The Galápagos Islands are famed for their vast number of endemic species and the studies by Charles Darwin that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.
It is an archipelago made up of 13 main volcanic islands, 6 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The oldest island is thought to have formed between 5 and 10 million years ago, a result of tectonic activity. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in 2005.
The islands are distributed around the equator, 965 kilometres (about 600 miles) west of Ecuador.
Map of Galapagos IslandsLoad map
Visit September 2017
The Galapagos Islands don’t need a long introduction: they were among the first batch of inscriptions in 1978 (actually it was the very first on record) and they were also a shoo-in at our Top 200 WHS. One can ‘do’ the Galapagos either via an accommodated cruise or a self-arranged land-based alternative, which has become more feasible and popular in the last 10 years. For me the choice was clear quickly: to be ‘locked up’ on a rather small cruise ship for at least a week with strangers did not seem appealing to me at all. Also I am not a fan of daily water based activities like snorkelling and swimming. So I based myself in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, the largest town on the Galapagos Islands.
Puerto Ayora nowadays is a surprisingly touristy and affluent city. It isn’t unlike a Greek harbour town, with tourists milling around in the streets at all hours and daily departures of ferries to other islands. I had planned on taking two organized day tours from here: to North Seymour and Bartolomé. But unfortunately the latter got cancelled because of too few bookings. Instead of Bartolomé I eventually choose Isabela island. I spent the rest of my time on Santa Cruz itself.
Santa Cruz is far from pristine, but a good spot nonetheless to see certain species – in particular the giant tortoise. Probably the first stop for every tourist on Santa Cruz is the Charles Darwin Research Station. It is located a pleasant walk away from the Puerto Ayora town center, and you’ll see mangroves, birds and the tortoise breeding center.
The best place to see giant tortoises in the wild is in the highlands of Santa Cruz – you can already see them in the fields along the road between the ferry to Baltra Airport and Puerto Ayora. I went to look at them more closely in El Chato reserve, but on the way up there we already encountered one in the middle of the road amidst the fairly busy traffic of taxis, buses and trucks. The tortoises at the reserve go about eating their grass quietly, they’re wonderful to watch. They’re not particularly bothered by human visitors though they sometimes stop eating and look up. Also I found one or two hissing, a sign of fear or annoyance?
My first full daytrip went to North Seymour, an uninhabited island about 45 minutes away from the canal between Santa Cruz and Baltra. It's a small and flat lava island, known for nesting birds. Especially the blue-footed booby and frigatebird can be seen in large quantities doing their thing. There’s a 2km trail on the island which we slowly hiked accompanied by a guide. We saw many young chicks of both species, often on nests right beside the path. Of course everyone who visits the Galapagos wants a good picture of a blue-footed booby, and you must be a real bad photographer not to succeed. Especially this species is without any fear of humans and often hops closer to get a better look at the passing tourists. Their fluffy offspring, already quite big actually, did take my heart though.
My other daytrip, to Isabela, first involved a public ‘ferry’ ride of 2 hours (the ferries here are small speedboats that take only some 20 passengers). It’s a very bumpy trip but fortunately I had some seasickness tablets left from my trip earlier this year to the Azores. Isabela is the largest island of the archipelago, but I only had time to check out the area not too far from its port. Sleeping sea lions, occupying the wooden benches that must have been meant for waiting tourists, are a common sight here. I did a short hike on the island near two lagoons with flamingos, and returning to the port via a long stretch of beach home to hundreds of marine iguanas and lava lizards.
Beforehand I had bought the Bradt Galapagos Wildlife guide, and then I was already surprised that all of Galapagos’ flora and fauna fit into a 156 page booklet. Anyone who has seen for example the volume and density of a bird guiding book of let’s say Costa Rica will notice that the diversity of species at the Galapagos Islands is very low. During my short stay I saw almost all species of interest named in the book, many of them in large numbers and at multiple locations. Unfortunate misses included the green sea turtle (was seen by people snorkelling during my day trip to North Seymour), the penguins (due to the cancelled day trip to Bartolomé and me not making a real effort for it at Isabela) and the Galapagos hawk.
I visited this WHS in May/June 2019. I arrived in Baltra Seymour GPS airport from Quito and I was based on Santa Cruz island for 9 nights/10 days going out on 8 different boat trips to different uninhabited islands and the inhabited island of Floreana.
All the praise the Galapagos Islands receive is fully justified and my already high expectations were met. It is a very fragile natural environment which can easily be lost or degraded in no time (as has already happened in the not so distant past) but I must say that on the whole the Ecuador government and national park management system are doing a very good job to control and manage the effects of tourism on the Galapagos islands.
