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Traveling To The Galapagos in 2023: The Ultimate Guide

Thanks to a year of lockdowns, travel bans, and being stuck indoors staring out the window and dreaming, we just took the trip of our lives to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

Wait, what?

Well, there’s no better way to learn that travel can’t be taken for granted than travel being taken from us. Was it ever really ours?

Exploring the Galapagos had always been this distant fantasy, a trip we always knew we’d take. Some day. A vague dream. 

But 2020 made us realize that some day isn’t always going to be there. You only have here and now.

So we threw ourselves into it head first and embarked on an ambitious trip to the world’s best preserved and untouched archipelago.

For those who want to skip ahead:

Why should I visit the Galapagos now?

2021 is an amazing time to visit the Galapagos
My girlfriend and I visiting giant tortoises at the Reserva El Chato on Santa Cruz island. Note the lack of crowds! (apart from the tortoises)

A UNESCO designated world heritage site, this archipelago of volcanic islands found 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is located right in the super marine-rich Humboldt current. This means it has some of the richest biodiversity in the world.

Almost every knows the story of how the Galapagos inspired Charles Darwin to discover the theory of evolution. But many may be surprised to hear that the Galapagos is one of the last areas on earth without mass extinction.

This means that the fauna, wildlife, and sea-life are all preserved to prehistoric times.

Visiting the Galapagos is probably the only way you can see a version of Earth untouched and unspoiled by mankind. And though there are endless attempts to maintain it, who knows how long that will really last.

Seeing so many endemic species that you can’t see anywhere else is something you’ll never forget. If that’s not enough, here are a couple more reasons to visit the Galapagos off the top of my head:

  • Seeing giant tortoises roaming freely around the islands
  • Swimming with playful sea lions that tug on your fins for fun
  • Witnessing the only marine iguanas in the world. They actually swim!
  • Diving with whale sharks, orca whales, giant manta rays, schools of hammerheads, and giant turtles
Visiting the Galapagos during covid / in 2021
Welcome to the Galapagos: with the stereotypical sea lion behind, social distancing of course
Related: We spent 2 months traveling all across Central America in 2021. Here's what you should know.

How to get to the Galapagos

After landing in Baltra (GPS), we exited the plane via airstairs and were escorted to the tiny main terminal to pay the $100 entrance fee.
After landing in Baltra (GPS), we exited the plane via airstairs and were escorted to the tiny main terminal to pay the $100 entrance fee.

There’s only one way to get to the Galapagos as a tourist, and that’s flying.

Right now, there are only 2 airlines flying to the Galapagos; LATAM and Avianca. (Note: Emetebe Airlines flies smaller planes between the islands)

  • You can fly from Quito (UIO) or Guayaquil (GYE), both of which have international flights
  • You can fly to/from San Cristobal (SCY) or Balta (GPS), the two most populated islands in the Galapagos

I always recommend booking directly with the airlines. It’s so much easier to re-book, modify, or cancel your itinerary this way. Otherwise, you end up in a horrendous cycle of the travel agency telling you that you need to contact the airline, and the airline saying you need to go through the travel agency.

Fares typically run for $200-250 each way, plus about $25-50 for checked bag fees. If you’re checking a bag, I recommend just selecting a high fare class – especially with Avianca, where the upgrade is about the same cost as just checking in your bag.

There are specific entry procedures to get into the Galapagos

Offices of the regional Galapagos government in Quito Airport (UIO).
This is where you’ll stand in line to buy your Transit Control Card, which you need to enter the Galapagos. To the left of the picture, near the bathrooms, is where you will have your checked baggage scanned prior to checking it in with your airline. Make sure they seal your zipper closed.

You can only fly to the Galapagos from Quito (UIO) and Guayaquil (GYE). There, you’ll need to buy a specific government-issued Transit Control Card ($20) from “INGALA”. I bought mine in Quito airport, which you purchase from the INGALA office located next to the main entry of the domestic terminal.

There’s a specific baggage check that must be done for checked baggage only. It’s located all the way to the right after entering the terminal and must be done prior to checking in your bag.

Only then can you check in for your flight and head through security. Yes, definitely plan extra time. I recommend arriving 2.5-3 hours before your departure. Someone in our group actually missed their flight despite showing up 2 hours early!

Once you’re in the Galapagos, you’ll have to pay a $100 entry fee. This is unavoidable. You MUST pay in cash.

To re-iterate, the additional requirements include:

  • All previously mentioned extra Covid-19 related requirements
  • Registering for the $25 “TCT” card which can only be purchased at Quito International Airport (cash or credit)
  • Paying a $100 fee after arrival into the Galapagos (cash)
Suggested: Traveling Across Europe Right Now: What it's like.

Getting from Baltra Airport (GPS) to Puerto Ayora, the main town in Santa Cruz

The trip from the plane to your accommodations in Puerto Ayora is probably the most cumbersome part of the trip. Here’s why.

  1. On arrival, you’ll wait in line to register and pay the $100 (cash only) fee
  2. After collecting you bag at baggage claim, you’ll need to head to the bus office to buy tickets ($5pp) which bring you to the ferry terminal of Baltra island (where the airport is)
  3. You’ll have to take a ferry ($1 or 2pp) to Santa Cruz
  4. Only from there can you take a taxi ($25 each way) to Puerto Ayora (or whatever your destination is) or a bus for $5pp.

