Galapagos Guide

Tailor-made Itineraries by Local Experts

Galapagos Guide

Tailor-made Itineraries by Local Experts

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Overview

Named the “Best Islands in the World” by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2008, the Galapagos Islands provide a memorable experience for any traveler who steps onto its shores. Hawaii this is not. Sure, beaches of the archipelago are sandy white and the waters that splash ashore are crystal clear blue, but there is little to no vegetation on most islands. Still, the 60,000 yearly visitors who make the journey to this Latin America treasure do so with more than the intention to merely sunbathe. The main attraction of these enchanted islands is that here, the numerous wildlife and birdlife that call the Galapagos home are essentially fearless. Tourists who make the 604-mile (972-km) trip from Ecuador’s coast will be able to live side-by-side with sea-lions, giant tortoises, and marine iguanas, which will either demonstrate curiosity at their visiting friends or downright indifference. These practically virginal islands have seen little human presence throughout their existence and as a result its inhabitants feel no real threat from their would-be predators. This facility to co-exist effortlessly with the interesting and unique creatures of these isles is sure to make your visit to the Galapagos Islands an unforgettable one.

Underwater shot of a diver surrounded by seals

This Latin American archipelago is not just unique in its own right, but each distinct island of the Galapagos is different in terms of landscape and wildlife. Charles Darwin realized that each Galapagos Island was essentially a live laboratory of evolution, with creatures of the island having to adapt to weather conditions and, occasionally, to infiltration by new species. This is something travelers should keep in mind as the Galapagos animal they wish to spot on their upcoming trip might have migrated to a different island by the time they arrive!

Underwater diver swimming with a whale in the Galapagos

Still, the journey to this Latin American archipelago is worth the possible surprises, with interesting marine and wildlife, as well as exclusive scenic qualities on each island guaranteeing an unforgettable Galapagos vacation.

Geography and Climate

Galapagos Climate

Straddling the equator, the Galapagos Islands feature a warm but rainy season that occurs from December to June. During these months, temperatures reach the mid-80s °F (26°-30° C), with high humidity. Occasional scattered showers are common on the isles, but in general, visitors can expect a sunny and warm vacation.

The cool season on the islands takes place from June to November. Garúa, a misty-like drizzle, brought from the Humboldt Current covers the Galapagos, while cloudy skies dominate the sky. Average temperatures are in the 70s °F (20°-24° C) during the day and fall a bit lower during the evening. Occasionally, the El Niño Phenomenon influences the weather on the isles and brings heavy rains and warmer temperatures.

The sea is generally cold from July to October and water visibility is best from January to March. Generally, the best months to visit are in April, May, and June, and November and December. In spite of the many climate variations, it is typically favorable to visit the Galapagos Islands throughout the year. Therefore there is no better time than now for travelers to plan their Galapagos Islands vacations.

Galapagos Geography

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic isles containing 13 primary islands, 6 smaller isles, and 107 islets and rocks. The islands are made up of about 5,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) that spread across more than 28,000 square miles (45,000 square kilometers) of South Pacific Ocean. The Galapagos are a province of Ecuador, with its capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, located on San Cristobal Island. The oldest island is thought to have formed some 6 million years ago, while the youngest isles – Fernandina and Isabela – are still being formed, with volcanic eruptions occurring very recently.

As a result of distinct wind patterns and differences in elevation on each island, four diverse ecosystems exist in the Galapagos: open forests of very large cacti; subtropical forests; dense, extremely moist forests; and lastly, treeless areas characterized by grasses and ferns. Volcanic activity on the islands has left behind thousands of cones and calderas. These unique formations on some of the isles cause the island landscapes to have lunar qualities.

Unfortunately, the introduction of non-native species such as pigs and goats has resulted in the destruction of large amounts of vegetation on the islands, leaving some of the archipelago bare today. These distinct ecosystems, land formations, and interesting volcanic activity make the Galapagos Islands one of the most exciting places to visit not only for naturalists and geologists or the like, but for any traveler in search of a unique experience.

Geography & Map

The Galápagos Islands are a chain of islands, or archipelago, in the eastern Pacific Ocean. They are part of the country of Ecuador, in South America. The Galápagos lie about 966 kilometers (600 miles) off of the Ecuadorian coast.


Elevation
1,707 m (5600 ft)


City Population
25,000

map of galapagos

Transportation

Getting to Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are some 600 miles (900 kilometers) from Ecuador’s coast, therefore most travelers make the journey to the enchanted isles by airplane. Flights are either 3¼ hours from Quito (including a layover in Guayaquil) or 1½ hours direct from Guayaquil. It is possible to travel by boat, but the trip is generally considered a hassle and not worth the money saved. Flights from Ecuador’s mainland arrive at two airports: Isla Baltra or Isla San Cristóbal.

Travelers should keep in mind that there is a 44lb (20kg) checked luggage limit on the flight to the Galapagos Islands. Also, if taking the flight with a layover in Guayaquil, it is not required that you disembark while stopping over.

Ecuadorian citizens and Galapagos residents fly to and from the Ecuadorian mainland for a discounted price. However, some expats with residency in Ecuador are also eligible for this special discount and should inquire accordingly.

Passengers arriving at the Baltra Airport should know that their hand luggage will be checked to ensure that no foreign animals or plants are being imported/exported. Also, neither the Baltra Airport nor the San Cristóbal Airport offer baggage storage for flyers. However, most hotels on the islands can store guest luggage for no additional charge.

