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A Comprehensive Guide to the Wildlife Paradise of the Galapagos Islands

View of two beaches on Bartolome Island in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador
Image used with permission by copyright holder

While one image of unblemished white sand, crystalline water and a setting sun is sufficient to cause Instagram “like” frenzy, such unspoiled beauty, island after island, is a mere backdrop of the island’s true draw. The wildlife.

The Galapagos Islands, to most, are a mystery.

People’s knowledge is some amalgamation of a vague comprehension of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, giant tortoises, and blue foot boobies, usually discussed by way of sophomoric puns. Arm chair nature enthusiasts might accurately inform you that the wildlife on the Galapagos doesn’t fear humans, that the islands are volcanic, or that the male Greater Frigatebird inflates a giant red pouch on his throat to attract females. Most folks could tell you that The Galapagos are somewhere near South America, though if asked to point to said islands on a map, they would nervously circle the entire Pacific coast from Colombia to the southernmost point of Argentina and weakly offer… “here?” And while the Galapagos is one of a handful of destinations that almost always appears on a seasoned traveler’s bucket list, unless you’ve been, any attempt to comprehend or properly explain the islands or what makes them so special, is an exercise in futility…

But having just returned, I will do my best.

Here are three real wildlife encounters that I experienced in my week-long cruise with International Expeditions through the Galapagos Islands. If these magical moments  spark your interest… Read on!

A Galapagos Penguin Parts a School of Sardines on a Morning Snorkel

While snorkeling along the edge of a jagged, cactus-lined black lava rock shoreline, chasing a purple octopus, I look up to see a school of five thousand sardines heading in my direction. The peculiar sterling orb of fins and scales scoots along the shoreline, pulsing and weaving until a lone, adorable Galapagos Penguin, the size of a football, fires through it like a bullet directly towards me, stopping an inch from my mask in what I affectionately refer to as the cutest stare down in Galapagos history.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Hammerhead Sharks Lead to Sting Rays the Size of Cars

For a few nervous moments, I watch a hammerhead shark until it vanishes into silty water. Coming the other way, something else emerges from the blue, a school of two hundred golden rays, each one the width of a VW bug with its doors open. Sunlight dances off the backs of the serene creatures as they move underneath me, their gentle wings flapping in perfect synchronicity, until like the hammerhead, they disappear into the blue.

A Marine Iguana on the Skull of a Whale Skeleton on an Abandoned Beach

Along a deserted sandbar on a tiny, remote island, populated only by seals and bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs, a marine iguana emerges from the sea and saunters up the beach towards a bleached whale skeleton. Eager to catch the last bit of the day’s warmth, the iguana scampers up to the highest point of the whale’s skull to watch the sunset as waves crash onto white, powdery, seal lion-covered sand.

….Convinced The Galapagos is a destination worth experiencing? I agree! Here is everything you need to know about the Islands before you go…

Image used with permission by copyright holder

What are the Galapagos Islands?

The Galapagos Islands, casually referred to as “The Galapagos” are an island chain considered part of the country of Ecuador and are located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador’s largest municipality, the port city of Guayaquil. Situated on either side of the equator (you will likely cross it when you visit), the islands make up a volcanic archipelago consisting of six main islands (Isabella, Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Santiago and Fernandina), 12 smaller islands, 42 islets, and countless small rock formations.

First established as a National Park in 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, The Galapagos is one of the most protected and heavily restricted regions in the world. To insure the safety of the island’s wildlife, which inspired Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, less than 80,000 visitors go to the islands annually. That’s a far cry less than the millions that visit the likes of Yellowstone, Yosemite and The Grand Canyon in the States.

Given its equatorial location, The Galapagos features consistent, warm temperatures and is home to some of the most beautiful ocean and pristine beaches in the country. And while one image of unblemished white sand, crystalline water and a setting sun is sufficient to cause Instagram “like” frenzy, such unspoiled beauty, island after island, is a mere backdrop of the island’s true draw. The wildlife.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ongoing seismic and volcanic activity has created the peaks that make up the 3,093 square miles now known as the Galapagos. Those arid seismic peaks (islands) are located at the convergence of several ocean currents which, over thousands of years, have brought wildlife from the various parts of the mainland to the islands where these species have evolved into some of the most unique creatures in the world.

“Visitors are required to stay on marked trails and they can’t harass or approach wildlife too closely—though the animals can get as close to tourists as they want.”

