The Galapagos Islands are a small archipelago of islands belonging to Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The islands are quite remote and isolated, lying some 1000 km (620 miles) west of the South American continent. The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller isles, which together embrace some 50,000 km2 (19,500 sq miles) of ocean.
The Galápagos archipelago is world-renowned for its unique and fearless wildlife, much of which was inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. The islands are therefore very popular amongst natural historians, both professional and amateur. Giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and different bird species can all be seen and approached. The landscape of the islands is relatively barren and volcanic, but beautiful nonetheless. The highest mountain amongst the islands is Volcán Wolf on Isla Isabela, 1707 m (5600 ft) high.
The Galápagos were claimed by the newly independent Ecuador in 1832, a mere three years before Darwin's visit on the Beagle. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the islands were inhabited by very few settlers and were used as a penal colony, the last of which closed in 1959 when the islands were declared a national park. The Galapagos were subsequently listed as a World Heritage Site in 1978.
Strict controls on tourist access are maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats, and all visitors must be accompanied by a national park-certified naturalist tour guide.
The Galapagos Islands have a highly variable climate, as does Ecuador's mainland. There are two seasons in the islands: the hot/rainy season from December to June, and the cooler season from June to November.
In the hot season, from December to June, the humidity is high, and the average temperatures are in the 80s F (26°-30°C). There may be occasional showers, but the days are generally warm and sunny.
In the cooler season, from June to November, you can expect cool winds, occasionally bringing with them a light misty-type drizzle called "garúa." Temperatures average in the 70s F (20°-24°C) during the day and lower at night.
Each month brings unique climate variations and wildlife viewing opportunities. Peak season for naturalist tours is typically December through May when the seas are the calmest and the weather the warmest. However summer months June, July and August are also very popular as the animals are more active. September through November is typically low season when most boats will leave the islands for dry dock. For divers peak season is from July to November, when whale sharks can be found at Wolf & Darwin.
- Baltra (an airport and military base)
- Darwin & Wolf
- Isabela – the largest island
- North Seymour
- Pinta – The most famous resident was Lonesome George, a tortoise found on the island that was believed to be the last of his sub-species. Lonesome George was moved to the Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz in the hopes that a mate might be found, but sadly the sub-species died with him in 2012. Tourists are not allowed to visit Pinta; it is only open to scientists.
- Pinzon – also known as Duncan Island
- San Cristobal
- Santa Cruz – the main island and population centre
- Santa Fe
- South Plaza
Visiting the Galapagos is not cheap, owing to travel restrictions and the remote nature of the archipelago. The only way to get in the islands from the mainland by plane is from Guayaquil or Quito airports. Flights generally travel to the Galapagos in the morning and return to the mainland in the afternoon. This generally requires an overnight stay in mainland Ecuador on arrival, and another stay or late night flight on departure.
Flights to the Galapagos are relatively easy to arrange and depart from Quito and Guayaquil on a daily basis for the Isla Baltra Airport, about an hour by taxi and ferry from Puerto Ayora (the main settlement of the Galapagos) on the central island of Santa Cruz. There are also daily flights to San Cristóbal. The airport is a 20-minute walk (5 minute taxi) from the center of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and lies within the town.
Flights from Guayaquil are slightly less expensive than from Quito, however as there is more availability from Quito as there are typically two flights a day from Quito and only one from Guayaquil. Most flights from Quito route through Guayaquil.
Avianca, Tame and LANTAM Airlines have flights to the Galapagos. The price varies a bit between companies, for foreigners around $457 from Quito in low season / $505–$512 in high season (July, August and December) and less from Guayaquil, $419 low season to $522 in high season. Eucadorians pay almost half the price and there is a 15% discount on TAME flights and a 20% discount on Aerogal flights if you have an ISIC studentcard.
Inter-island flights are available from EMETEBE Airlines, which operates nine seater aircraft to transport passengers and their luggage from San Cristobal Airport to Isabela, Santa Cruz and Baltra islands. Bookings can be done directly through EMETEBE's website or a travel agent.
