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  • Galapagos_sea_lion_and_pup - A sea lion and its pup, one of the close-up encounters possible when exploring the Galapagos.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-Orca - An orca whale rides alongside visitors in a Zodiac boat  during a Lindblad tour of the Galápagos Islands.
  • Bartolome-aerial - Bartolomé has some of the most magnificent landscapes in the Galapagos during your Silversea cruise.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-Sally-Lightfoot-crab - You'll likely spot the remarkably colorful Sally Lightfoot Crab — also known as the Nimble Spray, Short or Urchin Crab — during your sailing to the Galápagos Islands on a Lindblad Expedition.
  • Galapagos_giant_tortoise - You can see the Galapagos's famed giant tortoises up close on a visit to the breeding and rearing center.
  • Galapagos_male_frigatebird - A male frigatebird, whose red pouch inflates during breeding season to attract a mate.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-flamingo - While sailing the Galápagos Islands on a Lindblad Expedition, you'll be able to see flamingos and other local wildlife.
  • Cerro_Brujo_Galapagos - You can swim, snorkel or kayak with sea lions and marine iguanas right from Cerro Brujo, a pristine white coral beach.
  • Galapagos_land_iguana_2 - You'll likely see a land iguana while adventuring the lands of Galapagos.
  • Galapagos_lizard - The Galapagos lizard, one of the critters guests might spot when exploring the Galapagos Islands. Wildlife is a huge part of itineraries in the region.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-Waved-Albatrosses - Two adult waved albatrosses hug neck to neck at a breeding colony on Española Island in the Galápagos Island Archipeligo during a Lindblad Expeditions tour.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-sea-lion - While sailing the Galápagos Islands on a Lindblad Expedition, you will get the chance to see sea lions and other local wildlife.
  • Galapagos_tour - There is no place on earth like the Galapagos, created over the course of time by roaring volcanoes and titanic geothermic upheavals.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-Bluefooted-Boobies-Mother-Babies - A bluefooted booby mother lays with her two chicks during a Lindblad Expeditions visit of the Galápagos Islands.
  • Sally_Lightfoot_crab_Galapagos - A stunning red rock crab, commonly called a Sally Lightfoot, in the Galapagos Islands.
  • Galapagos_giant_tortoise_2 - Ready for his closeup: A Galapagos giant tortoise doing his best Mr. Burns imitation.
  • Galapagos_wild_flamingo - A wild flamingo looks for a snack in the Galapagos Islands.
  • Galapagos_sea_lion_2 - When exploring the Galapagos, you'll likely to see sea lions loll about the coast. Isolated from the mainland for millions of years, it's one of the rare wildernesses where animals have no instinctive fear of humans, making for great photo opps.
  • Santiago_Island_Galapagos - Silversea guests explore a crevice on Santiago Island in the Galapagos.
  • Galapagos-sea-turtle-and-crab - Christine Loomis: “I love this shot. Once the turtle starting swimming toward shore, all I had to do was lay on a rocky beach for a while and wait. The Galapagos are just zillions of photo ops waiting to happen.”
  • Galapagos_sea_lion_4 - A Galapagos sea lion in repose.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-Bluefooted-Boobies -  Blue-footed boobies, spotted in the Galápagos Islands during a Lindblad Expedition.
  • Galapagos_wild_flamingos - Wild flamingos, part of the Galapagos's enchanting landscape.
  • Espanola_Island_Galapagos - Breathtaking sights await on your journey to Española Island in the Galapagos.
  • Galapagos_owl - An owl that's native to the Galapagos.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-sea-lions-snuggling - Two sea lions snuggle on the shore of the Galápagos Island during a Lindblad Expeditions tour.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-Tortoises - Two giant tortoises are spotted while on a Lindblad Expeditions tour of the Galápagos Islands.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-Great-Frigatebird - Look at how cute I am! A Great Frigatebird sits on its nest during a Lindblad Expeditions visit to the Galápagos Islands.
  • Galapagos_land_iguana - Silversea guests are likely to see a land Iguana while adventuring the lands of Galapagos.
  • Galapagos_sea_lion_3 - A sea lion, with Silver Galapagos in the background. It's one of the few wildernesses where animals have no instinctive fear of humans, making for incredible photo opportunities.
  • Galapagos_Santiago_Floras - Santiago Floras are one of the many beautiful plants that you will see while touring the Galapagos Islands.