While visitors will see many of the same species from island to island (blue footed boobies, frigatebirds and marine iguanas exist on most islands), most of each island’s inhabitants have traits that are unique to its specific island. Iguanas vary significantly in size and color pattern and have evolved this way to survive the circumstance of their given island. Size and carapace (shell) shape of Galapagos tortoises vary from island to island based on the availability of water and height of vegetation, among other factors. The Galapagos penguin (the second smallest and only penguin found north of the equator), is said to have arrived at the islands from the southernmost parts of South America by way of the Humbolt current and have adapted to survive heat of the equatorial sun.

These island inhabitants, particularly the reptiles, arrived on the islands most likely by hitching a ride from the South American mainland by way of a piece of driftwood. Because most were reptiles and able to survive long periods of time without water, these beasts could endure the six-hundred-mile journey across the open Pacific and were then able to adapt to survive on the islands’ harsh, desert-like climate with its own limited water sources.

What did not arrive to the islands by way of ocean current, or any other way over the millennia, were predators. As a result, the island’s mammals are exclusively herbivores and have no fear of predators. Thanks to extensive conservation efforts and strict visitation regulations, that purity remains. This allows those who travel to the islands to walk among thousands of iguanas, sea lions, large flightless birds and giant tortoises as the animals go about as if the visitors weren’t even there.

It is this kind of pure, primordial land experience that largely draws travelers to the island, but what happens below the surface of the water is as amazing as any 500-pound tortoise, inflated red breast of the Frigatebird or Red Footed Boobie. Because of the converging of currents of varying temperatures, The Galapagos Islands, also a Marine Reserve, is home to some of the most impressive marine life on the planet. Giant schools of golden rays, spotted eagle rays, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, black and white tipped reef sharks, Galapagos sharks, sea turtles, sea lions, and even the aforementioned penguins live among hundreds of kaleidoscopic species of tropical fish that take residence in the cobalt clear waters.

How are the Islands Protected and Regulated?

Because of its unique and fragile ecosystem, the Galapagos Islands are one of the most protected places on the planet. Though it is one of the most rewarding raw nature experiences one can have, it is also strictly regulated.

“The Galapagos National Park service has designated over 50 official visitor sites within the national park, which together make up less than 1% of the land mass of the park. The park strictly controls how often each site can be visited and how many people can visit each site at one time,” explains Matt Kareus Executive Director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association. “Visitors must be accompanied by guides who are officially sanctioned by the park and who are charged with ensuring that their guests comply with park rules, which are designed to protect wildlife and the integrity of the sites. For example, visitors are required to stay on marked trails and they can’t harass or approach wildlife too closely—though the animals can get as close to tourists as they want.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

In recent years, visitor arrivals have skyrocketed, which is good from environmental awareness and business, but have also put many of the fragile ecosystems in danger. Before leaving Quito or Guayaquil to get to the Galapagos, visitors bags are x-rayed and then are x-rayed again upon arrival to the islands to make sure no invasive species are being smuggled in (purposely or no). Also upon landing in the Galapagos, visitors must fill out a customs form and present their passports as well as pay a $100 fee to enter the National Park.  Visitors are not allowed to bring any food, drink or anything else that might allow an invasive species to take over the delicate islands. “If people could go wherever they want and bring whatever they want, it would be very difficult to prevent the transmission of potentially harmful seeds and other organic material from one island to the other,” says Kareus.

How to Experience The Galapagos

Visitors begin their journey in one of the islands’ two primary cities: Puerto Arroyo on Santa Cruz Island or Puerto Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos on the island of San Cristobal. In Puerto Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno, travelers can enjoy the Golden Bay Hotel and Spa and in Puerto Arroyo, experience the Red Mangrove Eco Lodge. Using these hotels as hubs, visitors can hire day guides to explore local islands. Most travelers to the islands, however, choose instead to spend several nights on a cruise ship, catamaran or sailboat going from island to island, racking up an impressive list of wildlife encounters as they go.

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The rigid scheduling of tours through The Galapagos, according to the International Galapagos Tour Operator Association are as follows: “Cruises in the Galápagos operate on a fifteen-day/fourteen-night schedule. National park regulations allow operators to divide that span of time into a maximum of four segments. Most tour operators split their itineraries into: two, seven-night trips; two, five-night tours and one, four-night trip; two, four-night tours and one, six-night trip; or two, four-night and two, three-night trips. During that fifteen-day timeframe, a boat may not visit the same site twice, except for the Charles Darwin Research Station.” Easier stated, the government works hard to ensure that humans spend as little time on the islands as possible so that the ecosystems remain largely unfettered and the wildlife remains impervious to the presence of humans.

