Planning Your Trip to Galápagos Islands

Visiting the Galápagos Islands is the experience of a lifetime, but it does take a little research (and effort!) to get the details in order. Here’s what you need to know to get started:

South Plaza Island
South Plaza Island. © Elijah-Lovkoff/iStock

Where to Go

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.

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

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.

Floreana

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, one of the least-visited islands, is great for spotting marine iguanas and 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 best for experienced divers to catch a glimpse of whales from June to November.

blue footed boobies
Blue footed boobies performing mating dance. © shalamov/iStock

Know Before You Go

When to Go

There are two distinct seasons in the Galápagos: rainy season and dry season. Many travelers consider wildlife when choosing the best time to visit: The famous waved albatross is only in Española 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 on cruises, June-November is the prime season for spotting enormous whale sharks. December-April is the rainy, hot season. The seas are the calmest and the water is at its warmest, and it’s pleasant to swim without a wetsuit. 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. You’ll need to wear a wetsuit for swimming and snorkeling; the waters can be surprisingly cold, but 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.

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.

Transportation

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 inter-island 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.

Ready to start planning the trip of a lifetime? The best way to do it is with a guidebook! Check out Moon Galápagos Islands for everything you need to know.


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