The Galapagos Islands  are a small archipelago of islands and part of Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The islands are quite remote and isolated, lying some 1000 km (620 miles) west of the South American continent. The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller islets, a total land mass of about 7900 sq km (4900 sq ml).
The Galapagos National Park comprises about 97% percent of the land mass of the islands. Less than 1% of the islands is permanently inhabited and another roughly 3% is privately owned land mostly inherited by the descendants of subsistence farmers that first permanently settled the islands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
40 nautical miles of shore extends the Galapagos Marine Reserve which covers some 138000 sq km (85800 sq ml) a world renown safe haven for a myriad of endemic and native marine organisms protected from industrial fishing.
The Galápagos archipelago is world-renowned for its unique and fearless wildlife- much of which was inspiration for Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. The islands are therefore very popular amongst natural historians, both professional and amateur. Giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and different bird species can all be seen and approached. The landscape of the islands is relatively barren and volcanic, but beautiful nonetheless. The highest mountain amongst the islands is Volcán Wolf on Isla Isabela, 1707 m (5600ft) high.
The Galápagos were claimed by newly-independent Ecuador in 1832, a mere three years before Darwin's visit on the Beagle. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the islands were inhabited by very few settlers and were used as a penal colony, the last closing in 1959 when the islands were declared a national park. The Galapagos were subsequently listed as a World Heritage Site in 1978.
Strict controls on tourist access are maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats and all visitors must be accompanied by a national park-certified naturalist tour guide.
The Galapagos Islands have a highly variable climate, as does Ecuador's mainland. There are two seasons in the archipelago:
The hot season (December to June) is when humidity is high and average temperatures are in the 80's °F (26-30 °C). There may be occasional showers, but the days are generally warm and sunny. Vegetation is blossoming during this time, turning the islands a vivid shade of green and increasing wildlife activity on land. Seas are generally calm and warmer than the second half of the year.
The dry season (June to December) sees cooler winds and currents, occasionally bringing with them a light misty-type drizzle called "garúa." Temperatures average in the 70's °F (20-24 °C) during the day and may get even cooler at night. The islands become rather arid during this time, but sea creatures are bustling more than ever with the arrival of nutrient-rich currents and upwellings. Winds can occasionally cause choppy seas, especially out in open water between the islands.
Each month brings unique climate variations and wildlife viewing opportunities, but the most important thing to remember is that the Galapagos Islands are a year-round destination. No matter when you choose to go, there will always be something to see.
Peak season for cruise tours is typically December and the summer months of June, July and August. February to May and September to November are typically regarded as low season. For divers peak season is from July - November when whale sharks can be found at Wolf & Darwin.
Visiting the Galapagos is not cheap, owing to travel restrictions and the remote nature of the archipelago. The only way to get in the islands from the main land is by plane from Guayaquil or Quito airports. Flights travel to the Galapagos in the morning and return in the afternoon, typically requiring a forced overnight on the continent in each direction.
Flights to the Galapagos are relatively easy to arrange and depart from Quito (UIO) and Guayaquil (GYE) on a daily basis to San Cristóbal (SCY) and Isla Baltra Airport (GPS). At San Cristóbal the airport is 1 kilometer from the center of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno the capital of the Galapagos Province. Isla Baltra Airport is about two hours by public transport from Puerto Ayora, the largest town of the Galapagos, on the central island of Santa Cruz.
Tame, AVIANCA, and LATAM operate flights to the Galapagos. The price varies a bit between companies, for foreigners around $457 from Quito in low season / $505-$512 in high season (July, August and December) and less from Guayaquil, $419 low season to $522 in high season. There is a 13% discount on TAME flights and a 20% discount on AVIANCA flights if you have an ISIC student card.
Note: In the case of Galapagos cruise tours, visitors can opt to have their airfare included in the price of their tour package, sometimes even for a considerable discount. Booking your flight directly with a reputable tour operator also guarantees that your cruise won't depart without you (in the event that your flight gets delayed, etc.), as is policy.
