All the information you need to plan your perfect vacations in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.
Galápagos: If there is a Paradise on Earth, then Darwin’s islands do deserve that title most of all. Breathtaking beaches, stunning nature and spectacular wildlife – you will have a hard time finding a flaw on these pristine islands. I was fighting a long time over writing a true Galápagos guide. I finally decided against it. Rather I want to focus on solely showing you the beauty of the volcanic archipelago and providing you with some important background information to plan your perfect Galápagos vacation.
There is an important reason behind this decision. The Galápagos Islands are really only accessible on a cruise these days. Traffic on the various islands is meticulously limited and prearranged by the national park – down to the particular time of the day you are allowed to make a landing.
Only the island of Isabella is easily accessible to regular tourism (though hotels can be found on Santa Cruz, Florena and San Cristobal as well). The permanently inhabited islands are, however, also the ones with the least impressive flora and fauna. Stray cats, donkeys, dogs and rats killed most of the overly tame wildlife in the past. Preservation measures are now in place – some of them came too late, however.
So in essence: Book a cruise or don’t go at all. You probably can try to explore some on daytrips, but ultimately you will end up charting boats at higher prices and less convenience. Also there is no way around visiting the various sites of the Galápagos without a licensed guide.
So why do you need to read on? Well simply to enjoy the beautiful pictures and also to get a little background on what to expect!
Galápagos Islands: So unique
Galápagos is famous for its many endemic species. Charles Darwin was the first to study them on the equally famous voyage of the Beagle. The peculiarities of the local flora and fauna ultimately led to a breakthrough in evolution theory. Even today you will be able to easily observe these. The difference: With the knowledge of the present day, it will hit you like a sledgehammer and create memories to last a lifetime.
The Galápagos archipelago is fairly young in origin. The oldest islands are 4.2 million years old, while the younger ones (like Fernandina) are only 700.000 years old. On top of that the islands are very isolated. Ecuador, to which the islands belong politically, is some 926 kilometers away. This led to a very unique flora and fauna. Most of the animals and plants you can observe today were either carried away by the wind or the currents. Birds naturally were able to take a different route, but even then it is far from being an easy route. But there is more yet: The climate on the Galápagos Islands is not exactly stable, and periodically suffers from El Niño events.
All these factors created unique endemic species that adapted to the originally very volcanic landscape: The variety of plants on Galapagos is rather limited, cactus being the most ubiquitous plant you will see. It is, however, the animals that are most striking. The very lack of big land bound predators led to incredibly docile animals. Basically you can walk straight towards them, without them fleeing. Sea lions and some birds will actually start playing with you.
This, obviously, is also the biggest threat to the islands. Humans and imported carnivores like cats, dogs or rats diminished the local population in record time. These days 97 Percent of Galápagos is one national park, with a huge marine reserve around it.
Almost each island has an endemic species or subspecies. Getting so close to all these animals is more than surreal. But it is one of the main reasons why you are not allowed to walk around without a licensed guide. The damage irresponsible tourists could wreak is quite apparent with every step you take.
The Animals you will see on Galápagos
Still, vacations on the Galápagos Islands is all about getting in contact with the unique wildlife. Know then, that there are only a handful of species to be observed. Of those few, however, you will see thousands upon thousands.
There are a couple of famous reptiles living on the Galápagos Islands. The most famous of them all is probably the Galápagos tortoise that gave the islands their name – Galápagos being an old Spanish word for tortoise. The best place to see them is probably Isabela, where a couple of reservations can be found.
Then there are, of course, the two species of iguanas. The marine iguana can be observed on almost every island. They are so ubiquitous that you can see them lying about in huge piles around the water front. Yet there are differences. The marine iguanas on Espanola are said to be the brightest (almost red), while pink ones can be found near the Wolf Volanco (offlimits for tourists).
Very closely related to the Galápagos marine iguana, is the land iguana. This yellow hued fellow is a lot rarer and a bit shyer than its cousin. They sometimes hide in their dens underground and it can be hard to spot them amidst the high grass. The best place to see them is North Seymour.
