Travel to the Galapagos Islands
On land and in the sea, the Galapagos Islands give the impression of a diabolic Garden of Eden. The islands’ tumultuous volcanic history of scorched earth and fiery flows are evident the moment you arrive. Inhospitable. Uninhabitable. Tortured. These are the adjectives inspired by the lava-sea-scape.
But look closer… this seemingly spartan landscape is in fact teeming with life; the first of the Galapagos’ many contradictions. Suddenly you realize that what you thought was a rock is in fact a sun-seeking iguana! And to add to your surprise, it doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed by your intrusive gaze… another Galapagos contradiction.
When Charles Darwin arrived to the Galapagos in 1835 he admitted to being a bit tormented by the thousands of iguanas laying about:
“One doesn’t get used to their hideous appearance, one is never entirely free of a sense of unease. Some say they look like guardians of Hell or condemned spirits or dragon spawn.“
Galapagos Land Iguana sunbathing.
The creatures of the Galapagos are survivors of a tortured landscape, an otherworldly archipelago nine-hundred miles out at sea. And because of their long history of isolation from Homo Sapiens, both land and sea animals remain virtually fearless and unaffected by visitors. As a visitor to the Galapagos, you will swim goggles to whiskers with sea lion pups, penguins, and sea rays, in addition to turtles and tropical reef fish. On land you will find yourself sidestepping over hundreds of Darwin’s dragon spawn, as well as nesting blue-footed boobies, sea lions, and scuttling Sally Lightfoot crabs.
The islands are fortuitously positioned at the confluence of three distinct oceanic currents, creating a sea of contradictions, as well as one of the highest levels of marine endemism anywhere in the world: nearly one in four species is unique to the islands.
In the Galapagos, expect the unexpected:
Penguins swim through mangroves in the company of rainbow-colored reef fish, while whale sharks and schools of hammerheads circle in the same waters as the Moorish idol.
A sealion in the Galapagos.
In 1934 the Ecuadorian government, in collaboration with the Charles Darwin Research Station, had the foresight to set aside a number of wildlife sanctuaries on the islands before finally declaring the Galapagos a national park in 1959. About 90% of the island territory is now protected and, thankfully, carefully managed. As a result, the park service only allows visits to about 50 sites, in addition to the islands’ few towns. Rest assured that although most of the park is off limits, the sites available to visitors are among the most interesting: You won’t be disappointed.
The most popular way to see the islands is by boat on a Galapagos Cruise, although land-based and scuba diving tours are also offered. Due to the increasing popularity of the Galapagos, a variety of boats are available for cruises, ranging from rickety sloops, to luxurious air-conditioned sailing yachts, to mid-sized cruise ships.
Most of the boats share similar itineraries, so boat quality, price, crew and trip length are often more important considerations when booking a trip. Voyages vary in length from four to fifteen days.
One of the primary differences between the varying boat classes, besides the comfort of their accommodations, is the experience of the crew and naturalist guides. Top-end boats have top-end staff. Boats in the midrange category of superior tourist class (and up) have bilingual naturalist guides, usually with a university degree. (In the Galapagos, the adage, “what you pay for is what you get” couldn’t be truer).
An impressive Ocean view but no one to share it with.
To get the most of your Galapagos travels at least 6 days are recommended. Bear in mind that, the shorter the trip, the less you will see — and there are a number of “don’t miss” islands such as:
- Española (natural wonder after natural wonder, from the immense blow hole, to the thousands of nesting blue-footed boobies, to the world’s largest waved albatross colony);
- Floreana (Devil’s Crown, flamingos, Flour beach and one notorious witch); Bartolome (spectacular views); and
- Black Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz (mangrove maze chock full of sharks, rays and sea turtles).
Most landings are by panga (dinghy) onto sandy or rocky beaches; so be prepared for what are known as wet landings and dry landings. Wet landings require you to wade to shore in up to knee-deep water, while dry landings are made along rocky outcroppings, and require a bit of agile grace to avoid turning a dry landing into a wet one (watch-out for slippery seaweed!). In addition to naturalist-guided tours on land, you will have plenty of time for underwater frolic with your snorkel, flippers and mask — and the local sea lion contingent.
Galapagos has excellent weather all year round since it is directly on the Equator and has a tropical climate. That said, if you’re interested in seeing specific animals or animal breeding or if you have a strong preference to hot and sunny vs. cloudy and cool, there are still better times than others to visit the Galapagos Islands. The months of June, July and August (and into September) tend to be characterized by cool garúa (mist) and temperatures averaging 72 F. This time of the year the sea is at its roughest (but still relatively tame), the highlands tend to be dry, and the palo santo trees leafless.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands between January and May is when the climate is more classically tropical: sun, hot air temperatures, wide stretches of blue sky, and occasional – but brief – downpours. The rain brings wet richness to the highlands, making them velvety green and flowery.
Tourist traffic is at its height during summer and holiday months. These peak months can get so crowded that even finding a berth on a boat may prove difficult. Prices are also higher and flights need to be booked in advance. March, April and May, with fewer travelers and great weather are some of the ideal months to visit the islands.
By Jason Halberstadt Updated January 22, 2013