It's not possible to buy a one way ticket without proof of transportation from the islands. It's easy however to change the date of your return ticket or to switch your departure to another island.
Step by step procedures at NEW Quito airport (Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Tababela)
Procedure for flying from NEW Quito airport to Galapagos (as of April 2014):
1. Begin at the domestic ("nacional") terminal. Go to the far end of the domestic terminal.
2. Next to some ticket ("boleto") booths (TAME, LAN etc.) there is a booth where you obtain your $20 INGALA Transit Control Card. After you buy your $20 INGALA card, look for a smaller door to your immediate right. A pre-registry is needed in http://preregistro.gobiernogalapagos.gob.ec:8082/SentinelAeropuertos/
3. Go through the smaller door and have your bags checked for banned agricultural products. They basically scan your bags. You need to do this before checking in and getting your tickets in Step 4.
NOTE: There is a separate $100 park entrance fee to pay when you land in Galapagos. Make sure you have cash for that as they will not accept Visa. Be aware that when booking your cruise or journey to Galapagos with certain tour operators, you can often have this fee, as well as the INGALA, included and paid for as part of your tour.
4. Now you proceed to the ticket counter and do the typical ticket counter things.
5. Then go through security opposite the ticket counter. They are only looking for metal. So you don't need to take off your shoes (unless they contain metal), remove your computer from your bag, or empty your water bottle.
By private boat
Special arrangements have to be made if traveling to the islands aboard a private yacht. Arrival preparations have to be made 60 days prior under the representation of a local agent. Customs can be cleared in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and Puerto Ayora, although private boats can arrive into any of the 5 ports in Galapagos while in transit and remain at that port for a maximum of 21 days. Yachts wishing to visit more than one site or cruise the islands may do so but only by special permit from the national park and by working with a licensed yacht agency.
There are cargo boats that travel to the Galapagos each week. However these boats are not allowed to take travelers on board.
By far the cheapest way to travel between towns is by boat.
Many small companies with offices in every larger town operate small speed boats (apx. 25 passengers) every morning and afternoon to and from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in San Cristobal (Galapagos) island and Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz (Galapagos) island, and to and from Puerto Villamil in Isabela (Galapagos) island and Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz (Galapagos). Note that there is no regular direct boat service between San Cristobal Island and Isabela Island.
There is no regular public service to Floreana island even though some companies will offer some transportation to and from seasonally from Santa Cruz Island.
During the dry season (May-December) the two to two and a half hour boat ride can be particularly rough due to choppier seas, this in combination with the high speed of the boats (~20kts) makes trying moving around in the boat unadvisable or impossible since most boats have barely enough space for all passengers to sit down (take sea sickness medication half an hour before embarking if needed). Most boats offer only partial sun cover so dress accordingly, pre-apply sun cream and bring plenty of water as the small plastic water bottle that you get handed over half way through the trip might not be enough.
Inter island transportation is a government sponsored oligopoly and so all one-way tickets cost $30 independent of which company you buy from.
As you embark and disembark via aquatic taxi you might be required to pay an extra $0.50 to $1 to the taxi driver. Only on Isabela there is a one time landing fee or "pier tax" of $20 for foreign visitors.
Its very important to ask for a proper receipt (in case of any claims) and a ticket in exchange for your money. Despite recent improvements there has been instances in which "reservations" are not honored, trips are overbooked, or items have been stolen from stowed luggage. None of these occurrences are typical in any way but its better to take precautions.
Operators usually ask passengers to identify themselves at the pier with a representative after the mandatory luggage inspections, half an hour before departure.
EMETEBE Airlines and Fly Galapagos are non-schedule air-taxi services that offer flights to and from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in San Cristobal (Galapagos) island, Baltra north of Santa Cruz (Galapagos) island, and Puerto Villamil in Isabela (Galapagos) island. These air services make up tentative schedules for which you can buy tickets for. And so, schedules can be modified so as to fit more flights in case of high demand or worst case scenario flights might be cancelled or re scheduled. This is definitely a more comfortable transportation option despite not being the most reliable and still it is more expensive.
