For years, I’ve dreamed of visiting the Galapagos Islands, one of the world’s most iconic destinations and a must-see for wildlife lovers. And this winter, my dream finally came true. If you read this site, you’ve probably seen the highlights of the trip, but not the details of how it all worked. And since practical information on how to visit the Galapagos is as scarce as hens’ teeth, let me shed some light on the subject.
First, what are the Galapagos?
As I wrote here, the Galapagos are nature’s laboratory, a cluster of 19 islands and assorted islets in the Pacific that have developed in near-total isolation, 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. Over thousands of years, birds and marine animals arrived by air or sea, took up residence and evolved into unique species, often specialized to live on just one island.
Charles Darwin visited on his famous voyage in 1835 and noticed that the Galapagos finches had beaks perfectly shaped to delve into the flowers on their particular islands. That led him to conceive his theory of evolution, which changed our view of the world – and made the Galapagos world-famous.
That fame has produced a popular picture of the Galapagos, seen in all those Animal Planet documentaries: a bleak world of black, rocky coastlines covered with seals and marine iguanas. And those scenes do exist, for sure. But there’s a lot more you don’t see, like lush fields, woodlands, live volcanoes and even productive farms. The islands are a varied and fascinating place.
As well, contrary to most people’s belief, the Galapagos aren’t unpopulated. There are lots of people living there, and three major towns: Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, the main tourist town; Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on San Cristobal Island; and Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island. There are airports on all three islands.
Despite all that human activity, however, the islands’ ecosystem is mostly intact. There is still a campaign to get rid of destructive species like goats, rats and feral cats brought in by long-ago sailors and settlers. However, most of the archipelago is now a national park: in fact, the developed areas are only 3 percent of the islands, and settlement is confined to specified zones.
There are strict rules against destroying the environment or interfering with the animals, and for the most part they’re followed closely: if a sea lion climbs on your boat, it’s his until he decides to leave (you can see the proof here). The animals seem to know it, too: they walk or fly by without seeming to notice you, and the seals will swim with you if they’re in a playful mood (I didn’t see this personally, but I’m assured it happens). You can read more about the environmental protection, and see a map of the islands here.
How to visit the Galapagos
Visiting the Galapagos is a bucket-list dream for many people, but few people actually know how to visit the Galapagos. They’re a special destination, and even some travel agents don’t know much about them. Here are the basics.
Most people visit the islands by booking an organized tour. Many tour companies offer them, including big names like G Adventures and Viator, and smaller ones based in Ecuador or on the islands themselves. And there are lots of different tours available, so you should be able to find one that suits your interests and your budget.
But be careful when booking. The price may or may not include the flights to the islands and back, usually from Quito or Guayaquil. And you may not get as much time on the islands as you’re led to believe: see this post for more detail on that.
There are three different kinds of tours to consider:
These are the tours most people are aware of. You get a berth on a large yacht, with about 15 passengers, or a small cruise ship with up to 100, and stay aboard for the duration of your trip — four or five days, a week, or more. Boat-based tours allow you to get to the more remote islands, and they’re ideal if you love to snorkel or dive. This is the classic Galapagos tour, but it can also be expensive.
Many people don’t know it, but you can do the same kind of tour from land (this is the kind of tour I took). The tour company puts you up at a hotel on one or more islands, and you embark each morning – sometimes early each morning – on a land or boat trip to see the same kinds of things as on a boat-based tour. You may not see as many islands, since you can only go as far as a boat can travel in one day and return. However, these tours are generally cheaper than a boat-based tour, and a good choice if you’re prone to sea-sickness.
Can you just fly to the Galapagos and organize your own tour? The answer is yes. I met several people doing it, including some retired baby boomers. All it takes is a plane ticket and some cash. Then you go shopping: the main streets of Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno are lined with tour agencies, many of them selling last-minute deals to fill boats leaving in the next day or two.
Another strategy is to fly into Quito, Ecuador’s historic capital, for a few days and book a tour with one of the local agencies. You’ll find many on the upscale Avenue Rio Amazonas, and they offer tours for considerably less than you’ll pay booking from northern climes.
When to go
The Galapagos are an all-seasons destination. However, most northerners opt to go during the winter, which usually makes it a busy time of year. And happily, it’s a good time to visit. From December to May the temperatures are hotter than in the summer months — it was near 30 Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) when I was there in late January — and while it rains regularly, it usually doesn’t last long. There’s lots of bird life, and the turtles nest on the beaches.
You can also go during the summer and fall, from June to November. This is the cooler part of the year if you can’t stand the heat. The cooler sea temperatures bring more fish, which brings more seabords, including albatrosses. Rain is uncommon, but the seas tend be rougher, which can make your cruise a bit bumpier.
For more information on choosing when to go and planning your trip, check the Galapagos Conservancy site.
What it costs
Boat tours typically start somewhere around $3,000 Canadian ($2,300 U.S. at current rates) and go up from there, depending on the class of boat you choose and the length of your cruise. There are four classes: economy, tourist, first class and luxury. You can pay $10,000 or more if you want to really cover the islands on a luxury cruise.