Step-by-step procedures at Quito airport
Procedure for flying from Quito airport to Galapagos.
- Flights depart form the domestic area of the terminal - near Check in Area A.
- Before going to check in desk, you'll see an office to your right with the Galapagos National Park sign. Here you will pay a $20 fee and get a "visa" for Galapagos. There is a separate $100 park entrance fee to pay when you land in Galapagos. Only cash is accepted.
- They will direct you to a baggage check, where your bag will be scanned and sealed.
- Now you proceed to the ticket counter with the paper that you were issued.
- Then go through security.
- Signage is clear. The terminal is shiny. Announcements are in Spanish and English.
Private yachts can arrive into any of the five ports in Galapagos while in transit and remain at that port for a maximum of 21 days. Boats wishing to visit more than one site or cruise the islands may do so but only by special permit from the national park and by working with a licensed yacht agency.
There are cargo boats that travel to the Galapagos each week. However, these boats are not allowed to take travelers on board.
Seeing the sites and wildlife of the Galapagos is best done by boat. Most people book their place well in advance (as the boats are usually full during the high season). Booking a boat tour with a company in your home country is usually the most convenient, but is often considerably more expensive.
There are a VAST number of companies that can book accommodation on a Galapagos tour either in Puerto Ayora or from Guayaquil or Quito. While it is possible to get a last-minute deal, be aware that many budget tours may spend extra time in Puerto Ayora, might not have the best boats, and may only visit the inner islands. Last minute 4-day cruises can be organized in Puerto Ayora for around $400–1800.
When looking for a tour consider the following:
- Number of passengers. The national park restricts the size of the boats allowed to cruise the islands, with some islands such as Genovesa being limited to boats with no more than forty passengers. Though the maximum size boat permitted to cruise the islands is 100 passengers, as you might imagine 100 people showing up on a beach all at the same time can be overwhelming to the local wildlife. All passengers will be divided up into a maximum group size of 16 passengers per naturalist guide. Therefore it is generally best to travel on a boat with fewer passengers (between 16 and 32 passengers is ideal).
- Itinerary. The National Park sets all of the cruise itineraries. Each itinerary is designed to have a mixture of habitats and show case the diversity of the islands by combining the Southern Espanola and Floreana, Central, Western Fernandina, Isabela or Northern Genovesa Islands. Most boats will visit 2 or 3 of these areas during a week.
- Availability. Most of the best cruises are booked up months in advance, so best to book early.
- Level of activity. Visits to the islands are only permitted during the twelve hours of daylight 6AM to 6PM. Typically a cruise will have two excursions each day, a morning and an afternoon that will be a combination of shore and water excursions. Walks are generally at a slow pace offering plenty of time for interpretation and photos. The landings may be slippery and some trails can be rocky, which makes them difficult for people with mobility or balance problems, but in general the walks are easy. Water excursions may include snorkeling, kayaking, panga rides (rides in local dinghies) as well as rides in a glass-bottom boat, depending on your cruise. Life under the water is more diverse than that on shore and snorkeling with sea lions is frequently the highlight of the trip for many visitors.
- Additional costs. Many tours do not include the $100 park entry fee or the cost of a flight from the mainland to the islands (apx. $422 from Quito) as well as a $20 INGALA Tourist Control Card. Additionally less-expensive boats will charge for beverages, use of snorkel equipment, wetsuits and kayaks.
- Time spent in the islands. The cruise length includes the day you arrive and the day you depart the Galapagos. Flights typically arrive the islands around noon time or in the early afternoon and leave the islands about the same time. On your first day you will typically have one excursion, and on the day you leave you may or may not have an excursion. In addition, all eight-day cruises are required to visit the town of Puerto Ayora and the Charles Darwin Research. Many itineraries will combine this day with a visit to see the tortoises in the wild in the highlands of Santa Cruz. Shorter cruises will take advantage of the close proximity of the Baltra airport to Puerto Ayora and let passengers who boarded the cruise in San Cristobal leave the cruise in Santa Cruz or vice versa.