Flight times are between 30 and 40 minutes from point to point. Transfer to the airport from Puerto Ayora adds 1 hour by taxi or up to 2 hours by public bus. Some flights are operated as combi flights and might stop in an intermediate destination adding one to one and a half hours to travel time.
Flights usually range $160-$170 each way or $260 round trip. As of 2018 there is sale offices for both companies in town in Puerto Villamil and Puerto Ayora. In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno Emetebe's sales are done at their hangar at the airport and Fly Galapagos has an office in town. Representatives are available for sale and costumer service at the airports only close to departure times.
while in the National Park
The Galalapagos National Park comprises about 97% of the land mass of the islands. Landing on most of the almost 100 visitor sites requires being part of an organized group with an approved itinerary and a GNP Licensed Naturalist Guide for every 16 people visiting.
The only exception to this rule are the Public Access sites which are usually in buffer zones between the National Park and inhabited areas. Even though there is no requirement for a Naturalist Guide you still have to stay in designated pathways and respect the natural environment and fellow visitors as in any other part of the National Park. Swimming, snorkeling and surfing might be allowed but be careful as most public access beaches don't have lifeguards on duty.
while in inhabited areas
All distances within settlements in the Galapagos can be easily walked. You can easily walk across towns in 30 minutes. For longer distances like between the main towns and the small settlements in the highlands (longer distances+fast elevation gain) taxis (mostly white pick up trucks, except in Isabela) can easily be hailed down on the side of the road or called for from lodgings and restaurants. Set prices start at $1.5 and cabs can be taken up to half day charters to public access sites around the islands. For intermediate distances, increased mobility and fun downhill excursions around the highlands bikes can be rented at different shops in town. Haggling is not common in Galapagos but its still a good idea to ask at different shops to get a feeling of what the average prices are.
On each island, the number of visitors are limited and there are only a small number of official landing and visitor sites. You must follow the instructions of your guide to protect the wildlife and you are not allowed off the marked paths. This is not a problem as the animals are so tame they will sit right on the path or cross it without caring about mere tourists.
The Charles Darwin foundation  administers several research stations throughout the islands, including a large station in Puerto Ayora that is worth visiting for its animal and natural history exhibits, the Galapagos Interpretation Center in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and the Tortoise Breeding Center are the most interesting of the breeding centers in Puerto Villamil.
A very small island teemed with great views and wildlife next to its neighbour San Salvador (James) island. The most photographed view of the islands is found here, the famous Pinnacle Rock and the distant islands. A wooden staircase allows us to gradually ascend to the top of this large cone, without adding physical damage (erosion) to the path itself. This small island offers plenty of rewarding activities.
Wildlife highlights: Being a young island, it only allows pioneer species to conquer and thrive here. Geology and scenery are fascinating. Pinnacle Rock is by all means the best photographic attraction.
Galapagos cruises are the only option for experiencing the majority of the remote islands and endemic, iconic wildlife.
Keep in mind that the word "cruise" in Galapagos should not be confused with the traditional, "colossally-sized" cruise ships you often see in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. In fact, Galapagos vessels are among some of the smallest cruises in the world. Why? The Galapagos National Park limits all vessels in Galapagos to a maximum capacity of 100 passengers (50 cabins) per boat. Compare that number to your typical cruise liner, with its thousands of cabins, and you can easily see just how much smaller Expedition Vessels in Galapagos really are.
And although the Galapagos Islands are a beautiful and once-in-a-lifetime destination, keep in mind that no matter what boat you opt for, most of your cruise will be spent exploring the islands (as opposed to spending the majority of your time onboard). Remember: the Galapagos Islands are an Expedition Destination.
Some people deliberate whether they should go for a small yacht or a larger, multi-guided Expedition Vessel. Both have their own unique set of advantages and disadvantages.
