Galápagos Islands Travel Guide
Formerly known as the Islas Encantadas (the Enchanted Isles), the Galápagos Islands are today a popular tourist destination, easily reached via a two-hour flight from the Ecuadorian mainland. Despite their easy accessibility and popularity (200,000 tourists visit annually), the islands still maintain their enchantment.
“Without tourism, the Galápagos would not exist.” Sir David Attenborough
Tourism is the economic mainstay of the Galápagos Islands and has played a critical role in their conservation. The Ecuadorian government generates a lot of revenue from them and has an interest in preserving this unique, pristine environment – one of the few places left on the planet where the human footprint is kept to a minimum.
Located on the Equator, a thousand kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, this remote, volcanic archipelago is home to an abundance of unique, endemic, wildlife. Giant tortoises, iguanas, fur seals, sea lions, penguins and 26 species of native birds co-exist on islands whose environments range from barren and arid (on the smaller islands) to lush, green, cloud-forest (on the larger islands).
All of the animals that call the Galápagos home arrived here either by swimming, floating or flying and over the years adapted to their unique environment by modifying themselves. It was the study of these animals, and their adaptation to this unique environment that lead Charles Darwin to publish his Natural Selection Theory after he journeyed here on the H.M.S. Beagle. Today these animals can be viewed at close range in their natural habitat, making a journey to the Galápagos Islands a truly rewarding experience.
Cruising in the Galápagos
I traveled for 5 days/ 4 nights aboard the MV Santa Cruz (operated by Metropolitan Touring) on their ‘Eastern‘ Itinerary. The company offers three different itineraries which cover the Eastern, Northern and Western islands. The current brochure (for the newer MV Santa Cruz II) can be accessed here. I booked my trip last minute from the Galapagos Travel Centre in downtown Quito, securing a slightly reduced rate.
The MV Santa Cruz is a luxury cruise ship, with a capacity for ninety passengers. The ship was manned by a crew of enthusiastic personnel who provided amazing meals, service and entertainment. Also on-board were a team of expert naturalist guides, who conducted guided walks twice a day on the various islands.
The cruise was an unforgettable experience and one I would recommend to nature lovers and photographers. If your budget will support it, I would suggest taking a cruise rather than remaining fixed on land.
Distributed on either side of the Equator, a thousand kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos are an archipelago of nineteen volcanic islands, two of which (Isabela and Fernandina) are still being formed.
One of 24 provinces of Ecuador, the islands cover a territory of 8,010 square kilometres (3,093 square miles), 97% of which is allocated to the Galápagos National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), with the remaining 3% supporting a population of 30,000.
Why is it you can find the Galápagos sea lion and the Galápagos penguin (the only penguin found north of the Equator) living in this equatorial part of the world? These creatures, which are normally found in cooler regions much further south, can survive due to the cool water temperatures and the abundant marine life which is carried to the islands on the Humboldt current.
Named after a Prussian naturalist – Alexander von Humboldt (one of the first scientists to visit South America) – the Humboldt is a cold ocean current of low salinity and one of the major nutrient systems of the world (accounting for about 20% of the world’s annual fish catch), bringing marine life up into the surface waters of the ocean.
The current sweeps north from the southern tip of Chile along the west coast of South America (where it is also known as the Peru current) before sweeping west for a thousand kilometres along the Equator to the Galápagos islands.
In 1952, two Norwegians – Thor Heyerdahl (who would later lead the Kon-tiki expedition) and Arne Skjølsvold conducted an archaeological study on various islands throughout the archipelago. While they found many pieces of pre-Inca pottery, ceramics and even a flute – they didn’t find any human remains, suggesting the islands were never settled during the pre-Colombian era.
The first European to make contact with the islands was Fray Tomás de Berlanga, a Spaniard and the fourth Bishop of Panama, whose vessel drifted off course on the 10th of March 1535 while he was sailing from Panama to Peru to settle a dispute between the conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants.
