All you need to know about… The Galapagos Islands

| August 16, 2018

The Galapagos Islands, fomerly known as the Enchanted Islands, are a volcanic archipelago along the equator, 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Home to stark lava formations, highlands and cactus forests, the wildlife has adapted to the unusual environment, resulting in different traits and endemic species. When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands and observed the differences between the species, he was inspired to look at nature in a new way, leading him to develop his theory of evolution.

Comprising of 13 major islands, six smaller islands and many more islets, travelling on an expedition cruise or taking day trips from your hotel or lodge are both excellent options. There are a number of nature treks where you can get up close to the wildlife, visit volcanic craters and hidden coves as well as snorkel with the colourful reef fish, the world’s second smallest penguin and green sea turtles.

South Plaza island, Galapagos

When to go

Thanks to its proximity to the equator, the Galapagos is a year-round destination. At the beginning of the year, the ocean is warmer, making it the perfect conditions for snorkelling. There is plenty of sunshine but also short, tropical showers. During these months, many birds start nesting, including greater flamingoes, Galapagos doves and Nazca boobies. It is also hatching season for the giant tortoises.  

From June to November, winds bring the colder Humboldt current towards the Galapagos and so the sea is often choppier, which is worth bearing in mind if you get sea-sick or want to snorkel! The colder weather attracts Humpback whales, dolphins and the beautiful frigatebirds. September is a good month to spot sea lions pups and fighting between rival males. During this time, the garúa (misty season) occurs, with more overcast days and occasional drizzle – this is when most of the wildlife tend to mate.

April to May and November to December are transition months on the archipelago with good weather, water temperatures and wildlife activity.

Frigatebird, Galapagos Islands

A frigatebird nesting

What to see

The Galapagos are famed for their wildlife and plant-rich islands, which due to their remoteness in the Pacific Ocean, have evolved over time and can’t be seen elsewhere. Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos with highlands, wetlands (humedales), coastal mangroves and brackish water lagoons where pink flamingoes, common stilts, whimbrels, white-cheeked pintails and gallinules can usually be spotted.

While on Santa Cruz island, you can spot Galapagos giant turtles on their migratory path, known as El Manzanillo. Year round, tortoises can be seen grazing on the surrounding vegetation, wallowing in muddy banks or in a small red-coloured pond, which is impressively coloured by surface red pond weeds. There are also a variety of finches, including chirping vegetarian finches, small tree finches, large tree finches and woodpecker finches. Mockingbirds, flycatchers, ducks, herons and gallinules can also be found here.

Giant tortoise, Galapagos Islands

Giant tortoises

The smaller islands of Española and Genovesa are good for spotting frigatebirds, the Galapagos albatross – the largest bird in the Galapagos with a wingspan of 2.5 metres – and the blue-footed booby. While Fernandina island is where you will find the Galapagos penguin – the only penguin to live in the tropics – and flightless cormorants that have impressive diving and fishing skills. Don't miss the marine and land iguanas as these large lizards have an impressive spikey crest running along their neck and back. Marine iguanas have developed an amazing ability to sneeze excess salt from their bodies to survive! You will often see them basking in the sun or on the shoreline.

Blue-footed boobies

Blue-footed boobies

Galapagos by sea

Cruising around the archipelago tends to be the most popular way to visit the Galapagos. There are a number of expedition cruises that you can choose from, with itineraries varying from three to 14 nights. The small boats tend to host around 16 passengers and are more intimate, while the larger boats can take up to 100 passengers and are well-equipped with larger dining rooms, lounges and sun deck.

Travelling by sea is generally more relaxing as you sail at night, waking up at your destination with the whole day to explore. You can get to know your surroundings on small inflatable panga boats. Discover hidden coves, inaccessible mangrove estuaries and spot the resident wildlife. These excursions also include guided walks across the islands.

Odyssey cruise ship

Odyssey cruise ship

Galapagos by land

Out of the many islands of the Galapagos, only four of the islands are inhabited: Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana and San Cristobal. Staying at a lodge on one of these islands offers guests the chance to explore them in more detail, whether that’s walking to lava fields, observing the incredible array of wildlife or experiencing some of the world’s best snorkelling.

Sea turtle, Galapagos Islands

A sea turtle

This is the best option for those that like to return to the comfort of a hotel or lodge each night and want a good night’s sleep on terra firma! There are now scenic inter-island flights that help connect the islands, making it possible to spend a couple of nights on different islands. From your hotel or lodge you can take day trips, although you have to travel back and forth. This, however, doesn’t limit your access to the islands.

Staying in a hotel is usually preferred by families, especially those with younger children that may rather play on the beach than be constraint to an expedition boat. You can spend three or four nights on Santa Cruz, before travelling to Isabela to stay there for the same amount of time.

Family holiday to the Galapagos Islands

Family holiday to the Galapagos Islands

On Santa Cruz, we recommend that you stay at the environmentally-friendly Finch Bay Eco Hotel or for a more adventurous experience, the Galapagos Safari Camp. On Isabela, the luxury, safari-themed tents at Scalesia Lodge are hidden among the lush forest.

Combine The Galapagos by land & sea

If you can’t decide between the two, it is possible to combine both land and sea, spending three or four nights aboard a boat, followed by two or three nights at a hotel. This gives you the perfect opportunity to experience both the exploration and relaxation elements of the Galapagos Islands. The beaches are well worth exploring too, especially to make the most of the snorkelling.

A Galapagos penguin

A Galapagos penguin

Cox & Kings’ Ecuador & Galapagos Experience includes four or seven nights on the Galapagos Islands. You can choose whether you would like to join a cruise or stay on the islands, or combine the two.

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