Galapagos Yachts & Recreational Vessels:
For those who prefer a more intimate experience onboard and on the islands, you might consider choosing a small yacht. Small yachts in Galapagos typically consist of sailboats or motor yachts that offer personalized service, with one Naturalist Guide catering up to 16 guests at a time. You can find luxury and comfort on Galapagos Catamarans.38
Smaller yachts are often seen as having less of an impact on the fragile Galapagos environment due to the number of passengers they carry. Keep in mind, however, that they often aren't the only yacht to set at anchor at each visitor site.
For those looking to experience a greater level of safety, sociability, amenities, stability and spaciousness aboard their vessel, then Galapagos Expedition Vessels are perhaps the best way to go. These are some of the largest vessels in Galapagos and are limited to carrying up to 100 passengers.
Galapagos Expedition Vessels often times offer plenty of more space and comfort when it comes to the vessel itself. They also offer a greater variety of services and amenities. Not to mention, they have a higher number of Naturalist Guides onboard, meaning they a.) offer a wider range of simultaneous activities throughout each day and b.) have smaller excursion groups. Multi-guided Expedition Vessels also have the added benefit of offering different languages for different groups.
In some cases, Expedition Vessels even have a dedicated Hotel Manager and Medical Officer onboard.
Consider chartering any one of these vessels if you are a family, a group of students, a corporation, a club, on a honeymoon or even just a solo traveler. The Galapagos are pretty much open to any and all groups of people wishing to explore the Galapagos Islands, and Expedition Vessels are one of the most comfortable ways to explore them.
The following is a shortlist of the sights and activities you’ll get to experience aboard cruises in the Galapagos:
Don’t forget that all vessels, big or small, are required to have at least one certified naturalist guide for every 16 passengers (or less) that they have aboard. Something else is that every single vessel has a fixed itinerary for the year which is established and approved by the Galapagos National Park (so as to control the number of tourists arriving on each island). Itineraries can range anywhere between 2 to 15 days, depending on how much time and money you have. Be aware, however, that you lose a day-and-a-half just flying into and out of the Galapagos, meaning anything under a 5-day itinerary is borderline not worth it.
Another question people ask is when they should go to the Galapagos Islands. Both the availability of space and the weather in the Galapagos (see Climate) may affect when you choose to go to the Islands. Most boats fill up months, or even a year or two ahead of time for the months of June, July, August, December and early January. During other times of the year, availability is higher. Still, there is no foolproof way to predict how many people will come; it is best to simply come whenever it is most convenient for you. Remember: the Galapagos are a year-round destination.
Booking a cruise with a tour company in your home country or in Ecuador (via the internet) is usually the most convenient way of going about securing your place aboard. There are many tour companies selling Galapagos cruises, but it is always recommended that you look for tour companies that are reputable (preferably with numerous years of experience and positive reviews) and that have dedicated experts that can answer all of your questions about Galapagos. Remember: the Enchanted Islands are a once-in-a-lifetime destination, and it is ill-advised that visitors “cut corners” when deciding on who to travel with.
When looking for a tour consider the following:
A handy website for getting even more tips about what to consider before booking your cruise is Galapagos Travel Expert.
For those trying their luck at finding good last minute prices on site, there are many agencies that can help you book a cruise either in Puerto Ayora in Galapagos or Guayaquil and Quito over on the mainland. There are also last-minute cruise websites that specialize in Galapagos. Very last minute 4-day cruises can sometimes be found in Puerto Ayora for as little as $600-$700 per person. While it is possible to get a pretty cheap last-minute deal, be aware that: many budget tours may opt to spend extra time in Puerto Ayora, might not have the best boats, have questionable safety standards, mediocre services and/or might only visit the inner, non-isolated islands.
Gigantic Tortuga (Chelonoidis nigra)
Boats in Puerto Ayora
Tortuga Bay, Island of Santa Cruz
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving
Snorkeling and diving are very popular activities as the sea life in Galapagos is incredibly rich and colorful. And the best part? They’re just as fearless as the creatures on land, especially sea lions and sea turtles!