The islands first appeared on Spanish maps in 1570 and were named “Insulae de los Galopegos” (Islands of the Tortoises) in reference to the giant tortoises which the Spaniards encountered.
The islands remained uninhabited until 1807, when an Irish sailor – Patrick Watkins – found himself marooned on Floreana island. He survived for two years by hunting, growing vegetables and trading with passing whaling boats until he eventually managed to steal a boat and sail east to Guayaquil on the South American mainland.
Huge Sperm whale populations later attracted American and European whaling ships to the islands.
Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands on the 12th of February 1832, naming them (of course!) the Archipelago of Ecuador with the first Ecuadorian settlers arriving later the same year.
During the early 20th century, a cash-strapped Ecuador offered to sell the islands to a suitable buyer. The United States was interested in purchasing them with the view to use them as a military base to guard the newly-built Panama canal. Chile also expressed interest in purchasing the islands.
The islands were never sold and in the 1920’s and 1930’s, European settlers arrived – attracted to the islands by incentives offered by the Ecuadorian government, which included receiving twenty hectares each of free land, the right to maintain their citizenship, freedom from taxation for the first ten years, and the right to hunt and fish freely on all uninhabited islands.
During WWII the Ecuadorian government authorised the United States to establish a naval base on Baltra Island (today home to one of the two airports in the archipelago) which allowed the Americans to defend the Panama canal.
In 1959, the centenary year of Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago’s land area a National park, excepting areas already populated.
The islands were opened to tourism the following year and today attract in excess of 200,000 visitors. Tourism is undeniably the economic lifeblood of the islands.
If one person can be credited for putting the Galápagos islands on the world map then it must be Charles Darwin. Born in 1809 in Shewsbury, England, a freshly-graduated Darwin convinced Captain Robert FitzRoy to let him join him aboard the H.M.S. Beagle as the ship’s Naturalist and Geologist.
In December, 1831 – at the tender age of 22 – Darwin set sail from England aboard the Beagle, a navy ship whose mission was to map harbour approaches throughout the world, information the English authorities desired so that they could increase trade throughout their expanding empire.
Darwin viewed the invitation as an opportunity to explore different countries and the geological secrets they held and, upon arrival in the Galápagos, was initially more interested in the active volcanoes than the wildlife.
During the voyage through the Galápagos, Darwin collected Finches from different islands. He took these back to London where a senior ornithologist advised him that he had actually collected fourteen different species of the bird. Even though they all looked similar in size, there were subtle differences in the shape of their beaks, coloration, and behavior. Today these birds, collectively, are known as the Darwin Finch.
It was this discovery that led Darwin on a quest for answers and it was through his findings that the natural selection theory was developed and published by him. His book, “On the Origin of Species”, is today considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology and has immortalised himself and the Galápagos Islands.
When people think of the Galápagos Islands, they imagine wild, untamed, uninhabited landscapes brimming with unique wildlife. While this romantic image applies to 97% of the territory, there are approximately 30,000 local inhabitants who call the Galápagos home.
Most residents live on the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal – with 12,000 inhabitants in the main town of Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz). Apart from Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal, small populations exist on the islands of Baltra, Floreana and Isabela.
In 1972, the islands supported a population of 3,500 people, but increased migration from the mainland has seen the population increase to levels the government now considers to be ample. Today, there are tight controls on the movement of people to/ from the islands, with all visitors required to purchase the INGALA Transit Control Card prior to arrival – see the ‘Getting There’ section below for more.
Following the 1998–99 financial crisis, and as a last resort to prevent hyperinflation, the Ecuadorian government formally adopted the U.S. Dollar as the country’s official currency.
The dollar was already in widespread informal use in the financial system and replaced the battered local currency – the Sucre – which had been in circulation for more than a hundred years.
While the dollar is the official currency, you should ensure you carry lots of small bills and coins as large bills (anything more than $20) are normally refused by merchants/ vendors. ATM’s dispense higher denomination bills but these should be immediately broken-down inside the bank.
