The Galapagos Islands are one of the world’s favorite travel destinations. The Galapagos are a series of tropical islands found 550 miles (900 km) off Ecuador’s coast.
Home to incredible wildlife, see some amazing animals, iconic scenery, and beautiful beaches. The islands have a fantastic history filled with explorers, pirates, and sailors.
The most famous visitor to the islands was Charles Darwin who visited the Galapagos in 1835. His discoveries among the animals and plants helped form the theory of evolution by natural selection.
To reach the islands, you can fly to Ecuador’s capital city of Quito before connecting to one of the two airports serving the islands.
You can then enjoy fantastic cruises, comfortable hotels, and incredible tours.
The Galapagos National Park
The Galapagos Islands National Park and Galapagos Marine Reserve protect the majority of the Galapagos Islands and surrounding water. Around 8,000 km² of the islands and 130,000 km² of the surrounding ocean is protected.
The Galapagos Islands National Park was established in 1959. Note that 3% of the land area was set aside for residents.
Galapagos Islands Wildlife
For many visitors to the Galapagos Islands, it’s the unusual and iconic wildlife which are the many attractions.
See giant tortoises, blue and red footed boobies, marine iguanas, whale sharks, sea lions, sea turtles, and a diversity of fascinating birdlife.
The Giant Tortoises
Giant tortoises are the most iconic animals of the Galapagos Islands. Even the name Galapagos means tortoise in old Spanish.
Seeing these animals in the wild a fantastic experience. If you’re at all familiar with smaller tortoises, spotting a 500 (200 kg) pound version grazing on grass will be an incredible sight.
The tortoises feed on grass, shoots, fruits and cacti. Like many species on the Galapagos, the different islands are home to their own giant tortoise subspecies. These differ in appearance mainly by size and the shape of the shell.
The Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are one of the world’s most popular marine animals. The giant animals are the world’s largest fish and are a filter feeder. They feed on very small animals, which drift in the oceans as plankton.
Whale sharks grow to around 30 feet (10 m), however, some individuals grow even larger. They are found worldwide in tropical waters. As a migratory species to the Galapagos Islands, the best time to see them if diving is June and December where they visit the northern islands to feed.
The Manta Rays
Manta Rays are a favorite marine sighting in the Galapagos Islands. Manta Rays measure 13 feet (4 metres) across and can weigh 1,500 pounds (1,600 kilograms). With their large size and elegant wing-like fins, seeing these animals while diving is a memorable experience.
Like the whale sharks mentioned above, manta rays are filter feeds and are another gentle giant. There are a few different places to see manta rays, including Isabela Island, South Plaza Island, and Rábida Island. The best time to see them is from December to May.
The Blue-footed Boobies
The blue footed boobies are a favorite bird to see on the Galapagos Islands. With their bright blue feet and interesting behaviors, they stand out among Galapagos animals.
The most characteristic feature of the birds are their large bright blue feet, which are used in courtship rituals where the birds dance to attract a mate.
The birds feed on small fish, which they catch by hunting in groups and diving into the water.
Note that you can also find the red-footed boobies and Nazca boobies on the islands.
The Galapagos Sea Lions
As another animal that defines the Galapagos, you’re sure to see the sea lions resting on coastal areas. They can be easily seen waiting around Fisherman’s Wharf for an easy meal and they are frequent visitors of some Galapagos hotels where they rest on the decking.
Even though you will mostly see the sea lions resting unless you go diving and snorkeling, the sea lions are very active in the water traveling around 9 miles (15 km) from the coast, diving to over 600 metres and staying underwater for 10 minutes at a time.
You can spot the sea lions all along the coast. However, around November in certain areas, such as Gardner Bay on Espanola Island, you can watch sea lions with their pups. You can enjoy watching pups playing on the beach and in the water.
The schools of hammerheads are one of the most iconic marine sightings in the Galapagos Islands.
Hammerheads have their unique-shaped head, which is full of electroreceptors and helps the sharks hunt for prey.
The hammerhead species commonly seen visiting the Galapagos Is the scalloped hammerhead. However, you can also find the great hammerhead and smooth hammerhead species.
Divers wanting to see the hammerheads have their best chance around Darwin and Wolf Islands between July to December (source). However, you can find individuals year round.
The Galapagos Islands are one of the few breeding areas for the waved albatross. These are the largest birds on the islands and have a wingspan around 7.5 feet (2.3 metres)
Spending most of their lives in the air as they glide over the world’s oceans, the birds visit the Galapagos Islands and other coastal areas of Peru and Ecuador between May and December to breed.
The Galapagos Penguins
The small Galapagos penguins are only found in the Galapagos Islands. They have nests in the lava rock formations and are mainly found on Isabela and Fernandina islands.
Although seemingly clumsy on land, the penguins are very agile in the water where they hunt down fish (most often sardines and mullet).
