As you first fly over the Galapagos, 13 little specks way out 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast in the Pacific Ocean, the islands give little away of what you are yet to discover on your Galapagos vacation. Jagged, seemingly uninhabitable shocks of land surrounded by an infinity of blue do not make for the most promising of arrivals. Yet it’s this very ocean that holds the secrets to the extraordinary lifeforms that await: five wildly varied currents from across the planet converge here, bringing with them beings from their far flung origins.
But aside from a meeting spot of marine currents, the Galapagos Islands are so much more; a Galapagos Islands holiday can be many things to many people. A wildlife holy land, a diver’s paradise, an immersion in volcanic history, the inspiration of the Theory of Evolution, a playground for adventure sports. But further, deeper than that: this archipelago is our connection to the essence of life itself, a living example of how the power of the Earth can create and destroy, an analogy of what the world might have been were in not for the existence of man.
Galapagos National Park
It’s a triumph – and a struggle – of conservation, which sees the Galapagos National Park, which opened in 1986, toil to protect the creatures and unique landscapes from the visitors, who conversely pay for its safeguard and survival. And though 97% of the whole archipelago is part of this shielded sanctuary, only 1% open to visitors – the rest as unfathomable and unknowable as the prehistoric creatures that were the ancestors of the ones we see today.
In this microcosm, where, as Charles Darwin noted, each island is “a world unto itself” a Galapagos vacation is like stepping back to a land before time, where penguins and iguanas make incongruous partners and humans are just another beast in a land of creatures unbothered to change their behavior. Making way for a giant Pacific Green turtle, stepping over chubby sea lions, honking as they lounge over walkways and benches like drunkards, and tripping on the chunky tail of a marine iguana are all in a morning’s work for the Galapagos traveler.
Neotropic Expeditions on the archipelago
But our Galapagos, the Neotropic Expeditions Galapagos, takes that even further, seeking answers from the humans who populate a handful of the islands. Alfredo Meneses, Co-Founder of Neotropic Expeditions, worked on the archipelago as a guide after he graduated in the 1980s.
“At that time there were just 500 people living on Santa Cruz. Now there are 12,000, some descendants of pioneers, others newer to the islands, each able to share the customs of fishing, survival, and now, sustainability,” he says
On a Galapagos vacation, these islands challenge you: to know them, traverse them, understand their secrets. Alfredo, who knows the islands like few others do, explains:
“You will hike through the strangest, spooky landscapes. You will come face to face with innumerate creatures, by land and by sea. You will discover a unique way of life and the strange stories of those who live surrounded by thousands of miles of water.”
And, furthermore, you will come a little closer to comprehending the very meaning of existence.
How do you travel to the Galapagos Islands?
Located around 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast in the Pacific Ocean, the only way to arrive at the archipelago is by air. Here’s how to do it.
To begin your Galapagos vacation, you’ll first have to fly to mainland Ecuador. There are regular flights from Miami, New York and Europe, arriving into either the capital, Quito, or Guayaquil, the country’s largest city.
While you’re there, you might want to explore Ecuador too, checking out the Amazon, the Andes, or the Pacific Coast.
You can fly to Galapagos from either Quito (flight time approximately one hour 45 minutes) or Guayaquil (flight time approximately 35 minutes).
The Galapagos Islands have two main airports: one on Baltra (close to Santa Cruz island), the other on San Cristobal. Both are modern airports with souvenir stores and food courts.
If you fly into Baltra – the world’s first green airport – you take a short, free bus ride down to the Canal de Itabaca. There’s a short ferry ride across the channel towards Santa Cruz, and then a journey of around an hour by bus or taxi to the main town of Puerto Ayora.
San Cristobal’s airport is located in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, not far from many of the island’s best hotels.
When is the best time to go on a Galapagos vacation?
In a nutshell: any time at all! Unlike many other nature hotspots around the world, the Galapagos Islands are a year-round destination. Whichever month you choose to go on your Galapagos vacation you are bound to get up close and personal with a great variety of wildlife as endemic species here are not migratory, they simply adjust themselves to the weather and food conditions. Plus, with such astounding biodiversity, there’s something going on in the natural world every month of the year, whether it’s the waved albatross returning to the islands in March, baby flamingos being born in May, or giant tortoises mating in October.
However, two strong ocean currents meet at the archipelago: the warm Panama Current and the cold Humboldt Current, creating two distinct seasons that may affect when you take your Galapagos Islands holidays, depending on what you’d like to get from them.
June to December
This is the dry/cool season that sees water temperatures drop and the ocean brim with marine life, perfect for scuba-diving and snorkeling. The lack of rain plus pleasant temperature (22°C (72°F) on average) make this season a good time for outdoor exploration and activities. Bear in mind when packing for your Galapagos vacation that nights, especially in the highlands, can be chilly due to the Garúa – or fine drizzle. A word to the wise (and sufferers of seasickness): the months of August to November are when waves are roughest and cruises and sea crossings can be challenging. A great time, then, to try a land-based Galapagos tour and inland adventures!
December to June
The warm/wet season occurs when the Northeast Trade Winds blow and the hot Panama Current overwhelms the others. Despite the abundant rainfall (which comes in bursts), there are plenty of periods of blue skies and sunshine and with an average temperature of 25°C (77°F), you’re going to want to be making frequent dips into the ocean during your Galapagos Islands holiday. Animal mating activity abounds this season, and spring-like May brings with it lush, green vegetation and the perfect combination of fresh weather conditions and a flurry of animal activity. This is also the period when waves are calmer, great for taking on activities in the sea.
