Galapagos Islands - The Travel Guide For An Unforgettable Trip

Tips on where to go, what to do, the best restaurants and much more in one of the most beautiful places the world has to offer.

Proud mangrove trees, giant cacti, cuddling sea lions, wild birdsong, turquoise seas and mile-long white sand beaches: The Galapagos Islands are famous for their extraordinary wildlife, evolutionary significance and the opportunity to experience the wonders of nature up close.

The archipelago is located about 1,000 kilometres west of the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean and belongs to Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands are a remarkable natural heritage protected by UNESCO. Galapagos National Park oversees the protection of approximately 97 percent of the islands, as well as 99 percent of the surrounding waters. Including the smallest ones, Galapagos numbers over 100 islands, five of which are inhabited: Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela, Floreana and Baltra.

Giant tortoise at Rancho Primicias

Why are the Galapagos so unique in these characteristics? Historian Yuval Noah Harari describes the phenomenon in his book "Sapiens": Only a few extremely remote islands have remained away from human attention until modern times, and these islands have kept their fauna intact. The Galapagos Islands remained uninhabited by humans until the nineteenth century, preserving their unique wildlife, including giant tortoises that haven’t developed an instinctive fear of humans.

As a visitor you feel - as probably in no other place in the world - completely at one with nature. This blog post is meant to serve as a suggestion with tips and tricks for your stay - with everything you need to know for it. Let's dive in!

Plan your trip

The length of your stay should be based on how many of the islands you want to visit. We opted for a five-day trip and two islands - Santa Cruz and Isabela. In hindsight, we probably would have taken a little more time to take a day off between the different activities or to revisit some of the attractions that we specifically liked. Nevertheless, the five days were perfectly sufficient, as Galapagos is also very expensive compared to other Latin American destinations.

One of the two "Gemelos" volcano craters

Arrival is via the Ecuadorian mainland, either through the airport in Quito or in Guayaquil, and takes between two and three hours. The main airport is located on the small island of Baltra, through which you can reach the islands from the mainland. Here you can also hop from island to island on small planes if, like me, you get seasick quickly (be prepared for quite high prices: A one way plane ticket costs around $150). Baltra is only a river's width away from Santa Cruz, from where you can also reach all the other islands by boat.

Where to stay

Since most of the islands are nature reserves, the Galapagos Islands are rather sparsely populated. However, the main town on Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora, offers a variety of accommodations for every price range. If you don't necessarily want to stay in the tourist area at the harbour, but rather among locals, the Hostal La Mirada del Solitario George is the right address. Marcelo and Silvia are wonderful hosts who give extremely good tips and help you organize trips for a very good and fair price. Marcelo also picked us up at the airport and took us to some hotspots on the way to Puerto Ayora, but more about that later.

Our lovely room at the Hostal La Mirada del Solitario George

The rooms are simple, clean and guests are greeted with beautiful towels folded into swans: A small but loving gesture. Tip: If you like a lot of space to sleep, you can book a room with an extra large bed. Breakfast is not served, but if you don't want to eat out, you can buy food at the supermarket, store it in the fridge and prepare it in the communal kitchen.

On Isabela I recommend the Hostal Rincón de George in Puerto Villamil. It is run by Marcelo and Silvia's son, so as a guest you know in advance what standard you can expect - and you will definitely not be disappointed.

What to do in Santa Cruz

Right off the bat, there are definitely more attractions to visit on the island. Here is the list of excursions I took and absolutely loved. Unfortunately, I didn't make it to the Charles Darwin Research Center, but I will make up for that on a next visit, as it must be really impressive.

It is recommended to check out the north of the island right on the way from Baltra to Puerto Ayora, as most of the other highlights are in the south. One would be Los Gemelos, two spectacular sinking craters formed by a series of eruptions. You can check out this natural phenomenon on a small loop trail. Not far from there is Rancho Primicias. This is a nature reserve. Here you can observe the typical Galapagos giant tortoises in their natural environment and walk through a 400 meter long "lava tunnel", which has burned through the liquid rock in the underground. Here you also have the possibility to crawl into a giant tortoise shell to better understand the dimensions.

