Tips for Travel to the Galapagos Islands
Whether this is the “bucket list” trip of a lifetime for you or a return visit, travelling to the Galapagos Islands is a special experience that will create lasting memories, either as a solo traveller, a couple or as a family adventure travel holiday. The quirky and tame wildlife and the awe-inspiring landscapes are sure to reawaken your sense of wonder.
To make sure you’re prepared so you can make the most of your vacation, here’s a short guide on how to travel around the Galapagos Islands, including what you need to know about the islands, culture, customs, norms, cruise-life, and more.
You may be wondering: Where are the Galapagos Islands and how many islands are there?
The Galapagos is a volcanic archipelago comprised of a dozen larger and nearly one hundred smaller islands and islets. The archipelago is spread over a wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, right on the Equator, 600 miles (1,000 kilometres) off the coast of Ecuador. Three of the islands have a substantial human population (between, 1,500 and 15,000 people) while a fourth is home to just 100 long-time residents.
How to Visit the Galapagos Islands
The only way to travel to the Galapagos Islands is by taking a commercial flight from the Ecuadorian mainland - either through the coastal city of Guayaquil (1.5 hours one way) or through the capital city in the Andes, Quito (2.5 hours one way, usually with a stopover in Guayaquil). On arrival in Galapagos, you have a choice of either embarking on an expedition cruise ship (widely considered as the most effective way to get the most out of what the islands are all about), or by a land-based visit (usually less costly, but requiring more time and logistics and limited to sites nearest to human settlements). Since 97% of the islands are protected as a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site, you will be required to be accompanied by a Park certified naturalist guide to access most of the visitor sites.
What Species Live There?
The Galapagos is home to rare, protected wildlife, with several species you won’t find anywhere else in the world. These include the iconic giant tortoise, the marine iguana (the only iguana that feeds underwater), the flightless cormorants, the diminutive Galapagos penguin, playful sea lions, land iguana and more.
On a good trip to the Galapagos Islands, you are likely to see the following species:
- Waved albatross
- Flightless cormorants
- Darwin’s finches (several species)
- Green Sea Turtles
- Giant Tortoises
- Red- and blue-footed boobies
- Galapagos penguin
- Sea Lions
- Sea horses
- A variety of non-dangerous sharks (white-tipped reef sharks, hammerheads) and rays
- Whales (possibly orcas, humpbacks, blue, sperm)
- Lava lizards
- Many unique birds and plants
In many cases, these animals will have no fear of you and you’ll be able to get very close to them… or they will come very close to you.
The Galapagos islands were uninhabited until the 18th century. As recently as the 1950’s fewer than 1,000 people lived there. In the past 40 years, there has been increased migration from various parts of mainland Ecuador – you’ll encounter people from the mainland coast, from the Andes, along with various indigenous groups. As a result, the local Galapagos culture is a mix of what you’ll find on the continent. Gradually, a distinct island culture is forming, but the process is still in the early stages.
What is the Food Like?
The food in the Galapagos is a mix of international and Ecuadorian cuisine. So you will be able to try all types of foods on the islands, and will likely find a variety of foods you’ll enjoy and are familiar with. Ships will serve a variety of dishes, and depending on the comfort level of your ship, meals will be more or less elaborate. In town, a variety of mom & pop restaurants will serve basic rice & beans with a piece of chicken, while around the corner, you’ll find sushi, pizza and craft beers.
Galapagos National Park Regulations
There is a long list of regulations to keep in mind when entering the Galapagos. One of the main conservation concerns is the prevention of the arrival of non-native species. You’ll be checked for any fresh fruits and vegetables before embarking on your flight to the island – please don’t try to bring any with you.
On arrival, you’ll need to pay the $100 park entrance fee (subject to change) – giving you access to the park, which covers 97% of the land area of the islands. You’ll need to be accompanied by a naturalist guide for most of the places you can visit in the park. Guides will ensure that you follow all additional regulations while in the park (e.g. keeping a minimum distance of 6 feet / 2 meters from the animals, no food).