My personal favorite is probably the Galápagos sea lion. Friendly as they are, you will have the time of your live snorkeling and playing with them. Especially the young ones will want to get intimate with you. Espanola Islands is your best bet when it comes to observing sea lions. On Galápagos you are also able to see the Galápagos fur seal. But there is only a very small population and again, much shyer.
Sticking to the water you cannot miss the green sea turtle that are so abundant on Galápagos it is very hard to conceive this is actually an endangered species. Believe it or not: While I was snorkeling through the waters, there were times when 3 or 5 were swimming along at the same time!
Galápagos is also home to a very rare species of Penguins. Yes, you heard that right, penguins. The Galápagos Penguin loves the nutrient rich waters around the archipelago. The population is estimated to be about only 2.000 individuals though. Fernandina or Isabela would be your best bet to observe them!
But the Galápagos Penguin is not the only flightless bird to be found in Darwin’s paradise. The very queer Flightless Cormorant is hunting for fish as well. It is quite the unique bird that, given a couple of million years, might end up wanting to be a penguin as well.
Even stranger yet might be the blue Footed Booby. The sea bird with the very stunning feet is especially famous for its unique dance-like mating habit. But who wouldn’t be impressed with dancing shoes like that, eh? I am sure their Cousins, the Nazca booby (also found on Galápagos) are more than jealous.
No list of animals in the Galápagos Islands could do without mentioning the Darwin finches. While not particularly impressive themselves, it was those very finches that finally tipped the hat towards understanding evolution. These finches can be found on all bigger islands. Their beak shapes, however, vary from islands to islands – depending on the available food. These finches adapted perfectly to their surroundings. Do make a sport out of pointing out the differences on the various islands while visiting the Galápagos Islands.
The frigate bird might be the most intimidating bird found on the Galápagos Islands. Why? Because they will attempt so called kleptoparasitism whenever the chance occurs! What does it mean? They will try to steal the food from other sea birds. I have seen it in action and it is quite intimidating. Know that the Great Frigatebird cannot be seen on all islands.
My favorite bird is probably the brown pelican. There is something so majestic about this bird. It is not an endemic species, but still…. I just like the bird and their lovely efficient way they hunt for fish.
But to be quite fair I also love the albatross! These birds stick to the same partner for their entire lives, though they only come together to breed. Each year anew, upon seeing themselves again, they perform extensive courtship rituals. Whenever I saw those it almost made me cry. Such devotion to long-term relationship is beyond amazing! Albatross can only be seen on Española.
I want to close this somewhat brief and by no means extensive list of animals you can observe on Galápagos with the Sally Lightfoot Crab. This brightly colored grab can be found throughout the whole archipelago. Some of them get very big (almost 30cm), but they are, generally speaking, very shy, as is the nature of most crabs.
I already mentioned that Galápagos is very volcanic. Still the landscape is nevertheless extreme beautiful, mostly because it is so very pristine. No house, no roads, no other ugly marks we humans left behind.
Lava can be seen all over the Galápagos Islands. The wildlife perfectly adapted to these harsh surroundings, forming an increasingly exiting juxtaposition.
In fact there are still a lot of active volcanos. During my visit I saw the Wolf Volcano spitting fire. It was quite the sight to behold, even from afar.
Nature, however, always reclaims the land that has been devastated. Looking over one of the many flooded calderas, with flamingo sifting through the lukewarm water, it is hard to doubt this is paradise on earth.
The beauty continues underground: The Galápagos Islands are crisscrossed with underground lava-tubes. On Isabella Islands there are a couple of places where you can visit them. Walking through these so called lava tubes is quite intimidating, but you should definitely put it on your list of things to do!
Sometimes, the landscape itself will remind you of all the dangers. The Galápagos Islands are a true gem. Let’s hope that responsible tourism will enable them to persist a while longer.
