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The Galapagos Islands: A travel guide

Considering a visit to the unique and exciting Galapagos Islands? Read our travel guide for all you need to know, from the wildlife you'll see to what to pack.
Written by Helen Pettitt, Content Writer at Explore
Date Published: 23 May 2024

About the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago (a group or chain of islands) that sits almost 1000km off the coast of Ecuador. The archipelago is made up of 18 main islands, with several other smaller islands and islets. The Galapagos Islands are known for their distinctive endemic wildlife species, which Charles Darwin famously studied during his visit in the 1830s and which inspired his theory of evolution.

Today, the Galapagos is visited by thousands of tourists each year, particularly by wildlife-lovers who wish to spot the fascinating and unusual species that can be found here. As such a special destination, the islands and their wildlife must be preserved and protected, so visitors must pay a fee to visit and adhere to strict rules such as keeping a distance of two metres from wildlife and keeping to marked paths. But what can be discovered here is beyond the imagination, with captivating and unique wildlife wherever you look and mind-blowing volcanic landscapes to be explored. 
Are you planning a dream trip to the magical Galapagos Islands? Read on for our guide to visiting the Galapagos, including the best time to visit, what wildlife you can expect to see and how to choose a tour.

Wildlife species in the Galapagos Islands and where and when to see them

A wildlife paradise, the Galapagos Islands are home to a huge number of species, including many that are endemic (native) to the region. Read on to discover some of the most well-known and notable species that you may be lucky enough to see on a visit, some harder to spot than others: 

Galapagos Penguin

As the name suggests, this species of penguin are endemic to the Galapagos. With colonies spreading to the northern tip of Isabela island, they are the only penguin species to be found north of the Equator. 

Where to see: The biggest colonies are found around Fernandina and Isabela islands (West).

Frigatebird

There are five species of frigatebird, two of which are found in the Galapagos - Great and Magnificent frigatebirds. During the breeding season, the males put on a show! They inflate their red throats with air, making them puff up like a balloon in order to attract females. The breeding season varies depending on the island and the climate. 

Where to see: While they can be seen in flight across the islands, the biggest nesting sites are found on Genovesa (North), Espanola (South), San Cristobal and North Seymour (Central).

Blue footed booby

These characterful birds, one of three booby species found in the Galapagos, are distinctive for their bright blue feet that make them easy to identify. The name 'booby' comes from the Spanish word 'bobo', which means 'foolish' or 'clown', due to their clumsy movement on land, making them very fun to watch. Look out for their chicks, who are very cute balls of white fluff! 

Where to see: Nesting sites can be found on Espanola (South) and North Seymour (Central). Like the frigatebird, you might see them in flight on any island. 

Red-footed booby

As the name suggests, this large booby species has red feet, but also a distinctive and unusual colourful beak. They are the smallest of the booby species. Their plumage can be of different colour variations - in the Galapagos they predominantly brown with a white belly, rump and tail.

Where to see: Genovesa (North) and San Cristobal (Central)

Land iguana

The Galapagos land iguana is another species that is endemic to the archipelago. There are actually three land iguana species here, the most common being the Galapagos land iguana which is yellow and can be spotted on most islands any time of the year. Lesser-seen are the Santa Fe land iguana which is paler yellow and is, unsurprisingly from the name, only found on the island of Santa Fe, and the even rarer Galapagos pink land iguana. This pink-skinned species numbers only around 200 which live exclusively on the slopes of Wolf Volcano on the island of Isabela. 

Marine iguana

This sea-faring species of iguana is also endemic to the Galapagos, and was made famous in the iconic Planet Earth II scene showing the iguanas being chased by dozens of snakes. Marine iguana is the only lizard species that can live and forage in the sea, and can be seen on the coast of most of the islands, with some slight colour variations between the subspecies across different islands.

Where to see: Most islands, with larger populations on Isabela, Fernandina (West), Espanola and Floreana (South)

Sea lion

A common sight across most beaches and coastlines in the Galapagos, sea lions are not shy of human visitors - they can even be spotted snoozing on benches in the towns! It's easy to distinguish between males and females as the former are four times the size. Sea lions can also often be found in the water when you're snorkelling and can be very playful. But whether you meet them on land or in the water, do be sure to keep a respectful distance, especially when they are with pups.