While the Galapagos Islands are generally very safe for visitors, be aware that the animals can respond aggressively if provoked. So respect the wildlife, and they will respect you. It’s against the regulations to touch any animal. Marine wildlife (sharks, rays, sea lions) can be the most impressive. While shark bites have happened in the past (4 recorded shark bites in the past 40 years), this is extremely rare.
Things to Do
Galapagos is world-famous for the unique diversity of wildlife, both above and below the sea. Your primary motivation for going to Galapagos should be to get to see and experience as much as the wildlife as possible, as close as possible. Otherwise, it would be like going all the way to Paris and spending your time there bowling.
Galapagos is also famous as the place where Charles Darwin first started wondering about the origin of species. It’s here, in 1835, that he started asking questions about how species came to be in different parts of the world. Going to Galapagos is an opportunity to better understand how groundbreaking Darwin’s thinking was at the time.
On a typical expedition cruise, you’ll have the chance to do some:
- Kayaking, paddleboarding
- Sunbathing on the beach
For those keen on scuba diving and sports-fishing, you would need to stay on in the islands after your cruise and make specific arrangements. Your cruise representative can help you with that.
If you’re thinking of going to Galapagos to relax on the beach and enjoy the local culture and nightlife – you should reconsider and choose another destination. You’ll save a lot of money – as Galapagos is much more expensive than mainland Ecuador (and many other places). Going to Galapagos for such reasons would be like going all the way to Paris and spending your time there bowling. Sure, they have nice bowling alleys in Paris – but you can likely find nice ones much closer to home.
Booking Your Cruise and Travelling
When booking your trip to the Galapagos, consider the following tips.
To save money on your trip, consider travelling during the off-season (September to early November / early December). Also, keep these estimates in mind when planning your budget for your cruise (prices are subject to change):
- $20 for the transit control fee
- $100 for the National Park entrance fee
- $500 (approximately) for a return flight to the Galapagos Islands (if not taking a boat from the mainland)
- $10 to $20 per day for tips to i) your tour guide and ii) crew
- $300-$1,300 per day for an expedition cruise, depending on comfort level, season, and notwithstanding possible last-minute prices
Land-based or expedition cruise
An expedition cruise is a superior way of getting the most out of your time in Galapagos. Your ship will travel at night, and you wake up at dawn, anchored next to a pristine island, watching the sunrise while perhaps a pod of dolphins slowly swims by. You disembark on a remote visitor site early in the morning, when the sun is not yet unbearably hot, and when the animals are most active. You’ll enjoy a nice hike through various ecosystems – observing a variety of wildlife – a Galapagos tortoise, land iguanas, Darwin’s finches coming right up to you, and more. By the time the sun starts getting too warm, it’s time for a swim, a snorkel, kayak or paddleboard. You’ll swim with playful sea lions (underwater puppies), see penguins daring about you chasing little fish, spot some disinterested sharks and rays. The ship will sail to another visitor site while you have lunch and maybe a little siesta, and you’ll repeat the kinds of activities you did in the morning. Happy hour is at sea, watching the sunset behind a volcano in a remote part of the archipelago, far from the noise and lights of Galapagos towns.
A land-based trip is usually more budget-friendly – but is also more logistically taxing. You’ll need to check out of/into hotels as you move around, taking taxis/water taxis. You’ll have to meet a group for your daily excursions, often waiting around impatiently for stragglers (unless you’re the straggler…). You’ll spend up to 2 or more hours travelling to your designated visitor site, often arriving later in the morning, when the sun is high and hot and animals have sought shade. You’ll need to head back to town by mid-afternoon, finding that you spend most of your day just getting to and back from your visitor site.
We recommend that if you think an expedition cruise is too expensive, then you should hold back and take the time to save so that you can enjoy Galapagos in the best possible way when you’re ready to do so.
How long should I go?
The typical expedition cruise is 7 nights / 8 days. Please be aware that the first and last day of a trip to the Galapagos islands includes the travel time from and to the continent – resulting in only short days on the ship. If you’re short on time, several ships offer shorter cruises – but remember, a 5-day cruise will give you only 3 full days on the ship.
