The Galapagos Islands
If you are looking for a truly unique vacation experience that rivals no other, I have got the perfect destination for you! There are few places in the world that can compare in singularity to the unspoiled islands of the Galápagos! Known as a ‘living museum and showcase of evolution,’ the Galápagos archipelago is a double World Heritage site, meaning that both land and sea are protected. It’s because of this that an array of rare plant and animals life have been allowed to thrive, uninterrupted by humankind. So, lets dive right in to see what makes this unique adventure a must-see for truly ambitious travelers from all over the world.
Although evidence shows that the archipelago was discovered in pre-colonial times, the first person known to have stepped foot on the Islands was the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, in 1535 on a voyage to Peru. It is he who, upon reaching Peru, aptly named the islands “Insulae de los Galopegos,” – Islands of the Tortoises.
Throughout the next several centuries the islands were a popular spot for some less than savory individuals due to their prime location. Pirates used the archipelago as an outpost, as it was close enough to the South American continent for raids, and at range enough for a quick escape. Whalers also took advantage of the island’s resources, as the archipelago is along the migratory route of the great sperm whales, among others. It is also said that Herman Melville’s visit to the Galápagos Islands as a whaler in the 18th century is what inspired him to write the classic tale “Moby Dick.”
In the early 1800s, the Galápagos Islands brought great fame to another man- the explorer and scientist, Charles Darwin. Darwin came to the islands in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle as it sailed around South America charting unknown territories. Because of the research he was able to do while in the Galapagos, Darwin is credited for the discovery of many new species of animals, as well as the famous Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, which, while challenged by many religions, is still accepted by the scientific community today.
The 19th century brought travelers to the islands in hopes to cultivate and colonize them, however, all efforts ended badly, which caused many to consider the archipelago to be cursed. Even today, only 4 of the islands in the archipelago are inhabited and allow visitors to stay on them.
The Galapagos Islands area located in the Pacific Ocean 605 miles (1,000 kilometers) west of South America and the Ecuadorian coast. This archipelago of volcanic islands are part of the Republic of Ecuador, and are distributed on both sides of the equator. The first islands in the Galápagos archipelago may have been formed around 8 million years ago. A single volcano formed each Island except for Isabela, which was formed by 6 surrounding volcanoes. The archipelago currently consists of 13 main islands, a handful of smaller islands, and hundreds more rocks and islets. The Galápagos is a double World Heritage site in which 97% of the archipelago is preserved as a national park.
The Galápagos Archipelago embodies 19 (or more) coexisting volcanoes, 9 of which are still active and do erupt from time to time. It is because of this volcanic activity from the past and the present that the archipelago is constantly changing, both physically, and in they way wildlife adapts to the environment.
The 13 main islands are: Baltra, Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Genovesa, Isabela, Marchena, Pinta, Pinzon, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, and Santiago.
The actual number of “main islands” is debated. Some sources will tell you there are 13, others will say 16, or even 20. My information comes from https://www.galapagos.org/
The archipelago is characterized by a mixture of a tropical savanna climate and a semi-arid climate, but also transitions into a tropical rainforest climate in the northern islands. Even though the archipelago is located on the equator, the Humboldt Current delivers cold water to the islands, causing frequent drizzles though out the entire the year.
The Galápagos experiences 2 distinct seasons: the wet season and the dry season, also known as Garúa.
The wet season (December to May) is the warmer season, and offers sunny, dry days, with sometimes no breeze at all, and occasional sporadic heavy downpours. The average temperature during the day is around 77°.
The dry season, Garúa, (June to November) is the cooler of the two seasons with chilly breezes, frequent drizzles, and heavy fogs. The average temperature by the sea is around 72°. It is not uncommon for the dry season to actually see more rainfall than the wet season.
Every 7 years (average), the archipelago experiences the effects of warmer El Niño currents. When the naturally cooler water is warmed by this alteration in weather patterns there is a change in wildlife energy and behavior. Marine creatures suffer losses as their nutrient-rich currents are depleted with the coming warmer waters, while the land organisms increase and thrive with the warmer weather and additional rainfall.
