Galapagos Islands, Discover the wonderful flora and fauna of Galapagos, a hidden treasure of Ecuador. Expedition and Tours to Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are a small archipelago of islands and part of 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 islets, a total land mass of about 7900 sq km (4900 sq ml).
The Galapagos National Park comprises about 97% percent of the land mass of the islands. Less than 1% of the islands is permanently inhabited and another roughly 3% is privately owned land mostly inherited by the descendants of subsistence farmers that first permanently settled the islands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
40 nautical miles of shore extends the Galapagos Marine Reserve which covers some 138000 sq km (85800 sq ml) a world renown safe haven for a myriad of endemic and native marine organisms protected from industrial fishing.
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 (5600ft) high.
The Galápagos were claimed by 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 closing 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.
On each island, 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.
Bartolome Island A very small island teemed with great views and wildlife next to its neighbour San Salvador (James) island. The most photographed view of the islands is found here, the famous Pinnacle Rock and the distant islands. A wooden staircase allows us to gradually ascend to the top of this large cone, without adding physical damage (erosion) to the path itself. This small island offers plenty of rewarding activities.
Wildlife highlights: Being a young island, it only allows pioneer species to conquer and thrive here. Geology and scenery are fascinating. Pinnacle Rock is by all means the best photographic attraction.
Do Cruises Galapagos cruises are the only option for experiencing the majority of the remote islands and endemic, iconic wildlife.
Keep in mind that the word «cruise» in Galapagos should not be confused with the traditional, «colossally-sized» cruise ships you often see in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. In fact, Galapagos vessels are among some of the smallest cruises in the world. Why? The Galapagos National Park limits all vessels in Galapagos to a maximum capacity of 100 passengers (50 cabins) per boat. Compare that number to your typical cruise liner, with its thousands of cabins, and you can easily see just how much smaller Expedition Vessels in Galapagos really are.
And although the Galapagos Islands are a beautiful and once-in-a-lifetime destination, keep in mind that no matter what boat you opt for, most of your cruise will be spent exploring the islands (as opposed to spending the majority of your time onboard). Remember: the Galapagos Islands are an Expedition Destination.
Some people deliberate whether they should go for a small yacht or a larger, multi-guided Expedition Vessel. Both have their own unique set of advantages and disadvantages.
Galapagos Yachts & Recreational Vessels:
For those who prefer a more intimate experience onboard and on the islands, you might consider choosing a small yacht. Small yachts in Galapagos typically consist of sailboats or motor yachts that offer personalized service, with one Naturalist Guide catering up to 16 guests at a time. You can find luxury and comfort on Galapagos Catamarans.38
Smaller yachts are often seen as having less of an impact on the fragile Galapagos environment due to the number of passengers they carry. Keep in mind, however, that they often aren’t the only yacht to set at anchor at each visitor site.
Galapagos Expedition Vessels:
For those looking to experience a greater level of safety, sociability, amenities, stability and spaciousness aboard their vessel, then Galapagos Expedition Vessels are perhaps the best way to go. These are some of the largest vessels in Galapagos and are limited to carrying up to 100 passengers.
Galapagos Expedition Vessels often times offer plenty of more space and comfort when it comes to the vessel itself. They also offer a greater variety of services and amenities. Not to mention, they have a higher number of Naturalist Guides onboard, meaning they a.) offer a wider range of simultaneous activities throughout each day and b.) have smaller excursion groups. Multi-guided Expedition Vessels also have the added benefit of offering different languages for different groups.
In some cases, Expedition Vessels even have a dedicated Hotel Manager and Medical Officer onboard.
Consider chartering any one of these vessels if you are a family, a group of students, a corporation, a club, on a honeymoon or even just a solo traveler. The Galapagos are pretty much open to any and all groups of people wishing to explore the Galapagos Islands, and Expedition Vessels are one of the most comfortable ways to explore them.
The following is a shortlist of the sights and activities you’ll get to experience aboard cruises in the Galapagos:
Witnessing a vast majority of the iconic, must-see species of the Galapagos, be they: Galapagos albatrosses, blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, red-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, American flamingos, frigatebirds (great and magnificent), Galapagos hawks, land iguanas, marine iguanas, Santa Fe land iguanas, Galapagos penguins, sea lions, fur seals and Galapagos giant tortoises.
