Blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and, of course, the giant tortoise wander the wild paradise of the Galápagos. This remote archipelago, isolated from the mainland, is a haven for some of the world’s most unique and endemic species. It was only in the 1800s that visitors started frequenting the islands, including none other than a young Charles Darwin who went on to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859. This gave center stage to his theory of evolution and established the Galápagos Islands as a destination for wildlife enthusiasts.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Galápagos receives around 275,000 visitors each year looking to see the charismatic animals and landscapes of the islands for themselves. If the islands are calling, we have put together a list of dos and don’ts to help you make the most of your trip.
What to Know Before a Trip to the Galápagos Islands
Don’t: Go unless you are an avid nature lover
A Galápagos vacation isn’t the best choice for people who just want a beach holiday or a relaxing break in a cool sounding place. Yes, there are beautiful beaches and yes, you will unplug and unwind, but trips here are centered on the wildlife. Your days will be structured to maximize taking in as much of the natural world as possible. Days often start early to see the animals when they are most active.
The Galápagos Islands are most appreciated by people who are passionate about experiencing wildlife and learning about the history of the dramatic volcanic landscapes. If you can get excited instead of getting freaked out about hundreds of marine iguanas blocking your path or sighting a harmless Galápagos shark, this is the place for you.
Do: Pack for the Galápagos intelligently
First things first, an eco-friendly, reef-safe sunscreen is a must, as is a wide-brimmed sun hat and sunglasses. While the temperatures hardly ever soar past 85-degrees Fahrenheit, this is the equator and the sun is strong and scorching. You will spend a lot of time in the water, so a bathing suit and a quick-dry towel are necessities. Make sure you have comfortable hiking shoes and maybe some sandals that stay on securely and can be worn wet or dry. Breathable, quick-dry clothes are ideal. Don’t forget a pair of binoculars, your camera and any extra batteries or battery packs for charging.
Also, bring cash in US dollars. Don’t forget that when you land at the airport in the Galápagos, you are responsible for paying a $100, cash-only entrance fee that is required to visit the islands and is put towards their preservation and upkeep. Also, you must visit the Transit Control booth at either the Quito or Guayaquil airport (whichever you fly to Baltra from) and pay $20 cash-only transit fee for a Transit Control Card. This card is required and you have to return your card when you leave the islands.
Don’t: Rush through Santa Cruz Island
The one exception to a Galápagos cruise should be an extended visit to Santa Cruz Island. It deserves more than a quick afternoon visit. Spend time with the famous wild tortoises, visit a lava formation (remnants of underground lava channels where lava once flowed), and educate yourself more deeply at the renowned Charles Darwin Research Station.
Do: Cruise through the Galápagos on a liveaboard
Some people think it would be more comfortable to visit the Galápagos as part of a land-based island-hopping tour, usually staying in a hotel on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal or Isabela Island and making day trips to check out the other islands.
But to get to the more remote islands involves a bit of travel, meaning that if you head out in the morning, you just get a quick mid-day visit before you have to start heading back to your hotel in the afternoon. A cruise gives you the luxury of traveling at night and waking up in the morning already stationed by your new site. You also get the privilege of seeing the islands early morning and late afternoon – not only the best time to see the wildlife, but it also offers the best light for photography.
A small cruise ship additionally has the advantage of being able to access areas of the islands where bigger ships can’t venture.
Don’t: Limit your experience of the flora and fauna
There are animals, plant life and landscapes that can only be fully experienced while hiking. Coastlines and the wildlife that hang out there, however, are best seen from a kayak. There’s also a whole other diverse world underwater waiting to be seen and appreciated. The best way to do so is by snorkeling or scuba diving. Even if you don’t consider yourself a typical hiker, kayaker or snorkeler, all of the activities on Galápagos are doable for people of all ages with an open mind and in decent physical condition. The more activities you try, the more intimate and varied encounters with nature you can have.
Do: Prepare for photographic opportunities
The amount of wildlife encounters here is almost unbelievable, and you will want to remember all of them. Buy, rent (there’s plenty of reputable sites online), or borrow a setup with a good macro, wide angle and zoom lens so you can get everything from close-up shots of flora and faraway birds to the expanse of nature around you. Also get a waterproof camera case for your phone or a waterproof disposable camera to use when snorkeling. The variety of marine life in the water is literally like being inside a good aquarium. You’ll thank yourself back home when you can relive your Galápagos visit in vivid detail.
Don’t: Consider the Galápagos a quick add-on to an Ecuador trip
Many people try to squish some Galápagos time into just a few days as part of a longer trip in the South America region. Our opinion is that it is not a side-piece, it is the main event. If anything, we recommend adding an extension to see Ecuador’s Amazon to your Galápagos trip.
At minimum you should be on a cruise for a week, with time planned before and after on the mainland. The logistics to and from Galápagos mean that you might not get to your boat until the afternoon and you may be exhausted from travel. Then at the end of the cruise in order to get to the airport in time for your return flight to the mainland, you usually don’t have time for sightseeing on the last day. You definitely want to choose a trip that gives you enough time to explore multiple islands without feeling rushed.
Do: Respect park rules at all times
All cruises and day trips into the Galápagos National Park must be accompanied by a licensed guide who ensures that tourists respect the park rules at all times. These rules prioritize the well-being of the flora and fauna:
- Take only photos, leave only footprints.
- Do not use flash photography
- Do not leave the trail
- Keep your distance – please keep at least six feet away from all animals and NEVER touch them no matter how friendly they appear
- Don’t feed the animals
- Buy responsibly – when purchasing souvenirs, do not buy anything made from the flora, fauna or rocks of the islands. This includes black coral, marine tortoise shells, sea lion teeth, seashells and lava rock
- No smoking
- No campfires
- No fishing
- No water sports
Do your due diligence and only travel with an operator that demonstrates a track record of passion and respect for the protection of the islands. Your guide is the local expert and should be listened to at all times; it’s their job not only to share the amazing wildlife with you, but more importantly they also are responsible for protecting and conserving the nature of the islands to make sure visitors can continue to come in the future.