Spectacular, isolated and populated by some of Mother Nature’s most bizarre creations, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands really do feel like you are in another world! Just off the South America coast, this humble archipelago and its unique wildlife are a riveting and rewarding ecological adventure as it ever was!
Inquisitive sea lions and spiky marine iguanas bathe and bask on the island shores, while friendly hammerhead sharks dive in the deep water and giant tortoises gently and slowly stroll on land. Nowadays, there is a steady stream of modern-day explorers; but numbers are strictly controlled so your face-to-face, flipper-to-fin wildlife encounter, is truly an experience in a league of its own.
• Keep an eye out for dolphins breaking the waters around Genovesa
• Get up close and personal with the fur seals of James Bay
• Search for nesting sea-turtles on Espumilla Beach
• Spot storm petrels on the wing off Prince Philip’s Steps
• Snorkel among the manta rays and sharks of Darwin Bay across Bahia Sullivan’s 100-year-old lava flow
• Learn about the islands’ history at Puerto Ayora’s Charles Darwin Research Station
• Stroll among the giant tortoise population in the Santa Cruz highlands
• Splash about in Punta Moreno’s beautiful lagoons
• Pitter-patter with the penguins of Elizabeth Bay
• Photograph the pink flamingos in Las Bachas lagoon
• Check out Fernandina Island’s marine iguanas
• Hear tales of the pirates who used to seek shelter in Buccaneer Cove
Ecuador might be smaller than its South American neighbours, but land has as much diversity and interest to be a complete destination in its own right. With perfect beaches and remarkable Islands, Ecuador’s wealth of natural riches make it a one-stop shop for incredible real life experiences. Come and indulge in a scoopful of the Amazon rainforest, a generous helping of the Andes and a refreshing glass of colonial Quito – Ecuador makes for a scrumptious serving of South America’s best.
When to travel
Simply put, there’s no bad time to visit the Galapagos Islands. Good weather is mostly found year round, as are the animals. This being said, November through to June is the preferred time to visit, with clearer skies, calmer seas and decreased winds. Of these, March and April have less rain, and November and December are the warmest months. July to November is the best time for divers, as whale sharks can often be spotted at Wolf and Darwin islands.
Geography and environment
The main 18 islands of the Galapagos (ranging from 4,588 sq km Isabela to 1.1 sq km Darwin) are lava-formed with mostly rocky shorelines. Some are sparsely vegetated with mountainous interiors and high central craters, while others are comparatively lush with white-sand beaches and mangrove-lined inlets.
A variety of great trips
Cruises range from six, seven and ten-days, which allows you to better choose the islands you want to visit, and allow for any time restrictions or budget you may have.
In order to best preserve one of the world’s most important and fragile natural
ecosystems, the Galapagos National Park authorities restrict the number of visitors to each site by issuing permits to every visiting vessel. This permit (or patente) determines which sites can be visited each day and when. Far from restricting a visitor’s experience, this system actually enhances it because the itineraries are designed in such a way as to eliminate the amount of vessel crossover. This results in witnessing more of the wildlife you’ve come to see without vying with boatloads of other tourists to see it.
A typical day
So that you can make the most of your time on the islands, we do most of our long distance sailing at night.
And because much of the wildlife is best observed early in the morning, early starts are pretty common. Each day consists of planned morning and afternoon activities, which tend to last between two to four hours. These could be anything from hiking to snorkelling to visiting research stations and include either wet or dry landings. While you don’t need to be able to swim to enjoy the Galapagos Islands, some of the more unique experiences are by snorkelling, so if you can swim a little you will be richly rewarded. Finally, although days are pretty packed with activities, there is ample free time to simply enjoy the environment.
All onboard meals are included in the cost of the trip. The food is delicious, nutritious and plentiful, and complimentary coffee, tea and purified water are provided at all times. Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages are available for purchase, and you just settle up at the end of the trip.
Top 5 wildlife encounters?
1. Sea lions
On the beach or snorkelling off-shore, you’ll be bound to come face-to-face with these playful animals. Playful, plentiful and pretty much fearless, you’re supposed to keep a 2-meter distance from them at all times – though their insatiable curiosity can make this hard!
