Moon Galápagos Islands


By Lisa Burns

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The Galápagos archipelago is one of the most beautiful, wild, and untouched places on earth. Travel back in time with Moon Galápagos Islands. Inside you’ll find:
  • Strategic tour information with advice on how to visit sustainably, which boats to take, how long to stay, and where to stop along the way
  • Detailed maps and directions for exploring on your own
  • The top activities and unique experiences: Snorkel past playful sea lions and gentle sea turtles, or dive with hammerheads and whale sharks. Spot blue-footed boobies, albatross, and pelicans just as Darwin did when formulating the Theory of Evolution. Walk along sandy beaches where marine iguanas sun themselves on the rocks, or hike through forests of cacti and along otherworldly lava trails with breathtaking ocean views
  • Honest advice from local expert and bioengineer Lisa Cho
  • In-depth coverage of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela, Floreana, and the remote uninhabited islands of Santiago, Fernandina, Española, and Genovesa, as well as the gateway cities of Quito and Guayaquil
  • Background information on the history, landscape, and diverse wildlife of the archipelago, including how and where to see each animal while protecting their habitats
  • Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
  • Essential insight for travelers on eco-tourism, health and safety, transportation, and accommodations
With Moon Galápagos Islands’ practical tips and an expert’s view on the best things to do and see, you can have the trip of a lifetime.

Expanding your trip? Check out Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands or Moon Colombia.


A helpful lava lizard eats the parasites off a marine iguana

Kicker Rock

DISCOVER the Galápagos Islands


Planning Your Trip


Choosing a Cruise

Choosing a Land Tour




an albatross.

The Galápagos archipelago is one place on earth that lives up to and surpasses expectations. There are insufficient superlatives. It is unquestionably the best place on earth for wildlife-watching because the wildlife watches you as much as you watch it. The lack of natural predators has left the animals fearless. The only timid species are the fish, the food supply for so many. Every other creature on the islands is either unconcerned by the presence of visitors or is intent on communicating.

The Galápagos are also heaven for bird-watchers. Here you don’t need to get up at dawn and wait with binoculars for a glimpse of birdlife in the trees. Instead, the birds proudly display themselves—the male frigates inflate their red chests to the size of a basketball, the albatross entertain with their circular clacking dance, and pelicans dive-bomb the ocean in search of lunch.

A visit to these islands changes you, as it changed Charles Darwin, who was inspired to form his monumental theory of evolution after visiting in 1835. The Galápagos region is a glimpse of what life was like before humans threw their weight around, and a reminder that when we seek out perfection, we throw a wrench in nature’s works. Evidence of human activity on the Galápagos is everywhere—the number of endemic species hunted or driven to near extinction by introduced species is alarming. But the effort of conservationists to restore the ecological balance is equally inspiring. You will return from these islands filled with a sense of wonder and a clearer view of nature’s fragile beauty.

frigate bird in a mating display on Genovesa

sea lion on the beach on Plaza Sur


Nazca boobies rubbing beaks in a courtship ritual

red vesuvium on a Floreana trail.

hawkfish hiding in the rocks


1 Wildlife-viewing: Get a glimpse of the nearly 5,000 different species of wildlife, many of which can only be found on these rocky islands (click here and click here).

2 Bird-watching: The Galápagos Islands are the best place to see high-diving boobies (click here and click here), bright-chested frigates (click here), and massive albatrosses (click here).

3 Diving and Snorkeling: Swim alongside whale sharks, sea turtles, hammerheads, sea lion pups, rays, eels, and more in the unparalleled marine marvels at Kicker Rock, Los Túneles, Gordon Rocks, and the Wolf and Darwin Islands (click here).

4 Evolution in Action: Learn about the science and history of the Galápagos’ unique ecosystem at the Charles Darwin Research Station (click here), San Cristóbal’s Interpretation Center (click here), and the Tortoise Reserves on Santa Cruz (click here).

5 Wandering through Volcanic Landscapes: Experience the awe-inspiring views of the archipelago through blackened lava trails in Sierra Negra (click here), a forest of opuntia cactus in Santa Fé (click here), and an unbelievable summit hike at Bartolomé Island (click here).

Planning Your Trip

Where to Go

The Galápagos archipelago comprises 13 volcanic islands and 16 tiny islets. The total population of the archipelago is 30,000. Only four of the islands are populated: Santa Cruz (by far the largest, with 15,000 people), San Cristóbal, Isabela, and Floreana. These are the only islands that can be visited independently on shuttle ferry services. The populated areas account for only 3 percent of the archipelago’s surface area, with the rest protected in the national park.