Where to see: Everywhere

Giant tortoise

Arguably the most famous resident of the Galapagos, they're even responsible for the name - 'Galapágo' is an old Spanish word for 'tortoise'. They are the largest species of tortoise and have a long life span, though sadly numbers have dwindled massively due to human exploitation so few are now found in the wild. Subspecies vary between the islands and shells are either domed or saddleback in shape. You can learn more about the tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz island.

Where to see: At breeding centres on Santa Cruz and Isabela. In the wild on Santa Cruz, in the highlands.

Waved albatross

This extra-large seabird is the largest in the Galapagos, with a wingspan of up to two and a half metres. They spend the majority of their time gliding above the open ocean, so can be hard to see, but they nest on Española so it's possible you could spot them here if you visit at the right time. They are at sea from January to March and come in to lay their eggs between April and June. The offspring eventually leave the colony by January the following year. 

Where to see: Nesting on Española (South)

Flightless cormorant

The Galapagos flightless cormorant is endemic to the archipelago and is the only cormorant species that doesn't fly. Thanks to the fact that the Galapagos are predator-free, this isn't an issue for them, and they forage in coastal waters on two of the islands. 

Where to see: Fernandina and Isabela

Flamingo

There are small populations of flamingos that can be found on a few of the islands in lagoons. They are American flamingos but those found in the Galapagos have some small genetic variations, including being smaller.

Where to see: Isabela, Floreana and north of Santa Cruz

When to visit the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos is a year-round destination where you’ll see different things at each point of the year, so there's not really a bad time to go! A popular time to visit is between December and May, during the warm season when waters are calmer and clearer, however there are benefits to visiting during the dry season when marine and bird life is very active, including the annual humpback migration through the archipelago.

Discover our map to find out more about the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands depending on the wildlife species you'd like to see. 

The best islands to visit

The wonderful thing about the Galapagos is that no matter which islands you visit, you're guaranteed to see incredible wildlife and scenery. 

If you are a general wildlife enthusiast, you really can't go wrong! You'll get to see both marine and land-based wildlife wherever you go, with a wide variety of both land and sea excursions. 

If you're particularly interested in birds, certain islands are nesting sites that offer great bird-watching. Western (Isabela and Fernandina), Southern (Española) or Northern (Genovesa) islands are ideal for maximum bird-spotting opportunities. North Seymour (Central) is the best island to see blue-footed boobies mating and nesting. If you're aiming to see the Waved Albatross, you must visit Española as they only nest here.

But our tours do not only differ by islands visited, you also have a choice between land or boat-based tours and the level of accommodation you stay in - read on for more information about this.

How to travel the Galapagos Islands - should I choose a cruise or land-based tour?

There are two different ways to travel the Galapagos - either by travelling around and staying on a boat (boat-based tours), or by staying in hotels on the bigger islands (land-based tours). 

The Galapagos by boat-based tour

On these trips you'll stay on a boat, staying in a comfortable cabin each night and generally eating most of your meals on board. By staying on a boat, you can reach more remote areas and snorkel straight from the boat. For land excursions, you'll travel in a smaller inflatable dinghy, called a panga. This is what you can expect from a typical day on a boat-based tour: 

7am: Breakfast
7.45am: Land excursion in the pangas
9.30am: Back on board.
Snacks and drinks.
10am: Snorkelling excursion
11.30am: Back on board. More snacks.
11.30-2.30pm: Siesta and lunch
2.30pm: Land excursion in the pangas
4pm: Back on board
6.30pm: Briefing
7pm: Dinner
Of course, by spending so much time on a boat there is a risk of sea sickness. If you are prone to this, don't forget to pack some sea sickness medication and focus on the horizon if you start to feel sick. We'd recommend visiting during the wet season (December to May) when waters are calmer. 

