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The Galápagos Islands: Fifteen Things To Know Before You Go

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My Galápagos Islands cruise was a trip I’d been dreaming about for years, but despite that, it still managed to exceed my expectations, which is rare. But, as well as exceeding my expectations, these far-flung, remote islands ended up being completely different to how I imagined them to be.

Until a few years ago, when I traveled to South America for the very first time, I had pictured the islands to be much more desolate than they actually are – basically only inhabited by wild creatures. Back then, I had already been told by other travelers that the islands are far more inhabited than I thought they were. And while cruising between several islands this year, I learned a few more things that I think are good to know if you are planning your own trip to the Galápagos Islands, or if you just want to find out more about one of the most remote archipelagos in the world.

Here are eleven things about the Galápagos Islands that you should know before you go:galapagos giant tortoise

1 The Islands are far out in the Ocean

While the Galápagos Islands belong to the tiny Andean country of Ecuador, they are in fact very far from the rest of the country – 560 miles, to be exact. The islands are far out in the Pacific Ocean, and it takes just under two hours to fly there from Guayaquil, the closest airport on the mainland, and 2 hours 15 minutes from Quito, Ecuador’s capital.

galapagos island rock

2 How Many Islands are There?

The archipelago consists of 13 major islands, five of which are inhabited, and six smaller islands. Several of the smaller islets are not inhabited by humans at all, only by wildlife. There are over 100 small islets or rocks in addition to the bigger islands.

The islands sit right on the equator and are home to over 25,000 people. About half of them live in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, which makes it by far the biggest settlement of the archipelago.

All of the islands are volcanic, and were formed 4 million years ago by lava oozing upward from the floor of the ocean. Some of the volcanoes are active to this day.

espumilla beach galapagos

3 Unique Species

One thing the Galápagos Islands are famous for is their variety of wildlife, including species endemic to the islands, i.e. you will see animals that you won’t see anywhere else in the world, such as the Galápagos fur seal, the Galápagos land iguana, the Galápagos sea lion, the Galápagos land tortoise, and the marine iguana (the only lizard that can swim). The Galápagos Islands are also the only place in the entire world where penguins live along the equator.

In addition to the species that are unique to the Galápagos Islands, there are dozens of other species, none of which seem to care about the presence of visitors. Sightings of blue-footed boobies, great frigate birds, marine iguanas, giant tortoises, hammerhead sharks, manta rays and flamingos are pretty much guaranteed.

sally lightfoot crabCharles Darwin visited the islands in 1835, and his study of the local wildlife contributed significantly to his theory of evolution, later published in his famous book ‘The Origin Of Species’.

Thanks to their remarkable wildlife, the Galápagos Islands were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.
galapagos islands marine iguana

4 Many Species on the Islands are Endangered

Sadly, many of the species that are unique to the Galápagos, such as the Giant Tortoise, have been endangered for centuries, starting from when Spanish explorers in the 17th century killed them for their meat, and later pirates hunted them for their shells. 16 of 20 song bird species only found in the Galápagos are threatened, and some species are entirely extinct.

It is sad to see so many of these unique species endangered, but the good news is that the Ecuadorian government is putting a lot of effort into protecting this unique eco-system and its inhabitants.galapagos giant tortoise dani

You’ll notice these protective measures even before you board your plane for the islands – it is prohibited to bring in any agricultural goods (like fruits) because non-native plants and animals pose one of the biggest challenges to the conservation of the Galápagos Islands. This is why each and every bag is thoroughly checked for fresh produce before you check in.

The National Park tax of $100 that every visitor pays upon arrival at the airport also goes towards the protection of the natural habitat of the islands.
galapagos sea lion

5 Not all of the Islands Don’t Feel Remote

The Galapagos Islands are often portrayed as this desolate group of islands out in the middle of the ocean – but several islands are inhabited and these don’t have the ‘undiscovered island’ feel which you might have experienced on a visit to the Galápagos pre-1969, when the only way to get there was by boat – daily flight connections didn’t exist.

Over 25,000 people call the Galápagos Islands home, with nearly half of them living on Santa Cruz Island. San Cristobal Island is home to 6,000 people, Isabela has 1,800 inhabitants, and a mere 100 people are living on Floreana Island.galapagos beach

6 Before Booking a Cruise

Before booking a Galápagos cruise, it is a good idea to ‘shop around’ a bit: compare prices,  see what’s included in the trip and what isn’t, and read reviews of the tour company from previous customers.

When comparing different tour operators, these are questions you should get answered:

  • What’s the itinerary for the cruise?
  • How many passengers are on board?
  • What’s included in the trip?
  • Are there any additional fees you should be aware of?
  • Are snorkeling equipment and wet suits included?
  • Will there be shared cabins (if you are traveling solo)?

