The Galapagos Islands are one of the world’s favorite travel destinations. Enjoy beautiful scenery, warm weather and incredible wildlife opportunities.
Located about 550 miles (900 km) off Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are well within the world’s tropics and offer a very pleasant climate. The isolation, climate and ocean currents have come together to offer a unique travel experience.
Because of their location, you will fly from Quito to one of two airports serving the islands. One of these is found on Baltra Island and the other on San Cristobal. Which one of these you choose to fly to will depend on where your cruise departs or which island you plan on visiting first.
Before we get into tours of the Galapagos, let’s have an introduction to this incredible region.
An Introduction to the Galapagos Islands
There are 20 islands in total and most of these can be explored on guided trail walks, snorkeling adventures, kayaking trips and diving. Protected by the UNESCO listed Galapagos National Park, enjoy diverse birdlife, fascinating land and ocean-going animals, beautiful beaches, impressive geological features and areas of historical significance.
The islands were once described by a Catholic bishop as Hell on Earth after his ship drifted off course on their route to Peru. This was due to the difficulty in finding food and water.
After this, the Galapagos became a haven for pirates and whalers. Pirates would hide out here during the 1500s to ambush Spanish galleons as they traveled to Spain with gold taken from South America.
However, the most well known visitor to the Galapagos Islands was a young English naturalist named Charles Darwin. His findings from the Galapagos Islands and other destinations on his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle led to our understanding of evolution.
On fantastic tours of the Galapagos Islands, your guide will not only show you the famous wildlife of these incredible islands, but will also summarize the human history. You can even visit the places where these historical events took place.
The Galapagos Islands National Park
The Galapagos Islands National Park protects the Galapagos Islands and covers an area just under 8,000 km². Established in 1959, the national park protects the majority of the Galapagos Islands with only 3% of the land area set aside for residents. The surrounding water is then protected by the Galapagos Marine Reserve, which covers an impressive 130,000 km².
The Islands of the Galapagos
The Galapagos archipelago is composed of 13 main islands and seven smaller islands. There are also over 100 very small islets and rocky outcrops. The definitions of what is called an island or islet can be fuzzy when the land areas get smaller.
Of these areas, only 5 islands are inhabited by people. These are Baltra, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela and San Cristóbal. The airports serving the Galapagos are found on Baltra Island and Isabela.
The 20 islands of the Galapagos are:
Baltra Island is where you find one of the two airports on the Galapagos. A small island, Baltra has an arid landscape with little vegetation. However, there is a small population of iguanas living on Baltra.
Bartolomé Island is a small islet near the larger island of Santiago. Although a small islet, this is one of the few areas where you can find Galapagos penguins. The island was named after the lieutenant of the HMS Beagle and lifelong friend of Charles Darwin, Bartholomew James Sulivan.
The Daphne Islands are located west of Baltra Island and a little north of Santa Cruz. Daphne Major was where studies of the finch populations were carried out over 20 years. This was to track evolutionary changes over the years. In addition to finches, there are a diversity of other birds despite the treeless landscape. There are no visitor sites on Daphne Minor, but there are interesting dive sites nearby.
Española Island is the oldest island in the Galapagos archipelago and is home to many different animals. You can find lava lizards, marine iguanas, giant tortoises and different birds. Espanola is home to a different type of marine iguana, which have a beautiful red and green coloration.
As this is one of the newest islands formed in the Galapagos, you can see different lava flows and the black lava rocks. Dotted among the rocks you can find marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins, sea lions, and flightless cormorants.
Floreana is where you can find flamingos, nesting sea turtles and different birds. Floreana is also where you will visit Post Office Bay. This is where whalers and early sailors would leave letters in the hopes that another ship heading near the address would deliver their messages. There are also some favorite snorkeling and dive sites near the island.
The island of Genovesa is a bird lover’s paradise with many species to find. You can also see the rocks from more recent lava flows and the smallest marine iguanas in the Galapagos.
Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos and home to a diversity of wildlife. Enjoy spotting iguanas, giant tortoises, cormorants and Galapagos penguins. You can also find a diversity of other birds and interesting vegetation.
Marchena Island is inhabited by different animals, including sea lions, Galapagos hawks and the Marchena lava lizards, which are only found on this island. Although there are no visitor sites, there are dive areas nearby.
North Seymour is another great place for different birds and has a large population of blue-footed boobies, frigate birds and swallow-tailed gulls.
Pinta is another island with no visitor sites, however, there are some nearby dive sites to explore. This is the most northern island in the archipelago and Pinta was the original home of Lonesome George, the most famous animal of the Galapagos Islands.
Pinzón Island has no marine or land areas to visit. However, the island does have a population of giant tortoises, Galapagos snakes and different birds. The nearest visitor site is a marine area known as No Name Rock. You can dive here to see hammerheads and Galapagos sharks.
The Plazas are made up of the North Plaza Island and South Plaza Island. Home to abundant wildlife, these are both two small islands found near Santa Cruz. See many different birds, sea lions, and both land and marine iguanas. The largest population of land iguanas can be seen on South Plaza Island.
Although a relatively small island, Rábida is home to flamingos, sea lions, marine iguanas and a diversity of birds. The island has red sand because of high iron content providing an interesting landscape.
Another large island in the Galapagos, San Cristóbal is home to many animals and plants. See a diversity of birds, sea lions, giant tortoises and natural features. In the highlands of San Cristóbal, you can find a beautiful lagoon called Laguna El Junco.
Santa Cruz is one of the main islands of the Galapagos and is where you can find different hotels, top-rated restaurants and attractions. This is also where you can visit the Charles Darwin Research Center to see the work the Charles Darwin Foundation is doing to help protect the islands. You can also see marine iguanas, giant tortoises in the highlands, lava formations and a diversity of birds.
Santa Fé is another small island near Santa Cruz where you can find land iguanas, lava lizards, sea lions and a forest of Opuntia cacti. This is one of the oldest islands on the Galapagos. Two species only found on Santa Fé are the Barrington land iguana and the Barrington leaf-toed gecko.
Santiago Island is home to marine iguanas, sea lions, and fur seals. There are some popular dive and snorkeling sites near the island where you can spot sea turtles, sharks and a diversity of tropical fish. A popular visitor site on the island is called Sullivan Bay where you can see the black rock from recent lava flows.
Wolf Island is a small island inhabited by fur seals, marine iguanas and different birds. Although there are no visitor sites on the island itself, this is a favorite area for diving. The surrounding waters are great places to see hammerheads, sea turtles, rays and sometimes whale sharks.
Darwin Island is another small island without visitor sites and is home to different seabirds. However, there is a marine site called El Derrumbe for seeing hammerheads and the occasional whale shark.
For more detailed information on the islands including the main activities to enjoy on each, you can see our guide for 100 things to do on the Galapagos.
Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands
Despite the fascinating human history and beauty of the islands, the biggest attraction for many visitors to the Galapagos is the wildlife.
The nature of islands has fascinated naturalists for over 150 years. With their isolation and unique currents that flow by the islands, evolution on the Galapagos has created unique animals and plants.
Perhaps the most famous animal of the islands, Galapagos giant tortoises have grown to the largest in the world. They can weigh over 400 kg (900 lb) and reach 1.3 m (4 ft) in length. The tortoises can often be seen in the highlands of certain islands, such as Santa Cruz.
To help recover tortoise populations, you can also see the tortoises are centers like the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. The organizations seek to help the populations recover from introduced animals and human impacts.
Another fascinating animal, marine iguanas are the only lizard that has the ability to forage for food in the sea. See these fantastic animals dotted around the islands and beaches as they warm themselves in the Galapagos sun.
Free from significant land predators since they evolved 10 million years ago, the lizards can be seen sunning themselves on pavements and walkways. They are even frequently seen between the tables and chairs of the Isla Grill restaurant at the Galapagos Habit Hotel.
Well known to any student of Biology, Darwin’s Finches are frequently used to explain evolution by natural selection. The various islands of the Galapagos have given rise to a diversity of species that evolved from one ancestral population. The finches show distinct feeding habits and beak sizes. They will no double be the most encountered bird when you’re exploring the islands.
When to Visit the Galapagos Islands
If you are looking for the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands, this really depends on when you are available.
Because of the tropical climate, the islands can be visited at all times of year and offer a pleasant temperature from month to month. Some months can be a little cooler and some months have more rain.
We will mention these below.
Wildlife viewing is great at all times of year. Most of the animals don’t migrate with the exception of whale sharks and hammerheads. If you’re a diver interested in these species, it’s worth timing your visit with when they’re visiting the islands.
The average daily temperature on the Galapagos Islands is around 84°F (30°C) with a nightly temperature of 69°F (20°C).
Seasons here are split into the cool and dry season provided by the Humboldt Current and the wet and warmer season caused by the El Niño Current.
The temperature from December to June is between 80ºF (27ºC) and 90ºF (32ºC).
Between June – November is when you find the drier and cooler weather, which is also the preferred time to visit if you enjoy diving. This is when you can expect an average temperature of 70ºF (21ºC) to 80ºF (27ºC).
Although most of the animals can be seen at all times of year and remain on the islands. Some of the favorite marine species do migrate.
The following are the best months to see popular migrating marine mammals:
- Manta Ray Season: December – May
- Whale Shark Season: June – November
- Hammerheads: December – May
When to visit the Galapagos Islands • in/°F | mm/°C
Things to do on the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands offer fantastic wildlife sightings, beautiful scenery, fascinating natural features, beautiful beaches and warm welcoming weather.
There are some particularly fascinating points of interest on the Galapagos Islands, such as unusual beaches, areas of abundant wildlife, the top snorkeling sites or areas to see particular things.
One of the many favorite areas of the Galapagos Islands is known as Espinosa Point on Fernandina Island.
Espinosa Point is one of the most wildlife-rich areas of the islands where you can find a concentration of marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, and sea lions.
Another favorite area for wildlife is known as Suárez Point on Española Island. This is where you can see the world’s largest population of waved albatross. This is also where you can see the unusual red and green marine iguanas.
A great area to spot sea lions, marine iguanas and other wildlife is called Gardner Bay on Española Island. When setting foot on the island, you will arrive at the longest stretch of white sand beach on the Galapagos. The beach is a great place to see sea lion pups, which are most abundant in November.
For other suggestions of great places to visit, you can see the points of interest on the Galapagos Islands.
Things to eat on the Galapagos Islands
There are some fantastic restaurants on the Galapagos Islands. The cuisine is heavily influenced by mainland Ecuador. However, there is a difference to the food on offer. With an emphasis on fresh and simple food, enjoy a diversity of fresh seafood, meats, beans and delicious fruits. The restaurants can be found on the main islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isla Isabela.
Some recommended restaurants to try include:
The Isla Grill at the Galapagos Habitat Hotel on Santa Cruz Island offers delicious cuisine with a focus on Argentinian and Ecuadorian dishes
The Finch Bay Restaurant on Santa Cruz Island, which offers gourmet dining on the Galapagos. Inspiration for the cuisine is drawn from all over Ecuador and each dish is given a distinct touch from the Galapagos Islands.
Top Galapagos Islands Tours, Hotels and Cruises
There are some fantastic cruises and hotel package tours to enjoy for the Galapagos Islands, which include guided island exploration, wildlife tours and additional activities like kayaking, snorkeling and panga rides.
Recommended Galapagos Cruises and Hotel Package Tours are:
The Petrel Cruise
The Ocean Spray is a luxury catamaran cruise for the Galapagos Islands. Explore the islands on naturalist led walks, snorkeling, kayaking and the comfort of the Ocean Spray vessel.
On the cruise vessel, you will enjoy spacious and comfortable suites, each with their own private balcony, comfortable social areas and the sundeck with jacuzzi.
For the cruise, you have a choice of either a 5-day, 6-day and 8-day itinerary.
The Petrel Cruise 8-day Itinerary
As an example of the itineraries you can choose, here is a summary of the Petrel 8-day cruise ‘B’ itinerary. This begins on San Cristobal Island.
You will first enjoy a tour of San Cristobal Island to see the iconic giant tortoises.
After a very comfortable night’s sleep in your cruise suite, we will explore Gardner Bay and Española Island. This is one of the favorite areas of the Galapagos Islands. You can enjoy the beautiful beach and snorkeling the waters to find many colorful fish.
We will then visit two other areas of the island called Suárez Point and Osborn Islet. Enjoy spotting blue footed boobies, waved albatross and lava lizards.
After this, you will visit Floreana Island and Cormorant Point. Enjoy the attractive lagoon where you can watch the visiting flamingos and other birdlife.
We will then visit a nearby beach beach of green olivine-crystal and another of beautiful white coral sand.
You will also visit a wildlife-rich area known as Devil’s Crown, which is a snorkeling site to find many colorful fish, rays and sharks.
While back on the mainland, we will stop at Post Office Bay to hear some of the island’s human history. This was an area where early sailors would leave letters in the hopes that a passing vessel was heading to the recipient’s address.
After Floreana, you will travel to Santa Cruz and the Charles Darwin Research Center to see the work the Charles Darwin Foundation is doing to help protect the islands. At the research center, see the giant tortoises and breeding program that will help recover the tortoise population.
You will then enjoy the cruise to Bartholomew Island for its beautiful scenery and interesting lava formations. The lava rocks have been imprinted by plants that once grew here thousands of years ago.
The next stop will be Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island. Visit the beautiful coral beach and enjoy spotting the many different birds, including iconic red-footed boobies.
After this, you will head to Santiago Island and Buccaneer Cove. This is where pirates, whalers and explorers would moor their vessels for setting foot on the island.
The last day will be spent on Mosquera Island and Santa Cruz. Enjoy a visit to Carrion Point and snorkel the water to find colorful fish and different rays.
The Ocean Spray
Built with performance and comfort in mind, the Ocean Spray is a luxury catamaran cruise for the Galapagos Islands.
The itineraries aboard the Ocean Spray include guided island walks, kayaking and snorkeling tours.
The vessel itself offers spacious and comfortable accommodation, delicious meals in the dining room, and a sundeck with jacuzzi. Your suite also offers a private balcony to keep connected to this incredible environment.
On the Ocean Spray, you have a choice of itinerary options from the 4-day experience to a 15-day mega cruise to make the most of the islands.
To provide a summary of what to expect, let’s have a look at a short summary of the 6-day cruise ‘B’ itinerary:
You will visit the central and southern islands, including Santa Fe, Española, San Cristobal, and Floreana Island. While on the islands, spend time at the top visitor areas, including beautiful beaches and wildlife-rich areas.
While exploring the islands, you’re like to see a diversity of animals, such as marine iguanas, sea lions, flamingos, waved albatross, pelicans and lava lizards. While snorkeling, you can find many colorful fish and different rays.
The Galapagos Habit Hotel
The Galapagos Habit Hotel (formerly the Red Mangrove) is a luxury hotel on Santa Cruz offering very comfortable suites, delicious meals in the Isla Grill restaurant and package tours for island exploration.
Located next door to the Charles Darwin Research center, the hotel is well positioned to explore Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora. This is one of the top places to find island attractions, galleries, souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants.
To explore the islands, the hotel offers different package tours to explore surrounding islands. Enjoy guided wildlife tours and visit some of the favorite sites of the Galapagos, including beautiful beaches, snorkeling areas and areas with abundant wildlife.
In the hotel’s Almar Restaurant by Isla Grill, enjoy delicious food with an Ecuadorian and Argentinian influence.
As an extra point of interest, the Galapagos Habit Hotel is an excellent hotel for seeing wildlife. Marine iguanas and sea lions even rest on the hotel deck providing an up close experience of these fascinating animals.
The Eco Galaxy
The Eco Galaxy offers a first-class vessel to explore the Galapagos Islands. Enjoy cruising from island to island in comfort, guided trail walks to find fantastic wildlife and delicious meals.
The vessel has eight cabins in total. Four of the cabins are found on the upper deck and the other four are on the main deck.The cabins offer twin beds or double beds, private bathrooms with hot water, air conditioning, and telephone and internet communication.
In addition to the cabins, while on the vessel you can also relax in the comfortable social areas. Enjoy the lounge area to relax with a cocktail or a book or the outdoor seating area. Your meals will then be served in the comfortable and elegantly decorated dining room.
The main attraction on any Galapagos tour is the surrounding islands and wildlife. On the Eco Galaxy itinerary, you will enjoy many different activities, including island walks, wildlife watching, snorkeling and kayaking tours.
The Galaxy Galapagos Cruise offers a first-class vessel for exploring the islands. Enjoy comfortable cabins, guided island tours and incredible wildlife watching opportunities.
The vessel offers a total of nine cabins, which are divided into four on the upper deck, three on the main deck and two on the lower deck. You can then enjoy the comfortable social areas, including the lounge, bar and sundeck.
Your meals aboard the Galaxy will be a mix of Galapagos and Ecuadorian cuisine with some international favorites.
On your Galaxy itinerary, enjoy guided trail walks, kayaking, panga rides and wildlife-watching tours.
The Nemo III
The Nemo III is a motor-sail catamaran providing cruise itineraries for the northern or southern islands.
Aboard the Nemo III, the itinerary is designed around an 8-day itinerary. However, you can join the cruise for 4 or 5-day itineraries.
In addition to an adventurous cruise, enjoy guided exploration of the islands. On island trail walks, see a wide range of Galapagos animals, including sea lions, sea turtles, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, pelicans and more.
On the vessel itself, choose twin or double cabins. Each of the accommodations offers a private bathroom with hot water and delicious regional cuisine. There are also comfortable social areas to enjoy, including a spacious sundeck complete with a jacuzzi.
The Nemo II
The Nemo II is another motor-sail catamaran and is a smaller vessel than the Nemo III above. Enjoy an adventurous cruise of the Galapagos Islands to visit the most popular areas of the archipelago.
The cruise itineraries are designed around the northern or southern islands. Enjoy guided exploration of the main visitor sites and incredible wildlife watching experiences. Led by experienced guides, find the iconic animals of the Galapagos, including marine iguanas, sea lions, blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises.
In addition to guided trail walks, enjoy snorkeling experiences to see the diverse and colorful marine life, such as tropical fish, sea turtles and different rays.
The Nemo II offers a choice of double or twin cabine, which all offer private bathrooms with hot water. You can then enjoy comfortable social areas and delicious meals in the dining room when back aboard the vessel.