We have a range of boat-based Galapagos tours on offer, differing by islands visited, tour length and also by accommodation level. You can choose between three different boats:

Archipel I - Comfortable catamaran

With 8 en-suite cabins, accommodating a maximum of 16 passengers. You'll be joined by a naturalist guide and 11 crew on-board and enjoy three delicious meals each day, plus drinks and snacks. All snorkel and kayak equipment is included. This is our most affordable boat-based tour option. 
More about Archipel I

Treasure - Premium catamaran

Accommodates up to 16 passengers in 9 cabins. As with Archipel you'll be joined by a naturalist guide and 11 crew and get three meals a day, with snorkel and kayak gear included. This catamaran is listed a Premium as it includes some luxury extras including a jacuzzi on deck, larger social areas and larger cabins with balconies. 
More about Treasure

Solaris - Premium yacht

Accommodates up to 16 passengers in 11 cabins, with single cabins available, making it a great option for solo travellers as there is no single supplement. You'll be joined by a naturalist guide and 11 crew and get three meals a day, with snorkel and kayak gear included. This yacht is listed as premium as it includes some luxury extras including larger cabins, a grill on the top deck and larger social areas including a spacious sun deck. 
More about Solaris
Most of our boat-based tours are 9 or 10 days in length, with the exception of the Galapagos Express tours on Archipel I which are 7 days. 

The Galapagos by land-based tour

On these trips you'll stay in hotels on the larger islands, travelling between them on small speed boats. These trips allow you explore more of the land of the Galapagos, particularly it's fascinating volcanic geology, with volcano hikes included in the itinerary that treat you to breath-taking views. 

Our land-based tours are great for those who wish to combine a visit to the Galapagos with other iconic South American destinations to make the most of their time away. You can choose between our Volcanoes and Galapagos tour, which also spends time touring mainland Ecuador, or our Machu Picchu and Galapagos tour, which visits Peru first. 

Activities in the Galapagos Islands

During a visit to the Galapagos Islands there is a huge array of activities on offer, including: 

• Wildlife-watching - an obvious one! There is literally wildlife everywhere, making it a haven for wildlife-lovers. Must-do activities include a visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz to learn about the history of the islands and in particular find out about the giant tortoise. And if you're interested in seeing the giant tortoise, a visit to the highlands of Santa Cruz to see them in the wild is a must.
• Snorkelling - Don a mask and flippers (included on our tours) and sink yourself into the bustling underwater world around the Galapagos islands. You won't be short of things to see as you swim alongside turtles, sea lions and marine iguana. No snorkelling excursion will be the same as the last, so you'll want to keep going again and again! 
• Kayaking - Another option on our boat-based tours is kayaking, with all equipment included. It's a great way to witness the marine life of the area, including sea birds,  Galapagos penguins and perhaps even whales, if you're really lucky!
• Scuba diving - The Galapagos is thought to be one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world, with waters teeming with life such as hammerhead sharks, dolphins and rays. Scuba diving is not included in any of our tours, but if you are qualified you may be able to arrange for a scuba diving excursion during your free time on a land-based tour or before or after your Explore tour.
• Climb a volcano - There's no better view of these beautiful islands than from the top of one of the many volcanoes. Don't miss out on an exhilarating hike up to the caldera. The largest island Isabela is made up of six volcanoes, and you can walk up Alcedo or Sierra Negra volcanoes here. 

What to pack for your visit to the Galapagos Islands

If you're taking a boat-based tour, please bear in mind that space is likely to be limited on board. Avoid big bulky suitcases, instead we would recommend a soft-sided duffle bag or backpack for carrying your luggage, and try to pack light. If you're returning to your hotel on mainland Ecuador you may be able to leave extra bags behind - your tour leader can advise you of this before you depart for the Galapagos.