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7 Visiting the Galapagos Islands Independently is Possible

For a long time, the best way to see the Galapagos was to take a cruise, but in recent years it has become much easier to visit the islands independently. For one, flights from the mainland have become more affordable (the standard fare is currently around $280 for a return flight from Guayaquil, and $300 from Quito). There are more independent guesthouses and hotels on the inhabited islands, and thanks to Airbnb, people on the islands are now able to rent out private rooms or their entire apartment easily.

You don’t have to take a cruise anymore to visit the islands – you can simply fly into one of the two airports, Baltra or San Cristobal, base yourself on one of the four islands that are inhabited/have hotels or other accommodation (San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela), and take day trips from there.galapagos airbnbThis is especially interesting for those who’d like to experience this unique group of islands for longer than only a few days. On Airbnb, you can rent apartments for a month or longer, with monthly rentals for less than $1,000 – much cheaper than a week-long cruise.

Day Trips vs Cruises

Yes, it is less costly to fly straight to the Galápagos Islands, base yourself there, and then take day trips to other islands or to some of the famous snorkeling spots. However, I greatly appreciated being on a cruise because there are several spots around the islands that are so far from the inhabited islands that it’s only possible to get there if you are on a cruise.

If you don’t mind not being able to get to some of the more remote spots (which usually have plenty of wildlife), then basing yourself on the islands is a great way to experience the Galápagos without having to join a tour group (and being ‘stuck’ on a boat with people you may not like for a few days!).galapagos giant tortoisesThis is especially true on Santa Cruz Island, as it is easy to get around via taxi and bus or even just walking. You’ll see wildlife in town (herons and other birds, and sea lions) and you can visit popular wildlife spots on the island. It is also possible to rent bikes to cycle to further away spots.

There are ferry services and flights between the inhabited islands – see more details below in #11.
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8 Last Minute Deals for Cruises are not a Myth

If you are planning to visit the Galápagos Islands as part of a greater South America journey or a trip around Ecuador, like I did, it is definitely possible to find last minute deals to the Galápagos Islands. The first guesthouse I stayed at in Quito had its own on-site travel agency that was selling last-minute deals for Galápagos cruises, and in Guayaquil most hostels, hotels and a number of tour operators sell Galápagos deals. I even saw last-minute offers in Montañita and Cuenca, albeit to a lesser extent.

These deals can get you a Galápagos Islands cruise for up to 60% less than the original price of the cruise, it only requires some flexibility on your part – you may need to wait around for a few days for the cruise to leave. Remember that you still have to pay for your flight to get to the islands, which is usually not included in the deal, but which doesn’t go up in price as much as prices within the U.S. would if booked only a couple of days prior to your departure date.galapagos frigate birdYou can also fly directly to the Galápagos Islands and look for last minute cruises directly in Puerto Ayora, where the majority of cruises depart. This has the advantage that you can see the boat before handing over the money and meet the guide that will be on board. Having a good, knowledgeable guide can make or break the trip.

The prices for last-minute cruises range from $650 to $1,400 (depending on the length of the cruise and the quality of the vessel), but remember that the lowest price also means less comfort on the boat, not the greatest meals, and possibly a less interesting route, which is why it is important to inquire about all of these things before you commit to a boat (see #6).galapagos sealIMPORTANT: Don’t expect to find last-minute deals during peak season though, i.e. between Christmas and New Year’s and around Easter. If you can only travel during these times, you have to book a cruise in advance.

9 The Quality of the Cruises Varies Greatly

This is especially important to know when you book a last minute deal. The prices of Galápagos Islands cruises vary drastically – there are cruises for as little as $1,400, and cruises for as much as $12,000 (regular price, not a last minute deal). Be aware that you’ll literally get what you pay for.Galapagos Islands Majestic Yacht

What does that mean? Well, on budget cruises it is common to share a cabin with a stranger. A friend of mine who booked a last minute cruise for around $1,000 had to share a cabin with a fellow passenger – who happened to be a man. Luckily for her, it worked out well, but I know that not everybody would be comfortable in a situation like that.

And I was spoiled on my luxury cruise with snacks after every snorkeling trip and land excursion, as well as buffet-style lunches and dinners, with plenty of vegetarian options, but budget cruises have a more limited selection of food, no snacks in between meals, and the quality of the food can be disappointing.

Budget cruises also may not have the best quality equipment for snorkeling and diving, or charge an extra fee for wet suits / snorkeling equipment.