Quito to San Cristóbal Island
Having purchased my whole Galápagos experience just 48-hours earlier from the Galapagos Travel Centre in downtown Quito, I made my way early on a Saturday morning to Quito airport to check in for my flight to San Cristóbal island, one of the two gateways to the Galápagos.
Our flight flew from a cold and foggy Quito (elevation 2,850 m/ 9,350 ft) to a hot and steamy Guayaquil (less than an hour away on the coast), then – after a brief stop to board more passengers – out into the Pacific ocean, arriving two hours later in the middle of nowhere on a sunny and dry San Cristóbal island.
After paying our Galápagos National Park entrance fee (USD$100) we exited the airport to be greeted by staff members from our cruise ship – the MV Santa Cruz, who transferred us to the ship from the dock of the provincial capital – Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
Punta Pitt (San Cristóbal Island)
“On September 15 (1835), land was sighted: it turned out to be Mount Pitt, part of San Cristóbal Island” Wrote Charles Darwin on the first sighting of the Galápagos Islands from the H.M.S. Beagle.
After boarding the ship, we were required to participate in a safety drill prior to leaving for our first destination – Punta Pitt (Pitt Point).
Located on the north-eastern tip of San Cristóbal island, this eroded volcanic cone was the first land sighted by Darwin from the Beagle. When arriving at the different islands, you make either a ‘wet‘ landing (exiting the dinghy into the water) or a ‘dry‘ landing (exiting the dinghy onto dry land). Punta Pitt was a wet landing onto a beautiful olive-coloured sandy beach, which was lined with lazy Galápagos Sea Lions, enjoying the afternoon sun.
The passengers were separated into small groups and then led on a hike along a 3-km long trail through a ravine then up to the summit of the cone, which afforded panoramic views of the point.
Along the trail we saw Iguana’s, Finches, Boobies (this is the only site in the Galapagos where the three species of boobies can be found together), Mockingbird’s, Frigates and more.
At sunset we returned to the ship for dinner and sailed through the evening to our next destination – Santa Fe island.
Santa Fe Island
As was the pattern during the cruise – the light of a new day offered the sight of a new island and so – after breakfast – we traveled by dinghy to Santa Fe island, where we made a wet landing on an idyllic sandy-white beach (Barrington Bay) which was populated by many lethargic Galápagos Sea Lions. Santa Fe is comprised of some of the oldest basaltic rocks of the archipelago, which contrasted brilliantly with the white-sand beach.
From the beach we hiked in small groups along a rocky trail, which climbed from the bay up to coastal cliffs which offered panoramic views of the cove.
Along the way, the trail passed over a plateau which is the best place to spot the (very beige) Land iguanas, which are endemic to Santa Fe. The main source of food for the iguana’s are the flowers and leaves of the giant prickly pear cactus which cover this barren island, a food source which is unfortunately being connsumed at a less-than-sustainable rate.
After the hike we returned to the beach where we snorkeled in the crystal-clear waters of Barrington Bay. The added attraction of snorkeling just offshore from a group of sea lions is that they are curious and friendly and will join you in the water – constantly swimming rings around you! Snorkeling with the playful sea lions was one of the highlights of the trip.
After an incredible morning on Santa Fe island, we returned to the ship for lunch while the boat sailed onto our afternoon destination – South Plaza island.
South Plaza Island
Following lunch, we traveled by dinghy to South Plaza island where we made a dry landing at a small dock in a protected channel. The turquoise water in the channel was in stark contrast to the white sand and black lava of the shoreline.
From the dock, we hiked along an easy trail through a forest of Prickly Pear cacti (a popular food source for the resident Yellow-grey land iguanas), then passed by patches of red-orange Galápagos carpet-weed before reaching sea cliffs where we could observe nesting Blue-footed boobies, Nazcar boobies, frigates, swallow-tailed gulls and shear-waters gliding on the thermals. Lazing on the lava rocks along the clifftop, basking in the afternoon sun, were groups of black Marine iguanas.
