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Everything You Need to Know About Traveling to the Galápagos

Follow Charles Darwin's footsteps for a once-in-lifetime adventure filled with rare wildlife sightings.

U.S. News & World Report

Everything You Need to Know About Traveling to the Galápagos

Fur seals at Punta Carola beach, Galapagos Islands.
Credit

(Getty Images)

Embrace dramatic landscapes and unique creatures on a trip to remember.

With awe-inspiring landscapes and a captivating collection of some the world's most fascinating wildlife – from giant tortoises to penguins and sea lions – there's a good reason the Galápagos Islands have been a bucket-list destination for decades. This breathtaking archipelago off the coast of Ecuador features pristine isles (along with a marine reserve), which double as World Heritage sites and protected wildlife refuges. And with few people inhabitants, the islands' very fragile ecosystem is one of the few places in the world where the human impact is minimal. And unlike other tropical locales, you can't simply pack your bags and visit the archipelago's isolated islands, but that's part of the appeal of making the trek. To get the most of out of your Galápagos vacation, here are 10 tips for planning an unforgettable trip.
Smiling girl with camera on nature.
Credit

(iStockPhoto)

Invest in the right camera.

Few places offer the unique blend of diverse landscapes and close-range wildlife-watching options of the Galápagos, and you'd be doing yourself a disservice by neglecting to bring a camera that can capture the fearless and beautiful creatures you will encounter during your trip. If you're willing to splurge, pick a camera that allows for exchanging lenses, so you can swap from a macro lens to shoot the turtles up close and a telephoto lens for when you're capturing a flock of birds flying into the distance. It's also a wise idea to invest in an underwater camera (think: a GoPro) or a waterproof case for your smartphone, so you can capture the incredible underwater creatures such as stingrays, sea lions and sea turtles.
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Embrace dramatic landscapes and unique creatures on a trip to remember.

With awe-inspiring landscapes and a captivating collection of some the world's most fascinating wildlife – from giant tortoises to penguins and sea lions – there's a good reason the Galápagos Islands have been a bucket-list destination for decades. This breathtaking archipelago off the coast of Ecuador features pristine isles (along with a marine reserve), which double as World Heritage sites and protected wildlife refuges. And with few people inhabitants, the islands' very fragile ecosystem is one of the few places in the world where the human impact is minimal. And unlike other tropical locales, you can't simply pack your bags and visit the archipelago's isolated islands, but that's part of the appeal of making the trek. To get the most of out of your Galápagos vacation, here are 10 tips for planning an unforgettable trip.

Invest in the right camera.

Few places offer the unique blend of diverse landscapes and close-range wildlife-watching options of the Galápagos, and you'd be doing yourself a disservice by neglecting to bring a camera that can capture the fearless and beautiful creatures you will encounter during your trip. If you're willing to splurge, pick a camera that allows for exchanging lenses, so you can swap from a macro lens to shoot the turtles up close and a telephoto lens for when you're capturing a flock of birds flying into the distance. It's also a wise idea to invest in an underwater camera (think: a GoPro) or a waterproof case for your smartphone, so you can capture the incredible underwater creatures such as stingrays, sea lions and sea turtles.

Understand the costs.

A trip to the Galápagos Islands isn't cheap, but there are ways to be more frugal and get the most bang for your buck. For starters, book your flights, hotels, tours and cruises as early as possible to ensure you get the best rates. Cruise costs range and vary based on luxury. The higher-end charters with private cabins, gourmet fare and National Geographic-level guides can cost anywhere from $750 to more than $1,000 per day, while more modest cruises with standard staterooms and limited amenities can cost around $100 to $300 per day. Keep in mind, the cost to enter the Galápagos is $100 in cash, though sometimes the admission fee is included in cruise and tour prices.

Decide whether you want to explore on land or by boat.

