But planning a trip to this far flung destination is not an easy feat.
When we first looked into a trip to the Galapagos we thought that taking an expensive cruise was the only way to experience the islands. But now having had the chance to explore the islands for ourselves, we are thrilled to share all the tips and details we learned about the Galapagos to help others plan their trip to this incredible destination.
What You Need to Know About the Galapagos:
- 13 islands and inlets comprise the Galápagos Islands, their total distance spanning over 7,880 km2.
- Only 4 islands in the Galapagos are inhabited (Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristóbal, and Floreana) and the total number of residents across all 4 adds up to under 50,000. Floreana is the least populated island of them all. It’s home to only about 100 people.
- The inhabited islands are much more developed than you might think. They have electricity, running water, hotels, shops, restaurants, and even internet connection (albeit a slow one).
- There is public transportation available between the main inhabited islands and 2 domestic airports exist on San Cristóbal and on Santa Cruz Islands (technically located on Isla Baltra island, just a short ferry ride away from Santa Cruz).
- There are 2 ATMs on the islands, one on San Cristóbal and one on Santa Cruz. The majority of hotels, restaurants, and shops operate on a cash only basis.
- US Dollars are the official currency in the Galapagos (and elsewhere in Ecuador)
- There is no such thing as a bad time to visit the Galapagos, but the peak season lasts from mid-June through early September and from mid-December through mid-January.
- The weather doesn’t change much throughout the year, so no matter when you visit expect day time highs of 30C and night-time lows of around 20C. The hottest months on the islands are April and May, mostly due to humidity. Unlike air temperatures, water temperatures in the Galapagos change drastically throughout the year. From June through November, the Humboldt Current brings colder and choppier waters that can drop to as low as 17C.
- There is a Galapagos National Park entrance fee of $100 for adults and $50 for children (plus a $20 Transit Control Card fee) that is due to be paid upon arrival to the Galapagos.
How to Visit the Galápagos Islands
There are a couple of options for exploring the Galapagos, these depend on the type of trip you are looking for, the budget that you have and how much time you would like to spend on the island.
Cruising is the most popular way to experience the Galapagos Islands. Cruise ships that operate in the Galapagos vary greatly in size, some carrying as few as 8-10 passengers, and others, up to 100 passengers on board.
Small ships allow for a more intimate experience, while larger cruise ships offer the extra safety, social feel, amenities, stability, and spaciousness that some travelers may want. Cruises range from 4-5 days to 15-17 days, with the most popular cruise itineraries being 6-8 days.
The idea behind cruises is that you sleep and eat on board and are taken from island to island to experience the wildlife on morning and afternoon excursions. Unlike regular cruises, the boat will not be the center of your experience, but rather a home base from which you will explore the islands. Cruise prices range from $400-700/person per day.
- Cruises allow you to visit both inhabited and uninhabited islands in search for unique wildlife in the Galapagos
- They offer a comfortable “sterile” and well-organized travel environment. No need to change rooms every other night, no need to worry about where to eat, how to get places, or what activities to do.
- Most of the navigation is done at night, so you are able to spend more time visiting the islands and doing activities during the day.
- You rarely spend more than 1 day on each island, which isn’t a problem for smaller islands where your goal is just to see a certain type of iguana or spot a particular bird, but for destinations like Isabela Island, for example, 1 day won’t even scratch the surface.
- Cruising is the least sustainable way to explore the islands. Not only do most cruises do a poor job at reducing air and water pollution, but they also eliminate any opportunity to interact with locals and contribute to the local economy during your visit.
- You can’t be flexible and “in charge” of your own itinerary during the trip. There are few options activities available and practically no free time.
- Diving is never included on a general Galapagos cruise.
Liveaboard Diving Tour in the Galapagos
If you are a diver who wants to experience the beauty of the Galapagos underwater world, a liveaboard in the Galapagos will be the best option for you. These cruises are designed to give avid divers an opportunity to experience some of the best diving in the world aboard a comfortable ship.
Liveaboard itineraries include visits to a number of islands, including the most remote and most desirable dive spots in the islands (Darwin and Wolf Islands) and their itineraries typically include of 2-3 dives per day.
Live aboard dive trips usually last 8-14 days and are priced at around $700-800/day.
- Liveaboard trips give you a rare opportunity to visit Darwin and Wolf Islands
- Small ships usually have fewer passengers (often no more than 16) and have less environmental impact
- Like minded travelers – you are all there to dive!
- Not suitable for beginner divers, as strong currents make for tough diving conditions across the Galapagos, but especially on dive sites near Wolf and Darwin.
- Very little, if any at all, land time is included in the itinerary, meaning that your experience will be limited to underwater exploration only
- No chance to interact with locals and have a positive impact on local communities
Land Based Tour
Land based tours are a fairly new alternative for those looking to explore the Galapagos. The tours allow you to visit the inhabited islands, stay in hotels on those islands, eat at restaurants on the islands and get a chance to interact with the local communities.
You’ll travel with a small group of 8-12 along with a naturalist guide. You can expect all your boat transfers, hotel reservations, and activities to be organized according to the itinerary, but you can also expect some flexibility and free time.
