Few places in the world can inspire, enrich and deepen our appreciation for nature the way Galápagos Islands can, ever since humans first step foot on its shores centuries ago. A source of natural intrigue and human curiosity, the archipelago—comprised of nineteen islands—has played an important role in human culture and history since Charles Darwin first visited the islands almost 200 years ago. A spectacle of extraordinary measure and home to a high percentage of endemic flora and fauna species, follow our step-by-step guide on how to book your dream tour to one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders!
First, decide which activities and/or excursions you’d like to do. Luckily, Galápagos Islands offers more than its fair share of exciting activates to keep even the most jaded tourist engaged and enthralled.
- Scuba diving – Tourists flock from all parts of the globe to dive in the world-renowned waters around Galápagos Islands. Every island offers endemic and unique marine life, so be sure to research what type of flora or fauna you’d like to see in order to choose the right dive spot for you.
- Snorkeling – The high percentage of endemic marine life (about 20%) means snorkeling in these waters will guarantee an experience unlike any other.
- Hiking – There are plenty of opportunities to hike and explore the diverse terrain of Galápagos (be aware that only the islands that are inhabited can be hiked).
- Swimming – Hot and humid weather, along with cool ocean waves, makes it perfect for swimming. Not every beach allows swimming, however, so be sure to respect the signs before going for a dip.
- Surfing – First-class waves draw surfers from every part of the globe.
- Biking – Rent a bike for the day and snap photos of pink flamingos and tortoises on a ride around Isla Isabela.
- Charles Darwin Research Station – See firsthand where Darwin worked and developed his ideas that would later become the basis for the theory of evolution.
- Turtle Bay – Watch thousands of marine iguanas comb the beach of Turtle Bay in the early morning hours.
- Bird watching – Almost 50 species of birds are endemic to Galápagos Islands, so keep a watchful eye to the sky for a truly one-of-a-kind sight.
- Sailing – Whether by luxury yacht or catamaran, a trip around the islands by sea is a can’t-miss experience.
These are just some of the more popular activities on the islands, so be sure to do plenty of research to find which activities suite your interests.
When To Go:
There are two peak seasons: June to September and December to January, which draw more tourists and higher prices. Remember that Galápagos Islands has a rainy season and dry season. Rainy season (December to May) means warmer temperatures, with almost daily drizzle but also sunny skies (great for sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling) and calm seas (best time for sailing). This also happens to be the period where most flowers blossom and when sea lions and sea turtles have their mating season.
Conversely, the dry season (June to November) provides cool winds and seas, but also pleasant temperatures. If you love to scuba dive or bird-watch then this is the best time to go! The cool currents also bring more plankton and other nutrients to the seas, which means more fish and birds will be in the region. During the dry period, marine life (such as marine iguanas) can be seen making their expected migration to land, not to mention a plentiful amount of penguins and blue-footed boobies in the area.
How Many Days:
After staying a week at Galápagos Islands (3 nights at Isla Isabela and 4 nights at Santa Cruz), I can tell you that it’s nowhere near enough time because you could spend months exploring the islands. The activities you end up doing will by-and-large determine the amount of time you spend on the islands. With that said, I suggest a week is the bare minimum and two weeks is ideal, but if you can get away with more time then by all means go for it.
Booking Your Flight:
To get the best deal on a flight, try to book as far ahead as possible (at least a few months in advance). Now, it’s not as expensive as a flight to Easter Island (my round-trip ticket to Easter Island cost around USD$1,200, though I must admit I purchased it the night before I left, which explains the high price), but the sooner you plan and purchase a ticket the better. Most travelers I met, who booked at least 2-3 months in advance, were able to secure a round-trip for around USD$400-500, and this is during peak season (June).
If you’re patient, and not to mention a little lucky, you can certainly find some great last-minute deals from sites like Skyscanner or Cheap Flights. If you choose to wait last minute, you’ll need to be diligent with your search, though it’s not impossible to get a great deal. As it happened, I too also waited until the night before to purchase my flight, but with all the cheap flights going quick, I had no choice but to settle for a USD$650 round-trip ticket. I chose to go with an open-jaw flight (Guayaquil to Isla Baltra and Isla Baltra to Quito), which means a slightly higher fare than a normal round-trip ticket.
Only three airlines service flights from the mainland to the islands (TAME, Avianca and LAN). There are daily flights from Guayaquil (about 1.5 hours one-way) and Quito (2 hours one-way) to Seymour Airport (Isla Baltra), which is the common landing spot for almost every traveler and provides direct routes to Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz), the largest town on any of the islands. Another option is to fly to San Cristóbal, though the prices are essentially the same. Isla Isabela does have an airport, but it only receives flights from neighboring islands (Isla Baltra and San Cristóbal) and not directly from the mainland.
