Galapagos Islands travel guide

Galápagos travel guide


2 minute summary



The world is filled with wonderful wildlife – much of it bigger, fiercer or more unusual than that of the Galápagos. But nowhere else is it as fearless and friendly, and that is what lures people to this isolated archipelago, nearly 1,000km out into the Pacific. It’s this extreme isolation that has erased the memories of fear, and shaped the beaks, shells and wings of these unique species, in this living exhibit of evolution.

It's a step back in time to the storybooks of childhood, where animals and humans live side by side. Even more phenomenal is that these species have survived and evolved in one of the world’s harshest environments – a jumble of lava fields and still-smoking volcanoes, which continue to mould the islands today. The Galápagos’ past has been shaped by travellers – including Charles Darwin and fugitive pirates – and modern-day visitors must be mindful that its future, too, is now dependent on them, and that the evolution of Galápagos holidays will be the next big milestone in the islands’ unique story.
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What we rate & what we don't


Our guide to the best & worst of Galapagos

Underrated

Española and Genovesa Northern islands Human history Lava landscapes

Española and Genovesa

The more remote the island, the higher the level of endemism – meaning that these two often overlooked islas have species even curiouser than the rest of the Galápagos. Tiny Genovesa is formed by the lip of a submerged caldera, and hosts the world’s only nocturnal gull species. Espanola’s marine iguanas change colours in different seasons, and its steep cliffs are perfect departure points for the enormous waved albatross.

Northern islands

Remote and rarely visited, the islands of Wolf and Darwin are a scuba diver’s dream. Given the distance and the lack of infrastructure, once here, diving tours are based off the boat, making for an entirely marine experience. 28 shark species live here, including hammerhead and whale sharks, and barracuda, yellowfin tuna and seahorses are common.

Human history

The archipelago has been inhabited over the centuries by maltreated prisoners, hiding pirates, a flamboyant, fake Baroness and mysterious murders and disappearances which remain unsolved to this day. The Wall of Tears is a reminder of the islands’ brutal past, while the Post Office Barrel symbolises the kindnesses that have occurred – visitors can sort through the letters left here to deliver by hand once back on dry land after their Galápagos holiday.

Lava landscapes

The Galápagos’ strange and still-active geology has created semi-submerged calderas, lava fields and tubes, black sand beaches and puffing volcanic peaks, while its rich volcanic soil feeds weird and wonderful flora. Its 560 endemic species include unique fruits, “daisy trees” and lava cacti, along with exotic orchids and mosses clinging to twisted tree limbs.

Rated

Giant tortoises Volcano hikes Tranquil beaches Snorkelling

Giant tortoises

“Galápago” means “giant tortoise” in Spanish, and it’s clear why these characteristic creatures, up to 1.6m long – were the ones to give the archipelago its name. It’s likely that the islands’ 15,000 tortoises – in 14 “races” – all descend from a single individual who washed up here thousands of years ago, and it’s possible that some of the hatchlings seen by Darwin may even be alive today.

Volcano hikes

The Galápagos’ tame wildlife is not its only astonishing sight. The 9km-wide, 91 metre-deep crater atop Volcán Sierra Negra is the second largest active caldera on earth, and hiking around the rim offers spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes and ocean, and you can continue on to the bizarre, smoking lava landscape of Volcán Chico, which last erupted in 2005.

Tranquil beaches

Ecuador’s beaches are generally pretty underwhelming – so this is the place to kick back for some beach time. Staying at Puerto Ayora gives access to some excellent little bays during your Galápagos holiday, which will be all yours (save the sea lions!) once the cruise ships leave town, but others are reached along forest trials or by hiking through atmospheric mangroves.

Snorkelling

Island life is only one part of the story – what inhabits the surrounding waters is a very different one. Nowhere else in the world can you splash about in lava tubes, while green turtles paddle nearby and sea lion pups swim up and look you in the eye. Marine iguanas are on the prowl, Galápagos penguins dive in, and hammerhead and white-tipped sharks lurk in the depths.

Overrated

Two-week cruises Oversized ships Charles Darwin Research Station

Two-week cruises

A Galápagos holiday is fascinating, but the tortoises all begin to look the same after a few days and only the most obsessive biologists are going to enjoy more than ten days here. Additionally, cruises leave little space for independent exploration. If you do want to stay longer, consider spending additional onshore days near a beach once your tour has finished.

Oversized ships

The assumption is that hugest vessels – carrying up to 100 passengers – must be the best equipped and the most stable. However, larger ships cannot dock at all the islands, boarding and departing can involve long queues, and you’ll be paying a premium for a slightly more spacious cabin which, in reality, you’ll be doing little more than sleeping in during your Galápagos holiday.

