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Galapagos Islands

Photo © andymoore

Travel Guide South America Ecuador Galapagos Islands

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Introduction

Blue Footed Boobie 2

Blue Footed Boobie 2

© All Rights Reserved Taffski

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands around the equator, located about 1,000 kilometres west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean and were made famous by Charles Darwin. It is a heaven for people who wish to be witness of some of the most unusual animals in the world, all to be viewed from up close. It doesn't come cheap and a tour of 5 days including the return flight from mainland Ecuador will set you back at least a US$ 1,000, but probably more when you want to explore more islands and spend some decent amount of time at this magnificent place.

The environment is fragile on the other hand and recently, the government of Ecuador has announced that less visitors are allowed on the islands at one time and a maximum number is allowed in one year. Also prices for the entry to the National Park are tripled which only adds extra costs. Still, if visited in the right way, it makes for an unforgettable trip!

Hopefully this stops some of the more rampant destructions and corruption that has plagued the Galapagos in the past. As recently as the 1990s the local mafia were trying smuggle animals out of the Galapagos Islands for a profit. Also many Ecuadorians view the islands as their frontier. Therefore many people move to the islands in order to find their fortunes in many different industries some very destructive to the fragile environment of the Galapagos Islands. Over fishing in recent years has been blamed for the reduction in the number of large whale sightings while on cruises.

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Geography

Galapagos View

Galapagos View

© All Rights Reserved Darell

The islands are located on the equator, in the Pacific Ocean and apart from Ecuador the closest islands are 500 kilometres north (Cocos Islands) or almost 2,000 kilometres south (Easter Island). As the Galapagos islands are on the equator, they are located in both the northern and southern hemisphere and with the equator line located exactly on the island of Isla Isabela. From north to south the islands are spread out about 220 kilometres. A nice affect of being located on the equator and at sea level is that a traveller can see every constellation year round while visiting the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands include 7,880 square kilometres of land and 45,000 square kilometres of water. The largest of the islands is Isabela Island with about 4588 square kilometers, thus making up half of the total land area. The highest point is located on Isabela as well and Volcan Wolf has an altitude of 1,707 meters above sea level.

The Galapagos Archipelago consists of 16 main islands, 6 smaller islands, and 10 rocks and islets. The islands are located in a volcanic sensitive area and the oldest island is thought to have been formed between 5 and 10 million years ago. The most recent eruption was just back in 2007 and, as a consequence, younger islands like Isabela and Fernandina are still being formed and thus changed as we speak.

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Islands

Blowhole, Espanola, Galapagos Islands

Blowhole, Espanola, Galapagos Islands

© All Rights Reserved andymoore

The main islands of the Galapagos are

  • Santa Cruz
  • San Cristobal
  • Baltra
  • Bartolomé
  • Darwin
  • Espanola
  • Fernandina
  • Isabela
  • Floreana
  • Marchena
  • Pinzon
  • Rabida
  • Santiago
  • Santa Fé

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Towns

With a total population of only 40,000, you would hardly be surprised to hear that real cities are absent on the Galapagos Islands. The capital is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal island which has about 6,000 inhabitants, making it the second largest settlement after Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz which has better facilities for travellers. Many people only visit Puerto Ayora and Santa Cruz island because of the costs of going on a boat trip. Even if you just stay in Puerto Ayora you can have a great time exploring animals at the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is where you can learn about the history of the islands and the future conservation. In the hills around Puerto Ayora there are great day hikes where wild giant tortoises can be spotted.

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Sights and Activities

Lonesome George, Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

Lonesome George, Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

© All Rights Reserved andymoore

When visiting the islands you will likely take a boat trip between a couple or several of the islands. Every islands has its own specific environment and for specific species you have to visit as many islands as possible. All of the islands in the park officially open at sunrise and a great activity is to visit right when they open. Your group will be the only travellers on the islands and the animals will just be waking up. Also the soft light will help when taking great pictures. For more information on the wildlife on the Galapagos Islands please read the article: Wildlife In The Galapagos.

