A living exhibit of evolution, the Galápagos Islands are a jumble of lava fields and still-smoking still-island-making geology. Semi-submerged calderas, lava fields and tubes, black sand beaches and puffing volcanic peaks might not sound like your idea of an idyll, with their rough, gnarly rocks and scrubby vegetation but there are many wonderful reasons a Galapagos Islands trip continues to be a bucket list staple.
Nestling right under the armpit of the equator, at 1000 km into the Pacific they are far enough away from the continent to have their own climate, which is surprisingly temperate. The breeze from the Pacific can be a little cool, especially after the sun goes down and if you do not like rain you will love it here.
The Galápagos only has one short and very light rainy season.
Temperatures vary between 68 and 82ºF (20 and 28 ºC).
The warmest months are between December and May.
April and May are the clearest.
July and August are windy.
From July to November you may experience occasional ‘garua’ or mists and the water is atypically cool for the tropics.
Visitors usually arrive at the number one UNESCO site via Santa Cruz ex Quito (which is the second UNESCO site, utterly full of its own wonders and worth a visit in its own right!)
You can choose to base yourself at a Santa Cruz hotel and take day trips out to the islands, arrange a Safari via public speedboat or plane to a couple of other islands… or set off on a cruise around the islands. Considering the vast distances you have to cover to get from one island to another you will certainly see the most if you opt for a cruise where your boat can travel during the night…
Did you know?
The Galápagos Marine Reserve, at 130,000km2, is the second largest marine protected area in the world
after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef!
Exploring the Galápagos
There are 560 endemic species including fruits, daisy trees, and lava cacti as well as exotic orchids and mosses that decorate twisted tree limbs.
These eponymous island dwellers are one of the best reasons to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz (or a similar one in Isabela or San Cristóbal). When you meet one of the 15,000 tortoises from 14 races, you might want to marvel at the fact that they all descended from a single individual who washed up here thousands of years ago. And that it is entirely possible for your new friend to have witnessed Darwin himself when they were tiny. The reserve at Floreana also has magnificent tortoises waiting to meet you and on San Cristóbal there is the Galapaguera tortoise breeding ground. In Tortuga Bay giant tortoises roam the highlands.
TIP: At the CDRS do enjoy the explanation of how Darwin used the mockingbirds and finches to form his famous theories and learn more about how the islands are protected today.
95% of the 2,000 resident Galapagos penguins prefer the Western Islands of Isabela and Fernandina. But this does not mean you won’t get lucky and see them elsewhere. You can swim with them at Bartolomé (after a climb to the top of Pinnacle Rock?) and Floreana
Bartolomé Island is utterly otherworldly. A barren, moonscape with basaltic Pinnacle Rock spiking into the air surrounded by volcanic spatter cones, scalesia trees, red-sand beaches and solidified lava. Snorkel with sea lions on Floreana.
Galápagos is a birding paradise year round. On the horseshoe-shaped Genovesa, birds ranging from short-eared owls to Galapagos hawks, Nazca, red-billed tropicbirds, mockingbirds and storm petrels inhabit the rim of the submerged caldera that formed the island.
Red-footed or masked boobies share the paths with visitors and the frigate birds carefully observe proceedings, always ready to scavenge what they can. The world’s only nocturnal gull species also calls Genovesa home.
Española is a little greener than the other islands and between April and November, the waved albatross can be found high on the cliff tops where they launch themselves from their ‘albatross airport’. This gorgeous sight is repeated on Hood island.
On Isabela, you can see flamingo-filled mangroves, along with Sally Lightfoot crabs, penguins, and flightless cormorants. Hike across eerie, barren lava fields and up the volcanoes.
On the easternmost and oldest San Cristóbal island you can while away the time admiring more blue- and red-footed boobies and frigates.
Idyllic Tortuga Bay is where you can try your hand at a bit of vermillion flycatcher spotting.
