The Galapagos Islands, which lie more than 600 miles off the west coast of the Ecuadorian mainland, were formed by lava flows millions of years ago. Most of the animals and birds that call it home swam, flew or were swept here by “rafts” of vegetation floating on the ocean. The Galapagos ecosystem is probably the best preserved in the world, partly because of its remoteness.
Nowhere else is the evolution of species as clear as here; the Galapagos are a natural laboratory, as Charles Darwin quickly discovered during his 19th-century expedition aboard the Beagle. (Finches evolved from one species to 13 here, due to differing conditions for survival on each island.)
The islands’ animals and birds display little or no fear of humans, which means you can get very close to them on your Galapagos tour – as long as you don’t touch or disturb them or leave the designated paths.
The Legacy of Charles Darwin
Darwin’s name has become nearly synonymous with the history of the Galapagos islands, and rightly so. After all, it was his voyage here in 1835 which led him to many important conclusions about his theories of evolution and natural selection. To this day. Darwin’s writings on his findings remain the benchmark for scientific research in evolution and evolutionary anthropology.
In 1835, Darwin landed on the shores of Isla San Cristobal. His observations of the wildlife quickly made clear to him that something different was in fact going on in evolution. Something different than current scientific beliefs imagined, and certainly something different than the prevailing religious beliefs at the time allowed for.
Darwin spent nearly a month on the islands, between mid September and mid October, gathering specimens to bring back with him to England. His famous Theory of Evolution and ideas about natural selection emanated from his trip to the Galapagos, first became intrigued by observing the varying species of mockingbirds on the four islands that he visited.
The Ecuadorian government enforces strict environmental codes on the Galapagos, a national park. Only a comparatively few visitors can go ashore on each island at one time.
With 140,000 total visitors per year, the Galapagos present a complex juggling act to tour operators, who must time their visits exactly or risk losing key stops on their itineraries. So you’re expected to rise early and be on time for excursions to shore.
Groups visiting any one site are limited to eight each, so even small ships carrying just 15 or 16 passengers must divide up and take separate trails. Of the eight most visited islands, just two – San Cristobal, site of the airport, and Santa Cruz, site of the largest town and Darwin Station -- are populated by humans, mostly island natives or long-term residents.
The rest of the islands are reserved for the wildlife: everything ranging from marine iguanas to sea lions, giant tortoises to sea turtles, penguins to albatrosses, red-throated frigate birds to blue-footed boobies (given to doing a courtship “booby” dance that entrances onlookers).
Small Ship Cruising
While some people visit the Galapagos by staying in one of the few towns and taking day trips by boat to other islands, the best method is to tour by a week-long small ship expedition-style cruise. (Large ships do cruise the Galapagos, but can’t visit as many sites, some of which are too fragile for large numbers of visitors.)
Taking a small ship allows you to visit up to two islands in a day as well as go snorkeling or diving for close-up views of sea turtles, tropical fish, and sea lions.
A number of tour operators run small ship cruises through the Galapagos, and, by government decree, they must hire local guides and ship captains. Staying on trails is paramount, so as not to disturb the fragile environments. Except for the tropical heat, most trails are easy for anyone to navigate, and being aboard a ship allows plenty of time to cool off between stops.
The Three Major Galapagos Islands
While most cruises to the Galapagos will visit multiple islands, some, depending on the duration of the itinerary and the focus, will stick to two or three. When that's the case, it's a good bet that one or more of these islands will feature. Their historical significance, the up close and personal abundance of wildlife, and the availability of multiple activities, day tours, accommodation and restaurants make them the perfect introduction to what the Galapagos are all about.
Santa Cruz Island
This is the most populous and commercially developed of all the Galapagos, and the best place for viewing giant tortoises. On Santa Cruz Island tours, you’re guaranteed to see tortoises when you visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, but even better is viewing these mammoth creatures in the wild, as they slowly migrate to find mates and lay their eggs.
The largest of the Galapagos, Isabela Island is rich in many forms of wildlife. The island is home to thousands of giant tortoises, to the most northerly penguin colony on earth, and to the rare pink iguana, which inhabit the slopes of a volcano. Sea turtles, marine iguanas, offshore whales, and a number of bird species make this an island not to miss.
San Cristobal Island
This is the site of the Galapagos’ major international airport and second most populous in the chain, and where Charles Darwin first set foot in the islands in 1835. This is one of the prime birding areas of the Galapagos, with boobies –- Blue-footed, Red-footed, and Nazca – sharing the spotlight with finches and frigate birds. You can also snorkel amid sea turtles, sea lions, and tropical fish.
What to Expect From a Tour of the Galapagos
Most tours to the Galapagos are small-ship cruises that last about one week and visit between six and eight islands. Tourism is strictly regulated by the Ecuadorian government to protect the fragile environment and wildlife.
This is a wildlife viewing experience like no other in the world -- even the best Costa Rica jungle tours can't really compare. The animals have virtually no fear of humans since they have no reason to think any harm will come from them. In practical terms, this means you can get close to the wildlife but never touch or disturb the animals.