- Type of boat. Quality of boats varies widely. Less-expensive tours use boats that may not be capable of traveling as quickly between islands, be as comfortable, or be as well-maintained.
Note that while the majority of the islands will be off-limits without a guide, it is possible to travel via speed boat between the towns on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela; trips to Floreana can also be arranged. Speed boats cost $30 one-way, or $50 both ways with an open return date. Each of these islands offers the possibility of joining organized local daytrips or of traveling on your own while within the town limits.
Hotels and hostels are available on each of these islands from $10–$500+, while hotels along the water are generally full especially in Santa Cruz. During peak season (Christmas & Easter weeks) as well as during special events, all hotels are frequently sold out well in advance. However, if you are traveling at other times of the year, you may be able to find availability by just showing up.
From Santa Cruz it is possible to book day trips to the uninhabited islands of North Seymour, South Plazas, Santa Fe and Bartolome. Advance reservations are normally required; however, on occasion you can find space due to a last-minute cancellation the night before.
- Aida Maria Travel. Galapagostours.net owns 2 Galapagos cruise boats - Aida Maria and Eden - that offer from 4- to 15-day cruises in the Galapagos. They are 100% Galapagos locals and have been offering Galapagos tours since the early 1960´s. Prices start at $150 per day.
- The Galapagos Tours. Offers good rates for Galapagos cruises on Galaven II motor yacht (tourist class), Xavier motor yacht (first class) and Queen Beatriz Catamaran (luxury) with 5-, 6-, and even 7-day itineraries in the Galapagos. Prices start at $875 5D/4N to $1,186.
- Galasam Cruises, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Galasam owns 3 Galapagos cruises - Millennium and Estrella de Mar I and II - with 4- to 8-day itineraries in the Galapagos. Prices start at $150 per day.
- Tierra de Fuego Agency, Amazonas N2323 y Veintimilla, ☎ , toll-free: , e-mail: email@example.com. 09h00 18h00. Tierra de Fuego owns 1 Galapagos cruise - Guantamamera - with 4- to 8-day itineraries in the Galapagos. Prices start at $149 per day.
- Adventure Life. Recognized by National Geographic Adventure as one of the "Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth" Adventure Life provides land-based hiking trips, eco-hotels and multisport tours that include sea-kayaking, biking, horseback-riding, hiking volcanoes and snorkeling. This company also offers traditional Galapagos cruises.
- Cultural & Natural Heritage Tours. Rated one of the top three Galapagos tour operators by Top Adventure Travel, this company's specialty is a $3,800 (2012) 13 day active trip that includes flights from Quito, 8 days cruising the islands, 2 full days on land in Puerto Ayora, and one day in Quito. This trip attracts an active and engaged clientele. CNH Tours uses the M/Y Samba and their main guide is the highly reputed Juan Manuel Salcedo.
- Dive The Galapagos (dive-the-galapagos), Puerto Villamil, Isabela-Galapagos, ☎ . Dive The Galapagos is the only company in the world that focuses exclusively on diving in the Galapagos Islands. This company also operates land-based tours from its base in Puerto Villamil.
- Enchanted Expeditions (formerly Angermeyer's Enchanted Expeditions). Enchanted Expeditions is in its fourth decade of operating tours in Galapagos and mainland Ecuador. Enchanted Expeditions is the exclusive representative of their own yachts Beluga (Superior First Class) and Cachalote I (First Class). They are well known for their experience of the islands offering excellent nature cruises. They are Smart Voyager certified, offering small 16 guest cruises with an intimate feeling and a focus on truly getting to see and experience the Galapagos. They sometimes have very good deals for their high standard cruises.
- Explorers' Corner. Offers sea cruises with optional kayaking, snorkeling and hiking excursions.
- Galanet, ☎ . Operates the 16 passenger Daphne yacht.
- Galapagos Legend. Operates the 100 passenger Galapagos Legend, one of the larger boats operating in the islands. Landing opportunities are limited due to the large number of passengers, but this ship offers a less-expensive way to visit some of the more popular sites within the Galapagos. Often offers discounted rates.