There are 70 land visitor sites and roughly the same number of marine sites. Sites on Seymour Norte, Plaza Sur, Bartolomé, Española, and Santa Fé can all be reached by either cruises or guided day trips from Santa Cruz. The other main islands in the archipelago—Santiago, Rábida, Genovesa, Darwin, Wolf, the northern part of Isabela, and Fernandina—can only be visited on cruises. Pinta and Marchena in the north are both off-limits to visitors.

Santa Cruz and the surrounding islets receive the most visitors. San Cristóbal and Isabela also get busy in high season, and Floreana is the least visited of the inhabited islands. The more far-flung islands that are only accessible to cruises are much quieter.

Whichever islands you visit, you can see just a tiny portion of the archipelago: The 70 visitor sites represent only 0.01 percent of the total landmass, and the rest of the national park is strictly out-of-bounds to visitors.

Santa Cruz and Nearby Islands

The archipelago’s tourism hub is centered around the busy but pleasant Puerto Ayora. Highlights include the Charles Darwin Research Station and Tortuga Bay, one of the islands’ most beautiful beaches. Lava tunnels, craters, and giant tortoises await in the highlands, while surrounding islands provide excellent excursions, notably the land iguanas on Plaza Sur and Santa Fé, and frigates and blue-footed boobies on Seymour Norte.

Plaza Sur

San Cristóbal

Sea lions dominate the waterfront of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and you can walk among a large colony close to town at La Lobería and hike to nearby beaches and snorkeling spots. Offshore, the trips to Isla Lobos and Kicker Rock offer unrivaled snorkeling with sea lions and sharks. At the far eastern side of the island is Punta Pitt, one of the few spots where all three booby species are seen together.


Isabela is the giant of the archipelago, occupying half the total landmass. It also boasts the most dramatic landscapes, with six active volcanoes. The highlight is the Sierra Negra hike, which circles the second-largest crater in the world before descending to the spectacular landscape of Volcán Chico. There are excellent boat trips to Los Túneles in the south and Las Tintoreras near town. For cruises, the western side of the island offers beautiful hiking at Darwin Lake, snorkeling with sea turtles and flightless cormorants at Punta Vicente Roca, and keeping an eye out for whales while cruising in the channel.


Floreana’s lush, peaceful ambience belies its troubled history, which has kept amateur sleuths guessing for decades. Highlights include a quirky post office and snorkeling at Post Office Bay and Mirador de la Baronesa. Offshore there is excellent snorkeling at Devil’s Crown and Champion Island.

Remote Uninhabited Islands

The blackened lava trails of Santiago recall a land that time forgot. Explore this unworldly landscape in the trails around Sullivan Bay. The nearby islet of Bartolomé—a partially eroded lava formation flanked by two beaches with the black lava trails of Santiago in the distance—is the most-photographed sight in the Galápagos.

Fernandina is one of the least-visited islands, and Punta Espinosa, the sole visitor site, has the largest colony of marine iguanas in the archipelago and the biggest nesting site for flightless cormorants.

Española is the world’s biggest breeding site for waved albatross.

The waved albatross visits Española only April-November.

Fewer boats make it to the far north, but Genovesa is enduringly popular for its large red-footed booby populations. Wolf and Darwin Islands are the preserve of experienced divers, who can enjoy the awe-inspiring sight of whale sharks from June to November.

Know Before You Go
When to Go

The Galápagos Islands are a year-round destination, and even naturalist guides differ in their opinions of the best time to visit. You can even target specific wildlife events. There are two distinct seasons in the Galápagos: rainy season and dry season, though the best time to visit largely comes down to personal preference.

Many travelers consider wildlife when choosing a time to visit the Galápagos. The famous waved albatross visits Española only April-November. The comical mating dance of blue-footed boobies takes place May-June. October-November is a great time to see playful sea lion pups. For divers aboard live-aboard cruises, June-November is the prime season due to the presence of enormous whale sharks.

