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, and the archipelago is bisected by the equator. The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller isles, which together embrace some 50,000 km2 (19,500 sq mi) of ocean.
The Galapagos Islands is also one of the world's first UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
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, 1,707 m (5,600 ft) high.
The Galápagos are an expensive and time-consuming destination, due to remoteness and need to use boats for travel within the archipelago. A tour of the main attractions takes over a week of a ship-based cruise, and getting to and from the Galápagos takes two travel days from most of the world (often with one day in mainland Ecuador, especially on the way in). Given the travel time, a week-long cruise (8 days/7 nights in the Galápagos) is a good sweet spot, which covers most, but not all, of the main attractions (cruises can visit 2 out of 3 of north/south/west islands in a week). Longer visits cover all main attractions, and 2 weeks is plenty, but is quite long and expensive. Shorter visits (5 days/4 nights) or land-based visits are cheaper but quite limited, and risk being disappointing; if time or budget allow, consider longer. It is hard to visit (including travel) for under USD $1000/1 week per person, and $2000/1.5 weeks is a more reasonable minimum, and $4000 is a mid-range price.
The Galápagos were claimed by the newly independent Ecuador in 1832, a mere three years before Darwin's visit on the HMS 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.
The islands and towns
- Baltra – an airport, Seymour Airport (GPS IATA), and military base
- Darwin & Wolf
- Isabela – the largest island
- 1 Puerto Villamil
- 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 subspecies. Lonesome George was moved to the Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz in the hopes that a mate might be found, but sadly the subspecies 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 – another commercial airport, San Cristobal Airport (SCY IATA)
- 2 Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
- Santa Cruz – the main island and population centre
- 3 Puerto Ayora
- 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, there is more availability from Quito as there are typically two flights a day from Quito and only one from Guayaquil.
Avianca and LATAM Airlines have flights to the Galapagos. The price varies a bit between companies, for foreigners around US$457 from Quito in low season, or $505–512 in high season (July, August and December) and less from Guayaquil, $419 low season to $522 in high season. Ecuadorians pay almost half the price and there is 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 from 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" (INGALA card) for Galapagos. There is a separate $100 park entrance fee to pay when you land in Galapagos. Only cash is accepted. The visa is required to get through the destination airport in Galapagos, it is perforated two-piece document with a large QR code on each half. In the event that you board without it, if you push, they will issue it on the islands.
- 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, just as Charles Darwin did it in 1835. Over 60 cruise ships ply the Galapagos waters - ranging in size from 8 to 100 passengers. Most people book their place well in advance (as the boats are usually full during the high season). Be sure the agent through whom you book is a Galapagos specialist with a good knowledge of a wide variety of ships. This will ensure that your particular interests and/or constraints are matched with the ship most suitable to them.
There are a lot 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 $400–1800. The widely used GalapagosCruiseLinks site can give you an idea of last-minute prices for a range of ships sailing within the next 90 days.
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. The last 2 weeks of December are often booked solid a year in advance on many ships, while few ships sail at full capacity during the first two weeks of December.
- Level of activity. Visits to the islands are only permitted during the twelve hours of daylight 06:00-18:00. 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), and 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 (about $500 from Quito), and a $20 INGALA Tourist Control Card. Less expensive boats may also 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 Station on Santa Cruz. 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. You generally get what you pay for.
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. Owns 2 Galapagos cruise boats - Aida Maria and Eden - that offer from 4- to 15-day cruises in the Galapagos. They are Galapagos locals and have been offering Galapagos tours since the early 1960s. From $150 per day.
- The Galapagos Tours. 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. From $875 5-day/4-night to $1,186.
- Galasam Cruises, ☏ , email@example.com. Galasam owns 4 Galapagos cruises - Stella Maris of Galapagos, Majestic Explorer, Humboldt Explorer, Grand Majestic of Galapagos - with 4- to 8-day itineraries in the Galapagos. From $150 per day.
