Wildlife is sure to wow visitors to the Galápagos Islands, but the archipelago has so much more to offer. Before a journey to this bucket-list destination, proper planning is paramount. Here’s what to know before you go.

Aerial view of the mountains and the sea at the Galapagos Islands
Planning is paramount before a booking a trip to the Galápagos Islands © Jesse Kraft / Getty Images

From the adrenaline rush of snorkeling nose-to-nose with white-tipped reef sharks to the wonder of watching up-close as blue-footed boobies perform mating dances on the sand, visitors can experience firsthand how locals coexist in harmony with the creatures of the Galápagos Islands – home to the rarest and most diverse species found in the world, and the inspiration behind Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. 

There, time stands still, animals rule, and people delight in close encounters with wildlife, as there are no natural predators for the animals to fear. And beyond the one-of-a-kind wildlife viewings, there’s so much more to explore. In order to fully embrace a journey to the Galápagos Islands, it’s important to go properly prepared. 

A woman wearing shorts and a tank top walks on black lava near the ocean in Galapagos
Proper footwear is a must when visiting the diverse terrain of the Galápagos Islands © Bianca Bujan / Lonely Planet

What to pack 

From the jagged, jet-black lava fields of Santiago Island, to the powdery-soft beaches of Mosquera Islet, the landscape varies greatly throughout the Galápagos Islands, so proper footwear is fundamental. Sturdy, waterproof sandals will be required for wet landings, and lightweight runners or hiking boots will provide the proper support and protection from the rocky, uneven surfaces encountered during dry land hikes.

Weather waxes and wanes throughout the day, so prepare for both warm and wet environments. While the temperatures aren’t typically tropical, high-SPF sunscreens, protective sunglasses and neck-shading sun hats are essential, as the proximity to the equator means it can be easy to burn – even on cloudy days. 

For long days on the water, manage motion sickness with a patch or over-the-counter pills and pack a small first-aid kit filled with essential medications that you may need while out at sea. Bug repellent isn’t mandatory, but it might help to prevent bites during longer inland explorations.

Shorts and t-shirts will suffice on most days, however, a light raincoat and sweater will provide comfort on wetter days and cooler mornings. Avoid slipping on soggy swimsuits by packing a few, as the night air can be humid and swimming and snorkeling are sure to occur several times throughout the day.

Most importantly, bring a fully-charged camera with back-up batteries to capture the stunning scenery and fantastic flora and fauna found throughout the islands – many of which are unique only to this part of the world.

A sea lion pup sleeps soundly in the centre of the city
Wildlife is everywhere on the Galápagos Islands © Bianca Bujan / Lonely Planet

How to get to the Galápagos Islands

 There are two stopover cities to choose from when traveling through Ecuador’s mainland en route to the Galápagos Islands: Quito or Guayaquil. While both are stunning cities, Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city, has more frequent direct flights to the islands, and is closer in proximity. 

Hotel del Parque – the first luxury boutique hotel to open in Guayaquil, is situated in the suburb of Samborondon, is a short 10-minute drive from the airport. Transportation can be arranged through the hotel. Situated on a tropical oasis, the restored 19th-century property offers authentic Ecuadorian cuisine and a peaceful setting to catch up on sleep before embarking on the remainder of the journey to the Galápagos.

There are two major airports on the Galápagos Islands: Seymour Airport (serving the island of Baltra), and San Cristobal (found on the island of Cristobal). The arrival and departure airport will depend on the location of the cruise departure or land accommodation site.

Before entering the area, a mandatory park fee must be paid by most visitors coming from overseas. In an effort to reduce over-tourism, each visiting adult traveler must pay USD$100. This rate is set to double by the end of 2020.

You might also like: Ultimate Ecuador: plan your perfect adventure 

A trolly is parked on a cobbled stone street next to light-colored hotel
For those not interested in cruise ships, there's no shortage of eco-friendly hotels © Bianca Bujan / Lonely Planet

Where to stay 

Water-loving wanderers often opt for a stay aboard a cruise ship or on one of the eco-friendly yachts, but there are land-based accommodations available as well.

While cruising tends to be the more common choice, a land-based stay offers a well-rounded option, providing visitors with opportunities to connect with the local people and culture, experience close encounters with the land-bound wildlife more frequently, and enjoy a restful sleep – ideal for those prone to seasickness, or guests looking for breaks to settle their sea legs. 

For a more affordable land-based option, Puerto Ayora provides hostel-style accommodations, however day trips and excursions to attractions found throughout the islands will need to be booked separately.

Pikaia Lodge, a luxury eco-lodge found on Santa Cruz, sits in the heart of a private tortoise reserve, perched on the edge of an extinct volcanic crater, and overlooks acres of endemic Scalesia trees. 

Darwin delights in every corner of the luxury lodge, which nods to the connection to the Theory of Evolution that emerged from Darwin’s visit to the Galápagos Islands, and the five-star cuisine, private 100ft luxury yacht, on-site spa and infinity pool provide the perfect setting for restful downtime in between days of adventure throughout the Galápagos Islands.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs - Galapagos Islands.jpg
Wildlife viewing is a must © Bianca Bujan / Lonely Planet

What to see and do 

For island visits, the guidance of a certified tour guide is mandatory. This can be arranged through cruise excursions or as a part of a hotel package. Wildlife viewing is a must, but the islands also offer adventure spots beyond the ocean’s edge. 

Observe giant Galápagos tortoises in the wild and learn about the history of the significant species at El Chato Tortoise Reserve, found on Santa Rosa. Afterward, explore the underground world of the islands by creeping through the on-site lava tube caves. 

Head to Academy Bay and mingle with locals at the waterfront fish market and then stroll through the artisanal shops and purchase cacao treats, lava-laced jewelry and locally-grown coffee beans during a visit to town.

Then, hike along stunning stone pathways to Tortuga Bay and watch as black marine iguanas run along the white sandy beach. Head past the unswimmable Playa Brava and kayak with sea turtles and sharks at the hidden bay of Playa Mansa, found just beyond a mass of mangroves that line the shore. 

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