and tranquil aboard a Galapagos cruise, the islands shimmering in the distance and seabirds soaring overhead. Dolphins and whales sporadically poke from the waves, while strange volcanic pinnacles stand isolated in the open ocean. Take a deep breath, enjoy the open water, and watch the islands drift by. With so much focus on the wildlife, it's often easy to forget the experience of actually cruising through the archipelago. Seabirds and marine characters come along for the ride and there's rarely another boat on the horizon, just you and these remarkable equatorial islands in the Pacific. On most days, you'll spend around five hours on excursions, and the rest of the day languidly enjoying the boat.
Most cruises follow similar itineraries. You'll make morning and afternoon stops at different wildlife sites. At the majority of these sites you combine land and marine activities, allowing you to explore the area from different angles. Following the morning excursions, you'll return to the boat for lunch and a relaxed few hours on board. The boat could be traveling during this time. After returning from your afternoon excursions, there's time to relax and shower before dinner. Note that all excursions and activities are optional; you may choose to do just one or even none of the activities offered. However, you can't visit the national park sites without a guide, so there's no option to head off venture by yourself.
Throughout the itinerary, there are often some extras, like lectures from the naturalist guides or a chance to share a drink with the captain and crew. At some sites, you may also do one of the marine activities at dawn, before returning to the boat for breakfast. Another exception is when you land on the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, and spend the whole day on land. This is to visit the giant tortoise-filled highlands and the research center. The boat cruises through the night and you wake at a different destination, where a new daily itinerary awaits.
Activities and Excursions
At each site, you're likely to combine one or possibly two marine activities with an excursion onto land. The marine activities offered are dependent on the site and the boat's facilities. They include: snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, glass-bottom boat ride, or a dinghy ride looking for wildlife. Not all activities are possible at every site. In general, there's usually an option to snorkel at least once a day, and the chance to kayak once or twice during the whole itinerary. Boats that have a glass-bottom boat can operate it at some but not all of the snorkeling sites. There are two types of snorkeling. Deep-water snorkeling involves entering the water from a dinghy and not having a place to stand up in the water. Shallow-water snorkeling is from the beach or shore. Specialist snorkel life jackets are provided but not compulsory.
At almost every site, you'll be able to land and take a walk along a designated trail. This is often the highlight of the day, the chance to encounter the eccentric and wonderful wildlife in its natural habitat from an incredible proximity. Where it's not possible to land, you'll take a dinghy ride along the shore to see the wildlife. Guides will outline the walk and its intensity in advance. Some are flat, others uphill, and almost all are on rocky uneven ground. They generally vary from one to three kilometers and the pace is slow, allowing you to appreciate the life along the trail. Some sites have optional extensions for those who want to walk further. All these walks are along designated trails, and it's important not to veer off trail and disturb the wildlife.
The large cruise ship doesn't dock at the islands. It anchors off shore and you travel by dinghy to the site, a journey that should never be more than five to ten minutes. In most places it only takes two. If the swell is big or you've hit one of the very rare moments of bad Galapagos weather, you could be splashed during this journey. Hiding your camera in a bag or waterproof case avoids expensive mishaps. Life jackets are worn during all dinghy rides. You'll experience a mix of dry and wet landings at these sites. A dry landing means the dinghy will pull up to some rocks, and you can step directly from the boat to dry land. For a wet landing, you'll disembark in ankle to knee-height water, usually onto sand.
Why Choose a Cruise
The majority of the Galapagos' wildlife sites are only accessible by boat, making cruises a popular way of exploring the archipelago. By touring the islands and different wildlife sites, cruises offer an itinerary that comes close to reflecting the complexity and diversity of the Galapagos. You'll visit isolated sites, far-flung islands, and a number of destinations only accessible by cruise vessels. By traveling overnight or through the afternoon, a cruise is able to connect destinations all across the archipelago, whereas a land-based itinerary must stick to those within easy day-trip reach. In particular, iconic islands like Genovesa and Fernandina are virtually impossible to reach if you're not on a cruise.
