South America

The Galapagos Islands Guide: What You Should Know

The Galapagos Islands are a bucket-list destination for good reason: Thanks to a lack of natural predators, friendly wildlife such as playful sea lions and gigantic sea tortoises let visitors get up close and personal. This archipelago of about 19 islands and many smaller islets sprinkled 620 miles off Ecuador’s coast in the Pacific Ocean is a double World Heritage site (both land and sea are protected) and served as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Each island boasts its own unique landscape, ranging from barren black, volcanic rocks to swaths of white sand beaches melting into gemstone-blue waters.

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1. When to Go

This depends on what you’re looking to experience. Busiest months for tourism tend to be June, July and August, as well as mid-December to mid-January (prices are often highest at these times as well). The hot, rainy season of December through May is when the ocean is the calmest, daily rains give way to mostly-sunny skies, and temperatures are in the 80s.

The cooler, dryer season is June through November, thanks to the Humboldt Current which brings chilly water and cooler temperatures (in the 70s). Though the seas are rougher, experienced divers believe it’s the best time to visit because colder water attracts even more fantastic marine life (such as big schools of hammerhead sharks). It’s also when visitors have a better chance of spotting legendary whale sharks at Wolf and Darwin islands.
Adventure Life

2. Tours

Visits to most of the islands aren’t allowed without a guide licensed with the Galapagos National Park. You can book day trips to some of the islands from the main tourist hub of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz, but taking a cruise on a small yacht is the best way to see the more remote islands and wildlife in the Galapagos. The national park restricts the size of boats to 100 passengers, but even 100 can overload a beach when disembarking all at once. Ideal tour boats take only small groups, such as 16 to 32 passengers. Adventure Life is a sustainable travel company that books small cruises, as well as land-based hiking trips, eco-hotels, multi-sport tours, and dive excursion add-ons.

It’s best to book at least a few months in advance because boats often fill up during high season. You might find last-minute deals at deep discounts at travel agencies in the Mariscal district of Quito or along Avenida Charles Darwin in Puerto Ayora, but you’re taking a serious gamble with even finding an opening, or may have to wait awhile or resign to traveling on a lower-quality ship.
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3. How to Get There

First, you must get to mainland Ecuador by flying into either the capital city of Quito or Guayaquil. The islands are nearer to Guayaquil. If you have the option, fly here to save time since most flights from Quito have a stopover here on the way to the Galapagos. American Airlines, Continental/Copa and Delta all fly to Ecuador from the U.S. Most Galapagos flights are either early morning or evening, so you’ll probably need an overnight stay on the mainland.

Your best bet for getting to the Galapagos is to fly into Baltra Island before taking a bus and ferry ride to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the most popular tourist hub. Another option is to fly into the capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, but most cruises start in Santa Cruz. You can book through domestic airlines such as TAME, LAN, or Aerogal.

Many tours don’t include flights in their package prices, but ask about booking flights through the cruise company you're considering selecting. Some companies charge a fee for booking those internal flights on your own, since they may pre-arrange group flight bookings with the airlines to ensure best rates and that everyone arrive on the same flight.

About the Author

Holly C. Corbett is a part of a trio of female travelers known as The Lost Girls and a regular Girl Getaway contributor to TravelChannel.com. She has written for digital and print publications including USA Today, Redbook.com, Shape, Budget Travel, MensFitness.com and CondeNastTraveler.com. She's happiest when she's getting lost in a new place, diving with sharks in Belize or Borneo, and training for Runaway Bridesmaids—a charity race she founded that raises money to fight human trafficking.

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