- Latin Tour, Diego de Almagro 1219 y la Niña Quito Ecuador, ☎ . Offers 8 days tours to Galapagos Island starting at $2850 with the vessels S/C Nemo II, M/Y Pelikano. 2850.
- M/V Galapagos Explorer II. Along with the Galapagos Legend, this is the other 100 person boat that operates in the islands. While most small landing sites are unavailable to this boat, it does provide a less-expensive alternative for seeing some popular destinations within the Galapagos. Often offers discounted rates.
- Red Mangrove Galapagos Lodges. This company owns three lodges on Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela and offer a "Darwin's Triangle" adventure program. Camping options on Santa Cruz and Isabela. They also offer an island-hopping scuba diving program, the "Dive Triangle".
- ROW Adventures. Awarded "Tours of a Lifetime" by National Geographic, this company offers the only vacation of it's kind to the Galapagos Islands and allows two nights camping on the islands as part of the journey. Snorkeling, hiking, kayaking and swimming are all part of the trip.
- SharkSky Ecoadventures Galapagos. Offers regular Island Hopping, but also Multisport, Adventure, Camping tailor made tours. Flexibility and assistance. They also offer dive tours.
- Haugan Cruises, Sonelsa Tower 6th floor, Foch 265 and 6 de Diciembre Avenue. Quito, ☎ , toll-free: , , , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 8:30AM to 6:30PM. The fleet consists of the two newest luxury catamarans in the Galapagos, Cormorant and Ocean Spray. Both yachts have private balconies in each cabin, both with huge sun decks, comfortable lounge areas, as well as Jacuzzi. Aboard the Cormorant, suites and interconnected cabins are available. Kayaks, wet suit and snorkeling gear are included in the cruise rates. The food is prepared by a professional chef who prepares gourmet fine dining, buffet style and barbecue meals as well. All guides are Galapagos National Park certified, having accomplished level 3 certifications, all of them are bilingual and have extensive experience in the Galapagos Islands. Within the itineraries the best visitor points are included within 4,5,6,8 and 15 day cruises where passengers can explore the Galapagos Islands in luxury. Ocean Spray prices begin at $2,455 for a 4 day cruise. Cormorant prices begin at $2,455 for a 4 day cruise..
- Cheeseman's Ecology Safaris. An American company that specializes in in-depth nature trips featuring the maximum time in the field. Cheesemans' trips will always include at least one top-notch naturalist and are geared towards photographers and wildlife lovers. All Cheesemans' trips are non-smoking, and most Galapagos trips are 18 days. Costs begin at $5200 and do not include park entry fee or airfare to Baltra.
- Natural Habitat Adventures. The official travel provider for World Wildlife Fund, this American company specializes in both luxury land- and ship-based Galapagos Island Tours. NatHab guarantees each trip will go no matter how many people are booked. Tours from $5200 for an 8-night land tour or cruise.
- Nina and Athala Catamarans. Nina and Athala are the only two luxury catamarans in the Galapagos islands. The boats are the biggest boats out of all the small yachts in Galapagos. Cabins size is comparable to big ships (17 and 19 square mts). Nina has a private balcony in all cabins.
- Galapagos Odyssey yacht. The Galapagos Odyssey is a luxury class yacht built entirely in Guayaquil - Ecuador, true pride of "Guayaquileño" artisans. The Galapagos Odyssey offers 3, 4 and 7 night cruises visiting a variety of National Park sites always in company of a naturalist guide. Cruises from $2200 for a 3 night cruise.
- Galapagos Travel (US). An American company that specializes in 11 and 15 day trips around the islands. This company caters to photographers and provides service in luxury-class yachts with extensive itineraries. Costs begin at $5200 and do not include park entry fee or airfare to Baltra.
- Galapagos Travel (Ecuador). Ecuador based tour operator offering 3, 4 and 7 night cruises on board the luxurious catamaran M/C Anahi, cruises feature a Galapagos Park guide, cruise director and 11 crew members to pamper 16 guests throughout a natural history tour visiting the less visited excursion sites in the archipelago.
