The Best Times to Travel to the Galapagos Islands

October 10, 2019 03:09

When to Travel to The Galapagos Islands for Ideal Wildlife Viewing and Outdoor Activities

The Galapagos Islands are one of those year-round destinations with mild weather patterns and gradual changes throughout the year, making it an ideal vacation spot anytime you choose to go.

However, depending on what you are hoping to do and see while visiting the Galapagos Islands, there may be certain times when it is better to go than others.

To give you a better understanding of the Galapagos climate when planning your trip, we’ve broken down the different seasons on the islands and the most ideal times for travel in terms of activities and wildlife viewing.

Seasons – What to Expect

Weather-wise, there isn’t ever a bad season in the Galapagos Islands.  We like to say that the climate there could actually use a good cup of coffee – e.g. there are no storms, and the weather is pretty much the same from one day to the next.   This is all very convenient because there is no “Weather Channel” or connected weather stations that operate in the Galapagos Islands.

However, there are two distinctive seasons, along with two transitional periods that bring about slightly different weather conditions.

Hot Season – Later in December to earlier May (more or less)

The warmer season in the Galapagos begins in December and lasts until May, however, the hottest temperatures are typically experienced during February through till April.

During this hot season, you can expect temperature highs to range from 30to 33 degrees Celsius (? to ? degrees Fahrenheit).  For those who would rather avoid hot temperatures, you may wish to consider the cooler season (see below).

During this season, you can expect warm, humid sunny periods and an occasional, spectacular tropical downpour (maybe once a week?  It varies a lot). The ocean also warms considerably during the hot season, making it the ideal time for snorkelling and swimming.  

The tropical hot season in the Galapagos Islands peaks by mid-March, after which the cool water currents and southeast trade winds slowly bring the islands into their cool, dry season.

Garua Season – Middle of May/early June to November/December (more or less)

Here on the equator, the northern hemisphere summer months mark the start of the cooler season on the Galapagos islands.  This period is also much dryer, particularly in the lower, coastal areas. 

At the beginning of Garua season, temperatures will begin to drop, resulting in warm days and cooler nights. This is a great time to visit for those who don’t have a high tolerance for heat and humidity and prefer cooler temperatures.

This season tends to peak around October, with an average temperature high of 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).

Keep in mind that the ocean is also cooler during this time, and seas can be a bit choppier.

Cusp Seasons – December to January and May to June

Towards the end of both the hot and Garua seasons, we have what’s called cusp seasons that act as transitional periods in between the two seasons.

Between December and January is when Galapagos transitions from Garua into the hot, rainy season and temperatures begin to rise and precipitation increases.

Galapagos then begins to transition back into Garua around the months of May and June, and the weather begins to cool just slightly.

El Niño

El Niño is a complex climate phenomenon that occurs every 2 to 7 years when ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean rise to above-normal levels for an extended period of time. 

During an El Niño event, the Galápagos is especially vulnerable as the islands are geographically positioned right in the centre of the warming ocean waters.

In Galapagos, only the more extreme El Nino events have a significant impact.  The last significant El Niño occurred between 1997 and 1998 and resulted in extremely hot and humid weather in the Galapagos Islands for one year, along with lots of rain and very warm waters.

A significant El Niño event can be great for terrestrial species; however, it also has the ability to devastate the islands’ marine life.

In fact, following the 1997/1998 El Niño, the Galapagos Islands experienced a massive 65% decline in the population of Galapagos Penguins.

What About La Niña?

La Niña is the opposite of El Niño and occurs when the ocean waters drop to lower-than-normal temperatures.

During a La Niña event, marine life tends to flourish due to the cooler waters, while terrestrial life struggles due to the lack of rain and reduced vegetation.

Ideal Times to Travel Based on What Activities You Want to Do

Snorkelling

This one is a double-edged sword. While the warner water temperature experienced during the hot season can make for more a more pleasant snorkelling experience, marine life is less abundant.  You may see fewer large schools of fish – but rest assured, the stars of the show are still there in their usual numbers – sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, rays, sharks and more.  

On the other hand, in the Garua season, water temperatures are cooler.  The nutrient-rich Humboldt current during this time helps to sustain marine life, resulting in great plankton, leading to more fish in general. 

So, if snorkelling amongst a rich diversity of marine life is more important to you than the comfort of warmer waters, consider visiting the Galapagos during the Garua season. Just be sure to put on your wet suit before you dive in!   But at the end of the day, there are great underwater thrills to be had all year long.

