Top tips for planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands

If you’re planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands then lucky you! This spectacular archipelago of volcanic islands in the Eastern Pacific Ocean are a true bucket list destination for those with an adventurous streak. Read on to find out when to visit, where to stay, what to do, and much more to ensure you have the best time on your vacation 

Spanning an area of 8,010 square kilometers, the Galapagos Islands are located approximately 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador in South America. Their remote location ensured that they remained isolated for millions of years during which time the chain of islands evolved into a unique home for an incredible array of plant and animal species, and marine life including blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, manta rays, sea turtles, scalloped hammerhead sharks, and playful sea lions

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Planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands
The Galápagos Islands

Pirates and explorers started to arrive in the 1800s but it was a young Charles Darwin who really put these islands on the world stage. He arrived on board the HMS Beagle in 1835 and spent 19 days studying the islands’ flora and fauna. He was fascinated with how life had evolved on these remote islands and the number of distinct – and unique – species there.

Nearly 25 years later he published On the Origin of Species introducing his theory of evolution, defined as “descent with modification”, the world. Santa Cruz Island is now home to the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Since then the Galápagos Islands have continued to amaze visitors. In 1959 the islands became Ecuador’s first national park and in 1978 they were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you want to have first-hand experience of wildlife interaction and observation, there is no better place to visit than the Galápagos Islands. 

Planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands
Swim with sea lions in the Galápagos Islands

What you need to know about the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos archipelago has 13 main islands in total as well as numerous smaller islands and islets. Santa Cruz Island is the main tourism hub for all of Galapagos, near to Baltra Island where Seymour Airport sits (the other airport, San Cristobal Airport, is in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island).

There are no international flights to either of these airports and you must first fly into either Quito or Guayaquil airpots on mainland Ecuador. You can combine your trip to the Galápagos Islands with travels in Ecuador or, if you have lots of time, even combine with a trip to Costa Rica, Guatemala or Mexico.

The other main islands are Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Genovesa, Isabela, Marchena, Pinta, Pinzon, San Cristobal, Santa Fe, and Santiago. The most popular way to travel between the islands is by boat Travel between islands is mostly by boat although land-based trips are also possible. 

Planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands
Explore the Galápagos Islands

Licensed guides

Some 80% of the Galápagos Islands is protected as a national park and the only way you can enter the bounds of the Galapagos National Park if accompanied by an officially qualified and licensed guide. A guide will not only tell you everything you need to know about this incredible chain of islands but also the best places to go. 

Book your cruise in advance

A luxury galapagos cruise is a great way to explore the islands, particularly if you wish to explore some of the more remote islands. Do make sure to book well in advance, however, particularly if you’re planning to travel during high season as tour operators get booked up quickly. 

Meet the wildlife

A distance lack of predators means that the animals and marine species that call The Galápagos Islands home have never developed a fear of humans or other animals. This means that visitors to the islands can get up close to a huge variety of animals – don’t be surprised if a curious sea lion comes to say hello while you’re snorkelling for example. 

Planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands
See a Sally Lightfoot Crab in the Galápagos Islands

When to visit the Galápagos Islands 

The weather is warm year-round in the Galápagos Islands thanks to their position along the equator.

There are two main seasons for visiting the islands. January to May is the hot season when seas are calmer and the ocean temperatures are warmer and July to December is the dry season when the water temperature is a bit cooler and you have a better chance of seeing the Galapagos’ famous marine life including whale sharks. During these months you may want to snorkel in a wet suit. 

Peak season generally runs from mid-December to mid-January and mid-June to late August. Keep in mind that the busiest months also have the highest prices, so your trip may be more costly.  

It’s also worth remembering that you can only travel to a maximum number of islands in one day. If you wish to see more islands – and don’t want to be rushing – then make sure you plan your Galapagos trip itinerary accordingly. 

Planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands
Giant Tortoise on the Galápagos Islands

The best islands to visit in the Galapagos

Every one of the 13 major islands is unique and offers visitors something different.

Isabela Island 

Isabela Island is one of the younger islands comparatively, created by the merging of six volcanoes so that today it resembles a seahorse. It’s the largest of the islands and home to a variety of ecosystems from barren lava flows to evergreen lush forests. Animal highlight include land iguanas (the largest in the Galapagos, hawks and Giant Tortoises. There are some good hikes and some excellent snorkelling where you an swim with turtles, rays and tropical fish. 