  • Fernandina_Island - You'll feel like an amateur geology buff after touring Fernandina Island in the Galapagos.
  • Charles_Darwin_Research_Station - Silversea guests have the option of learning about conservation efforts at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
  • baby_bird_Genovosa_Island - A young bird on Genovosa Island during a Silversea expedition.
  • blue-footed-booby_Galapagos - The flat terrain allows guests a close view of the blue-footed booby. About half of all breeding pairs nest on the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos_giant_tortoise_4 - "Wanna race? Come on, I know you do!"
  • Bartolome-aerial_2 - An aerial view of Bartolomé, one of the most scenic regions of the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos_marine_iguana - Get up close and personal with a marine iguana basking in the sun on a Silversea sailing to the Galapagos.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-Islander-sea-lions - See a mother sea lion and her pup on the shores of the Galápagos during a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition.
  • Lindblad-Expeditions-Galapagos-snorkel-sea-critter - Have an amazing snorkeling adventure with playful sea critters while on your Lindblad Expeditions tour of the Galápagos Islands.
  • sally-lightfoot-galapagos2.jpg - A Sally Lightfoot crab in the Galapagos.
  • boarding-a-Zodiac-in-Galapagos - Boarding a Zodiac in the Galápagos during a Celebrity Cruises expedition.
  • Galapagos-blue-footed-booby - Getting up close to a blue-footed booby during a shore excursion on Celebrity Xpedition.
  • Galapagos-iguana - An iguana enjoys the midday sun during a shore excursion on Celebrity Xpedition.
  • Galapagos-sea-lion-Celebrity-Xplorer - One of the remarkable sea lions seen in the Galapagos during a Celebrity cruise.
  • Galapagos-giant-tortoise-Celebrity - A giant tortoise in the Galapagos. It's the largest living species of tortoise.
  • Galapagos-giant-tortoise-Celebrity-2 -  Native to seven of the Galápagos Islands, the giant tortoise lives to more than 100 years old in the wild.
  • Celebrity-Xpedition-penthouse-suite-veranda - The penthouse suite features a private veranda with a hot tub during your cruise aboard Celebrity Xpedition.
  • Celebrity-Xpedition-couple-with-sea-lion - Marine life in the Galapagos have no fear of humans, giving photographers the chance to capture great close-ups.
  • Galapagos-iguanas - Two marine iguanas on the Galápagos Islands. Charles Darwin once described them as "hideous looking." Harsh!
  • snorkeling-Galapagos - Returning from a snorkeling expedition in the Galápagos during a shore excursion aboard Celebrity Xpedition.
  • Celebrity-Xpedition-couple-Kicker-Rock - A couple on Celebrity Xpedition watches Kicker Rock (or León Dormido), a spectacular volcanic rock formation in the Galapagos that towers 460 feet above the sea.
  • Galapagos-albatross-courting - Albatrosses courting in the Galapagos.
  • Galapagos-Bartolome-sunrise - Sunrise on Bartolomé Island in the Galápagos Islands.
  • Galapagos-Bartolome - Bartolomé Island, a volcanic islet in the Galápagos Islands.
  • Galapagos-booby-chicks - Booby chicks allowed a stranger to approach in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-Espanola-beach - The beach on Española Island in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-Espanola-rainbow - A rainbow on Espanola Island in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-frigate-bird - A frigate bird gets a little puffed up in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-hawk-taking-off - A hawk taking off in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-iguana-about-to-scratch - An iguana spotted in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-land-iguana - A land iguana, yellowish in color, grows to more than a meter in length in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-lava-lizard-on-post - A lava lizard on a post in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-lodge-front - The front of a visitors' lodge in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-lodge - A visitors' lodge in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-sea-lion-2 - A sea lion  in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-sea-lion - A sea lion  in the Galápagos.
  • Galapagos-sunrise - Sunrise in the Galápagos.
  • Ship-moored-in-Galapagos - An expedition ship moored in the Galápagos.
  • sally-lightfoot-crab.jpg - A Sally Lightfoot crab in the Galapagos.
  • marine-iguana-galapagos.jpg - A marine iguana lazes on a rock in the Galapagos.
  • galapagos-giant-tortoise.jpg - A giant tortoise in the Galapagos.
  • Sea_lions_Cerro_Brujo - Lichen-covered sea lions kick back on Cerro Brujo, a coral beach in the Galapagos.
  • galapagos-fur-seal.jpg - A fur seal seems nonplussed by approaching visitors in the Galapagos.

