The Galapagos Islands are a small archipelago of islands belonging to Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The islands are quite remote and isolated, lying some 1000 km (620 miles) west of the South American continent. The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller isles, which together embrace some 50,000 sq km (19,500 sq miles) of ocean.
The Galápagos archipelago is world-renowned for its unique and fearless wildlife- much of which was inspiration for Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. The islands are therefore very popular amongst natural historians, both professional and amateur. Giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and different bird species can all be seen and approached. The landscape of the islands is relatively barren and volcanic, but beautiful nonetheless. The highest mountain amongst the islands is Volcán Wolf on Isla Isabela, 1707 m (5600ft) high.
The Galápagos were claimed by newly-independent Ecuador in 1832, a mere three years before Darwin's visit on the Beagle. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the islands were inhabited by very few settlers and were used as a penal colony, the last closing in 1959 when the islands were declared a national park. The Galapagos were subsequently listed as a World Heritage Site in 1978.
Strict controls on tourist access are maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats and all visitors must be accompanied by a national park-certified naturalist tour guide.
The Galapagos Islands have a highly variable climate, as does Ecuador's mainland.
There are two seasons in the islands: the hot/rainy season, from December to June, when humidity is high and average temperatures are in the 80s F (26°-30° C). There may be occasional showers, but the days are generally warm and sunny.
From June to November, you can expect cool winds, occasionally bringing with them a light misty-type drizzle called "garúa." Temperatures average in the 70s F (20°-24° C) during the day and lower at night.
Each month brings unique climate variations and wildlife viewing opportunities. Peak season for naturalist tours is typically December through May when the seas are the calmest and the weather the warmest. However summer months June, July and August are also very popular as the animals are more active. September through November is typically low season when most boats will leave the islands for dry dock. For divers peak season is from July - November when whale sharks can be found and Wolf & Darwin.
Visiting the Galapagos is not cheap, owing to travel restrictions and the remote nature of the archipelago. The only way to get in the islands from the main land is by plane from Guayaquil or Quito airports. Flights travel to the Galapagos in the morning and return in the afternoon, typically requiring a forced overnight on the continent in each direction.
Flights to the Galapagos are relatively easy to arrange and depart from Quito and Guayaquil on a daily basis for the Isla Baltra airport, about two hours by public transport from Puerto Ayora, the main settlement of the Galapagos, on the central island of Santa Cruz.
There are also daily flights to San Cristóbal . The airport is a 20 minute walk from the center of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
Flights from Guayaquil are slightly less expensive than from Quito, however as there is more availability from Quito as there are typically 2 flights a day from Quito and only 1 from Guayaquil.
Both Aerogal and Tame have flights to the Galapagos. The price is the same for both companies, for foreigners around $405 from Quito and much cheaper (around 360$) from Guayaquil. Eucadorians pay half the price and there is a 15% discount on TAME flights and a 20% discount on Aerogal flights if you have an ISIC studentcard. The price is usually ~$50 cheaper during the low season (May and September).
It's not possible to buy a one way ticket without proof of transportation from the islands. It's easy however to change the date of your return ticket or to switch your departure to another island.
Private yachts can arrive into any of the 5 ports in Galapagos while in transit and remain at that port for a maximum of 21 days. Boats wishing to visit more than one site or cruise the islands may do so but only by special permit from the national park and by working with a licensed yacht agency.
There are cargo boats that travel to the Galapagos each week. However these boats are not allowed to take travelers on board.
Seeing the sites and wildlife of the Galapagos is best done by boat. Most people book their place well in advance (as the boats are usually full during the high season). Booking a boat tour with a company in your home country is usually the most convenient, but is often considerably more expensive.
There are a VAST number of companies that can book accommodation on a Galapagos tour either in Puerto Ayora or from Guayaquil or Quito . While it is possible to get a last-minute deal, be aware that many budget tours may spend extra time in Puerto Ayora, might not have the best boats, and may only visit the inner islands.
When looking for a tour consider the following:
Note that while the majority of the islands will be off-limits without a guide, it is possible to travel via speed boat between the towns on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela; trips to Floreana can also be arranged. These trips cost $30 one-way, but some people have got them for $25 when they ordered a return-ticket with an open return date. Each of these islands offers the possibility of joining organized local daytrips or of traveling on your own while within the town limits.
Hotels and hostels are available on each of these islands from $25-$500+, while hotels along the water are generally full especially in Santa Cruz. During peak season (Christmas & Easter weeks) as well as during special events all hotels are frequently sold out well in advance. However, if you are traveling at other times of the year you may be able to find availability by just showing up.
From Santa Cruz it is possible to book day trips to the uninhabited islands of North Seymour, South Plazas, Santa Fe and Bartolome. Advance reservations are normally required, however on occasion you can find space due to a last minute cancellation the night before.
