With these Galapagos Islands travel tips, your next adventure to the Enchanted Islands will be unforgettable.
We had left early in the afternoon, bound for a steep trail up the mountain. With my hiking boots on, a bottle of water in my backpack and a hat that kept the warm equator sun off my face, we set off along the jungle trail. Mist and humidity clung to me, making it seem like I was drenched in sweat.
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Only a few more metres and we crested the mountain and looked upon one of the most amazing sights. A caldera, so massive you could barely see the other side. I sat on the grass to catch my breath and smiled. I was in the Galapagos and in this moment, it was like a dream come true.
In my second year of university, I learned about this magical place called the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin was inspired to write his life-changing book, On the Origin of Species. It seemed like a far off, inaccessible place, but if fact, if you have the time and resources, going to the Galapagos is possible. Before you go, you need to educate yourself on everything you need to know about travelling to the Galapagos.
This Galapagos guide will help you plan for your next trip to the Galapagos Islands, with important tips, things to do on the islands and what to pack for your trip.
Where are the Galapagos Islands?
Set over 900kms off the coast of Ecuador, South America, the Galapagos Islands are one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world. You’ll see species here that you’ll find nowhere else on Earth and experience geological formations that are unique to the area.
Twenty-one volcanic islands make up the archipelago, which is situated on the equator in the Pacific Ocean atop the Galapagos Triple Junction, the meeting place of three tectonic plates. The islands were formed from volcanic activity from this Junction, and with 21 volcanoes (13 active volcanoes) you can be sure that you’ll come across evidence of volcanic activity on the Islands.
There are four regions within the islands:
- The coastline – where lava flows create rocky beaches and the mangroves provide shelter for many animals
- The highlands – where the rich volcanic soil has created a dense forest along the sides of the volcanoes
- The arid zones – where the poor volcanic soil is home to millions of cacti and dozens of hearty species that live there.
- The ocean – where the productive Humboldt current brings a year-round supply of nutrient making it abundant with life.
Of the 21 islands, only five are inhabited. A national park protects over 97 per cent of the archipelago.
Why should you go to the Galapagos Islands?
Not only do the Galapagos Islands have an incredibly diverse landscape, with jungle, cacti, volcanic rock, beaches, cities and more, you’ll also find some of the most amazing animals all over the island.
From sea lions to penguins to giant tortoises to marine iguanas, the biodiversity in Galapagos is outstanding. It’s no Caribbean island getaway. The fragile ecosystem, which many of the Islands’ inhabitants are striving to protect, is something to experience for yourself.
So whether you want to come for the wildlife, the landscapes, or the experience of being in the heart of an incredible ecosystem, the Galapagos is a bucket list item that you definitely need to check off. Now you know why you want to go, let’s discuss some Galapagos Islands travel tips to make the most of your time there.
Galapagos Islands wildlife guide
No Galapagos Islands travel tips guide would be complete without mentioning the incredible animals that call these islands home.
The Galapagos Islands were both mysterious and captivating to Charles Darwin, who was inspired to write about his observations in his book On the Origins of Species. The islands have changed in the centuries since his last visit, but the biodiversity hasn’t.
This remote, archipelago is home to a massive variety of wildlife, both above the surface and below it. The Galapagos Islands are one of the greatest places on earth to interact (at a distance) with the wild animals – most of which you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
For more information about Galapagos Islands astounding wildlife, visit the Galapagos Conservation Trust here.
Galapagos Islands animals in the sky
Galapagos Hawk: This powerful predator, closely related to the white-tailed hawks of North America, hunts a wide variety of prey on the island like rodents, lizards and other birds. They are mostly seen year-round on Isabela and Fernandina Islands.
Darwin’s Finches: 13 species make up Darwin’s Finches on the Galapagos Islands, made famous from the naturalist’s studies. Some of the famous ones are the Mangrove Finch, common cactus finch, medium ground finch, and the sharp-beaked ground finch, known colloquially as the vampire finch. The variety of Darwin’s Finches are found all over the archipelago.
Galapagos Flamingo: Technically named the American Flamingo, this particular group of flamingos in the Galapagos are smaller than their counterparts in the rest of the world. It’s really fun to watch them feed since they eat with their head upside-down.
Mocking Birds: This bird was the first to be described by Charles Darwin, and his observation of the different birds all over the islands was used to formulate his idea on evolution by natural selection. You’ll be able to find this bird on several of the islands, including the most elusive on Floreana.
