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Everything You Need to Know to Visit the Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands is one of this world’s top tourist destinations.  Every year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to this island archipelago off the coast of South America to enjoy the beautiful vistas, interact with the diverse and amazing wildlife, and to scuba dive and snorkel in one of the world’s richest marine environments.  The Galápagos Islands are truly one of this world’s greatest treasures and something that everyone should see in their lifetime.

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In this Galápagos Islands visitor guide, I am going to give you all of the information that you need to make sure your trip to the Galápagos Islands is successful.  I am going to outline when to visit the Galápagos Islands so that you can maximize the amount of good weather to enjoy and make sure you see the wildlife events that you want to see.

I will also discuss what to see in the Galápagos Islands, as many people have heard of the islands, as well as Charles Darwin’s famous studies on the islands, but most don’t know the extent of what wildlife exists on the islands and in the waters offshore.  I will talk in detail about the best places to visit in the Galápagos Islands so that you know which islands to visit and the best way to visit those islands.  Like any island chain, logistics is paramount when visiting the Galápagos so you will want to know how long you should stay and what modes of transportation you will need to reserve.

Finally, I will talk about the different ways in which you can tour the Galápagos Islands.  For some, booking a land-based tour will be the ideal tour package, but for others, a LiveBoard cruise aboard one of the many ships that sail throughout the Galápagos Islands will be the best method to see the islands.  Understanding the pros and cons of these options and which one will be best for you is arguably the most important decision you will make in planning your trip, and I will help you make sure you make the right decision for you.

Galápagos Islands Resources

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Booking a trip to the Galápagos Islands is a big deal for most people, so I want to make sure that you have all of the resources you need at your fingertips so that your trip is an absolute success.  In addition to this guide and the many sub-guides that I have included within it, I have also provided you with a number of other great resources below that you can use as you make your trip plans.

Before You Go

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Before you start planning your trip, I encourage you to read this visitor guide, and the companion guides that I have included within it, very thoroughly.  You will want to make sure that you know everything that you need to pack, have all of the required immunizations, and know exactly what type of tour you want to book and where you want to visit in the Galápagos before you start planning your trip.  To assist you with this planning, I have included several different companion guides throughout this visitor guide and listed them below for you to reference.

What to Pack

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Before you leave for the Galápagos Islands, you are going to want to be sure that you have everything packed that you will need.  There is nothing worse than being on an amazing trip not being able to do an activity that you want to do because you are not prepared to do it.  In the Galápagos Islands Packing Guide I have linked to below, I outline all of the gear that you will want to have packed for your trip.  This includes such things as medication for motion sickness, a wetsuit if you are sensitive to cold water, and general clothing that you will want to pack.

Travel-Pic The Galápagos Islands Packing Guide

How to Get There

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The Galápagos Islands are an amazing destination, but it can be a little daunting getting there.  Between the number of flights and boat rides you will need to take, to the fees and regulations you will need to be aware of, it can be a lot to get your mind around.  Worry not as I have created a guide that walks you thru the entire process of getting to the Galápagos Islands.

Galapagos Area Map

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I would say that planning the logistics of your visit is going to be the most difficult part of your planning process.  Make sure you read this guide thoroughly as not being prepared could cost you valuable time that could instead be spent enjoying the islands.

Travel-Pic Guide to Getting to the Galápagos Islands

When to Visit

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One of the biggest decisions you will need to make when planning your trip to the Galápagos Islands is when to go.  There are a number of different factors that you will want to take into account when planning your trip.  There is no right or wrong time to visit as the Galápagos Islands are always an amazing place, but when you decide to visit will mostly depend on what you want to see when you are there.

The Galápagos Islands have two different seasons that are marked by the amount of precipitation the islands get and the slight temperature variation (both air and water temperature).  During the wet season, which typically lasts between January and May, the islands get considerably more rain and the air and water temperatures tend to be higher.  Once May rolls around, the dry season begins.  The dry season lasts from May until December and is typically marked by considerably less rainfall and cooler air and water temperatures.

You will notice a stark contrast in the vegetation on the islands between the rainy and dry season, as the islands are typically green and lush during the rainy season and dry and desert-like during the dry season.  The variation in air and water temperatures between the seasons isn’t very large but can have a big impact on the wildlife you will see and where you will see them.  This is especially true for marine wildlife, like the Galápagos Penguin, that relies on the cold waters of the Humboldt Current.