- INCA (International Nature & Cultural Adventures). INCA is an American company with unique itineraries on the luxury, 16-passenger small yachts M/V Integrity and M/V Reina Silvia. All INCA Galapagos adventures feature 7-night cruises including outlying islands, and most include stays at the Royal Palm Resort on Santa Cruz. Private trips available on either yacht. Options for Amazon, Otavalo and Machu Picchu. Costs begin at $3995, not including park fee and airfare..
- Metropolitan Touring, ☎ , toll-free: , e-mail: email@example.com. Tour operator in Ecuador since 1953. The company owns #3 cruises Santa Cruz II, Yacht Isabela II and Yacht La Pinta with different itineraries to visit Central, Northern and Southern Galapagos islands. From $2955 for 4-day cruise..
- SunWind Travel. An Ecuadorian company with offices in Galapagos, Quito and Florida. SWT charter the finest yachts and arrange high quality cruises. Owners are +20 year-experienced level III naturalist guides. Costs begin at $3165 and include 7-night cruising, 3-night accommodation in Quito, à la carte welcome and farewell dinner, all-day tour of Quito, private transfers. Not included park entry fee and flight to/from Galapagos..
At many national park locations and all uninhabited islands, the number of visitors are limited and there are only a small number of official landing and visitor sites. You must follow the instructions of your guide to protect the wildlife and you are not allowed off the marked paths. This is not a problem as the animals are so tame they will sit right on the path or cross it without caring about mere tourists.
The Charles Darwin Foundation administers several research stations throughout the islands, including a large station in Puerto Ayora that is worth visiting for its animal and natural history exhibits, the Galapagos Interpretation Center in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and the Tortoise Breeding Center are the most interesting of the breeding centers in Puerto Villamil.
Cruises are the only option to see the majority of remote islands. All cruise ships are required to have a certified naturalist guide. Each cruise ships has a fixed itinerary for the year which is set by the Galapagos National Park, with the purpose being to control the number of tourists arriving at any time on each island. Cruises are available in 2,4,5,8 and 15 day options. The following is a list of typical sights:
- Climb the hill on Bartolome for the classic Galapagos view
- Visit the Giant Tortoise breeding and rearing program at the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz.
- See the red neck sacks of the Magnificent Frigatebird on North Seymour or El Junco, San Cristobal.
- Visit unique and color species like the Galapagos penguins on Isabela or Floreana.
- Go snorkeling with sea lions and pacific sea turtles as often as possible.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving
Snorkeling and diving are very popular activities as the sea life is so rich and colourful.
Snorkeling equipment should be available from your tour operator (but check first) if you don't have your own. You may also want to bring a waterproof camera. Remember to wear at least a T-shirt and sunblock if you are snorkeling, as it's all too easy to get sunburnt in the strong sun. Snorkeling offers a way to be in the water with fish, sea turtles, sea lions, and other creatures and is a great option for those who don't have scuba certification. The islands that are older (further to the west) often have cold temperatures. Wetsuits can be rented at the same locations as snorkeling equipment.
Diving in the Galapagos is incredible, as noted by Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine. Darwin and Wolf Islands have been ranked as the best dive destination in the world for several years in the categories of healthiest marine environment, best big animal dive and best advanced diving. That said, the Galapagos is not necessarily the right place for beginners or novices. Currents, surge, cold water, and sometimes poor visibility and depths make this a challenge. Certification courses are available in both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal for those looking to learn, and there are several dive sites that are relatively beginner-friendly.
There are 2 ways to dive in the Galapagos Islands:
- Daily dives with a local tour operator from Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal.
- Galapagos liveaboards. Only liveaboards reach Darwin and Wolf. These 2 sites are the reason most divers come to Galapagos.
Two of the world's premier diving destinations, Darwin Island and Wolf Island, are accessible only via live-aboard. These islands present challenging currents and are not suitable for beginners, but offer amazing opportunities to see huge schools of hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, Silky sharks and whale sharks in season (July-Nov), in addition to other pelagic life like giant mantas, eagle rays, sting rays, huge schools of jack and tuna, sea turtles, sea lions and more.