The government places a strict quota on which trails the highly trained guides can take groups each day and how many can be in each group. A particular trail may be closed one day and open the next. It’s imperative that you don’t stray off the trails.
Small-ship cruises – holding about 16 passengers -- are ideal because you can visit more islands and spend more time on each than if you’re based on one island and take day trips from there. You’ll also sleep and take all your meals onboard. Of course, you pay more for the privilege – but for most people travel to the Galapagos is a once in a lifetime trip, so you’ll want to make the most of it.
The Galapagos are hot, tropical and casual so you need only pack light, breathable clothing along with sturdy, comfortable walking shoes, sandals, hats, and long sleeves and leg coverings for skin protection, as well as any swim and snorkel gear you wish to bring. Cameras and binoculars are a must. Don’t expect to find drugstores, ATMs or many conveniences on most island stops, so pack what you may need in the way of supplies.
What to Pack for the Galapagos
The Galapagos are remote, surrounded by beaches, waters, and lava rock. Your packing list should be light, but you definitely want to make sure you have all necessities with you. The benefit of going on a Galapagos cruise will be the ability to bring a little bit more, as you’ll only be unpacking once.
1. Bring multiple bathing suits. Though it’s generally warm, and clothing will dry quickly, you’ll definitely want more than one suit because you’ll be in and out of the water constantly. It will also be a good idea to bring water clothes, to protect from the sun. It’s easy to forget your exposed neck and arms when you’re floating on top of the water gazing through goggles at the incredibly world below!
2. Bring a pair of hiking boots or tennis shoes. You’ll do a lot of walking around on the Galapagos. Hikes range from strenuous to moderate, to easy, so if you think you’ll be interested in this activity, definitely use up some room in your suitcase for a pair of sturdy, comfortable, close-toed shoes.
3. Sunhat, sunglasses, and strong sunscreen. As you’ll be out on the water regularly, and enjoying time ashore along the coast where there’s little shade, definitely bring plenty of sunscreen, the stronger SPF the better.
4. A multi functional, small day pack. Because most shore excursions will typically last half day to a full day, you’ll want a small to medium sized day backpack for storing water, cameras, sunscreen, phones, and anything else you’ll need. Make sure this is something you don’t mind getting dirty or wet.
5. Rubber soled water shoes. Consider bringing a pair of water shoes to protect against sharp coral reefs and for walking around lava rocks. These can be very useful as well to avoid slipping on board the boats that take you around to the many beautiful snorkeling spots on the Galapagos.
6. Layers! Layers is key for most destinations around the world, but in the Galapagos you may need a light sweatshirt for at night, even though it won’t seem like it during the day. Also consider a pair of long hiking pants to avoid bug bites.
The Wildlife in the Galapagos
“Galapagos” means “islands of the giant tortoises.” Which is quite fitting, as the islands are home to 11 different populations dispersed among several islands. (There were originally 14 distinct populations, however due to extinction they have now dwindled to 11). Major conservation efforts have been in place since the 1950s, particularly on Santa Cruz Island, where they are a very popular tourist attraction.
Galapagos tortoises can weigh more than 600 pounds and live to age 150 or longer. (One that recently died was present when Darwin landed here.) Their top speed is about one fifth of a mile per hour, so they’re very easy to photograph. The late Lonesome George, the most famous giant tortoise, was the last of his subspecies when he died in 2012. He refused to mate, despite valiant efforts by naturalists to find him romantic pairings.
It is believed that the Galapagos Tortoises originally arrived on the Galapagos 2-3 million years ago, from the South American Coast. They developed several unique survival adaptations, including evolving to survive without food or water for up to a full year, a response to the lack of nutrient sources on the arid landscape.
They have also been subject to tremendously harmful human impact. Sailors, whalers, pirates, traders, and colonists who made their way through the Galapagos at various periods in history used the Giant Tortoises as food sources, oil sources, and trading fodder. This resulted in an estimated loss of between 100,000 and 200,000 tortoises over a period of two centuries.
Today it is estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 wild tortoises live on the islands.
Galapagos wildlife is truly extraordinary. Each island has its own signature type of bird, reptile or other creature. For instance, Genovesa Island is home to red-footed boobies – it’s the only island where visitors can view them -- but lacks the land reptiles found on other islands.
These dinosaur like reptiles are another huge draw for visitors. Land iguanas and marine iguanas are found throughout the islands, sunning themselves on the volcanic rocks, perfectly still and stoic, almost appearing like extremely lifelike statues.
And some eluded scientists until 1986, such as the Pink Iguana, which only lives on Wolf Volcano at the north end of Isabela. Yet another example of the variety and extremely selective differentiation that exists between one Galapagos island and another.
When they say the Galapagos is nature’s laboratory, nothing could make that more clear than the fact of a species existing only mere miles away from another species with similar, but not exactly the same, environmental factors.
Iguanas used to be present on Isla Santiago, which we know from reading Darwin’s journals, but they somehow died out and are no longer found on that particular island. This could have had something to do with the number of domestic farm animals that were released on Santiago in the 1800s, wreaking havoc on the delicate ecobalance of the islands native and endemic species.
