Galapagos Islands, Ecuador Travel Guide
Galapagos Islands Summary
- Stunning archipelago of islands with incredibly diverse wildlife and landscapes
- Vast number of endemic species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world
- 97 percent of Galapagos land area is considered a national park
- Galapagos National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Strict policies in place to maintain unique ecosystems
- Human/wildlife coexistence is unlike anywhere else in the world
- Each island has a unique feel and attracts different types of travelers
- Disneyland for biology enthusiasts, home of the Charles Darwin Research Station
- Easily accessible from mainland Ecuador, with two major airports on San Cristobal and Baltra
- Accommodations available for all budgets
- Low crime rate, generally feels safe to walk around anywhere at night
- Many attractions are free, and many services (dining, transportation, etc.) are budget-friendly
- Year-round pleasant weather
- Irresponsible tourism is a threat to local ecosystems and endemic species
- Human-introduced, non-native plant and animal species have already caused irreparable damage to the islands
- Lots of fees associated with visiting the islands (charged at mainland and Galapagos airports)
- Internet connection is generally slow, but Wi-Fi is available at nearly every hotel
- Tap water is not potable
- No ATMs on Isabela
What It's Like
Formed by a series of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, the Galapagos Islands were first brought to the world’s attention in 1859, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species." The now famous archipelago played a major role in the development of Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution, when he discovered that animal and plant species in the Galapagos advantageously differed from their mainland counterparts. Located 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador — the country to which the Galapagos belongs — the 19-island chain straddles the equator, and is perfectly poised at the junction of three ocean currents. Its unique, isolated location makes it one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Obviously the Galapagos is a haven for biologists, environmentalists, and wildlife enthusiasts, but its stunning landscapes, beautiful beaches, and otherworldly land formations also make it an aesthetically inspiring destination. The problem is, tourism, no matter how ecologically minded, is a threat to local ecosystems and their endemic species. It’s important that all travelers abide by the Galapagos’ strict environmental practices, and heed the rules regarding proper wildlife interaction and etiquette.
The Galapagos archipelago is composed of 19 major islands — four of which are inhabited. Around 97 percent of the islands’ land mass is protected by the national park service, and the entire Galapagos province is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each island offers travelers a unique viewpoint of the Galapagos, and each attracts different kinds of travelers. Santa Cruz has the largest population, and is home to can’t-miss attractions like the Charles Darwin Research Station and Tortuga Bay. Its bustling port city, Puerto Ayora, is the largest in the Galapagos, and offers the most tourist-oriented services of all the islands. Downtown Puerto Ayora has tons of shops, restaurants, banks, and small grocery stores. It also has its own hospital. Travelers can find all kinds of accommodation options on Santa Cruz, from four-star luxury resorts to backpacker-friendly hostels. It’s also one of the most accessible islands from mainland Ecuador. Daily flights land on Baltra Island (a small land mass across a narrow channel from Santa Cruz), which makes Santa Cruz a popular starting or ending point for many Galapagos travelers.
Geographically, Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos. The seahorse-shaped island has a land area of nearly 1,800 square miles — four times larger than Santa Cruz, the second largest in the archipelago. But, with only 2,200 residents, it has the second-smallest population out of the four inhabited islands (tiny Floreana has a population of around 100). Isabela is also the youngest island, and is one of the most volcanically active places on earth, with volcanic activity occurring as recently as 2009. Isabela attracts many geologists, who come to study the island’s unique land formations. The island also draws a young backpacker crowd who comes to enjoy the island’s beautiful beaches and laid-back lifestyle. Isabela’s humble port town, Puerto Villamil, has a few restaurants and shops set along its dusty downtown boulevard, but does not have access to services like banks, ATMs, or hospitals. Isabela is also a challenge to reach. Travelers can fly from Baltra or San Cristobal, but there are no flights from mainland Ecuador. Alternatively travelers can take a boat from Puerto Ayora to Puerto Villamil, but the ride is long and bumpy, and many people get seasick.
San Cristobal is home to the capital of the Galapagos, Puerto Baquerzio Moreno. While Puerto Baquerzio Moreno isn’t the archipelago’s largest city, it is, perhaps, its most cosmopolitan — well, as cosmopolitan as the Galapagos can get. The city is home to government offices, a naval base, and a Quito university campus. The island has its own hospital and airport, where flights from mainland Ecuador land daily. Puerto Baquerzio Moreno’s downtown waterfront boulevard is packed with shops, restaurants, and hotels, and is always bustling with tourists, locals, and sea lions. San Cristobal is home to the largest sea lion colony in the Galapagos, which is evident on the streets of Puerto Baquerzio Moreno. Sea lions waddle along the sidewalks, play on playgrounds, and snooze on the sandy shores of local beaches. Las Loberias is a must-see beach, where hundreds of sea lions gather daily.
The Galapagos is easily accessible from mainland Ecuador. Flights from Quito and Guayaquil land daily on both Baltra island (GPS) and Sant Cristobal (SCY). Because of its equator-straddling location, the Galapagos enjoys pretty consistent weather, with daily temperatures hovering between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. December through May is the warm season, which is known for higher daytime temperatures and frequent, though often short, rain showers. June through November is cooler and drier, and ocean temperatures might feel a bit too chilly for swimming or diving. No matter the time of year, the sun is strong, even if temperatures aren’t too high. Peak travel times include the Christmas season, along with June, July, and August. The Galapagos enjoys a low crime rate, and is generally considered a safe destination for all kinds of travelers. During our visit, we never felt unsafe walking alone at night, riding public transportation, or using ATMs. Catcalling and street harassment is also far less prevalent here than in other Latin American destinations. Minor annoyances about Galapagos travel include slow Wi-Fi across the islands, non-potable tap water, and the hefty entrance fees imposed on travelers at the mainland and Galapagos airports (it's usually $100 per adult). On the plus side, Ecuadorian currency is the U.S. Dollar, so American travelers do not need to exchange money.
Where to Stay
The Galapagos isn’t particularly known for fabulous hotels. Most hotels are mid-range three-pearl options, with basic accommodations and simple offerings. Even the islands’ priciest properties often lack amenities like pools, spas, fitness centers, or on-site restaurants. One thing guests can expect at any hotel is free daily breakfast, which often includes eggs, fresh fruit, and freshly squeezed juice—an Ecuadorian staple at any meal. Our favorite spots? Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz is about as luxurious as it gets in the Galapagos. Isabela’s La Casa de Marita is a mid-range beachfront option that seems to embody the laid-back spirit of the island. And Hotel Los Algarrobos on San Cristobal is a homey budget-friendly pick with excellent Wi-Fi.