Due to the distance between the two airports, travelers can not transfer between them on the same day.

Galapagos Airport Departure tax and fees

A departure tax must be paid when leaving both the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador. The former is USD $2, while the latter is USD $40.80 for all international flights and between USD $30-40 for national flights, depending on the airport.

Travelers should also take note of the Galapagos National Park Tax of USD $100 that must be paid upon entry to the islands, as well as a USD $10 immigration card to enter Galapagos. These fees must paid in cash. Traveler’s checks and credit cards are not accepted. Bills larger than twenties and/or not in good condition – no tears or markings – are not accepted. While these may seem extremely rigid requirements, Ecuador has long had a problem with counterfeit $50 and $100 bills and this method is a way of controlling the situation.

Getting Around Galapagos

Latin America For Less offers both Galapagos Cruises, and land-based tours. Most opt for the cruises as they cover more land in less time, but for those who seek a more adventurous option, the Island-Hopping tour is an ideal Galapagos Island vacation package. The islands with accommodations for travelers are Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Santa María (Floreana), and Isabela.

Boat

While there are hardly any cruises that travel directly to the Galapagos from mainland Ecuador, the islands themselves offer a variety of boat and cruise ship tours around isles that Latin America For Less can book for you. The cruise line tour companies we work with are of top quality and range from tourist to luxury class, ideal for those looking for a more simple Galapagos vacation or a more lavish one. Off-peak season prices can be applied from May to mid-June, as well as September to mid-October.

If you decide to do your tour independently, it is recommended that you hire the tourist and luxury class vessels available that generally offer three-, four-, or seven-night tours. Anything else and you could risk boarding a poorly maintained ship with guides with a limited understanding of English. Whether booking abroad or in Ecuador, be wary of last-minute Galapagos trips since there isn’t a guarantee that you will find space on the cruise ship. Travelers are also advised to be careful if going this route as the quality of the service of these last-minute tours also varies.

A boat or cruise ship tour entails sleeping and dining accommodations on board. Your ship will sail to its next destination at night to maximize your time spent on the various islands. Most ship tours offer an opportunity to swim or snorkel in the clear blue waters of the South Pacific. However, you should confirm this with your tour as not all boats offer this option. Most tours also have a multilingual naturalist to guide tours and answer any questions you may have about the varied wildlife and plant-life found on the islands.

A land-based tour option means traveling from island to island during the day on a ferry or charter boat arranged by your tour operator; accommodations are prearranged on each island.


History

The archipelago is believed to have been formed by volcanic activity beneath the ocean floor beginning six million years ago. Archaeological remains indicate that the first inhabitants of the islands arrived there on “balsas” (floating crafts), and probably accidentally, as there is no suggestion of permanent settlements to indicate that they ever returned. The date of these early visitors’ arrival is inexact, as very little evidence of their stopover can be found, but it appears to have been temporary because the animals that live here today are noticeably fearless of human interaction.

The sun setting over the ocean and some rock formations at San Bartolme in the Galapagos

The discovery of the islands came in 1535 when Dominican Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, was on his way to Peru to mediate an argument between a Spanish conquistador and his lieutenants after their conquest of the Incas, and his ship unintentionally drifted to the islands when the winds died. The islands were named Galapagos after noticing the similarity between a Spanish saddle and the shell of the tortoises on the island.

The Galapagos Islands first began to appear on maps drawn by Abraham Ortelius and Mercator in the late 1560s and were referred to as “Insulae de los Galopegos” (Islands of the Tortoises) or “Islas Encantadas” (Enchanted Islands), depending on the illustrator.

It was also during this time that English pirates such as Richard Hawkins and John Cook used the islands as a hiding place for gold and silver treasures they pilfered from the Spanish, a point of attack, and convenient location to repair their ships and refuel on water and tortoise meat for journeys to come. Until the early 19th century, the isles were continuously used for this purpose, and were visited by many famous pirates. The pirates’ influence on the islands is still evident today as a few of the isles were given names dedicated to these English figures; for example, the island of King Charles.

Throughout the 1700s, the Spanish explored the Galapagos Islands and gave them a few names such as Santa Maria and San Bernable. However some of these ancient Spanish names did not clearly identify the islands and later generations had their own variations, eventually calling Isla Santa Isabela simply Isabela.

In the late 1700s, the islands became a hotspot for whalers when it was discovered that whales migrated to the Galapagos to breed. Englishmen James Collnet was the first to plot out accurate navigation maps of the islands and suggested it be used as a base for whalers operating in the area. Unfortunately, the crews that worked on these missions significantly diminished tortoise life – even eliminating certain species – on the island as they used the meat of these animals for sustenance during the months they were on board. Fur-deal hunters are also responsible for bringing the population of this Galapagos animal close to extinction during this era. Whaling on the islands came to an end with the start of the American Civil War, as it weakened the British fleet and resulted in its transfer to another area of the globe.

When Ecuador was liberated in 1830, it became unclear what would happen to the beautiful Galapagos Islands that had belonged to Quito during the colonial period. Therefore, General Jose Villamil thought the new republic should make the archipelago part of its territory and in February of 1832, the Islas Galapagos officially became part of liberated Ecuador. This first colonization of the islands started off with good intentions, wanting to convert the island into a place of regeneration for convicts and rebel soldiers who would be sent to the Galapagos to work. Unfortunately, Villamil’s ideas did not pan out and the environment was effectively destroyed due to the presence of the penitentiary and the release of domesticated animals, such as cows and horses, on the main islands to graze on the sparse vegetation available.