Marine Iguanas are rare, and only found on the Galapagos. Watching them swim is distinctly like watching a mythical creature. They look like a cross between a dragon, dinosaur, and other worldly mer-creature, like it came from the creative mind of Jim Henson. They spend quite a bit of time on land for mating and feeding, but if you get the chance to spot one on a snorkel adventure it is a sight to behold.
Other notable bird species include Darwin finches (whose beak variations and food-gathering sources from island to island also aroused Darwin’s interest), flamingoes, flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins – the world’s most northerly penguins, found here right on the Equator – storm petrels, frigatebirds, lava gulls, albatrosses, pelicans, swallow tailed gulls, owls, hawks, herons, and Nazca, blue- and red-footed boobies, among many others.
Sea lions and fur seals complete the “big three” that you will absolutely encounter on a trip through the Galapagos. These joyful, playful, absolutely adorable mammals number in the 50,000 range and it will take every ounce of your willpower not to pet them as them curiously rumble up to you on the beaches. But cute as they are, you definitely want to keep your hands to yourself as they are extremely territorial and tourists have been known to be bit for getting too close.
The chance to see them show off and fish under the water is not to be passed up. They will playfully display twirls, upside down swimming in a seemingly tireless routine as you snorkel above. Swimming among sea lions may seem a tourist trap kind of attraction, but it is well worth it.
Fur seals are quite similar to sea lions, though they are smaller and prefer less time on land, gravitating to cooler waters instead. Their coats are much thicker as well, contributing to their name, as well as their unfortunate history with fur traders.
James Bay and Darwin Bay are the best places to spot this animal, which has made a positive comeback after their numbers dwindled due to many years of poaching for their prized coats.
Photography tips for the Galapagos
Without a doubt, you will leave the Galapagos with thousands of pictures, mainly of the incredible wildlife. Here’s some tips to help you make sure you make the most of your trip and arrive home with some amazing shots.
1. Bring multiple lenses - Learning from a photography professional, you’re going to want to be able to commit to several different types of shot, and this means different lenses. For the Galapagos, try to bring a telephoto lens and a macro lens. These are going to be the best way to capture the unbelievable wildlife on the islands.
2. Don’t be afraid to get up close - The animals in the Galapagos are famously used to humans, and this makes it very easy to get up close for spectacular macro shots. The proximity means you have a greater ability to capturing the personality, expressions, and textures of the animals.
3. Bring a lens cloth - the last thing you want is a foggy lens to muddy up your image. Make sure you have a high end lens cloth ready to keep dust and condensation off your camera. In warm tropical environments, lens fogging is common - one good tip is to take your camera out with lens cap off a good few minutes before you plan to start shooting. This will give enough time to let any fogging dissipate.
4. Go on a Photography tour - For serious amateurs and complete novices, photography tours are one of the best ways to learn and grow as a photographer. You’ll get to learn from a professional and get the best tips about how to best capture wildlife. When the wildlife is so entrancing, historic, and relatively easy to get close to, the thing that’s going to make your photos stand out is the composition and lighting - having an expert near to instruct you on angles, f-stops, shutter-speeds, and filters is an incredible asset. See all the Galapagos photography tours on Stride.
5. Get to know the animals - one of the key aspects to wildlife photography is knowing the best times to find them in action. Learn a bit about each major species to discover their habits. You may also learn when to best find them with the least amount of people around. Though sometimes you may want a human presence in your photograph - this can create a wonderful dynamic.
6. Get dirty! - Photography is about finding the best way to showcase your subject. In the case of wildlife, this often means getting down and dirty, wet and uncomfortable. To get the best angles, you will find yourself contorting on the ground on your stomach, or perhaps balancing as quietly as possible on a log or tree branch.
7. Bring underwater casing - A lot of your time in the Galapagos will be spent in the water. While over the counter underwater cameras actually do an impressive job, if you want sharper and higher resolution photos, invest in an underwater casing for your DSLR or other point and shoot. If you’re wary of getting your nice piece anywhere near the water (understandable) look into smart-phone accessories. There are many ways you can make your camera phone into the perfect underwater photography tool.
Before You Go
The Galapagos are technically part of Ecuador, so the same visa requirements apply. Citizens of the United States, Canada and most European countries do not require a visa to travel to Ecuador, unless you plan to stay past 90 days. You will generally receive a free visa upon entry into Ecuador.
General travel insurance should suffice for a trip to the Galapagos. You will be spending a lot of time on the water with your tour, and any insurance specificities related to this can be answered by the tour company.
You do need a Yellow Fever vaccine for traveling to Ecuador. Proof of vaccination is required upon entry into the country.
Besides that, no additional vaccinations are required for travel to the Galapagos, but make sure all your regular vaccinations are up to date.
Zika has been reported in some parts of Ecuador, so those traveling with young children or who are pregnant do so at your own risk.
Bring hats and sunscreen! You will be outside and on the water for a large part of your visit, and the sun can be intense.