Many tourists who plan a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands have this archipelago right at the top of their bucket list. In fact, some come to Ecuador because of the Galapagos Islands. We get that, these islands are truly unique. It’s a remote natural paradise with exceptional endemic wildlife, beautiful beaches, great weather and unforgettable landscapes. Nowhere in the world, you’ll get so close to nature as at the Galapagos Islands, both at land and in the sea. Some wildlife will even approach you out of their curiosity.The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of 13 large and more than 100 small islands located on the equator off the coast of Ecuador. It islocated600 miles into the Pacific Ocean, in Ecuadorian territory. The local nature is not only unique, it’s also very fragile. Therefore, authorities and the local population are very keen on conservation.Each of the 13 main islands differs from the others in its flora and fauna, because each island went through its own unique evolution. That’s why the Galapagos islands were the main inspiration of Charles Darwin’s evolution theory.The Galapagos are home to unique and unusual species of animals such as giant turtles, iguanas, seals, sea lions, sharks, and rays. There are over 20 species of protected animals and 26 species of endemic birds, such as Darwin’s finches and the blue footed boobies.Landscapes at the Galapagos range from active volcanoes to whitesand beaches at clear blue waters. You’ll encounter exceptional vegetation which has adapted to living on these subtropical volcanic islands with very limited natural fresh water. Such as cacti which easily get over 100 years old.If you are a nature lover, a trip to the Galapagos Islands should be on your bucket list. This conserved natural jewel is known for its exceptional geography. It is full of untouched landscapes and unique wildlife on land and in the sea. Whether you prefer an active adventurous trip or a relaxed and comfortable vacation, you will learn why people call Galapagos the enchanted islands.
Geography of the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos is a volcanic archipelago. On the map, you’ll find it 650 miles (1.000km) west of Ecuador’s mainland and deep into the Pacific Ocean at the equator line. The Galapagos Islands geography consists of 127 islands, islets and rocks spread over a total of 3,040 square miles (7.900km2). This volcanic archipelago was formed millions of years ago and was discovered only a few centuries ago.The landscapes differ significantly between the islands. However, everywhere you will be reminded of its volcanic origin. There are areas which are pure rocky. You can climb to volcano tops, but there are also areas which are full of vegetation.During a trip to the Galapagos Islands, you’ll find lots of beaches. Some white sandy at clear blue waters, but there are also rocky and black sand beaches. The Galapagos Islands are full of wildlife. Especially marine life. The archipelago is the only area within hundreds of miles with land and shallow waters. The geography of the Galapagos makes its surrounding waters very nutrient-rich for sea animals. Therefore, it attracts many species for breeding and feeding.Everywhere you go, you’ll be surrounded by lots of animals with no fear for humans. There are lots of iguanas, turtles, blue footed boobies, Darwin’s finches, sea lions, etc. The Galapagos are an absolute paradise for scuba diving and snorkeling. The sea lions, which seem lazy in the towns, are actually very playful in the waters. Also, you’ll encounter many sharks, stingrays and other fish.33% of the wildlife at the Galapagos islands are endemic. Meaning, during a trip to the Galapagos Islands, you’ll encounter animals which live nowhere else in the world. Probably the most famous ones are the giant turtles at land and the iguanas which live both at sea and at land. In fact, some species are so rare that they are endemic to individual islands within the archipelago.
The history of the Galapagos Islands
The remote Galapagos Islands have been uninhabited and undiscovered by humans until a few centuries ago. Until 1535, you couldn’t find this archipelago on any map. Over the course of history, people have had a major impact on nature worldwide. The Galapagos have been spared of this, which is why it has maintained its unique evolutionary process until today.Ecuador became independent from the Spanish in 1830 and took control over the Galapagos Islands 2 years later. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835. What he had seen and researched at the archipelago formed the base of his world-famous evolution theory.The Galapagos were not only very remote, also the living conditions were rough. Most islands had no fresh water, it was full of volcanic rocks and the sun at the equator was incredibly hot. People were not so keen on settling down since its discovery. Now and then, pirates came on land for a short break. They took land turtles back on their ships, because these could survive without food and water exceptionally long. So, the pirates would have fresh meat to eat while being long at sea. As a result, some of the endemic turtle species have gone extinct. Fortunately, most endemic land turtles have survived.Until 1936, the Galapagos Islands were an Ecuadorian prison. The tough living conditions in combination with its remoteness seemed to make it perfect for this. Back then, people had little interest in its unique endemic nature.Towards the end of the second world war, a few Jewish German families decided to start a new life as far away from society as they could. They were the first serious settlers on the islands. In the decades to follow, Ecuadorians made their way to the Galapagos as well. Mostly driven by misery and the desire for a new life. Many who moved to the Galapagos Islands had just lost everything they had after a terrible earthquake in Ecuador’s coastal area in 1949.Other than the turtle eating pirates, the Galapagos had been spared of destruction of its endemic nature for millions of years. With the growth of the human population, this had turned drastically in less than two decades. Endemic species had become under threat as never before. With the ships came rats which ate turtles’ eggs, the new locals brought dogs which hunted the iguanas for fun and farmers broad crops which overgrew endemic flora.During the 1960, the awareness of the uniqueness of its nature started to develop. In 1964, the Charles Darwin research center was founded. Ever since, they have protected and maintained the unique and fragile nature of the Galapagos Islands in close cooperation with the authorities and the local population.After 1978, everything changed in the Galapagos islands’ history. From then on,UNESCO recognized the Galapagos Islands as world heritage at its first published list. From then on, tourism has grown tremendously, making it the archipelago’s main source of income nowadays.