Land-based tours can be cheaper: my six-day tour cost about $2,000 Canadian, though you can pay a lot more. And that price didn’t include the flights into and out of the islands, which cost around $600 Canadian ($450 U.S.), round trip. Again, find out whether the price of the tour includes these flights. I flew with Tame airlines, an Ecuadorean airline which flies to the Galapagos daily. Avianca also services the islands.
If you do an independent trip, you can get good hotel deals on the islands. I had a nice hotel in Puerto Ayora for about $50 U.S. a day, and there are cheaper alternatives — as well as much more expensive ones. Day tours tend to cost $50 to $100 U.S. per person. Restaurant meals are typically around $15 U.S. with a drink. Bring cash: a lot of places don’t accept credit cards, and while there are ATMs, it’s best to bring as much as you’ll need.
Then there are the fees: most foreigners visiting the Galapagos have to pay a park entrance fee of $100 U.S. ($50 for children under 12). As well, there’s a $20 U.S. transit fee, paid when you check in for your flight.
What it’s like
No matter which type of tour you take, you’ll likely see most of the iconic sights of the Galapagos. On a typical day tour, your boat stops at two or three places, usually including a spot for some snorkelling to view the sea life, an island for a guided hike or a beach for a swim and some seal-watching.
As for the wildlife, the Galapagos are pretty much as advertised. The iconic animals are everywhere: the prehistoric-looking land and sea iguanas, the sea lions (which sleep on the park benches in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno), the penguins, the blue-footed boobies and Galapagos finches. The famous giant tortoises are harder to find, but you can get tours to see them on some islands.
Speaking of birds, the islands are a showcase of species you’ve probably never seen. There are red-footed and Nazca boobies besides the blue-footed ones, along with species like red-billed tropicbirds, shearwaters, white-cheeked pintails, woodpecker finches and the world’s only fully nocturnal gull.
Best of all, in some places you can walk right up to the birds and animals, as I discovered on a trip to see the nesting frigate birds on North Seymour Island.
If you’re a snorkeller or a diver, the waters are teeming with sea life, including several species of sharks and rays, sea turtles and exotic fish. Whales and even whale sharks are occasionally seen )though don’t count on it).
And of course, there’s the land itself. Aside from the black rocks and beaches, there are enchanted-looking rainforests, dry forest, and chilly mountainsides where you can look into volcanic craters and the weather can change every 10 minutes.
A few words for baby boomers
Visiting the Galapagos is an adventure for travellers of all ages, including baby boomers. However, it does pose some challenges if you’re not particularly fit, or have physical issues. For example, many of the beach visits involve a “wet landing”, which means jumping out of a zodiac into a couple of feet of water while the boat bobs around in the surf. As well, some of the hikes can be strenuous, in some cases steep and muddy: read my account of my muddy morning on Cerro Negro.
I made my trip soon after my 65th birthday, because I wanted to get the most out of the experience while I was still in good shape. Even then, after six days of early mornings and boat trips and mountain hikes, I was tired. In fact, the trip made me rethink the physical limits of my travelling. I don’t know how I would have fared if I’d been unfit, or hampered by a bad hip.
A second issue is water sports. The snorkelling locations are often in deep water, and usually last about an hour. If you’re not into that kind of thing, you’ll be spending a lot of time waiting on the boat. So it pays to take a good look at the itinerary when you’re booking your tour, to make sure you’re able to participate in the activities on offer. If you can’t find one that suits your style, think about doing an independent tour. That option also lets you travel at your own pace.
I booked my Galapagos trip with Viator, which used a local tour operator, Sharksky, to conduct the tour. For $2,000 I got a six-day, land-based tour that gave me about five days on the islands (including a couple of half-days at the start and end of the tour). I arranged he air fare myself. I originally booked a group tour, with twin-share accommodation, but it seemed to be a slow tourist season and no one else signed up for the tour (Sharksky said it was the first time this had ever happened).
So the tour company revised the itinerary to better suit my interests. Each day I left in the morning for a day tour, usually on a boat, returning in late afternoon. The tour used three different islands as a base, starting in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. I later flew to Puerto Villamil for a couple of days and finally took a boat to Puerto Ayora to end the trip (this two-hour voyage can be rough, but I survived without incident).
Over the course of those six days I saw many sides of the Galapagos, including lots of birds and wildlife. Since I don’t like snorkelling in deep water, I missed out on seeing the sharks and rays up close, but those weren’t high on my list. And I saw things and had experiences I never expected, like witnessing (and almost getting caught up in) a sea lion fight on the boardwalk in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and visiting the giant tortoises near Puerto Ayora.
Overall, I was satisfied with my tour. With a few exceptions, the tour went off as planned. More importantly, I was satisfied that I’d seen most of what I hoped to see. It would have been nice to visit some of the more remote islands, and see some of the rarer creatures, like the red-footed boobies. But I left feeling that I had experienced the Galapagos. It was a trip well worth taking, at any age.