On the way back to the dock we passed a Galápagos Sea Lion mother, who had just given birth to a baby pup. In this arid, hostile environment, food is food – so it was no surprise to see two cheeky Yellow warbler’s feasting on the discarded placenta.
Santa Cruz Island
Day three was spent on the principal island of Santa Cruz, where we docked in downtown Puerto Ayora (pop: 12,000), the largest town in the Galápagos. We spent the morning exploring the town, including the fish market where sea lions and pelicans fought each other for scraps.
A short walk from town is the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), which is renown for it’s Giant tortoise Breeding program. The centre also serves as the headquarters for the Galápagos National park.
For lunch, we headed to a restaurant located in the lush, cool highlands of the island – a completely different ecosystem from any we had so far seen. The highlands contain mist-covered forests, and a reserve where we encountered Giant tortoises in the wild. After the reserve we visited a half-mile long subterranean lava tube which we were able to explore.
Before sunset we returned to the ship for dinner then set an overnight course to Española island, 100-km to the south.
The morning of day four brought us to the very southern island of Española. We spent the entire day on the island, making two landings; a morning landing at Punta Suarez and an afternoon landing at Gardener Bay.
Punta Suarez (Española Island)
After breakfast, we traveled by dinghy, making a dry landing at Punta Suarez, which is located on the western tip of Española island.
From the dock, we hiked along a 3-km long trail which took us past groups of lounging red-green-black Marine iguana’s and the occasional funky Española lava lizard. The trail led to a spectacular sea cliff where we had a view of the famous ‘blowhole’. Around the cliffs we saw nesting Nazca boobies (nursing lots of new-born fluffy chicks) , Blue-footed boobies, Swallow-tailed gulls, Frigate birds and other sea birds.
After our morning excursion at Punta Suarez, we returned to the ship for lunch then cruised along the island to Gardener Bay.
Gardener Bay (Española Island)
After lunch we traveled by dinghy to the stunningly beautiful Gardener Bay which is located on the eastern side of the island.
There are no walking trails at Gardener Bay so, after making a wet landing onto the white-sand beach (one of the longest in the Galápagos), we were free to relax, swim or wander. While at Gardener Bay, we had the opportunity to snorkel out to a large submerged offshore rock which was brimming with lots of marine life.
At sunset, we returned to the boat for our final dinner and an evening of drinks and entertainment by the crew. Overnight we cruised north to Baltra Island – ready for our disembarkation the following day.
On the last day we landed on Baltra island and were transferred to Baltra airport where we boarded our flight back to the mainland.
The end of an amazing adventure.
While in the islands, you have a choice of being accommodated on land or at sea or both.
Land-based accommodation can be found on 4 different islands with ample properties catering for all budgets.
- Santa Cruz Island – Lots of accommodation options in the main town of Puerto Ayora, which is located one hour from neighbouring Baltra island and Baltra airport.
- San Cristóbal Island – The provincial capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is next to San Cristóbal airport and has a good selection of accommodation, especially backpacker hostels.
- Isabela Island – The islands main settlement of Puerto Villamil is located on its south-eastern shore, two hours south-west of Puerto Ayora by speedboat. This town of 2,000 souls offers a small number of accommodation options.
- Floreana island – Located two hours south of Puerto Ayora by speedboat, this island of 300 inhabitants contains a small collection of beach-side guest houses with Wittmer Lodge (home to the pioneering Wittmer family – among the first foreign settlers in the Galápagos) being the most notable.
The best way to maximise your time whilst in the region is to travel by cruise ship. Travelling by ship allows you to venture to more remote islands without needing to return to a land base at the end of each day. An additional convenience is that most of the long sea voyages are completed overnight while you sleep in your cosy cabin, allowing you to awake each morning to a filling breakfast before setting out to explore another magical, wildlife-filled island.