Blue Footed Booby: These funny little creatures are one of three booby species found in the Galapagos. But these, identified by their brightly coloured feet, and world famous. North Seymour is said to be the best place to see them; however, there are breeding areas on many of the other islands.
Magnificent Frigate birds: Known for its massive red throat, the Magnificent Frigate Birds are massive agile birds that hand out on the coastline. You’ll be able to spot them near Puerto Ayora in the mangroves.
Land-based animals in the Galapagos
Marine Iguana: These black iguanas are the only marine lizards in the world. They bask in the sun on the hot black rocks of the volcanic coastline of most islands, where they blend in really well. They dive into the sea to feed on the algae clinging to the rocks. The males end up changing colour during mating season. And you’ll see them shake their heads and snort out salt.
Galapagos Land Iguana: These fiery colours iguanas are massive land reptiles that can be found on several islands.
Giant Tortoise: There are 15 species of Giant Tortoise, arguably the most popular resident of the Galapagos. The most famous was Lonesome George, who died in 2012. You’ll be able to see them in the highlands of Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela.
Lava Lizard: Lava lizards are one of the most abundant reptiles in the archipelago and can be spotted almost everywhere. Their heads and throats are bright red, and they even sit on top of other reptiles.
Marine animals in the Galapagos
Galapagos Green Turtle: These turtle breed and nest in the Galapagos, making them a common sighting to the islands. While snorkelling in Florenea, I lost count of how many sea turtles I saw. They can be found in the waters around most of the islands.
Galapagos Fur Seal: Similar to the Sea Lion, these furry mammals often lounge in the shallow waters or coastlines of the islands. You can tell them apart by their flatter head and larger ears.
Galapagos Penguin: The Galapagos Penguin is one of the smallest and most northerly occurring penguins in the world. They mostly live in the caves along the coastlines. While I spotted a few, I never ended up getting a great picture. They are mostly found on Isabela and Fernandina Islands.
Sally Lightfoot Crab: Look out for these brightly colour crustaceans, found on the beaches and coastline of many of the islands. They are super agile and are so important to the beach ecosystem.
Galapagos Sea Lion: Full of personality, these large mammals are incredibly popular in the Galapagos. They often sleep on the beaches, boats and piers. While they seem awkward on land, in the sea, they are agile and fast hunters.
Whale Shark: When I go back to the islands, and I will, it will be to see the infamous whale shark. The largest fish in the ocean, these gentle giants are regular visitors to the oceans around the islands. If you’ve seen the recent Planet Earth episodes, you’ll know that where and how they give birth is a mystery, but they do know that pregnant females come to the Galapagos, meaning they likely give birth in the area. They are mostly found near Wolf and Darwin islands.
Blacktip shark: These warm water sharks are identifiable by the black tips on their fins and tails. You can sometimes see them from the ferry pier of Santa Cruz and the shallow waters around Isabela.
Are the Galapagos Islands safe?
After travelling to several countries, I have to say that the Galapagos Islands tops the list of where I felt most safe at all times of the day.
The Islands have a laid back vibe that you won’t find anywhere else. The people were generally helpful and friendly, and even at night, the towns were comfortable. On the other hand, Quito, Ecuador’s capital did not give me the same feeling. If you are travelling from Quito to Galapagos, just be aware of your surroundings and on the lookout for fake taxis.
Once you’re on the islands, you’ll be able to relax. However, you are required to travel to the Galapagos with travel insurance. Keep that in mind when you prepare for travelling to the Galapagos Islands.
On the islands, the only thing you need to be worried about is getting lost, especially if you are travelling in the remote areas of the islands. Stay with your guide and don’t wander off the path.
What you need to know about travelling to the Galapagos
These Galapagos Islands travel tips aren’t just for your sake but also for the sake of the fragile ecosystem on the islands. Almost the entire archipelago is declared a natural park and reserve, protecting the islands from further development and committing the government to preserve the natural habitat. Before leaving for the islands, you will have to pay a $20 USD fee (in cash) for a Transit Control Card that allows you to fly to the Galapagos. You will also have to pay $100 USD in cash when you land in the Galapagos Islands. This is the park entry fee that goes towards maintenance, conservation, ecological study and infrastructure development.