What type of vacations are available?
Galapagos Islands holidays are for everybody. No matter your age, abilities, interests or budget, there’s a style of vacation for you.
These are the classic Galapagos tours that allow you to get up close and very personal with all sorts of unique flora and fauna. Always accompanied by and experienced naturalist guide who’ll explain how the islands shaped Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, you might witness the comical stomping mating dance of blue-footed boobies, black iguanas basking on rocks, surreal volcanic landscapes and a smorgasbord of marine life in a combination of land-based and short boat excursions.
Designed for those who love the thrill of a physical challenge, multisport Galapagos vacations allow you to explore the spectacular wildlife of the islands through various active endeavors. You could snorkel among white-tipped sharks and penguins in Las Tintoreras, kayak around the picturesque north coast of San Cristobal, hike the massive Sierra Negra volcano and mountain bike along the coast of Isabela.
What makes the archipelago so fascinating is not only that it has a spectacular natural history, but that it has a compelling human one too. Cultural Galapagos vacations look at both aspects, taking time to get to know locals, learn about culinary, artisan and agricultural traditions, and discover how the islands have shaped the community, and they in turn shape the islands with green initiatives and plans for the future.
For a real taste of island life, a foodie Galapagos tour will do more than whet your appetite. You’ll meet local chefs and producers, tour markets and plantations, and even try your hand at fishing with experienced fishermen. And, course, there’s copious amounts of delicious food to sample, from the world-class lobster and shrimp to chocolate and coffee.
This style of Galapagos vacation takes you in the footsteps – or wake – of adventurers of the past, thoroughly exploring the coastlines and hidden islets of the archipelago. Manning either a kayak or stand up paddleboard (SUP), your excursion is rewarded with the satisfaction and exhilaration of traveling among the islands’ most iconic wildlife: from colossal manta rays to sedate giant turtles.
For families with children of all ages, a Galapagos vacation can be a transformative experience, where memories of a lifetime are formed as you discover, learn and grow together. Each step of your Galapagos tours can be tailored around your family’s needs, with activities, accommodation, and of course, meals, suitable for all.
With their seas rich in the most extraordinary marine life, the Galapagos Islands are acknowledged to be one of the best spots for scuba diving in the world – even more spectacular below the water’s surface than above it. Galapagos National Park regulations permit two ways to dive here: onboard a specialty diving cruise, usually of a week long, with three dives a day but no land visits; or staying at a hotel on an inhabited island and taking day trips with specialist dive boats.
What can you do on your holidays on the archipelago?
Marine life boat excursions
Research station visits
Relaxing on the beach
Stand up paddle (SUP) boarding
Gourmet seafood dining
Meet the locals
Coffee plantation visits
What is a typical land-based Galapagos tour?
If you decide not to opt for a cruise, a typical land-based Galapagos Islands holiday will see you stay on two or three of the main populated islands (San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz). Each day you’ll make excursions on land – like hikes, bike rides and research station visits -, and/or by sea, with boat trips around the coastline or to nearby islets. Transport between islands is either by boat, or by light aircraft.
Below are some sample itineraries:
Premium Multisport Adventure 7 days
Day 1: Arrival to San Cristobal, Interpretation Center, hike and snorkel Tijeretas
Day 2: San Cristobal: Kayak and snorkel around the northern coast
Day 3: Isabela: Bike the coastline, explore Tintoreras Islets
Day 4: Isabela: Volcano hiking in the highlands
Day 5: Santa Cruz: Hike the highlands
Day 6: Santa Cruz: Kayak in lava wall channels, hike to Tortuga Bay
>Day 7: Santa Cruz: Transfer out
Galapagos SignatureWildlife Journey 7 days
Day 1: Flight to San Cristobal/Galapagos, Interpretation Center and Frigate Hill
Day 2: San Cristobal: Northern coast snorkeling and fishing experience
Day 3: Isabela: Tintoreras and Wall of Tears
Day 4: Isabela: Sierra Negra Volcano hike, local family visit and wild pig tasting
Day 5: Santa Cruz: Traditional highlands farm, gourmet coffee and tortoises Take a short inter-island flight or a speedboat from Isabela to Santa Cruz Island
Day 6: Santa Cruz: Tortuga Bay and local workshops
Day 7: Santa Cruz: Transfer out
Environmental responsibility during your Galapagos tours
The Galapagos Islands are a fragile, pristine environment that we are privileged to visit. The unique wildlife depends on ecosystems being uncontaminated by outside influences, like human waste, foreign seeds and animals, and industrial fishing.
Many hotels now (and all Opuntia Hotels used by Neotropic) have green initiatives to reducing waste, recycle materials and water, and use renewable energy where possible.
In order to protect the integrity of the islands, the Galapagos National Park has developed a code of conduct that is vital for you to follow during your Galapagos vacation.
Don’t touch the animals! Even though many are friendly, and may well approach you, always keep a distance of at least six feet (two meters) from them.
Don’t feed the wildlife – doing so may make them sick and change their behavior.
Whenever you’re in the Galapagos National Park you must be accompanied by an authorized naturalist guide.
Don’t bring in any food, plants or animals with you. Your luggage will be searched before arrival, and at regular checkpoints around the archipelago.
Take away only memories, no souvenirs! That includes shells, flowers and marine iguanas (it’s been attempted…).
Abide by the “leave-no-trace” principal, taking every last spot of litter away with you from the national parks.
Recycle when possible.
Leave your cigarettes at the hotel, the national parks are smoke-free zones. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for scorching one of the world’s most revered natural hotspots during your Galapagos vacation, would you?