WikiTravel has a comprehensive list of Galapagos cruise operators, from budget to splurge, along with some more tips what to look out for when booking a cruise.
galapagos islands penguin

10 Life on the Boat

Cruises range from four to eight days. But be aware that if you take a four-day tour, this includes flying in and flying out, which means that essentially you will only have three or a max. of three and a half days on the islands. I’d recommend at least a five day cruise, but if you can afford an eight day cruise, definitely go for it.

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The Boats

Boats range from 16 people yachts to 98 passenger boats. Mid-sized boats fit 48 passengers. It makes a big difference if you are on a small yacht where all passengers can go on land and snorkeling excursions together, or if you are on a big boat where people have to take turns and do the excursions in smaller groups. Basically, you’ll have to be okay with spending time on the boat just waiting until it’s your turn if you choose a larger boat. There’s also less of a ‘remote islands’ feeling to a cruise with 97 other passengers. When my small group went on an island excursion, it truly felt like we were the only ones there, and I loved not having to take turns when snorkeling.galapagos islands pelican and majestic yacht

What about Seasickness?

I was a bit worried about getting seasick, considering how far out in the open ocean the islands are, but I visited during dry season (January – June), when the seas are generally calmer than during wet season (July – December). During my first night, I did feel a bit dizzy when the boat started moving, but luckily the feeling passed quickly. To be safe, I’d recommend wearing a seasickness wristband, which some of my fellow passengers were using.

If you are prone to seasickness, try not to cruise the islands between August and October, when the ocean is the roughest.

Sailboats generally move more than wider motorboats and catamarans, so check what kind of boat you’re traveling on.

The location of your cabin does play a role too. Ask for a cabin located in the middle of the boat, away from the motor and as low as possible (lower deck, if there are two decks).galapagos lava

11 What Does it Cost to Visit the Galápagos Islands?

Costs that occur for everybody visiting the islands, no matter if on a tour, a cruise, or independently, are:

  • $20 transit control fee (to be paid in cash at the departure airport for the Galápagos Islands, usually Quito or Guayaquil)
  • $100 National Park Entrance Fee (to be paid in cash at arrival in the Galápagos Islands airport – Baltra or San Cristobal)
  • $300 return flight to the Galápagos Islands

Prices for a Galápagos cruise are roughly per day:

  • Tourist class $240-$340
  • First-class $340-$450
  • Luxury ships $450 and up
galapagos yacht majesticBetween June and December, during wet season, cruises are 15% to 20% cheaper.

You have to tip your guide and crew (budget $10 – $20 per day for tipping, depending on the price you’re paying for your cruise. As a rule of thumb – the nicer the boat, the higher the amount is that you’re expected to tip).

If you visit the islands on your own, you can find a private room in a hostel, guesthouse or Airbnb for around $30 per night. Entire apartments start at $50 per night. Booking.com has plenty of double rooms for less than $40 a night.

Ferries in between the islands are around $30 per person, and there are flights between Baltra, Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristoba, which are around $160 one way.

Tours range from $60 to $180 per person, depending on the length and scope of the tour.galapagos small plane

12 Money Matters

ATMs/Credit Cards

On the topic of money, it is noteworthy that there are very few ATMs on the islands, and if you are not basing yourself on one of them, taking a cruise instead, you may not even come across one – we wouldn’t have stopped in a port with an ATM at all, had the national election not taken place during my visit, which meant the crew on our boat had to visit land to vote, and we had some free time in Puerto Ayora.galapagos cactus

Currency: US Dollars

Ecuador introduced the U.S. Dollar as its official currency in 2000.

All ATMs give U.S. Dollars, or if you are visiting from the U.S., make sure to bring enough cash from home, because not a lot of businesses take credit cards. You’ll need cash for alcohol on board, to tip your crew, and if you stop at a bar or restaurant in Puerto Ayora or San Cristóbal, where cash is king. Note that most places do not accept $100 bills.

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Tipping

The amount you’re supposed to tip varies, depending on the level of luxury of your cruise, but note that you have to tip both the naturalist guide on board as well as the crew. Amounts range from $140 to $250 for a week-long cruise – don’t forget to factor this in when calculating your Galapagos budget.

13 Can you Connect to WiFi?

If you book a Galapagos cruise, you most likely will be offline the entire time. Even though I had an Ecuadorian SIM card, I did NOT have reception on the boat about 90% of the time, and my SkyRoam wifi hotspot didn’t work in Ecuador.