Average Temperature (°F)

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Average Water Temperature (°F)

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Average Precipitation (Inches)

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What You’ll See (By Month)

What you will see in the Galápagos Islands will depend mostly on when you decide to visit.  Many of the animals that live in the Galápagos Islands and the waters off their shores are year-round inhabitants, but they may be in different areas at different times of the year.  Because of this, you will need to know where to find them in order to plan your trip correctly.  Other animals only visit the Galápagos during specific times of the year, so you have to visit during those times in order to see them.

For more detailed information on the various animals that call the Galápagos Islands their home, make sure you read the Galápagos Islands Wildlife Guide I have linked to in the section below.  In that guide, I provide a lot of in-depth information on the most popular animals that are found in and around the Galápagos.  This includes how to identify them, and where and when to find them.  To give you a general sense of what you might see throughout the year, I have also included my Wildlife Event InfoGraph for you to review below.

Wild Life Event Timeline

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Mistakes to Avoid

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The Galápagos Islands is a dream destination for many people, and if you are reading this guide I am guessing it is a location that you would like to visit sometime in the future as well.  As beautiful of a destination as it is, the Galápagos can also be a very challenging trip to plan.  If you aren’t careful in your planning, you can make a mistake or two that can really put a damper on or even ruin your trip.  To help you avoid making any really big mistakes in your planning, I have put together the list below of the mistakes people sometimes make and how to easily avoid them.

Not Packing Motion Sickness Pills

Even if you don’t typically get motion sickness, I would plan on packing an ample supply of motion sickness pills.  As I outline in my Guide to Getting to the Galápagos Islands, you will be taking a number of lengthy boat rides in potentially choppy seas even if you are taking a land-based tour, so motion sickness pills may come in handy.

If you are going to take a LiveAboard cruise while in the Galápagos, then the motion sickness pills are even more important.  If you do get motion sickness easily, I would strongly suggest that you get a prescription for the motion sickness patches.  I am very susceptible to motion sickness and those patches worked wonders for me when I was in the Galápagos.

Seeing the Wrong Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands is unlike many of the other tourist destinations you might visit.  With the Galápagos, the main attractions aren’t the cities, restaurants, or entertainment facilities, but the wildlife areas that are protected on the islands and in the waters that surround them.  Roughly 97% of the land in the Galápagos Islands and all of the maritime area that surrounds the islands is part of the Galápagos Islands National Park.  This includes roughly 70 terrestrial and 75 maritime visitor sites.  These are the main attractions in the Galápagos Islands and the areas that you will want to explore when you visit.

One of the biggest mistakes that people tend to make when planning their trip to the Galápagos Islands is failing to do the research needed to book the right tour or tours for their trip.  A vast majority of the visitor sites in the islands are only accessible via a LiveAboard cruise, which means that those sites will be inaccessible if you book a land-based tour.  That’s not to say that land-based tours aren’t worthy of being booked, but you need to understand what you will and will not be able to see when you book a land-based tour over a LiveAboard boat tour.

If you are planning to see the Galápagos Islands on your own without booking a tour, you need to pay extra special attention when booking your day tours.  Remember, you need to have a wildlife naturalist certified by the national park to visit the national park’s wildlife sites, so you cannot just go off on your own.  Instead, you will need to book several different day tours for your trip.  These logistics are handled by your tour company when you book an all-inclusive land-based or LiveAboard tour.  The tour company books the day tours for you.  Keep in mind, the hotels on the islands are in constant competition for spots for their customers aboard these day boats and making sure you have a spot reserved before you arrive can be a challenge.

If you want my advice, I would strongly recommend that you either book a larger land-based tour package or a LiveAboard cruise tour package.  This takes the planning, coordination, and confirmation of multiple day boat tours out of your hands and helps ensure that you will have the tours you want to be reserved when you arrive.  Most tours will have detailed itineraries listed so that you can use this guide to determine what areas in the Galápagos you want to see and match that up with an appropriate land or LiveBoard tour that visits those areas.

Not Booking the Right Airfare

Another common mistake that people make when booking a trip to the Galápagos Islands is to book their airfare to the islands before they have their tour package selected and booked.  Before you select your tour package and speak to the tour operator, you will have no idea about when you should arrive and depart and where you will need to fly into to be picked up.

If you book your airfare before you book your tour, you could end up having to pay rebooking fees for your airfare because the flight you booked either gets you to the islands too late or brings you into the wrong airport in the Galápagos.  This mistake can easily be avoided and can save you a lot of headache by waiting to book your flights until after you have your Galápagos tour package booked.