If you’re flying to or from San Cristobal (SCY), the procedure is much easier; the airport is literally a 5-minute drive from the main town, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

How is tourism changing in the Galapagos?

In normal times, you’ll be hard pressed to find any vacancies. Travel guide after guide will push you to book your tours 6 months to a year ahead – sometimes even longer.

Times have changed – and this can be a good thing.

We participated in many tours above and below sea level, and none were completely full. Most were at a comfortable level, perhaps 75% capacity, and we didn’t feel we had to compete for space.

This what quite contrary to our experience in Iceland this year where tours were fully booked months ahead.

Ultimately we joined an 8-day dive tour (almost 20 dives) which we shared between 10 friends in total. Having the boat all to ourselves, with an extremely thankful and receptive crew made a world of difference. Without many competing tours, we were often the only ones diving at many of the best dive sites in the world.

That’s something that would sound insane to anyone who’s been to the Galapagos before 2020.

My favorite experience of it all? Playing with Galápagos sea lions 30 feet underwater. They literally tug on your fins for fun.

How should I pack for my trip to the Galapagos?

The List:

Click here to skip ahead to the day tours section.

One word: sunburn. Or two words in one. Not sure.

Anyways, on my first day in Santa Cruz (the most populated island), I couldn’t help but remark at how many sunburns I saw.

This despite how frequently cloudy it was.

So I’ll start with the most obvious: sun protection. I’m a pretty fair skinned guy, and I have done hours of research (online and by experimenting) into which sunscreens work best AND are totally reef safe. I’ve only found one that truly hits both marks:

1) Sunscreen (high-SPF), reef safe: ThinkSport SPF50

I always bring my thinksport sunscreen whenever I’m headed to snorkel or dive. (from amazon.com)

ThinkSport isn’t a well-known brand and it won’t come up on the first page of search results, but I found it after hours of looking.

And it’s my favorite sunscreen.

It’s primary protection is made of non-nano zinc oxide (10%), which is totally reef safe. Unlike other zinc sunscreens, this one doesn’t make it too obvious that you’re wearing it.

After 3 back-to-back dives in the Galapagos, I found that it still provided protection. Awesome.

To summarize:

  • Vegan, and actually reef safe – unlike other brands that still have “oxy” ingredients despite claiming safeness
  • Applies easily and doesn’t show much on the skin
  • Provides amazing protection – my fair skin not burning is the ultimate proof

Click here to skip ahead to the day tours section.

2) Snorkel equipment

Snorkel rentals in the Galapagos are not known to be of great quality.

You’re going to be paying $5-10 each time you rent, and might end up with crappy scratched masks, snorkels that don’t hold on, and very used fins.

I recommend at least purchasing a basic mask, either:

This full face mask is great for those who want an easier, more comfortable time snorkeling, plus better views.
This is a great set for those looking to get under the surface and do a little skin diving.

Fins don’t necessarily have to be as well maintained, but if you’re looking for some that fit in a carry-on suitcase, check out:

  • Fins that fit in carry on

Click here to skip ahead to the day tours section.

3) a swimsuit (or two)

The Galapagos, despite being on the equator, don’t have true tropical climates.

You’ll find temperatures in the 60s and 70s for the most part. And pretty high humidity.

This means it’s really hard to dry stuff off – including your swimwear.

I recommend bringing an extra set, just so you can alternate to better dry them out. Otherwise you may end up with a stinky suitcase on the way home!

Click here to skip ahead to the day tours section.

4) Great rainjacket/windbreaker

On the flip side of what I just said, the Galapagos have a lot of microclimates. For example, the highlands typically have cool, drizzly rain everyday. And you’ll probably be going there considering that it’s the home of most giant tortoises in Santa Cruz.

The islands are also frequently under windy conditions, especially out on the water. It can actually feel pretty chilly out there with temperatures in the 60s and a strong gale.

My favorite windbreaker that kept me nice and comfortable on my stay in the Galapagos (and everywhere else, really!) is the Arc’teryx Incendo Windshell:

This packs nice and tight in your bag yet offers amazing protection against sun, rain, and wind.

Arc’teryx of course offers a similar version for women:

5) Hiking shoes

If you’re planning any land activities, you’re going to want to bring nice hiking shoes.

Most hiking areas tend to be humid, muddy, and wet. Or otherwise dry and dusty. It is volcanos after all.

6) Flip Flops

One thing that surprised me most about the Galapagos was just how nice some of the beaches are – such as Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz.

So bring flip flops! I’m really glad I did.

You can’t go wrong with simple Havaianas flip flops, which pack very well into a carry-on suitcase and work just fine.

Click here to skip ahead to the day tours section.

7) Wide brimmed hat:

I wish I had bought one of these before getting ripped off on-island.

Back to sunburn prevention, a wide brimmed hat is one of the best ways to protect you from the extremely strong UV rays delivered by the high equatorial sun angle in the Galapagos.