There are five types of boats that visitors can charter to experience the islands. Those with deep pockets might prefer the Luxury Class or First Class. These boats feature pools, hot tubs, private suites, on board chefs, spa services as well as the highest rated guides (there are three levels). Because these boats are larger and more powerful, guests are also able to visit some of the more distant islands.

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High end companies like International Expeditions offer seven night excursions with two level three guides, well-appointed cabins, beautiful meals and a hot tub on deck. Because of the small size, clients of IE get an extremely customized experience tailored to the client’s specific needs and expectations.

Smaller boats with less desirable accommodations are also readily available. These boats often lack air conditioning or require guests to share restrooms, but given the experience of the Galapagos, such minutia should not deter eager adventurers.

A Typical Day…

Because the islands are spread out over several thousand square miles, transport from island to island is typically done overnight. Given that the Galapagos Islands are in a warm climate and afternoons can be hot, typically, the on-land experiences take place in the early morning and the evening. Guests often take panga (small boat) rides to the intended island and once there, visitors engage on guided walks highlighting flora and fauna, geological features, historic information, conservation initiatives and scenic vistas. As the day turns warm, the adventure turns to the sea for a morning kayaking and/or swimming, followed by a much-anticipated snorkeling excursion. As guests break for lunch, the captain will likely set sail to a secondary destination where, once again, to avoid the heat, guests will indulge in a midday snorkeling adventure followed up with a cool evening land expedition. Due to the island’s remote location, stargazing at night is a spectacular way to bring the day to a close.

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What to Do on the Mainland

When heading to the islands, one must first get to Ecuador. Commercial flights to the Galapagos leave only from Quito or Guayaquil and travelers, particularly those taking multi-day charters are encouraged to arrive to one of these two cities at least a day early to ensure they make their boat.

Across the sea of sharks is the dark rising of an island and somewhere on it, roam tortoises the size of four wheelers; flightless birds that look like clowns and fight and dance.

In Guayaquil, visitors can spend the extra day climbing the 465 stairs of the colorful Santa Ana hill to visit the city’s birthplace. At the top of this colorful neighborhood one can take in a view of the entire city and the Guayas River which opens into the Pacific Ocean. The Hotel Oro Verde features three great restaurants and is situated on Garcia Moreno Boulevard, a short walk from two of the city’s premiere parks, each of which teem with local color. You can start your wildlife experience in Malecon 2000, the city boardwalk and park featuring a Ferris Wheel and other activities.

In Quito, take the day to explore the colonial city, a UNSECO World Heritage Site. Things to see include the Plaza de Independencia, the monastery of San Francisco and its accompanying museum, and El Panecillo. Local weavers, artisans and vendors of all sorts gather at the Otavalo market. Guests can spend a day buying gifts and learning about the local Ecuadorian culture. There are also birding tours, hiking tours and for the bravest among us, a paragliding experience a half hour outside the city. If you are looking for a place to stay, consider Hotel Patio Andaluz and Casa Gangotena. These boutique hotels are located in the heart of the city’s colonial center.

Now… In case you’re still not convinced that a trip to the Galapagos is wild enough for you, consider the following moment…

After a day that involved flamingos, sharks, sea turtles, a large colony of blue footed boobies and penguins on a rock at sunset, I find myself, after dinner, on the deck of our boat, The Evolution.  With the closest major city on the Ecuadorian mainland some six hundred miles away, on the night of a new moon, the stars of the Milky Way explode, their light reflecting in the calm water. I hear a thud alongside the boat’s hull followed by a brief, chaotic splashing. Over the edge of the boat, at first, I see nothing. Then something akin to the skipping of a stone followed by a thud. From the black of the pacific, six Galapagos sharks, eight feet in length emerge, thrashing and ravenous, attacking whatever had hit the side of the boat. Flying fish, I later learn, are drawn to the lone light of our vessel and the sharks like to eat the fish.

For an hour, I watch the silhouettes of the sharks begin to circle the boat, thrashing at each thud. First ten then twenty. Before long, the boat is surrounded. The ancient species of shark stretch out as far as the light can reach and beyond. Across the sea of sharks is the dark rising of an island and somewhere on it, roam tortoises the size of four wheelers; flightless birds that look like clowns and fight and dance. Evidence that life is far greater than anything our human minds can imagine. On that island is tomorrow’s adventure, timeless as the island itself may be. As a shooting star crosses the belt of Orion, I decide to call it a night.

For more information on the Galapagos Islands and how to visit, go to

Matt Payne
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Matt Payne is an Oklahoma-based travel photographer, writer, public speaker, and filmmaker. Matt has covered Rwanda, Alaska…
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