On each island, the number of visitors are limited and there are only a small number of official landing and visitor sites. You must follow the instructions of your guide to protect the wildlife and you are not allowed off the marked paths. This is not a problem as the animals are so tame they will sit right on the path or cross it without caring about mere tourists.
The Charles Darwin foundation administers several research stations throughout the islands, including a large station in Puerto Ayora that is worth visiting for its animal and natural history exhibits, the Galapagos Interpretation Center in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and the Tortoise Breeding Center the most interesting of the breeding centers in Puerto Villamil.
Snorkeling and diving are very popular activities as the sea life is so rich and colourful.
Snorkeling equipment should be available from your tour operator (but check first) if you don't have your own. You may also want to bring a waterproof camera. Remember to wear at least a T-shirt and suntan lotion if you are snorkeling, as it's all too easy to get sunburnt in the strong sun. Snorkeling offers a way to be in the water with fish, sea turtles, sea lions, and other creatures and is a great option for those who don't have scuba certification.
Diving in the Galapagos is incredible as noted by Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine. Ranked as the best dive destination in the world for several years in the categories of healthiest marine environment, best big animal dive and best advanced diving. That said, the Galapagos is not necessarily the right place for beginners or novices. Currents, surge, cold water, and sometimes poor visibility and depths make this a challenge. Certification courses are available in both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal for those looking to learn, and there are several dive sites that are relatively beginner-friendly.
There are 3 ways to dive in the Galapagos Islands:
Two of the world's premier diving destinations, Darwin Island and Wolf Island, are accessible only via expensive live-aboard charters. These islands present challenging currents and are not suitable for beginners, but offer amazing opportunities to see huge schools of hammerhead sharks and occasional whale sharks, amongst many other large animals. Other areas within the park offer opportunities for swimming with sharks, sea turtles, and a vast number of fish species.
Note that park regulations may change unexpectedly; in 2007, many divers were caught unaware as the National Park withdrew diving permits from quite a few cruise ships without notice, leaving many divers without dive cruises they had booked far in advance. For this reason, travelers are advised to get the most up-to-date information possible when planning a dive trip to the Galapagos Islands. In 2010, the National Park is now regulating land-based diving for the first time and few of the many shops operating have the new permits necessary.
There are hotels and other accommodation in the towns of Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, however if you really want to see lots of good wildlife, you will need to combine your stay on these islands with daily boat tours to other islands.
The park is strictly regulated. Outside of the towns visitors must be accompanied by guides, and visitors are only allowed on land from sunrise until sunset. Itineraries must be registered with the park prior to embarking on a trip, and animals should never be disturbed; while the wildlife in the Galapagos will usually ignore your presence, a general rule of thumb is that if an animal notices your presence then you are too close. Two meters is generally given as a minimum distance to keep away from animals; you will find that if you are calm and respectful that many animals will walk right up to investigate you.
One of the greatest dangers to the islands is introduced species. The park service is trying to eliminate goats, rats, cats, dogs, and introduced plant species on many of the islands, but it is a difficult battle; after evolving for thousands of years without predators, the Galapagos wildlife is not adapted to handle these new species. When traveling to the islands, do not bring any plant or animal life with you, and be sure to always clean your footwear when traveling between islands to avoid accidentally transferring seeds.
Illegal fishing is another threat to the park. Although park officials may deny it, illegal fishing for sharks and sea cucumbers occurs on a massive scale. The number of fishermen has increased rapidly over the last few years, while the number of fish have plunged. Due to ongoing tensions between fisherman, tourism, and science the level of enforcement of fishing laws can vary greatly, but even when policies are put in place to limit fishing enforcement is difficult due to the resources required to patrol the vast park area.
Another big threat to the park is the growing population. Although new rules make it impossible for people arriving from the mainland to live and work on the islands, the rules are hardly enforced, resulting in many people immigrating from the mainland to make quick money on the islands.
In general, crime is not a problem in the Galapagos. Petty crime may occur in the towns, and occasionally fisherman will stage strikes or demonstrations that affect tourists, but for the most part there is little to be concerned about. It should be noted, however, that some items that have been reported missing have been found in the crews' quarters! As most boats do not have lockable cabins, it might be advisable to keep your items locked away in bags in your cabins.
The animal life in the islands is mostly docile with the exception of the large bull sea lions. These animals will vigorously protect their harems, and can inflict dangerous and potentially deadly bites. Do not snorkel close to sea lion colonies. If a bull sea lion approaches you, swim away from the nearest colony. Note that it is only the bulls that are dangerous; swimming with juvenile sea lions can be one of the most exciting parts of a trip.
In addition to sea lions, there is a minimal danger from sharks. In general sharks will not attack unless provoked, although attacks can sometimes occur in murky water when sharks mistake humans for other animals. However, by exercising simple common sense experiences will be almost always be positive.
The codified park rules are:
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