Climbing up the hill on Bartolome Island for that classic Galapagos postcard view. Exploring numerous, volcanically-active and geologically-fascinating islands throughout the archipelago. Partaking in numerous activities throughout the archipelago, such as: snorkeling, coastal explorations, glass-bottom boat rides, biking, guided land excursions, and more! Getting a taste of the island life over at Puerto Ayora and/or San Cristobal, along with the scientific initiatives at each of these cities (Charles Darwin Research Station and the San Cristobal Interpretation Center, respectively). Both of these centers have breeding and rearing programs.
Don’t forget that all vessels, big or small, are required to have at least one certified naturalist guide for every 16 passengers (or less) that they have aboard. Something else is that every single vessel has a fixed itinerary for the year which is established and approved by the Galapagos National Park (so as to control the number of tourists arriving on each island). Itineraries can range anywhere between 2 to 15 days, depending on how much time and money you have. Be aware, however, that you lose a day-and-a-half just flying into and out of the Galapagos, meaning anything under a 5-day itinerary is borderline not worth it.
Another question people ask is when they should go to the Galapagos Islands. Both the availability of space and the weather in the Galapagos (see Climate) may affect when you choose to go to the Islands. Most boats fill up months, or even a year or two ahead of time for the months of June, July, August, December and early January. During other times of the year, availability is higher. Still, there is no foolproof way to predict how many people will come; it is best to simply come whenever it is most convenient for you. Remember: the Galapagos are a year-round destination.
Booking a cruise with a tour company in your home country or in Ecuador (via the internet) is usually the most convenient way of going about securing your place aboard. There are many tour companies selling Galapagos cruises, but it is always recommended that you look for tour companies that are reputable (preferably with numerous years of experience and positive reviews) and that have dedicated experts that can answer all of your questions about Galapagos. Remember: the Enchanted Islands are a once-in-a-lifetime destination, and it is ill-advised that visitors “cut corners” when deciding on who to travel with.
When looking for a tour consider the following:
Number of passengers. The national park restricts the size of the boats allowed to navigate throughout the islands to a maximum of 100 passengers per vessel. Large vessel or small vessel, steps are always being taken to lower visitor impact on each site. That’s why, regardless of ship size, passengers are divided into groups of 16 (maximum), with one Naturalist Guide per group. These go ashore in small, low-impact inflatable dinghies (often referred to as pangas in Spanish). Also, be aware that smaller, single-guided boats often share the site with other smaller boats (in order to fill up the maximum quota of visitors at that site). This means that smaller vessels often won’t have visitor sites to themselves the same way larger boats do. Itinerary. The National Park approves all cruise itineraries. Each itinerary is (ideally) designed to have a mixture of different habitats while showcasing the unique diversity of wildlife found throughout the archipelago. Itineraries will often be divided by region (Northern, Western, Southern, Central, etc.) and can last anywhere between 4-8 days (or twice that, if combined back-to-back). Keep in mind that not all ships reach all of the islands you might want to visit, nor do they focus as much on revealing the wildlife you might interested in spotting. Always be sure to ask your tour operator about what each itinerary offers you in terms of island and wildlife coverage. Availability. Most of the best cruises are booked up months in advance, so it is best to book early. For Christmas bookings, you might want to start looking at least 12-18 months ahead of time to have a greater number of vessels and/or itineraries available to choose from. Activities. Visits to the islands are only permitted during the twelve hours of daylight in Galapagos (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Typically, a cruise will have two excursions each day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Both excursions will often involve a combination of shore and water excursions. Walks are generally done at a slow pace and offer plenty of time for interpretation and photos. Landings on the shore may be dry or wet, depending on the visitor site. Some trails might also be rocky and on uneven terrain, making them somewhat difficult for older people and completely inaccessible for people with disabilities (i.e. wheelchair, crutches, etc.). In general, however, the walks are easy for the majority of visitors in decent shape. Water excursions may include snorkeling, kayaking, panga rides (coastal explorations aboard dinghies) as well as rides in a glass-bottom boat, depending on your cruise. Keep in mind that smaller vessels offer only one activity for each half of the day (due to the