With its untamed terrain and notoriously fearless creatures – from sea lions to seagoing lizards – the isolated isles of the Galápagos lure those looking for exhilarating encounters in the wild. After all, where else can you observe giant tortoises grazing on tall blades of grass, short-feathered penguins waddling along the equator or blue-footed boobies conducting their unique mating ritual without flinching at the flash of your camera? More than 100 years after Charles Darwin visited during his legendary voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, adventurers continue to use his footsteps as a guide for their own extraordinary journeys.
The Galápagos archipelago sits 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador and features more than 120 isolated islands and isles, warranting plenty of exploration. But with so much to see and do across this remote string of islands, you'll have to be selective about which islands you choose to discover. To get acquainted with the Galápagos' famous dome-shaped tortoises, head to El Chato Tortoise Reserve or Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz Island. Afterward, trek east to the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn more about Darwin's work. If you would prefer a rendezvous with sea lions, continue east to San Cristóbal Island, where the cheery mammals engage in barking conversations along chalky white sands. And for a more serious adrenaline rush, head to Isabela Island to hike the active and imposing Sierra Negra Volcano. Wherever your Galápagos adventure takes you, don't forget to bring your camera.
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Ever since Panamanian bishop Tomás de Berlanga accidentally stumbled upon this isolated archipelago in 1535, the Galápagos Islands have entertained a bevy of visitors, from pirates and whalers to scientists and tourists. But the most iconic Galápagos visitor of all was British scientist Charles Darwin, who developed his ground-breaking theory of evolution after his stay in 1835, three years after the islands were claimed by Ecuador.
In 1959, organized tourism spiked significantly when the entire Galápagos archipelago was dubbed a national park. Today, the Galápagos Islands welcome more than 200,000 visitors every year.
While this tourism boom benefits Ecuador's economy, the eclectic array of species found here – and nowhere else – continue to be threatened. In fact, the remote region became so popular among tourists that the park was declared a World Heritage Site in Danger in 2007. Widespread preservation efforts have reduced imposing threats to the archipelago. It is no longer considered to be "in danger," yet conservationists continue to monitor tourist activity to reduce the damage caused by an ever-expanding human footprint. Travelers can minimize their impact by abiding by park rules and walking along the marked trails.
The dress code here is casual, but with the Galápagos' unique position along the equator, you'll want to pack light layers and plenty of sunscreen to block harmful UV rays. You'll also want to bring along a comfortable pair of walking shoes for hiking, as well as a wet suit if you plan on snorkeling or scuba diving.
The U.S. dollar is the official currency of the Galápagos Islands, and the region's most widely spoken language is Spanish, but a growing tourism market has brought English to major isles like Santa Cruz Island, Isabela Island and San Cristóbal Island. Additionally, hotels and local tour companies can connect you with English-speaking nature guides. But if you plan on visiting more remote regions, you may want to learn a few key Spanish words and phrases – such as "hola" (hello), "adios" (goodbye), "por favor" (please) and "gracias" (thank you) – to use during your vacation.
Little grows naturally on the Galápagos Islands, so most restaurants (which are generally found in Puerto Ayora, Puerto Villamil and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno) serve fresh local seafood, such as lobster, octopus and shrimp. Dishes are generally light and simple like those found in mainland Ecuador and include potatoes, yucca, plantains or rice. Some restaurants also offer dishes made with chicken, beef and pork.
Breakfast commonly starts with bolones (fried plantains stuffed with cheese and meat) and coffee or freshly squeezed juices like guanabana (or soursop, an acidic yet sweet fruit believed to help fight cancer), tree tomato (a tomato-like fruit known outside South America as tamarillo) and passion fruit. During other mealtimes, expect to see ceviche and fish-based soups like viche (which has a creamy peanut base with a piece of white fish and chopped vegetables) and encebollado (made with tuna, yucca, cilantro, tomatoes and pickled onions) on restaurant menus.
Some of the islands' most highly regarded Ecuadorian dining venues include Coco Surf in Puerto Villamil and La Garrapata and IslaGrill in Puerto Ayora. Los Kioskos, a group of open-air eateries found on Puerto Ayora's Baltra and Charles Binford avenues, are also recommended for tasty but more affordable seafood-focused meals. A few internationally focused restaurants are available as well. Some (like Booby Trap and Il Giardino) offer a mix of Ecuadorian and international dishes, while others (think: Pizza.Eat, Natsumi and Cris Burger Factory) specialize in cuisines like Italian and American.