Not Planning Enough Time

One of the bigger mistakes you can make when planning your trip to the Galápagos Islands is to not leave yourself with enough time to see everything you want to see in the islands.  There is a lot to see in the Galápagos and transportation from one island to another can be time-consuming.  This is why most of the outer islands are only accessible via a LiveAboard tour.

If you book a land-based tour, you will need to take a number of lengthy speedboat rides between Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristobal islands to see what you want to see.  Essentially, these boat rides consume about half a day and typically aren’t accounted for when people plan their trips.  If you book a LiveAboard tour, most often the boat will travel between destinations while you sleep, which is why they are the more time-efficient tour option and allow you to access places that land-based tours are not able to access.

The best advice I can give you is to start by using my Galápagos Islands Wildlife Guide to determine what you want to see and when are where the best places are to see those animals.  With this information, you can start browsing different tour packages to see which ones hit the places on your list and do the activities you want to do.  If you are interested in snorkeling or scuba diving, my Galápagos Islands Scuba Diving and Snorkeling Guide outlines the best places to do these activities for all skill levels so that you can have an idea of which snorkeling and scuba diving sites you will want to visit.

Traveling With a Crowd

One of the best parts about the Galápagos Islands is that it is primarily a wildlife destination.  When you visit the Galápagos, you are visiting a pristine wilderness, mostly free of the hustle-and-bustle of human activity.  This is what makes the wildlife viewing experience so special.  Unfortunately, this pristine experience can be ruined if you aren’t careful on which tours you book when you visit the Galápagos Islands.

Some tour companies in the Galápagos operate with large vessels that can fit 50 to 100 people on them, and with those large vessels, come large crowds.  These tour companies may offer cheaper tour packages, but those cheaper prices come with a price.  When you book these tours, you are essentially bringing a large crowd with you.  Instead of having a beach almost exclusively to yourself to explore, you will be stuck in a crowd on the beach or in a line waiting to see some of the wildlife.  That is not the experience many of us envision when we think of the Galápagos Islands.

Not only will your experience be dampened by the fact that you no longer get to have that pristine wilderness experience, but large groups also take longer to organize and coordinate, so you will have more wasted time on your trip as well.  As I mentioned above, time is a valuable resource when on a trip in the Galápagos, so avoiding larger tours and saving time is something you will definitely appreciate when you are on your trip.

Going Cheap on Your Tour Package

The quality of your tour guide in the Galápagos Islands can really make or break your trip.  A great tour guide will take your experience to the next level by knowing where to look for and find the wildlife you want to see, being able to answer all your questions and give context to your experiences, and they generally know what people want to experience and are good at providing those experiences.

On the other hand, a poorly trained or experienced tour guide can really put a damper on your trip.  Tour guides play an important role no matter where you travel, but this is especially true in the Galápagos Islands.  Without the proper guide, you won’t have the slightest clue where to look to see the wildlife you have come to see, and even if you do see wildlife it is hard to know exactly what you are seeing.

I would strongly advise that you carefully read the reviews for the tour companies that you are looking into booking.  Pay close attention to how people described their experiences.  Most often, the best tour guides aren’t going to be working for the bargain tour companies because the bargain tour companies probably aren’t paying their guides a whole lot.  I am not saying you need to break the bank when you book your tour in the Galápagos Islands, but make sure that you are purchasing a quality experience when you do book a tour.

Not Bringing a GoPro or Waterproof Camera

One of the most regrettable mistakes I have heard and seen people make when visiting the Galápagos Islands is to not bring a GoPro or waterproof camera with them when they visit.  When you are in the Galápagos, you are going to spend a vast majority of your time either by the water, on the water, or in the water.  After all, 97% of the Galápagos National Park is the ocean that surrounds the islands.  That is where a vast majority of the wildlife you will see spends its time.

If you want to capture some truly remarkable moments during your visit, then I would strongly encourage you to invest in a GoPro or other type of waterproof camera.  You will not regret making this investment.  For some more tips on how to capture your memories of the Galápagos Islands, please check out my Galápagos Islands Photography Guide.  In that guide, I discuss which equipment you should consider bringing with you and how to take the best pictures while you are there.

Planning Your Trip

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As I mentioned previously, one of the biggest factors that you will need to consider when you start to plan your trip is what you want to see.  To give you a sense of which wildlife it is possible to see in the Galápagos Islands, I have created a Wildlife Viewing Guide that outlines some of the most popular wildlife that calls the Galápagos their home.  In this guide, I let you know when and where you are most likely to spot these animals so that you have a better sense of which sites you will want to visit and when to visit them.

