I recently invited a friend to visit me in Ecuador. Her response: “I could absolutely do that; the Galapagos has always been on my bucket list.”
Since I moved to Ecuador, many people have asked me about visiting the Galapagos Islands. Apparently, by having moved to the mountains in the country that claims ownership of the Archipelago 600 miles offshore, I have, or should have, become an expert on this unique location made famous in 1859 by Charles Darwin.
These people tell me they hope to come to visit (me?) and in the next breath, they ask about the Galapagos Islands. Somehow visiting an old friend in a new and exotic place needs a cherry on top to motivate people to board the cats and hop on a plane.
To entice these tenuous travelers to darken my door and occupy my guest room, I offer some information about visiting the Galapagos Islands, a unique and endangered place.
Perhaps you are thinking of an exploratory visit to Ecuador and, while you are in the neighborhood, you would also like to visit the world’s premier wildlife destination 960 kilometers (596 miles) off the coast of this diverse country. If so, you will find this blog post useful.
Keep in mind: Personally, I have not yet visited the Galapagos Islands; it is an expensive trip. Given the number of old friends who believe I should be able to guide them through planning a trip to these famous islands; and, given my own desire to see these old friends, I’ve done some research in order to appear to be an authority about a part of Ecuador 900 miles from where I live. Here is what I have learned.
Why and When to Visit
The Galapagos Islands are an extremely popular travel destination. If you come, you will be one of the 170,000 tourists who visit each year.
The Galapagos comprises 19 islands. Because of its location atop the Equator, there are no proper seasons on the island. There is, however, weather. There is wet weather and dry weather. There is hot weather and not-so-hot weather. For the tourist, it becomes a matter of choice.
December to May is hot and wet. It rains, but the rain gives way to sunshine and the temperatures are in the 80s. November to June, the water and the weather are cooler, the seas are rougher, but the wildlife may be more abundant.
I recommend you base your travel dates on your life at home. High season corresponds with the same seasons in the north, the summer months and Christmas. Avoid these times if you can.
How to Visit
First, you need to make your way to Ecuador. Fly into either Quito or Guayaquil. Plan to stay overnight.
To get to the islands, you will need to book a flight to either Baltra Island or San Cristobal. You can book through domestic airlines such as TAME or LAN. A quick search I did for flights 6 months out returned fares of about $475.
From the Baltra airport, everyone must take a bus and a ferry ride to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the most popular tourist hub.
Doing It Yourself
Many people choose to stay on land in either Puerto Ayora or Santa Isabela to enjoy the beaches or to charter day trips to nearby islands.
This may be the least expensive way to visit the islands, but availability is limited. The attraction of the Galapagos is the interaction with open, unafraid wildlife. To protect this unique ecosystem, wildlife tourism is more tightly controlled in the Archipelago than anywhere else in the world.
- You’re only allowed to visit tiny pockets of the national park.
- You can disembark (from small boats) only at designated landing spots.
- You must walk only on clearly marked trails in strictly disciplined small groups.
- You must be accompanied by a local, certified guide.
Consider that local boats can carry up to 100 people. Now imagine yourself as part of a tightly controlled beach landing with 100 strangers. One more caution: Word has it that the crossing can be very rough.
Most people are probably familiar with the concept of exploring the Galapagos by cruise ship. National Geographic is a trusted cruise tour operator with tours ranging from $5200 to $15,000 per person. If you can afford a trip like this, you will not need any friends in the country. You will be well taken care of all on your own.
There are, of course, other choices.
Other Cruise Lines
When planning a bespoke cruise, your choices include the number of days at sea, the number of people on the ship and the animals you hope to see.
Boat sizes range from 12 to 110 passengers. There are four categories of service: economy, tourist, first-class, and luxury. Cruise itineraries take advantage of night hours to travel long distances between islands in order to arrive at the next visitor site refreshed and ready to explore.
Small yachts carry a maximum of 16 people and they provide all meals. If you have 12 -16 friends, and you can get them to Ecuador all at the same time (good luck) this is a reasonable option, averaging out to about $5000 each for an 8-day trip.
Island-hopping tours, designed to experience Galapagos without having to be on board for the entire trip, are becoming more popular. Visitors take speed boats or public transportation between inhabited islands, staying overnight at hotels and exploring local sites and enjoying activities near the towns.
Day trips can be arranged from San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz with lodging also available on the less populated islands of Floreana and Isabela.
Land-based hiking adventures are also available. For about $4000, you can walk the island doing it the way Darwin did it – sort of – for 8 days, staying in hotels. No camping!
Camping in the national park is rare and very basic. There are no facilities: no option to make a fire, no bathrooms, no picnic tables…nothing, and everything, including your waste must be taken out. If this is your idea of a good time, you will have to do your own research; individual camping seems to be highly discouraged.
Other activities include:
- Eco Sports
- Dive excursion
- Wildlife watching (of course)
How Much Will It Cost?
Remember, I am just the messenger. I haven’t been there, so I don’t know much. If you are seeking to build a budget for your trip, you would do well to start with a real professional travel agent like this one. (not a recommendation, just a suggestion)
And so, my friends, that is what I know about visiting the Galapagos Islands. If you ever get to this unique and famous Ecuadorian place, you will be only 900 air miles from where I live, so be sure to look me up. I have a guest room just waiting to be occupied.
Questions? Personal experience? Ideas? Please comment. My friends are eager for information.
by: Dana Dwyer