Here's a packing list for your trip, listing the essentials:
• A brimmed hat
• High factor suncream (water-resistant)
• Sunglasses
• Clothing - opt for neutral colours rather than bright colours or patterns. Avoid white (as it won't stay white for long!) or black as this will get too hot. Lightweight, long-sleeved tops are best for protecting yourself from the sun. Also bring a lightweight fleece as temperatures can be lower in some areas, particularly up at higher altitudes, and in the evenings. 
• Lightweight waterproof jacket or poncho
• Motion sickness tablets - particularly if you're taking a boat-based tour 
• Swimwear - including shoes or sandals you can wear in the water. Consider a long-sleeve rash vest to keep you protected from the sun
• Comfortable walking shoes 
• Sandals for wearing on board boats
• A small rucksack that is comfortable to wear, for taking things needed for day excursions
• A reusable water bottle
• A camera (or smart phone) - if you opt for a digital SLR camera, you'll want a good telephoto zoom lens for the wildlife. But also consider a wider-angle lens for landscape photography too.
• A waterproof underwater camera (optional) - consider getting a waterproof camera for capturing marine life like turtles while you snorkel. Or you may be able to get a waterproof case (with a lanyard to attach it to yourself) for your mobile phone so you can use it underwater. 
• Dry bag - to keep valuables like photographic gear and mobile phones dry during trips out on the water
• Camera memory cards - make sure you've got loads of storage space as you'll likely take a lot of photos!
• Camera batteries and chargers
• Cash - in US dollars. For food and drink (outside of the included meals), souvenirs and a (optional) tip for your guide and crew members. You'll also need $100 in cash for your Galapagos entry fee, which is paid at the airport upon arrival.
• Binoculars (optional, if you're keen to see the wildlife up close)

A guide to wildlife photography in the Galapagos Islands

It's not difficult to get amazing wildlife photos in the Galapagos, no matter what camera you have, because there are incredible animals wherever you look! Here are a few simple tips to capture the best shots during your visit: 

• Get down low - a photograph looks much better when taken at the same level as the subject, rather than above it. Getting to eye level allows you to capture more of the face and character of the animal. And try different angles, where space and safe distance allows, as each photo will have a different background or level of light that may work better.
• Get close to the subject, where possible - use your feet first to get closer (rather than relying solely on your camera zoom) but do remember you need to keep a distance of at least two metres between yourself and the wildlife, which includes your camera lens. 
• Shoot at a fast shutter speed, to capture action shots - most of the time the wildlife will be moving so a fast shutter will reduce blur and increase focus. If your camera has sports mode, try this, or if you're familiar with shutter speed you could adjust this manually. 
• Make sure your flash is turned off - you won't need it anyway, but also it's also forbidden by the authorities to protect the wildlife.
• Take lots of photos - sometimes it's not enough just to take one photo of a subject, as it may end up out of focus or not the best angle. Increase your chances of getting the very best shot (and the best pose from the wildlife!) by taking lots of photos at once. Consider shooting in bursts if your camera allows. 
• Be patient - if your schedule allows, spend some time in one spot and wait for that moment for the perfect shot. If you're still, wildlife may come closer to you meaning you can get a better shot, or they may start doing something that creates the perfect pose for your photo! 
• Don't forget video as well as photos, to help you best remember your trip. 
• Zoom out too, to capture the landscape around you as well as the wildlife. With huge volcano calderas, white sand beaches and lush highlands, there's plenty of opportunities for landscape photography too.
• Most importantly, don't forget to put the camera down! Make sure you also just watch the incredible wildlife and scenery with your own eyes and create those long-lasting memories. 

Responsible travel and sustainability in the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos is of course one of the most special and biodiverse destinations in the world, with many unique ecosystems that must be preserved and protected. The authorities charge an entrance fee to visit, much of which goes towards protecting the National Park. Before you visit, please ensure you have read the Galapagos National Park Rules

We work with sustainable and eco-friendly travel partners to operate our tours in the Galapagos, using only small boats. Tour guides are locals from the area with expert local knowledge, and we follow the rules around recycling and reducing plastic and waste.

Remember, take only memories, leave only footprints!  

 

Ready for your Galapagos adventure?

Jump in and search our range of Galapagos small group tours to find your perfect trip, either boat-based or land-based. If you have any more questions, just give our experts a call.
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