Many of the Galápagos' islands are home to wild animals, so you should take precautions when exploring the region. You must not touch or feed any animal you see. When snorkeling or diving near sea lions, stay a safe distance from bulls – the larger, more aggressive and very territorial males. Also, do not provoke sharks. And remember to practice safe diving practices like equalizing your ears as you descend and knowing where your scuba buddy and guide are at all times.
The archipelago is spread across the equator, so you'll need to protect yourself from the sun while visiting. Wearing a hat and lathering on sunscreen (even on areas covered by clothing) is strongly recommended. What's more, packing any essential medications and medical equipment is a must due to the region's limited medical services. Prior to your arrival in the Galápagos, you should speak with your doctor about any medications and vaccinations needed for diseases present in the area, such as malaria, Zika, dengue and yellow fever.
Crime is generally not an issue on the Galápagos Islands, but theft on board cruise boats occasionally occurs. To safeguard your belongings, bring at least one piece of luggage that can be locked when you're outside your cabin.
If you will be flying into Quito or Guayaquil before continuing to the Galápagos, keep an eye on your belongings at all times, since tourists are regularly targeted by thieves at both international airports. Robberies often occur on public transportation, beaches and hiking trails as well, so should you decide to stay a day or two in either city, be alert in these areas. You'll also want to avoid hailing taxicabs on the street and traveling alone; express kidnappings (or those involving taxis) and sexual assaults (even in tourist areas) frequently occur.
Before visiting Ecuador, the U.S. State Department strongly advises all Americans sign up for the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program , which ensures the nearest embassy or consulate is aware of your travels. Additional information about security concerns and how to stay safe in Ecuador is provided on the U.S. State Department's website .
The best way to get around the Galápagos Islands is by boat. The Galápagos archipelago is composed of more than 120 islands and islets, only 20 of which are large enough to warrant a place on a map. You'll want to arrange an organized multiday cruise or boat tour several months in advance; that said, sea journeys aboard luxury liners are often attached to a lofty price tag, especially during the high season (December to May). If you wish to steer clear of the water altogether, you can fly from Baltra (a small island north of Santa Cruz Island) to San Cristóbal Island or Isabela Island.
You can fly to the Galápagos from Guayaquil's José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport (GYE), located in mainland Ecuador. If you would prefer to fly to the Galápagos from Quito's Mariscal Sucre International Airport (UIO), plan to stopover in Guayaquil and tack an additional hour onto your flight time. Airlines TAME, LAN and Avianca offer flights to Seymour Airport (GPS) and San Cristóbal Airport (SCY). Most cruise operators will arrange to meet you at either airport and transport you to your ship. If you're planning on visiting the islands without a tour guide, it's easy to navigate your way from Baltra to Santa Cruz Island. To reach Puerto Ayora, take the public bus labeled Muelle for a 10-minute ride to a ferry that shuttles passengers to Santa Cruz Island. Upon arriving on Santa Cruz, hop on one of the island's public buses or hail a taxi for the 25-mile ride south to Puerto Ayora. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and Puerto Villamil are both within a short drive of San Cristóbal Airport or General Villamil Airport (IBB).See details for Getting Around
Americans will need to present a valid passport before entering Ecuador. U.S. travelers can stay in Ecuador for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa, though the Ecuadorian government requires that you carry proof of identification and a photocopy of your passport at all times. Upon entry into the Galápagos, you'll also need to pay a $100 fee. This fee grants access to Galapagos National Park (which comprises roughly 97 percent of the archipelago) for the duration of your stay. Sometimes, the cost of your tour or cruise will cover the fee; if that's not the case, you must be prepared to pay in cash upon arrival in the Galápagos. You'll also need to pick up a Transit Control Card, available from the Instituto Nacional Galápagos (INGALA) offices at Quito and Guayaquil's airports. Some tour companies will take care of card registration for you, but if you are traveling independently, allot extra time for purchasing a card. Each card costs $20 and must be bought with cash. You'll need to present your passport and Transit Control Card again when you leave. To learn more, visit the U.S. State Department's website .