In September of 1835 the HMS Beagle went on a voyage to the isles under the direction of Robert FitzRoy. One of those on board was the young naturalist Charles Darwin, who was able to study the Galapagos Islands of Chatham, Charles, Albemarle, and James. His studies of the geology and biology of the islands – especially the distinctiveness of some species of birds to the islands – would eventually serve as the basis for his theory of natural selection, an by extension evolution, which he would present in his book The Origin of Species, first published in 1859.

A dark time on the islands occurred during the mid 1800s when the island was turned into a prison. Its distance from the mainland was viewed as a deterrent to attempted escape, and its limited supply of food and water was just enough to sustain the population. Despite various instances of prisoners taking whaler ships hostage, vandalization, and deaths as a result of prisoner occupation of the island; it remained a prison until the second half of the 20th century.

A second colonization was attempted in the 1860s when enterprising businessmen attempted to profit from the orchilla lichen plant – extremely useful for dyeing – and to start a sugar cane plantation. Both endeavors saw José Valdizán and Manuel Julián Cobos running their businesses harshly, which led to their assassinations by their plant workers and to the inevitable abandonment of the island once more. In the aftermath, domesticated animals were left to run free and thus further destroyed the fragile ecosystem of the islands. For decades after that the island was exploited by various others who took advantage of the island’s natural resources, while running cruel labor camps that would eventually lead to revolt and assassination of the owner.

It was also during this time that the Galapagos Islands became a strategic location as a military defense base for both European and North American countries just as the Panama Canal was about to be inaugurated. Each side made numerous proposals to buy or rent the islands and even went so far as to declare them “res nullius” (no man’s land), but Ecuador resisted accepting their offer until WWII, when some islands were granted to the US to be used for defense during the war.

During the WWII-era, the islands – particularly the island of Baltra – were used as a principal base, with operations commencing in 1942. After 3 airstrips, a dock, and housing were erected, the Beta Base could hold a maximum of six thousand men. Recognizing the important role that it played during the war, the US tried unsuccessfully to retain the base after the end of the war, with the last contingents leaving the island by 1949. Afterward, the Ecuadorian government started a penal colony on the islands once more, letting the presiding officers convert it into a concentration camp. In February of 1958, an inmate uprising took place and the government finally shut down the prison once again, this time permanently.

This era also saw the first attempts at preservation on the island. The Ecuadorian government declared the islands a National Reserve in 1936 and instated regulations to protect the plant and wildlife of the islands. The archipelago was declared a National Park in 1959, ultimately offering full park services in 1968. In September of 1978, the Galapagos were declared a Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO for its scientific prestige; this was also intended as a public move to continue political support for Ecuador’s conservation efforts of the park.

These islands, known as a “laboratory of Natural History,” saw the inauguration of the Interpretation Center on San Cristóbal Island in 1998. This center is meant to study interaction between the human populations on the island and the plants and animals that have always inhabited it. The notion is to prove that a harmonious relationship can exist between humans and nature, so long it is undertaken in the correct manner. Divided into a pavilion dedicated to such themes as geology, evolution, human history, and more, the center has become a must-see for visitors to the islands.


Animals

Animals and Charles Darwin

Without the interesting and fearless creatures of the Galapagos Islands, travel to the archipelago would not be as unforgettable as it is. Having never been connected with the South American continent, it is a mystery how the sub-species animals that now live on the islands – that are completely different versions of their continental cousins – made the journey to the Galapagos. Yet they did, and for years they adapted themselves to their new surroundings, evolving and becoming species unique only to the Galapagos Archipelago.

English naturalist Charles Darwin used his observations of this speciation to formulate his theory of evolution and natural selection. During his visit in the mid-1800s, Darwin was amazed not only by how Galapagos creatures were so different from their mainland counterparts, but also by the fact that even between the islands, Galapagos species of similar characteristics still managed to adapt uniquely and perfectly to their own environment. The finch was one particular animal that caught Darwin’s eye, and it is now known commonly as the Darwin Finch. Darwin took note of the varying diets of this bird that included everything from seeds to fruits to cacti and blood. These finches would prove vital when writing his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species as he based some of his thought in assuming that the birds shared a common ancestry. Darwin supposed that once these interesting animals found their ways to the islands, they marked out territories for themselves and evolution set in. The Darwin finch is one example of this process in which the surviving species was the strongest one.

The Galapagos Islands weren’t discovered until 1535. As a result, the magnificent animals that roam its lands have no natural fear of man. This provides a once-in-a-lifetime experience for visitors to the isles who can view Galapagos creatures in an intimate setting, getting close up without trepidation that the fascinating critters will scamper off.

Here is a list of the wonderful wildlife a traveler can expect to see on their Galapagos vacation.

A group of three giant Tortoises, also known as Galápago in the Galapagos

Galapagos giant tortoise – these wonderful tortoises, which are known as Galápago in Spanish and gave the name to the islands, can be found on six or seven of the islands but exist in larger numbers on Isabela.