Accommodations & hotels for Galapagos
I already mentioned that in my opinion the only feasible way to visit the Galápagos Islands is via cruise. You will not be able to see the wildlife via the land way and you are required to be supervised by a licensed guides when visiting the different landing zones.
I am, to be quite honest, no fan of cruises. Actually I hate them. But on Galápagos there is no way around them. You will save yourself a lot of trouble and probably money. Sure the hotels will be cheaper initally. But also fact in that chartering your own boat each and every day certainly won’t be cheaper in the long run. There are two cruise ships I can recommend: The Celebrity Xpedition and the Silver Sea. I wrote an extensive review of the Celebrity Xpedition here. Both have excellent guides (actually called ‘Naturalists’) and very lovely state rooms. Both ships are small expedition ships, meaning you will be on board with hundred and not thousands of other guests.
I did, however, stay a couple of days on Isabela. The hotel I picked was the Royal Palm Galapagos. It is actually quite the lovely hotel located right in the middle of the islands. They have their own private lava tunnel. Personally speaking there are not a lot of impressive hotels to be found on the Galápagos Islands. So if you have to pick one, then the Royal Palm is certainly the most luxurious one you can pick.
What to Pack for the Galápagos Islands
I usually hate packing tips. In fact I once wrote a lengthy article why I hate all these “packing light” guides floating the internet. But, as visiting the Galápagos Islands is more like an expedition, the question of what to pack arises indeed. So here are a few tips.
- Waterproof sandals (wet landings!)
- Comfortable walking shoes fit for harsh volcanic soil
- Sun screen (equatorial sun and flaring water is no good combination for your skin)
- A wide brimmed hat with a strap to secure it (to protect your skin)
- Fast drying cloths (you will get wet!), clothes should have (optional) long sleeves for protection against the sun and insect bites
- A waterproof (camera) bag or small rucksack
- A water canteen (it’s very hot so you need to carry around water)
- Loads of memory cards for your camera, because you WILL take thousands of pictures
Check out my full guide on what to pack for Galapagos here.
What you don’t need
- Chic clothing (even on the cruise ships everyone is wearing outdoor stuff)
- Binoculars (except you’re an avid bird watching fan; even then everything is very, very close)
Best time to visit Galápagos
To be quite honest with you, there really is no ‘best time to visit the Galápagos Islands”, as the islands are located directly on the equator and the weather will be lovely throughout the year. Animals will show themselves in abundance as well, no matter when you plan to make your trip to Galápagos. Also the national park severely limits the amount of visitors, so there is nothing like a high season either.
A few things can be said, however. Between December and May things will be warmer, but it will also rain a bit more. Despite that it is the sunniest time of the year. The warm weather and water will be lovely for snorkeling. On the downside you will be able to see more fish during the colder days between June and November, because the fish prefer the cold water the Humboldt Current is bringing to the Galápagos Islands during that time. The sea might be a big rougher during that time, so if you are prone to get seasick I’d stick to the first half of the year.
Sea birds generally mate during the colder seasons (as there are more fish), while tortoise, sea lions and land birds mate during the rain(ier) season.
Bottom line: All seasons have their small advantages and disadvantages, but it will be beautiful no matter when you go.
Last thoughts on the Galápagos Islands
I have, quite honestly, never in my life experienced such natural beauty as I have seen on the Galápagos – and I have seen quite a lot. Getting so intimate with these beautiful animals and seeing evolution at work left me speechless. Despite of what you might think, I am not a good photographer. I usually shoot on auto-mode and am happy when one out of a hundred pictures turns out decent. Yet on the Galápagos Islands it was so easy to score those money shots.
The Galápagos Islands truly over-delivered on their promise. I could not think of a single reason not to go. Okay, the price for the better Galápagos cruises are quite extravagant, I’ll admit that. But believe me: it is so worth saving up for a visit!
That has been my guide to the Galápagos Islands. Any questions open? Do ask them in the comments below. Liked it? Share it on social media!