Galapagos travel guide: Get up close & personal with exotic species

our guide

The vibe

The Galapagos Islands, straddling the equator 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific, are among the few places on Earth where visitors can get a feel for what the world was like before the arrival of man.

Look at how cute I am! A Great Frigatebird sits on its nest during a Lindblad Expeditions visit to the Galápagos.
Courtesy of Lindblad ExpeditionsLook at how cute I am! A Great Frigatebird sits on its nest during a Lindblad Expeditions visit to the Galápagos.

The archipelago’s 18 islands and 107 rocks and islets, undisturbed by humans until the whaling era, are today a protected wildlife sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

They're also an ecological wonder and among the planet’s most isolated landforms, home to a huge diversity of animals, including giant tortoises, iguanas, fur seals, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, penguins, sea turtles and an abundance of exotic birds. Some of these creatures exist nowhere else, and most of them exhibit no fear of humans.

Megaships are not permitted to land passengers in the islands, but many touring options are available via sailboats, motor yachts, live-aboard dive boats, small ships and expedition-style vessels carrying no more than 100 passengers. The islands are protected as a national park by the nation of Ecuador, and many regulations intended to help conserve their fragile ecosystems are in effect. Cruisers explore the islands from designated landing sites in groups of no more than 16, led by licensed naturalist guides.

Cruise lines that call on the Galapagos

A popular way to visit the Galapagos is via a cruise aboard any of several small-ship and expedition-style lines and ships that carry no more than 100 passengers, including Silver Explorer, Celebrity Xpedition and Ecoventura. In addition, charters are available, as are live-aboard boats for certified divers. Most vessels book up early for the high seasons: July, August, December and early January.

Here are the top cruise lines that call on the Galapagos:

A number of smaller cruise lines (not in our database) and smaller charters can also get you to the Galapagos.

Top reasons to go

  • To observe many species of wildlife close up in their natural habitats.
  • To benefit from a rich, hands-on education in biodiversity.
  • To be absolutely fascinated by once-in-a-lifetime sights and experiences.

Reality check

If you take an expedition cruise on a small expedition ship,  don't expect the kinds of amenities and creature comforts you'd find on a larger ship, such as a choice of dining venues, onboard activities, Internet cafes, casinos or the like.  

Christine Loomis: “I love this shot. Once the turtle starting swimming toward shore, all I had to do was lay on a rocky beach for a while and wait. The Galapagos are just zillions of photo ops waiting to happen.”
Christine Loomis / Special to CruiseableChristine Loomis: “I love this shot. Once the turtle starting swimming toward shore, all I had to do was lay on a rocky beach for a while and wait. The Galapagos are just zillions of photo ops waiting to happen.”

Options for visitors

Many hotels catering to tourists, both budget and high-end, have been established in recent years on the Galápagos’ inhabited islands. in fact, 35 percent of visitors now spend at least one night on land. Consider a post-cruise stay of a few days to explore the islands from a different point of view. Contact a Cruiseable travel professional for suggestions.

The biggest choice you’ll make, besides which vessel to cruise on, is how many days to spend exploring the islands. Much depends on your budget and the depth of your interest. Vessels typically visit two landing sites per day, with itineraries (which can be combined) focused on the north, central or south islands (described in order, north to south, below).

Each landing site features a unique environment and combination of wildlife species. While cruises as short as three nights are available, a 14-night itinerary is required for the greatest variety. There are two airports in the islands, one on the island of Baltra and one on San Cristóbal. You may fly into one and out from the other.

