Best Things To Do in Galapagos Islands
The Galápagos' various islands are strikingly different. Some feature imposing active volcanoes, while others flaunt idyllic beaches and remote wildlife reserves. If you're planning an extended visit, you'll want to explore them all. But should you have time limitations, you'll need to build a selective itinerary. Wildlife-watchers will want to venture to the small town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island to tour the Charles Darwin Research Station before continuing southwest to catch a glimpse of critters basking in the sun along Santa Cruz's Tortuga Bay. Intrepid hikers will take pleasure in exploring Sierra Negra, Isabela Island's active volcano, while aquatic enthusiasts will enjoy sharing the waters with exuberant tropical fish during a snorkeling or diving excursion. Whatever pursuits pique your interest, just be sure to make time for exploring the Galápagos' unspoiled landscapes and interacting with its magnificent creatures.
Updated June 14, 2019
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Outdoorsy types don't flock to these two white sand beaches simply to bake in the warm equatorial sun. Travelers visit this isolated strip of Santa Cruz Island's southern coastline for some quality face time with the Galápagos' marine turtles. If you visit between January and February, you may even catch sight of the black turtles laying their eggs (hatchlings emerge and make their way to the sea between April and May). Even if you're not a turtle-lover, you can still get up close and personal with the other beach combers like marine iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs.
While most recent travelers describe their visits to Tortuga Bay as a highlight of their trips, some do caution that it can feel like quite a trek to get there from Puerto Ayora, especially in the hot sun. Also, remember that the beach closest to the bay's entrance (Playa Brava) has strong currents, so it's not suitable for swimming. If you want to swim, continue walking to the bay's other beach (Playa Mansa).
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One of the Galápagos Islands' most well-known creatures is the giant tortoise, and one of the region's best places to see them is at Rancho Primicias. Located on Santa Cruz Island roughly 13 miles away from Puerto Ayora, this privately-owned animal sanctuary is filled with giant tortoises. The site also features empty tortoise shells to climb into and tunnels made of cooled, hardened lava to walk through, plus facilities like a restaurant and restrooms.
Though you'll find the island's more popular El Chato Tortoise Reserve situated next door, past travelers were glad they chose to visit Rancho Primicias, citing its less crowded atmosphere and ample photo ops as highlights. Just remember to keep your distance from the tortoises; feeding and touching the animals is not permitted. Many previous visitors also enjoyed trekking through the ranch's lava tunnels, which are free to explore.
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Located near Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island, this scenic sea lion-laden beach offers ample opportunities for catching sight of the island's lively local residents. For those looking to hit the waves, there are also ample places to surf, swim and snorkel. Just be sure to stay a safe distance away from the sea lions; alpha males are known for being territorial and can be aggressive toward humans if they feel threatened.
Travelers agree that this isolated stretch is well worth the trip, and not just for the swarms of sea lions. Here, you're also likely to spot wild iguanas, lava lizards, yellow warblers and frigates, among other fascinating creatures. Some, however, do caution that getting to the beach takes longer than you might expect – approximately 30 minutes if you're walking from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. If you're not up for the walk, a taxi can take you from the city center to the beach for roughly $3.
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To many, the Galápagos' charm lies with its abundance of land-roaming creatures. But for aquatic enthusiasts more interested in the incredible diversity of wildlife found beneath its turquoise waves, the Galápagos' surrounding waters are just as alluring. As soon as you take the plunge, you'll come face-to-face with a myriad of colorful tropical fish, sea horses and sharks, among other creatures.
Dive sites that are popular with experienced divers include Wolf Island's Shark Point (which can only be reached during a multiday cruise from operators like Galapagos Diving Cruises and DivEncounters) and Santa Cruz Island's Gordon Rocks. But according to previous travelers, novice snorkelers and divers should consider visiting Las Grietas (near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island), Los Tuneles (at the center of Isabela Island) or Frigatebird Hill (on the southwestern end of San Cristóbal Island). The waters at these locales are generally calmer, and you're bound to spot animals like sea lions, penguins and sea turtles.
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If you came to the Galápagos to stand face-to-face with a giant tortoise, then you can't pass up a trip to El Chato Tortoise Reserve. But tortoises aren't the only animals to look out for here: As you get acquainted with these immense, dome-shaped creatures, you may even hear the chirp of a Darwin finch or the hoot of a short-ear owl overhead.
Frequented by tour groups and rangers working to conserve the area, this reserve is one the few places where you can spot tortoises in their natural habitat. Today, rangers preserve the region by hunting predators and building fortified walls to prevent intruding animals from destroying the remaining tortoise population.