  • Charles Darwin Research Center is run by the Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands. This is an excellent place to visit to learn more about the wildlife of the Galapagos including the famous Lonesome George, who is the last of his species. Most multi day tours include a half day at the center.
  • Galapagos Scuba Diving is considered to be some of the best diving in the world. It is one of the few places in the world that you can dive with Sea Lions, Giant Turtles, Hammerhead Sharks, Penguins and Sea Horses all in one dive!
  • Vivencial Fishing is a relatively new activity for vistors to the Galapagos Islands. While sport fishing, per se, is prohibited, the Galapagos National Park has issued a limited number of licences to local fishermen to offer Pesca Artesanal Vivencial or Artisanal Vivencial Fishing. On a properly licenced Vivencial Fishing boat, you can fish offshore for big-game like marlin or inshore for tuna, wahoo, grouper and other permitted species. All marlin must be released but a limited amount of other fish can be kept for personal consumption. You may not fish for sharks or rays. If you want to fish in the Galapagos be aware that both the fisherman and his boat require the special licence. The Galapagos National Park publishes a list of licenced boats and owners.

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Weather

Although it is located right on the Equator, the influence of the currents (like the cold Humboldt current) in the Pacific Ocean moderates the weather extremely. The warmer El Nino current influences the weather mainly from December to April, when the usual drizzle makes place for heavy showers. During this season both the air and water are warmer, around 25 °C on average, while during the colder June to October period this would be closer to 22 °C including the drizzle and occasional fog.

March in general is the hottest month, with temperatures over 30 °C during the day. Sometimes the difference between day and night temperatures may only vary one or two degrees. February and March are also the wettest months.

Although the hottest months are also the wettest, strangely these are also the months with the most sunshine as the colder June to September months have an overcast during most of the day. This latter period, on the other hand, is best when you want to see many of the aquatic life as the animals prefer the colder Humboldt current instead of the warmer El Nino current.

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Getting There

By Plane

Regular flights connect the islands with both Quito and Guayaquil but flights need to be booked well in advance because of its popularity. There are two airports servicing passengers arriving on the Galapagos Islands: one on Baltra and the other on San Cristobal. Pay attention when checking in for your flight: flights to Baltra are often described simply as "Galapagos" while flights to San Cristobal say, specifically "San Cristobal".

By Boat

There are cargo ships departing from from Guayaquil to the Galapagos Islands. The journey takes 3 to 4 days and booking passage aboard these boats is not common. These boats are only permitted to provide passage to residents of the Galapagos Islands - they are not allowed to take tourists on board.

Many people choose to arrive Galapagos aboard their own private boat. Either in transit or to tour the islands. Boats transiting the island are permitted to stay in one of the four ports (Baltra, Puerto Ayora, Puerto Baquerizo, Villamil or Floreana for a maximum of 21 days). They are not permitted to travel to other parts of the islands under this permit.

Boats which wish to visit more than one island or to cruise the islands on board their own vessel may do so under special permission. These permits need to be obtained in advanced through a local licensed Galapagos Yacht Agency. The owner of the boat needs to be on board while in the Galapagos Islands and the boat can not be operating for commercial purposes. The special permits are expensive and many smaller boats prefer to arrive "in transit" then tour the islands aboard one of the regular cruises.

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Getting Around

Yacht Floreana, Galapagos Islands

Yacht Floreana, Galapagos Islands

© All Rights Reserved andymoore

How you get around depends on whether you are in an inhabited area or on park territory.

On the inhabited islands, you have taxis, vans, buses and bicycles to choose from. The only restriction is that when on park territory you must be accompanied by a licensed Galapagos National Park guide.

You can only get to the uninhabited islands by boat. Your landing might be "wet" (knee deep at the most) or "dry" (where there is a rudimentary pier). Once on land, it is all by foot and you'll want to have sturdy sandals, preferably walking shoes or even hiking boots. In places the ground can be a little challenging and it can really help to have a stick.

The "visitor site" trails are marked by posts and painted rocks and you have to stay within the lines. That's generally no problem as the animals will often come to you. You can hike in the inhabited areas, which are quite extensive on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. You'll need a guide to go into the Park itself.

By Plane

There is a company (Emetebe) which operates two twin-prop light aircraft (6 or 8 seats) on a regular daily schedule between Baltra, San Cristobal and Isabela.

By Car and Bus

Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and, to a lesser extent Isabela, all have abundant taxis that will take you anywhere in town for a dollar. Travel outside town, such as to the highlands will be a few dollars more. There are daily buses to the airport on Baltra. San Cristobal's airport is on the edge of town and is a 5-minute taxi ride. You can rent bicycles on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal and you can ride considerable distances before finding yourself at the limits of the National Park, beyond which you will have to be accompanied by a Park guide.