For instance, it makes no sense to visit the Galápagos Islands in February or March when the top item on your list is to scuba dive with whale sharks.  Whale sharks are only in the Galápagos Islands between June and December so you would be very unlikely to see them in February or March.  Likewise, whale sharks are primarily only seen around the remote parts of the Galápagos near Wolf and Darwin islands.  If you book a land-based tour that won’t access these islands (because only LiveAboard cruises can), then you again would be missing out on the top item on your list.

For these reasons, I would recommend that you start by reviewing my Galápagos Islands Wildlife Guide and making a list of all the wildlife that you would like to see.  Makes sure you note which times of years and locations are best for seeing these animals.  I would also recommend reviewing my Galápagos Islands Scuba Diving and Snorkeling Guide if you plan on getting in the water to see the wildlife up close (which I strongly recommend that you do).  Once you have a good sense of what you want to see and when and where to see it, you can start to put together a plan for your trip.

At that point, you will be ready to start looking at itineraries for tours and determine which tour would be best for you.  Again, the absolute last thing you will do is book your airfare.  At the end of this guide, I go into more detail on the differences between land-based tours and LiveAboard tours so that you have a better sense of what each type of tour entails and which would be best for you.

Wildlife Viewing

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Before you can get any real sense on when you should visit the Galápagos Islands or which parts you should see, you need to understand what types of wildlife live in the Galápagos, when they are there, and where you need to go to see them.  In my Galápagos Islands Wildlife Guide, which I linked to below, I cover which animals you will commonly see in the Galápagos Islands, as well as where you can typically see them and when.  Before you start with any of your other planning, I would read thru this guide to get a sense of what you want to see.  This information will be critical as you start to put together your trip plan.

Travel-Pic Galápagos Islands Wildlife Guide

Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

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One of the best ways to get up-close-and-personal with the wildlife in the Galápagos Islands is to go snorkeling or scuba diving.  For many people, that will be their main draw of coming to the Galápagos.  For others, it is just an activity that they can use to enhance their experience.  Whichever camp you fall into, you are going to want to make sure you book the right tours to see what you want to see.

After you have read my Galápagos Islands Wildlife Guide, I would recommend that you read my Galápagos Islands Scuba Diving and Snorkeling Guide, which I linked to below.  In this guide, I let you know what type of gear you should bring with you on your trip, and what you can easily rent while there.  I also talk about the best places to go snorkeling or scuba diving, and what you might see at those sites.  Knowing this information will be critical as you start to shop for a tour or tours to book for your trip.

Travel-Pic Galápagos Islands Scuba Diving and Snorkeling Guide

Photography

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When you are planning a big trip like one to the Galápagos Islands, it is easy to get caught up in the minutia of figuring out the logistics and completely neglect to do any planning for taking pictures while you are on your trip.  It is important to properly plan for taking pictures in the Galápagos because while it is a unique and interesting destination, it can also be a challenging destination to photograph.  To assist you in making sure you are properly prepared with the right gear and give you some tips on photographing the wildlife of the Galápagos, I have put together a Galápagos Islands Photography Guide, which I linked to below.

Travel-Pic Galápagos Islands Photography Guide

Choosing the Right Trip for You

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Now that you have reviewed my wildlife and scuba diving and snorkeling guides for the Galápagos Islands, you should have a good idea of what wildlife you would like to see and when and where you need to be to have the best chance of seeing it.  You should also be familiar with what type of logistics you should expect in getting to the Galápagos Islands, as well as what to pack for your trip because you reviewed my getting to the Galápagos Islands and packing guides.

Now comes the fun part.  You should now be ready to start thinking about what type of tour or tours are right for you.  To assist you in doing that, I am going to explain the three different ways in which you can visit the Galápagos Islands so that you have all the information you need to determine which trip type is best for you.  I will also provide you with some popular tour companies and resources that you can check out as you start to plan your adventure.

Land-Based Trips

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When I say “land-based trips”, that can be a little deceiving because you are still going to spend quite a bit of time in a boat or in the water.  However, you will not be spending 16+ hours a day on a boat (including sleeping on one) like you would be with a LiveAboard tour.  There are several advantages and disadvantages of booking a land-based tour, which I have outlined below.