Note that park regulations may change unexpectedly; in 2007, many divers were caught unaware as the National Park withdrew diving permits from quite a few cruise ships without notice, leaving many divers without dive cruises they had booked far in advance. For this reason, travelers are advised to get the most up-to-date information possible when planning a dive trip to the Galapagos Islands. As of 2010, the National Park is now regulating land-based diving for the first time and few of the many shops operating have the necessary permits. It is best to ask if an operator has a dive permit, otherwise you may be turned back by Park Rangers and not permitted to dive. As of 2011, the National Park no longer permits dive live-aboards to offer land visits, except for the Highlands of Santa Cruz, which is on all itineraries.
You can fish in the Reserve, for marlin, tuna, wahoo and many other species but only if you are using an operator and boat that have the requisite "Artisanal Vivencial Fishing" licences issued by the Galapagos National Park. "Sport Fishing", as such, is prohibited. The Galapagos National Park publishes a list of Vivencial Fishing licence-holders and their boats  but, unfortunately, they do not keep the list up to date.
When Vivencial Fishing, you can keep a limited quantity of fish for personal consumption but all marlin must be released unharmed.
Vivencial Fishing was conceived with the purpose of providing local fishermen with an ecologically sustainable alternative to commercial fishing. However, there is constant pressure, both political and commercial, to legalize "Sport Fishing" and open the market to better financed and better connected outsiders.
Hiking is often included as part of organized cruises or tours of the highlands. Although you will often see fewer animals during these tours, you will often gain a greater understanding of the difference in terrain and vegetation as well as the formation of the islands. Hiking is restricted in all National Park land; however, several sights, like the Wall of Tears on Isabela and Cerro Tijeras on San Cristobal can be hiked independently. The rules are that a guide must accompany all groups of more than eight people in the National Park.
The Galapagos provides some good waves and many locals make it a daily activity. Boards can be rented by the day or month at port towns. In general sites are marked with a place to rest surf boards as to not damage the land. The following are beaches that allow surfing:
- Punta Carola, San Cristobal
- La Loberia, San Cristobal
- Tongo Reef, San Cristobal
- Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz
- Playa Ratonera, Santa Cruz
- Isabela has a more continuous sandy shoreline that provides open surfing
- The Galapagos Surf Co. Surfgalapagos.com is the only surf travel company in the Galapagos. Waves are available not only in San Cristobal with north swell, but also in Santa Cruz and Isabela islands as well.
To minimize the impact of sightseeing on the unique ecosystem and mitigate issues with introduced species, several organizations provide conservation-based volunteering.
- Hacienda Tranquila works on environmental, community and social issues. Volunteers stay on the grounds and cook for themselves. The hacienda is owned and managed by locals.
- Hacienda Esperanza works to conserve the environment and promote sustainable technologies. Volunteers are provided room and board as part of volunteering. The hacienda is owned and managed by locals.
- Jatun Sachu works to conserve the Galapagos and covers a larger area. Volunteers are provided room and board as part of volunteering.
- Fundacion Bolivar Education has a conservation farm project on San Cristobal, as well as a habitat restoration project. Teaching programs in the islands include Alejandro Alvear School and Teaching Support at a local school.
Kayaking allows you to navigate more of the water without a boat. Kayaks can be rented at Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz and the port at San Cristobal to navigate the nearby beaches. Fish and sea turtles can often be seen while kayaking; however, conditions should be checked before renting.
Horseback riding can be organized to allow you to see the highlands in greater detail. Tours are roughly $50. Additional tours may be found through taxis or local tour agencies.
There are hotels and other accommodation in the towns of Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno; however, if you really want to see lots of good wildlife, you will need to combine your stay on these islands with daily boat tours to other islands.
Hotels and hostels are available on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Florena from $25–$500+, while hotels along the water are generally full especially in Santa Cruz. During peak season (Christmas & Easter weeks) as well as during special events all hotels are frequently sold out well in advance. However, if you are traveling at other times of the year you may be able to find availability by just showing up.
