You may encounter one of these guys when swimming. | Andrea Izzotti/iStock/Getty Images
You may encounter one of these guys when swimming. | Andrea Izzotti/iStock/Getty Images

Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Galápagos Islands

Hang with gigantic tortoises and Blue-footed boobies in a bucket list extravaganza.

In retrospect, perhaps I got a little too comfortable. When I’d landed on the island of Baltra in the Galápagos just a few days earlier, the sea lions made themselves immediately known. Even before getting in the Panga inflatable boat to transport me to the Hurtigruten ship for their inaugural expedition in the islands, they were right there, lounging on the dock, acting as the official tourist welcoming committee.

In the days that followed, wildlife-spotting in the archipelago 600 miles east of Ecuador, our new cuddly acquaintances were abundant: lumbering up boulders on rocky volcanic beaches, sliding down dunes on sandy ones. Batting around dead fish plucked out of the water. Roaring, fighting, flopping, yawning, sunbathing wherever there was an inch of space, all the while ignoring us as we maneuvered around them. We even spotted one, bloody right after having given birth, her tiny pup tucked behind her. And behind them, a Galápagos hawk, scavenging the placenta. This was nature documentary stuff, and we had a front row seat.

It wasn’t just the sea lions and hawks that let us get close, but all of what they call the Big 15, the list of what to look out for which included frigatebirds, marine and land iguanas, and Blue-footed (and Red-footed, and Nazca) boobies, sporting some of nature’s most colorful creations. The Galápagos turtles (very amorous Galápagos turtles, it would turn out), albatrosses, flightless cormorants all lived as they’d done for centuries.

But according to my guide, David Guzman, a naturalist with Hurtigruten partner Metropolitan Touring, though we might romanticize Galápagos National Park as an untouched evolutionary dream, we would be naive to think that the animals didn’t realize we were there, and adjusted accordingly. Even though humans only traverse about 3% of the land, with the rest protected by the government, when cruise ships halted for six months in 2020 and humans all but disappeared, nature took note.

“In beginning [of the pandemic] when cruise ships stopped, I did notice that on certain islands we saw more animals, not necessarily because they reproduced more, but possibly they didn’t feel the need to move away,” said Guzman. “This was particularly the case with penguins. In certain areas, finding a penguin was very difficult. And, suddenly, we arrived at one place and we saw 10, 15 of them. It was amazing.” We were following on a trail on North Seymour island at the time. “So in the same case, possibly here, animals would start nesting in the middle of the trail because nobody’s walking through here.”

Snorkel alongside penguins in warm equatorial waters. They get the the right of way. | Mark Newman/The Image Bank Unreleased/Getty Images

So perhaps when I was strolling on the gorgeous Gardner Bay on Española—a heavenly beach with sea lions piled like furry boulders—and a young male sea lion lunged in my direction, it was just registering its discontent. (Later he lunged at a guide. Apparently, he was being territorial. Or was just a jerk.)

As exciting as this interaction was, it’s perhaps the least notable happening on the islands in recent months. In January, the Marine Reserve was expanded by 23,166 square miles, in a win for ocean conservation. Three weeks ago, a previously-unknown giant tortoise species was discovered on San Cristobal island. Wolf volcano, the highest volcano in the Galápagos, erupted in January on Isla Isabella, home of the endangered pink iguana, and its runny orange rivers still creep.

In other words, despite being one of the most unchanged places on the planet–inspiring Darwin’s theory of natural selection—right now the Galápagos is also one of the most exciting to visit. And with tourism down, it’s almost like it was when Darwin first stepped foot on the islands.

Look at these best friends. | Mark Newman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

What to know about COVID-19 requirements

In these pandemic times, it’s also one of the safest places to be. Most of the activities are outdoors, and the Ecuadorian government has taken pains to make sure this national treasure remains the way you found it. On the COVID-19 front, you must provide either proof of full vaccination, or a negative test taken within three days of arrival to get into Ecuador. Plus proof of medical and evacuation insurance. To visit the Galápagos, you’ll need a safe travel document from your tour operator, proof of vaccination, as well as a negative test taken within 72 hours of travel to the islands (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.

During my cruise, Hurtigruten required masks both inside the ship and while outside on the islands. In fact, I still haven’t seen Guzman’s face in person.

Blue-footed boobies mesmerize with their tootsies. Then they steal your wallet. | Tristan Barrington /EyeEm/Getty Images

How to get there

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 Floreana—the 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 HurtigrutenIntrepid Travel, and National Geographic) whose itineraries typically last between five and eight days. (The latter option tends to offer more opportunities for exploration.) For a more complete Galápagos tour, opt for a 15-day cruise, which would allow you to see the whole archipelago. After that, you may never want to return home.

Marine iguanas are the only lizards that spend time in the ocean. They're pretty into algae. | Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Get to know the wildlife

Ecuador takes its conservation very seriously. In 2008, it was the first country in the world to protect the rights of nature in its constitution. And in March came another first when it became the first country to recognize the legal rights of wild animals.

Even though visitors are required to stay a distance of six feet away from animals, wildlife interactions here are unlike those anywhere else on Earth. Plus, some animals can only be found here, like Blue-footed boobies and Galápagos marine iguanas, who charm 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.”)

You’ll see wildlife wherever you go 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, home of the Charles Darwin Research Station, 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% of the Galápagos’ tortoise population in retirement on the island of Española.

You can't miss the red neck pouches of the frigatebirds. | Calin Hertioga/Moment/Getty Images

Make it a bucket list two-fer with Ecuadorian volcanoes

Though they’re 600 miles away from the mainland, the Galápagos Islands have been a part of Ecuador since 1832, 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 away from the crowds

Quito and Guayaquil 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.

Ifit’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 Otavalo, 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.