The ability to traverse the whole archipelago also enables cruises to offer varied itineraries. Rather than explore the sites within a certain radius of a Galapagos town, you're able to cover a range of sites. This enables you to see a greater number of different species and island geology; most cruises will include sites famed for marine worlds, birds, and reptiles. In addition, cruises can offer a varied menu of activities that allow you to see it all from different angles, including glass-bottom boat rides and kayaking. At comparable price ranges, hotels on land offer more space, comfort, and luxury than being on a cruise. However, when traveling to wildlife sites, its far more comfortable being on a large boat than skidding along for an hour in a small dinghy.
Guides are an integral part of the Galapagos experience and cruises provide continual access to one or more of them, dependent on the size of the boat (normally one guide for every 12 – 16 passengers). While facilities vary by boat, the majority of cruises fall into the mid to high-end category. There are Jacuzzis, restaurants, spacious sundecks, and comfortable cabins; all offering an elegant space to relax while you're on the boat. However, some find that the fixed cruise itinerary can be restrictive, as you're confined to the boat and must follow fixed times for dining and activities. Diving from a cruise is not permitted, which also limits the appeal to some audiences.
Choosing a Boat and Itinerary
The Galapagos has always been explored by boat, from early whalers to Darwin's HMS Beagle and now luxury tourist boats. Nowadays over a hundred boats sail across the Galapagos archipelago, connecting the mystery and abundance of this remarkable natural world. They range from the small and exclusive, like 12-person crafts for private charter to large 100-capacity boats that effortlessly cruise between distant islands. There are three main considerations when choosing a boat: size, luxury, and itinerary. These must generally be considered in isolation from each other, as there's only limited correlation between the three.
Boats are classified by the number of passengers they can accommodate, and there are three typical options. Note that cabin size is generally dependent on the cost and luxury of the boat rather than boat size. Two boats with the same passenger capacity could be very different in length and offer very different quality of cabins.
Small boats are generally classified as those accommodating 12 – 24 passengers. Many of them are for 16 passengers, as this is the maximum group size for a single naturalist guide. These boats can offer shorter itineraries, sometimes just two days, and are also popular as a private charter. While some of these boats are the most luxurious in the archipelago, the majority of budget boats also fall within this category. Understandably, there are fewer staff and less space than on a larger boat. But there is an increased intimacy and opportunity to build relationships with both the crew and other passengers. This can work both ways, dependent on whether you like your fellow passengers. Having only one guide means there may not be a choice of activity, although some more expensive boats may have two guides on board to overcome this problem. While smaller boats travel slower and therefore have more compact itineraries, they are able to anchor closer to shore, meaning shorter dinghy rides to the wildlife sites. Smaller crafts are more susceptible to rocking in the water and causing seasickness.
24 to 48 passenger boats are seen as mid-sized. A larger capacity means a larger crew, and there will be two to three naturalist guides running excursions. This should ensure that all passengers would be able to choose between different activities offered in the water. Mid-sized boats should have the capacity to offer options like kayaking and a glass-bottom boat, as well as guided snorkeling. A bigger crew also means more dedicated staff, from a larger kitchen team to having a designated doctor and chief engineer on board. While there are more passengers on board, these boats are more spacious and have multiple social areas, so you're able to find a quiet or private space on board; normally there's a restaurant, bar lounge, and upper deck. Facilities vary by boat but these bigger operations are generally able to offer additions like a jacuzzi, library, and their own filtered water. These boats can move quickly and offer ambitious itineraries that connect different Galapagos regions within four to eight days. There's still a chance of seasickness, though it's not as severe.
Large boats accommodate over 48 passengers with some having capacity for over 100. Naturally, these boats have a much larger crew, although there's less of a personal touch with so many passengers. You'll have lots of space on board with multiple social rooms and places to relax. These boats are also more likely to offer a wider choice of cabins, including those with interlinking doors. Both these advantages are something that makes them very appealing to families. Having more naturalist guides on board also means guides that speak languages other than English and Spanish. In general, passengers on large boats stick with the same guide and group throughout the cruise. Getting 100 people off the boat can be time consuming, and it will take longer to head out on an excursion. There could also be increased waiting at other times, like in the restaurant or returning from an excursion. These large boats are the best equipped to combat seasickness.
