The Ultimate Guide to Exploring the Galapagos Islands

As a haven for wildlife enthusiasts, the Galapagos Islands are well worth the visit
As a haven for wildlife enthusiasts, the Galapagos Islands are well worth the visit | © Bill Gozansky / Alamy Stock Photo

The Galápagos Islands are a haven for wildlife enthusiasts, birdwatchers, scientists, and of course the climate-conscious tourist. The islands that inspired Darwin’s evolution theory total 19 – and are a living museum where you’re able to observe species not found anywhere else on the planet. To give you an idea of how to prepare for your trip, here’s our ultimate guide.

Culture Trip’s exclusive Galápagos trip lasts five days and includes the chance to sleep alongside giant tortoises in El Chato nature reserve, hike along lava trails and on San Cristóbal, swim with sea lions at Punta Carola beach – and explore uninhabited islands as part of a private group with our Local Insider.

Should I travel by cruise or land?

The surest way to see the best of the Galápagos Islands is to pre-book your trip. Places on multi-day trips fill up fast since they usually cover a great range of islands including those that are further away with a better chance of observing rarer mammals and seabirds. Accommodation and meals are included in the price you’ll pay, depending on the length of time you travel for and the exclusivity of your trip.

The cheapest way to see the Galápagos Islands is to get to Puerto Ayora and book either day trips from there or a last-minute tour – but there’s always a chance of there being no availability for the day you want to begin a multi-day tour. However, there should always be day trips and hotel deals available.

Which islands should I visit?

There are 13 major islands and six smaller islands on the Galápagos. Some are home to species found on multiple islands, while others are endemic to wildlife you can’t find anywhere else but on that one tiny island.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a great base for visiting other islands. On the island itself, you can see giant tortoises in their natural habitat at El Chato Reserve – not to mention the beautiful beaches Tortuga Bay, Bachas and Garrapatero. It’s also the starting point of our exclusive five-day trip to the Galápagos Islands, which includes all your accommodation, food and drink, along with day trips to other islands.

North Seymour

A bird watcher’s paradise, North Seymour contains nesting areas of frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies, whose mating dance is quite spectacular to witness. The uninhabited island is also home to a healthy population of land iguanas, as well as sea lions and marine iguanas along the coast.

Bartolomé

Found at the center of the archipelago, Bartolomé is best-known for its oddly shaped Pinnacle Rock – formed by an eroded Toba cone, it’s home to a small colony of penguins, as well as sea lions and marine birds. It’s one of the most photographed islands in Galápagos, not only because of the Pinnacle Rock but also thanks to its incredible viewpoint – which involves a steep climb and excellent snorkeling by the beach.

Fernandina

The youngest island of all the Galápagos Islands, Fernandina is still active today with its last eruption occurring as recently as 2009. It’s located on the western side of the archipelago, right on top of the ‘hot spot’, allowing only mangrove and pioneer cacti to grow in this unique, soil-less environment. You’ll also see the biggest and blackest marine iguanas in the Galápagos – and those lucky enough to have evaded the island’s slithering racer snakes when they hatched on the shore. This heart-racing moment was captured by the BBC in their epic Planet Earth II series.

Floreana

Floreana is mostly famous for its Post Office Bay where 18th-century homesick whalers would leave letters in a barrel on the beach – in the hope that sailors on passing ships would collect and send them onto their recipients upon arrival in the US. This snail mail system is still in operation today, but nowadays it’s more of a tourist attraction where visitors collect past visitors’ mail and leave their unstamped postcards for future visitors to return the favor.

Española

Thought to be around 4.5 million years old, Española may well have been the very first Galápagos island to be inhabited by plants and animals. It has now completed its development process and is gradually sinking back into the ocean. However, it’s unlikely to submerge entirely for a few hundred thousand years or more – so its native populations of Española mockingbirds and the only marine iguanas to remain red and green throughout the year are safe for now. The island is also the only nesting site of the Galápagos waved albatross, whose mating ritual is one of the most entertaining you’re ever likely to observe.