December-April is the rainy, hot season. The weather is sunny and interspersed with periods of rain. The seas are the calmest and the water is at its warmest, and it’s pleasant to swim without a wetsuit. Rain leads to an explosion of greenery on the hillsides of some islands, though the highlands and arid coastal areas don’t change much. The lush green highlands of the islands stay green year-round, and the arid coastal landscapes dominated by lava rock, mangroves, and cacti don’t change much either. The downside is that mosquitoes and the sun are the most intense; you may constantly feel sticky from bug repellent, sunscreen, and the humidity. This season coincides with the busiest tourist period around Christmas and early January.

June-October is the cool, dry season. There are fewer mosquitoes, and the temperature on land is more comfortable for most people. However, the landscapes are more barren and the sea becomes considerably rougher, so seasickness is more of a problem. You’ll need to wear a wetsuit for swimming and snorkeling; the waters can be surprisingly cold. The biggest upside is that the Humboldt Current brings nutrient-rich water from the south; this means marine animals like sea lions, marine iguanas, and seabirds that feed on fish are all more active. June-August is another high season, with many travelers coming for summer vacations.

The islands have short low seasons in May and September. These are the best times to secure last-minute availability, although September is often used by cruise-boat owners as an opportunity to do annual maintenance work. However, cut-price deals can be found year-round if you look hard enough and are flexible.

Passports, Tourist Cards, and Visas

Travelers to Ecuador will need a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of entry. It is easy for most people to visit Ecuador because you don’t need to apply for a visa in advance (unless you are from China or some countries in Africa). On entry to Ecuador, you will get a tourist visa stamp (also called a T-3) that is good for 90 days. You can apply for more time (up to 180 days) by filling out paperwork and applying for an extended tourist visa (12-IX). When entering Ecuador, travelers must also be able to show “proof of economic means” (a credit card is usually good enough) and a return or onward travel ticket out of Ecuador.

To enter the Galápagos, you must obtain the mandatory $20 transit control card from your departure airport (either Quito or Guayaquil). This helps to regulate the exact number of visitors. Upon arrival in the archipelago there is a mandatory $100 national park entrance fee, payable in cash. It’s a hefty fee, but it helps to preserve the islands’ fragile ecosystem. If you have a student or cultural visa, you pay $25, while Ecuadorians pay just $6. Note that a recent crackdown on illegal immigration means that staying beyond 90 days will result in immediate deportation.


All visitors should make sure their routine immunizations are up to date. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that travelers be vaccinated against hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and, in cases of close contact with locals, hepatitis B. Rabies vaccinations are also recommended for those venturing into rural areas. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is necessary when entering Ecuador from Peru or Colombia, but it is a good idea no matter where you arrive from. Note that there have been some cases of dengue fever on the Galápagos recently. There is no vaccine, so wear long, light-colored clothing and use mosquito repellent.

The Isabela is a mid-size cruise ship.

Booking a Tour

In simple terms, the farther you are from the Galápagos, the more you pay. Cruises, land tours, and diving tours can all be arranged in your home country or through a travel agency in Ecuador. Keep in mind that when booking a tour from abroad, a deposit of at least $200 per person, via wire transfer or Western Union (no credit cards by Internet or phone), is usually required.

Many travel agencies in Quito and Guayaquil advertise tours, so shopping around is the way to go. Holding out for last-minute deals may save you anywhere from 5 to 35 percent, but be aware that it may leave you stranded as well. Some travelers with time on their hands even fly to the Galápagos, book into a cheap hotel for a few days, and take their chances on finding a last-minute cruise, saving 50 percent in some cases; but there are no guarantees.


Transportation to the islands is generally not included in the price of a tour. Flights to the Galápagos depart from Quito and Guayaquil daily. There are two entrance airports in the Galápagos: one on Baltra, just north of the central island of Santa Cruz, and one on San Cristóbal. The airport on Isabela is only used for interisland flights, and there are no airports on Floreana. Make sure you’re flying to the correct island to begin your tour. Prices are about $350 round-trip from Guayaquil and $400 from Quito.

If you are traveling to the islands without being booked on a tour, Puerto Ayora is the best place to arrange a budget tour. Note that getting from Baltra to Puerto Ayora is a journey in three stages involving two bus rides and a ferry ride. There are daily ferry shuttles from $30 per person one-way to the other three other ports—Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal, Puerto Velasco Ibarra on Floreana, and Puerto Villamil on Isabela.