A wild flamingo spotted in the Galapagos on a Lindblad expedition.
Courtesy of Lindblad ExpeditionsA wild flamingo spotted in the Galapagos on a Lindblad expedition.
  • San Cristóbal Island: The airport is in the provincial capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Typically, arriving cruise passengers are shuttled first to the national park interpretation center, where exhibits introduce the history of the islands in the context of nature, humankind and conservation. Many first-day itineraries also include a visit to the Cerro Colorado breeding center for endangered giant tortoises.
  • Genovesa (Tower) Island: This small island in the northeast part ofthe archipelago is known for huge colonies of frigate birds, boobies and petrels, and also has some great spots for snorkeling and kayaking.
  • Santiago Island: This is the place to see (and perhaps swim with) fur seals, and to observe marine iguanas.
  • Fernandina Island: There is only one visitor site at this westernmost, most volcanically active and most pristine of the islands. Ferocious looking marine iguanas, brightly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs, the world’s northernmost species of penguins, flightless cormorants and sea lions are among the diverse wildlife to be observed.
  • Isabela Island: This largest island in the Galapagos is home to more than 6,000 people, many of whom work in tourism. The main town, Villamil, is considered the islands’ prettiest. It has many hotels and restaurants, and is a popular for pre- and post-cruise stay-overs. Land tortoises, sea turtles, marine iguanas and many species of birds can be seen at the designated shore-excursion sites, and some itineraries also include a tortoise breeding center. Isabela, sometimes called Albemarle, is the only island in the Galapagos crossed by the equator.
  • Santa Cruz Island: This is the main tourist hub in the islands. Puerto Ayora, with some 12,000 inhabitants, is the archipelago’s largest town. Its Charles Darwin Research Center is included on many cruise itineraries. Other highlights include excursions to giant tortoise habitat in the mountainous interior, nesting areas for green sea turtles, and feeding grounds for many species of shorebirds, including flamingos.
  • Plazas Islands: Of the two tiny islands off the east shore of Santa Cruz,only South Plaza has a visitor landing site (North Plaza is reserved for research). Red-billed tropicbirds, swallow-tail gulls and an iguana that is a cross between marine and land species are among the highlights, along with a colony of more than 1,000 sea lions.
  • Baltra (South Seymour) Island: This volcanic speck just north of Santa Cruz was once a U.S. airbase and today is home to an airport connecting the Galapagos with the Ecuadorian mainland. A large colony of sea lions, as well as lava gulls and colorful crabs, easily can be observed from the sandy shoreline.
  • Santa Fe (South Plaza) Island: Sea lions, land iguanas, scuba diving and trails leading to vista points with expansive views are the main attractions at the landing sites here.
Have an amazing snorkeling adventure with playful sea critters.
Courtesy of Lindblad ExpeditionsHave an amazing snorkeling adventure with playful sea critters.
  • North Seymour Island: If you’ve been itching to get up close and personal with the prehistoric-looking marine iguanas for which the islands are so well known, this is the place. Blue-footed boobies and frigate birds are the other marquee species to be observed here.
  • Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island: This is perhaps the most visited and most photographed island in the chain, primarily due to iconic Pinnacle Rock and the presence of Galapagos penguins,  the only wild penguin species on the equator. Great swimming, too.
  • Santiago Island: Included on most itineraries, this uninhabited island is known for its colony of fur seals.
  • Floreana Island: This island’s interesting human history includes a “post office” established by whalers in in 1793. While the island has been greatly altered by human presence, shore excursions at two sites provide great snorkeling and opportunities to observe flamingos and sea turtles.
  • Española (Hood) Island: The southernmost island in the chain is a classic shield volcano and home to a giant tortoise species rescued from the brink of extinction, as well as large populations of sea lions, lava lizards and blue-footed boobies. It is also the only breeding site in the world for the endangered waved albatross, whose nesting grounds are considered by many visitors to be the highlight of their Galápagos visit. The island has a beach for swimming and snorkeling.

Family-friendly trips to the Galapagos

If you plan to give your children the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of a visit to the Galápagos, you may want to choose a vessel offering special programing for them. Lindblad Expeditions which teams with National Geographic for these kinds of expeditions, offers special kids-only programs, including photo workshops and hands-on science and conservation projects.

YOLO (You only live once!)

If money’s no object, gather some friends and charter a yacht. Why not?

See a Galapagos giant tortoise close up on a Silversea cruise.
Courtesy of Silversea CruisesSee a Galapagos giant tortoise close up on a Silversea cruise.

Before you go

Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, an account of his momentous 1835 visit to the islands, is a very readable introduction to the observations behind his theory of natural selection, which rocked the Victorian world and continue to make waves in conservative religious circles.

Best bets for dining

The cruise lines provide meals as part of your itinerary. You'll also likely spend lunchtime on one or two days at restaurants in the towns, which serve local and international fare. In Puerto Aroya or other towns, don’t miss out on ceviche, lobster and other seafood specialties. Depending on the itinerary, you may also take your daytime meals on your cruise vessel. In the evening, swap tales over dinner with fellow ship passengers, some of whom may have gone on a different outing that day.

Best time to go

Cruises operate year-round. Weather is influenced by ocean currents, and what you’ll see in terms of wildlife activity varies according to the life cycles of individual species.

