The key to the Galapagos Islands’ beauty lies partly in their isolation. The volcanic archipelago of 127 islands, islets and rocks lie approximately 1000km off the coast of Ecuador, the South American country that laid claim to them in 1832. The Galapagos Islands are a National Park and designated UNESCO World Heritage Site because they are a “living museum and showcase of evolution,” as described by UNESCO. The isolation of the islands, combined with the convergence of three major ocean currents, has allowed unique forms of flora and fauna to develop there, including marine iguanas and giant tortoises. Therefore, the Galapagos Islands are the perfect destination for wilderness lovers, animal enthusiasts, geology geeks and science nerds. However, they also make for slightly more complicated and expensive vacation planning – but believe me its worth every minute of preparation and dollar spent.
Planning our Galapagos Islands trip was a long process involving A LOT of research. After beginning with the best-laid plan to take a cruise—the traditional way to see the islands—we found that a land-based “island hopping” style vacation would work better. Land-based tourism is relatively new to the Galapagos, but growing at a rapid rate. Therefore, this guide is focused on how to travel to the Galapagos Islands on a land-based style trip with recommendations on how to cut through the plethora of options available, and successfully run the gauntlet of price markups.
When should I visit the Galapagos?
Wildlife is abundant at all times of the year, though if you have a specific interest I would recommend looking up the correct season. For example, humpback whales are best viewed in June. The other consideration is weather including air temperature, sea temperature, wind and rainfall. You will be spending quite some time on boats and in the water, so you want to be as comfortable as possible. We chose April because sea temperatures are their highest, it is the beginning of the dry season and wind is low. The tradeoff is that it is also one of the warmest months with the average maximum air temperature of 31°C. Intrepid Travel put together an awesome infographic which gives you a month-by-month snapshot of weather and wildlife in one – see it here.
How do I get to the Galapagos Islands?
Flights to the Galapagos Islands are offered by airlines Tame, Avianca and LATAM (formerly LAN). They depart the Ecuadorean capital Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil, taking passengers to Seymour Airport on Isla Baltra (next to Santa Cruz) or San Cristobal Airport on Isla San Cristobal. Flight duration from Quito to Isla Baltra is approximately 2hrs, and from Quito to Isla San Cristobal, about 3.5hrs. Before checking into your flight for the Galapagos you need to purchase an INGALA Migration Control Card for US$20 cash per person and have your bag scanned for materials banned from the National Park. On arrival in the Galapagos Islands, you will have your bags inspected again, and pay a US$100 per person National Park Fee to enter.
Unless you’re spending time on mainland Ecuador before your trip, it’s most likely you will fly into Quito airport and need to spend the night there before transferring to a Galapagos bound flight the next morning. I recommend the Wyndham Quito Airport for your brief stopover, as it’s about a one-hour ride into the centre of town. A free shuttle is offered to Wyndham guests for the very short trip from the airport to the hotel. For those getting in late and leaving early, call and ask for a half-day rate. If you are lucky enough to have time to spend in Quito at either end of your Galapagos trip, I highly recommend 2-3 days of exploring the city and surrounds. You can read more of my recommendations for Quito in “24 Hours in Quito.”
When arriving in the Galapagos Islands through Seymour Airport, you will need to take a bus down to the coast where a barge operates the small passage between Isla Baltra and Isla Santa Cruz known as Itabaca Canal. From the Santa Cruz dock, it is another hour ride to Puerto Ayora—the tourist hub of the island—via your organised transfer. SharkSky arranged for us to be met at the airport and accompanied through the entire process, which was extremely helpful.
To cruise or not to cruise?
We started out looking at 7-8 day cruises, the minimum amount of time we had been recommended by a friend and experienced South America tour guide, to spend in the Islands. The Galapagos cruise schedules and itineraries are determined by the National Park authority to prevent overcrowding. This means they are structured and easy to compare. The main difference is the size and comfort of the boat, number of passengers etc which all have a bearing on the end price. You can compare prices for different ships at websites such as Adventure Life and Galapagos Islands. We had a specific window of time to work within, and none of the cruises fit exactly to our dates or were sold out. Therefore, we changed tack and started to look at land-based options.
There are three human inhabited Galapagos Islands – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela. From these islands, day trips are available to explore many of the uninhabited islands and islets. There are a few locations that are out of the day trip range and are only available by cruise. However, we found places within day trip reach to satisfy all of our wildlife and landscape must-see list. Conversely, there were land-based day excursions available to us, that you would not be able to do from a cruise because of the time involved.
A land based getaway in the Galapagos Islands will afford you a different perspective and a lot more flexibility than a cruise. You will be far more exposed to the locals and their way of life while visiting their towns, staying in their hotels and eating in their restaurants. We observed how most tourism dollars float in and out on expensive yachts and the local island dwellers see only a small portion of this income. Therefore, you will also have far greater impact on the economy and livelihoods of Galapagos residents by staying on land. While a cruise will take you to the further, less frequented reaches of the archipelago, an island-hopping trip will still experience the broad biodiversity and spectacular landscapes that Galapagos offers.
Should I use a professional tour company?
