Moon Galápagos Islands


By Lisa Cho

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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 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.


DISCOVER the Galápagos Islands

Planning Your Trip

Budgeting for Independent Travel in the Galápagos

Cruise Tours

Best Wildlife-Watching

Land Tours

Best Hikes

Best Snorkeling and Diving

Best Places to Go for Free

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, and 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.

Nazca boobies nesting on Española

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.

view of Quito

brightly colored algae.

red vesuvium on a Floreana trail

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, and Santa Fé can all be reached by either cruises or guided day trips from Santa Cruz. The other main islands in the archipelago—Española, 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. The more far-flung islands that are only accessible to cruises are much quieter. Whichever islands you visit, you can only see a tiny proportion 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.

Pelicans and sea lions hope for a treat from a fish vendor on Santa Cruz.

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. Offshore, the trips to Isla Lobos and Kicker Rock offer unrivaled snorkeling with sea lions and sharks. Inland is the huge giant tortoise reserve La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, and at the far east 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 into the sulfur mines. 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, excellent snorkeling at Devil’s Crown and Champion, and flocks of flamingos at Punta Cormorant.

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.

Visitors photograph penguins at Bartolomé.

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.

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

Although the Galápagos Islands are a year-round destination, the best conditions are December-April. The seas are calmer, the weather mostly sunny and hot, and rain on the larger islands leads to an explosion of greenery. This coincides with the busiest tourist period at Christmas and early January.

June-October the weather is cooler and drier, and there are fewer mosquitos, so it’s more comfortable on land, but the landscapes are more barren and the sea becomes rougher, so seasickness is more of a problem. The waters can be surprisingly cold for swimming and snorkeling, and you need a wetsuit in cold season, but on the positive side, the cooler temperatures sometimes bring higher numbers of marine creatures to watch. June-August is another high season, with many travelers coming for summer vacations.

During the cold season, some areas are dry and brown.

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.

Many travelers also consider wildlife when choosing when 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.

Plan your visit for October through November to view sea lion pups.

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 $10 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.

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.

It is sometimes possible to find a last-minute deal on a cruise ship.


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 and Puerto Villamil on Isabela.

Cruise Tours

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. Also, avoid booking “eight-day” cruises that are actually a combination of two shorter cruises; valuable time will be spent loading and unloading passengers in port in the middle of the cruise, 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 de Cerro Colorado)

Land Tours

Land tours are increasingly common and are especially popular with those who are on a budget, suffer from seasickness, or want to scuba dive. Most travelers visit the isles on packaged tours, but it’s increasingly easy to do it yourself, stay in the three main ports, take day trips, and shuttle between islands. There is more flexibility in some ways, but many of the islands (for example, Fernandina, Española, Rábida, and Genovesa) are excluded from land-based itineraries, and many of the best sites on the other islands are also excluded. Precious time is also spent traveling to and from sites every day.

Sample Itineraries

Land tours restrict you to sites within a day’s travel of four populated areas: Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal, Puerto Villamil on Isabela, and Puerto Velasco Ibarra on Floreana. The shortest land tours are five days long, but these short tours are not recommended if you are coming from abroad, since compared to a five-day cruise, you will spend too much of your short trip in transportation. Eight days is preferable, and ten days is the minimum if you want to see all four of the inhabited islands.


Explore all four inhabited islands, focusing on the free activities and less-expensive tours on each.

Day 1: San Cristóbal (La Lobería, Interpretation Center)

Day 2: San Cristóbal (Kicker Rock)

Day 3: Ferry to Santa Cruz (Las Grietas, Tortuga Bay hike and kayak)


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

Lisa Cho

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