December to May is the warmer season, with daytime highs averaging in the high 70s to 80s. Afternoon showers are frequent, but the seas and wind are calmer. June to December is drier and cooler, with average daytime temperatures in the low 70s. During this season, the “garua” (fog) comes in, and seas are rougher. But hiking is more comfortable, and wildlife — particularly whales, whale sharks, dolphins and nesting albatross — are more active.

Wet season: The warm currents surrounding the islands December-April bringing calm seas, water temperatures in the 70s, daytime highs in the high 80s and sporadic rains. March is the hottest month and also the peak of the rainy season.

Dry season: Between May and November, the Humboldt and Peru currents arrive to plunge water temperatures into the 60s. Trade winds blow, a sea mist known as garúa sometimes sets in, and daytime temperatures are cooler, typically in the very comfortable lower 70s. Rain is infrequent.

High season: May, June and November to mid-January are the busiest months for tourism.

Fun (and not so fun) facts

Flat terrain allows guests a close view of the blue-footed booby. About half of all breeding pairs nest on the Galápagos.
Photo courtesy of Silversea CruisesFlat terrain allows guests a close view of the blue-footed booby. About half of all breeding pairs nest on the Galapagos.
  • Charles Darwin arrived in the Galápagos aboard the HMS Beagle in September 1835, when he was 26 years old. He was not a scientist but a lapsed seminary student who came aboard the years-long surveying expedition as an amateur naturalist and social companion to the captain, Admiral Robert FitzRoy, also in his 20s. Darwin suffered terribly from sea-sickness and welcomed the opportunity during his five weeks in the islands to collect plants, rocks, birds and insects on solid land. He noticed that various species, finches and tortoises in particular, varied in appearance from island to island. His famous theory of natural selection, which holds that evolutionary change is derived through biological traits that become more or less common from generation to generation, was set out in his 1859 tome On the Origin of Species, and remains controversial in some quarters to this day.
  • Ever since the first whalers arrived in the late 1700s and began harvesting tortoises and marine life, the islands’ delicate ecosystems have been increasingly threatened. Population pressures, poaching, tourism, politics, pollution, introduced species and global warming are among threats to the islands today.

Getting there

Cruises begin and end in the islands, and whether or not you arrange your flights or leave it to your cruise line, it’s advisable to arrive in Quito or Guayaquil, on the Ecuador mainland, at least two days in advance to avoid having your plans dashed by a canceled flight or other delay. It’s a 90-minute flight from Guayquil to the islands; add an hour if originating in Quito. Depending on your itinerary, you will fly in and out of airports on the islands of Baltra or San Cristóbal. Most visitors booked on a cruise or land tour are met by an escort and transferred to a departure point.

When you arrive

Docking information

On larger vessels, transfers from ship to shore are made by water taxi in port towns and by Zodiac or other inflatable craft at uninhabited visitor sites.

Getting around

Specific established areas on inhabited islands can be visited on your own. Otherwise, visitors are required to be accompanied by naturalist guides licensed at various levels of expertise. Some are trained only to enforce the rules (staying on designated paths, etc.), while others are highly educated experts in various biological fields. In general, top-tier guides are hired by top-tier cruise lines.

Need to know

Documents needed: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport and a transit card (arranged by your cruise company). In addition, all visitors must pay a $100 cash fee, earmarked for conservation, upon arrival. Because of concerns about counterfeiting, bills over U.S. $20 are not accepted.

Language: Spanish is Ecuador’s native language, but English is widely spoken in the islands and by tour guides.

Currency: The U.S. dollar replaced the sucre as legal tender in 2000.

ShoreFox contributed to this guide.

Your take

Let's hear from you. Have you been to the Galapagos? Planning to go? I'd love to hear about your adventure or see your photos!

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Janet Fullwood
Janet Fullwood is an editor, writer and photographer-at-large specializing in travel and hospitality topics.

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Overheard

"A zoologist's dream, the Galápagos Islands afford a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness animals found nowhere else on the planet. … No one who has walked among these unique creatures will ever forget the experience."

Fodor's

"One of the most memorable scenes was a white sand beach on Floreana, where I sat on a bed of volcanic rock amid scuttling Sally Lightfoot crabs, mesmerized by turquoise wavelets lapping the shore. It seemed like a vision of earth in its early, Edenic days, and of the world as it could be."

New York Times

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