Boat Luxury and Cost
The price of a Galapagos cruise reflects the offer of a truly unique experience. Large conservation and license fees are paid to the national park and even the cheapest cruises won't fall into a budget category. Quality and price generally go hand in hand, with more expensive boats offering better service. There's a professionalism that comes with luxury, seen in every detail from the chef's menu to dedicated staff cleaning the rooms two times a day.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of a more expensive boat is the quality of the staff. The best guides rise to work for the most luxurious and expensive boats. In a world as complex and unusual as the Galapagos, the quality of the guiding has a huge impact on the experience. You're going to encounter wildlife behavior that documentarians would struggle to explain clearly. It's not only the guides’ detailed understanding of natural history; it's their knowledge of exactly where to go within the sites: the feeding site of a sea turtle, marine iguana nests beneath a rocky overhang, and peculiar birds breeding out of season.
While boats are categorized by the number of passengers, they still vary in size. Those at the higher end of the price scale will be larger, meaning they're more spacious and have larger cabins. You're also more likely to see a greater range of cabins being offered. Facilities also reflect the price, whether that's in the bar, kitchen, or the quality of sun-loungers on the deck.
Thirteen islands and a few dozen dramatic wildlife sites can't squeeze into a single week-long cruise. While every boat explores the same archipelago, each has its own itinerary and will visit a set series of sites. There is no typical route and you won't land at sites that are already swarming with passengers from another cruise. Galapagos cruises run to fixed itineraries sanctioned by the national park authorities. These itineraries are created in negotiation between the national park and the boat operator, and are normally inflexible. They will detail where the boat can anchor, as well as when and which sites passengers can visit.
Smaller boats aren't as adept at covering the larger distances between distant islands, and are more likely to focus on a region within the archipelago. Cheaper boats will have lower budgets and may stick to shorter routes to reduce fuel costs. More established and expensive companies may have greater sway with national park authorities for visiting sites where access is limited to one group per day. These fragile sites are amongst the archipelago's most untouched highlights.
However, a boat itinerary is not completely dependent on boat size or luxury. Most itineraries attempt to offer an iconic overview of the Galapagos and include a variety of sites; those best for marine activities, nesting birds, volcanic history, and evolutionary species. They offer a relatively broad wildlife appeal, rather than intimate specialisms. Activities available at each wildlife site will be planned in advance, so you should be able to view exactly what excursions will take place on each day of the itinerary. Most established boats extend their appeal by offering a series of itineraries that run continuously. For example, the same boat might offer a Friday to Tuesday central cruise, a Tuesday to Monday western cruise, and then a Monday to Friday eastern cruise. This allows you to marry the choice of boat and itinerary.
Planning a Land-Based Galapagos Itinerary
A Typical Land-Based Itinerary
Visiting the Galapagos and exploring from land is the alternative to a cruise. From a hotel or lodge base, you make regular excursions to see different wildlife sites in the surrounding area. There are only three realistic options of towns you can stay in, but these can be combined with public and private boats between the three major islands. From these bases, there are wildlife sites within walking distance that can be visited without a guide. You then make daily guided excursions by boat or road to explore more.
Some hotels and tour companies offer itineraries with pre-planned excursions to different sites. These are generally designed to offer a broad overview of the Galapagos. Others run different daily excursions, allowing you to create your own itinerary from a set menu. It's also possible to book just accommodation and use another tour operator to explore different sites; this strategy is often utilized by scuba divers. While the idea of daily tours sounds restrictive to some people, it's important to remember that there are only a few places you can visit in the Galapagos without a guide.
Choosing a Land-Based Itinerary
Only four of the Galapagos Islands are inhabited, and three of these offer potential bases for a land-based itinerary. Hotels are found close to the three major towns: Puerto Villamil on Isabela, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. Each of these towns offers over a dozen different hotels plus a selection of more luxurious lodges that cascade out along the deserted coast. Private boats and public ferries travel between these towns, making it very feasible to use two or even three different bases for your Galapagos exploration. Combining Santa Cruz and San Cristobal is popular, as they both have an airport.
As a very broad overview, Puerto Villamil is within a close proximity of a more diverse collection of sites, yet there is no airport, so you must first travel by boat from Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora is the largest town, with the biggest selection of accommodations. Being based here allows you to explore the sites of the Central Galapagos. San Cristobal is the easternmost of the islands, and there are fabulous sites to discover both below and above the water. However, there isn't the same abundance of places to visit when comparing Puerto Baquerizo Moreno to the other two towns.
