Online guide to visiting Galapagos Islands in Ecuador

An exotic archipelago unique in the world


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Galápagos Province, Ecuador

GPS: -0.21970280223491, -89.991071689624

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Annexed to Ecuador in 1832, the Galápagos Islands form a volcanic archipelago of 120 islands, islets, reefs and rocky outcrops a thousand kilometres from the South American coast. They are home to the Galápagos National Park covering 97% of the archipelago’s surface area and a huge protected marine reserve of almost 140,000 km², to which visits are carefully controlled. The Galápagos Islands are among the largest marine protected areas on the planet behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This exceptionally rich and diverse location in the Pacific Ocean is home to many endemic species of fauna and flora found nowhere else on Earth.

The Galápagos Islands are a popular destination for naturalists and scientists. The variety of animal and exotic species found here differs according to the geology and natural environment of the islands (colonies of land iguanas in Plaza Sur, flightless cormorants in Fernandina, albatrosses and marine iguanas in Española, penguins in Isabela, blue-footed boobies in North Seymour, giant sea tortoises in Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal…). Due to their geographical isolation, their volcanic activity, their exposure to the waves of the Pacific and their location at the confluence of three ocean currents, the Galápagos Islands have inherited a marine and terrestrial ecosystem that is unique in the world. These diverse geological features have created islands of all sizes and shapes. Considered to be the best preserved tropical archipelago in the world, the Galápagos Islands have 95% of its wildlife intact despite an increasing human presence and increase in tourism in recent years.

Also known as the Columbus Archipelago or the Enchanted Isles, the Galápagos Islands are a showcase for the world’s biodiversity, which is seriously threatened by global warming. This oasis cut off from the world in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is one of the most fragile environments on the planet. The originality of the animal species, coupled with the countless fine sandy beaches, give the Galápagos an air of paradise on earth. It is also one of the most volcanically active archipelagos in the world.