Choosing a Cruise

Cruises are the traditional way to visit the Galápagos. Tour boats are organized into four classes—economy/tourist, tourist superior, first, and luxury. Economy/tourist-class boats are very basic and appropriate for those on a very limited budget; tourist superior-class boats are the most common in the islands, with a bit more comfort and better guides; first class and luxury tours offer gourmet food, comfortable cabins, and service that matches those in the finest hotels on the mainland, and guides are qualified scientists. Prices vary widely, but all prices should include food, accommodations, transfers to and from your boat, trained guides, and all your shore visits.

A good guide is the most important factor in your visit. All Galápagos guides are trained and licensed by the National Park Service and qualify in one of three classes, in ascending order of quality. When booking a tour, ask about your guide’s specific qualifications and what language(s) he or she speaks.

Sample Itineraries

A tour of at least five days is recommended, and seven or eight days is even better, as it takes half a day each way to get to and from the islands.

There are basically three cruise itineraries: northern, southern, and western. Five-day tours include one of these areas, and eight-day tours include two; it’s only possible to experience all three areas on the more expensive and rarer two-week tours. Note that the western itinerary has fewer departures and is mainly available on eight-day tours because distances are greater. Most tours start off in Santa Cruz, but you can also start in San Cristóbal. Always check the exact itinerary and the class of boat before booking.

Avoid booking “eight-day” cruises that are actually a combination of two shorter cruises; valuable time will be spent loading and unloading passengers, and the day’s visits will be close to port rather than in the more spectacular remote regions.


Day 1: Baltra airport, Bachas Beach

Day 2: Bartolomé, Santiago, and Rábida

Day 3: Genovesa

Day 4: Plaza Islands, Santa Cruz (Charles Darwin Research Station, Tortuga Bay)

Day 5: Baltra


Day 1: San Cristóbal (Cerro Brujo, Kicker Rock)

Day 2: Plaza Islands, Santa Fé

Day 3: Española (Punta Suárez, Gardner Bay)

Day 4: Floreana (Post Office Bay, Punta Cormorant, Devil’s Crown)

Day 5: Santa Cruz (Charles Darwin Research Station), Baltra


Day 1: Baltra, Rábida

Day 2: Isabela (Punta Vicente Roca), Fernandina (Punta Espinosa)

Day 3: Isabela (Tagus Cove, Urbina Bay)

Day 4: Isabela (Elizabeth Bay, Punta Moreno)

Day 5: Isabela (Puerto Villamil)

Day 6: Seymour Norte, Baltra


Day 1: San Cristóbal (Isla Lobos, Kicker Rock)

Day 2: San Cristóbal (highlands, Punta Pitt)

Day 3: Floreana (Post Office Bay, Punta Cormorant, Devil’s Crown)

Day 4: Santa Cruz (Black Turtle Cove), Bartolomé

Day 5: Genovesa

Day 6: Santiago

Day 7: Plaza Islands, Santa Cruz (Charles Darwin Research Station)

Day 8: Baltra


Day 1: Baltra, Rábida

Day 2: Isabela (Punta Vicente Roca), Fernandina (Punta Espinosa)

Day 3: Isabela (Tagus Cove, Urbina Bay)

Day 4: Isabela (Elizabeth Bay, Punta Moreno)

Day 5: Isabela (Wetlands, Wall of Tears, Tortoise Breeding Center)

Day 6: Seymour Norte, Santa Cruz (Charles Darwin Research Station)

Day 7: Española (Punta Suárez, Gardner Bay)

Day 8: San Cristóbal (Interpretation Center, La Galapaguera)

Choosing a Land Tour


On Sale
Nov 27, 2018
Page Count
248 pages
Moon Travel

Lisa Burns

About the Author

Lisa Cho was born in Ojai, California. She discovered her love for travel at an early age when she visited extended family in rural China. Later, after getting a masters in bioengineering from Stanford University, she worked as a product manager in the biotech industry, a job that frequently sent her on business trips that seemed much too short. So after a lot of dreaming and planning, she decided to take the longest trip of her life, leaving her career and buying a one-way flight to Cuenca, Ecuador.

In Ecuador the air was warmer, the mangos were cheaper, and the country was more beautiful than she had imagined. She started a blog about Ecuador and her travels around South America that led to a blog focused specifically on the Galápagos Islands.

Her time in the Galápagos has been an interesting mix. She has stayed in backpacker hostels, upscale eco-lodges, and sailed on cruises. She has enjoyed once-in-a-lifetime experiences surrounded by sharks, sea turtles, and sea lions. She now feels equally at home in Ecuador and San Francisco, and splits her time between the two.

Learn more about this author