2. Marine iguanas
The only lizards in the world that can live and forage in the ocean, the marine iguana is found solely in the Galapagos. Fierce and ferocious though these Godzilla-like reptiles may appear (Darwin called them ‘imps of darkness’), it’s all bluff – they only feed on algae. And with lung capacities permitting up to half an hour of underwater foraging, you’re just as likely to find them gorging on the islands’ surrounding seabeds as scampering about the craggy rocks they inhabit.
3. Hammerhead sharks
Boasting one of the animal kingdom’s most puzzling physiologies, the scalloped hammerhead shark is found in abundance off Wolf, Bartolome, Santa Cruz and Darwin Islands. Unlike most sharks, they will often merge into schools of over 100 during the day, making for some incredible and surreal photo opportunities. And with no known human fatalities and a wealth of natural prey on offer, diving among them isn’t as scary or dangerous as one might think!
4. Darwin’s finches
Though dull in colour and nondescript in appearance, the 13 types of finches that Darwin found in the Galapagos gave rise to one of the most controversial and game-changing theories the world has ever known. In short, by studying the anatomical differences between finches from different islands, Darwin hypothesised that the birds’ various adaptations to their different habitats and geographical separation from each other had eventually resulted in their mutation into different species: his Theory of Evolution. In his journal, he also reports that the birds were so unaccustomed to human presence that he’d often find them coming in to perch on his shoulder, which made for some very easy specimen-collecting on his part.
5. Giant tortoises
No trip to the islands is complete without a visit to its most famous residents. Weighing up to 400 kg, regularly living more than 100 years and able to go for up to one year without food, giant tortoises are gentle and slow-moving beings and are an intriguing and humbling spectacle to observe
A trip to this constellation of islands is like setting foot on the planet for the very first time. An Eden of flora and fauna that inspired Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, this enchanting paradise is bound to captivate the most adventurous of travellers.
Isla Santa Fe
Home to a colony of notoriously tame sea lions, it’s possible to take a dip alongside the friendly population in crystal-clear waters. You’ll also be privy to parades of iguanas progressively prowling the beaches like a scene from a tiny Jurassic Park.
Ornithology spoiler alert: virtually the entire world population of waved albatross can be found here. And it gets better: boobies, mockingbirds, doves – the list of feathered friends you can make here goes on and on.
Green beaches? Check. One of the most remote post boxes in the world? Check. Mega-wildlife-watching opportunities? Check. Isla Floreana has long been considered a highlight of the archipelago, where passing ships used to stop to collect mail from the wooden barrel postbox in the 18th century.
Isla Santa Cruz
Discover the secrets of the Galapagos that inspired the Theory of Evolution at the Charles Darwin Research Station and meet the island’s famous giant tortoises.
This patchwork quilt of various volcanic landscapes is home to a brackish lagoon boasting a star-studded shoreline of wildlife: flamingos teeter at the water’s edge, pelicans chatter in the bushes and further out to sea, boobies plummet torpedo-like into the deep.
Isla North Seymour
The rocky coastline of Seymour provides shelter to the region’s largest colony of frigate birds and blue-footed boobies, where treks through the cliffs bring you in close proximity to the nesting areas.
Isla San Cristobal
Brimming with remarkable wildlife and landscapes, this is also a prime spot to view the ‘booby two-step’, the captivating dance performed by blue-footed boobies in the throes of courtship.
Surrounded by enticing turquoise waters, Isabela is the biggest island in the archipelago, and home to the largest tortoise population in the Galapagos. Here, you can hike volcanic landscapes and view convict-built remnants.
A twitcher’s paradise, Genovesa is home to the full hat-trick of boobies, with masked, blue-footed and the rare red-footed all inhabiting this remote island.
The youngster of the archipelago, this island boasts an erratic volcanic landscape not matched anywhere else on Earth. A huge draw card is the iconic Pinnacle Rock, with views from the top to rival any you’ve seen before. And lucky snorkellers might even get to spot the Galapagos penguins!
Gateway to the Galapagos, and home to the main airport, Baltra is used as a launching pad when travelling to other islands in the region. This is a great location to spot iguanas strolling along the main street or sometimes even crossing the runway of the local airport.