Once we had a sense of what we really wanted to see and experience we needed to decide which Islands to stay on, how long to stay on each, how to reserve inter-island transfers and which tour companies to book for our day trips. It became clear that this was a job for someone with local knowledge, so we sent a detailed brief to a number of providers prioritising those that were actually based in the Galapagos. Given the disparity in costs between quotes for the same thing; the dubious nature of some operators; and the outright refusal of some companies to book the itinerary we asked for, we had no other choice than to send our brief out to a second round of tour companies. It became obvious that many of these businesses sub contract one another and each add with each layer of subcontracting comes another markup.
We finally found a provider who quoted a fair price (not the absolute lowest we received, frankly they were too dodgy), were responsive to our emails and flexible with our requests—SharkSky. As previously mentioned, itineraries and schedules—even for day tours—are determined by the National Park, so you are going to have to leave your to-do list in the hands of your local tour operator to juggle the days with availability and departure location to make it work.
Can I DIY?
If you have a more leisurely amount of time in the Galapagos Islands, you can always book your day tours directly with operators when you arrive. However, looking at the numerous options and having spoken to people doing this, it seems they struggled to determine the best priced and most reliable companies, especially if your Spanish is not up to scratch. Note: when comparing providers for day tours, all guides are naturalists allocated by the National Park. This means it is not up to the day trip operators to decide who their guides are and is not a fair comparison point. What is within day trip providers’ scope is transport, equipment, timeliness and meals—quality of these items varies.
Another option, if you are still keen to cruise the islands and have plenty of time, is to find cheap accommodation and check with tour providers daily. When a ship is close to departure and still has berths available, budget travellers have been able to score cruises at hugely discounted prices.
Can I stay on just one Island?
You can, however different day tours leave from different Islands so you will be missing out on some wildlife and landscape experiences. This is an excellent map to reference when looking at the different wildlife each island offers, the day trips to take and therefore which Islands you will need to stay on.
Isla Santa Cruz
Day tours from Puerto Ayora include Santa Fe, Playa Escondida, Bartolome Island (Pinnacle Rock), North Seymour and Bachas Beach. There are a number of land-based activities on the Island including a self-guided walk to Tortuga Beach, and the Charles Darwin Research Station. There are also lava tunnels and El Chato Tortoise Reserve to explore, but you will need transportation and a guide for these.
Isabela is a must visit, as the Island and surrounding waters hold 60% of the biodiversity of the entire archipelago, making it a great all-rounder. Day trips from Puerto Villamil include Las Tintoreras and Cabo Rosa (Los Tunneles). Take a self-guided tour of Villamil Lagoons, Giant Tortoise Breeding Center and the Wall of Tears. Guided land tours offered include hiking Sierra Negra and Chico Volcanoes.
Isla San Cristobal
We didn’t visit San Cristobal because of the length of our visit and we were able to see our list of highlights from the other two islands. However, if you are interested in surfing, then San Cristobal is said to have the best surf spots of the three inhabited isles. Day trips leaving from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno include Espanola Island, Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock), Isla Lobos, Ochoa Beach, Las Tijeretas and Punta Corola Beach. Land excursions offered are: Highlands tours including options on horseback, Santa Rosa, Punta Pitt, and Sardina Bay among others. San Cristobal has a Giant Tortoise breeding centre similar to the other two Islands, and an Interpretation Centre for learning about Galapagos history, wildlife and geology.
How do I transfer between Islands?
There are two options to get between islands, air and water. Our only regret was the 3-hour boat ride between Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela. Given our time again, we would pay the extra to fly. The boats are small and crowded, and when the ocean got a little rough there were a lot of seasick passengers. Although the flight is only 30mins between the two islands, we worked out the overall travel time would be roughly the same considering you have to reverse the process of getting to Seymour Airport across the Itabaca Canal. Although if you can structure your itinerary to go directly to Isla Isabela first, then you would avoid this. Note, intra-Galapagos flights have a luggage weight limit of 20kg.
What can I expect for accommodation and meals?
Of course, this is highly dependent on your budget. We stayed on Isla Santa Cruz for four nights and Isla Isabela for two, in top-tier accommodation and ate at a variety of local restaurants. The experience varies slightly between islands.
Isla Santa Cruz
As the closest Island to Seymour Airport (Isla Baltra), Santa Cruz is where most visitors begin their Galapagos adventure. Travellers are well catered for with accommodation and restaurant options, however, internet is limited and expensive. My advice is to plan for Galapagos to be a digital detox and don’t rely on internet connection at all.
Puerto Villamil is somewhat less developed than Puerto Ayora, for example the roads are not paved. Accommodation varies, but as a whole is slightly more rustic. Rooms were still clean, air-conditioned with a comfortable bed and a good breakfast. Food outlet options are fewer, but the fresh seafood is excellent anywhere you go in the Islands! Internet connection is virtually non-existent. You may be able to check your email, but don’t expect to be uploading your holiday snaps to Facebook or Instagram.
Isla San Cristobal
Again, we didn’t stay on San Cristobal, so I can’t provide any first-hand knowledge. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the capital of the Galapagos. The Island has a port and naval base therefore expect a more developed offering like that of Isla Santa Cruz.
Overall, expect to put a little more planning effort and money into your Galapagos adventure, then reap the benefits. If this “How to Visit the Galapagos Islands” doesn’t answer your question – drop me a line in the comments below. For those travelling in April, you may also find my Packing List useful.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,