Within walking distance of all three towns, you'll find wildlife sites that can be visited without a guide. These include coastal cliffs and beaches occupied by sea lions and different birds, snorkeling sites, highland areas populated by giant tortoises, and tortoise or research centers (Santa Cruz and San Cristobal only). Wildlife sites further afield fall within the national park remit, and can only be accessed with a registered guide. These are mostly visited using a dinghy or small boat that can travel up to 90 minutes to a wildlife site. Land-based itineraries are naturally favored by those that don't like boats, so these excursions will often first involve a road transfer to minimize time on the water. Dive boats may travel further to reach the more remote spots.
Some hotels offer a pre-planned itinerary that runs anywhere from three to eight days. This can be advantageous as the hotel has permission in advance to visit more protected national park sites. You might struggle to visit the same sites if you don't take a tour with the hotel. Many dive schools also offer fixed five to eight dive itineraries that take in the marine sites within striking distance of the town. Either way, you will need a tour operator to visit the majority of the places in the archipelago. But when you return from a tour, and the dusk sun paints the sky purple, you can walk along the coast with dive-bombing seabirds and sea lions for company.
Why Choose a Land-Based Itinerary
A land-based itinerary is little different from the majority of vacations around the world. You use a hotel base to explore what's available in the surrounding area. Hotels and lodges naturally offer far more space and freedom than a cruise, especially in the size of your room. However luxurious the boat, it's hard to find a cabin with more space than a bedroom in an upscale hotel. For many, staying in hotels and lodges offers more privacy and luxury. Staying on land is also desirable for acute seasickness sufferers. However grand the cruise itinerary, it's impossible to enjoy it if your head is always spinning. Just note that many wildlife sites still require boat access, even if you're staying at a hotel.
A land-based itinerary also provides choice and freedom, whether that's where and when to eat or which excursions to take. The day is less defined by structure. Visiting the few national park sites without a guide and group can be a wonderful experience, with few pressures on when you have to leave. Divers can also plan their trip and specify exactly which sites they'd like to visit. Privacy and freedom makes these itineraries popular with younger couples and families, as well as scuba divers.
However, the menu of activities isn't as diverse as a cruise's offer. You're limited to places within the vicinity of the hotel and can't explore the more isolated or distant parts of the archipelago. For a relaxing and romantic vacation, this might not be an issue, but wildlife enthusiasts may feel a little restricted by the destinations. With a land-based itinerary you're unlikely to see as much of the Galapagos. However, even from your hotel balcony there's likely to be views of soaring seabirds and distant echoes of a seal colony.
Swarms of hammerhead sharks cruise through the ocean blue, their memorable frames silhouetted against the surface. Dozens of strange tropical fish roam around the reef, and as you approach for a closer look, there are rays hidden in the sand and moray eels underneath rocks. Three ocean currents converge, mingling with the nutrient-rich shields and pinnacles of submerged volcanoes. Occasionally, seabirds and sea lions dart through the water, diving for food as you dive the Galapagos. These islands are amongst the world's premier dive destinations, offering an eclectic mix of both pelagic giants and subtle delights.
Each boat or tour operator in the Galapagos has a specific license from the national park. Dive boats and dive operators have licenses to take people diving. Cruise operators have a license to take people on a cruise, meaning they can't offer scuba diving. You will not be able to dive when you're on a classic cruise (snorkeling is possible at most stops) and you won't be able to visit land sites when you're on a dive boat. The strict regulations governing visitor access contribute to making the dive sites wonderfully devoid of other divers. There won't be a dozen boats crowding the same spot. Dive boats visit different sites on different days, spreading divers across the archipelago and ensuring the marine life isn't obliterated from view by the flurry of air bubbles from another group.
A handful of boats offer live-aboard trips in the archipelago. Most of these have a capacity of 16 passengers but the quality of boat varies. Galapagos live-aboards are typically at least a week in duration, allowing the boat to visit the far-flung dive sites to the north and west of the archipelago. Itineraries vary but you can expect two to three dives a day and the chance to visit the majority of the famous dive sites.
