Tourists experience a "wet landing" at Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island. (Photo by Zorica Kovacevic)
There are many things to consider before embarking on a journey to one of the world’s most extraordinary places! The following pages will help you, whether you are planning a trip to Galapagos—or just dreaming about it.
Galapagos is a terrific place to visit anytime of the year. During the peak season (mid-June through early September and mid-December through mid-January) it is particularly important to make travel arrangements well in advance. While the national park limits the number of visitors to each island and coordinates each ship’s itinerary, it is likely that you will sense more human presence and activity during the summer months.
From December through May the water and air temperatures are warmer. Seas are calm. Light rain falls for a short period of time each day, but the remainder of the day tends to be very sunny. Flowers come into bloom and vegetation is more colorful. Fish are not as numerous as they are later in the year, but this is a very good time to observe birds mating. This is also the time when sea turtles nest on the beaches.
From June through November the Humboldt Current has a stronger affect on Galapagos, bringing colder water and cooler land temperatures. It also brings nutrient-rich water that attracts fish and sea birds: albatrosses arrive on Española and penguins are easier to encounter. This is the mating season for the blue-footed boobies. During this time of year clouds fill the sky but rainfall is uncommon. Winds tend to be stronger and seas a bit rougher. This is the preferred time of year for experienced divers.
Visitor Sites and Guides
97% of the land area of Galapagos is designated as National Park and visits can be made only to specific visitor sites with certified naturalist guides. The Galapagos National Park coordinates visits to these sites and carefully monitors ecological conditions. Different sites are known for specific scenery, vegetation, and wildlife. However, many species, such as sea lions, marine iguanas, lava lizards, and a variety of coastal birds such as herons, tattlers, plovers, turnstones, and whimbrels, are common at most locations. Each visitor site has a marked trail that must be respected. Most trails are less than a mile long, often passing over rough lava or uneven boulders. Some sites have “wet landings” (visitors wade to shore from skiffs) and others have “dry landings” (passengers step foot directly on dry land).
Cruises vs. Day Trips
Most people visiting Galapagos do so through cruises lasting from 4 days/3 nights to 12 days/11 nights. Boats range from 12 to 90 passengers and are divided into four categories of service: economy, tourist, first class, and luxury. Cruise itineraries take advantage of night hours to travel between islands in order to expose travelers to new visitor sites each day. Groups of 12 people or more might want to consider chartering an entire boat. This approach can actually be less expensive per person than joining an organized tour, and can provide opportunities for customization of the tour.
Another option is to stay ashore in a hotel on the islands of Santa Cruz or San Cristobal, and take day trips to nearby islands. Lodging is also available on the much less populated islands of Floreana and Isabela. While this option can be more economical and provides an interesting perspective for the traveler, the range of islands that can be visited is limited because of the distances and most visits arrive at mid-day—the hottest and busiest time on most islands. Day trip providers range widely in comfort and safety standards and it will be important to choose a reputable and experienced provider.
Diving in Galapagos
Galapagos is a world-class destination for scuba divers because of the abundance of sharks, sea lions, fur seals, marine turtles, rays, mantas, marine iguanas, and reef fishes. Over the years, many tour operators offered diving without the necessary authorization from the Galapagos National Park Service. In 2007, the Park briefly closed the operations of all companies that did not hold the proper permits. Since then, the GNPS has granted temporary permission to a number of operators, while they apply for the proper authorization. If you plan to dive on your trip, check with your tour operator to make sure the company is authorized to offer this activity.
Traveling to Galapagos
Although it is possible to get to Galapagos by boat, nearly all visitors travel there by air. Flights depart from Guayaquil or Quito (via Guayaquil) on mainland Ecuador. Two companies currently offer flights: TAME and AeroGal. Both charge approximately $425 for a round-trip ticket from Quito ($200 for children). There are two main airports in Galapagos, one on Baltra Island and the other on San Cristobal. Upon arrival, you will have to pay an entrance fee to the Park (currently $100 for adults and $50 for children) which is used to fund management and conservation in the islands. Returning to the US from Galapagos requires an overnight stay in either Quito or Guayaquil.
What to Pack
Here is a sample list of things to bring for a one-week cruise. Your tour operator may also provide a packing list.
1 pair of casual dress slacks
3-4 pairs of shorts
4 casual dress shirts
1 pair of tennis shoes
1 pair of water shoes or light hiking boots
sweatshirt, sweater, or light jacket
contact lens solution
eyeglasses/extra contact lenses
first aid kit/medicine (i.e. motion sickness medicine)