Hang With Giant Tortoises and Blue-Footed Boobies This Summer

The ultimate wildlife destination has reopened to vaccinated animal-lovers everywhere.

This Galápagos tortoise has seen some things. | Maridav/Shutterstock
This Galápagos tortoise has seen some things. | Maridav/Shutterstock
Editor's Note: We know COVID-19 is continuing to impact your travel plans. As of April 2021, official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk, though safety precautions are still required. Should you need to travel, be sure to familiarize yourself with the CDC's latest guidance as well as local requirements/protocols/restrictions for both your destination and home city upon your return. Be safe out there.

If you’ve ever dreamed of frolicking with sea lions, plunging into equatorial waters alongside penguins, or lounging near giant tortoises—some of which are probably old enough to remember the last pandemic—now’s your chance. The Galápagos Islands (and nearby Ecuador) are now open to vaccinated travelers.

Famous for supporting Darwin’s theory of natural selection, these protected islands will inspire you as easily as they did the late naturalist. With spring-like weather that lasts year-round thanks to the archipelago’s location on the equator, the best time to visit is really anytime—but with our collective love for the outdoors fully reignited by a year inside, you may be ready for Mother Nature to hit you with her best shot ASAP. Here’s what to expect.

What’s open in the Galápagos and how to get there

On the Covid-19 front, you must provide either proof of full vaccination, proof of recovery from Covid, or a negative test taken within three days of arrival to get into Ecuador. To visit the Galápagos, you’ll need a safe travel document from your tour operator, as well as a negative test taken within 96 hours of travel to the islands—even if you’re vaccinated. More info here. You’ll also need $120 in cash: $20 for the transit card fee and a $100 park fee, which goes towards conservation.   

No matter where you’re coming from, getting to the Galápagos will take a few flights. First, head to Ecuador. From the Southern US, a flight to the capitol of Quito is a four-hour jaunt that’ll run you about $450.

To transfer to the Galápagos, you’ll typically fly to Baltra or another one of the more densely populated islands. From there, choose your own adventure: You can pick a hotel on the islands of San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, or Floreanathe only islands you’re able to stay and roam freely without a tour group (but you can always book a tour to hop to other islands through your hotel). Or you can opt for a live-aboard boat cruise (like those offered by Metropolitan Touring and Intrepid Travel) whose itineraries typically last between five and eight days. (The latter option tends to offer more opportunities for exploration.)

Sleepy sea lions at Gardner Bay. | Steve Allen/Shutterstock

Make friends with the wildlife

Since the Galápagos have long remained virtually untouched by man, the islands’ animals have no fear of humans—meaning wildlife interactions here are unlike those anywhere else on earth. Plus, some animals can only be found here, like blue-footed boobies, whose tootsies are one of nature’s most colorful creations, and Galápagos iguanas, who’ll charm you with their smushed-in faces and salt-encrusted crowns. (Darwin was not a fan of the latter, writing that they “have a singularly stupid appearance.”)

Wildlife is everywhere, but your best bets are the islands of Española, where sea lions lounge on the beach of the gorgeous Gardner Bay; Fernandina for penguins, hawks, and blue-footed boobies; and Isabela and Santa Cruz for tortoises. For a land-based option, Floreana brings you close to all species of birds.

We’d also be remiss if we didn't mention that the Galápagos are home to 101-year-old Diego, a giant tortoise whose rampant sex drive essentially repopulated his species. (Thank you for your service, Diego). You can visit the father of over 40 percent of the Galápagos’ tortoise population in retirement on the island of Española.

Scale Ecuadorian volcanoes

Though they’re 600 miles away from the mainland, the Galápagos Islands have been a part of Ecuador since 1812, so you might as well make your trip a bucket list two-fer. Ecuador is considered one of the world’s great mountaineering destinations thanks to its ease of access, multilingual climbing instructors, and peaks that cover a range of difficulty. It’s also home to glacier-encrusted Chimborazo, an inactive stratovolcano in the Andes that’s technically the closest point to the sun on earth.

The second-highest summit in Ecuador is the conical Cotopaxi, an active stratovolcano with popular, straightforward climbing routes ending with gorgeous rewards. Find it in Cotopaxi National Park, where wild horses roam free. (If you’re going to try to make friends with the horses, remember to pack carrots to feed them or else they’ll want nothing to do with you.)

Explore laid-back small towns

Quito and Guyaquil are charming cities, but for a slower pace of life, try one of Ecuador’s smaller cities. Wind down at the beach in Salinas, or for a more earthy surf vibe, try Montañita. There’s also Cuenca, a popular expat destination in the Andes with museums, symphonies, and nightclubs. Climb the steps to the blue cupolas of La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción de Cuenca, stroll along one of the four rivers that run through town, or pick up a Panama hat, which originated in Ecuador long before it was adopted by influencers.

If it’s leather you’re after, explore the small shops and stalls around the main square in Cotacachi, where leather artisans sell fine wares from jackets to shoes to souvenirs. You’ll find the best bargains on Sunday, market day. Near Quito, there’s also Otovalo, perhaps the most famous market town in Ecuador (for tourists, anyway), where trading dates back to pre-Incan times.

The hot springs of Baños. | Photo by Adam Aleksander

Take a long soak in mineral hot springs

In the foothills of the volcanic Mt. Tungurahua sits Baños—full name Baños de Agua Santa, or Baths of Holy Water. It’s believed that the town’s mineral hot springs have strong healing powers, and some have even claimed to see the Virgin Mary in the area’s spectacular cascading waterfalls, of which there are quite a few. Whether you believe the rumors or not, a long soak here is a relaxing way to begin or end a day of exploring. 

In town, you’ll find adventure opportunities like horse riding, rock climbing, cycling, whitewater rafting, and paragliding; it’s also the last mountain town before the Amazon, so pack a raincoat for jungle treks. And if you’re looking for that one special Instagram shot, Baños is home to the famous Swing at the End of the World, which dangles 8,530 feet in the air at Casa de Arbol. If you don’t have someone to take your picture (or your travel buddies are notorious for tragically blurry shots), there are people there to help out. They’ll also give you a little push if you ask nicely.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She wishes to lounge like a sea lion.