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The Galápagos Islands served as the site of Charles Darwin's famous flora and fauna observations and the inspiration behind his groundbreaking "On the Origin of Species," so it's hardly surprising that the islands are considered one of the world's best spots for bird-watching. In fact, the region is home to 45 types of birds you won't see anywhere else (think: Galapagos penguins and Darwin's finches), not to mention other unique species like waved albatrosses and blue- and red-footed boobies.
You'll find birds on all of the Galápagos' islands, but for some of the region's best bird-watching, travelers recommend heading to Isabela Island (for Galapagos penguins) and North Seymour Island (for blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds). Other islands worth checking out include Española Island (for waved albatrosses and Darwin's finches) and Genovesa Island (for red-footed and Nazca boobies). Santa Cruz Island is also popular because of its variety of land birds. If you want to avoid a long boat trip to reach a bird colony, several visitors suggest heading to Isabela Island's Las Tintoreras, a smaller island situated across the bay from Puerto Villamil.
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Set at the center of the Galápagos archipelago, Santa Cruz Island serves as a central base for exploration. And skirting Santa Cruz's southern shoreline along Academy Bay is Puerto Ayora. The island's primary town provides a nice spot for visitors to unwind at the end of the day thanks to its lively restaurants, shops and low-key nightclubs.
According to recent visitors, Puerto Ayora is your best bet for accommodations near sights like Tortuga Bay and El Chato Tortoise Reserve. Travelers also recommend checking out the Santa Cruz Fish Market and the Charles Darwin Research Station, which both sit in the town's limits. And if you're looking for a great place to swim or snorkel, consider going to Las Grietas, a geological formation with several natural pools.
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On Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galápagos, lies the quiet town of Puerto Villamil. Named after General José Villamil, the Galápagos Islands' first governor who settled in the area in 1832, this port town features white sand beaches, lagoons with pink flamingos and multiple restaurants and hotels. It is also a convenient spot to stay if you want to hike Sierra Negra Volcano, bike to the Wall of Tears or snorkel in Las Tintoreras', Los Tuneles' or Concha de Perla's waters.
Recent visitors raved about Puerto Villamil's sights, although several can only be reached by joining an organized tour from companies like Nature Galapagos & Ecuador and Andando Tours. If you're short on time and money but still want to fit in some snorkeling, travelers recommend bringing your own gear to Concha de Perla, which is free to visit and within walking distance of downtown.
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A must-see attraction for budding scientists, this exulted site features an active breeding center and informative displays explaining the archipelago's unique ecology and history. Operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation, the center strives to preserve the diversity of the Galápagos Islands through continual conservation research and practices with over a hundred educators, research assistants and volunteers. As you follow the paths, you can catch sight of numerous Galapagos giant tortoises. (Sadly, however, you won't spot Lonesome George, the sole survivor of the Pinta Island giant tortoise subspecies, who passed away in 2012.) Once you've gotten up close and personal with these fascinating creatures, head inside the museum to watch an informational video about the center's mission and conservation efforts.
Travelers rave about the newly renovated facility, adding that exploring the exhibits, installations and tortoise areas should be an essential part of any first-time visitor's itinerary. But if you're most interested in seeing the region's giant tortoises, some caution that you should head elsewhere; the property has fewer tortoises that do not roam freely like they do at sites like Rancho Primicias and El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
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Situated on San Cristóbal Island, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno – the province's capital – offers easy access to attractions like Frigatebird Hill (where you can hike and bird-watch) and Kicker Rock (a rock formation that stands 460 feet tall). Some of the island's best surfing beaches (think: La Loberia and Punta Carola) also sit nearby, and within town limits, you'll find a plethora of eateries, shops and hotels.
Visitors say Puerto Baquerizo Moreno's Kicker Rock is a "must-see" that's great to snap photos of and snorkel around. However, some bemoaned the area's chilly and rough water. To get to Kicker Rock, you'll need to sign up for a tour with companies like Nature Galapagos & Ecuador and Andando Tours. Other locales like Frigatebird Hill and the island's beaches are included in select tour itineraries, or you can check them out without a guide for free.
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Sierra Negra Volcano stands majestically over Isabela Island, rising nearly 4,500 feet high. Admirers far and wide are drawn to Sierra Negra to peer into its glowing fumaroles and expansive caldera; with a diameter of 6-plus miles, the crater reigns as the second largest on the planet. Though the volcano remains active today, there hasn't been any recorded activity since 2005. Still, seismologists keep a watchful eye on all eruptive zones to ensure safety.
Despite Sierra Negra's seemingly ever-present fog, daredevils still come here to enjoy the sweeping (and if you're lucky, unobstructed) surrounding vistas. Just be sure to pack plenty of water, snacks and sturdy hiking shoes, since travelers say the trek can be challenging at times and facilities are not available along the trail. One reviewer also suggests wearing neutral colors to avoid attracting wasps while hiking around the crater's rim.
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