Birdwatching

The Galapagos Islands are a birdwatchers paradise. But when is the best time to see all the spectacular birds that habitat the islands?

In general, birds tend to enjoy the dry season, and many bird species, such as the American flamingo, can be seen taking part in elegant mating rituals.

However, January can also be a good time as this is the nesting period for a variety of birds such as the blue-footed booby and white-cheeked pintail duck.

Regardless of when you go, you are bound to see an abundance of birds unique to the Galapagos when you visit any time of year.

Kayaking

Waters tend to be both rougher and cooler during Garua season, so if gliding through the Pacific Ocean in a kayak is at the top of your list, consider visiting the Galapagos Islands during the hot season.

Wildlife You Can Expect to See Based on When You Visit

Typically, the best time to see terrestrial wildlife in the Galapagos Islands is during the hot season when vegetation is flourishing, insects abound and creatures like Darwin’s finches, land iguanas, and tortoises are out in full force.

However, it is in the Garua season that most of the Galapagos’ wildlife tends to mate, giving you the opportunity to spot newborn seabirds, shorebirds, giant tortoises, sea lions, fur seals, marine iguanas and much more.

Therefore, anytime you visit the Galapagos Islands, there will be no shortage of activity from the local wildlife.

However, if you are hoping to get up close and personal with a particular creature when visiting the Galapagos Islands, here is a breakdown of the best times to see different species in their natural habitat.

Humpback Whales

One of the few migratory species that can be found near the Galapagos Islands is the majestic humpback whale.

So, if whale watching is something that interests you, visiting the islands between June and September can help ensure you get a front-row seat to see whales migrating from the south, past Peru and mainland Ecuador.  Besides the humpbacks, other marine mammals such as dolphins, orcas, pilot whales, sperm and even blue whales are around all year long – some are more often spotted than others.

Baby Sea Lions

Who doesn’t love baby sea lions? In order to spot baby sea lions shortly after birth frolicking along the beach, the best time to visit the islands is in August. If swimming with sea lions is something that’s on your to-do list, hold off on visiting the Galapagos Islands until November when playful sea lions pups will be getting their sea legs (or flippers!).

Giant Tortoises

Giant tortoises are considered an icon of the Galapagos Islands, and seeing them up close is understandably a huge draw.

Female tortoises tend to migrate to nesting zones to lay their eggs between June and November.

As these eggs begin to hatch, you will see tiny baby tortoises less than 5cm long scurrying around the islands.   These can be seen at only a handful of visitors sites – please plan accordingly. 

Blue Footed Boobies

By May, the blue-footed booby mating season is in full swing. This means you may just get to see these majestic birds taking part in an adorable mating ritual that consists of a courtship dance.   Depending on the abundance of marine life, the boobies could also mate during other times of the year.

Galapagos Penguins

The cooler weather brought on by the Humboldt Current makes for ideal conditions for Galapagos penguins, making Garua season (September in particular) the best time to spot penguins swimming, fishing, mating, and waddling around the beaches.

At the end of the day, there really is no time that is better than others to experience the stunning beauty and biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands. Therefore, the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands really depends on you, what you’d like to see, and what activities you’d like to take part in.

So, if you are planning a cruise excursion to the Galapagos Islands, carefully plan out what things you want to do and creatures you’d like to see and find an itinerary to match...

A Traveler’s Guide to the Galapagos Islands

August 7, 2019 09:18

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.

Location

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
  • Flamingos
  • Flightless cormorants
  • Darwin’s finches (several species)
  • Green Sea Turtles
  • Giant Tortoises
  • Red- and blue-footed boobies
  • Galapagos penguin
  • Sea Lions
  • Octopus
  • Sea horses
  • A variety of non-dangerous sharks (white-tipped reef sharks, hammerheads) and rays
  • Whales (possibly orcas, humpbacks, blue, sperm)
  • Dolphins
  • 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. 

People

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).

Precautions

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:

  • Snorkelling
  • Hiking
  • Kayaking, paddleboarding
  • Sunbathing on the beach
  • Swimming

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.

Budgeting 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.

Vaccinations

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
  • Binoculars
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellant
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat (light, wide-brimmed)
  • Towel
  • Swimwear
  • 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

Currency

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.

Health/Travel Insurance

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. 

Seasickness

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.