You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the National Park rules. You’ll hear these over and over again, but it’s amazing how many people ignored them.
Important rules include practice “leave no trace” principles, travel only with official guides, maintain a distance of six feet from all wildlife, do not use flash photography, pack out all trash, and do not buy souvenirs made from banned substances like coral, lava rock or animal parts. You can read the whole list here.
There are strict regulations about what can be imported and exported from Galapagos, so be prepared to have your bags thoroughly searched as you enter and exit by biosecurity officers.
How to travel to the Galapagos
There are only three airlines that service the Galapagos Islands, TAME, LAN-Ecuador and Avianca. You will need to buy a return ticket because they won’t let you stay without one! Flights from Quito usually stop at Guayaquil before departing for the islands.
You will most likely land at Seymour Airport on Baltra Island. Once you’re out of the airport, you’ll see a desolate moon-like landscape with a couple of cacti scattered here and there. But once you take the short water taxi at Itabaca Channel from Baltra Island to Santa Cruz Island, you’ll find Puerto Ayora, one of the major “cities” on the archipelago.
Should you book a tour for the Galapagos?
One of the best Galapagos Islands travel tips is to take a tour around islands. Not only will it make visiting the islands more accessible, but you’ll also be given local knowledge, as most of the guides are from the islands.
Travelling with tours are useful especially for those who work full time and have limited vacation days. Tours will give you the best way to see the islands, visiting places you may not have access to without them. Plus, many natural sites are off-limits for visitors without official national park guides.
Technically you can travel to the Galapagos Islands without a tour. However, you will need an itinerary and reservations to show at the airport. The agents may not let you in without one.
There are two types of tours for visiting the Galapagos Islands. One is land-based the other is a water-based cruise.
In the land-based tour, you stay at accommodations at several towns on the islands and venture out through day trips. To get to the islands, you’ll likely travel by small boat.
The advantages to land-based tours in the Galapagos Islands are:
- You get to experience life on multiple islands
- You can interact with the local community
- It’s a more economical option
- More interaction with land-based animals, like tortoises, finches and more
The disadvantages are that land-based tours spend quite a bit of time travelling between islands. A speed boat can take nearly 2.5 hours to travel between the big three, and the waters are choppy from December to May.
The advantages to a cruise tour of the Galapagos Islands are:
- You can stay unpacked throughout the entire time
- The cruises take advantage of the night for travelling between islands, so you’ll have all day for exploring
- Most cruises will have equipment like wetsuits and snorkels on board.
The disadvantages are seasickness (enough said), cost and set schedules for on-land activities.
Why G Adventures?
There are two reasons why I recommend G Adventures, one of the best Galapagos Islands tour companies, for your tour of Galapagos Islands. First, the tour gives you a great overview of the islands in a small group setting with a national park guide who is extremely knowledgeable with the archipelago and its inhabitants.
Second, G Adventures supports community projects through their foundation Planeterra. On this trip, you visit the island of Florenea and visit with the small community that lives there. You’ll stay in a community guesthouse and dine in the community restaurants.
It was awesome to sit and talk with some of the local Ecuadorians. Our host had lived on the islands for 50 years and offered insight into what it was like living on an island of only 100 people. It’s a small way to say thank you to the wonderful people who live and care for the islands.
Where do you go on this tour?
On the G Adventures Island Hopping with Quito tour, you get to visit four islands of the archipelago, Baltra, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana. On the islands, you’ll see the Charles Darwin Research Station, Las Grietas swimming hole, a tortoise refuge in the highlands of Floreana, Sierra Negra, a Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre, Tortuga Bay and more.
With this Galapagos Islands itinerary, you will experience both the island life in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil and hike inland to volcanoes and highlands. You’ll even get up-close experiences with the famous Galapagos wildlife, like two incredible snorkelling excursions.
The Galapagos Islands itinerary with G Adventures details are:
On day one, you meet in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. Nothing is planned for this day, so be sure to get out and explore the beautiful the city that sits in a valley of the Andes Mountains. Be sure to check out the equator at the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo and the Intiñan Solar Museum.
Did you know: Quito, Ecuador is the highest capital city located on the equator at 2,850m above sea level. It also means you might experience altitude sickness. Just take it easy and don’t strain yourself on your first day!