What’s great about this hat is how easily it folds up into your luggage.

Alternatively, you can buy a cheap hat on land (like I did) in Puerto Ayora but expect to be ripped off just a tad.

8) Polarized Sunglasses

In your search for giant turtles, marine iguanas, and tropical penguins, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time staring at the water.

Polarized sunglasses are the best way to remove glare and actually allow you to see into the water a little better!

This could mean the difference between spotting a whale shark or not.

9) Long-sleeved high UPF shirts

I recently discovered these gems when I was in Bali headed to swim and I realized I needed better protection.

They’re light, dry fast, and offer great protection even when wet. I’ve been wearing this exact shirt for years.

10) A great carryon suitcase

Traveling to the Galapagos is expensive. One way to alleviate costs is by traveling with only a carryon suitcase – instead of paying hefty check-in baggage fees.

Consider reading: The Airline Pilot’s Complete Packing Guide You Should See

There are day tours for everyone – even during Covid

Isabela Island, Galapagos during covid
Some of the insane views you might expect on a day tour to Isabela – known to harbor crazy numbers of sea lions and penguins

Though we participated in an 8-day dive tour all the way up to Darwin and Wolf islands (the most isolated in the archipelago – and best for diving), we met many others embarking on similar tours on the other side of the sea.

There are plenty of naturalist tours, and every island has something different to offer. For example, San Cristobal, one of the islands with an airport, is known to have the highest density of sea lions of any island.

As I mentioned earlier, you can start your trip in either Santa Cruz (Baltra/GPS) or San Cristobal (SCY) and end it in the other to maximize your experience in the Galapagos.

Day trips on land in San Cristobal

The kicker islands, or “Leon Dormido”, offer amazing snorkeling and diving filled with sea lions, penguins, and rich marine life

After arriving in San Cristobal, you’ll find that the main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is tiny, but has everything you’d need. Most tours start from there, and you’ll need to head there anyways to catch a ferry to your next detination.

Some tours you can enjoy include:

  • Nighttime bioluminescence tours
  • Snorkeling at the incredible Kicker rocks/”Leon dormido” (sleeping lion)
  • Take a $5 taxi to La Loberia, home of a huge number of sea lions
  • Swim at one of the nicest beaches in all the Galapagos, Puerto Chino Beach. Alternately, Playa Mann is closer to town (but busier and not as pretty)
  • Say hello to giant tortoises at Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado
  • Take a tour to Cerro Brujo or Cerro Tijeretas for a cold swim/snorkel with sealife

You can take an early morning or mid-afternoon ferry to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz for the next step of your journey.

Day Trips on Land from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

North Seymour day tours, Galapagos, 2021
The blue-footed boobies feet actually start out pale (like this baby bird) and grow blue over time. We spotted this little guy on North Seymour island.

As the most populated island, there’s a lot to do on Santa Cruz. Here are the best day trips you can take:

  • Take a water taxi ($.80 each way) from the main harbor to Las Grietas ($10pp entry), an amazing inland crystal clear emerald green water pool at the bottom of an earth fracture
  • Visit the giant tortoises on the El Chato Reserve ($10pp entry) in the misty Santa Cruz highlands. While you’re there, make sure to stop by the nearby Los Gemelos (free), giant collapse craters in the middle of the island
  • Take a swim on the gorgeous white sand Tortuga Bay (free, just register on entry) – where we managed to see giant turtles swimming alongside marine iguanas
  • Learning about every endemic giant tortoise species in the Galapagos at the Charles Darwin Research Station right in Puerto Ayora
  • Walk alongside nesting frigate birds and blue-footed boobies on North Seymour island (must be accompanied by a tour guide)
  • Visit the penguins and hike up the top of Bartolome island for some of the best views in the Galapagos (must be part of a tour)
  • Head to the tiny Pinzon island to feel truly remote and isolated – but with plenty of sea lions, turtles, and dolphins to keep you company

Related: Galapagos: The Ultimate Proof You Need to Learn to Dive

Day Dives from Puerto Ayora (~$200 for a full-day / 3 dives)

Galapagos sea lions
The Galapagos sea lions are insanely playful. They love to swim gracefully around you and even bite your fins!

You can also do a ton of great day dives from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz (the most populated island), such as

We dove with Academy Bay Diving for no other reason than them having the cheapest prices – which are negotiable (pro tip).

Day Trips on Land from Isabela

Los Tuneles day tours in Isabela, Galapagos (2021)
Los Tuneles in Isabela makes for a nice, calm, beautiful area to enjoy swimming with sea lions and seeing blue-footed boobies. Photo: David Ceballos (CC BY 2.0)

After traveling on the afternoon ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabela, you’ll find a magnificent island filled with seemingly endless (and surprisingly different) activities than on the other islands.

Isabela has an amazing array of active volcanoes you can hike. Plus, its known for its tropical penguins, marine iguanas, and unbelievable underwater lava tunnels. Here are some of the activities you can participate in:

Most tours had plenty of last-minute availability.

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  1. which island did you go to swim with the sea lions that tugged on your fins?

    1. That was mostly at Darwin island but it’s known to happen all over!

    2. This happened to us around Darwin island several times 😁

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