The Galapagos Land Iguanas
Less well known than their marine cousins, the Galapagos Islands are also home to a population of land iguanas. Instead of eating algae like their marine relatives, the land iguanas feed mainly on the abundant Opuntia prickly pear cacti.
The land iguanas you will encounter are only found on the Galapagos. There are actually three different species of land iguana on the Galapagos, including the Santa Fe land iguana, the pink Galapagos land iguana and the Galapagos land iguana.
You can find populations of land iguanas on many of the Galapagos Islands. Most notably, you can find them on the far side of Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandina and South Plaza Islands.
The White Tipped Reef Sharks
If swimming, kayaking, snorkeling or diving, you will likely meet these relaxed sharks. Differing from other requiem sharks, you may see white tipped reef sharks resting still on the bottom, as they can pump water over the gills unlike other species.
They are a small shark and grow to around 5.2 feet (1.6 metres). At night, they scout the reef hunting crustaceans and fish, which hide in the crevices.
White tipped reef sharks are non aggressive unless provoked and generally harmless. They are very curious and may approach you if you’re swimming in their habitat.
The Marine Iguanas
Marine iguanas evolved from land-living iguanas living on the South American mainland that drifted offshore on debris. This happened millions of years ago and they are now the world’s only oceangoing lizard
The iguanas feed on algae living on submerged rocks, which they must swim and dive for. They have unique adaptations for this way of life.
The iguanas sun themselves on the beaches, rocks and even around the streets in the populated areas.
Once you’re familiar with seeing a few of the iguanas, you will see that each island’s population of marine iguanas differs a little from each other. Some are slightly smaller or larger and others have different coloration.
The Lava Lizards
A lizard you will be familiar with after exploring the Galapagos Islands, lava lizards are a commonly seen small lizard you will see darting between the rocks.
These are the most common reptile on the Galapagos. The males can sometimes be seen performing territorial ‘push up’ displays of strength to defend their territorial boundary against rival males.
The Galapagos Human Population
The Galapagos human population live on a few islands on areas set aside for residents outside the protected status. With 97% of the land area protected, the 3% has been set aside for Galapagos residents.
There are now over 25,000 people living on the Galapagos split between Santa Cruz Island, Isabela Island, Baltra Island, Floreana Island and San Cristobal Island.
The first residents of the Galapagos arrived to take advantage of potential economic opportunities, such as making dyes and selling giant tortoises and tortoise oil. Later, tourism became the main economic opportunity and even now most residents are involved with tour boats, hotels or guiding.
Because of the unique and wildlife-rich nature of the islands, threats to the Galapagos environment include invasive plants accidentally introduced from mainland Ecuador. These can be brought across by tourists as seeds on shoes or in luggage. Another pathway is shipping containers for the local residents.
It’s because of this that residents are encouraged to source their products locally to reduce the introduction of weeds and pests that could devastate the natural environment.
The early settlers to the Galapagos took to small-scale agriculture trading their crop with sailors on passing ships and fishing.
In 1875, Don Manuel J. Cobos planted the first coffee trees on the islands. He was a merchant and smuggler who took products from Panama to Ecuador and used the islands as a hub for shipments.
The plantation was abandoned and was later purchased by an Ecuadorian family who restored the plantation to produce Galapagos coffee.
The unique currents of the Galapagos have created an environment that can produce delicious coffee usually reserved only for high altitude coffee plantations.
You can enjoy sampling the delicious coffee on many of the Galapagos tours and purchase some coffee as a souvenir to take home.
An island guide for the main Galapagos Islands
Now, let’s have a look at some of the favorite Galapagos Islands to visit. We will also provide some comments from travel bloggers who have written about the islands, which you can read for more information.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is one of the largest of the Galapagos Islands. Here, you can find many restaurants, cafes, hotels and attractions.
A favorite attraction of Santa Cruz is to enjoy local wildlife and culture by simply visiting and watching the activity at Fisherman’s Wharf.
This is where local fishermen come to sell their cash. It’s also visited by pelicans, frigatebirds, gulls and sea lions looking for an easy meal.
A short walk from the wharf is the Charles Darwin Research Center where you can learn about the work the Charles Darwin Foundation is doing to help conserve the islands.
A favorite natural attraction is an area known as Tortuga Bay where you can snorkel, kayak and swim with green turtles, non-aggressive white-tipped reef sharks and tropical fish. The beach walk offers beautiful ocean views and hundreds of marine iguanas resting on the sands.
It’s the highlands of Santa Cruz where you will find the iconic giant tortoises. A natural protected area for seeing the tortoises is El Chato Reserve, which the tortoises cross regularly on their journey from the highlands to the lowlands.
Another of the largest islands of the Galapagos, Isabela offers some favorite attractions. A main point of interest is an area called Tagus Cove.