We experienced the Galapagos on a land based tour with Galakiwi and absolutely LOVED our time there! We visited all 4 inhabited islands, spending a few days on each one and got to experience a variety of activities ranging from hiking and biking, to stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, and snorkeling! Land based tours with Galakiwi start at $3,500.
- Land based tours provide an opportunity to experience local way of life and support local businesses
- Easy to extend your stay before/after and to customize your itinerary while on the islands
- Not having to return back on the boat in the evening, means you can roam around the towns, experience night life on the islands, and observe animals at night (the sea lions are particularly funny)
- Active itineraries allow you to hike, bike, snorkel, SUP, and experience the islands from a number of perspectives.
- Difficult to visit outlying islands, that are not accessible via day trips
- Not all land based tours are the same. The best operators, like Galakiwi, run all the activities themselves and have a dedicated certified Galapagos National park guide for every tour, ensuring a smooth and enjoyable time during your stay on the islands. Other tour providers, outsource activities and thus can’t guarantee the same level of quality and enjoyment from day to day. You may end up joining one group for a snorkeling trip, another group for a hike, and a third group for a day trip to another island.
- Land based tour itineraries rarely include diving, but most can arrange a day of diving for you if requested in advance.
Despite popular belief, it is possible to explore the Galapagos completely on your own. Most independent travelers arrive on Santa Cruz island and explore from there. There are a variety of hotels and tour operators that can help arrange tours to attractions around Santa Cruz as well as day trips to the nearby islands. Public ferries operate between the islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristobal and allow travelers to get from one island to another.
Rocking up to the Galapagos and figuring out your plans once you get there can certainly have some benefits, but planning a trip to such a diverse and restricted part of the world will require a LOT of research, and patience while on the islands.
If you want to explore the islands on your own, budget approximately $200+/day.
- Flexible schedule allows you to go where you want when you want, making you in control of your time on the islands
- If time permits, you’ll have the luxury of experiencing each island for longer than what’s usually scheduled on a typical cruise/tour
- If you are traveling independently, you’ll be staying in local hotels, eating at local restaurants, enjoying local bars, and having a positive impact on the local economy
- It is the most affordable way to visit the Galapagos
- No matter how much you try, you’ll be forced to join some tours while on the islands, as access to a lot of natural sites and attractions is restricted and many of those spots can only be visited with a guide
- Getting to the remote islands, located far from the inhabited islands, becomes practically impossible
- Hard to truly understand the intricacies of the history and life on the Galapagos Islands without a guide
How Much Time to Spend in the Galapagos?
If you are going to take the time to travel to the Galapagos, make sure to stay for at least 1 week. 5-day itineraries are becoming more popular with travelers looking to just get a taste of the Galapagos, but with the first and last days being a complete write off due to flight schedules, a 5-day itinerary only gives you 3 days on the islands. And that’s definitely not enough time to see, let alone, experience life on the Galapagos Islands.
We spent 2.5 weeks in the Galapagos. 11 days on a land based adventure tour with Galakiwi and another 5 days, exploring Santa Cruz island independently. It was the perfect amount of time to visit all 4 inhabited islands and experience the Galapagos on land and in the water.
Other Essential Travel Info:
Getting in: The only way to get to the islands is by plane departing from Quito and Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador. Avianca, TAME, and LATAM have daily flights to San Cristobal and Isla Baltra Airport on Santa Cruz.
Budget at least $200-$400 on a return flight and don’t forget to account for the $20 Visa Fee (INGALA Transit Control Card, paid in cash at departure airport) and $100 National Park Entrance Fee paid in cash upon arrival.
Where to Stay: Hotels options are available in the towns of Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz), Puerto Villamil (Isabela), Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristobal), as well as on the island of Floreana. We recommend the following:
- San Cristobal: Casa Blanca – beautiful family run hotel on the beach. $xx/night
- Isabela: Hotel Albemarle – beach front location, spacious rooms, pool on site
- Santa Cruz: Posada del Mar, – central location, great hospitality and comfortable rooms. $xx/night
- Floreana: Wittmer Lodge – basic hotel on the beach run by the descendants of the original settlers of Floreana
Respect and Considerations
Due to its unique flora and fauna, the Galapagos Islands are one of the most protected and most regulated parts of the world. In 1978, UNESCO recognized the islands as a World Heritage Site and in 1985, as a biosphere reserve. Visitors exploring the within the National Park are required to be accompanied by a Naturalist Guide.
When planning your trip to the Galapagos, we urge you to consider not only your own needs and wants but the environmental, social and economic impact that your trip will have on the islands.
- Respect the wildlife by keeping a safe distance (recommended is 2 meters) to any animals you might come across during your visit. If you are calm and respectful, they are likely to approach you themselves (they are a curious bunch!).
- Avoid introducing foreign species to the islands (bringing food or muddy shoes is strictly prohibited)
- Never ever feed the animals! No matter how cute they look, they are perfectly capable of scavenging for food on their own.
- Do not purchase souvenirs made from coral, shells or other sea life, volcanic rock or wood endemic to the islands.
- For the most economic impact, spread your money across a number of businesses while visiting the islands. Eat at different restaurants, shop at a variety of shops/local stalls, take local taxis, etc.
Remember, that the best motto for visiting a place like the Galapagos is to “Take Nothing but Photographs, Leave Nothing but Footprints”…