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  • The unique ecosystem of the Galápagos Islands; the archipelago’s unusual vegetation and flora (each island has a unique flora and fauna with a total of more than 2,000 endemic species)
  • The incredible variety and quantity of marine and terrestrial fauna including many protected species (sea iguanas, lava lizards, penguins, Galápagos penguins, sea lions, seals, Giant tortoises, whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, Orcas, manta rays, pelicans, pink flamingos, flightless cormorants, magnificent frigate birds, albatrosses, blue or red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, Galápagos hawks, transparent jellyfish…)
  • The contrast of colours between the dark volcanic rocks and the white sandy beaches
  • On San Cristóbal Island, the beaches of Playa Mann, Las Loberias, Puerto Chino; the El Junco Lagoon located within a volcano; the Giant Tortoise Centre (Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado); the greenish-coloured beach of Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island (colouring given by a natural mineral called olivine); the bird sanctuary of Punta Suarez on Española Island (nesting place)
  • On Santa Cruz Island, the discovery of the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora (a breeding ground for endemic species of the archipelago); the beaches of Bahia Tortuga, Los Alemanes and Garrapatero; the Cueva Gallardo lava tunnels; the Los Gemelos crater; the El Chato and Rancho Primicias tortoise reserves; the coastal path along the lagoon Las Ninfas
  • On Isabela Island, hiking around the Chico and Sierra Negra volcanoes (second largest crater in the world) or on Los Tuneles site (lava tunnels); bike tours of the natural sites Concha Perla, Flamingo Lagoon and Los humedales; the giant tortoise centre (Centro de Crianza Tortugas Gigantes)
  • The volcanic islands of North Seymour and Bartolomé are among the most beautiful landscapes of the archipelago (whose bay illustrates a scene from the film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”); the fabulous panorama from the top of Santa Fe Island; the León Dormido geological formation on the small uninhabited island of the same name; La Cumbre volcano on Fernandina Island (which erupted in 2018 and early 2020); the large bird colonies on Genovesa Island; the presence of mangroves on Baltra Island
  • Cruises or boat trips around the archipelago departing from the islands of Santa Cruz (Puerto Ayora), Baltra or San Cristóbal (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno)
  • Surfing, kayaking, swimming or scuba diving (at the Kicker Rock site or on Wolf, Lobos, Isabela and Darwin Islands); conservation efforts and awareness-raising activities undertaken by the Charles Darwin Foundation since its creation in 1959
  • The volcanic islands of the Galápagos date back three million years. They consist of 13 large islands, 17 small islands and several dozen islets shared between the northern and southern hemispheres on either side of Earth’s Equator.
  • In their history, the Galápagos Islands have never been connected to a continent, which explains the uniqueness of its flora and fauna. These islands are located on a hot spot whose volcanic activity is fed by the tectonic movements of the Nazca Plate. There are still about 20 volcanoes on the archipelago, 13 of which are active.
  • The waters of the Galápagos form the meeting point of three marine currents: the Humboldt Current (cold waters from Antarctica), El Niño (warm equatorial current) and the Cromwell Current (originating in the cold depths of the central Pacific).
  • Due to the isolated nature of the islands, most animals are not shy about being seen by humans, not considering them as possible predators (on the contrary, some species are very curious). Nevertheless, there are now more plant species imported by man to the archipelago than there are plants endemic to the islands. Certain animal species, considered invasive (such as rats, pigs and goats), constitute a new danger to the balance and preservation of the area.
  • Floreana Island (or Santa María) is the first to be permanently occupied by man. It was home to a small penal colony (Asilo de la Paz) in Ecuador in the first half of the 19th century. Nowadays, the island is inhabited by less than 200 people and about 25,000 people reside year-round in the Galápagos archipelago.
  • The Galápagos Islands have the largest concentration of green turtles in the entire Pacific. These giant land turtles gave their name to this Ecuadorian archipelago (Galápago means “horse saddle” in Spanish). Galápagos giant tortoises can live up to 200 years and weigh more than 250 kg. According to scientists, their exceptional longevity can be explained by their genetic capacity to repair their DNA (thanks to the presence of a number of genetic variants that facilitate healing). In the 18th and 19th centuries, pirates and whalers used them on a large scale as a food reserve on their ships (these turtles are capable of spending several months without eating or drinking).
  • The giant species of Galápagos tortoises largely inspired the theory of Charles Darwin, a British naturalist, on evolution and natural selection during his visit to the archipelago in 1835 (study published in 1859). Earlier, the Galápagos Islands had been discovered by the Spanish navigator and Bishop of Panama Tomas de Berlanga in 1535 and visited by the Scottish captain Basil Hall in 1820.
  • At the beginning of 2020, the living specimen of a giant tortoise whose species had been considered extinct for several decades was discovered around the Wolf volcano on Isabela Island. In total, the Galápagos archipelago has 11 species or subspecies of giant tortoises (there were 15 when Charles Darwin arrived in 1835) and are regularly the subject of breeding programmes.
  • The Galápagos Iguana is the only species of sea lizard in the world. It is highly adaptable and lives both on land and in the sea. This cold-blooded reptile is fond of sunbathing at dawn to raise its body temperature. At night, it gathers with other individuals of the same species to conserve a maximum of heat. This lizard is similar to a small dragon (it can be one-metre long). It feeds exclusively on algae and is able to remain underwater for 20 minutes. The land iguana, feeds mainly on the stems or fruits of cacti.
  • The Galápagos marine iguana population has been in decline for about the last 15 years (hundreds of thousands of specimens are thought to have disappeared in this time). Scientists believe that global warming is the cause of major natural imbalances which are becoming increasingly frequent (such as El Niño meteorological phenomenon which is impoverishing the seabed). Indeed, the appearance of warm sea currents drastically reduces the growth and presence of green algae, the main source of food for marine iguanas. Deprived of food, marine iguanas tend to eat other types of algae which prove to be toxic and impossible for lizards to digest.
  • The flightless cormorant, endemic to the Galápagos, has lost its ability to fly due to the lack of predators on the archipelago but has evolved into a very skilful feeder.
  • A living laboratory of evolution, the Galápagos Islands was the first site to be registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. In 2007, it was included on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to the many threats to its environment. Even today, the Galapagos Islands are the only place that meets all four of UNESCO’s natural heritage criteria (only one of these criteria is required for a natural site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List).
  • Over the last 40 years, the number of visitors to the Galápagos Islands has increased 20-fold, from 10,000 tourists to 200,000 per year.
  • The archipelago has two airports on the islands of Baltra and San Cristóbal, both linked to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, or to the city of Guayaquil (approximately 1.5 hours flight time). It is also possible to visit the islands by sea.
  • Accommodation is limited on the Galápagos Islands and it is advisable to book accommodation timeously.
  • Access to most of the Galápagos Islands is only possible with the services of an official guide. It is the National Park authority that decides on the itineraries of the islands that can be visited according to the days and times of the year in order to preserve the local ecosystem. If you intend to visit several islands during your stay, make sure you do not carry any organic material with you (your shoes or bags will be confiscated if necessary).
  • December to May is the period when the waters are warmest. The archipelago enjoys a stable climate all year round without hurricanes or storms.
  • Make sure you reduce your environmental footprint as much as possible, as this archipelago is particularly sensitive and fragile to human presence. It is therefore important not to give food to any animals and is also forbidden to approach an animal within two-metres or to leave the marked paths.
  • The Galápagos Islands can also be visited virtually thanks to a partnership created between Google, the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Galápagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) and Catlin Seaview Survey (an organization specializing in the scientific study of coral reefs).

Where to eat

  • Lo y Lo
    (Ecuadorian cuisine)
  • Coco Surf
    (cocktails and delicious meals)
  • Natsumi
    (wide variety of fresh sushi)

Where to go

  • Cerro Tijeretas
    (hiking with magnificent views)
  • Santa Cruz Market
    (stream of fresh fish)
  • Lava tubes
    (volcanic tubes)

Where to stay

  • La K-leta de Dona Yoly...
    (charming guest house)
  • Galápagos Casa Playa Mann
    (a stone's throw from the beach)
  • Semilla Verde Lodge & Spa
    (surrounded by greenery)