What are the Galápagos Islands?
It’s a destination on many a bucket list, and perhaps a place you recall from your high school textbooks. The Galápagos is a collection of 127 volcanic islands, islets and rocks inhabited by almost 9,000 different species of wildlife, located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The islands are classified as a Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO, and since 1934, the Galapagos National Park has been taking every measure to preserve and protect the natural state of the islands.
This means that the wildlife is so, well, wild, so abundant, and so blissfully naive to us humans, that you’ll find yourself stepping around sleeping sea lions, swimming alongside penguins, face to face with tortoises that are almost as large as you, and sharing the beach with hundreds of iguanas… just to name a few of the animal encounters that us humans are lucky enough to observe on a daily basis in the Galápagos. In the Galápagos, the animals are the main event for once, and us humans get to witness them in their (actual) natural habitat.
We ended up spending 2 unplanned weeks in the Galápagos this past September. How did we end up in the Galápagos with no plans? Long story short, we booked a one-way flight to Quito, Ecuador for a special wedding (one that was well worth traveling for). The idea to book a one-way flight was my solution to having absolutely no idea where to begin when researching where else in South America we should visit after the festivities wrapped.
Several wedding guests had arrived to Ecuador early to visit the Galápagos, and at the wedding they were buzzing with Galápagos excitement while showing us hundreds of wildlife videos on their phones. We were sold. So we booked another one-way to Santa Cruz Island, found a last minute hotel and showed up with no plans, and not really sure what to expect.
How to (properly) experience the Galápagos
And what you should know before you go
As fun as it is to be spontaneous while traveling, I don’t necessarily recommend a spontaneous Galápagos trip like we did, although ours worked out wonderfully. Do some research before you go to determine what type of experience you want to have, book your trip accordingly and be sure you’re prepared!
A few things to note about traveling to the Galápagos:
- The only way to get the Galápagos Islands is by flying through Ecuador, either Quito or Guayaquil. The same goes for return flights.
- To enter the Galápagos, you will be required to pay a National Park Entrance fee of $100 cash upon landing in Galápagos (this fee helps finance conservation efforts)
- There are only two airlines that can take you from Ecuador to the Galápagos: Avianca and LATAM.
- There are two major National airports in the Galapagos: Seymour airport on the island of Baltra (connects to Santa Cruz Island by water taxi) and San Cristóbal airport.
- There are only 4 inhabited islands that offer hotel options
- The islands that offer the most accommodation options are Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal
- Decide whether you’d like to have a land-based experience, or a live-aboard boat experience
- There are no massive cruise ships allowed in the Galápagos. The vessels permitted to sail these islands can hold at maximum 100 passengers.
- June - December is the “dry” season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sunshine. Skies can tend to be cloudy and gray, but it won’t rain much. (We got lucky with the sunny weather this September!)
- January - May is the “wet” season, but that doesn’t mean cold! This is when the weather is warmer and the skies are bluer (in between rain showers, that is)
How to Galápagos, by land or by sea?
There are two ways to do the Galápagos. A land-based experience: which involves staying in a hotel and exploring the surrounding accessible landmarks by taking daily land / boat excursions, OR living aboard a boat on a 5 or 8 day Galápagos exploration itinerary.
Usually you choose. We did both. Here are some options to consider for either experience!
If you think you’d rather opt for a land-based experience, your hotel will mostly act as your home-base, and a place to sleep. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also pick a hotel that provides amenities that will assist in some much needed r&r post-activities, though. Because if there’s one thing I learned from our experience, it’s that if you do the Galápagos correctly, you will be exhausted.
If you opt for a hotel, you will more than likely book all your daily tours through your hotel. Every single hotel on the Galápagos offers these excursions because the entire point of the Galápagos is to get out and experience it in all of its glory. Be prepared for early mornings, boat trips and car rides. The Galápagos is spread out, so even with daily excursions you won’t be able to see all it has to offer by staying in a hotel, but you’ll still get to see some major highlights.
Best Galápagos Hotels
For a by land experience, these are the hotels that I would recommend based on my experience and my research!
On Santa Cruz Island, Finch Bay is the front runner for a luxury hotel option. Finch Bay has access to a calm sandy beach, a relaxing pool, spa amenities, incredible service and great dining.
Keep in mind, to get to Santa Cruz Island involves flying into Baltra airport (different island), taking a quick ferry ride across the channel over to Santa Cruz Island, and then taking a taxi through the highlands all the way to Santa Cruz town. From there, to get to Finch Bay Hotel you’ll need to take a water taxi (this hotel provides this transportation service for their guests)
We didn’t stay at Finch Bay as it was fully booked by the time we decided we would head to the Galápagos on a whim (downside of spontaneous travel). We did however get a chance to relax poolside at the hotel and use their spa amenities which were top notch!
A stroll away from Finch Bay, sitting right on the crystal blue clear waters of Santa Cruz port is the charming little boutique hotel that we stayed in, Angermeyer. After a lot of digging online (it isn’t listed prominently on many Galápagos travel blogs or even on google) we found this gem where we relaxed for the better part of a week until we embarked on the second part of our Galapagos adventure.
Angermeyer is a family run, bungalow style hotel that has incredible views of Puerto Ayora (the Santa Cruz Bay) and is attached to a renowned restaurant called Isla Grill that travelers flock to on a nightly basis. The food is absolutely delicious, which almost made up for the slow WiFi (I should probably mention that the WiFi across all of Ecuador is far from impressive). The hotel amenities are limited, but the spacious suites have everything you need for a comfortable stay, not to mention the amazing view.