The most outstanding feature of the Galapagos is the fact that most wildlife is very tame and not afraid of humans. Actually more often than not, the wildlife was very curious to see us and considered us just as another species NOT as a predator. This is true on land as well as in the marine environment. Birdwatching enthusiasts with very big telescope lenses will immediately find out that such expensive equipment is almost useless here - a good zoom might come in handy out at sea but most species will be literally at arm's length.
Everyday was a different highlight for me as I was lucky with the weather and no boat trip got cancelled. Moreover, I had tried to vary boat trips which I grouped from 3 main categories I had researched over the internet or combine different activities on the same day. 1) Snorkelling highlights - Pinzon Island, Punta Carrion at Santa Cruz Island, Pinnacle Rock at Bartolome Island, La Loberia at Floreana island and Kicker Rock at San Cristobal Island; 2) Birdwatching highlights - North Seymour Island, South Plaza Island, Daphne Mayor Island, Espanola Island 3) Fauna and Landscape highlights - Santa Fe Island, Floreana Island, Bartolome Island (photo) and Isabela/Fernandina Islands (volcanoes and adventure activities).
From the outset, I decided to skip the largest island of Isabela (and neighboring Fernandina) as I wanted to be based on one island for all of my stay and planned to cover most of the species present on Isabela elsewhere (flamingoes in Santa Cruz, penguins around Bartolome). Having visited Vanuatu and a number of active volcanoes in Indonesia relatively recently and having experienced my fair share of earthquakes and eruptions (even though I was woken by a strong 1 minute earthquake while in Quito too!), I decided to give Isabela a miss, even though that meant missing out on the flightless cormorant and the rare pink iguana. Another island I decided to skip which was more difficult to leave out as a birdwatcher was Espanola Island (missed out on the waved albatross). The northern islands of Genovesa, Marchesa and Pinta can only be visited by liveaboard boat trips.
The rest of the islands I visited practically gave me repeated opportunities to enjoy the limited variety of birdlife, land fauna and marine life of the Galapagos Islands. My personal highlights were swimming with sea lions, watching a pregnant sea lion give birth and feeding its pups, swimming with penguins, watching all the different species of land, marine and hybrid iguanas especially the red and green ones of Floreana, being escorted out of a lagoon with pups by a huge (and loud!) alpha male sea lion, etc. Other unforgettable moments such as swimming with sharks, rays, turtles, etc. I had already experienced elsewhere. This is really one of the very top WHS on the list and one of the easiest (not cheapest) nature WHS to cover well without too much effort.
Visited August/September 2018
As a nature lover, the Galapagos Islands had always been on my bucket list. And they didn't disappoint a bit.
Being quite a remote destination, I assumed that probably I'll never go back, so I decided to spend most of my two week vacation there. I wanted to visit a few diferent islands in order to see diferent species of plants and animals and it took time.
There are two ways of seeing the islands, one is on a cruise and the other one is staying a few days in some of the inhabited islands and taking day tours from there. The second option is becoming more and more popular, and it was what I did because it gives you the chance to enjoy local life.
I visited three inhabited islands, Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristóbal, and took several tours. I was very interested in seeing some specific species, so I read a lot before chosing the tours I wanted and booked everything online. It is not necessary, unless you are a planner or you really want to take a specific tour. I was offered all the tours while I was already there. End of August and September are considered low season there, because there is less sunlight (although it's dry season), it is less warm, the water is pretty cold and the seas are rougher. But it is a great time to see lots of marine life, and some species are easier to spot.
Some things I did while in Santa Cruz Island:
- Charles Darwin station: in Puerto Ayora, the main town in Santa Cruz Island. A great place to learn about the islands and some conservation projects. You can also see lots of giant tortoises that they breed there, in order to take them back to their habitats. It's a must, especially if you do it at the very beginning of your trip. It is incredibly exciting to see the first animals around Puerto Ayora on the way to the station. And the first time you see a giant tortoise, even if it is in captivity, is hard to forget.
- Tour to South Plaza Island: Only possible by private guided tour, therefore very expensive (around 200 usd). It is a very small uninhabited island east of Santa Cruz, close to it. It is home to some amazing plants, like the red sesuvium and the opuntia cactus. It is a great place to see land iguanas and sea lions, and it has a huge bird colony, mostly of swallow tailed gulls with their chicks. You can easily spot cactus finches, one of the species that let Darwin develop the evolution theory. I really recommend this tour, even though the snorkelling in Punta Carrión was not very good.
- Santa Cruz highlands: You can do it by yourself, no tour or guide needed. It's the easiest way to see Galápagos giant tortoises in the wild. Most people hire a taxi for the day, and the driver takes you to Los Gemelos and to the tortoise ranch and the lava tunnels. I took a bike with me on the taxi, and cycled all the way back to Puerto Ayora. I only recommend doing that if you don't mind getting wet because of the mist and full of mud, and I must say it is physically challenging. But what a day it was!