Keep in mind that almost every flight from Quito will stop at Guayaquil before heading to the islands, though there are direct flights available, which of course will be higher priced. Remember, all travelers must pay a USD$100 fee (payable only in cash) upon arrival at Galápagos Islands. Also, you’re technically not allowed to enter Galápagos Islands without a valid return ticket, although I have met some travelers who managed to enter with a one-way ticket (how they managed to bypass customs without a return flight is beyond me).
Now comes the big question: to cruise or not to cruise? There are two ways to explore Galápagos Islands, either by cruise ship or individual day trips to and from the islands. There are pros and cons to each option, and again it depends on what you want to see and do.
- Cruise ship: Extended tours at sea normally range around 12 days/11 nights, while shorter trips are typically around 4 days/3 nights. Prices will vary depending on length of tour (anywhere from USD$500 for a budget cruise to upwards of USD$1,000+ for a more accommodating ship), class of cruise ship and activities included on tour (for instance, scuba diving and snorkeling are sometimes not included in the final price). If you love to dive then a tour by cruise is the only way to go because the best dive sites (e.g. near Wolf Island) are located near hard-to-reach islands and accessible only with a licensed tour operator. Be sure to go over all the details of your cruise, as certain activities are often not included in the final price. One of the benefits of cruise tours is the high probability of catching a glimpse of rare birds and animals that may not be possible by day trip tours alone. A big turn-off, however, for most travelers is the inherent lack of spontaneity and strict itinerary that is expected when you’re bound by a tour for this long.
- Day trip: The alternative to cruise ships are day trips, where you can create your own itinerary and decide how long you want to stay at any particular island, along with which activities you want to do. Day trips are often the preferred choice for many travelers (myself included) not only because of the freedom and flexibility to choose the right tour for you, but also the ability to bargain with tour operators and get the best deal for your budget. Each island will have its particular appeal, and prices are always cheaper if you book directly with the tour operator rather than through an agency. Be sure to shop around and haggle for a price that works for you. Though you won’t be tethered to a strict itinerary (i.e. cruise ships), you must keep in mind that popular activities like scuba diving require a cruise tour to get the most out of your Galápagos experience. Traveling from one island to another is very simple, just go to any travel agency or Ministry of Tourism (be sure to purchase your ticket a day in advance) to place your name on a guest list for a lancha (boat), which costs about USD$30 per ride. Travel time between Santa Cruz to Isla Isabela/San Cristóbal is about 2.5/3 hours, and the ride is not very smooth, so bring motion sickness pills (or sit near the back of the boat to avoid feeling sea sick). Water taxis, which travel to and from one part of an island to another, are convenient and cost USD$1 (one-way).
Picking A Travel Agency:
Whether you plan to explore by cruise ship or go independent, booking a tour from the mainland will almost always be more expensive and should be avoided. Why? Because Galápagos Islands considered a trip of a lifetime and there’s a common fear found among travelers of arriving without a tour ready to go. However, I can assure you that there are a plethora of tour operators available regardless of which island you visit, with boats and cruise ships departing daily. So, even if you’re unable to book a cruise ship or tour prior to your flight, once you arrive you’ll see firsthand that there are scores of tour agencies available.
Almost invariably you will always get a better deal if you wait to book at the last minute because competition between tour agencies is fierce. With that being said, however, get everything from the tour operator in writing, including the scheduled itinerary, activities, payment receipt (especially if paid in cash, which most agencies prefer to avoid credit card fees), as well as ask to see their certificates if you wish to go scuba diving, for instance. There are some tour operators, however, that have been known to cut corners and skirt safety protocols or regulations in favor of economic gain*, and they should be avoided at all cost.
As the US Consulate General in Guayaquil suggests, inquire about safety features of the boat and protect yourself by researching the tour company in advance or ask fellow travelers or the hotel concierge to suggest a company they trust. If you make your way to Isla Isabela, I highly recommend going with Pahoehoe Galapagos Tours, which not only offer a wide variety of tours (Los Tuneles, snorkeling, hiking, to name just a few) but I found them to be fun, engaging and always attentive to our questions or concerns. To ensure that your operator is licensed, check out the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) for a list of reputable tour companies.
