Ecuador packs a lot of variety into a small country. The undisputed highlight is the Galapagos Archipelago, with their otherworldly volcanic landscapes and stunning array of wildlife. Snorkel with sea lions and penguins, come close to boobies and albatrosses, iguanas and tortoises and watch whales. This is nature in its primordial state, nature as it used to be.
best time to travel
There is never a bad time to travel to the Galapagos Islands. December through May are great for swimming and snorkeling, you can see the mating rituals of animals and birds, flowers bloom and the sea is calmer. During June through November fish and birdlife are generally more prolific.
places to go
Bartolomé is the most photographed island on any cruise in the Galapagos Islands. There is an incredible viewpoint and a beach with good snorkeling and swimming. Birds common here are Galapagos Penguins, herons, and Galapagos Hawks.
Española is one of the most isolated islands in Galapagos. Wildlife is varied and there are a large number of endemic species, including the Española Mockingbird, the Española Lava Lizard, and the Waved Albatross. It is one of the most popular islands in the Galapagos.
Fernandina, with its large land iguana population, is the most pristine of the Galapagos volcanoes and another highlight of any Galapagos cruise. The waters surrounding Fernandina and western Isabela are the richest waters in the archipelago, providing great habitat for Flightless Cormorants and Galapagos Penguins.
Floreana is the site of the first “post office”, established in 1793. The island offers a flamingo lagoon, where you can also see Pintail ducks, Large-billed Flycatchers, and several species of finches and shorebirds. Green Sea Turtles nest here and rays glide through the shallow waters.
The highlands are of interest to plant lovers and for historical reasons.
Inside Devil's crown, an eroded crater, snorkelers find an underwater oasis of coral reefs along with playful sea lions, King Angel Fish, Balloon Fish, Tiger Snake Eels, rays, sharks and sea turtles. There are also plenty of boobies, pelicans, and Frigatebirds.
Genovesa has an abundance of birdlife, including Frigatebirds, Nazca and Red-footed Boobies (the latter in large numbers), Swallow-tailed Gulls, storm petrels, Red-billed Tropicbirds, finches, and mockingbirds.
Isabela has lots of new lava fields and the island’s rich fauna is beyond comparison. Wild tortoises abound and the waters along the west coast are a rich feeding ground for fish, whales, dolphins, and birds. Whale watching, with up to 16 species, is excellent here.
South Plaza is famous for its extraordinary flora and marine and land iguanas are abundant. Plenty of birds nest in the cliffs on the island.
Rábida consists of several volcanic craters with a distinctive red color. Brown Pelicans can be seen up close nesting behind the beach, while Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies visit the cliffs. Flamingos can sometimes be seen in the lagoon, alongside Pintail Ducks and Common Stilts. There is a short trail, along which you can observe birds such as finches, Galapagos Doves, Yellow Warblers, and mockingbirds. Swimming and snorkeling are very good here.
San Cristóbal has an interpretation centre, a sea lion rookery and a colony with both Magnificent Frigate Birds and Great Frigate Birds. Snorkelling is particularly good as are sightings of coastal and migratory birds.
Punta Pitt is the only place in Galapagos where you can see all three boobie species nest together, along with two species of Frigatebirds. Views from the top of the cliff are magnificent.
Kicker Rock is the most dramatic snorkelling and dive site here, with vertical cliffs rising almost 150 metres straight out of the sea. Small vessels can pass through a narrow channel in the rock and while in the water you may see Manta rays, sea turtles, and sharks.
On Santa Cruz you can experience the interior and higher grounds of the islands, including magma chambers and lava tunnels. The town of Puerto Ayora is the main tourism hub and has plenty of good restaurants. The Charles Darwin Research Station has exhibits on climate, geography, the evolution of flora and fauna as well as conservation programs.
Santa Cruz has wonderful beaches and almost every land bird present in the islands can be found here. The island also offers excellent opportunities for viewing wild tortoises.
James Bay on Santiago is a great place to see Galapagos fur seal and there are several walking trails here. In Sullivan Bay you can walk across a recent lava flow. Off the coast, Chinese Hat is a beautiful snorkeling site with sharks, sea lions, penguins and rays.
Getting close to nature
Walk the trails in the Galapagos and come up close to nesting birds, iguanas, tortoises and sea lions. Colourful crabs and majestic albatrosses, blue and red-footed boobies and stately flamingos are but some of the animals you will see.
Swimming with sea lions and turtles
While snorkelling in the Galapagos it is not uncommon to come eye to eye (or should we say nose to nose) with sea lions and turtles. They are as curious about you as you are about them! Santa Fe and Isabela offer some of the best opportunities to swim with sea lions.
There is nothing more awesome than seeing a whale breach the waters of the Pacific, rise up into the air, then explode back into the water. 20+ Species inhabit these waters. You can see them year-round, but July through November are the best months. Whales are more common in the western part of the island group, particularly between Isabela and Fernandina.
I wanna iguana
With the islands so hot and dry, reptiles are the predominant class of animals in Galapagos. Marine iguanas, the world's only sea-going lizard, can be seen almost anywhere.
There are three species of land iguanas. One can be found on Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, Seymour, and South Plaza, one on Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island and one only on Santa Fe.
Blue-footed boobies are the most iconic bird in Galapagos and large year-round colonies can be found on Seymour and Hood. Nazca boobies, the island's largest, can be found on Genovesa from May through January and on Hood from September to May. The Red-footed booby, while most numerous, is least frequently seen as it lives on outlying islands like Genovesa.
Punta Pitt is the only place in Galapagos where you can see all three boobie species nest together,
Trail a tortoise
Giant tortoises can weigh up to 500 pounds and there are 11 distinct species in the Galapagos. They are most easily seen in the Tortoise Reserve in the Santa Cruz Highlands and at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the same island. Wild populations are most likely encountered on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, and around Alcedo Volcano on Isabella.
Hanging in the sky like sinister kites, Frigatebirds harass gulls and terns into dropping their catch. North Seymour offers the best opportunity to see magnificent Frigatebird, while Great Frigatebirds are more often seen on the outlying islands such as Genovesa. San Cristóbal is an island where you can see both species.
Albatross, get your albatross!
The waved albatross can spend years out at sea without touching land. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, these magnificent birds are a sight to behold. The entire world population of some 12,000 pairs nests on Hood. Adults lay their eggs from mid-April to late June. October is the busiest month for the spectacular courtship ritual. Colonies are at their most active once the chicks have hatched (through December). January through March the birds are out at sea.
The cool Humboldt current, which flows up from Antarctica, allows the Galapagos penguin, the world's most northerly penguin species, to thrive here. They breed on the western part of Isabela and Fernandina and are often seen on Bartolomé and sometimes on Floreana and James. If you can, snorkel with them, just don't try to keep up!
Size does matter
When choosing your yacht in Galapagos, size does matter. Small vessels (20 people or less) offer more flexibility and maneuvrability and it is easier to connect with other travellers and crew. Large ships (50-100 passengers) offer all the mod-cons of a true cruise ship. but you may lose some of the intimacy of a smaller ship. They are more stable though and offer more guides, each with their own speciality. Medium size vessels (20-50 passengers) strike a good balanace between large and small ships.