National Park rule of one guide per group of guests). Larger vessels, on the other hand, have the added benefit of offering a variety of simultaneous activities thanks to the presence of multiple guides onboard, meaning you won’t be stuck with just one option per half of the day. Additional costs. Few tours include the $100 park entrance fee or the cost of a flight from the mainland to the islands (from $450-$530 from Guayaquil or Quito) as well as the $20 INGALA Transit Control Card (for immigration control purposes). Additionally, less expensive boats will charge for beverages, use of snorkel equipment, wetsuits and/or kayaks. Time spent on the islands. The cruise length includes the day you arrive and the day you depart the Galapagos. Flights typically arrive to the islands around noon time or in the early afternoon and leave the islands in the morning. It’s important to keep in mind that this means you virtually lose 1.5 days flying into and out of Galapagos, meaning a 3-day itinerary is, realistically, more like a 1.5-day itinerary. On your first day you will typically have 1 excursion and on the day you leave you may or may not have an excursion, depending on how early your flight leaves. Additionally, nearly all cruises are required to visit the town of Puerto Ayora and the Charles Darwin Research Station as part of their itinerary (so as to help the tourism economy on the islands). Many itineraries will often combine this particular visit with an exploration of the highlands of Santa Cruz, which often allows visitors to see the giant tortoises out in the wild. Shorter cruises will take advantage of this last day to have their passengers explore Santa Cruz Island and then drop them off at Baltra airport. Ship comfort levels. Quality of boats vary widely. You generally get what you pay for. Less expensive tours use boats that may not: i) be capable of traveling longer distance and/or as quickly between islands, ii) be as comfortable, iii) have high quality guides, iv) have very attentive crew, v) have the greatest food and/or vi) be as well-maintained. A handy website for getting even more tips about what to consider before booking your cruise is Galapagos Travel Expert.
For those trying their luck at finding good last minute prices on site, there are many agencies that can help you book a cruise either in Puerto Ayora in Galapagos or Guayaquil and Quito over on the mainland. There are also last-minute cruise websites that specialize in Galapagos. Very last minute 4-day cruises can sometimes be found in Puerto Ayora for as little as $600-$700 per person. While it is possible to get a pretty cheap last-minute deal, be aware that: many budget tours may opt to spend extra time in Puerto Ayora, might not have the best boats, have questionable safety standards, mediocre services and/or might only visit the inner, non-isolated islands.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving Snorkeling and diving are very popular activities as the sea life in Galapagos is incredibly rich and colorful. And the best part? They’re just as fearless as the creatures on land, especially sea lions and sea turtles!
Snorkeling equipment is often provided by tour operators and cruises (sometimes for free or sometimes for an added fee). Worth bringing if you’re going snorkeling is a waterproof camera. Remember to wear at least a T-shirt and sunscreen if you’re snorkeling, as it’s easy to get sunburned under the strong Galapagos sun. Snorkeling offers a way to be in the water with fish, sea turtles, sea lions, white-tip reef sharks and many other creatures, making this a great option for those who don’t have a SCUBA diving license. The older, farther islands to the west often have cooler water temperatures, meaning wetsuits might make for a more comfortable experience in the water (again: many cruise ships offer wetsuits, often times for an additional, nominal fee).
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. Still, the Galapagos is not necessarily the right place for beginners or novices. Currents, surge, cold water, and sometimes poor visibility and depths make it a challenge for novices. 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 operators on the islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal. Galapagos liveaboard cruise ships. Liveaboard cruise ships are the only way for visitors to reach the islands of 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 new permits necessary. 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 liveaboards to offer land visits, except for the Highlands of Santa Cruz which is on all itineraries.
Day Tours aboard Yachts The Galapagos National Park has made new options available for land-based travel in and around the archipelago.
From San Cristobal Island, visitors now have the option of navigating to visitor sites like Española Island, Punta Pitt and Kicker Rock.
From Santa Cruz, visitors can book day trips to the uninhabited islands of North Seymour, South Plazas, Santa Fe and Bartolome. Advance reservations are usually required so plan ahead. However, there is a chance you’’ll be able to find space due as people often make last-minute cancellations the night before.Share this tour
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