The Galapagos Islands have an almost mythical reputation. For wildlife and nature lovers, there is simply no place like it. The isolated group of volcanic islands is home to endemic species so comfortable with humans that a zoom lens might actually make taking pictures more difficult. Add to that some otherworldly landscapes and the opportunity to dive with hammerheads, whale sharks, sea lions and marine iguanas, and the Galapagos might just go right to the top of your bucket list!
Flights from the mainland (Quito and Guayaquil) arrive on Isla Baltra and on San Cristobal. The rest of the islands are connected by boat and some by plane. This itinerary starts at the first and ends at the latter, but you can of course change things around as needed.
You can visit the Galapagos Islands all year round. June to December is cool and dry, which is actually great for visiting on land, but the sea can be cold (wetsuits will be necessary even for snorkeling). This, however, is the season for whale sharks, so it’s the best time to go if you plan on diving. January to May is warm with occasional rain showers. Waters are calmer and warmer so swimming and boat trips will be more pleasant.
The Galapagos Islands are an expensive destination. It starts even before takeoff with the 20$ TCT migration control transit card you need to get at the departure airport, followed by a 100$ entry fee to the Galapagos National Park upon arrival (both cash only). On the up side, this keeps the islands from being overrun by tourists and helps pay for conservation efforts. Because we combined our land-tour with a diving cruise, we only spent about a day in each place. If you’re only doing land-based, I recommend you stay an extra day at each location to add a few organized daytrips, like snorkeling, hiking to a volcano or wildlife watching by boat. But if you are a diver, you really can’t miss diving here!
Galapagos day 1: Isla Santa Cruz & Puerto Ayora
The arrival point for most people visiting the Galapagos is Isla Santa Cruz, or more exactly the airport on tiny Isla Baltra right next to Santa Cruz. (Keep an eye out for land iguanas, Baltra is one of few sites where you can see them in the wild.) To get to Santa Cruz you have to take the airport shuttle bus to the pier (5$), followed by a ferry (1$). On the other side of the channel, buses and taxis are waiting to bring people to their accommodation. I recommend taking a taxi as that allows you to take advantage of the traveling route to stop at Los Gemelos, two large sinkholes in the highlands of Santa Cruz that are surrounded by fairytale-like scalesia forest. There is a nice, short walk, and if you take the slightly longer trail you will soon lose the tourist groups.
Another possible stop is at one of the cattle ranches that allow visitors to see giant Galapagos tortoises in the wild, like Rancho Primicias, El Chato, Manzanillo, or Mariposa. They are all similar but El Chato and Primicias also have lava tunnels, although I didn’t think they were very impressive. We visited El Chato as part of our cruise at a later date. If you also plan on taking a cruise, check their itinerary to avoid doing the same things twice.
Santa Cruz’s main town is Puerto Ayora, where most hotels are. Although not pretty, it has a certain charm and is a convenient base. Hotels on the Galapagos Islands are comparatively expensive and you don’t get a lot value for money. We opted to stay at Lonesome George Ecolodge, a mid-range hotel. It’s a cute, funky place, but rooms are rather small and not very comfortable. Service is super friendly though, they can help you plan activities and book tickets for the lanchas (small passenger boats) to other islands. We booked places on the lancha to Isla Isabela at 2pm the next day. Boats for Isabela leave daily at 7am and 2pm and take a little over 2 hours. There is no official ferry service so you have to go through a tour operator in any case, prices are fixed at 30$. The hotel also offers free, if kind of ramshackle, bikes.
If you still have time, pay a visit to the nearby Charles Darwin Research Station, where you can learn about their tortoise breeding program and see some tortoises and land iguanas in open air enclosures. If you only arrive late in the day, consider adding an extra night on Santa Cruz to properly explore. In that case, it might be nice to spend a first night in the highlands at the Royal Palm or Semilla Verde Boutique Hotel.
