Though Charles Darwin spent only a short time on the Galápagos Islands, the diversity of flora and fauna he documented on these remote volcanic promontories has forever linked his name and ideas to the iguanas, sea lions, albatrosses, and blue-footed boobies that call this landscape home. Following in Darwin’s footsteps, travelers come to the Galápagos to see biodiversity at its best.
Now is always the right time to spy baby sea lions gamboling in frothy surf, experience life on an island populated by nothing but boobies, and peek inside an iguana’s stinky hibernaculum. The Galápagos Islands are a year-round destination—they’re on the equator, after all—though the islands' peak seasons, from June through September and again from December to mid-January, see prices of accommodations and cruises soar. The Galápagos National Park Service strictly limits visitor numbers and island access, so you’ll never feel like you’re lost in a crowd—unless the lizards smell the chocolate in your pockets. Light rain falls nearly every day from December through May, though the sun still shines brightly for hours, and visitors are frequently gifted with grandiose sunrises and sunsets. The water is warmest early in the year, providing excellent conditions for swimming and snorkeling, though the best diving is done in December, when fish, turtles, sea birds, and penguins compete for food. Early in the spring is when you’ll find tortoises wandering down into the lowlands in search of love, land birds shaking their tail feathers at one another, and sea turtles popping out eggs on the beach. Sea lions get frisky during the rainy season and then birth outrageously cute—and curious—pups through the end of April. The stark moonscapes of the Galápagos come to life at this time of year, when flowers bloom and blanket the islands in an array of colors.
Getting to the Galápagos from Ecuador’s mainland is easy, though not always affordable. Flights from the Quito and Guayaquil airports arrive daily at both Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristóbal Island) and Baltra (Santa Cruz Island), with tickets ranging from $400 to $550 (varying by season), though they are often reserved months in advance by visitors and cruise operators, reducing the availability of discount tickets. LAN, Tame, and Aerogal airlines operate between the Galápagos and the mainland, and EMETEBE Air offers interisland transportation that serves the small airport on Isabela. All visitors to the Galápagos are subject to the $100 national park fee, payable in cash (US funds).
The Galápagos archipelago is much larger than most people think. It encompasses 19 islands and over 40 islets; it's home to more than 30,000 people; and it's nigh impossible to visit with your own pleasure craft. The Galápagos are one of the few places on Earth where it’s best to eschew intrepid adventure and get around as part of a group tour. Cruises offer the opportunity to visit a number of islands—the geographic biodiversity between land masses is stunning—over a short period of time, with naturalists who have dedicated their careers to the study of Ecuadorian flora and fauna. Pre-booked cruise passengers will be met at the airport by a guide and ferried to the proper ship, while independent travelers will have better luck landing on Santa Cruz, which has a more robust tourism infrastructure than San Cristóbal. Backpackers on the lookout for last-minute discount tickets on cruise ships are best served in Puerto Ayora, which has a number of excellent hotel and day trip options, and is also the best place to arrange diving excursions.
You may be shocked to discover that the Galápagos lacks for Michelin-starred restaurants and lament the absence of quality Top Chef pop-ups in Puerto Ayora, but the Galápagos may surprise you with the breadth and quality of the local cuisine. Just don’t come down here expecting sea lion steak or penguin foie gras. The star of the gastro scene is obviously the local seafood, with fresh lobster often earning rave reviews, ceviche in its various forms wholly ubiquitous and delicious, and Ecuadorian staples like potato soup rounding off nearly every meal. Dining options on the upmarket cruise ships range from good to excellent, as in the case of Metropolitan Touring’s La Pinta and National Geographic’s Endeavour and Islander ships, while some island lodgings like the Finch Bay Eco Hotel roll out inspired Ecuadorian menus that take advantage of the best the sea has to offer. Restaurants geared to tourists are plentiful in the main island towns, so you won’t lack for prawn pizza or Spaghetti alla Carbonara, with almuerzo set menus varying wildly in price and quality. Check your bags and your pockets before you set out on an excursion; under no circumstance should you carry food onto the islands, and never feed the animals.
The culture of the Galápagos is defined more by the creatures that call the islands home and less by their human residents, yet cohabitation between man and beast—sometimes destructive and always tenuous—has given rise to some important cultural touchstones. Conservancy is the name of the modern Galápagos game, with the Charles Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz Island serving as the nerve center of Ecuador’s national park service. The park service and the government have the difficult task of providing for some 30,000 local residents while at the same time protecting one of the world’s most delicate biospheres—no easy task considering the damage already wrought on the islands by mankind. Every visit to the islands should include a stop at the research center, where guests can familiarize themselves with the CDRS’s core values, volunteer their time to a conservation initiative, and immerse themselves in natural history at the Interpretation Centre.
There are no Full Moon parties or grandiose carnivals on the islands, but people on the Galápagos observe many of the same calendar events as their mainland cousins, including Three Kings Day, Easter, and New Year’s Day. Galápagos Day is celebrated on February 12, but you’ll be too busy hooting and hollering when you spot your first albatross to notice. Celebrate!
The Galápagos are 6-GMT, a one-hour time difference from mainland Ecuador. Pirates visited the islands in the 16th century, taking thousands of tortoises onto their ships to be used as food on long journeys. They introduced the first destructive species to the islands when they loosed goats, which quickly turned feral and remain a serious problem today. Subsequent visitors, including whalers, merchants, and buccaneers would nearly eradicate endemic species, including sea lions, tortoises, and penguins. Spain led the first scientific expedition to the islands in 1790; Darwin’s visit aboard the HMS Beagle would not come until 1835. His Origin of the Species was published 24 years later. Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana, and Isabela are the only inhabited islands. Tourism has overtaken subsistence fishing as the most important industry, though certain niche industries have seen intense growth since the turn of the 20th century; sea cucumbers farmed off the islands of Fernandina and Isabela are sold at a premium price in Asian markets (and are touted as an aphrodisiac). The Galápagos Marine Reserve is the second largest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Ecuador’s first national park, the Galápagos is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s important that you take nothing but photographs, and leave nothing but footprints; keep a respectful distance from all wildlife, and never try to touch, feed, or coax the animals.
Flash Parker is a writer, photographer, and photojournalist originally from Toronto, Canada. His work has been published by AFAR, GQ Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, USA Today, Voyeur Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Get Lost Magazine, Asian Geographic, Escape Magazine and more; additionally, Flash was nominated for a PATA Gold Award in destination journalism.