San Cristobal

Located on the eastern side of the archipelago – making it the furthest from the hot spot – San Cristobal has no volcanic activity and is home to the capital of the Galápagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, with a population of around 7,000. It holds the biggest freshwater lake of the archipelago – El Junco – and is one of the two only places where the red-footed booby can be found in a nesting colony at the Punta Pitt visiting site. San Cristobal was the first island to be visited by Charles Darwin, whose discovery of the San Cristobal mockingbird sparked his Theory of Evolution.

Isabela

Seahorse-shaped Isabela is the largest island of the Galápagos – and home to a number of species like pink flamingoes, penguins, giant tortoises and sea lions. Day trips to the Sierra Negra Volcano – the world’s second-biggest active crater – are popular here, but if you’d like to explore both the volcanoes and wildlife of Isabela, you’ll need to reserve two days. The island is home to all kinds of wildlife: from flightless cormorants and Galápagos penguins to marine iguanas, land iguanas and six separate species of giant tortoise – one evolved from each of the six volcanoes that joined millions of years ago to form the island as it exists today.

Rábida

Known to locals as the ‘red island’, Rábida acquired its distinct color as a result of the oxidation which occurred during its formation. It’s a steep and rocky island – with several small craters and a red-sand beach on the northeast side. Here, you’ll see hundreds of sea lions lounging side by side with a nesting colony of pelicans.

Santa Fe

Like Española, Santa Fe is believed to be around 4.5 million years old – and is one of the oldest islands in the archipelago. By the bay is a brilliant turquoise lagoon, around which endemic species – such as the marine iguana of Santa Fe, the Santa Fe mockingbird and the Santa Fe lizard – can be found. You’ll also spot blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds and swallow-tailed gulls soaring high in the sky here. Oh, and the island is a magnet for scuba divers, too.

What animals will I see?

The Galápagos Islands are home to many animals native only to the archipelago, such as the marine iguanas, the giant tortoise, Galápagos penguins, Darwin’s finches and the Galápagos fur seal. You can also see other incredible animals like blue-footed boobies, land iguanas, magnificent frigatebirds and bright pink flamingoes here.

When should I visit?

You can visit the Galápagos Islands any time of the year, but there are warmer and colder seasons. The warmest is from December to May, while the peak season lasts from June to August. Culture Trip’s carefully curated Galápagos Islands trip runs in both April and August, giving you the choice between both seasons.

If you’re interested in seeing specific animals it’s a good idea to visit during their mating season. The hatching time for giant tortoise eggs is during January and December, while blue-footed boobie mating season takes place in May, giving you a rare glimpse of their incredible courtship dance.

How long should I stay?

How long you should stay depends on your budget and if you choose to do a cruise. Most people stay between 4-10 days. However, numerous volunteer programs enable you to stay for longer, without breaking the bank.

What rules do I need to follow?

Most rules in the Galápagos Islands are obvious and should go without saying – all that’s needed is a little common sense in order to keep yourself and the animals safe. However, there are some rules which you should pay close attention to:

Do not get closer than 2m (6.5ft) to any plants or animals
Do not touch any animals
Do not leave the marked walking trails
Always pick up your rubbish
Do not use flash when photographing animals
Do not visit the inhabited islands without an official guide
An entry fee of $100 (£73) is payable by all visitors on arrival
Do not take any organic materials like rocks, shells, or plants when you leave the islands

What do I need to bring?

Strong sunscreen – the more eco-friendly, the better
A sun hat
Waterproof walking shoes/aqua shoes
Seasick tablets
Swimsuit/bikini
Snorkel set
Underwater camera
Sunglasses
Quick-dry towel
Waterproof bag/ dry bag
An aluminum water bottle to keep topped up at all times – to reduce plastic waste

Josh Taylor contributed additional reporting to this article.
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