Advantages

  • Your schedule is typically much more flexible.
  • You get to spend more time exploring the islands themselves.
  • You can move more at your own pace.
  • They are typically more economical.
  • You can sleep in a hotel instead of on a boat (important if you get seasick easily).

Disadvantages

  • It can be a little overwhelming choosing between all of the day tours and tour packages that are available.
  • You cannot access the outer islands (you will spend the majority of your time around Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristóbal Islands).
  • There is typically more wasted time traveling between islands and to do activities.

Who These Tours are Good For

  • First-time visitors to the islands who want to get a good overview experience of the Galápagos.
  • People who get seasick quite easily and don’t want to sleep on a boat.
  • Visitors who aren’t overly interested in doing an extensive amount of scuba diving or snorkeling.

Some Popular Land-Based Tours

LiveAboard Trips

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The other popular way that people tour the Galápagos Islands is by taking a cruise ship, on what is known as a LiveAboard tour.  Unlike with the land-based tours, with a LiveAboard tour, you will be spending almost all of your time in the Galápagos Islands on a boat.  You will eat on the boat, sleep on the boat, and get to all of your activities with the boat.  Like land-based tours, this type of tour has its advantages and disadvantages, which I have outlined for you below.

Advantages

  • Less time wasted traveling as your boat will travel between destinations as you sleep at night.
  • Typically all-inclusive, so you don’t need to worry about any meals.
  • They can reach the outer islands that land-based tours typically don’t visit.

Disadvantages

  • You have to sleep on a boat (accommodations aren’t horrible, but it can be tough for those who get seasick easily).
  • You will be spending 16+ hours a day on a boat.
  • You will be with the same group of people the whole trip.
  • Far less flexibility with activities.
  • Typically more expensive.

Who These Tours are Good For

  • Scuba divers or snorkelers who want to see more of the Galápagos Islands than land-based tours can offer.
  • People who want to dive with Whale Sharks or Hammerheads.
  • Wildlife enthusiasts who want to see all of the wildlife in the Galápagos Islands.

Some Popular LiveAboard Tours

In addition to the tours I have listed above, you can also explore all of the different LiveAboards that are available for the Galápagos Islands at LiveAboard.com.  If you are interested in diving with Whale Sharks in the Northern islands, check out ExplorerVentures.com.

Plan Your Own Trip

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The final approach that you can use to planning your adventure to the Galápagos Islands can be the most daunting.  If you are up to the challenge, you can book your entire itinerary, including all of your in-trip excursions, transportation, meals, and lodging on your own.  Personally, I would not recommend this option as there is so much that goes into the logistics of visiting the islands that professional tour groups have mastered, but I do admire someone who is up for the challenge.

To assist you in deciding whether this option is the right one for you, I have listed some of the advantages and disadvantages of planning your own trip to the Galápagos Islands below.  In case you decide to go this route, I have also listed a number of popular day trips and transportation packages that you can book as you start to plan your trip.

Advantages

  • This option gives you by far the most flexibility in how you manage your trip.
  • Planning your own trip tends to be more economical than taking a tour.
  • You can ensure that you get to see the places you want to see and just the places you want to see.

Disadvantages

  • It can be a ton of work to plan.
  • You have fewer resources to guide you thru the logistics of getting around the islands.
  • The day tours book up fast and far in advance as the hotels compete for limited tour spots for their visitors.

Who These Tours are Good For

  • People that don’t have a lot of time when visiting the Galápagos Islands (only a few days or so).
  • People who know exactly what they want to see and cannot find the appropriate tour to fit their needs.
  • Experienced travel planners or return visitors who want to maximize their experience in the Galápagos Islands.

Some Popular Day Tours and Transportation Packages 

Important:  When booking these trips, make sure you are mindful of where the tour picks up, how long the tour is, what is included in the trip (for instance, if snorkeling is included), and when and where it drops you off.  Keep in mind, if you need to transfer islands, those boat rides are usually 2-3 hours long and only run once in the morning and once in the afternoon.  These are the logistics that can make planning the trip on your own difficult.

Transportation

Day Tours and Excursions

Galápagos Islands Adventure

Visiting the Galápagos Islands was one of the most memorable adventures of my life.  To see what my experience was like and what you might expect when you visit the Galápagos Islands, please check out the video of my adventure below.

Photo Gallery

The Galápagos Islands are one of this world’s top wildlife travel destinations.  I was sure to capture plenty of shots of the amazing landscapes and wildlife when I visited and I have shared my favorite shots with you below.

Galápagos Islands

 

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