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Galapagos: An Island-by-Island Guide

The Galapagos Islands are the definition of a bucket-list destination. They’re like no other place on Earth, and you’re basically vacationing in an open zoo with some of the world’s rarest and most interesting animals. But getting to the Galapagos can be a challenge, and the tour options are overwhelming—so, how do you plan this dream trip?

I recently explored this rich archipelago on a G Adventures island-hopping tour. Here’s my island-by-island guide to both popular and lesser-known Galapagos isles.

You’ll also find other useful information, including how to get to the Galapagos, what to expect, how to pick a tour, and other advice that will help you make the most out of your Galapagos trip.

When to Go to the Galapagos

As my tour guide, Jose Valdivieso, put it, “The best time to go to Galapagos is when you decide to go.” There really is no bad time to go, because the islands’ position on the equator leads to a steady climate of sunshine and high temps.

The warm(er) and wet(ish) season lasts from January to June, with December and January seeing the highest number of tourists. The “cold” (by that I mean 80 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny) and dry season is from July to December. The biggest difference between the two seasons is the water temperature, with cooler ocean in the dry season. You’ll still be able to snorkel, swim, and dive, but you might want to bring or rent a wet suit if you’re going during these months and want to be in the water for longer periods.

Picking a Galapagos Tour

While you can technically go to the islands without a being on a tour group, I recommend going through a tour operator. You have to be accompanied by a naturalist guide certified by the Galapagos National Park Department to enter any area designated as a national park. A guide is typically included on all Galapagos tours, but make sure your tour option specifies it before you book.

In choosing a tour, look at the company’s sustainability practices. This is particularly important when traveling to the Galapagos, where the ecosystems and communities are fragile. National park rules limit the number of passengers on a cruise ship to 100 (although most boats hold under 20 people) and on-land tours to 16 people per group, so make sure your tour fits these guidelines.

Most tour companies offer marine-based trips because many of the islands are uninhabited and require snorkel sessions and offshore excursions to visit. Alternatively, you can go on an island-hopping tour where you stay at a hotel or guest house on land and focus more on hikes and guided land tours.

Both tour options have their pros and cons. Cruises allow you to travel to more islands in a shorter period of time, but when you stay on land you’re contributing more money to the local community. If you’re looking to spend more time in and on the water, a marine tour is the way to go. But if you want to do more hiking, wildlife observing, and experience Ecuadorian culture, you should go with an island-hopping tour option.

It can be tough to narrow down both the tour company and type of tour—G Adventures alone offers more than 40 different tours (28 being live-aboard marine trips) that visit the archipelago—but it’s worth the research and effort to choose the one that best fits your travel preferences and expectations.

Getting to the Galapagos

The Galapagos islands are located on both sides of the equator about 600 miles from mainland Ecuador. You can fly into Baltra or San Cristobal Island from Guayaquil or Quito. The flight is about 1.5 hours from Guayaquil and two hours from Quito. Unless you plan on touring Quito, it makes the most sense to fly directly into Guayaquil. There are direct international flights from both New York and Miami.

If you’re flying into Baltra, you board a public bus to the ferry terminal where you take a short trip across a channel to Santa Cruz Island. There you get on either a bus, private bus, or car, and head to the main town, Puerto Ayora, which is about 45 minutes away.

What to Expect in the Galapagos

Entry Requirements for the Galapagos

In order to enter the Galapagos, you will need a transit card that you purchase at either the Quito or Guayaquil airport. This costs $20 USD (U.S. dollars are the currency in Ecuador). You also need $100 in cash to pay the national park entrance fee once you arrive to the islands. This fee goes to the Ecuadorian government and the protection of the national park. As a U.S. citizen, you do not need any special visas to visit Ecuador or the islands.

Money in the Galapagos

The Galapagos are expensive in comparison to mainland Ecuador, so you will need to budget. Many tours include meals, but since ATMs are only found on three of the islands (and credit cards aren’t readily accepted), you’ll want to make sure you keep enough cash on hand for snacks or souvenirs.

If all your meals aren’t included on your tour, plan on spending $15 to $20 per meal, and more if you want an alcoholic beverage. Breakfast is included at most hotels or guest houses, and there are some markets and grocery stores that sell food for less. Most souvenirs range from $15 to $30.

Environmental Policies in the Galapagos

Since the Galapagos Islands are both a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park, you are expected to follow environmental policies and “leave no trace.” This means using biodegradable toiletries (many hotels provide these), not flushing toilet paper down the toilet, reducing waste by carrying a water bottle, and not taking any sort of natural element (i.e. sand, coral, rocks) from any of the islands.

Your bag is checked upon entry and exit of every island, and larger bags are zip-tied closed so park rangers know they have been checked. You can read more about the national park rules here.

It is recommended that you don’t drink the tap water on the islands, but you will find filtered water tanks at most hotels and restaurants on the inhabited islands as well as aboard your ship. The islands have limited sources of freshwater, so you’ll be expected to use water wisely.

The Islands

Only four of the 13 major islands have full-time residents, so many of the smaller islands are only accessible via cruise tours or as a day trip from one of the inhabited islands. Here’s an overview of nine of the most popular islands.

Editor’s Note: Tourism is one of Ecuador’s main sources of income and is instrumental in helping the country recover from the earthquake in April 2016, which devastated a large part of its coast. Traveling through a sustainable tour company is a great way to donate to the country and communities affected. Or, consider making a donation here.

More from SmarterTravel:

 Ashley traveled to the Galapagos Islands courtesy of G Adventures. Follow all of her adventures (big and small) on Instagram and Twitter.

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