The Galapagos Islands are located about 550 miles (900 km) west of South America and are world famous for unique wildlife.
With the giant tortoises, marine iguanas, Galapagos sea lions and Darwin’s finches, the islands have captured the world’s attention and the tropical climate combined with beautiful beaches and scenery make the Galapagos a fantastic travel destination..
But how do you get to the Galapagos Islands and which country do they belong to?
As part of Ecuador, you can reach the Galapagos by first flying to Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, or Guayaquil on Ecuador’s coast.
From here, you will land on one of the two airports serving the Galapagos Islands. One of these is located on Baltra Island where you will cross over to Santa Cruz and is the main location for guests embarking a Galapagos Cruise. The other is found on San Cristobal Island.
The Galapagos Island were once known as the Enchanted Isles and were ‘accidentally’ discovered by Europeans when a bishop on his way to Peru drifted off course in 1535.
After this, the islands were often used as a hideout for pirates ready to ambush Spanish galleons as they shipped gold from South America back to Spain. They were also a base for whaling operations in the 17th and 18th centuries.
These early visitors weren’t impressed by the lack of fresh water and hostile nature of the islands. It was only until much later when the true value of these incredible islands was appreciated.
In 1835, the archipelago’s most famous visitor landed on the islands aboard the HMS Beagle, a vessel sent to survey the coast of South America. A young naturalist named Charles Darwin made observations of the island’s geology and wildlife. It was his discoveries and collections that helped form the theory of evolution by natural selection shining a light on how different species, including our own, came to be.
Guide to the islands
Within the Galapagos archipelago, you can find a total of 21 different islands. There are 18 main islands and a series of islets and rocky outcrops. There is some difference of opinion as what counts as an islet or rocky outcrop isn’t well defined.
Here is a guide to a few main islands. However, for a more detailed guide you can see our complete travel guide to the Galapagos Islands.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is one of the main islands of the Galapagos Islands and is one of the most visited islands by tourists, as all arrivals to Baltra Island airport first cross over to Santa Cruz.
Although many visitors will board their Galapagos cruise from Santa Cruz, the island also offers some fantastic things to see and do. This is where you find some of the best hotels on the Galapagos and some delicious restaurants. The Charles Darwin Research Center is also here to learn a little about the islands and see the work researchers are doing to recover and protect the wildlife.
On Santa Cruz, you can also see giant tortoises in the highlands, Galapagos sea lions and marine iguanas on the shoreline, and enjoy different lagoons and land formations.
Another of the largest islands in the Galapagos, San Cristóbal is home to many iconic animals and different attractions. Visit the beautiful El Junco Lagoon, giant tortoise breeding area, see the Charles Darwin statue where he first set food on the islands, and the different animals.
On the island, you can visit a nesting area for frigate birds called Cerro Tijeretas and see the Galapagos sea lions and marine iguanas. There are also fantastic dive sites nearby, including the famous León Dormido (Kicker Rock).
Española Island is one of the most wildlife-rich areas of the Galapagos Islands. You can find the giant tortoises, lava lizards, and many different birds. This is also where you find some different marine iguanas, which have a beautiful red and green color compared to the usual black and grey. The iguanas are their most colorful in December and January.
Española Island is the oldest in the Galapagos archipelago and one of the most famous areas is called Suárez Point. This is included on many itineraries as it offers some of the best wildlife and is also home to a colony of waved albatross. You can also spot the famous blue-footed and Nazca boobies.
See the travel guide to the Galapagos for information on the other islands. For a complete list of things to do and see, including an island by island guide you can see our list of 100 things to do on the Galapagos Islands.
Guide to the wildlife
The wildlife is what makes the Galapagos Islands such a unique travel destination. Many of the animals and plants are only found on the Galapagos and some species are specific to their own particular island.
To give a brief overview on what you can find here, here are a few of the most iconic animals to find.
Perhaps the most famous animal of the Galapagos islands, giant tortoises have captured the world’s imagination due to their impressive size. Sometimes on islands, otherwise small animals grow to impressive sizes and larger animals shrink. This is certainly true with the tortoises.
Galapagos giant tortoises can weigh over 400 kg (900 lb) and reach 1.3 m (4 ft) in length. You can see the tortoises in the highlands of different islands and also at the facilities set up to help breed tortoises to recover their populations. Since human arrival, the tortoise populations have been struggling against invasive species.