- Tierra de Fuego Agency, Amazonas N2323 y Veintimilla, ☏ , toll-free: , firstname.lastname@example.org. 09:00-18:00. Tierra de Fuego owns 1 Galapagos cruise - Guantamamera - with 4- to 8-day itineraries in the Galapagos. From $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. They also offer traditional Galapagos cruises.
- AdventureSmith Explorations, toll-free: 800-728-2875. Small ship cruise specialists representing over 25 vessels carrying 12-100 guests on 3-14 night cruise itineraries. Full service agency offers custom land arrangements, charters and special offers.
- Cultural & Natural Heritage Tours (CNH Tours), ☏ , email@example.com. Run by TripAdvisor's Galapagos Destination Expert Heather Blenkiron, this company's specialty is a 13-day "active" trip that includes flights from Quito, 8 days cruising the islands, 2 full days on land in Puerto Ayora, and one full day in Quito. CNH Tours uses the 14-passenger Samba. They also organize custom trips and charters for independent travelers on a variety of other quality ships.
- Enchanted Expeditions (formerly Angermeyer's Enchanted Expeditions). Enchanted Expeditions is in its fourth decade of operating tours in Galapagos using their own yachts, M/Y Beluga (Superior First Class) and M/Y Cachalote Explorer (First Class). They are Smart Voyager certified, offering 16 small guest cruises that concentrate on exploring nature. They sometimes have very good deals for their standard tours of the Galapagos and also do tours of mainland Ecuador.
- 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.
- 1 LatinTour Nemo Galapagos (Nemo Galapagos), Diego de Almagro 26-205 y la Niña, Quito, Ecuador, ☏ , toll-free: , firstname.lastname@example.org. 09:00-18:00. Established in 1985. Owner and direct operator of first class catamaran boats Nemo II and Nemo III. Offers 4, 5 and 8-day all-inclusive cruises/tours to Galapagos Islands. Price varies.
- 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 offers 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 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, dive tours and tailor-made tours.
- Humboldt Explorer of Galapagos, Av. 9 de Octubre 424, Grand Pasaje Building, Ground Floor, Office 9, Guayaquil - Ecuador, ☏ , email@example.com. The Humboldt Explorer comfortably accommodates 16 passengers in 8 air-conditioned rooms, all of which have private bath and shower facilities. Many of their trips have a diving focus.
- Voyagers Travel Company, Av. 3era Transversal 144, Sangolqui - Ecuador, ☏ , toll-free: , firstname.lastname@example.org. Voyagers has been assisting travelers for 17 years in crafting a personalized Galapagos vacation, be it hotel based combining day tours with diving excursions or live-aboard cruises, the company offers online bookings through its website and a downloadable app, moreover maintains a complete database of all yachts that offer trips around the islands.
- Haugan Cruises, Sonelsa Tower 6th floor, Foch 265 and 6 de Diciembre Avenue. Quito, ☏ , , , toll-free: , email@example.com. 08:30-18:30. The fleet consists of the two newest luxury catamarans in the Galapagos, Cormorant and Ocean Spray. Both yachts have private balconies in each cabin, with huge sun decks, comfortable lounge areas and a Jacuzzi. Aboard the Cormorant, suites and interconnected cabins are available. Kayaks, wet suits 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. 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. Ocean Spray prices begin at $2,455 for a 4-day cruise. Cormorant prices begin at $2,455 for a 4 day cruise.. listing
- Latin Trails Isla Espanola #144, San Rafael, Quito ☏+59322867377 , firstname.lastname@example.org A small fleet of two 16 guest boats, 1 of them is a first class catamaran, the Galapagos Seaman Journey, oceanview cabins, private facilities indoor and outdoor dining, sun deck and value priced, cruises start at $2159 for 4 days. The other yacht the company runs is the Galapagos Sea Star Journey, a more upmarket yacht and 3 times winner of the World Travel Awards accolade as best boutique cruise in South America, the yacht has 8 suites, connecting cabins, 2 hot tubs and day beds on the sun deck, alfresco and indoor dining, only small yacht with a glass bottom zodiac, 8 twin kayaks for exploration, pricing is not exaggerated, starting at $3399 for 5 days. Between both yachts there is the possibility to choose from 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 14 night cruises. Finally they operate a 12 passenger day trip boat called the Hopper, a small catamaran that offers day tours from San Cristobal island visiting Punta Pitt, Kicker Rock and Espanola island, the boat also has diving facilities.