One of the things the Galápagos are most known for is their abundance of unique and elusive wildlife. Ecuador is perhaps the most biodiverse country in the world, and the Galápagos Islands are a contributing factor. The Islands inhibit three major ecosystems: marine (ocean), terrestrial (land), and coastal (along the shores).
The unique conditions, such as geographic location, weather patterns, and seclusion from much of the outside world creates the perfect setting for the evolution of an unusual mix of plant and animal species. The archipelago’s location at the union of three ocean currents makes the Galápagos Islands one of the most prolific marine ecosystems in the world.
The islands are home to more than 200 different recorded species of animal, and many of them are endemic- meaning they are not found anywhere else in the world! The famous Giant Tortoises, as well as exotic lizards, birds, mammals, and fish can all be found co-existing in abundance throughout the islands and in the surrounding ocean.
Alongside the extraordinary animals, the islands also host more than 500 species of flora, with around one third of them being endemic. One of the most spectacular pieces of evidence supporting evolution on these islands is how the plant life has grown to adapt and thrive in the arid living conditions of the islands. Although past civilizations have tried to cultivate the land to grow sustainable crops for food, very few of them took to the environment. The ones that did manage to survive have since become a nuisance to the native plant life.
Animals of Interest
- The Blue-Footed Booby– Known for their bright blue feet, these birds are found on Fernandina, Isabela, Pinzon, Floreana, Santa Cruz, and Española. Although they can be seen year-round, the best time to view them is June-August.
- The Galápagos Penguin– An endemic species, and the only penguins in the world that live entirely in the tropics. They live primarily on the islands of Isabela, Fernandina, Floreana, and Santiago and can be seen year-round, however your best chances to see them are in the cooler months of August and September.
- Darwin’s Finches– Made famous by the scientist himself, there are 13 different species of finches within the archipelago. You are able to see them throughout all of the islands all year long.
- Galápagos Land Lizard– Showing a beautiful golden color in their scaled, these iguanas live on the islands of Baltra, Isabela, North Seymour, Santa Cruz, Santiago, South Plaza, and Fernandina, and can be see all year long.
- Marine Iguana– These very special reptiles are the only sea lizards on the planet! These iguanas like to live in large groups and can be found on the islands of Fernandina, Española, Floreana, Isabela, and Santa Cruz. They can be seen all year, however January – March is their prime time.
- Galápagos Giant Tortoise– Giving their name to the islands themselves (Galápagos means tortoise), these giant reptiles are unfortunately on the endanger species list. You are able to see them on the islands of Isabela, Santa Cruz, Pinzon, Española, Santiago, and San Cristobal all year long.
- Spinner Dolphins– Playful and endearing to watch as these mammals spring from the ocean and flip in the air. Just passing through the Galapagos during their migration, the best time and place to see them is in the channel between Isabela and Fernandina Island from June to October.
- Orcas (Killer Whales)– One of the most deadly animals in the ocean (for other aquatic life), these giant mammals travel in groups, or pods, and tend to go where the food is. They are present all year long, but with no specific location, although it is said that they most commonly hang out in the western waters off of Isabela and Fernandina.
- Whale Shark– The largest shark in the ocean, and unfortunately endangered, this mild-tempered beast poses a low level of threat to visitors. They can be found from June – November in the north near Wolf and Darwin Island.
- Manta Ray– “Manta” meaning “carpet” or “cloak,” these flat giants can reach up to 20 feet from wing tip to wing tip. They can be found around the northern islands of Darwin and Wolf from December-May.
- Sealions– The most abundant sea animal in the archipelago, but also an endangered one due to climate change. Sealions can be found on every island all year long, likely sunbathing on the beach or among rocks
Protection and Regulations
The main threats to the Galápagos have been the introduction of invasive species, a growing domestic population, illegal fishing, and increased tourism. These issues undergo constant monitorization to adequately manage them and reinforce regulations for minimum impact.