Where To Stay:
There are plenty of options available when it comes to accommodations—everything from luxury hotels to budget hostels (I’ve seen some hostels priced as low as $10/night, with air conditioning included). An abundance of hostels and hotels means plenty of availability and potential deals, even during peak season. It’s not necessary to book accommodation in advance but feel free to book your first hotel before your arrival, and if you don’t like it you can always shop around for a better deal.
At Puerto Ayora (the main town of Santa Cruz), I recommend Hotel España, which has dorms and privates (privates go for around USD$25/night) that are clean and well-kept (all with air-conditioning), breakfast in the morning (it’s an extra USD$5) and free Wi-Fi (it only works in the lounge area and it’s not very efficient, so uploading photos will have to wait until you get back to the mainland). La Jungla, on Isla Isabela is situated next to the coast, which isn’t a bad choice but I settled for the first hotel I found so I’m sure you can find a better deal if you search around for a bit (I paid about $20/night for a single private). Keep in mind that whenever you arrive at an island, there will be a slew of people waiting at the dock to offer you everything from hotel rooms to guided tours. Don’t think you have to settle for the first offer that comes your way, and if there was ever a time to haggle for a bargain, this would be it!
*A Word Of Caution Concerning Tour Agencies:
As you can imagine, the influx of travelers to Galápagos Islands has created a lucrative market for its tourism industry (both from the mainland and at the islands), which has spawned countless tour companies, all vying for your attention and, subsequently, your money. Be wary of which tour company you pick, however, since the tourism industry is not as tightly regulated, as you would expect. This brings me to a very important point, which is that though I had a tremendous time at Galápagos Islands, my weeklong excursion was also tainted by the egregious behavior of a very shady travel agency.
Located on Santa Cruz, Seamoon Travel is run by a woman named Betty, and though she treated me very nicely and was initially very accommodating, her actions (once I paid for my tours) told a completely different and disturbing story. Her company operates what essentially amounts to a ponzi scheme, where the money paid by one customer was not immediately forwarded to the tour operator. Presumably, as several tour operators that I’ve spoken to afterwards have likewise concluded, Betty most likely used the money for her personal use and neglected to pay the tour operators until a future customer came along and then she would use their money to pay the tour operator for the previous customer. Several tour operators have all reported the same complaints about Betty and Seamoon Travel, which have led many of them to deny and/or reject her business altogether.
The end result is that the customer (in this case, me) is placed in a precarious situation: how can a tour operator conceivably allow a customer to join their tour if they have not received payment for said tour from the tour agency? And to make matters worse, the tour operator had no idea I was assigned to his company for said tour because that information was never relayed to them. Not to mention there were a string of travelers, prior to my arrival, also caught in the same web of deceit (with many of them left in bitter tears because of the situation). You know something is terribly wrong when the mere mention of a company or its owner’s name draws deep, disapproving sighs from local residents, boat operators and tour operators who understand full well the headache this will bring them.
The unethical behavior and fiduciary malfeasance of Betty and Seamoon Travel is not surprising, as opportunism is an inevitable byproduct of any lucrative marketplace. However, this does not mean that it should ever be tolerated. It wasn’t until I personally spoke with an official from the Ministry of Tourism (which have offices on Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela), that Betty finally paid because once the government was involved she faced the real possibility of losing her license and business and therefore had no choice but to pay all parties involved what they were properly owed. Given the US Consulate General’s warning about the poor regulatory supervision of tourism in the region, I can only assume that Seamoon Travel is still in operation today.
Now, granted, there are many tour agencies that are properly vetted as reputable by the Ministry of Tourism and have satisfactory customer reviews to prove it (whether online or word of mouth). I would be remiss not to mention my experience with Seamoon Travel, especially if it can help future travelers avoid this potential pitfall and be aware of such schemes.
Here are some steps you can take to better protect yourself when booking a tour.
- You can always forgo the tour agency altogether and book directly with the tour operator. You are also more likely to get a cheaper price given that the typical commission, attached by a tour agency for booking a tour, will not be included.
- If you do hire an agency to do all your bookings, ask for the names and phone numbers of all the people and companies involved in the tour (including boat captains, tour guides, etc.) and either call or see them directly to make sure they have you scheduled for the tour or boat ride. It’s beyond tedious, I know, but it’ll ensure that these third parties are aware of what’s going on and if there’s anything suspicious they will naturally want to contact the tour agency for details and payment.
- Most tour agencies insist on cash payments (to avoid credit card surcharges) so make sure to ask for a receipt, in case you’re required to show proof that you paid. Also, bring a companion with you so that someone can corroborate your story if need be.
If you have any questions or concerns about booking a tour for Galápagos Islands, let me know in the comments below.