- 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 of Cheesemans' trips are non-smoking, and most Galapagos trips last 18 days. From $5,200, not including park entry fee or airfare to Baltra.
- Natural Habitat Adventures. The official travel provider for World Wildlife Fund, this American company specializes in both land- and ship-based Galapagos Island Tours. They guarantee that each trip will take place, no matter how many people are booked. Tours from $5,200 for an 8-night land tour or cruise.
- Galapagos Odyssey yacht. The Galapagos Odyssey is a luxury class yacht built in Guayaquil by 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. 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. From $5,200, not including park entry fee or airfare to Baltra.
- Galapagos Travel (Ecuador). Ecuador-based tour operator offering 3-, 4- and 7-night cruises natural history tours that sail to the less visited excursion sites in the archipelago on board the luxury catamaran M/C Anahi. Cruises feature a Galapagos Park guide, cruise director and 11 crew members.
- 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. From $3,995, not including park fee and airfare..
- Metropolitan Touring, ☏ , toll-free: , 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 the Central, Northern and Southern Galapagos islands. From $2,955 for 4-day cruise..
- SunWind Travel. An Ecuadorian company with offices in Galapagos, Quito and Florida. SWT charter fine yachts and arrange high-quality cruises. Owners are level III naturalist guides with more than 20 years of experience. From $3,165 and include 7-night cruising, 3-night accommodation in Quito, à la carte welcome and farewell dinner, an all-day tour of Quito and private transfers. Entry fee and flight to/from Galapagos not included.
- Stella Maris of Galapagos, Av. 9 de Octubre 424, Grand Pasaje Building, Ground Floor, Office 9, Guayaquil - Ecuador, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Stella Maris of Galapagos is a luxurious yacht to charter in the enchanted Galapagos Islands. Offers itineraries of 8 days 7 nights.
Ship-based trips to Galapagos are considered to be the optimal way of getting out and about in the archipelago, allowing you to maximize your exposure to what the islands are famous for. Land-based tours have grown dramatically since the early 1990s when very few tourists came to Galapagos without taking a cruise. In 2017 while approximately 72,000 people enjoyed a cruise every year, over 150,000 land-based visitors came to the islands on island-hopping trips. Land-based visitors trade off the opportunity to travel around to remote parts of the archipelago and the convenience of waking up at a new destination every day, for the cheaper cost. While ship-based tourism is strictly regulated, with a cap on the total number of ship-based beds available, land-based tourism is unregulated. Between 2009 and 2015, it grew at an annual rate of 14%. More and more agencies are offering organized island-hopping land-based trips - these are easily found on-line. Some visitors opt for a self-guided trip, booking their accommodations and day excursions directly.
At many national park locations and all uninhabited islands, the number of visitors are limited, and there are only a few 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 species like the Galapagos penguins on Isabela or Floreana.
- Go snorkeling with sea lions and pacific sea turtles.
Snorkeling and 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 cruises. 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.
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, travellers are advised to get the most up-to-date information possible when planning a dive trip to the Galapagos Islands. In 2010, the National Park began regulating land-based diving, and few of the many shops operating had 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. In 2011, the National Park stopped allowing 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 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, larger waves are at the end of the road that follows the beach in the opposite side of the port
- The Galapagos Surf Co. 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[dead link] 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 Floreana 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. 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.
One notable place to put (non-important) mail is in the barrel at Post Office Bay. Mail will stay there until another traveler from your area picks it up. It's a great way to meet new people that have been to the Galápagos, since most of the mail there is addressed to the sender.
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 are supposed to 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.
- 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, avoid getting closer than two meters to the animals.
- Camping is allowed only at 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.
- 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.