Galapagos Guide

giant tortoise, galapagos islands, ecuador

Seals lounging on a beach in the Galapagos Islands

How to visit the Galapagos Islands

This is one of the must-sees in the world if you are interested in wildlife that does not fear humans, Charles Darwin (and his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection) or natural history. Watching unique species of birds and animals and even fish that are totally fearless of humans is a stunning experience.

This remote archipelago is a bleak land of lava leftovers, cactus groves, green highlands, turquoise bays and tropical beaches colonised by seals, not sunbeds.
Within minutes of landing on this tiny cluster of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, tourists come face-to-face with more fearless and curious animals than anywhere else on Earth.

Right on the equator and about 600 miles west of Ecuador, Darwin’s ‘Enchanted Isles’ consist of 13 decent sized volcanic islands, six smaller islands and more than 100 islets. Each one has its own unique atmosphere, landscape and wildlife.
On an island cruise you can see expect to see everything from blue-foot boobies to tool-using woodpecker finches, tropical penguins and frigatebirds inflating their throats into red balloons. One day you could be watching giant tortoises lumbering in the misty highlands, and the next you could be snorkelling with playful sea lions in crystal-clear water. You could be sunbathing on black lava rocks next to prehistoric-looking marine iguanas, or sitting with waved albatrosses as they perform their bill-circling, swaggering courtship displays.

Galapagos and African safaris can both offer extreme wildlife experiences, but Africa is land-based and offers more animal variety while the Galapagos Islands have more birds (relative to the land area) and tourists get a lot closer to fearless wild things, albeit at a heftier price.


• Since it 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.
• The islands are mostly bleak and blasted volcanic remnants, not exactly picturesque!
• 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.

Main Islands

There are 13 larger islands and as many as 50 smaller islets. Most places must be visited with a guide.

***Isla Santa Cruz, the second largest of the archipelago (island group) and the most important island, with the Darwin Research Station as well as other facilities.
Turtle Bay, is one of the best marine sites, with a white, sandy, swimming beach. You can see Giant Tortoises at Tortoise Reserve near Santa Rosa.

***Isla Isabela, the largest island, is known for the Volcano Sierra Negra, located at the southern end – one of the best examples of volcanoes in the Galapagos. Isabela is home to a huge selection of wildlife – colourful land iguanas, penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, pelicans, Sally Lightfoot crabs, Galapagos tortoises, Darwin finches, Galapagos hawks and doves. A small human settlement, Puerto Villamil, squats in the southeast of the island.

***Isla Española is the most southerly of the islands, with the Galapagos’ only colony of Waved Albatrosses (late March-early December).
The best site is Punta Suarez – follow the trail of lava rocks where Blue-footed Boobies make their nests and iguanas like to sunbathe. The trail continues on to a colony of Waved Albatrosses.
The island’s best swimming beach can be found there too.

**Isla Seymour, covered with low, bushy vegetation and the best place to see a colony of puffed-up Frigate Birds.

***Isla Bartolome, known for its Pinnacle Rock and a favourite tourist view point, where sea lions and Galapagos Penguins like to hang out. On the beach in the south nesting sea turtles can be seen – seasonal though – as well as white-tipped reef sharks. This beach is excellent for swimming and snorkelling too.

***Fernandina (aka Narborough), hosting the most recent volcanic activity in 2005 as well as a mass of marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, penguins, pelicans, sea lions and seals.

***San Cristobal hosts an airport and the capital of the Galapagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, as well as a number of wildlife sites so this is a good island for seasick animal-lovers. Some of the creatures around are frigate birds, sea lions, Giant tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and many other tropical birds. There are a couple of good dive sites nearby.

*Floreana is more about humans than animals as Post Office Bay was used by 18thC whalers as a mail pick up/drop-off point. It is a nesting place for green sea turtles from December to May and flamingoes for much of the year.

Flights arrive at two islands: Baltra (South Seymour) which only functions as an airport, and San Cristobal.

Wildlife sites

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.

Galápagos penguin
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.

Flightless cormorant
Like the penguin, breeds only on Fernandina and Isabela; found nowhere else.

Magnificent frigatebird
Found pretty much everywhere and a familiar sight from early in the trip.

Waved albatross
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.

Land iguana
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.

Darwin’s finches
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.

Marine iguana
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.


Although most travellers stay on boats, hotels or B& Bs and places to eat can be easily found at Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz. There are also a handful of hotels at Puerto Baquerizo on Isla San Cristobal and in Isla Isabela.
Note that in terms of human culture, comfort or geological attraction the inhabited islands have very little to offer.


Not much choice, but some crafts and Galapagos T-shirts are available. Needless to say you should not buy anything made of tortoise/turtle shell, or black coral – protected species.