Galapagos land iguana - described by Charles Darwin as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath,” these mostly herbivorous creatures can be found on the islands of Fernandina, Santa Fe, Santa Cruz, Isabela, Seymour, and Plaza.

Marine Iguana – this seaweed-eating critter is the only seagoing iguana in the world and can be spotted throughout most of the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Green Turtle - a subspecies of the Green Turtle, this endangered animal is the only green turtle to lay its eggs on the beaches of the Galapagos.

Flightless Cormorant – this bird species calls Isabela and Fernandina home and with only 1,500 of them left, it is one of the world’s rarest birds.

Great Frigatebird – this large seabird displays an interesting mating ritual, in which the male is able to swell its bright red gular (throat) sac during the process.

Blue-footed Booby – another unique marine bird, it is very popular with visitors for their large blue feet and entertaining dance, both of which are visible during the mating season.

Waved Albatross – the only living tropical albatross, makes its nests in Española and then returns to the Ecuadorian and Peruvian coasts in December.

Galapagos Penguin – this fowl is the only penguin able to live on the tropical equator; it survives thanks to the cool temperatures brought in from the Humboldt Current and is primarily founds on Fernandina and the west coast of Isabela.

Galapagos Hawk – fearless of humans, this hawk is the island’s original and sole predator, residing in the Galapagos for over 300,000 years.

Galapagos Finch – also widely known as the Darwin finch for its influence in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the bird has 13 separate species residing all over the archipelago.

Galapagos Sea Lion – this friendly critter is related to the California Sea Lion, but smaller, and is a favorite of tourists.


Shopping

Puerto Ayora - Santa Cruz Island

The Galapagos Islands are not known for their shopping outlets. Most of the souvenirs that travelers take home with them include t-shirts, key chains, postcards, posters, books, and jewelry, and these items can be purchased just about everywhere in the tourist-heavy Puerto Ayora, especially on Avenida Charles Darwin. If buying a t-shirt, try to get one at the Darwin Foundation where part of the money goes toward research and conservation.

Still, Puerto Ayora also has a wonderful community of artists, song-writers, poets, and designers. Amid such beautiful settings, it is no wonder the Santa Cruz has inspired the creations of its artisan residents. Visitors can spend time with the residents who create the souvenirs purchased on the island.

If you are looking to purchase fruits, vegetables, and the like, The Proinsular supermarket is ideal. It is located just opposite the pier. The Municipal Market, where you can purchase just about anything, is on Padre J. Herrera.

Travelers to the Galapagos Islands should be advised not to purchase items made of black coral as it is an endangered species.

Money Tips

Unlike many Latin American countries, Ecuador shares its official currency with the United States. The U.S. Dollar is accepted everywhere on the Galapagos Islands. However, it is ideal to bring small bills (especially for tipping) and a good amount of coins since these are hard to find. More often than not, your bill will be rounded up to the next highest dollar amount if you cannot provide exact change.

Major credit cards, such as Visa, Master Card, American Express, and Diner’s Club, are readily accepted at large businesses. Visa and Master Card are not accepted interchangeably and, between the two, Master Card is the more frequently received. If using Traveler’s Checks, it is recommended to use American Express Traveler’s Checks as they are accepted at more shops.


Restaurants

Nestled within the South Pacific, the Galapagos Islands’ waters provide some of the best seafood options in the world. Fish, shrimp, lobster, and the usual seafood fare are available in abundance and are very fresh and delicious. However, for a bigger culinary challenge, try the sea cucumber: a marine animal from the Holothuroidea class. The species was becoming extinct at one point, but the ban on catching the creature has recently been rescinded, making it once again available for consumption.

Arepas from the Galapagos, with bowls containing meat and beans and three peppers

If you are not a fan of seafood, fear not, because there are plenty of other options on these isles. Expect the usual Ecuadorian staples such as locro soup (made of cheese and potato) and seco de chivo (goat stew). Italian restaurants are also plentiful on the island of Santa Cruz, which serve up great pasta dishes and scrumptious pizzas. There are plenty of food options on the Galapagos Islands.

Puerto Ayora – Santa Cruz Island
La Garrapata, Av. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, $4-$15, Tel: +593-05-252-6264

Considered one of the most popular restaurants on the entire archipelago, La Garrapata is run by descendents of a pioneer family to the Galapagos. Comfortable low wooden chairs and linen-covered round tables welcome you to the open-air dining room. Popular with tourists and locals, this locale specializes in seafood, but there are plenty of delicious chicken and pasta dishes to choose from. Take advantage of the menú del día (menu of the day) where for less than $5 you will be served soup, main course, and delectable dessert. Closed on Sundays.

La Dolce Italia
Av. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, $6.50-$22, Tel: +593-09-455-4668

For those looking for alternatives to Galapagos seafood try this trattoria-style Italian eatery. The owners, Palermo natives but now 11-year veterans of the Galapagos Islands, have brought southern Italian cuisine to the South Pacific. Indoor décor features a maritime theme with a few ship models and relics scattered throughout. Starters include antipasti and delicious fried calamari. Try the thin-crust pizza or pick from the list of homemade pasta dishes. Recommended: seafood fettuccini in a cognac sauce.