Snorkeling equipment is often provided by tour operators and cruises (sometimes for free or sometimes for an added fee). Worth bringing if you’re going snorkeling is a waterproof camera. Remember to wear at least a T-shirt and sunscreen if you’re snorkeling, as it's easy to get sunburned under the strong Galapagos sun. Snorkeling offers a way to be in the water with fish, sea turtles, sea lions, white-tip reef sharks and many other creatures, making this a great option for those who don't have a SCUBA diving license. The older, farther islands to the west often have cooler water temperatures, meaning wetsuits might make for a more comfortable experience in the water (again: many cruise ships offer wetsuits, often times for an additional, nominal fee).
Diving in the Galapagos is incredible, as noted by Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine. Darwin and Wolf Islands have been ranked as the best dive destination in the world for several years in the categories of healthiest marine environment, best big animal dive, and best advanced diving. Still, the Galapagos is not necessarily the right place for beginners or novices. Currents, surge, cold water, and sometimes poor visibility and depths make it a challenge for novices. Certification courses are available in both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal for those looking to learn, and there are several dive sites that are relatively beginner-friendly.
There are 2 ways to dive in the Galapagos Islands:
These 2 sites are the reason most divers come to Galapagos.
Two of the world's premier diving destinations, Darwin Island and Wolf Island, are accessible only via live-aboard. These islands present challenging currents and are not suitable for beginners, but offer amazing opportunities to see huge schools of hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, Silky sharks and whale sharks in season (July-Nov), in addition to other pelagic life like giant mantas, eagle rays, sting rays, huge schools of jack and tuna, sea turtles, sea lions and more.
Note that park regulations may change unexpectedly; in 2007, many divers were caught unaware as the National Park withdrew diving permits from quite a few cruise ships without notice, leaving many divers without dive cruises they had booked far in advance. For this reason, travelers are advised to get the most up-to-date information possible when planning a dive trip to the Galapagos Islands. As of 2010, the National Park is now regulating land-based diving for the first time and few of the many shops operating have the new permits necessary. It is best to ask if an operator has a dive permit, otherwise you may be turned back by Park Rangers and not permitted to dive. As of 2011, the National Park no longer permits dive liveaboards to offer land visits, except for the Highlands of Santa Cruz which is on all itineraries.
A liveaboard cruise offers guests a great amount of underwater wildlife, but meager terrestrial encounters (remember: these types of vessels only explore the seas, rather than the islands themselves).
Day Tours aboard Yachts
The Galapagos National Park has made new options available for land-based travel in and around the archipelago.
From San Cristobal Island, visitors now have the option of navigating to visitor sites like Española Island, Punta Pitt and Kicker Rock.
From Santa Cruz, visitors can book day trips to the uninhabited islands of North Seymour, South Plazas, Santa Fe and Bartolome. Advance reservations are usually required so plan ahead. However, there is a chance you’'ll be able to find space due as people often make last-minute cancellations the night before.
You can fish in the Reserve, for marlin, tuna, wahoo and many other species but only if you are using an operator and boat that have the requisite "Artisanal Vivencial Fishing" licences issued by the Galapagos National Park. "Sport Fishing", as such, is prohibited. The Galapagos National Park publishes a list of Vivencial Fishing licence-holders and their boats  but, unfortunately, they do not keep the list up to date.
When Vivencial Fishing, you can keep a limited quantity of fish for personal consumption but all marlin must be released unharmed.
Vivencial Fishing was conceived with the purpose of providing local fishermen with an ecologically sustainable alternative to commercial fishing. However, there is constant pressure, both political and commercial, to legalize "Sport Fishing" and open the market to better financed and better connected outsiders.
Hiking is often included as part of organized cruises or tours of the highlands. Although you will often see fewer animals during these tours, you will usually gain a greater understanding of the difference in terrain and vegetation as well as the formation of the islands. Hiking is restricted in all National Park land, however several sights, like the Wall of Tears on Isabela and Cerro Tijeras on San Cristobal can be hiked independently.