Fortunately, Ecuador keeps putting protection of its nature as a higher priority than income from tourism and fishing. There is an annual quota of 220 thousand tourists per year. Nobody can bring any animals to the islands and fishing is heavily regulated.
The Galapagos specified by Island
We can’t describe all 127 islands, islets and rocks. In fact, there is no need. Tours generally integrate the smaller surrounding destinations with the main ones. Below, we described the 6 main islands of the Galapagos. If you want to decide where to go during your trip to the Galapagos islands, this should give you a pretty solid idea of what to expect.
Isla Santa Cruz
Las Grietas del Amor (the Love Channel) or simplyLas Grietas is the principal landscape of Santa Cruz. It is a volcanic two rocks formation where you can navigate or snorkel trough. Not far away from Puerto Ayora, you will reach one of its most visited places: Tortuga Bay. It is an easy 2.5km. walk that can usually take forty-five minutes. Lava lizards are its main natural attraction. Along the way, there are two beaches: Playa Brava and Playa Mansa. Swimming is not allowed in Playa Brava because of dangerous currents. On the other hand, Playa Mansa is suitable to do it while enjoying the view of the mangroves. An ideal place to learn about the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands is the Charles Darwin Research Center. It is the principal point to discover the history and science researches of the Islands. You can also have a closer approach to the most iconic animals of the Galapagos Islands at the Giant Turtles Farms. The principal one is El Chato, located 20 minutes away from the airport. The fish market in Puerto Ayora is the perfect place to have the Galapagos fresh gastronomy experience.
Isabela has the biggest and most active volcano of the Islands: Sierra Negra. Its last eruption took place only three years ago, in 2018. It is half an hour away from Villamil, and most of the time crowded. The reason is that it has one of the biggest craters in the world. Sierra Negra has a unique fauna and flora as well. La Bocanilla is the principal option to see the caldera of the volcano, only 1.5kms. from the paradero.Along the slopes of Sierra Negra, you will spot the Trillizos Volcanoes. The highest point of these three volcanoes is 500mts., half the way of Sierra Negra. Reaching the top is not a difficult task, but it can be challenging to walk to its bottom which many describe as the center of the world. Tintoreras and Túneles are popular water sports locations. Tintoreras is also the name of the little sharks that live in this area. They are visible when the water level is low. The surroundings of Tintoreras are islets filled with deserted beaches that can be reached by kayak. Túneles is also a kayaking destination, but the most popular activity is snorkeling. Similar to Las Grietas, the place is known for its timeless rock formations.
Isla de San Cristóbal
Isla Lobos is the perfect place to interact with sea lions. This little islet is only 10kms. away from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and is a scuba diving point. Different sea lion species may swim with you under the sea, but we recommend this place to experts.One of the most visited places of San Cristobal (and the Galapagos Islands) is Kicker Rock. León Dormido (as it is called in Spanish) is formed by the remains of a volcanic cone that was eroded by the sea. As recently as 2021, a part had naturally collapsed. It reaches five hundred feet above the ocean and can only be reached by boat and with the company of local guides. This unique formation is surrounded by a diverse fauna that makes it an adventurous spot for scuba diving and snorkeling.A popular place for trekking is Punta Pitt, on the eastern side of San Cristobal. Because of its erosional process, there are unbelievable vivid colors all along the way. Punta Pitt has a unique view of the privileged landscapes of the Galapagos Islands.
Floreana was one of the first inhabited islands. Nowadays, it has a low population which is surrounded by an authentical paradise. Parte Alta is one of its most-visited sites. It is not a high hike (450mts.) but is still pretty challenging. Asilo de la Paz (Peace Haven) is the main attraction. It is a hill where the first colonists of the islands used to rest, especially in the nearby Pirates Cave.Playa Negra (black beach), in Puerto Velasco Ibarra, has a unique landscape from the rest of the Islands. The reason is the color of its sand, which contrasts the rest of the places around. It is a perfect place for pictures, not only because of the black sand but also by the beautiful sea lion species that enjoy swimming around them.Similar to Isla Lobos in San Cristobal, La Lobería is a magnificent place to practice snorkeling. Lobería has a privileged fauna surrounded by sea lions.