Angermeyer Point Restaurant
end of Barranco, Puerto Ayora, $4-$17, Tel: +593-05-2526 452

Situated in the old home of local painter Karl Angermeyer who arrived on the island in 1937, this restaurant has a great location: the stone house features a wraparound wooden deck that faces the bay. If you’re lucky enough – and if the weather is favorable – get a table on the deck for a spectacular view of blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and sea lions, all while you enjoy a great meal. Actually, the iguanas are particularly fond of the area and so the restaurant has become known as The House of Iguanas. Try the seafood at this unique restaurant or drop by for the Sunday brunch for a chance to try the innovative dishes offered here. To reach Angermeyer Point, hire a water taxi from Puerto Ayora’s main dock. A round trip should cost around $1.

La Tolda Azul
Muelle Municipal, Puerto Ayora, Tel: +593-05-252-6565

Since it is usually the first restaurant travelers encounter once they arrive at Puerto Ayora, it is always busy. Choose to dine on the lovely outdoor patio for a great view of the port. As with many restaurants in the Galapagos, seafood is a specialty here. Try the lobster dishes.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno – San Cristobal Island
Miconia, Av. Charles Darwin, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, $5-$12, Tel: +593-05-2520-608

With a varied menu that features everything from pizza to seafood to steak, it will be hard to leave this restaurant hungry. This two-story restaurant features an interior dining room on the ground-floor, but guests will want to grab a table on the second floor which features an open-air dining room with a spectacular view of the bay. Food and service are up to par with the dazzling view from atop. The menu features delicious pasta dishes, as well as a delectable pizza, but seafood fans should opt for the scrumptious shrimp and fresh fish fare.


Nightlife

Don’t expect the nightlife in Puerto Ayora to rival or even imitate the nightlife of other Latin America tourist destinations. That does not mean you cannot have a good time at the Galapagos Islands. While the atmosphere for Santa Cruz’s main town is more relaxed, there are still several bars and nightclubs that will provide a fun night.

The Rock, a popular bar in the Galapagos, illuminated by lights

Puerto Ayora - Santa Cruz Island

Limón y café, Avenida Charles Darwin – This laid back bar is perfect for those seeking a light-hearted evening of drinking beer and playing pool or table football. Fans of salsa dancing will be happy to know there is a small dance floor where they can dance the night away.

Bongo Bar, Avenida Charles Darwin – Upstairs from Garrapata Restaurant, this bar is open every day except Sundays. Have a drink. Dance a bit. Play pool. This place has something for everyone and as such, is considered one of the most popular night spots in Puerto Ayora.

The Rock, Avenida Charles Darwin – A chill out place that is comfortable and well-lit, the perfect location to have a beer and chat with a friend.

Other bars of note include La Panga, Café Habana and La Casa del Lago.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno – San Cristobal Island

The main town of San Cristóbal also has a few recommended places for those looking for drinks and dancing. El Baquero on Hernandez y Manuel J. Cobos features a bar (or peña) and a chill atmosphere. It is open daily. Located on Charles Darwin y Herman Melvilla is Neptuno, a nightclub that is popular with young crowds and is open from Tuesday-Saturday.


Health and Safety

A trip to the Galapagos Islands will surely be one you will never forget. However, travel time to, from, and around the islands is not the easiest on the body. Everything from long plane flights, seasickness, and extreme changes in sea and land temperatures can definitely be taxing. It is best to come prepared.

If traveling by cruise ship be aware that rooms are in close proximity, allowing for the quick spread of viruses. Bring with you cough drops, pain killers, and any other over-the-counter medicines to take care of any common ailment.

Those who are prone to seasickness should obtain prescriptions for motion-sickness patches or stock up on non-drowsy Dramamine so you can fully enjoy your Galapagos vacation. The local seasick medicine is called Mareol and can be purchased in Ecuador or in Puerto Ayora. Puerto Ayora also houses decent medical facilities and well-stocked pharmacies.

It is best to drink bottled water while traveling around the Galapagos Islands, as in anywhere in South America, to prevent contracting any harmful parasites or water-borne illnesses. If no bottled water is available, be sure to travel with water purification tablets or boil water for 15 minutes to eliminate any harmful bacteria.


Islands

Baltra

The small island of Baltra is situated at the center of the archipelago. The isle is extremely arid with little vegetation, which comes in the form of cactus and salt bushes. Created by a geological uplift, the island featured the only airport on the Galapagos until 1986 when San Cristobal Island opened another.

Water surrounded by two bodies of land in Baltra, Galapagos

Travelers who arrive in Baltra will immediately be taken by bus to one of two docks where they will either board a cruise ship or a common ferry that will take them to the island of Santa Cruz. Since Baltra is not part of the national park but is instead Navy territory, the island is designated as a non-visitor site.


Bartolome

Named after life-long friend of Charles Darwin and Lieutenant of the HMS Beagle, Bartolome Island is one of the younger ones of the Galapagos. Considered as one of the isles to offer some of the most breathtaking sights of the archipelago, Bartolome features an extinct volcano, which tourists can easily climb. Once at the top, the view is magnificent.

A long sandy beach and crystal clear blue water, a boat sits on the sand

The isle is famous for the Pinnacle Rock landmark, which Galapagos penguins frequent. Tourists can snorkel and swim the waters here and also spot marine turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, as well as other tropical fish. The island is also a mating and nesting location for green turtles.