Marine Iguana and land iguana
Santa Fé is small, flat and partially forested. Here both the marine iguanas can find their algae on the rocks while the land iguanas feast on cactus flowers. The red and turquoise splashed marine iguanas can also be spied on Hood, Isabela and Española island.
As there are no non-native predators on the Tintorreras Islets they are alive with marine iguanas.
The islands have a history that is almost as curious as its wildlife. Bookended between Darwin and Attenborough there has been a stream of humanity, liberally spiced with maltreated prisoners, hiding pirates, a fake Baroness, a shocking menage-a-trois nude Germans, cannibalism, unsolved murders and a mysterious disappearance.
The famous Post Office Barrel will let you play postman to those who came before you. And leave your own post to the mercy of those who will follow.
A Wall of Tears, built on Isabela was constructed with the sole intention of stopping prisoners from going insane through boredom and isolation. El muro de las Lágrimas was built from volcanic rock and might be a monument to suffering for a long time to come.
Remember to stick to marked trails. Walk along a lava rock trail to see blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and sea lions. Volcán Sierra Negra’s crater is the second largest caldera on earth. It offers incredible vistas of volcanoes and sea and from the rim you can walk on to the surreal smoking lava landscape that is Volcán Chico.
Hike across eerie, barren lava fields and up the volcanoes on Isabela.
On Genovesa you can hike up to a forest-crowned plateau, or across into powdery sand beaches and mangroves.
Practice Resting Beach Face
Puerto Ayora has little bays that you will only have to share with the sea lions, sea turtles and eagle rays if no cruise ships are in town. If you don’t mind hiking you can reach other stunning beaches along forest trails or through atmospheric mangrove estuaries. A 40-minute hike through a dry, prickly pear forest will deliver you to one of the archipelago’s finest beaches: Tortuga Bay.
Some beaches even have surfing waves – we are looking at you San Cristóbal!
TIP: The ground is rocky so bring water shoes. The water might be cold so a wetsuit could be good. Again, check regulations before surfing.
Splash in lava tubes with green turtles and sea lion pups under the watchful eyes of marine iguanas and penguins.
If you want to snorkel in a veritable aquarium then head for Los Tuneles (an hour by boat from Puerto Villamil). More lava tubes filled with schools of colorful angelfish, sea turtles, manta rays and harmless sharks.
Surrounding the Tintoreras Islets lava tunnels are inhabited by giant rays, puffer fish, sea lions and the elusive white-tipped sharks which gives the island its name.
On Floreana snorkel with sea lions, penguins, rays and reef fish. And off the coast of Genovesa you might encounter hammerhead sharks.
TIP: Do bring a buddy and a camera.
Don’t touch a sea lion, no matter how friendly they seem.
Explore secret coves mangrove estuaries and stunning beaches.
TIP: Permission for kayaking is required so make sure to follow all the National Park guidelines.
On Santa Cruz there are some fabulous hillside trails.
TIP: Beginners are best off renting a mixed-blood “Criollo” horse
Cycling tours of the islands range from intermediate to advanced
riders and you can sign up for a fun ride or an endurance challenge. Whichever you prefer the scenery is sure to impress. Arrange your rides from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
You will be able to take the most advantage of your time in the Galapagos if you already have previous dive training. It is possible to take a course in the islands but as a beginner, many of the choice, more advanced dives will not be available to you. Divers can expect to see white-tip sharks, marine iguanas, penguins, golden rays, hammerheads, Galapagos sharks and even whale sharks.
Panga (Dinghy) Rides
Great for photographing the wildlife in shores, coves and caves the panga and dinghy vessels serve as the main transportation method from cruise boats to the visiting sites.
Do buy local. (Check for Made in China labels.)
Don’t buy anything made from turtle, tortoise or seashells, black coral, lava rock, an animal parts or endemic species. This is illegal.
Do buy Galápagos books from the Research Centre gift shop as all profits go to the project.
Don’t buy any live wildlife!
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