In general, crime is not a problem in the Galapagos. Petty crime may occur in the towns, and occasionally fisherman will stage strikes or demonstrations that affect tourists, but for the most part there is little to be concerned about. It should be noted, however, that some items that have been reported missing have been found in the crews' quarters! As most boats do not have lockable cabins, it might be advisable to keep your items locked away in bags in your cabins.
The animal life in the islands is mostly docile with the exception of larger sea lions. Bulls, in particular, will vigorously protect their harems, and can inflict dangerous and potentially deadly bites. Do not snorkel close to sea lion colonies. If a bull sea lion approaches you, swim away from the nearest colony. While the bulls can be dangerous; swimming with juvenile sea lions can be one of the most exciting parts of a trip.
In addition to sea lions, there is a minimal danger from sharks. In general sharks will not attack unless provoked, although attacks can sometimes occur in murky water when sharks mistake humans for other animals. However, by exercising common sense, experiences will be almost always be positive.
Be careful with the tap water, especially in Puerto Ayora. It is not recommended to drink it or brush your teeth with it.
The park is strictly regulated. Outside of the towns visitors must be accompanied by guides, and visitors are only allowed on land from sunrise until sunset. Itineraries must be registered with the park prior to embarking on a trip, and animals should never be disturbed; while the wildlife in the Galapagos will usually ignore your presence, a general rule of thumb is that if an animal notices your presence, then you are too close. Two meters is generally given as a minimum distance to keep away from animals; you will find that if you are calm and respectful that many animals will walk right up to investigate you.
One of the greatest dangers to the islands is introduced species. The park service is trying to eliminate goats, rats, cats, dogs, and introduced plant species on many of the islands, but it is a difficult battle; after evolving for thousands of years without predators, the Galapagos wildlife is not adapted to handle these new species. When traveling to the islands, do not bring any plant or animal life with you, and be sure to always clean your footwear when traveling between islands to avoid accidentally transferring seeds.
Illegal fishing is another threat to the park. Although park officials may deny it, illegal fishing for sharks and sea cucumbers occurs on a massive scale. The number of fishermen has increased rapidly over the last few years, while the number of fish have plunged. Due to ongoing tensions between fisherman, tourism, and science, the level of enforcement of fishing laws can vary greatly, but even when policies are put in place to limit fishing, enforcement is difficult due to the resources required to patrol the vast park area.
Another big threat to the park is the growing population. Although new rules make it impossible for people arriving from the mainland to live and work on the islands, the rules are poorly enforced, resulting in many people immigrating from the mainland to make quick money on the islands.
The codified park rules are:
- To visit the National park you must always be accompanied by a certified Galapagos National park guide.
- Galapagos is a unique and fragile environment. Take only photographs and video. Professional shooting needs authorization from the National Park.
- Please stay within the limits of the walking trails, for your safety and that of the flora and fauna.
- To avoid affecting the wildlife's natural behavior please avoid getting closer than two meters to the animals.
- Camping is only allowed in specific sites. If you wish to camp, you must first obtain a permit from the Galapagos National Park.
- Help conservation by cooperating with the authorities in their inspection, monitoring and control duties. Report any anomalies to the National Park.
- Do not introduce foreign organisms to the islands, as these can have a negative impact on the ecosystem.
- Please do not buy souvenirs which are made from black coral, sea shells, sea lion teeth, tortoise shell, volcanic rock or endemic woods.
- Galapagos animals have their own feeding behavior. Never feed the animals. Feeding them can be detrimental to their health.
- Galapagos landscapes are beautiful and unique. Do not spoil them by writing or etching rocks or trees.
- Do not litter while on the islands. Always dispose of rubbish in a safe and appropriate way.
- Smoking or making camp fires in the national park areas is forbidden and can cause devastating fires.
- Fishing is strictly forbidden, except on those boats specifically authorised by the Galapagos National Park.
- Jet skiing, submarines, water skiing, and aerial tourism are all forbidden.