Darwin and Wolf

One of the smallest islands of the Galapagos, Darwin Island – named after the islands’ most famous visitor – has an area of just one square kilometer (0.6 square miles). The draw of this island includes the wonderful marine life that unfortunately can only be viewed by boat as there is no dry landing site. Though the site has been marked on maps for many years, the first visit to Darwin Island was not made until a helicopter landed on the site in 1964.

Of the Wolf Darwin Lineament, Darwin Island is the most northerly and reaches above the surface. Wolf Island, which is about 40 km long, has no sub surface peak.

The most well-known landmark of this tiny isle is a natural rock arch called the Darwin Arch and is situated less than a kilometer from main Darwin Island. Marine life that can be spotted in the waters of these two islands include whale sharks, dolphins, green turtles, and hammerhead sharks, while marine fowl include frigate birds and the red-footed booby.


Floreana

Popular with tourists, Floreana Island is one of the oldest of the Galapagos. It is also the island with the richest human history on the entire archipelago, dating back to the late 1700s. Everyone from pirates to settlers to early colonists visited this ancient isle.

Two pink flamingos in a lake on the island of Floreana, Galapagos

The island’s volcano has long been extinct and it is actually in the advanced stages of erosion. This erosion is responsible for the lush, beautiful Floreana landscape in the highlands as the process enriched the isle with soils and nutrients vital to supporting plant life. Named after Juan Jose Flores, the first president of Ecuador, the island has an area of 173 square kilometers (close to 67 square miles), with only close to 100 inhabitants living there. Tourists should be aware that services are very limited and should confirm in advance that their transportation back to a more tourist-centric island is secure; this unless previous plans have been made to stay at one of the island’s few lodging accommodations.

Known as the best place to snorkel in the Galapagos, the Devil’s Crown is a volcano that is almost completely submerged under the island’s beautiful waters. Erosion of the volcano has transformed it into a mass of jagged peaks, which together form the “devil’s crown.” Marine birds such as pelicans, frigates, and boobies call the remains of the volcano home. Travelers will be able to snorkel within the center of the crater and view sea lions, balloon fish, tiger snake eels, hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, and more unique sea life.

Another attraction on Floreana Island is Punta Cormorant, a beach which offers two distinct areas. The shore is a green sand beach, but the trail leads travelers past a lagoon which is home to many birds such as pink flamingos. Beyond this is a beach of white sand particles, aptly named “flour beach.” The waters here feature rays and ghost crabs.

Finally, one of the few attractions on the island that are visited for its human history rather than scientific significance is Post Office Bay. In 1793 Whaler Captain James Colnett erected a wooden post barrel where whalers would leave letters while they made rounds of the isles and ships returning home would do them a favor and mail them. Whaling ships were usually gone for about 2 years at a time, therefore the post office proved important in helping whalers maintain contact with their families. Today, tourists can leave their own letters and take a few to keep the tradition going by forwarding them on to the addressed.


Española

Named in honor of Spain, Española Island has an area of about 60 sq km. At close to 3.5 million years old, it is the oldest isle of the Galapagos. Sadly Española is dying, becoming a barren land with very little surviving vegetation. Still, the island manages to attract Galapagos sea lions since the decay process of the isle has given way to large bays.

The southernmost island of the archipelago, Española has always been very secluded from the other islands. Animals on the island were put in an extreme situation where they need to adapt solely to the island’s environment and natural resources. The marine iguana on Española, for example, is the only one of the Galapagos that changes color during mating season.

Two key attractions on Española are Gardner Bay and Punta Suarez. The former offers great waters to swim or snorkel, as well as a lovely beach on which to sunbathe. Punta Suarez has wildlife such as the hood mockingbirds, Galapagos hawks, and the famed Galapagos Booby birds.


Genovesa

With an area of about 14 sq km, Geneovesa Island is nicknamed the “bird island,” and with good reason: the island’s main attraction, Darwin Bay, is home to swallow-tailed gulls, frigate birds, red-footed boobies, lava gulls, doves, Darwin finches, and a variety of tropic birds.

A seal lounging on the beach, facing the blue sea

The Nazca and red-footed boobies can also be spotted from Philip’s Steps, a bird-watching highland that rises 25 miles in elevation. Once at the top, travelers can continue along the path inland and witness more seabird colonies in the Palo Santo Forest.

Tourists can take advantage of their location by diving the waters of Darwin Bay to appreciate these wonderful creatures more intimately and from a greater vantage point.


Isabela

The largest island of the entire archipelago, about 75 miles (120 km) long and larger than the rest of the islands combined, Isabela was named in honor of the Spanish queen. The isle’s shape resembles a seahorse, which is the result of the merging of six large volcanoes – five of which are still active – into a single landform.

Many birds sitting on a large rock overlooking the ocean

Since the majority of the visitor sites are located on the western side of the island, only faster cruise ships or those featuring longer tours make a stop at this island. As such, it has only just started to develop as a tourist center. However, there is still plenty to do on this beautiful isle and in Puerto Villamil, the town that hosts the largest amount of residents on the entire island. This is where tourists usually start their Isabela explorations. It is the island’s largest town and provides accommodation, restaurants, and other tourist services.

The area has many attractions for tourists to enjoy. About half an hour from the town is the Centro de Crianza, which is a giant tortoise breeding center. The center is surrounded by gorgeous lagoons where various birdlife such as flamingos hang around. The area boasts another beautiful body of water: Concha Perla Lagoon. The trail that leads you to this lovely lagoon is full of mangroves. Take a jump off the quaint dock and swim with sea lions here.

