Why visit the Galapagos islands?
The Galapagos Islands are an utterly unique kingdom of endemic wildlife and astonishing landscapes which leave you feeling like you’ve somehow been transported to another planet. The islands were made famous by Charles Darwin’s observations on the variations of species from island to island, a conclusion which heavily influenced the formulation of his theory on the evolution of species by natural selection.
Today, visitors to the Galapagos Islands can observe the very same species up-close on a wildlife safari like no other: Galapagos giant tortoises, land and marine iguanas, blue-footed, red-footed and masked boobies, Galapagos albatrosses, flamingos, frigate birds, flightless cormorants, and Galapagos penguins. Under the surface, snorkelers and divers may encounter sea lions, sea turtles, Galapagos, hammerhead and whale sharks, and a myriad of colourful tropical fish.
Where are they?
The Galapagos Islands straddle the equator some 1,000 km (600 miles) off the coast of the South-American country Ecuador.
Getting to the Galapagos Islands
Several international carriers operate flights to Ecuador from destinations around the world. From mainland Ecuador, it’s either a three and a half hour journey from Quito airport or a two-hour flight from Guayaquil. Flights land at one of two airports in the islands – Baltra and San Cristobal. Baltra is the busiest and most popular airport to fly to, as it’s close to Santa Cruz Island, where the biggest town in the islands, Puerto Ayora, is located. Puerto Ayora is considered to be the best hub from which to explore the islands. However, if your cruise starts from San Cristobal island – and many do – it is advisable to fly straight there rather than to Baltra.
Three airlines – LAN Ecuador, TAME and Avianca Ecuador (previously Aerogal) – operate daily services to Baltra and San Cristobal airports. Fares are similar for all three airlines and for both destinations, and range between $420-600 round-trip; you’ll find the cheapest deals during off-peak season (April to June, and September through November).
Quito is the point of departure for all flights to Galapagos, but most stop in Guayaquil for at least an hour to pick up additional passengers. Flights leave Quito early in the morning and take a little over three hours (including the layover in Guayaquil) to reach the islands. From Guayaquil it is approximately an hour and a half to the islands (it’s also usually around $50-70 cheaper). Note that all return flights from the islands depart in the morning.
It is possible to reach the Galapagos by private yacht; however, if you wish to cruise around the islands independently, you will need a special permit and must be accompanied by guides licensed from the Galapagos National Park Service.
How long should I spend in the islands?
The longer the better! For most visitors a wildlife safari in the Galapagos Islands is a once in a lifetime experience, so make the most of it.
A stay of 10-15 days is recommended for those who have a strong interest in seeing iconic wildlife and gaining a deeper understanding of the islands. If you have budget constraints, consider a five to eight day stay.
Anything less than five days and your trip becomes less worth it. Here’s why:
- The entire morning of the first day is spent getting to the islands from the mainland
- On the last day, you’ll only have time for a short excursion (if that), before heading to the airport, as all flights back to the mainland leave between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
- Whether you stay for two or 30 days, you’ll still be required to fork out for the return flight (between US$430-580), the obligatory Galapagos National Park entry fee (US$100) and the Galapagos Transit Control Card (US$20).
Where can I see the wildlife?
The Galapagos National Park (GNP) authorities strictly control access to designated visitor sites within the 97% of the islands that make up the national park and visits to most designated sites must be led by a naturalist guide certified by the GNP. Wildlife can also be seen in and around the urban and agricultural zones that make up the other 3% of the land area of the Galapagos islands.
What is the best way to see the wildlife?
Choose between a cruise through the islands, a hotel-based stay, or a combination of the two. Each has its pros and cons:
- The advantage of a cruise is that it’s by far the best way to see a broad array of both terrestrial and marine wildlife, as many visitor sites are only accessible by cruise
- If you’re prone to sea sickness however, a cruise could make you miserable
- You can still see many animals both in and around the port towns, as well as on day trips accompanied by a naturalist guide
- However, not all sites are accessible on a day tour, and you’ll see less places overall
An increasingly-popular alternative is to combine a cruise with a hotel-based stay, spending a few nights in one of the port towns before or after a cruise, allowing you to see even more.
I want to go on a cruise. How do I choose one?
Before picking a specific cruise, make sure you consider the following:
- Duration: a 10-15 day safari is ideal to get a broad overview of the archipelago and its wildlife. 5-8 days is enough time to sample the islands and experience some of the wildlife highlights. Any less and you will leave feeling you wished you’d stayed longer.
- Budget: the more you pay the better the vessel, more spacious the cabins, the better the food, and the more experienced and knowledgeable the naturalist guide.
- Itinerary: are there specific islands you want to visit or specific animals you want to see? Some islands are known for having large numbers of blue-footed boobies or flamingos, whilst others are famous for spectacular scenery. Choose your itinerary based on what you’re really dying to see.
- When to Go: prices tend to be higher during the Easter, summer and Christmas/New Year periods. Climate-wise, December to May is hot (with rain showers); outside of these months it is cooler and cloudier. Space on the most in-demand cruises is in high demand, so plan as early as possible.
How do I choose a vessel?
Around 80 vessels offer cruises in the Galapagos Islands, ranging in capacity from 12-100 passengers. Choosing to travel aboard one of the 16 passenger motor yachts or catamarans is highly recommended. Why? A smaller vessel ensures access to visitor sites that larger ships are not permitted to go to, as well as a more intimate and enriching experience.
What is a typical day like on a Galapagos Islands cruise?
- On arrival to the islands, passengers board their cruise vessel. They are assigned cabins, have lunch, and receive a briefing, before going ashore for the first visit
- Each following day will typically include visits to two sites and may include time to snorkel and/or paddle around on a sit-on-top kayak (provided by some vessels)
- Passengers will generally have lunch on board while the vessel navigates between visitor sites
- In the evenings, passengers dine on board and receive a briefing on activities for the following day
- On the final day there is generally only time for a short visit in the morning, before transferring to the airport in time to check in for the flight back to the mainland.