Dive operators and dive schools are based in the three major towns: Puerto Villamil on Isabela, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. They run a set weekly program with daily excursions to two or possible three dive sites. There is often significant travel time in the boat to reach some of these sites, with transfers of over two hours being relatively common. Each dive operator will have a set itinerary that's been approved by the national park, with designated dive sites for each day of the week. They aren’t as wide reaching as live-aboards, and it's impossible to take a day trip to the archipelago's northern islands and dive sites. However, basing yourself at two or even three of these towns enables you to explore a wider mix of the Galapagos. Furthermore, dive sites around the major islands are still filled with all the marine species, including the famed circling of hammerhead schools.
Vaccinations and Health Considerations
Ecuador is a safe and healthy nation. One look around the local people showcases just how robust Ecuador is, in comparison to most of the world. The eradication of many tropical diseases and an extremely fresh diet contribute to this. There's fruit in Ecuador that doesn't exist anywhere else on the planet. In Europe and the U.S., much of the diet would only be found at health retreats or organic restaurants. In Ecuador, it's an indelible part of every meal.
Certain precautions and vaccinations are still recommended for your visit. Health professionals will normally advice immunizations for hepatitis A and typhoid. Others to be considered are hepatitis B and tetanus. A yellow fever vaccination is only required for itineraries that include the Amazon Rainforest. However, many immigration authorities around the world require visitors to have a yellow fever certificate if they've arrived from an at-risk country (which includes Ecuador). It's important to check this if you're traveling to another country from Ecuador.
There is no malaria in the Galapagos Islands. There is also no threat for malaria in the Andean region that stretches through the heart of the country, including Quito and other cities in the inter-Andean region. There is a small malarial risk in the coastal provinces. However, anti-malarial medication is recommended for journeys to the Amazon Rainforest.
Safety in Ecuador and the Galapagos
Ecuador is a safe Latin American country that hasn't suffered from any of the instability that's affected the wider region in recent decades. A majority of towns and cities are safe to walk in after dark, especially in the well-policed center. The biggest threat usually comes from the wilderness. The jungle isn't a place to get lost without a guide, and both Amazon and Galapagos guides understand the conditions far better than any visitor. Following their instructions is the best way of staying safe.
In a country of 43 volcanoes, the main threat to safety comes in the form of spiraling ash clouds and lava flows. Eruptions happen on a regular basis across the country. In 2015, the Cotopaxi Volcano exploded, with the prevailing winds fortunately taking ash away from the capital Quito. This has had a major effect on the tourism industry, closing access to both the volcano and the attractions within its vicinity. The unpredictability of these eruptions can bring sudden change to travel itineraries.
Currency and Money
The currency of Ecuador is the US dollar. ATMs can be found in all the cities and the majority of the establishments accept Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. However, some parts of Ecuador are fairly remote, notably the Amazon and Galapagos. There's only a small number of ATMs on the islands, found in the three major towns or at the airport. Not every institution here accepts cards, but most high-end hotels and restaurants do. Some cruises will, but some don't, and that's the same case for lodges in the Amazon. Bringing a supply of US dollars is always advisable and these must be clean unmarked bills. Note that large bills are not readily accepted due to ongoing problems with fake currency. In particular, you might struggle spending a $100 bill.
Tipping is fairly standard across Ecuador and the Galapagos. A 10% charge is often added to restaurant bills automatically, although this can be removed on request. The amount to tip is generally dependent on the service. Cruises and lodges are happy to offer guidelines on typical amounts to tip. As a rough average, covering all guides and crew, tipping on a cruise might equate to something like $20 – 30 per person per day. But tipping relative to the quality of the experience is very much encouraged and this is just a rough figure.
What to Pack
The Galapagos and Ecuador packing list isn't particularly long or complicated. The climate varies by altitude across the mainland, so you'll need clothes for both warm days and cool evenings. In the Galapagos, almost every itinerary is focused on exploring wildlife sites, so being practical is at the top of the considerations. Here are a few tips:
Biodegradable Soap and Shower Products: National Park authorities request that visitors bring biodegradable soap and shampoo to the islands. Boats must dispose of all their waste and the less the better. Most boats now provide biodegradable shampoo, shower gel, and soap, as standard to their guests.
