The Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands

Ecuador, Otavalo Market

The Galapagos Islands is a province of Ecuador, lying about 600 miles west of the mainland. There are about 13 main islands, and currently 4 inhabited islands – Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana.

Over 95% of the Galapagos Islands’ land area is a designated protected area – the Galapagos National Park. Visits to the uninhabited islands are strictly controlled and permitted with a guide only. The most popular way to explore the islands is on a multi-day cruise, which allows visitors to see many of the islands and to experience the rare and wild species that inhabit them.

A large percentage of species in the Galapagos are endemic and can be found nowhere else on earth. The Galapagos marine iguana, which survives on both land and water, is the only known of its kind. The Galapagos giant tortoises are especially ancient, and particularly important to the Galapagos. Today giant tortoises can only be found in only two places in the world, the Galapagos Islands being one of them. The tortoises of the Galapagos were once exploited for their meat and oil, though today their habitat is strictly protected.

The bird life of the islands includes Galapagos Penguins, flamingos, Blue-footed Boobies, the Swallow-tailed Gull, red-breasted frigatebirds, and the rarely seen Red-footed Booby.

The wildlife of the Galapagos is surely a main draw for visitors, as is the opportunity to escape to an island paradise with few human inhabitants. Though the population of the Galapagos has increased dramatically since the mid twentieth century (the population in 1940 was only 1,000), human habitation is still strictly limited and will likely remain so as conservation is a main focus of the province.

The first recorded discovery of the islands was in 1535 by Dominican friar from Panama. Subsequent years brought whalers, explorers, and pirates all of whom exploited the natural resources of the islands. The islands are perhaps most famous for being the location upon which Charles Darwin based his theory of evolution. After a five week visit to the Galapagos in 1835, Darwin developed this theory which he explains in detail in his historic book On the Origin of Species. Today the islands are closely monitored by scientists and conservationists, are inhabited by about 25,000 permanent residents, and are visited by a growing number of tourists each year.

People

The population of Galapagos has grown considerably in since the 1970’s as a result of increased tourism and economic catalysts on the Ecuadorian mainland. Most areas of the Galapagos are still sparsely populated or entirely uninhabited. Strict regulations have been introduced and enforced in recent years to control the population of the Galapagos, though illegal immigration to the islands and unofficial residency remain prominent issues. The resident population continues to grow exponentially in accordance with the number of visitors as there is an ongoing need for local service operators on the islands.

The majority of Galapagos Islanders are Mestizo, along with native Ecuadorian (indigenous), and people of European and African-Ecuadorian ancestry.

Most people reside on the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal, while Isabela and Floreana are more sparsely populated.

Food

The food of the Galapagos resembles food of the Ecuadorian mainland, with food from both the highlands and coastal regions represented. The main elements of typical Galapagos cuisine are fish and seafood – lobster, octopus, fish, prawns, shrimp etc. and fruits and vegetables of the region.

Some products are grown on the populated islands of Galapagos, though much of it is brought in from mainland Ecuador and elsewhere. However, the islands’ proximity to the Ecuadorian mainland and the relatively low population density of the province means the food is usually fresh. The local seafood is very good.

Specialties include ceviche (fresh seafood marinated in lemon juice), and encebollado (fish soup). Soups are common, both as a lunch or a starter to a meal of meat or seafood and rice or vegetables. Other Ecuadorian staples such as empanadas and fried plantains are also popular.

Tropical fruits include papaya, berries, passion fruit, banana, and avocado.

Most restaurants are located in the main towns of the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Isabela. Some international cuisine is available in the most touristic areas such as Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz. Prices are generally very affordable.

Population

Approximately 25,000

Currency

US Dollar ($)

Language

Spanish

When To Go

High seasons are mid-December to January and from June to September. The weather does not fluctuate much in the Galapagos, and the islands are generally pleasant to visit throughout the year.