Another iconic Galapagos animals, marine iguanas are the only lizard that forages for food in the sea. You can often see them around coastal areas on most of the islands sunning themselves on the beaches or sidewalks. You can even see them from the different hotels and restaurants, such as the luxurious Galapagos Habitat Hotel where they enjoy laying on the deck between the tables.
The origins of the iguanas on the islands is a bit of a mystery. As other iguanas live in the tropical forests of Central and South America, it’s thought that their ancestors must have drifted to the islands on a piece of wood millions of years ago. They would have made this impressive 550 mile (900 km) journey and slowly adapted to limited food by feeding on algae near the shore. Eventually, they would have become more and more adapted to life in the sea.
Blue Footed Boobies
Another iconic Galapagos animal, the blue footed boobies are well known to anyone who has seen a documentary on the islands. They feed mainly on fish and hunt by diving and swimming in the water. If you’re lucky to see them hunting food, they offer a fantastic spectacle. With their distinct white and grey plumage with two large and bright blue feet, they are hard to miss. The blue feet are important in courtship dances and they males lift them up and down when attempting to impress females. If you’re on the islands at the right time of year, you can see the island’s boobies performing these elaborate dances.
Recommended Tours and Cruises
There are some fantastic tours to enjoy on the Galapagos. Choose from hotels offering package tours and excellent Galapagos cruises.
Choose from luxury vessels, Galapagos catamarans, and motor-sail catamarans to explore the islands.
Here, we will provide four different recommended experiences, including a luxury cruise, comfortable cruise and a hotel offering package tours.
The Ocean Spray Galapagos Cruise
The Ocean Spray Cruise was built with comfort and performance in mind and is an excellent way for cruising between the Galapagos islands.
Because of the catamaran design, the Ocean Spray offers a very comfortable cruising experience with more stability on the waves.
Enjoy spacious and comfortable suites with private bathrooms and a private balcony to stay connected to the islands. The vessel also has a sundeck with jacuzzi, social areas and the elegantly styled dining room where you will enjoy delicious meals.
You will then head out each day with highly trained naturalist guides to explore the islands on trail walks, kayaking experiences and snorkeling tours. Learn about the islands and see some incredible and iconic animals, plants and landforms. You will also visit beautiful beaches and enjoy spectacular scenery.
Choose itineraries from a 4-day experience right through to a 15-day mega cruise to make the most of the islands.
The Galaxy Galapagos Cruise
The Galaxy Galapagos Cruise is a first-class vessel to explore the Galapagos Islands.
There are nine cabins in total with four on the upper deck, three on the main deck and two on the lower deck.The vessel then provides a sundeck, social areas, including the bar and lounge.
In the dining room, enjoy meals of a mix of Galapagos and Ecuadorian cuisine with international favorites.
There are different Galaxy itineraries to enjoy. These include wildlife-watching tours, guided trail walks, kayaking, and panga rides.
The Nemo II Cruise
The Nemo II offers a motor-sail catamaran to explore the Galapagos Islands. This is a more adventurous option than the above cruises and provides more of a sailing experience as you voyage from island to island.
Each of the itineraries is focused on either the northern or southern islands. The itineraries focus on some of the main points of interest on the Galapagos. See some incredible wildlife, including the Galapagos sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises.
Skilled guides will guide you across island trails to spot the land and coastal living wildlife. However, you will also explore the marine world on snorkeling experiences to see the tropical fish, sea turtles and rays living around the islands.
Choose from either double or twin cabins for your onboard accommodation. These all offer private bathrooms with hot water. There are also social areas onboard and also the dining room where you will enjoy freshly prepared and delicious meals.
The Galapagos Habitat Hotel
The Galapagos Habitat Hotel (previously the Red Mangrove) is a luxury hotel on the island of Santa Cruz. Positioned at Puerto Ayora, enjoy easy access to some of the top restaurants, souvenir shops and attractions of the island.
Next to the hotel, you can find the Charles Darwin Research Center to learn about the islands, wildlife, and see the work researchers are doing to protect and restore the Galapagos animals.
Enjoy very comfortable suites and the in-house Almar Restaurant by Isla Grill. Here, you can enjoy delicious food with an Ecuadorian and Argentine influence.
Choose from different package tours to make the most of the Galapagos Islands, including wildlife-watching tours and island hopping. Tours include visits to beautiful beaches, snorkeling sites and areas with abundant wildlife. Also enjoy spotting marine iguanas, sea lions and pelicans from the hotel deck.