Today you will make the journey with the group to catch a flight to the Galapagos. You will arrive at Seymour Airport on Baltra Island where you’ll meet your guide for the remainder of the tour. After taking a water taxi at Itabaca Channel from Baltra Island to Santa Cruz Island, you’ll travel to Puerto Ayora and get settled into your hotel.
You’ll have some free time, so be sure to explore the city and head to the water to observe the playful sea lions and marine iguanas. Next, you’ll visit the Charles Darwin Research Station where you can observe many native species of Galapagos, like the giant tortoises that have been brought back from extinction, land iguanas and more.
In the morning you’ll don your swimsuit and walk to Las Grietas, a swimming hole in a channel that was cut off from the sea. To get there, you’ll pass a cactus forest and salt field.
In the afternoon, get your stomachs ready for a two-hour speed boat ride to Floreana Island. When you get there, you’ll be introduced to your host, one of the few residents that call this island home. You’ll have some free time to explore the main hub of Puerto Velazco Ibarra.
For dinner, you’ll eat at one of the few community restaurants. The food was incredible, and I had one of the best meals on this island. Because you’re at the equator, the sun sets around the same time every day, so be sure to catch the sunset on Playa Negra.
RELATED: Visit Galapagos: Floreana Island
Today, you’ll take your first snorkelling adventure. You have to take a short walk to La Loberia, a rocky beach where, once in the water, you’ll find some of the best snorkelling on the island. The shallow water is the perfect habitat for underwater creatures like sea turtles and stingrays. I lost count of the number of sea turtles I saw, they were everywhere, grazing on the abundant algae in the shallow water.
In the afternoon you’ll head up to the highlands of Floreana, where you’ll hear about the incredible tales of pirates, whalers, buccaneers and the first inhabitants of this island. You’ll also see the only fresh water spring in the entire archipelago and a tortoise corral preserve.
Say goodbye to the best island in the Galapagos, because today you’ll be heading to the largest island, Isabela Island. You’ll don your hiking boots and head up the active Sierra Negra volcano, the largest volcanic crater in the Galapagos. You’ll be able to walk around part of the rim. I was there before the last eruption in June 2018, which blew out part of the crater and spewed lava west into the sea.
After the hike, you’re going to want to dust yourself off (Seriously, I was covered in red dirt for days), then head into Puerto Villamil where you’ll find plenty of restaurants for dinner!
You’ll have some free time in the morning to do some optional activities. One of which is snorkelling at Los Tuneles. It’s a 45-minute boat ride, which was a little longer due to the fact that we ran into a migrating fever of manta rays. You could see the tips of their “wings” surface, and since they are nearly three metres wide, they are hard to miss. We killed the engine and watched them for a while.
Getting to Los Tuneles is… well, it was terrifying. The drivers of the boat were very skilled, but they basically had to ride a wave into the calm part of the ocean where we could anchor. I closed my eyes the whole time.
Los Tuneles is an isolated volcanic formation known for its blue-footed booby nests and the plethora of wildlife living in the lava tunnels. We saw eagle rays, sea turtles, sharks, schools of colourful fish, an eel and even a teeny tiny sea horse.
I have to thank Pahoehoe tours for capturing such great images since my Sony Action Cam died while I was in the water.
In the afternoon, you’ll head to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre, where there are baby giant tortoises, which look exactly like the older ones except miniaturized. On the way back, you’ll stop at the wetlands to observe pink flamingos, then walk along the stunning sandy beach to a beach bar for sunset.
This is where I broke my arm in two places, which looking back is a hilarious story. Shout out to G Adventures for being so awesome during the ordeal.
I don’t have a clear memory of this day since I was in a lot of pain, but I do remember heading back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island and having some free time in town.
While the rest of the group travelled to Tortuga Bay, a long sandy white beach where you could learn how to surf, kayak or swim in the beautiful water, I made my way to the hospital to get my arm looked at. Again, it’s a hilarious story.
In our last night, the group went to Charles Binford Street, which at night, transforms into an open-air restaurant experience. The dozens of restaurants put out tables and chairs down the road and serve the masses. We had incredible, melt in your mouth seafood. I was still a little out of it from getting my arm re-set, but I enjoyed the great conversation and connecting with the awesome people who were on the tour with me.