It wasn’t until 1959 that the world finally woke up to the need to protect these unique islands. Once the Charles Darwin Foundation was established, the Galápagos Islands were finally awarded official protection under the Ecuadorian national park system. Since then, the archipelago has been well-protected by a special team of conservationists.
While visits to the National Park is allowed, there are very strict rules that you must follow. For example: you must be part of an organized and creditable Galápagos tour, be in the company of a licensed naturalist guide at all times, and follow the Park rules strictly… and there are a lot of them.
Galápagos National Park Rules
- Stay on the designated trails at all times.
- Do not disturb the animals or remove any native plants or rocks.
- Do not transport any organic material into the islands, or from island to island.
- Avoid approaching the wildlife and keep a distance from them of at least 6 feet (2 meters).
- Follow your naturalist guide when exploring the national park.
- Do not feed the animals.
- Do not carry food and/or foreign elements into visitor sites.
- Do not approach animals that are resting or their nesting sites.
- Smoking, drinking, and campfires are strictly prohibited.
- Cellular and satellite phone use is prohibited in visitor sites.
- Do not buy goods that are made from native Galapagos species.
When To Visit
The best time for you to visit depends on what in particular you are looking to see or do. If you are looking to see a specific species of animal you will want to check to see if they are native to the islands or if they can only be seen passing through during migration.
If you are looking to dive or snorkel, though they can be done year-round, the best months are considered to be May and June.
The busiest months are typically June, July, and August, as well as mid-December to mid-January. The wet season (Dec-May) is typically warmer (in the high 70s and low 80s), and when the ocean is the calmest. The dry season is (June-Nov) tends to be cooler (low 70s) and wetter, but brings some of the most amazing wildlife.
Regardless of when you go, it is best to book your tour 3-9 months in advance using a professional travel agent who specializes in Galápagos travel. (Hello!)
How To Visit
There are no direct international flights to the Galápagos Islands. You must first get to the mainland in Ecuador by flying into either the capital city of Quito or to Guayaquil. As most flights to the Galápagos are either early morning or in the evening you will likely need an overnight stay on the mainland. You will then fly from Ecuador’s mainland to either the Island of Baltra or San Cristobal. Most flights are booked directly with your tour operator, as they know where you need to be and have allotted space for guests aboard their boats to ensure everyone arrives when they need to. Most Galápagos tours begin and end in Santa Cruz. The ideal tour is one with as few people as possible. We recommend tours with no more than 30 passengers… 12 is ideal!
As all guests need to visit the national park with a licensed guide, there is very little you are able to do without booking a tour. If you are not part of a cruise excursion, you are able to book shorter day-trips from the inhabited islands, but they will likely be more expensive. Do no expect to be able to explore these islands on your own. To find a tour that suits your interests, talk to a Galápagos Island Travel Expert… like me!
- Roundtrip airline tickets (no one-way tickets are allowed).
- Hotel or cruise reservation or invitation letter to stay as a guest.
- Passport with at 6 months validity remaining from the day of return to origin.
- Travel & Health Insurance. (Absolutely required).
- Negative Covid test within 4 days of arrival regardless of completed Vaccine
- Full and complete vaccination for Covid 19
(More up-to-date info regarding Covid 19 and traveling to the Galapagos can be found here: https://ec.usembassy.gov/covid-19-information-ecu-2/ )
What to Do
While most guests visit these spectacular islands for the wildlife tours, there are many other activities you are able to coordinate with your tour guide.
- Diving is a popular way to see some of the best marine life in the ocean. Your guide will know all of the best spots to see the animals you want to see.
- Snorkeling is another great way to get up close and personal with marine life. No matter which island you’re visiting, you’ll likely be able to swim alongside sea lions and sea turtles.
- No matter what tour you book, you can expect to be doing at least a little bit of hiking every day. Whether it’s over beds of lava rock or around Sierra Negra, the world’s second largest crater, you’ll want to be sure to bring some good hiking shoes.