Since we had a couple of hours on land one day, I was able to quickly check my email in a restaurant on Santa Cruz Island, but the WiFi was painfully slow there. If you decide to base yourself on one of the islands, don’t expect great internet speeds.galapagos island volcanic rock

14 A Tour Guide Is Obligatory

It is a rule of the National Park that you can’t tour the islands on your own – you always have to be accompanied by a licensed Galápagos National Park guide. Don’t forget to budget for this when planning day trips on the islands. If you visit the islands on a cruise, the guide is already included in the price of the cruise, but you still need to tip him.galapagos birds

15 Packing Essentials

The good thing is that you’re only allowed one checked bag and one carry-on bag on flights to the Galápagos Islands, so you can’t really overpack.

Don’t worry too much about buying special gear or outfits for the trip – remember that many people visit the islands while they’re touring all of South America, only carrying a backpack for a twelve-month trip. I visited the Galápagos Islands as part of a three-month trip through Latin America, so I also didn’t have much space to spare for specialty items, but here is what I bought particularly for my Galápagos Islands cruise:

Sunscreen – If you think you can pick up sun block on the way to the islands, be aware that it is pricey at the airport. My friends paid $30 for a bottle of sun block at the airport in Guayaquil, and it’s about the same price on the islands.galapagos beach

Underwater Camera – I watched Nomadic Boys’ underwater footage from their Galapagos trip before I left on my trip and decided I needed to be able to film underwater, too. I felt like I’d miss out not having an underwater camera. Since I wasn’t sure to what extent I’d use the camera beyond the snorkeling trips on the Galápagos Islands, I didn’t want to invest in a GoPro, and I am glad I didn’t. I think the footage I took with my AKASO turned out okay for first time underwater filming, and I have barely touched the camera since I returned from Latin America. A GoPro is quite an investment, but looking at the The BucketList Family’s footage from our trip, it is definitely worth it, if you are into filming.galapagos sea starsSwim suit/Swim shirt with UV protection – Wearing a wet suit for the snorkeling trips is optional, and you might end up snorkeling in your swimsuit most of the time, like I did. So make sure to pack comfortable swimwear.

If you don’t want to deal with getting in and out of a wetsuit but prefer to snorkel in swim gear, you might want to pack a long-sleeve swim shirt with UV protection to avoid getting sunburnt.

Sandals – For me, my flip flops were sufficient, but be aware that the outdoor floors on the boat are often slippery. If you feel more comfortable doing the wet landings (getting in and out of the dinghy in knee-deep water) in shoes, I recommend waterproof sandals or some sturdy Teva’s. (I did them barefoot and it was fine).

Windbreaker – This is especially important if you visit the islands between June and December, the so-called ‘wet season’, when cool winds occur regularly. I personally love my Columbia windbreaker/rain jacket, and this was the only jacket I brought on the trip, btw.

Camera with Zoom Lens – Many of my fellow passengers on the boat told me during the trip that they regretted not having bought an additional zoom lens for the trip – and I was beyond grateful that I had packed my 300mm wildlife zoom lens. 300mm is not a lot, but it made a huge difference in the pictures I was able to get throughout the trip.

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Waterproof Bag – When we took the dinghy to go on land excursions, I always packed my camera and phone in my waterproof bag to keep them dry. I did the same when we went on snorkeling excursions and I brought my (non-waterproof) dSLR camera to snap some pictures above water. With the waterproof bag, I could just leave it on the dinghy while we were snorkeling without having to worry about the camera getting wet.

Reusable Water Bottle – The authorities have very strict laws in place to protect the environment on the Galapagos Islands. Bring a reusable water bottle to keep your carbon footprint to a minimum. The boats usually provide drinking water which you can fill in your bottle.

Motion Sickness Pills – If you are prone to seasickness, pack some Dramamine or even a Seaband wristband. Better safe than sorry! See above for more information on seasickness during a Galapagos Islands cruise.

First Aid Kit – If you’re taking a cruise, remember that you’re on a boat with limited access to pharmacies and medical care. I recommend packing pain killers such as Ibuprofen or Tylenol, diarrhea medicine, and Pepto-Bismol, if you have a sensitive tummy. Pack some band aids in case you cut yourself on an underwater rock, an antiseptic, and everything you usually have in your first aid kit.

Padlock – If you are on a boat where you share the cabin with a stranger, you might want to bring a padlock to be able to lock your valuables in your suitcase.

Binoculars – Especially if you’re a bird watcher!galapagos bird

And Last But not Least: Travel Insurance

Since you’re far out in the ocean, in the event of a medical emergency it is likely that you will be flown back to the mainland for medical attention. This can get pricey – so make sure to buy travel insurance for the duration of your stay in Ecuador. I opted for World Nomads‘ slightly more expensive Explorer policy instead of the Standard policy, because the Explorer option covers diving and snorkeling.Galapagos Jump

Got any questions that I didn’t answer in this article? Ask away in the comments!

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