It was time to say goodbye to the Enchanted Islands and head back to Quito. Be sure to get some last minute sightseeing in before heading back home. A couple of us stayed an extra night, opting to fly out the next day. It was Sunday, so it was hard to find a place to eat, but eventually we found a beautiful “Italian” restaurant for dinner that was shockingly cheap to eat at. I mean there were white linens and waiters with bowties.
Where will you stay?
On the Island hopping tour, you stay at two small hotels in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil.
Located in the heart of Puerto Ayora, Grand Hotel Lobo de Mar was a great place to stay, with views overlooking the bay. Walking out the front door, you’re just steps from some of the main sights of the city, like San Francisco Park, the Seafood Market, Charles Darwin Research Station and the ferry terminal.
The Gran Hostal Tintorera in Puerto Villamil was a comfortable place to call home for a couple of days. I enjoyed relaxing in the hammocks after the long hike to Sierra Negra. While it was a little further from the centre of town, it was still an easy 10-minute jaunt to restaurants.
Floreana Island was my favourite, with a quaint guesthouse in the middle of Puerto Velazco Ibarra. The host of our guesthouse had lived on the island for 50 years. We sat around his house on hammocks and tree stumps, speaking in broken English and Spanish. He offered a wonderful insight into what it was like to live on such an isolated island in such a small community.
We laughed together as the Wi-Fi was the best on this remote island and a couple of children watched Maleficent on a TV next door.
How much money will you need?
One of the important Galapagos Islands travel tips is to know that cash is king in the Galapagos. The islands are remote, and there are not too many opportunities to take out money. Ecuador uses US dollars for currency. You’ll need $120 USD in cash to pay for your transit control card and the National Park fee.
The G Adventures tour covers eight breakfasts, one lunch and two dinners, that means you’ll need enough money to cover costs for seven lunches and six dinners. The restaurants were very well priced, with prices ranging from $8 USD to $18 USD.
I even had enough left over cash to buy two souvenirs, locally-made stud earrings in the shape of sea lions, and a beautiful handmade hammock that I treasure.
You’ll also want to bring some money to tip your guide!
What should you pack?
You now have all the Galapagos Islands travel tips to get there smoothly and have an awesome time. But now it’s time to figure out what to pack!
The thing is, you’re going to want to pack as light as possible and preferably in a backpack. You’re going to be in and out of boats whether you’re on a land-based tour or cruise. Every time you lift your heavy suitcase from the hold of the boat you’re going to scream “Why didn’t I listen to Olivia?!”
The Galapagos Islands are unique; that’s why it can be hard to figure out what to pack. Think of how you’ll be spending your trip. You’ll want to forgo any fancy clothing because you’ll be getting dusty, sweaty and wet.
Bring quick-drying activewear, like these, a rain jacket or windbreaker and some sturdy walking or hiking shoes. You’ll also want to bring a swimsuit for under a wetsuit. My advice is a one-piece since you’re going to be peeling off a wetsuit and you don’t want to peel off your bikini with it.
You might also consider bringing a dry bag to protect your camera gear while you’re on the water.
Galapagos Islands travel tips – Essential Info:
Travelling to the Galapagos can be worry-free with a little bit of research. These Galapagos Islands travel tips will help you with your trip to the Enchanted Islands from start to finish.
Currency: US Dollar
When is the best time to go to the Galapagos Islands? The great thing about being on the equator is that the Galapagos is warm all year. The islands are not tropical and have two distinct seasons. The hot and rainy season is from December to June. A Humboldt Current reaches the Galapagos at this time, making the water cooler and choppier. The “cool” and dry season is from July to November. I say cool, but the weather was still pretty warm. But you can tell it’s the dry season once you get into the highlands of each island. I went in late November, early December. It was sunny most of the time, but near the end, we started seeing more and more clouds.
How much does it cost to go to the Galapagos Islands? It’s not cheap. A tour can run you anywhere from $1,500 to tens of thousands of dollars for luxury cruises. The G Adventure Island Hopping tour with Quito ranges from $2,850 to $3,020 CAD based on the time of year you want to go. Flights to Quito are around $700 to $1,000 CAD. You’ll also need to factor in how much cash you would like to bring. Remember you have to pay $120 USD before you even leave Seymour Airport on the islands.
A trip to the Galapagos Islands will be unforgettable, and with these Galapagos Islands travel tips, you’ll be sure to have a worry-free trip from start to finish!
Anything you want to know about travelling to the Galapagos Islands? Let me know in the comment below!