Early planning is recommended, especially if traveling during the high season. If you would like to visit to witness a particular species, inquire with a local organization as to when the best time to visit would be and what guided opportunities may be available.

The best weather is generally in May and June, which are slightly less hot than preceding months.

Snorkeling is particularly good in July, and the best diving is generally thought to be June-November. Water is a bit cooler during this time but marine life is abundant.

January through April mark the months with the highest temperatures (both land and water), and can be very hot.

Average temperatures range from 66-86 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. Water temperature is pleasantly warm, usually between 70-77 degrees F.

Dress

Temperatures in the Galapagos can be very hot and the sun can be strong as it is located very near to the equator. Hat and good sun protection is recommended. Long pants (lightweight) and a thin top layer are recommended for hiking and exploring the islands (all travel to the uninhabited islands is by guide only). Bathing suit and casual beach wear is suitable for snorkeling, diving, swimming, and casual days on board the boat if you are traveling between the islands by boat.

Some of the islands, such as Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal, have dining options and several hotels; if you are doing day trips to the park while staying on these islands you may want to bring some casual dress pants for dinner or walking around the town. Casual clothing is the norm.

Travel

To get to the Galapagos you will need to fly from Quito or Guayaquil (on the coast) in Ecuador.

There are two airports in the Galapagos – on the islands of Baltra and San Cristóbal.  From Guayaquil to the Galapagos the flight is about an hour and a half. From Quito it is about 30 minutes longer (flights from Quito stop in Guayaquil).

The airfare can be very pricey – between $400-500 for a round trip ticket from mainland Ecuador to the islands (the price is about half as much for young children). Note – there is also an entrance fee for foreign tourists of about $100 ($50 for children) which is paid upon arrival as an entry tax for the park.

Most people explore the islands on multi-day cruise/boat tour. This allows visitors to see many of the islands and experience some out of the way places. Group sizes and length of trips vary, but many range in duration from 5-10 days.

Alternatively visitors can stay in accommodations on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana or Isabela (the latter two are less populated). From there visitors can take day trips to the other islands with local providers.

Health

The sun can be intensely hot in Galapagos, especially from Jan – April. Bring a wide brimmed hat, sun protection, long sleeves and pants to protect your skin from the sun. Drink plenty of water and apply sunscreen routinely.

Visas

For stays of less than 90 days (if traveling as a tourist) most citizens of the US, Canada, and many European countries do not require a visa to visit the Galapagos Islands. For stays of longer than this period, or if you plan to work in the Galapagos, different requirements may apply and a necessary visa may be mandatory.

Note:  Other requirements for the Galapagos include a $100 park entrance fee ($100 for foreign adult visitors; less for children). Other identification documents or fees may apply or change, as traffic is strictly controlled in the islands, especially within the park. It’s best to check with a well reputed local guide or organization to be sure you are prepared for any additional fees or regulations. Visitors may need a Transit Control Card (issued by the organization INGALA).

Top 5 Sites

1. Charles Darwin Research Station (Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz)

2. El Chato Tortoise Reserve (Santa Cruz)

3. Post Office Bay (Floreana Island)

4. Wall of Tears – a reminder of the difficult life led by prisoners of a former penal colony on Isabela Island

5. Las Tintoreras – unique lava formations and excellent wildlife including marine iguanas and Galapagos penguins

Top 5 Things To Do

1. Take a multi-day boat cruise amidst the uninhabited islands. Numerous providers offer this experience, from budget to high end, and the length of the tour can range from several days to over a week. Find a reputable operator that meets your budget.

2. Hike the rim of the Sierra Negro volcano on Isabela Island

3. Snorkel or kayak amidst unique geological formations at Los Túneles (best snorkeling January – May)

4. Enjoy a memorable beach run, or kayak in the coastal waters off the beach at Tortuga Bay (Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz)

5. Dive or snorkel at Devil’s Crown (Floreana Island)

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