Puerto Ayora has a fair number of restaurants and bars, and more are added all the time. 1835 Coffee Lab serves great Galapagos-grown coffee. The best place for a sundowner is the seaside terrace of the Red Mangrove (which is also one of the nicer hotels in town, although a bit overpriced), often visited by sea lions and marine iguanas. For dinner, I highly recommend Anker, a surprisingly trendy restaurant with a creative take on Ecuadorian food.
Galapagos day 2: Tortuga Bay & Isla Isabela
Get up early to explore Tortuga Bay. Cycle to the trailhead where you need to sign in. From here a 2.5km paved path takes you to a lovely stretch of white sand beach. The sand dunes behind are a nesting place for turtles, so be careful where you walk. Swimming is possible but often dangerous. Conveniently, however, there is an attractive lagoon at the far end of the beach where swimming is always safe. There are usually marine iguanas lounging in the sand and around the stunning endemic opuntia echios cactus trees.
On your way back, make a quick stop at Laguna de las Ninfas, where a boardwalk leads you around a pretty mangrove. Have a ceviche lunch at Lo&Lo nearby, before picking up your luggage and heading to the muelle (pier) for the 2pm boat to Isabela. Unfortunately, the boat ride was decidedly unpleasant: too many passengers crammed into a small space, no view, and rough seas. Although the sea is calmer from January to May, if you’re prone to get seasick motion sickness pills are a good idea at any time.
Isla Isabela is by far the biggest of the Galapagos Islands, but only a tiny part is actually accessible. Puerto Villamil, the main settlement, is a scruffy but friendly town. It’s very basic, but the setting, along a beautiful beach where sea lions come to play in the tidal pools, is fantastic. There are several lagoons nearby where you can spot Galapagos flamingos and other birds, including the small but colorful Pozo Salinas right in the center of town.
We stayed at La Casa de Marita, a pleasant hotel a short walk from the muelle and right on the beach. Puerto Villamil’s restaurants are not very exciting, most places serve the same mix of Ecuadorian classics and international standards. Casa Marita’s restaurant is a very decent option. Iguana Point has a nice setting on the beach, but we did not try the food. Finally, Shawarma Hot is much better than the name suggests.
Galapagos day 3: Exploring Isabela
There are only a few activities you can do on your own on Isabela. The 7km bike ride to the Muro de las Lagrimas makes for a great half day trip. There are plenty of places to rent bikes in town, I can recommend Surf & Bike for its sturdy bicycles. You don’t really need a mountain bike, only the last few hundred meters of the path are steep, and you can easily do those on foot. Bring water, snacks and sun protection. There are plenty of well-indicated stops along the way. La Playita and Playa del Amor are great to see marine iguanas, whereas all along the second half of the path (appropriately called Camino de las Tortugas) you will see lots of giant tortoises.
Plan to stop off at El Estero at low tide, when you can take the turn-off to the left of the trail, through the mangroves and on to a rocky platform by the sea. Here you can usually see more marine iguanas and seabirds, including blue footed boobies.
The Muro de las Lagrimas itself is not very spectacular, but it is a poignant reminder of a darker part of Isabela’s history, as a grim penal colony. Besides the viewpoint here, there is another viewpoint a few hundred meters before, at Cerro Orchilla. Both have nice views over the island.
Head back to town for a late lunch and some beach time. If you feel like seeing more tortoises, pay a visit to the Centro de Crianza de Tortugas. In any case it’s a nice walk to get there, on a boardwalk that leads you through Laguna Villamil. The trail starts on the western end of town. Bar Atardecer, near the trailhead, is a great spot for a laid-back drink afterwards.
Because of its lovely beach and relaxed vibe, Isabela is an inviting place to stay longer. You can book a snorkeling trip to Los Tuneles, or a day trip to Volcan Sierra Negra (the volcano was active when we were there and the hike reduced to only 40 minutes so we decided to skip this). Snorkeling at Concha de Perla, a little bay near the muelle, is a good DIY option. We didn’t see much underwater life when we were there, but that might be just bad luck. The harbor itself is great for spotting sea lions and birds, including blue footed boobies and occasionally penguins. We tried to ask one of the small boats to take us for a short ride to get closer to the rocks, but this turned out to be possible only with a pre-arranged tour.
