A Guide to the Galapagos Islands
The Galápagos Islands straddle the equator in the Pacific Ocean, 926 kilometres from Ecuador's coast. Famously Darwin’s major inspiration for his theory of evolution, the Galápagos Islands today are teeming with iconic wildlife.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is now often visited by globetrotting tourists but it can be hard to know where to start. With each island having its own defining feature, we’ve put together this handy guide to the Galapagos Islands.
How to get to the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are one of the most isolated places on Earth, so it can feel like getting there is difficult. Even if you’ve read many a guide to the Galapagos Islands, this region of the world may still seem elusive. To reach the islands, you have to go via Ecuador. You can fly from either Quito, the UNESCO World Heritage Site capital, or Guayaquil, located on the Ecuadorian coast. Once you’re in Ecuador, it is fairly easy to make your way over to the islands – flights from Quito and Guayaquil only take around two and a half hours. To avoid any hassle with missed flights, delays or cancellations, it’s a good idea to arrive in Ecuador at least 48 hours before you’re planning on leaving for the Galapagos.
Best time to visit the Galapagos Islands
No guide to the Galapagos Islands would be complete without considering the best time to visit. The main draw to the Galapagos is its incredible wildlife. With wildlife activity varying throughout the year, there is always something going on. For snorkelling, June to December is the best time to visit. During this dry season, the Humboldt current makes the water much cooler and nutrient rich, making it a great time for increased visibility of various species. You can also see plankton during this time, as currents transport it over to serve as food for seabirds.The nutrient rich water also attracts migratory Whale Sharks. From January to May the weather is at its calmest and you’re likely to see Hammerhead sharks and Manta Rays populating the gentler waters.
For birdwatching enthusiasts, April is a great time to go. In April, you have the greatest chance of seeing the mass arrival of the waved albatross on Española Island. You can also see the mating dance of the blue-footed boobie on Española and North Seymour. Frigatebirds, known for their beautiful red pouches, tend to begin their mating rituals around April too. To catch a glimpse of the Galapagos’ giant tortoises, head to the islands between December and April. Although certain species are seasonal, the sunlight is good all year round and so most species are “tropical breeders.” This means they don’t particularly rely on seasons, so you’re bound to see some amazing wildlife no matter what time of year you visit.
Cruise ships in the Galapagos Islands
There are two ways to see the Galapagos: either by sea or on land. With the fastest way to see the majority of the islands by boat, there are a number of luxury cruises to choose from. Here’s our guide to the Galapagos Islands’ best cruises.
The Endemic is one of the newest catamarans to cruise the Galapagos’ waters and offers guests a luxurious and comfortable stay. Glass windows afford exceptional views over the islands, while a TV lounge and Jacuzzi add to the luxury feel. The Endemic makes it easy to explore the pristine waters, by providing snorkelling gear and kayaks. Expert naturalist guides are also on hand to make sure you get the most out of your Galapagos adventure.
Billed as both the most luxurious and the most environmentally friendly yacht in the Galapagos, the MV Origin is Ecoventura’s newest ship. It features panoramic windows, a hot tub and locally sourced gourmet meals. The yacht can only comfortably accommodate up to 20 passengers, adding to its exclusive feel. The spacious interior holds a dining and bar area, a lounge, fitness centre, library, boutique and a computer station.
Outside, the large sun deck features outside dining space, loungers, hammocks, a Jacuzzi, a hot tub and BBQ. Two highly trained naturalist guides lead daily excursions in small groups of no more than ten. You’ll be able to make the most of your time on the Galapagos islands, by enjoying nature walks and taking advantage of many a photo opportunity.
La Pinta is one of the top expedition vessels in the Galapagos; it is an excellent choice for those wanting to combine comfort with a personal, expert service. The vessel is medium sized, with space for 48 guests. All twenty four staterooms are mid-ship on the upper deck and come with spacious double or twin beds. As one of the newer boats in the Galapagos, La Pinta has all the latest equipment and has an excellent restaurant and bar, jacuzzi and gym.
Expert naturalist guides conduct tours in small groups of ten or less. Travellers can use snorkelling equipment, sea kayaks, wetsuits and the yacht’s glass bottomed boat to fully explore the Galapagos’ waters. As La Pinta is a Jacada Signature property, Jacada guests making new bookings here will receive a bottle of wine or champagne on arrival.
Best island in the Galapagos for...
Birdwatching: North Seymour
North Seymour is a tiny island, measuring just 1.9 square kilometres. The island is dry and arid, with low bushy vegetation and plenty of cacti. It is known for its large colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds – relatives of the pelican characterised by their beautiful red pouches. Frigatebirds are majestic creatures with wingspans of up to 2.3 metres. If you’re lucky, you may be able to spot males puffing up their scarlet throats during the mating season. North Seymour also has opportunities to spot swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies, sea lions and marine iguanas.
Red sand beaches: Rábida
Rábida is a peculiar place – rough volcanic coastline is filled with red sand beaches. This deep red colour comes from the high content of iron in volcanic material found on the island. When you step out onto the red sand beaches, you can expect to be greeted by a colony of sea lions – most of whom are happy to welcome you into their territory. Small volcanic craters and cliffs add to this island’s dramatic landscape. Rábida’s saltwater lagoon is the hangout of choice for the island’s sea lion colony and flamingos. While you’re there, you might also spot brown pelicans, Darwin’s finches, Galápagos mockingbirds, doves and warbles.