- If you’re not interested in getting in the water, but still want to get close to some marine life, you may want to consider Kayaking. You can rent kayaks without a guide at Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz, however, to ensure you see all to the amazing things that this archipelago has to offer, we strongly recommend taking a guided tour.
- I’m no surfer, but the Galápagos are said to be a surfer’s dream destination. However, just like with every else, there are heavy restrictions in regards to where and how you are allowed to surf. If surfing is your intention for the trip, it is a good idea to do ample research beforehand to scout out places where you will be allowed in the water.
What to Pack
- Waterproof camera or dry bag for electronics
- Binoculars for viewing animals in the distance
- Swim mask and fins. (Most tours will provide them for snorkeling, however you will need to check with your touring company for updated provisions in regards to Covid 19. It is also smart to bring gear that fits you to avoid the one-size-fits-all style that many companies use.)
- Sun hat, sunscreen, sunglasses
- A long-sleeved shirt, sweater, or jacket. Not only for when it gets chilly, but also for extra protection from the sun… remember, you are on the equator.
- Refillable water bottle to reduce plastic waste.
- Motion sickness medication for boat tours.
- Quick-dry, breathable clothing.
- Rain gear. Waterproof shoes, jacket, and backpack
- Comfortable walking shoes. Consider waterproof hiking boots or rugged sandals
- Cash- A $100 park fee must be paid in cash and is often not included in tour packages.
Other Things To Know
Spanish is the national language throughout the Galápagos islands, however, the locals, and your tour guides, are likely to be fluent in several different languages including French, English, and German.
The islands, as well as all of Ecuador, uses U.S. Dollars as their currency. Expect this to be your preferred method of payment, as there are my things that may only be paid for in cash, and there are high fees to use debit and credit cards.
Your passport needs to be valid for at least 6 months AFTER your trip in order for you to get through customs. Upon being granted permission to enter the country, visitors will be given a 12-x tourist visa which is good for 90 days. If you plan to stay longer than 90 days you will need to make special arrangements.
When arriving at the Galápagos immigration office you will be required to present a domestic round-trip air ticket and a hotel or cruise reservation, or an invitation letter from a Galapagos resident. If you are not able to present these items you will not be permitted to enter the islands.
Once at the Quito or Guayaquil airport, passengers must buy a US $20 Transit Control Card at the INGALA counter to be used when entering and leaving the islands. This control card can only be purchased in cash at the airport, not in advance.
Upon entering the airport you will also need to pay a $100 Park Entrance Fee. This is typically not included in tour packages, as it is to be purchased at the airport and must be paid in cash.
Be prepared for some very strict rules and regulations while visiting the islands. Since more than 97% of the archipelago is protected within the national park, don’t expect to be able to go wandering off on your own adventure. These rules are in place to protect and preserve this amazing biosphere of wildlife and its many endemic and endangered species. Please be respectful and follow the rules.
You must have proof of traveler’s health insurance to be able to enter the islands. You must be covered through your entire stay in the country of Ecuador.
Don’t expect to have cell service while in the Galápagos. While you may occasionally find a bar or two of service while on a main island, you should plan on not being able to connect to the internet for the entire stay of your trip. This includes while you are on your cruise ships as well as on land.
Not all cruises, tours, and excursions are the same. This may sound obvious, but it is amazing how much they can vary from one to the next. It is important to do a little research to find out what your best options are based on exactly you want to do and see while you are there. My very best advice to you is to use a professional travel agent who specializes in Galápagos travel. (That would be me! My contact info will be at the bottom of the page!)
Ready To Go!?
The Galapagos Islands are unique in so many ways, and the way you get to see them is one of those ways. If stunning scenery, rare and beautiful animals, and exclusive adventures aren’t enough to convince you that this needs to be your next trip, then let me try to convince you some more by planning your perfect vacation to this amazing archipelago! Schedule you first consultation below and we can get started creating your perfect adventure right away!
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