Whether you're on a tight budget or looking to splurge, there are a variety of ways to discover the islands at a wide range of price points. Land tours, for example, are a cost-effective option and charter you to and from your hotel in Ecuador to the islands daily. However, there is a caveat: While the price tag is lower, you won't get as much time on each island – and the transfer time takes away from your ability to soak in the sights. Alternatively, if you choose to take a cruise, you'll pay a higher premium, but you'll get more time on each island and have the chance to explore smaller, less-visited places only accessible by water. Plus, with many smaller expedition cruise ships accommodating no more than 100 passengers per trip, the onboard vibe is intimate. What's more, smaller cruise ships allow for up-close wildlife encounters.

Know when to go.

The Galápagos Islands experience a rainy and a dry season. While the rainy season, which runs from January to May, brings daily scattered rain showers, it also ushers in the calmest seas, making cruises more enjoyable for visitors who are prone to sea sickness. What's more, calm seas make for optimal chances for animal sightings and brighter, more abundant flora and fauna. The high season, which runs from June to August and December to January, aligns with the dry season. Keep in mind this season also brings in higher price tags for tours, hotels, flights and cruises due to demand.

Don't go without a guide.

More than 95 percent of the land area in the Galápagos Islands is protected and listed as a national park, which means you can't visit without a certified park guide to lead you. Knowledgeable guides will show you the 60-plus iconic and protected sights, like Isabela Island, which is home to the largest seabird and the giant tortoise breeding center, and point out notable wildlife species as you go. Plus, guides offer insight on the Galápagos' history and the isles' ecological future.

Give yourself at least seven days to explore.

If you want to immerse yourself in the Galápagos, plan to stay longer than just a few days. Most cruises vary in length, from five to 14 days, but expert tour guides recommend planning a weeklong trip to enjoy the main islands and experience the archipelago's top wildlife refuges. Carving out seven days and six nights to explore in and around the islands, along with a day for travel time, is an ideal time frame. And since Galápagos National Park limits the number of cruise ships and visitors each day, it's best to plan far in advance and consider visiting during the low seasons to ensure entry.

Plan to snorkel or dive.

One of the best ways to take in the islands' diverse creatures is by swimming and snorkeling alongside them in beautiful, unspoiled waters. If you're a certified diver, head to the Wolf and Darwin islands, where there are an abundance of hammerhead sharks, large schools of multicolored fish, eagle rays and more. And if you would rather swim or snorkel around the islands, you'll have the chance to glide right next to the isles' famous sea turtles and sea lions. For the best snorkeling, head to Lobos Island or Kicker Rock.

Get ready to hike.

A scenic hike through the Galápagos' volcanic landscape will give you the chance to experience diverse and inspiring views. Some of the best sights come around the Sierra Negra volcano, which is the world's second-largest crater. Another can't-miss area is Isabela Island, which is home to six volcanoes and plenty of moon-like crater rocks. A hike will also give you a chance to uncover the island's flora and fauna, as well as the many mammals and birds who inhabit the islands, including marine iguanas.

Pack smart.

Because the islands are coastal, the weather across the archipelago can vary drastically, transitioning from pleasant, sunny days with light showers to chillier evenings. To ensure you're covered, pack layers, including long-sleeve shirts, tank tops, shorts and pants. And if you want to save space, consider packing air-dry or sweat-resistant clothing. Also, make sure to bring a swimsuit. Even if you don't want dive or snorkel, the beautiful waters beckon visitors to take a dip. A hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, sturdy walking and hiking shoes are other essentials to battle the heat, along with motion sickness medicine, especially if you travel when the waters are a little choppier. If you love birds, also make sure to bring along some binoculars.

Don't miss the penguins.

The Galápagos' penguins – one of the star species of the islands – are not to be missed. The largest population of the island's penguins can be found near Tagus Cove, which is also where you'll find over 30 percent of the island's giant tortoises. Since most cruise itineraries only hit the southern and central islands, you may have to make your own plans to visit the small Galápagos penguins on this western island, but the trek will be worthwhile.
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