Rightly so, the Galapagos Islands are high on any diver’s bucket list. Off the coast of Floreana, the Devil’s Crown is a ring of jagged rocks that make for excellent snorkelling and diving. The rocks attract small fish – a key link in the food chain that in turn attract larger species – so lucky snorkelers may even spot Hammerhead Sharks. Swimming alongside sea lions, sea turtles and striking coral is pretty normal in this unspoilt part of the world. While you’re on Florena, look out for historical landmark Post Office Bay. In the 19th century, the island was a favourite spot for whalers, who kept a wooden barrel at the bay so that ships could deliver their mail to Europe and the United States.
Giant tortoises: Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is one of the larger islands in the Galapagos, home to the largest human population of the archipelago. The lack of large predators on the islands means that the animals are fearless of humans, so opportunities for getting up close to wildlife are plentiful. Giant tortoises are one of the Galapagos’ most famous endemic species and Santa Cruz is the best place to spot them. You can find them in the wild here, as well as at the island’s Charles Darwin Research Station. Santa Cruz is also great for outdoorsy types, with activities on offer including hiking, scuba diving, mountain biking and kayaking.
A unique way to explore Santa Cruz is by staying at Galapagos Safari Camp. Set in 55-hectare grounds on a remote corner of the island, the camp has just nine large and very well appointed safari style tents. Despite being remote, the Galapagos Safari Camp delivers in luxury – each camp is appointed with a private bathroom and hot water shower. There are also private balconies and an infinity pool from which to admire the beautiful landscape. With the camp’s recent launch of single occupancy bookings, it’s also a great place for solo travellers to disconnect from the pressures of modern life. Galapagos Safari Camp’s eco-conscious efforts shouldn’t go unnoticed, as the camp’s phasing out of single use plastic makes it a feel good place to stay.
Recently opened Pikaia Lodge is also in the centre of Santa Cruz Island, making it a great choice if you’re looking for a land-based hotel from which to discover the surrounding ecosystem. This lodge not only boasts the title of the first carbon neutral accommodation, but also incredible views. The property is backdropped by misty volcanoes on one side and the dramatic Pacific Ocean on the other. Guests can take advantage of the beautiful views whilst relaxing in the lodge’s infinity pool or at the ‘Sumaq’ spa. Giant tortoises are also a prime feature of this property, with the lodge having its own private tortoise reserve.
With an area of over 4,000 square kilometres, Isabela is almost four times the size of Santa Cruz and is the largest island of the Galapagos. It is made up of six large shielded volcanoes fused into one island, so the whole of Isabela is peppered with staggering volcanic scenery. As the majority of Isabela’s six volcanoes are still active, it is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth. While you’re there, look out for Ecuador Volcano and Wolf Volcano – both of which lie directly on the equator.
If you want to explore the largest of the Galapagos Islands from the comfort of a luxury boutique hotel, Iguana Crossing is a remarkable place to use as your base. The aptly-named hotel sits adjacent to the wetlands from which the marine iguanas migrate to sea. There are fourteen comfortable rooms across two floors, all of which have ocean or volcano views. Many of the water-view rooms also have balconies from which to take in the incredible scenery.
After a busy day exploring the area or a week of cruising, you can chill out in the rooftop jacuzzi or soak up some sun on the poolside terrace. As well as offering a healthy dose of relaxation, Iguana Crossing is also ideally positioned for adventurous excursions. We recommend a romantic sunset champagne picnic on the beach or a horseback ride up Isabela’s Sierra Negra volcano.
For more active types, Scalesia Galapagos Lodge envelops guests in the wilderness of the archipelago’s pristine main island. 16 large safari-style tents sit on hardwood decks, leaving a minimal footprint on the 16 hectare (40 acre) reserve. There are a vast array of activities on Isabela, from snorkelling and scuba diving to hiking up active volcanoes. The lodge can also arrange island hopping tours combining Isabela with nearby Santa Cruz, Floreana and San Cristobal.
Panoramic views: Bartolomé
One of the younger islands in the Galapagos, Bartolomé is a volcanic islet measuring just 1.2 square kilometres. Located in the centre of the archipelago, this very small island provides the most photographed view of the Galapagos. On a clear day, more than ten islands are visible from Bartolomé’s viewpoint. Once you’re back on low ground, don’t miss the base of Pinnacle Rock, where you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the famous Galapagos penguins. Bartolomé’s cool surrounding waters provide food for a variety of species, so even unique animals such as lava lizards can be spotted here.
Blue-footed boobies: Española
At approximately four million years old, Española is considered to be one of the oldest islands in the Galapagos. There is an overwhelming diversity of wildlife on this island but it is especially good for birdwatchers. The island is home to the Española Mockingbird, the only carnivorous bird species endemic to the archipelago. Española is also home to the only Marine Iguana population that remains red and green throughout the year.
The Galapagos Waved Albatross also use this island as their only nesting site; they breed from April to December and their mating ritual is one of the most entertaining things to see in the region. Perhaps the most iconic sight on the island, though, is Española’s large nesting colony of blue-footed boobies. Wildlife lovers will find Española inspiring, as the island is also home to everything from lava lizards to Galápagos sea lions.