- Tortuga Bay: A 30 minute stroll from Puerto Ayora takes you to a white sand, turquoise water, beautiful beach. It is not suitable for swimming, due to the winds, waves and currents, but you can see lots of wildlife, especially marine iguanas everywhere. You can do it by yourself.
- Las Grietas: A natural swimming pool surrounded by cliffs that can be used as a refreshing spot on hot days. If the weather is not good for swimming there is not much to do there.
- Tour to Bartolomé Island: Another expensive (around 200 usd) private tour that I really recommend. This one is not so much about the wildlife, although it is possible to see penguins, but about the scenery and views. The iconic pinnacle rock is there. Different tours take you to different snorkelling spots, I really recommend Sullivan bay in Santiago Island, as you can see amazing lava formations at the beach there. I could see lots of fish, turtles and was lucky enough to encounter two little penguins swimming and fishing in front of me.
What I did on Isabela island:
- Wall of tears: I did it by bike, but you can also walk there. Isabela island had a penal colony in the 1940s and 1950s. The prisoners were forced to build a wall for no reason, they had to do it under very bad conditions and lots of them died there. You can visit it and it is quite impressive. Apart from the wall itself, you can climb to a viewing point to see how pristine and unpopulated this island is, and you can also see some beaches and lagoons with marine iguanas, sea lions and pink flamingos. I ran into a couple of giant tortoises on the way. It is a good thing to do, but it is a long walk.
- Sierra Negra Volcano: I did this tour because I had booked it before the eruption in june 2018. At the time I was there, you could not do the whole tour for safety reasons, but you could see the caldera. It was an OK experience, and I really like a hike, but I think it was expensive (60usd) for what I saw there.
- Los Túneles: I paid 140 usd for this tour, but it is worth every penny. You must like a dip in the water to do that one, because you spend a long time snorkelling. But I couldn't believe my eyes. So many fish, including eagle rays and sting rays, some sea horses, more than ten huge green turtles chilling and eating peacefully, and plenty of sharks! Outside the water, we saw a lot of blue footed and nasca boobies, some of them feeding their chicks and even mating in front of us. If you are on a budget and can only do one tour, choose this one.
In San Cristóbal Island I visited:
- Española Island: Another 200 usd private tour, and another highlight. This is a very remote island and it takes a long time to get there by boat, near two hours. It is the only place in the islands where you can see the waved albatross as they have a big breeding colony there. I saw lots of these huge birds and their chicks. There were also lots of other birds there, especially boobies. You can also see many marine iguanas and sea lions. In this island I saw a Galápagos hawk too. The snorkelling was really fun because you swim with playful sea lions, and the reef there is particularly beautiful. It is a must.
- San Cristóbal interpretation center and Cerro de las Tijeretas: Another free activity. The interpretation center of Sant Cristóbal has a lot of information about the history of the islands and I found it particularly interesting. A climb to Cerro de las Tijeretas, or Frigatebird Hill, gives you the chance to see frigatebirds from close.
It is an expensive and remote destination, but having the chance to see so much wildlife from such a close distance was something I had never experienced before and I will not forget. Boat travel is not comfortable in the islands, and some prices are too high, especially for Ecuadorian standards. But I would definitely do it again.
What can you say about the Galápagos Islands that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? They are beautiful. They are important and historic. And, as the world's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, they should be at the top of nearly all travelers bucket list - they were for us.
We'd spent over 10 years hoping to visit and a some incredibly cheap last minute airfare deals made it possible. We spent a week on the Ecuador mainland visiting Quito and the volcanoes, but the islands were our real destination. We were incredible lucky to find a good deal on a one-week cruise of the northwest of the Galapagos (itinerary B), including Baltra, Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Santiago, Isabela and Fernandina.
Actually, despite its fame, these islands are infrequently visited due the remoteness of the islands and limited permits from the government that are available (and the prohibitive cost, something that was a problem for us for a long time). But for this who do visit here, they will be immensely rewarded.
It is in these remote islands that animal evolution took a turn to...the weird. You’ve got so many unusual Galápagos Islands animals: flightless cormorant birds, warm weather penguins, lizards that swim, and many other unusual animals. These unusual animals inspired naturalist Charles Darwin’s study and eventual theory of evolution by natural selection. This important scientific discovery fundamentally changed the way we view our natural world.
We found the best way to explore this part of Ecuador is on a small boat Galápagos Islands cruise. You can go ashore and walk among the animals. But our favorite way to experience the islands is to go snorkeling and see them under the water. (We thought Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela was one of the best snorkeling spots.)