Charles Darwin Research Station

The station does impressive work, and has been vital for the reintroduction of some incredibly endangered species. But it is first and foremost a research centre, and visitors can leave distinctly underwhelmed by the non-interactive exhibits and wildlife in concrete enclosures. Visit at the beginning of your Galápagos holiday to build up to the wild creatures – you’ll be much less disappointed.

Food, shopping & people


Travel like a local with our Galapagos travel guide

Eating & drinking in the Galápagos


As most of the population are recent immigrants and most ingredients are imported, there are few typical local dishes, though the seafood is exceptional.
Look out for ceviche, which is different to the Peruvian version. It often contains shellfish marinaded in lime, and is served with popcorn.
Lobster is a local delicacy. Fishing is usually permitted from September-December, but do check if it was harvested sustainably.
Sea cucumber is a highly prized delicacy – as the Japanese believe it is a powerful aphrodisiac. Harvesting it contributes considerably to the local economy.

People & culture


The Galápagos is cultural melting pot, as people from the Amazon, Andes and coast of Ecuador have migrated here – as well as a small community of researchers and scientists. Spanish is the universal language among the islands’ 27,000 inhabitants, and most people are employed in tourism or fishing.
People from the Galápagos are known as Galapagueños (male) and Galapagueñas (female).
Only four of the islands are populated: Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana and San Cristobal

Gifts & shopping


The Galápagos is not the best place to purchase South American souvenirs, but beyond the overpriced “I Love Boobies” t-shirts there are a number of craft stalls and high-end jewellers along the waterfront in Puerto Ayora who are making their name on the island.
Avoid any items made with black coral and turtle or tortoise shell. These are threatened species, and the products are illegal.
All profits from the Research Centre gift shop are returned to its projects, so buy your books here rather than off Amazon when you return home!
Sadly, you can’t take the adorable wildlife home with you – but you can adopt!

Fast facts



The Galápagos Marine Reserve, at 130,000km2, is the second largest marine protected area in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

How much does it cost?


Carved wooden figures: £5
Souvenir T-shirts: £21
Bottle of Chilean wine: £4.25
Reduce the cost of your beer – return your bottle to claim your deposit and reduce waste

A brief history of the Galapágos


For centuries, these inhospitable, lava-encrusted islands were viewed as having little value, other than as a place for pirates to hideout after looting expeditions across South America. The giant tortoises were also valued for their meat, as they could be kept alive on ships during epic journeys, and it is believed that hundreds of thousands may have been removed from the islands. Goats and dogs which were introduced during this period continue to cause some of the most serious environmental damage today.Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Top Box: Paul Krawczuk] [Española and Genovesa: Rob Sansom] [Northern islands: daren_ck] [Human history: fabulousfabs] [Lava landscapes: Aaron Logan] [Giant tortoises: Eric Chan] [Volcano hikes: Michael R Perry] [Tranquil beaches: Aaron Logan] [Snorkelling: Rinaldo Wurglitsch] [Oversized ships: David Berkowitz] [Charles Darwin Research Station: NH53] [Eating and drinking : David Berkowitz] [People and culture: Michael R Perry] [Gifts and shopping : Paul Krawczuk] [How much - carved turtle: David Adam Kess]
Galapagos holiday cruise options

Galapagos holiday cruise options

Excellent selection of small and midsize Galapagos cruises

From £2835 8 Days ex flights
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Galapagos luxury cruise

Cruise the Galapagos on a vessel custom made for the islands

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Ecuador highlands tour & Galapagos cruise

Experience Ecuador's stunning highlands and the Galapagos

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Peru and Galapagos Islands holiday, culture and wildlife

Peru and Galapagos Islands holiday, culture and wildlife

Explore Peru's Machu Picchu and Ecuador's Galapagos Islands

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Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands activity holiday

Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands activity holiday

Hike, bike and kayak in Ecuador and the Galapagos

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Galapagos & Ecuador tour, Galapagos express

Galapagos & Ecuador tour, Galapagos express

Explore the beautiful Galapagos Islands & Quito

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Galapagos holidays, Ecuador

Galapagos holidays, Ecuador

A First Class wildlife cruise around the 'Enchanted Isles'

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Galapagos Islands cruise, all ages

Galapagos Islands cruise, all ages

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Galapagos cruise options, tailor made

Galapagos cruise options, tailor made

The greatest wildlife experiences tailor made

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Galapagos cruise holiday

Galapagos cruise holiday

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Costa Rica and Galapagos wildlife holiday

Costa Rica and Galapagos wildlife holiday

Galapagos wildlife cruise plus Costa Rica nature/beach week

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Luxury Galapagos Islands cruise

Luxury Galapagos Islands cruise

Explore Ecuador’s Galápagos on board the elegant Grace

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Galapagos 7 day cruise

Galapagos 7 day cruise

Cruise the extraordinary archipelago of the Galapagos

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