San Cristobal Island 

San Cristobal Island is one of the oldest of the Galápagos Islands and is located in the far east of the archipelago. This island is famous for its snorkelling and diving opportunities and being home to the largest fresh water lake in the archipelago, El Junco. San Cristobal is also home to Kicker Rock (also known as León Dormido), the remains of a volcanic cone and today one of the best places to snorkel in the Galapagos.

Española Island

Española is the southernmost of the Galapagos Islands and one of the most isolated. Its remote location remains that it has a large number of endemic species including the Española mockingbird, the Española lava lizard, and the waved albatross.

Fernandina Island

Fernandina is the most active of the islands and there have been 13 eruptions since the creation of the Galapagos National Park. The island is home to a large Marine Iguana population who feed on the algae as well as a population of Land Iguanas. Fernandina is also where you’ll find the Flightless Cormorant, the bird that lost its ability to fly because it didn’t need to. Instead this species developed incredible swimming and diving skills.

Floreana Island

Floreana was the first island to be populated and although people still live here today they number in just their hundreds. This island boasts black sand beaches, a fresh water lagoon where flamingos roam during the hot season and misty highland peaks. Wildlife highlights include Sally Lightfoot crabs, green sea turtles, Darwin finches and penguins. 

Genovesa Island

Genovesa is often referred to as ‘bird island’ owing to the many species of birds that live and breed here. The most common are frigate birds, the Nazca booby, red-billed tropicbirds, finches and swallow tailed gulls. It’s also one of the few places in the Galapagos where Red-footed Boobies are found in large numbers. Genovesa can only be visited by boat tours and not on a land-based trip. 

Planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands
Blue-footed Boobies on the Galapagos islands

Marchena Island 

Marchena Island is one of the less visited islands but well worth a trip if you’re keen to spot sharks. Punta Espejo, on the southeast edge of the island, is where you can spot Hammerhead and Galapagos Sharks as well as dolphins and sea lions. it’s particularly popular with scuba divers. 

Pinta Island 

Pinta Island sits in the northernmost part of the archipelago and is best known for being the birthplace of Lonesome George, the last remaining subspecies of Pinta giant tortoise. The tortoise was the last known survivor of the Pinta Island tortoise and he died of natural causes of aged over 100 years old. His death marked the extinction of the Pinta species of tortoise.  

Pinzón Island

Pinzón Island is home to a diverse range of wildlife including Sea lions, Galapagos hawks, the Galapagos Tortoise, marine iguanas, lava lizards, and more. 

Santa Fe Island 

Santa Fe Island is though to be at least four million years old. It’s vegetation is one of its highlights in particular the Optunia Echios, a large prickly pear cactus that are prolific on the island. It’s also home to some endemic species including land iguanas and a rice rat. 

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz is also the most populous of all the islands and where you’ll find some of the islands’ highlights including Las Grietas, “cracks” in the cliffs that have formed unique swimming and snorkelling spots, as well as the The Galapagos’ famed giant tortoises. 

Santiago Island

Santiago Island was the second of the Galápagos Islands visited by Charles Darwin (San Cristobal was the first). It was also used as a stopover for pirates who would feast on tortoises here. Highlights include Puerto Egas, a lava shoreline home to a wide variety of birds and animals including the Galapagos fur seal.

Baltra Island

Baltra, also known as Seymour Island, is where the main airport is located built during WWII by the US government. It’s the smallest of the Galápagos Islands and the starting point for most Galapagos adventures. 

Planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands
A Marine Iguana in the Galápagos Islands

How to get to the Galápagos Islands

To reach Galapagos, you first need to get to Ecuador flying either into the capital Quito or the port town of Guayaquil.

Flights go regularly from both these airports to one of two main airpots within the Galapagos archipelago. The busiest airport is Seymour Airport in Puerto Ayora on Baltra Island and there is also an international airport on San Cristobal. Isabela Island is home to a small landing strip. Once you’ve arrived in the archipelago the best way to explore the islands is on a Galapagos Islands cruise

Packing and Preparation

Now as this is a unique trip experience, you need to prepare and pack for it accordingly.

  • Bring motion sickness medicine: Don’t let life on the ocean waves ruin your trip and make sure you back medicine to combat any possible sea sickness. 
  • Pack light: Don’t stuff your bags with unnecessary things (there’s no need for heels in the Galapagos Islands!) and make sure to pack only what’s necessary. Your tour operator should provide you with a packing list. 
  • Bring sunscreen: Make sure to bring eco-friendly sunscreen to protect both you and the marine life. A hat and rash vest is also a good idea. 
  • Travel Insurance: Don’t leave home without adequate travel insurance

All photos courtesy of DepositPhotos

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