Situated in the southern region of the Island, between volcanoes Cerro Azul and Alcedo is Sierra Negra Volcano. Its caldera, which measures 6 x 5 miles (10 x 8 kilometers), is the largest of the archipelago and the second largest in the world. The trek from Puerto Villamill takes between 3 to 5 hours. However, the breathtaking landscape seen along the way and the chance to spot different sub-species of tortoises – the island is home to the largest number of wild tortoises of all the Galapagos isles – will surely be worth the trip.

Punta Moreno, on the southwest area of Isabela, is the ideal place to see Galapagos penguins. A tour of this area begins with a ride through the rocky but beautiful shores, which the friendly penguins call home. From there travelers will trek though trails of sharp lava rocks. Craters from here have become tide pools, with some enclosed by mangroves. Galapagos fowl such as pink flamingos, pintail ducks, and brown pelicans can be seen here.

Also situated on the west coast of island Isabela is Elizabeth Bay. No landings are permitted here as it is only a marine visitor site. This is another great site to see Galapagos penguins as it holds the largest concentration of the birds on all the islands. Here your boat will travel the waters of the island where travelers will be able to view brown pelicans, sea lions, golden rays, and other interesting creatures.


San Cristobal

San Cristóbal Island is home to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos Province as well as the largest town on the isle. The town houses the island’s main tourist facilities. Currently the entire island is being developed as a main tourist center, second to Santa Cruz.

Two boats in the distance surrounded by blue ocean

Whether you get here by airplane (recommended) or boat from Puerto Ayora (noisy and rough), getting around Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and the island is relatively easy. A taxi anywhere around town should not be more than $1. To make the journey to neighboring towns such as El Progreso and Cerro Verde, consult the information board at the Tourist Pier for costs to and from, as the local government has established official prices for these places.

San Cristóbal is known on the archipelago as the spot to view a wide variety of animals such as sea lions, giant tortoises, blue and red-footed boobies, dolphins, swallow-tailed gulls, and most especially, frigate birds. These fowl make their nests here following their well-known courtship. To see these magnificent birds in their natural habitat travel one mile east of the port to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Bird Hill). On a cloudless day, travelers can get a great view of the bay from this point.

Situated on the western part of town is the Centro de Interpretación (Galapagos National Park Visitors Center) where visitors can see the wonderful display on the conservation efforts and the history of the islands. Admission is free.

Not a particularly pleasant location, La Loberia is a rocky beach that is an ideal place to see blue-footed boobies, yellow canaries, a sea lion colony, and marine iguanas. Travelers can walk a bit further to the cliff to spot rays and tortoises but it is advised that they do not leave the designated trail.

Buses from San Cristóbal make the journey out to the town of El Progreso daily as there are various attractions in the small town that hosts many farms. It is a 2 ½ hour walk from the town to El Junco Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Galapagos Islands.

Also in the area is the La Galapaguera Natural, a section of land used solely for the re-population of the famous Galapagos giant turtles. Admission is free to this attraction that also houses a small breeding center. Another interesting place to visit is Isla Lobos, a large nesting bird colony, as well as a sea lion colony.

Punta Pitt in the far northeast region of the island is the definitive spot to view all three species of the booby bird – blue-footed, red-footed, and masked. This attraction also features interesting lava formations, and Frigate Birds will make an occasional appearance.

Finally, do not miss Kicker Rock, the rock remains of a crater, which is situated off the northwest coast of the island. Nazca and blue-footed boobies can be found on the cliffs of Kicker Rock. The waters are also a great place for snorkeling or scuba diving.


Santa Cruz

The Galapagos island of Santa Cruz is not the largest of the archipelago but it is considered the most important as it is the most developed and visited of the islands. Located in the center of the neighboring isles, Santa Cruz is home to the largest human population of all the islands. The town of Puerto Ayora is where the majority of these residents live and as expected with such a large population, hotels, shops, restaurants, and a few night clubs can also be found here.

A bird sitting on a rock overlooking a beach with a lush forest

Once you arrive at either of the islands’ main airports, airport busses will transfer you to Puerto Ayora, the main ferry departure terminal of the Islands. Most tourism business is conducted on the waterfront. Here, if not already part of a guided tour, visitors can take water taxis available on the main dock or utilize colectivos (white pickup truck taxis) that travel around town.

In terms of attractions, the famous Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) is located here. Inside the station visitors can learn about Galapagos ecology, geology, and weather patterns. In conjunction with the Galapagos National Park Service, whose headquarters are also located on Santa Cruz, the CDRS operates a giant tortoise breeding center here. The price for admission to the center is included in the $100 national park entry fee paid upon arriving to the Galapagos.

The Santa Cruz highlands – rich in vegetation – are also known for their lava tunnels, the longest of which are located on privately-owned farms nearing the towns of Bellavista and Santa Rosa. The entrance fee is around USD $5. Mountain-biking is also a popular activity in this area of the island. Mention it to your Latin America For Less Travel Advisor if you would like this excursion included during your Galapagos vacation.