Camera: The intimacy of the wildlife experience means large zoom cameras are not required to capture most Galapagos wildlife. Cruise boats have electricity to charge your camera. A camera case or waterproof bag is important. Not necessarily for underwater photography, but to protect the camera from ocean spray when traveling on the dinghy transfer from the cruise boat to land.
Clothing: Lightweight, comfortable clothing is the order of the day when exploring the Galapagos. You'll be disembarking from dinghies in shallow water, walking on volcanic lava flows, and stepping past bird nesting sites. Clothes can get wet from ocean spray and the heat makes a lot of fabrics uncomfortable. For all your excursions, you'll want clothes that are comfortable and suitable for the elements. While cruises have luxury restaurant areas, it's rare for them to have a special dress code, other than no swimwear. However, many guests bring smarter evening clothes; it's nicer after a day in gore-tex.
The weather in Ecuador varies dramatically, mostly dependent on the altitude. Many destinations in the Andres, including Quito, get cold at night. For these highland destinations, you need a good sweater or coat for most of the year. Thick llama and alpaca wool sweaters are sold across the country for anyone feeling a little chilly. But follow the mountains down the slopes to the Amazon, and heat and humidity makes warm clothing redundant. Again, lightweight comfortable layers are the most practical.
Insect Repellent: Galapagos mosquitoes are fairly benign and they're not found across the whole archipelago. Only in the dry season months of June to December are you likely to encounter them. Cruise guides will inform passengers of which visitor sites they'll need to apply insect repellent. Remember, on some islands there's little more than volcanic rock. It's a different story in the Amazon, where insect repellent is essentially top of the packing list. Long sleeves and socks are also helpful in preventing mosquito bites.
Motion Sickness Medication: Seasickness can turn an incredible cruise into a few nightmarish days at sea. Most cruises hand out seasickness tablets to passengers, although you're always advised to bring what's worked for you in the past. Many people now wear a scopolamine patch, a small circle worn behind the ear that's effective for up to 72 hours. It works by blocking the impulse of certain nerve sites associated with motion sickness. Note that those who suffer badly from seasickness should consider a large boat, as they are less prone to the uncomfortable jerking. Motion sickness medication may also be required for some of Ecuador's mountain roads; as beautiful as they are, not everyone is able to enjoy the view as they lurch and meander through the Andes.
Raincoat / Windbreaker: The most important item of clothing in keeping you warm in the Galapagos is a thin raincoat. The air temperature isn't cold but it can be uncomfortable when you're sitting windswept in a dinghy. A raincoat is also far more effective than a heavy coat, which struggles to dry.
Shoes: An essential part of maintaining the Galapagos inimitability is restricting the movement of flora and fauna between islands. Seeds stuck in shoe soles are a major risk. All cruises require you to wash off your shoe soles after every land excursion. For this reason, it's recommended to bring a pair of shoes for excursions and a separate pair for use on the boat. The terrain is tough but you walk slowly, so large hiking shoes aren't necessary, just something that's sturdy and quick-drying. Shoes that can be worn on land and water are particularly effective, as they don't need to be taken off for a wet landing.
Sun Protection: Sun protection is absolutely essential, given the combination of relentless sun, water activities, and volcanic topography. High-SPF sunscreen and a sunhat should be at the top of any packing list, even for journeys in the Andean highlands. Most cruises have these for purchase, as do the shops at the airport upon arrival. Long sleeves are also recommended for longer onshore excursions. Bring a t-shirt and shorts that can be worn in the water when snorkeling to avoid burning.
Visas and National Park Fees
Ecuador has one of the most open immigration policies on the planet. Citizens of almost all countries can visit Ecuador for 90 days without a visa. Of the ten exceptions, the only notable one is China. Chinese citizens must organize a visa in advance. Evidence of your trip is required but rarely requested. A confirmation letter from your travel company will suffice.
The Galapagos National Park charges a one-time entrance fee and transit tax to all foreigners entering the islands. As of January 2016, the Galapagos entrance fee is $100 USD and the transit tax is $20 USD per person. Both must be paid in cash. The transit tax is paid at your departure airport (either Quito or Guayaquil); keep hold of this document as park officials on the islands can request it and is required to depart the country. Losing it means you'll pay $20 for a new one. The entrance fee is paid upon arrival in the Galapagos. An entrance stamp is then entered into your passport.