Tagus Cove is an area of historical significance and is where early sailors, pirates and explorers would moor their vessels when setting foot on the Galapagos.
One of the most famous visits was when Charles Darwin set foot on the islands in 1835 from his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle.
Etched into the rock, you can find names and marks of early sailors from the 1800s right up to the US Navy in the 1900s.
You can also spot different Galapagos wildlife, such as Sally Lightfoot crabs and different birds.
For more wildlife, you can visit Urbina Bay and Moreno Point to see many species, such as flamingoes, Nazca boobies, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks and blue-footed boobies. Moreno point is then a great place to snorkel for rays, sharks and other marine life.
Enjoy volcanic scenery on Isabela and visit some incredible lava formations. The island is also home to a giant tortoise breeding center where they reintroduce giant tortoises to the island helping to recover the population.
Espanola is home to some of the most wildlife rich places of the Galapagos Islands. One of the favorite areas of the island is called Suárez Point.
Enjoy an incredible diversity of animals, including the largest colony of waved albatross on the Galapagos Islands. You can also find blue-footed and Nazca boobies, Darwin’s finches, sea lions, lava lizards and Galapagos hawks.
Some of the favorite animals to find here are the marine iguanas, as on Española they have a red and green coloration.
Another favorite area of the island is called Gardner Bay. Spot the sea lions on the shore and enjoy one of the longest stretches of beautiful white-sand beach on the archipelago.
Enjoy snorkeling the water of Gardney bay to spot sea turtles, whitetip reef sharks, sea lions, hammerhead sharks, rays and many tropical fish.
Floreana Island is a historically significant island because of an area called Post Office Bay.
This is where early whalers and sailors would write messages to loved ones and passing vessels heading near that address would deliver the letters. As another area of human history, the island is home to different mysteries, such as the disappearance of a Baroness and her lover.
Another favorite area of the Galapagos is called Cormorant Point on Floreana. This is a great place to enjoy watching the flamingos and to visit the beautiful beaches. One of the beaches is full of olivine crystals, which gives the beach a beautiful green color. Another is white made of fine coral sand.
There are many birds to see here, including the famous Darwin’s finches, pintail ducks, stilts and flycatchers.
The island is home to another favorite area named Devil’s Crown. This is a snorkeling and diving site where you can see hundreds of rays, hawkfish, hammerhead sharks, sea lions, sea turtles, king angelfish, eels and colorful fish.
Fernandina Island is home to some fantastic wildlife-rich areas. Enjoy Espinosa Point to spot sea lions, marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and other birds.
The marine iguanas rest on the lava rocks, which absorb the sun’s rays to create warm places to rest. You will also see the burrows where the iguanas go during the night and to escape predators.
There are different snorkeling and dive sites nearby to see marine iguanas as they swim, sea turtles and colorful fish.
There are 20 islands in the Galapagos.
The Galapagos archipelago is home to around 20 different islands. There are 13 main islands and 7 smaller islands. However, there are also hundreds of islets and rocky outcrops.
The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador.
As part of Ecuador, you can reach the Galapagos Islands by first flying to Quito (Ecuador’s capital city) where you will connect to one of two airports serving the islands. One of these is on Isabela Island and the other is on Baltra Island.
The islands are closely linked to the theory of evolution.
One of the most famous visitors to the Galapagos Islands was Charles Darwin. Darwin visited as part of the voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1835 and discoveries on the islands helped him form the theory of evolution by natural selection.
The Galapagos are a good destination to visit year round.
With the tropical climate, the Galapagos are a good travel destination at all times of year. There are two seasons driven by the different currents. Between June and November is when you find the weather drier and cooler. December to June offers slightly warmer weather and a bit more rain.
There are many activities on the Galapagos Islands.
Enjoy visiting the fascinating lava forms, snorkeling the bays, diving and snorkeling tropical waters to see marine animals, hiking in the highlands, cruise between the islands, visit beautiful lagoons, relaxing on the beaches, and wildlife watching.
The islands are around 4 million years old.
The islands first emerged from the sea around 4 million years ago. The oldest islands are South Plaza Island and Española Island.
There are 13 active volcanoes on the Galapagos Islands.
The Galapagos Islands were created by volcanic activity. A single volcano created each of the islands, aside from Isabela which was formed by the merging of 6 volcanoes. There are currently 5 active volcanoes on Isabela Island.
The other active volcanoes are:
- Fernandina Island
- Darwin Island
- Wolf Island
- Santiago Island
- Pinta Island
- Marchena Island
- Genovesa Island
- San Cristobal Island
The Galapagos Islands were discovered by the Bishop Fray Tomás de Berlanga.
In 1535, the Bishop of Panama Fray Tomás de Berlanga was enroute to Peru and drifted off course landing on the Galapagos. He was visiting Peru to settle a dispute involving Francisco Pizarro and his command.