Best Time to Book
Wildlife in Galapagos offers a regular variety of spectacles all year long. There is not an ideal time to go in that regard. For those who don’t like very warm weather, the months of June to December will offer relief from the tropical heat you’ll feel from January to May. The sea during the cooler months can on average be choppier and waters cooler – though there are never any storms in Galapagos.
Christmas and Easter periods are the busiest – it can be harder to find a last-minute Galapagos cruise during that time – when many ships can be fully booked months in advance. The lowest season is from September to mid-December – though the U.S. Thanksgiving week (end November) can also be booked up.
The Galapagos environment is surprisingly benign. The chances of getting anything serious are minuscule. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry, and as most of you will be spending a bit of time on the mainland, where there is more going on (particularly in the coastal areas and in the Amazon) – it’s recommended to visit your doctor for traveller’s vaccinations at least six months before your trip.
What to Pack
Ideally, you will only pack the essentials since many boats have limited storage space and baggage restrictions.
Here’s a list of must-pack items for your trip:
- Camera with a zoom lens and an underwater camera
- Insect repellant
- Hat (light, wide-brimmed)
- A light sweater (particularly for the June – December period)
- Pants and shorts – the kind that dries easily
- Light shirts – short and long-sleeved (protection from the sun)
- Windbreaker rain jacket
- Sturdy waterproof sandals
- Light hiking boots/shoes
- Medication to prevent seasickness (motion sickness)
- Reusable water bottle
- Waterproof bag in which to transport your camera while going ashore
- First Aid kit with ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol, and diarrhea medicine
The U.S. Dollar is the official currency in Ecuador. Not many places in the Galapagos take credit cards or $100 bills, so be sure to bring enough cash before travelling. You will need it when buying food and drinks and tipping.
Things to Ask Your Travel Agent or Cruise Representative
- What's the itinerary? A good itinerary will have you spending less time visiting towns.
- How many passengers are on board?
- What's included/not included in the trip?
- Are there any additional costs? What are they?
- Is the equipment included? (eg. snorkelling, wet suit)
- Do you have solo pricing? What if I’m willing to share?
- Can you accommodate my particular dietary restrictions?
Going Through Customs/Immigration
Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your departure date from Ecuador.
Visitors are given a 12-x tourist visa upon being granted permission to enter the country, which is valid for 90 days. You cannot have a flight that leaves Ecuador later than 90 days after your arrival.
When arriving at the mainland airport for your flight to Galapagos, you will need to present a domestic round-trip air ticket. Though current regulations require that you have cruise reservation prior to flying to the islands, at the time of publishing, it is not being enforced and never has been. Technically, if you cannot show these, there is a chance that you will not be allowed to visit the Galapagos Islands.
If you get sick or injured during your trip, you will need travel insurance to avoid spending potentially thousands of dollars on health care. Travel insurance isn’t expensive, so it’s worth buying before you travel. Just make sure you understand what it covers, including the activities you might be taking part in.
Life on an Expedition Cruise Ship
Ships in the Galapagos carry between 12 and 98 people. The vast majority of the approximately 65 expedition cruise ships carry 20 or fewer passengers, with perhaps 4-5 carrying more than 48. The size of ship you opt for will depend on your personal preferences. Smaller ships provide for a more intimate experience with the islands – allowing you to observer dolphins riding the bow-wave, for example, or making it easier for the captain to alter course to get close to sperm whales. Larger ships will ride the chop more easily (though you will still feel the swell) and have more deck space. Luxury ships can be found in both the small and large category, budget / mid-range ships can only be found in the smaller ship category.
Most people express concerns about seasickness. It has been our experience, after surveying retuning visitors for several years, that fewer than 3% of visitors felt that seasickness affected the enjoyment of their trip. In most cases, the feeling will be short-lived as your body grows accustomed to the motion. Also, the use of modern medications and patches can make a big difference.