Seals lounging on a beach in the Galapagos Islands
• Since it’s 1, 000 km (620 miles) from the mainland, you need to travel there by air. Combine this with a boat tour and it will be an expensive trip. Alternatively see ‘Organized wildlife tours’ below.
• It’s not so good for seasick prone travellers, though you can reduce your chances of a daily chunder with some planning:
a) choose a calmer time of year.
b) pick the biggest, newest cruise ship possible and ask about stabilisers!
c) Sickly Bugbog members find acupressure wrist bands pretty effective and there are some good motion-sickness potions around these days too.
Almost 200, 000 tourists visited the Galápagos last year so it can get a little crowded. The result of this onslaught is that wildlife tourism is more tightly controlled here than anywhere else in the world. You’re only allowed to visit tiny pockets of the national park, you can disembark (from small boats) only at designated landing spots, you must walk only on clearly marked trails in strictly disciplined small groups, and you must be accompanied by local certified guides. Regulating tourism with such military efficiency may feel extreme, but it is essential under the circumstances.
In certain places, at certain times, the tourist trails can be as busy as high-streets at lunchtime. But there are still quiet corners of the archipelago and the wildlife is just as approachable as it was in Darwin’s day.
The trick is to go ashore as early as possible, in order to avoid other groups that don’t go until after a leisurely breakfast; this is also the best time to see the peak of animal activity in the best light.
Weather and when to go
Best: December-May. Mainly warm (average high of 25C/77F) and sunny but occasional showers. Calmer, clearer ocean because the trade winds die down.
Try to avoid the busiest periods of the year, December – January and July – August.
Worst: June-November due to frequent fog, drizzle rain, wind, rough seas, less services available (average high 22C/72F).
Wildlife activities vary greatly and each month has its own highlights. For example, green turtles begin their egg-laying in January; penguins interact with swimmers on Bartolomé mainly from May until the end of September; humpback whales begin to arrive in June; July through to the end of September is the best period for most seabird activity; peak pupping for sea lions is around August, while their pups play aqua-aerobics with snorkellers in November; and December is the month for hatching giant tortoise eggs. So there is always something going on.
The hot, humid, slightly rainy season (with occasional tropical showers) is from December to May (March and April are usually hottest and wettest). The seas tend to be calmer and clearer at this time of year (with 60ft-80ft visibility typical) and the water temperature averages 79F (26C), so this period is best for snorkelling.
The cool, drier, windier season (with occasional drizzle or mist) is from June to November. Sea temperatures at this time of year drop to as low as 66F (19C) and visibility often goes down to 30ft-50ft, while sea swells can make some landings tricky.
How to visit the Galapagos Islands
Because of the long distances involved, the only practical way to explore the Galápagos is by live-aboard boats, which travel between islands, mostly at night, and make different stops each day. More than 80 vessels are licensed to operate in the archipelago and there are countless combinations of stops and routes. Most cruises go ashore twice a day: 10 full days on the boat typically means 20 shore landings, 10-20 snorkels, and several panga rides (pangas are small, open outboard-powered boats) to about 10 different islands.
Exploring on your own is considerably more difficult. Getting around independently is tricky and all visitors must be accompanied by a licensed naturalist guide at all landing sites. But four islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana and Isabela) do have hotels of varying sizes and standards and a few boat operators offer day-trips.
Following in Darwin’s footsteps involves a flight from Quito or Guayaquil, on the mainland, to Baltra or San Cristóbal. Some cruises leave from Baltra (the dock is a five-minute drive from the air terminal). Others go from Puerto Ayora, the tourist hub on Santa Cruz and a relatively busy town, with a bank, ATM machine, taxis, pubs and even a cinema.
There are more than 60 approved visitor sites across the archipelago altogether, and where you go will influence what wildlife you are likely to see.
Found mainly around the westernmost islands, where particularly cool currents keep water temperatures low. They can be seen in several places (around Pinnacle Rock, on Bartolomé, is good) but breed only on Isabela and Fernandina.
Like the penguin, breeds only on Fernandina and Isabela; found nowhere else.
Found pretty much everywhere and a familiar sight from early in the trip.
Breeds only on Española and, apart from a few pairs on Isla de la Plata, near the Ecuadorean mainland, nowhere else in the world; present April to December.
Galápagos land iguanas are found on the central and western islands; not surprisingly, Santa Fé is the only place to see the endemic Santa Fé land iguana.
Probably the most famous birds in the archipelago. As a result of his five-week stay, Darwin speculated that the 13 species of these rather unassuming little birds had evolved from a single species on the mainland – and this set the stage for his major breakthrough. They are found throughout the archipelago, though some species are restricted to certain islands.
Galápagos giant tortoise
The best places to see them are in the Santa Cruz highlands and on Alcedo Volcano, Isabela, which host the largest populations; San Cristóbal, Santiago, Española and Pinzón also have tortoises.
The only seafaring lizard in the world is impossible to miss. There may be as many as 300, 000 marine iguanas across the archipelago, loafing around in the sun on rocky shores to raise their body temperature between dives.
Galápagos sea lion
Easy to find throughout the archipelago. One of the best places to snorkel with them, in calm water, is Santa Fé, but there are many other locations.
Galápagos fur seal
A little harder to find but there are one or two hot spots (the seal grotto on Santiago is the best place to view them up close).
Organized wildlife tours: Although most tourists travel with a package tour booked in advance from home or on the Ecuador mainland (Quito or Guayaquil), it can be arranged more cheaply on the islands if you are not on a tight schedule. This will require time, planning, organization and Spanish competence would help too!
Animals: you can expect to see – and get really, really close to – land and marine iguanas, fur seals, sea lions, Galapagos penguins, Giant Tortoises, sharks and – if you’re lucky – Sperm Whales and Orcas.
Birds: This is a bird watcher’s paradise, with Blue-footed Boobies at their silly best, varied herons, Oyster Catchers, Pelicans, Frigate Birds, Waved Albatrosses, Swallow-tailed Gulls and even Flamingos. See Galapagos Birds Pictures
Scuba diving is excellent, but mainly for those experienced in underwater travel. You are advised to bring your own gear and book in advance. Be aware that most of the best sites have strong currents, surge and cold waters. The best dive centre is in Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz.
Snorkelling is also a great way to see the Galapagos’ wildlife and is easy to arrange, though just swimming with sea creatures is possible and fun.
Equipment is provided by the boats, unless you prefer to bring your own. The islands of Isla Plaza Sur and Isla Bartolome have especially good snorkel sites.