I traveled with Metropolitan Touring and would highly recommend them, however there are many other companies offering cruise ship experiences, many of which are listed on the Galapagos Islands website.
If you’re staying on land you will find no shortage of restaurants in Puerto Ayora and a more limited number of options on San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana islands.
If you’re travelling by cruise ship you will be on a full board package. Meals on the MV Santa Cruz were served in a semi-formal dining room, were always plentiful and included a ‘fine-dining’ dinner each evening. If it wasn’t for the twice daily hikes, I would have gained weight from all the amazing food.
Ecuadorian immigration formalities are taken care of on the mainland and the good news is that the visa policy of Ecuador is one of the most lenient in the world, with almost all nationalities being granted a 90-day stay upon arrival.
There are two airports serving the Galápagos islands – San Cristóbal and Baltra. There are no direct international flights to the islands, with all flights departing from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito and the coastal metropolis of Guayaquil. Three airlines offer daily flights (2 hours) from the mainland to the islands, providing easy access to this remote archipelago.
San Cristóbal Airport
Located on the island of the same name, San Cristóbal Airport (IATA: SCY) is one of two gateways to the islands, lying in the south-east of the archipelago.
The following airlines provide services to/ from San Cristóbal:
- Avianca Ecuador (AeroGal) – flies to/ from Guayaquil and Quito
- LATAM Ecuador – flies to/ from Guayaquil and Quito
- TAME – flies to/ from Guayaquil and Quito
Seymour Airport – aka Baltra Airport – (IATA: GPS) is located on the island of the same name and is a one-hour journey from downtown Puerto Ayora on neighbouring Santa Cruz.
The following airlines provide services to/ from Baltra:
- Avianca Ecuador (AeroGal) – flies to/ from Guayaquil and Quito
- LATAM Ecuador – flies to/ from Guayaquil and Quito
- TAME – flies to/ from Guayaquil and Quito
Galápagos Environmental/ Immigration Controls
Given the fragile ecosystem of the Galápagos, the government has taken several measures to help conserve the Islands’ ecology and to control migration to the province.
Prior to checking in for your flight at Quito or Guayaquil airports, you will first need to report to the INGALA counter where you will be required to complete a form and pay USD$10 for the issue of an INGALA Transit Control Card. This card is designed to help control migration to the islands and is to be surrendered upon departure from the islands.
After being issued with your INGALA card, you then proceed to the SICGAL (Galápagos quarantine) inspection area, where your luggage will be checked to ensure you are not carrying anything organic to the islands. Once you have completed this screening process you proceed to the airline counter to check in for your flight.
Once you’re in the air, the flight attendants will spray the cabin with an insecticide to further reduce the chance of introducing unwanted bugs to the islands.
Upon arrival in the Galápagos, you’re required to step on a wet mat (which sterilises the soles of your shoes) prior to exiting the airport.
Galápagos National Park Fees
When you arrive at the airport in the Galápagos all tourists are required to pay a National Park Entrance Fee which currently costs USD$100 for foreign adults and USD$50 for children under 12 years of age.
Inter-island flights are operated by Emetebe who provide connections between San Cristobal, Baltra (for Santa Cruz) and Isabela islands.
Trans Martisa offer daily inter-island services from the dock in downtown Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island) to:
- Puerto Villamil (Isabela island): Journey time of approximately 2-3 hours with tickets costing between $25-30 one way. Boats depart from Puerto Villamil each morning at 06:00, then return from Puerto Ayora at 14:00.
- Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristóbal island): Journey time of approximately 2-3 hours with tickets costing between $25-30 one way. Boats depart from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno each morning at 07:00, then return from Puerto Ayora at 14:00.
- Floreana Island: Trans Martisa operate boats to Floreana. Contact the company for the current schedule.
Author: Darren McLean
I’m the owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer. I hope you enjoy reading my content.