Isla Seymour Norte
At first glance, Seymourwill not look as impressive as the rest of the Islands, but do not let that fool you. This dry and small islet is a bird paradise. Frigate birds and blue-footed booby colonies are visible all around this area. For this reason, it is not hard to spot their unique nests and, probably, watch their mating dance.One of the biggest sea lion colonies in the Islands is also a great attraction. It is another popular place to snorkel with them and enjoy the clear waters of Seymour. If you rather stay dry and enjoy the company of birds, you may want to hike around Seymour. It is one of the easiest paths, with only 2 square kilometers and a maximum thirty-meters above sea levels.
Bartolomé is an island located in the south of Isla Santiago. People consider Bartolomé as the most beautiful place in the archipelago! The reason is the surrealistic colors at the top of its pinnacle. The island was formed by volcanic erosions that emerged throughout the years with shades of red, blue, yellow and green rocks.You can easily reach the top of Bartolomé. It is a forty-minute-long walk that we suggest to do in the morning. You can also do it in the afternoon, but the bright sun would not let you fully appreciate the fabulous landscape.Bartolomé is also a perfect spot to meet with penguins and even snorkel with them. Try to go as early as possible to have the entire experience. Bartolomé is a day away from Santa Cruz, so keep it in mind while making your schedule.
The main attraction of Pinzon Island is snorkeling. The island is not far away from Santa Cruz, but you can only go with local tours and guides. It is prohibited to walk on the land, so enjoying its crystal waters is the only activity allowed in the area (and it is worth it!).Stingrays, dolphins, iguanas, sea lions, turtles and even whitetip sharks are visible in Pinzón. It has a friendly environment not only for experts but also for beginners. If you are snorkeling for the first time, you’ll get a great impressions of sea life around the Galapagos Islands here.Although Pinzón is a small island, it has some high elevations that will keep you wondering what is inside of it.
Isla Santa Fé
Also located in Santa Cruz, in the opposite direction of Pinzón, there is the mysterious Santa Fé Island. Scientists say that its volcano is probably the most ancient one of the Galapagos Islands, with almost four million years of existence! It does not have spring water in the surroundings, so land animals like goats survive after several years of adaptation, drinking ocean water only.Santa Fé has never been inhabited; this is a good reason why its evolution is so fascinating. There is an endemic iguana called iguana terrestre de Santa Fe, that you may easily spot.Santa Fé is an ideal place for snorkeling, especially in the Barrington Bay area.
The best time to visit the Galapagos Islands
There is no clear single answer to what would be the best time of the year to visit the Galapagos Islands. In fact, there is no time of the year the Galapagos Islands have nothing interesting going on. It really depends on what you’re most interested in. Do you want to see whales with their calves? Or do you want to catch the best waves? The best time of the year to visit the Galapagos islands for you, may be very different from that for someone else. The good thing about the Galapagos Islands is that you can visit it all year round. Whether you want to see marine life, go to the beach, spot birds or hike to a volcano top, there is no bad season. There is seasonal variation though. The Galapagos Islands have 2 seasons. The wet season and the dry season. The wet season is from December until May and the dry season from June until November.
Wet season: December – May
These are the warmest months at the Galapagos Islands. Clouds with rain can instantly disappear and be replaced by completely blue skies. The sun is at its strongest and temperatures go up to around 30 degrees Celsius. During the wet season, the strong sun in combination with the rain gives a boost to the vegetation and makes the Galapagos Islands a lot greener. Meanwhile, the waves are at their highest, making it the surfing high season.From January to March is the mating season for iguanas. The males become more territorial. You can regularly see them getting into fights. Also, seeing the males’ colorful attempts to impress the females is rather spectacular.Around January begins the mating season for land birds such as mockingbirds, finches and flamingos. Other birds such as the albatross, the frigate bird and the penguins are mating around the end of the wet season.
Dry season: June – November
These months are a little bit cooler. Temperatures are around 24 degrees. There is a thin layer of clouds during most of the day. The sea is calmer and the waters warmer, especially towards the end of the dry season.The Galapagos Islands are surrounded by an abundance of sea life year-round and there isn’t really a scuba diving and snorkeling low season. However, during the dry season, the wildlife is at its peak and the waters are at its clearest.Whales come to the Galapagos islands with their calves during this season. Also, the sea lions are mating this time of the year. Furthermore, most of the nestling of the seabirds occurs during the dry season.
What should your (adventurous) vacation or backpacking trip look like?