Land iguana, Galapagos, Ecuador


A Guide to the Galapagos

See the wildlife that inspired Darwin’s greatest theory

All you need to know about exploring these iconic islands.

Lying 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are renowned for their scientific significance and fearless wildlife, brought about by a lack of natural predators. But no amount of hype can prepare you for such close encounters with snoozing iguanas, frolicking sea lions, giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and red-throated frigate birds.

Of the 13 major islands only four are inhabited, meaning visiting by boat is by far the best way to see the islands in all their glory.

“Each day you’re transported to another magical island, where fearless, fantastic animals appear at every turn.”

View from Bartolome Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

The Islands

Straddling the Equator, the Galapagos were pushed up out of the Pacific Ocean by volcanic eruptions four to five million years ago, and the younger islands are still very much active. The scenery is generally arid along the coast, with lush forested highlands and turquoise lagoons, while the beaches are some of the finest in the world (though the sea lions have grabbed the best spots).

Fog can sometimes shroud the larger islands, creating a fertile home for dense vegetation, and both cool and warm currents swirl in the waters offshore – which is why penguins and sea lions can be seen alongside flamingos and iguanas.

These climatic conditions, coupled with a lack of either predators or diseases, few human inhabitants and the islands’ protected status as national park, make the Galapagos a wildlife destination like no other on earth.

Sea lion, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Land iguana, Galapagos, Ecuador
Giant tortoise, Galapagos, Ecuador
Sea lions, Galapagos, Ecuador
Galapagos penguin, Galapagos, Ecuador
Blue-footed booby, Galapagos, Ecuador

The Wildlife

“When it comes to wildlife, no place on earth compares to the Galapagos.”

With species here found nowhere else on earth, time in the Galapagos is a never-ending roll call of wildlife vignettes: snorkelling with sea lions that swim and play within inches of you; seeing giant tortoises lumbering around the highlands of Santa Cruz; watching the elaborate courtship ritual of the blue-footed booby from just a few feet away; feeling small and harmless sharks tickle your toes as you wade ashore; following a sea turtle as she cruises majestically along the edge of a coral reef; or seeing humpback whales breech the surface with their calves, exhaling air like a canon from a ship.


M/Y Grace, Galapagos Islands

Sailing the Galapagos

Considering that ten of the 13 major islands are only accessible by sea, a luxury cruise is by far the best way to explore the Galapagos.

Three-, four- and seven-night cruises are available, but if you’re flying halfway around the world to see the islands, we recommend going for a full week, especially as much of the first and last day of any trip is spent travelling.

There are departures just for families, with special attention paid to kids and teenagers, as well as cruises for photographers, or with prominent host lecturers like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Some of the smaller, smartest yachts are also available to charter privately – a wonderful way to share a trip of a lifetime with your closest friends and family.

A few specialist ships offer dive trips to the northerly Darwin and Wolf islands, which have some of the best dive spots in the world, with thousands of hammerheads gathering in one place.

Whale watching, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

A Typical Day

“When was the last time you saw something for the first time?”

Days typically include morning and afternoon landings at different sites. You’ll be taken ashore in a small panga or dinghy, which may take you to a dock (a dry landing) or might drop you at a beach where you’ll need to paddle ashore (a wet landing).

You’ll always be accompanied by an expert naturalist guide, who’ll point out the flora and fauna, explain the island’s history and regale you with stories about working and living in these strange, enchanted lands.

Flamingo, galapagos islands

Different activities are available at different sites. You might hike across ancient black lava stones to watch marine iguanas dive into the sea to nibble on green algae. You may be led around a harem of female sea lions, jealously guarded by a muscular bull. You might snorkel with sea turtles or Galapagos penguins.

Some ships offer kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, others explore the coast by glass-bottomed boat.

Between island visits you can relax aboard your ship, listening to lectures to learn more about the islands, swapping stories with new friends over an al fresco lunch or cocktails by the bar, or soaking up the scenery from an open-air hot tub.

Galapagos Safari Camp, Ecuador

Staying on land

If you want to explore the riches of the Galapagos but don’t like the thought of being on a boat for seven nights then there are a few land-based hotels we’d recommend.

Finch Bay Hotel on Santa Cruz is perhaps the best known and remains the only beachfront hotel in the Galapagos. Pikaia Lodge, also on Santa Cruz but built on the edge of a volcanic caldera, is another good option. But perhaps our favourite is Galapagos Safari Camp, located in the lush highlands of Santa Cruz Island.

It takes the same tented camp concept familiar across southern Africa and transports it to the Galapagos. Needless to say it’s a winning formula, brought to life here by plush designer tents on elevated platforms with en-suite bathrooms and balconies with hammocks, ideal for basking in the hillside views. A wide range of activities are available, including explorations of Santa Cruz, boat trips to neighbouring islands, and scuba diving trips.

When to go

The Galapagos are a great year-round destination and don’t really have an ‘off-season’. They’re busiest over Christmas and New Year and during the peak summer months of June, July and August. If you’re planning to visit at these times, it’s best to book at least six to 12 months in advance.

If there’s a month to avoid it’s probably October, when the islands can be affected by the garua sea mist. Almost all the wildlife is non-migratory and can be seen all year round. One of the few exceptions is the waved albatross, which visit the islands in the spring and summer.

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Bailey Robinson recommends:

M/Y Grace, Galapagos, Ecuador

M/Y Grace

The Grace is a Galapagos icon. Built in the 1920s and used as a submarine hunter in the Second World War, she was bought, refurbished and given as a wedding present to Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco by Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon on the sleek and elegant 145-foot yacht, which today carries a maximum of just 16 guests on seven-night voyages around the Galapagos, served by a highly polished crew of 11 and excellent naturalist guides. There are kayaks to take out, a sizeable jacuzzi to warm up in after snorkelling, and a bar on the upper deck where sundowners are served.

Theory, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Origin & Theory

Carrying a maximum of just 20 guests, twin ships Origin and Theory are the only yachts in the Galapagos to be part of the distinguished Relais & Chateaux collection. Their ten spacious staterooms offer panoramic views of the passing sea, memory foam mattresses and the finest bed linens. The library shelves are filled with books dedicated to the exploration of the islands, there’s a stylish bar and dining room, a sundeck with day beds and comfy chaise lounges, an outdoor BBQ and an inviting hot tub for sunny afternoons. Kayaks, paddle boards and glass-bottom boats are all on hand to help explore the islands.

Have questions? Our knowledgeable team of experts are on-hand to take your call or if you prefer by Zoom. Talk to us about your holiday dreams or challenge us with your travel conundrums.

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