They even have a old restored ship on the property that the grandfather of the hotel manager sailed in with his wife, that they have now converted into a hotel room called the “Nixe” room.
This lodge is a Relais & Chateux boutique hotel was actually our first choice upon initial research, but it was sadly closed for renovations over our dates.
Pikaia Lodge is also located centrally on Santa Cruz Island (in the heart of its own private giant tortoise reserve!) and while it’s elevated a bit from the water, it’s perched on the edge of an extinct volcanic crater and boasts stunning views.
This environmentally conscious hotel is equipped with luxury facilities, an infinity pool overlooking the archipelago, fine dining, modern rooms, and offers extra exploration and island activities to all its guests (for an additional rate).
We also considered this option as it certainly seemed to be the most unique accommodation in Galápagos! It’s exactly what it sounds like, safari tents. Except these are luxury tents, with en suite bathrooms, private balconies and ocean views. The property also has a main lodge house, a farm to table restaurant, a library and an infinity pool. Safari Camp is also Located on Santa Cruz Island, perched high on lush farmland.
The next two hotels are located on San Cristóbal island. The benefit to staying here is the ease of travel - you simply fly into San Cristóbal airport and take a brief taxi to your hotel (as opposed to flying to Baltra airport and ferrying over to Santa Cruz Island). Keep in mind San Cristóbal is a bit more quiet of a town, but it has beautiful views and surfers love the waves that break right on the shore!
Located less than 10 minutes from San Cristóbal airport, Golden Bay is a modern, minimalist hotel that was awarded 5 stars by Ecuadors Ministry of Tourism. It’s across the road from a lovely sandy beach and is a great option if you’re looking for a more luxury option on San Cristóbal.
A simple and affordable option in an optimal location, this family run hotel has 8 more basic rooms directly across the street from the bright blue ocean. If you stay here, try to snag their master suite which offers floor to ceiling windows and a private terrace with an insane ocean view (we sneaked a peak at this suite from their rooftop deck while we were waiting to board our yacht expedition… more on that next!)
Galápagos by sea: our 7 day yacht expedition experience
After almost a week staying in a hotel on Santa Cruz Island and feeling like we were missing out (mainly due to lack of planning, you can totally stay in a hotel and experience the Galápagos with daily excursions!), we decided it was time to take things up a notch. By this point we had gathered that there was probably no better way to immerse oneself in the Galápagos than by boat. Or yacht, rather. And so with a little research we found a yacht expedition that was embarking that Sunday… and the next thing we knew we were aboard a luxury yacht cruising through the archipelago.
Ecoventura is a fleet of luxury Relais & Chateaux yachts that set out on 7 night long intimate and immersive expeditions throughout the Galapagos, emphasizing the destination’s awe inspiring features while minimizing impact on the delicate ecosystem.
There are two Ecoventura yachts, Origin and Theory, and each one can take up to 20 guests aboard a 7 day itinerary. Each yacht has 10 spacious and high end staterooms, rooms so nice you almost forget you’re on a boat smack dab in the middle of the Galápagos. Think luxury 5 star hotel, but floating.
There is a spacious sun deck with chic day beds and an outdoor shower, a jacuzzi, a fitness center (we were way too exhausted from snorkeling to even consider using it), and a library where you can snuggle up with a book, probably one covering Charles Darwin.
There are two different itineraries that these yachts take through specific areas of the Galápagos, both with a handful of attractions reaching to the outermost remote islands in the archipelago. We took Origin on itinerary A, the Southern & Central route.
Aboard each boat are two naturalists eager to share their expertise on the wildlife and history during island excursions.
By day you’re out exploring the untamed islands, or snorkeling with sea lions, or admiring penguins from the dingy boat, and by night you’re eating a beautifully plated 4 course meal. Every evening before dinner, one of our naturalists would brief us on the following days activities and attractions.
We loved the camaraderie between the fellow guests, the friendly staff, and the delicious food. After every activity you’re greeted back onto the yacht with an array of freshly prepared snacks (a personal highlight for me). There’s an open bar, at all times, and we took some of the best post-snorkel Chardonnay induced siestas in our little cabin.
As far as seasickness goes, we both managed to avoid it entirely, much to my surprise as both of us have had seasickness in the past. There was a communal bowl of Dramamine by the bar and everyone would pop one before bed and it seemed to do the trick just fine. Although there were some very rocky and wavy nights, halfway through the trip it actually became enjoyable, like being rocked to sleep!
One of the wildlife highlights for us was the renowned Blue-Footed Booby, a bird I vaguely remember learning about in history textbooks. These silly but captivating birds got their name from the Spanish word for “stupid”, “bobo”, which was in reference to their tameness around humans and their strange behavior. They get the bright blue pigment from their fish-based diet, and the bluer their feet the healthier the Booby, the more attractive the Booby is to potential mates. These blue footed boobies performed a mating ritual dance while we were on a nature walk, and I will never forget how beautifully bizarre it was.
From Blue-Footed Boobies to giant tortoises to baby sea lions to penguins, we had the rare chance to observe nature with almost no human interference whatsoever.
This will forever go down as the most unique travel experience we were lucky enough to be a part of, and I have a feeling I’ll be back with my kids one day... until then I have 18261 videos and photos of sea lions to remember it by.
Watch my vlog of our experience here: youtu.be/q_9ppX0iflY