The Galapagos provides some good waves and many locals make it a daily activity. Boards can be rented by the day or month at port towns. In general sites are marked with a place to rest surf boards as to not damage the land. The following are beaches that allow surfing:
To minimize the impact of sightseeing on the unique ecosystem and to mitigate issues with introduced species, several organizations provide conservation based volunteering.
Kayaking allows you to navigate more of the water without a boat. Kayaks can be rented at Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz and the port at San Cristobal to navigate the nearby beaches. Fish and sea turtles can often be seen while kayaking, however conditions should be checked before renting.
Horseback riding can be organized to allow you to see the highlands at greater depths. Tours are roughly $50. Additional tours may be found through inquiring with taxis or local tour agencies.
There are hotels and other accommodation in the towns of Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil, and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, however if you really want to see lots of good wildlife, you will need to combine your stay on these islands with daily boat tours to other islands.
Hotels and hostels are available on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Florena from $25-$500+, while hotels along the water are generally full especially in Santa Cruz. During peak season (Christmas & Easter weeks) as well as during special events all hotels are frequently sold out well in advance. However, if you are traveling at other times of the year you may be able to find availability by just showing up.
In general, crime is not a problem in the Galapagos. Misdemeanors may occur in the towns, and occasionally fisherman will stage strikes or demonstrations that affect tourists, but for the most part, there is little to be concerned about. It should be noted, however, that some items that have been reported missing have been found in the crews' quarters! As most boats do not have lockable cabins, it might be advisable to keep your items locked away in bags in your cabins.
The animal life in the islands is mostly docile with the exception of larger sea lions. Bulls, in particular, will vigorously protect their harems, and can inflict dangerous and potentially deadly bites. Do not snorkel close to sea lion colonies. If a bull sea lion approaches you, swim away from the nearest colony. Although the bulls can be dangerous, swimming with juvenile sea lions can be one of the most exciting parts of a trip.
In addition to sea lions, there is a slight danger from sharks. In general sharks will not attack unless provoked, although attacks can sometimes occur in murky water when sharks mistake humans for other animals. However, by exercising simple common sense, experiences will be almost always be positive.
Be careful with the tap water, especially in Puerto Ayora. It is not recommended to drink it or brush your teeth with it.
The park is strictly regulated. Outside of the towns visitors must be accompanied by guides, and visitors are only allowed on land from sunrise until sunset. Itineraries must be registered with the park prior to embarking on a trip, and animals should never be disturbed; while the wildlife in the Galapagos will usually ignore your presence, a general rule of thumb is that if an animal notices your presence then you are too close. Two meters is generally given as a minimum distance to keep away from animals; you will find that if you are calm and respectful that many animals will walk right up to investigate you.
One of the greatest dangers to the islands is introduced species. The park service is trying to eliminate goats, rats, cats, dogs, and introduced plant species on many of the islands, but it is a difficult battle; after evolving for thousands of years without predators, the Galapagos wildlife is not adapted to handle these new species. When traveling to the islands, do not bring any plant or animal life with you, and be sure to always clean your footwear when traveling between islands to avoid accidentally transferring seeds.
Illegal fishing is another threat to the park. Although park officials may deny it, illegal fishing for sharks and sea cucumbers occurs on a massive scale. The number of fishermen has increased rapidly over the last few years, while the number of fish have plunged. Due to ongoing tensions between fisherman, tourism, and science the level of enforcement of fishing laws can vary greatly, but even when policies are put in place to limit fishing enforcement is difficult due to the resources required to patrol the vast park area.
Another big threat to the park is the growing population. Although new rules make it impossible for people arriving from the mainland to live and work on the islands, the rules are hardly enforced, resulting in many people immigrating from the mainland to make quick money on the islands.
In 1986, the 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 sq mi.) of ocean surrounding the islands was declared a marine reserve, second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In 1990, the archipelago became a whale sanctuary. UNESCO recognized the islands in 1978 as a World Heritage Site and in 1985, as a biosphere reserve.
The codified park rules are: