The Galapagos Islands are a bucket-list destination for good reason: due to a lack of natural predators, friendly wildlife such as playful sea lions and gigantic sea tortoises let visitors get up close and personal. This archipelago of about 19 islands an smaller islets scattered over 620 miles off Ecuador’s coast in the Pacific Ocean is a double World Heritage site (both land and sea are protected). Each island has its own unique landscape, from barren black, volcanic rocks to white sand beaches and gemstone-blue waters. A Galapagos Islands Vacation is going to be wonderful but, it is best to book at least a few months in advance. This is a major tourist destination, boats often fill up during high season and there aren’t very many of them.
Weather (When to Visit)
The busiest months for tourism are June, July and August, as well as mid-December to mid-January (prices are often highest at these times as well). The hot, rainy season of December through May is when the ocean is the calmest, daily rains give way to mostly-sunny skies, and temperatures are in the 80s.
The cooler, dryer season is June through November with temperatures in the 70s. Though the seas are rougher, experienced divers believe it’s the best time to visit because colder water attracts even more fantastic marine life (such as big schools of hammerhead sharks). It’s also when visitors have a better chance of spotting legendary whale sharks at Wolf and Darwin islands.
Getting to the Galapagos Islands
You”ll have to get to mainland Ecuador first by flying into the capital city of Quito or Guayaquil. The islands are nearer to Guayaquil. If you have the option, fly here to save time since most flights from Quito have a stopover here on the way to the Galapagos. American Airlines, Continental/Copa and Delta all fly to Ecuador from the U.S. Most Galapagos flights are either early morning or evening, so you’ll probably need an overnight stay on the mainland.
Your best bet for getting to the Galapagos is to fly into Baltra Island before taking a bus and ferry ride to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the most popular tourist hub. Another option is to fly into the capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, but most cruises start in Santa Cruz. You can book through domestic airlines such as TAME, LAN, or Aerogal.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands: Land or Sea
The first decision you have to make about visiting the Galapagos Islands is also the most difficult. Do you want to stay in a hotel on one of the three inhabited islands, exploring other islands and areas via day-trip boat rides? Or do you want to be based on a live-aboard boat, which provides your accommodation and your mode of travel from island to island? Here are three considerations to think about when deciding:
- Cost: A trip to the Galapagos Islands is expensive. However, it’s easier to have a less expensive experience if you choose to be land-based. There are hotels and restaurants at many price points on San Cristobal Island, Santa Cruz Island, Isabela and Floreana islands. Live-aboard boats come in a range of price points but, all but the most bare-bones boats still add up to more than a land-based vacation.
- Time management: If you choose a land-based vacation, you will spend a lot of your time getting from your hotel, onto a day-trip boat, out to the day’s destination, then back to your hotel. Travelers on live-aboard boats sleep in cabins on the boat, which navigates from place to place during the night. So passengers wake up in a new destination ready for a full day of exploration.
- Access: Because land-based explorations are limited to the five islands that can be reached in one day, land-based travelers will never be able to visit the more distant islands that boat-based itineraries include.
Galapagos Islands Attractions
Travelers visit this strip of Santa Cruz Island’s southern coastline to spend time with the Galápagos’ marine turtles. If you visit between January and February, you may even catch sight of the black turtles laying their eggs. Even if you’re not a turtle-lover, you can still get up close and personal with the other beach combers like marine iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs.
One of the Galápagos Islands’ most well-known creatures is the giant tortoise, and one of the region’s best places to see them is at Rancho Primicias. Located on Santa Cruz Island, this privately-owned animal sanctuary is filled with giant tortoises. The site also features empty tortoise shells to climb into and tunnels made of cooled, hardened lava to walk through, plus facilities like a restaurant and restrooms.
This scenic sea lion-laden beach offers ample opportunities for catching sight of the island’s lively local residents. For those looking to hit the waves, there are also ample places to surf, swim and snorkel. Just be sure to stay a safe distance away from the sea lions; alpha males are known for being territorial and can be aggressive toward humans if they feel threatened.
Here you can come face-to-face with a giant tortoise, but tortoises aren’t the only animals to find here. As you get acquainted with these immense, you may even hear the chirp of a Darwin finch or the hoot of a short-ear owl overhead. This reserve is one the few places where you can spot tortoises in their natural habitat. Today, rangers preserve the region by hunting predators and building fortified walls to prevent intruding animals from destroying the remaining tortoise population.
The region is home to 45 types of birds you won’t see anywhere else, not to mention other unique species like waved albatrosses and blue- and red-footed boobies. You’ll find birds on all of the Galápagos’ islands, but for some of the region’s best bird-watching, head to Isabela Island (for Galapagos penguins) and North Seymour Island (for blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds). Other islands worth checking out include Española Island (for waved albatrosses and Darwin’s finches) and Genovesa Island (for red-footed and Nazca boobies). Santa Cruz Island is also popular because of its variety of land birds.
Things to Do in the Galapagos Islands
Diving the Galapagos Islands on board Humboldt Explorer will allow you to experience an unknown world of beauty, wonder and marine life. You will see sea lions, turtles, hammerhead sharks, white tip sharks, dolphins, whale sharks, manta rays, Galapagos sharks, and huge schools of eagle and golden Rays. For more information visit them on the web at Galapagos Diving Cruises.
They offer a complete range of products to explore practically every dive site of this wonderfully diverse marine reserve. For more 8 years, Galapagos Underwater has been leading adventurers like you to one of the world´s most exciting travel destinations, a place of countless natural and cultural wonders. For more information call +593 99 968 0404, or visit them on the web at Galapagos Underwater.
Based out of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, in the heart of the Galapagos Islands, SCUBA IGUANA organizes a variety of Galapagos diving adventures and PADI scuba certification courses designed to help discover the most impressive dive sites in the Galapagos – one of the “Seven Underwater Wonders of the World”. For more information call +593 5 2526497, or visit them on the web at Scuba Iguana.
Pahoehoe Galapagos Islands Tours offer both Galapagos Island Hopping Tours and Isabela Day Tours so you can visit all of Galapagos’s most popular locations, as well as it’s best kept secrets. For more information, visit them on the web at Pahoehoe Galapagos Tours.
Enjoy snorkeling, swimming, hiking, sea kayaking, and explore remote isolated beaches full of fearless Galapagos wildlife, all at your own pace on a Galapagos multi-sport tour. Other activities, including Galapagos scuba diving day tours, may be available as well, just ask them. For more information call +1 877-215-5670, or visit them on the web at Andean Discovery.
Best Galapagos Islands Restaurants
$-Inexpensive $$-Moderate $$$-Pricey $$$$-Ultra High End
$$$$ Finch Bay Restaurant – Puerto Ayora
Finch Bay Restaurant, part of the award-winning Finch Bay Hotel in Puerto Ayora, is considered by many to be one of the best fine dining restaurants in the Galapagos Islands with excellent menu options for seafood-lovers, vegetarians, Ecuadorian, and international dishes. For more information call +593 5 2526297, or visit them on the web at Finch Bay Restaurant.
$$$ Coco Surf – Puerto Villamil
This sidewalk cafe serves up some of the tastiest seafood dishes in all of the Galápagos, and you’ll hardly notice the high price points once the live band starts jamming out to jazzy island tunes. The tuna tartare and patanachos mar y terra (appetizer platter with an assortment of seafood and meat) are highly recommended. For more information call +593 5 2529465, or visit them on the web at Coco Surf.
$$ – $$$ Oasis – Puerto Villamil
Esmeraldas native Geanny Bennett Valencia cooks up some of the best dishes in town. Mouth-watering encocados (coconut stews) are the favorite, served in versions like camarones (shrimp), langosta (lobster) or pescado (fish). The restaurant only opens by reservation; call ahead or stop by during the day. For more information call +593 5 2529054, or visit them on the web at Oasis.
$$$ Isla Grill – Puerto Ayora
This buzzing grillhouse serves satisfying plates of grilled meat and seafood. Among the top picks: costillitas (pork ribs), mariscada (char-grilled shrimp, octopus and calamari) and churrasquito de mimi (a particularly tender cut of steak). The plump salads are also first-rate. For more information call +593 98 462 7240, or visit them on the web at Isla Grill.
$$ – $$$ Garrapata – Puerto Ayora
Good tunes, cool breezes and tasty Ecuadorian and international dishes (seared tuna, grilled seafood platters and fish in coconut sauce) draw a lively crowd most nights. It’s pricey but casual, with open sides and a pebble floor. For more information call +593 5 2526264, or visit them on the web at Garrapata.
