The Galapagos Archipelago, lying nearly 600 miles west of Ecuador’s mainland, is comprised of 13 major islands, 6 minor islands, and a number of small islets. The volcanic islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and 97% of the area is heavily protected National Park. For visitors, this means walking only on set trails, at certain times, and accompanied by a guide in an effort to conserve this incredible ecosystem.
Discovered in the 1500’s, and uninhabited until the early 1800’s, the islands of Baltra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz are now populated by a combined 25,000 people. But visitors from far and wide are not visiting for the people – they flock to these islands to see the unique flora and fauna.
The natural history of the Galapagos Islands has fascinated visitors since their most famous guest landed there in 1845. Darwin’s observations during his voyage on the HMS Beagle laid the foundation for a theory that greatly impacted western thought – the theory of evolution.
The archipelago is famous for its unusual animal life. Its giant tortoises are believed to have some of the longest life spans of any creature on Earth, up to 150 years. The swimming marine iguanas are unique and endemic, and can be seen basking in the sun on coastal rocks by the hundreds. Penguins and fur seals thrive on these islands side by side with tropical animals. Blue footed boobies look like creatures out of this world. Look out for lava lizards, Galapagos sea lions, Galapagos Penguins, Magnificent Frigate, Waved Albatross, Galapagos Hawk and Flightless Cormorant – all endemic to the islands.
Animals in the Galapagos are generally not skittish. Due to the regulations protecting this national park, animals do not tend to feel threatened by humans – this is their territory. This results in an experience where you can observe animals at relatively close range without them scurrying away.
Ways to experience Galapagos
Galapagos can be explored by land, water, or a mix of both. How you choose to plan your trip depends on personal preference and budget. From Santa Cruz, the gateway island to the rest of the archipelago, you can set off on your multi-night expedition cruise, or base yourself at a land camp and take day trips to nearby islands.
Boat vs. land accommodation?
Exploring the region by boat offers the ability to move further into the archipelago, exposing access to a greater number of islands. When choosing a vessel, there are many things to take into consideration, including:
- Dates of travel – cruises each run on their own schedule, on varying days of the week, so we can suggest what best fits into your greater itinerary.
- Length of visit – choose from a just a few nights to over a week in the Archipelago alone.
- Islands of interest – cruise itineraries can differ, and will include different island stops. Every island is unique and has its own appeal, so no matter the itinerary there is no short end of the stick.
- Size – choose from a small, intimate expedition style vessel of 16-20 passengers to a larger cruise of up to 100, or something in between.
- Budget – boats range in cost, but overall tend to be more expensive than land based options.
- Route/points of interest – cruise itineraries vary from boat to boat, and expedition to expedition. You’ll often find that boats offer an alternating ‘A’ and ‘B’ route. This is due to National Park regulation – by alternating routes, damage to marine life and traffic on the islands are managed and averted. There is no such thing as a bad route – every island has it’s own unique offerings, and the “highlights” (giant turtles, blue footed boobies, frigates, iguanas) are guaranteed. For travelers with specific interests, make sure you let us know so we can choose the best option for you.
We also highly recommend being based at a land camp, and embarking on daily guided excursions to points of interest. For those who get sea sick (especially between July-September), this is a great option. Also, some people find life on a boat limiting – with fewer places to spread out and a rigid schedule to follow. Families with younger kids will feel more comfortable at a land camp with room to run around and a little more flexibility. Lastly, when comparing our favorite boats to land camps, the land option tends to come in at slightly more moderate pricing.
Check out our Galapagos Guide for more information.
Our favorite accommodations in the Galapagos Islands
Recommended itineraries featuring the Galapagos Islands
Mountainous highlands, historic haciendas, cruising the Galapagos Islands
Wilderness of the Galapagos and Cultural History of Machu Picchu