Each of the Galápagos Islands is different with their own unique flora and fauna. From volcanic and barren Fernandina in the west to lush and tropical San Cristobal in the east, there is a tremendous diversity to explore. Each island is just a little different, and completely special and unique.
Visiting the Galápagos while in Ecuador is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and we’d highly recommend it to follow travelers.
Read more from Travel Addicts here.
The Galápagos Islands are a nature-lovers dream, home to giant tortoises, iguanas, sea lions, penguins, flamingos, pelicans, Darwin's famed finches, frigates, and, my favorite, the blue-footed booby. And that's just on land. Rest assured, if you are hoping to see wildlife, you will not be disappointed with the species endemic to these volcanic isles on the Equator. When planning a trip to the Galápagos, you have the choice of joining a multi-day boat tour of the islands or creating your own tour by flying or taking ferries between islands. I chose the latter when I visited the Galápagos in June. If creating your own tour, you also have to decide which islands you'll visit. I chose Santa Cruz Island, in the center of the archipelago, and Isabela Island, the largest of the islands. Santa Cruz Island is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, on the east side of the main town of Puerto Ayora. The station is worth a leisurely visit (bring water), and also holds the UNESCO plaque for the Galápagos, the first World Heritage Site. Puerto Ayora is a great place to schedule day trips, with many options to visit other islands. Since the islands are a national park, you will always have a trained guide with you on any tour. Puerto Ayora has ferries to other islands, which is how I traveled to Isabela Island (be prepared for occasional rough seas). Both Santa Cruz and Isabela Islands have giant tortoise research stations, which are worth visiting if for no other reason than to see incredibly cute baby tortoises. Isabela Island offers a snorkeling tour to Los Túneles, which I highly recommend for the opportunity to see reef sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, penguins, and unique lava rock formations. I would advise using a wetsuit (offered by tour companies), since the waters are chilly. I'd also advise not forgetting to bring contact lenses if you need them -- I have full confidence I was shown a sea horse, though it looked like a stick to me! The Galápagos Islands are an incredible site to visit, and not to be missed if traveling to Ecuador.
Logistics: There are two airports serving the mainland in the Galápagos: one on Baltra Island, which requires a very short ferry to Santa Cruz Island, and one on San Cristóbal Island. Be prepared to pay the national park fee upon arrival to the Galápagos. There are inter-island flights between Baltra, San Cristóbal, and Isabela Islands, but they have baggage weight restrictions. There are also ferries connecting Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Isabela Islands.
We traveled to the Galapagos Islands in early September. We spent time in Quito,Ecuador on both ends of the trip. We spent 8 days in the Galapagos on a 16 passenger cozy boat. the crew were great and they only roughness we experienced was during the night travel when the boat rocked and rolled due to the Humboldt current and our speed. When you visit the islands your itinerary isn't set definitely until you sail. The govt monitors the numbers on the islands by day. We left from San Cristobal and traveled to several different islands. I was initially worried that we would not find any animals but I was amazed at their numbers and that they didn't scatter when we arrived! The birds, sea lions, penguins etc were all amazing. We had a naturalist with us and he had tons of info to share. The trip was well managed and we spent a morning in one location, had lunch and a rest period and then went out again until dinner time. The climate was warm and sunny each day but the water was extremely cold due to the current. When we went, many of the birds had their babies and that was pretty amazing. No matter when you go to the Galapagos, you are guaranteed to see a lot of birds, iguanas, sea lions, tortoises,lizards, albatross, frigates, blue footed boobies, herons, warblers, finches etc...it is nature at its' best!
The usual problem with taking “wild life” holidays is the uncertainty as to whether one will actually see the creatures one is traveling so far (and often paying so much!) to see. Over the years we have seen most of the animals we have gone to see – but it has sometimes taken several visits to do so – thus we have failed to see Gorillas in Gabon, Wolves in Alaska and Jaguars in Guyana.
A great thing about the Galapagos is that the animals WILL turn up on cue. There may not be a vast variety of species but, if an island is supposed to have a species, you will have to be very unlucky not to see it!!
And on top of that of course they are incredibly tame.
Darwin wrote at one point in his diary - 'I pushed off a branch with the end of my gun, a large hawk'.
It was wonderful to have this episode confirmed as we landed on an island and there in front of us was a Galapagos Hawk. As we approached closer and closer it did not attempt to move. We did not of course push it off its perch with a gun or anything else but there was no doubt that we could have if we had been so minded!
2009 Removed from Danger list
2007 In Danger
Serious conservation threats have intensified
To include the Galapagos Marine Reserve
1995 Extension deferred
Marine extension deferred again - this time at request of Ecuador
1994 Extension deferred
Marine Reserve: deferred until mitigative action taken regarding threats
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