Best Galapagos Nightlife
The Bongo Bar is the top hot spot in Puerto Ayora. Located on the second floor of a building on Avenida Darwin, it is open from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. The bar has a wide variety of clientele that includes locals as well as tourists and naturalist guides who take their guests around the islands. The Bongo Bar serves some of the best sushi in the Galapagos. For more information call +593 98 493 0894, or visit them on the web at Bongo Bar.
Buganvilla is located at the northern end of Avenida Darwin and is open from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. This outdoor lounge features loads of fanciful decoration. You will enjoy fairy lights and trickling fountains as well as cozy, recessed alcoves that have couches. On many weekends, the Buganvilla offers live music, and patrons enjoy a pool and a Foosball table. For more information call +593 98 694 6342, or visit them on TripAdvisor at Buganvilla.
Limon y Cafe
Limon y Cafe is an outdoor bar where the casual, local younger crowd gathers. This is the most popular meeting place on Santa Cruz. It has a bar as well as wooden tables and serves ice-cold beer. Guests are welcome to hang out and chat, play cards or play pool. There is a TV over the bar where subtitled movies are often played. The locals call it Puerto Ayora’s local Cheers because the staff members know all the names of repeat patrons. For more information call +593 99 601 7793, or visit them on TripAdvisor at Limon Cafe.
La Panga is the most popular disco in Puerto Ayora. It is a hotspot until closing time every weekend, which is 3 a.m. It has a full bar that offers drinks with a local flavor. Salsa partners are found on the small dance floor, and others just dance the night away however they want. The music is an eclectic combination of Latin, pop and electronic. For more information call +593 98 898 4670, or visit them on the web at La Panga.
Madera Fina is frequented by the older crowd. You will not find the wild dancing like that of La Panga, but it is a great place to relax, and the dance floor has plenty of room. It is open from 8:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. on weekends and serves from a full bar. For more information call +593 99 164 9260, or visit them on the web at Madera Fina.
Best Galapagos Islands Hotels
Strategically located in the heart of Puerto Ayora, two blocks away from the pier, this boutique hotel offers comfortable accommodation in its fully equipped ample and comfortable rooms. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit Cucuve Suites.
At Semilla Verde, they believe your experience in the Galapagos Islands should be as unique and natural as you are. So, they offer you the chance to stay somewhere far removed from your busy life and the standard hotel offering you may be used to. Giant tortoises visit the seasonal ponds on the property from August to March and native birds such as Darwin Finches, Yellow Warblers, Dark Billed Cuckoos and Galapagos Mockingbirds thrive in the lush green canopy all year round. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit Semilla Verde Boutique Hotel.
On the Galapagos Islands, Galapagos Bed & Breakfast house is in Puerto Ayora. It is a 5-minute walk from the waterfront and offers rooms with a private balcony and hammock. Rooms are air conditioned and offer an LCD TV with cable channels. Each is decorated in a simple style with bright fabrics and features a safe and a private bathroom. They feature either private balconies or patios with hammocks. The guesthouse serves breakfast every morning and which can also be enjoyed on the terrace overlooking the grounds. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit Hotel Galapagos Suites B&B.
IsaMar Luxury Hotel conveniently sits along the beach of Puerto Villamil. The hotel offers excellent service, comfort, food, beach access and relaxing community lounge and balcony areas. They are confident that you will enjoy your stay on Isabela Island, one of the Galapagos’ most exciting islands. The hotel has a deck with seated lounge areas and shaded areas with a private entrance to the beach; where guests can enjoy the beach breeze and sounds of the waves. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit Isamar Hotel.
The Galapagos Sunset Hotel is located in front of the tourist pier of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, it is the entry and exit site for all the national and foreign tourists visiting. It is surrounded by the main restaurants, travel agencies, souvenir shops and less than 10 minutes from the airport of San Cristobal Island. Galápagos Sunset Hotel serves a full hot breakfast every morning on the hotel terrace with a wonderful view of the sea and the outdoors; throughout the day it offers coffee, tea and water. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room visit Galapagos Sunset Hotel.