An ideal place for snorkeling or swimming in Santa Cruz is Las Grietas, a wonderful gorge with a pool of crystal blue water at the bottom. However, if you are more interested in the unique geological formations on the island, be sure not to miss Los Gemelos (The Twins): two sunken volcanic craters that are perched on the highest point of the island in a constant cloud forest. Garrapatero Beach is another wonderful place to swim or snorkel the beautiful waters of the Galapagos Islands while also witnessing interesting wildlife roam free. Here travelers will be able to spot blue-footed boobies, pelicans, marine iguanas, and crabs. Take a walk behind the beach to see the small lagoon and mangroves where marine fowl such as pink flamingos, stilts, and herons hide out.

Another natural wonder of Santa Cruz is Bahía Tortuga (Turtle Bay). Follow the 2-mile trail from Puerto Ayora to the bay that features one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Galapagos. Here travelers will be able to appreciate marine iguanas and turtles, the latter of which use the shores of the beach to lay their eggs between November and February. Be careful not to walk on the dunes located above the beach as this is the egg-nesting area.

Finally, it would be a shame for visitors to the archipelago to skip the National Park Tortoise Reserve. This is one of the few places in the entire Galapagos Islands where you can see giant Galapagos turtles in the wild. From the town of Santa Rosa, follow the unmarked trail that leads to the reserve. En route, keep an eye out for Darwin finches, Galapagos hawks, short-eared owls, and other fascinating creatures of these islands.


Rabida

Taking the name of the convent where Columbus left his son while he went on his journey around the Americas, Rabida Island has an area of almost 5 square miles and is recognized as the place to spot at least 9 species of Darwin finches. Other animal life found on this Galapagos Island is the white-cheeked pintail duck, which lives in a salt-water lagoon, along with brown pelicans and bird boobies. The lava which formed the island contains large amounts of iron which gives Rabida its unique red color.

A red bird in the galapagos islands


Santa Fe

Lying in the center of the Galapagos Islands, Santa Fe is one of the oldest of the archipelago. Vegetation forms a thick forest of the largest species of Opuntia cactus. Named after a Spanish city, the island is teeming with the Barrington Land Iguana. Travelers can visit Barrington Bay to spot a colony of sea lions or trek to the cliffs of Santa Fe which provide shelter for red-billed tropic birds, swallow-tailed gulls, land iguanas, and lava lizards.

A sea lion lounging on a beach, overlooking a sea of water with a boat


Santiago

Santiago Island is also known as San Salvador, the first island discovered by Christopher Columbus. The island’s total area amasses to 360 sq. miles (585 sq km), including two overlapping volcanoes. The oldest recorded lava flows on the island date to over 750,000 years ago. Travelers to this Galapagos Island can view Marine iguanas, sea lions, flamingos, sea turtles, dolphins, and even sharks. The famous Darwin finches and Galapagos Hawks can also be found on Santiago Island.

Two iguanas sitting on a rock in the Galapagos

The beautiful isle features many natural landmarks. At Puerto Egas, a lava shoreline with rock formations hosts a great assortment of wildlife such as marine iguanas and lightfoot crabs. Visitors here can also snorkel and catch a glimpse of a variety of tropical fish.

For those especially interested in geology, another wonderful attraction is Sullivan Bay. Tourists can wander over hardened black lava flows that display lava bubbles petrified on the surface. The two nearby beaches are an ideal place to spot nesting turtles.

Finally, divers can practice their sport at Cousin’s Rock. The triangular rock rises some 33 feet (10 meters) out of the clear Galapagos waters and is comprised of various layers of igneous rock.


Fernandina

Named after King Ferdinand II who sponsored Columbus’ voyage, Fernandina has an area of about 642 sq km (third largest) and is considered the youngest island. Fernandina is an active shield volcano that has been erupting since April of 2009. As of today, no foreign species have been introduced to the environment.

Many iguanas on a rock overlooking waves crashing against rocks in the Galapagos islands

Attractions on the isle include Punta Espinosa, a thin stretch of land where many marine iguanas can be seen lounging on black lava rocks. Out of all the islands, Fernandina actually hold the largest colony of these interesting creatures. Other wildlife that live on the island are the well-known flightless cormorant, pelicans, sea lions, and Galapagos penguins.

Since Fernandina’s volcano is still very active, with eruptions on record since 1813, the vegetation on the island is sparse. Still, even as Fernandina has seen more volcanic activity than the other Galapagos Islands, it is still one of the most popular with tourists thanks to the many Galapagos animals that can be spotted in an exciting but forbidding environment.


Seymour

The island of Seymour was formed as a result of the uplift of underwater lava formations. Situated north of Baltra, the entire island is covered with lush and low vegetation.

Sparkling blue lake surrounded by plants

If you are hoping to see the frigate bird, this is the ideal island on which to do so as it contains the largest colony of the fascinating bird. If the nesting conditions are ideal, Seymour is also known to have the largest population of the interesting blue-footed booby bird. Other animals to be seen on this island are friendly sea lions who lounge on the beach of Seymour as marine iguanas strut by. If fortunate enough, you might be able to spot a Galapagos snake.


Pinta

Pinta Island has an area of 40 miles (60 km) square and features active volcanoes on its northernmost point. This Galapagos Island is home to a variety of animals, the most famous of which was Lonesome George, the Galapagos tortoise. George does not live on Pinta currently and is instead kept at a research facility where he is watched over. Instead, visitors to this isle can be sure to see Galapagos hawks, marine iguanas, dolphins, sea lions, swallow-tailed gulls, fur seals, and more.

A Pinta giant tortoise

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