Las Grietas
Las Grietas

Having arrived in Puerto Ayora there are numerous excursion destinations, which will surely take your breath away. First, there are Las Grietas, a series of three elongated, almost rectangular basins that run through towering lava rocks. An absolute dream to snorkel, with calm, deep blue waters. The way to the canyons is also worth seeing: You'll pass Playa de los Alemanes, a salt lake as well as an opuntia forest, and enjoy a picturesque view of the turquoise ocean to boot.

Speaking of which: Our personal highlight on Santa Cruz is definitely Tortuga Bay. The seemingly endless white sand beach, which is kissed again and again by breaking waves, seems like a gateway to paradise. Sunbathing iguanas as well as numerous bird species and tiny sharks in search of food make for an incomparably magical experience.

Tortuga Bay

You can reach the beach either by water taxi or on foot on a walk of about one and a half kilometres. To the best of my knowledge, this walk is open from six in the morning until six in the evening. I would recommend getting there as early as possible to avoid the crowds and enjoy the beach all to yourself. The water can be quite wild and is rather less suitable for swimming. However, if you walk to the other side of the headland, you will find a pleasantly shaded bay where you can easily go into the water and snorkel.

Here you will be able to experience the untouched nature, which also means that there are no food facilities. Be sure to take enough water and maybe something to eat with you.

Laguna de las Ninfas

If you particularly like secluded retreats, then a detour to the Laguna de las Ninfas is also suitable. The saltwater lagoon is considered more of an insider tip for a quiet walk or a small picnic. However, be aware that swimming is prohibited here.

What to do in Isabela

We only planned two days for Isabela - including arrival and departure. On a next visit we would probably count with a bit more time to get to know the island even better. But you will get your money's worth even with this rather short time span. We focused especially on the underwater world, for which two days were sufficient.

Blue-footed booby

On Isabela a boat trip to "Los Túneles" with two snorkeling tours is almost indispensable. From seahorses to sharks and rays to turtles, everything was there. We were also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a well-known "blue-footed booby". They owe their blue feet to their food, more specifically pigments called carotenoids, which come from the fish they eat. You should definitely end the day with a sunset on the beach of Villamil. You couldn't feel the lightness of life more intensely here.

Sea lions sunbathing at Concha de Perla

But as the saying goes: The early bird gets the worm. If you prefer to explore the underwater world for yourself and not necessarily on the open sea, a morning snorkeling in the bay Concha de Perla in the east of Puerto Villamil is perfect for that. Here you will be able to swim side by side with sea lions and, if you’re lucky, sea turtles too. Another highlight is the Laguna de los Flamingos, where - as the name suggests - you can observe the pink birds in their natural habitat.

Where to eat

We dined in several good restaurants during our stay, but I would like to highlight two of them in a particularly positive way. First, the restaurant "FraFre" should definitely be on your to-do list. The gastrobar of the brothers Frank and Freddy is not without reason known on the whole island as probably the best restaurant. This is mainly due to the delicately prepared "Brujo". The fish is deep-fried as a whole but is served without any bones: a real treat for the palate! But also the burgers should leave nothing to be desired. The best thing about it: The "FraFre" is located just around the corner from the Hostal La Mirada del Solitario George.

Traditional Ecuadorian food at "La Sazón de las Kiños"

We found another culinary highlight at "La Sazón de las Kiños". The small restaurant is located only a few blocks from the hostel and is clearly aimed more at a local clientele. On the other hand, the prices are much lower and the restaurant experience seems even more authentic with a variety of traditional Ecuadorian dishes.

Important notes

Last but not least, I would like to give you some important information before you go on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Be aware that it will definitely not be cheap. Tourists pay $100 just to enter the island, so to speak, as an entrance fee to the national park. In addition, there are (boat) taxis, costs for tours and attractions (many places charge an entrance fee since the pandemic). Even if the individual costs don't look like much at first glance, they can add up quickly. On the other hand, you have more leeway when it comes to accommodation and also food, so you can adjust your choice to your individual budget.

A little shark close to the port

Furthermore, you should definitely have enough sun protection with you. Sunscreen, a sun hat and long, airy clothes are recommended in any case. I had to pay for my carelessness with a severe sunburn - better not imitate 😉.

Finally, I would like to emphasize how hospitable and warmly the locals welcome their (international) guests. We have always felt in good hands. In addition, Galapagos is in no comparison to the mainland of Ecuador, where security especially in big cities cannot always be guaranteed. On the island you can easily stroll through the streets in the evening without fear that something will happen to you.

I can promise you: You will find a little paradise on earth here.