Galapagos day 4: Isla San Cristobal
Rather than go to Isla San Cristobal by boat (which is a long trip requiring a change in Puerto Ayora), we had decided to fly with Emetebe Air. Flying is much more expensive, but it saves a lot of time… and you can imagine how happy I was to avoid another nauseating lancha ride! On clear days, there are nice views over the Galapagos Islands (ask nicely for a window seat when you arrive at the tiny airport).
San Cristobal’s capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, is starting to develop as a real alternative to Puerto Ayora. It has a pretty seaside promenade and plenty of hotels and restaurants, including some more luxurious options. We stayed at Casa Playa Mann, an unpretentious but comfortable guest house on the edge of town run by very friendly people. Top floor rooms have spacious balconies with sea views. It is only a few steps from Playa Mann, a small “urban” beach which sunbathing locals share with sea lions.
We spent the afternoon exploring the area around the nearby Interpretation Center. The center itself is informative but not very engaging, but it is the starting point for some scenic trails. One heads to the pretty little beach of Playa Punta Carola, where you can find more sea lions and blue footed boobies. Las Tijeretas Bay is good for snorkeling, and you can have great sunset views from the top of Cerro de las Tijeretas, among frigatebirds settling down for the night.
After the rather basic food on Isabela, we were very pleased to have a more gastronomic take on local specialties at Muyu. I highly recommend the lobster “head to tail” menu if it’s in season! Alternatively, try modest but tasty El Descanso Marinero.
Galapagos day 5: La Loberia & diving cruise
After breakfast we had a taxi drop us off at La Loberia, a wild beach with sea lions and marine iguanas a few kilometers to the south of the town. From here a pretty coastal trail leads to along the rocky cliffs. A sign indicates you need to go with a guide, but the trail is well indicated and easy to follow. Early in the morning you might have the beach to yourself, and by the time you’ll want to head back you can easily find a taxi dropping off other passengers. You can also walk back to town, but the road is rather boring.
Next, it was time for the second part of our trip: a 7-day live-aboard diving cruise on the Galapagos Sky. As this is an arranged cruise, I won’t go into too much detail here, but I do believe that if you go all the way to the Galapagos Islands, they deserve both a land and a boat tour.
If you are an experienced diver, it is absolutely worth booking a diving trip that takes in Wolf and Darwin. These two remote uninhabited islands form a marine sanctuary that has the greatest biomass of sharks in the world. Especially from June to December you can see huge schools of hammerhead sharks here, but also blacktip, silky and Galapagos sharks, not to mention whale sharks. We were there in August and saw sixteen of these gentle giants! There are also turtles, sea lions, Galapagos fur seals and a variety of pelagic fish. We saw dolphins and killer whales, too, although not while diving.
Other memorable stops on our cruise included diving with marine iguanas near Fernandina, and a gorgeous dive with mola mola, seahorses, red-lipped bat fish and other endemic species at Cabo Vincente Roca. We also did a land-tour of otherworldly Bartolomé, which besides stunning scenery offers the opportunity to see penguins. You will see plenty of seabirds during the trip, including frigatebirds, pelicans, blue and red footed boobies, Nazca boobies, tropicbirds, and flightless cormorant.
I can highly recommend our boat, the Galapagos Sky. It’s expensive, but it is one of only a handful of boats that is allowed to go to all the locations mentioned above. It’s luxurious but focused on the essential: diving. The crew is fantastic and the dive guides very knowledgeable.
Whether you decide to add a cruise or not, the Galapagos Islands are a fantastic destination. But don’t forget the rest of Ecuador! A wonderfully varied country, it has Unesco listed colonial cities, traditional Andean villages overlooked by looming volcanoes, wildlife-rich Amazon rainforest and much more to explore. Take a look at my complete guide to Ecuador from Andes to Amazon!