By Boat

There are many boat tours between the islands, but both prices and comfort vary a lot so shop around. You can go on a small sailing yacht and on big luxurious cruise ships, it all depends on what you like. This is a trip that is worth planning in advance due to cost. But a traveller can arrange a trip on short notice but it best to do that on the mainland. Remember if travelling alone to ask if your cabin will have a forced roommate and to require that the forced roommate be of the same gender as you. Seas are normally calmest from December through May although in the last couple of years (2010, 2011) it has been windier than normal. It is never really rough but outside these months you may be more comfortable on one of the larger boats.

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Eat

The Galapagos Islands were once a favoured source of giant tortoises to feed the crews of passing ships, particularly whalers, and the tortoise population was decimated even to the extent that some species are now extinct.

In the past, some species, particularly sea-cucumber and lobster, were seriously over-fished by the local population and are now restricted to a few months in the year. There are no quotas on other species and the local fishermen are not sufficiently numerous or well equipped to have much impact on fish stocks. The biggest problem now is that commercial boats from the Ecuador mainland and other countries fish the perimeter of the Marine Reserve and frequently make illegal incursions into the Reserve. The use of long-lines and shark-finning are both illegal but enforcement is problematic.

There is no restriction on tourists eating seafood (in season of course) and the quantities involved have no material impact on stocks.

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Drink

Party time Galapagos! There are a few bars near the port in Puerto Ayora, some of which can be a little fun. Remember to bring booze with you on the boats because the private bars on the tours can get very expensive. Once you leave Puerto Ayora there is no place to buy anything, other then the boat store. In the same breathe most boat trips have early morning hikes which are no fun with a hang over.

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Sleep

PropertyAddressTypePopularity
Los PinguinosBarrio Escalesias Puerto AyoraGuesthouse71
The Jungle HostalAve. Antonio Gil, Via Centro Crianza de tortugas Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela, GalapagosGUESTHOUSE82
Casa Hospedaje GermaniaCalle Juan Montalvo y Moises Brito Street Isla Santa Cruz / Puerto AyoraGUESTHOUSE84
Hotel Verde AzulCalle Petrel y Marchena Barrio Residencila, El EdenHOTEL-
Caleta Iguana (Casa Rosada)Av. Antonio Gil. Puerto Villamil - IsabelaHOTEL88
Galapagos Best Home StayPiqueros Ave Escalesia Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz IslaGUESTHOUSE88
El Castillo GalapagosCalle Albatros barrio Pampas Coloradas Puerto Ayora Santa CruzHOSTEL-
Posada del CaminanteIsabela-GalapagosGUESTHOUSE-
Suites Del Sol GalapagosLobo Marino e Isla Ducan (Barrio Alborada), puertoGUESTHOUSE-
Hostal La Gran TortugaAve Las Fragatas y 16 de Mayo Isla Isabela GalapagosHOTEL-
Hostal LojaAv. 16 de Marzo y los Cactus Isla IsabelaGUESTHOUSE-
Sleeping Sealion, Galapagos Islands

Sleeping Sealion, Galapagos Islands

© All Rights Reserved andymoore

There are a few hotels in Puerto Ayora. Although the vast majority of people sleep on their boats. Camping is not an option on any of the islands.

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Contributors

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Galapagos Islands Travel Helpers

  • Rhmyers

    What Kind of ship to get on:

    What to expect.

    Ask Rhmyers a question about Galapagos Islands
  • Galeodan

    We are an Irish\Ecuadorian\Canadian couple living in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal, Galapagos. Maria Elena is from the Islands and spent 20 years in Canada. Sean is Irish by way of England, Africa and Canada. We have summered here since 1997 and moved to San Cristobal permanently in 2008. We operate a travel agency, specialising in Vivencial Fishing (the only kind of fishing that is legal for visitors). We're happy to answer questions about life in the Galapagos, fishing in the Galapagos (now there's a tricky subject), visiting, cruising, diving or simply respond to curiosity about this truly unique environment and the special challenges it faces.

    Ask Galeodan a question about Galapagos Islands
  • Lead Adventures

    To date, Lead-Adventures has efficiently managed over 2000 participants inbound, in our 30 programs running in Ecuador and Galapagos. Our programs are targeted to young minded people of all ages.

    Ask Lead Adventures a question about Galapagos Islands
  • merika

    I have been in the Galapagos for the past 9 months, I had my home there, worked there. I will be back again in December 2011 for a 2-year period. Anything you want to know about San Cristobal, I can tell you. Intersted in nature, wildlife, beaches, nightlife, travelling between the islands (and no... it's not only government people who take the inter island flights... everyone does when they can), volunteer opportunities... etc.

    Ask merika a question about Galapagos Islands

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