Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Galápagos Islands
Hang with gigantic tortoises and blue-footed boobies in a bucket list vacation 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.
While wildlife-spotting in the archipelago 600 miles east of Ecuador in the days that followed, our new cuddly acquaintances were abundant. They lumbered up boulders on rocky volcanic beaches, and slid down dunes on sandy ones. They batted around dead fish plucked out of the water. They roared, fought, flopped, yawned, and sunbathed 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 the stuff of nature documentaries, 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, a list that included frigatebirds, marine and land iguanas, and blue-footed (and red-footed, and Nazca) boobies, each sporting some of nature’s most colorful creations. The Galápagos turtles (very amorous Galápagos turtles, it would turn out), albatrosses, and 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. In certain areas, finding a penguin was very difficult. Suddenly, we arrived at one place and saw 10, 15 of them—it was amazing," said Guzman as we navigated a trail on North Seymour Island. “So in the same case, possibly here, animals would start nesting in the middle of the trail because nobody’s walking through.”
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 maybe he 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, 2022, the Marine Reserve was expanded by 23,166 square miles—a significant win for ocean conservation. A few months later, a previously unknown giant tortoise species was discovered on San Cristobal island. And last year, for the first time in seven years, Wolf Volcano, the highest volcano in the Galápagos, erupted on Isla Isabella, home to the endangered pink iguana. Its orange lava rivers could even be seen running down the hillsides from space. (As NASA put it, "A Wolf Awakens at Night.")
In other words, despite being one of the most unchanged places on the planet—inspiring Darwin’s theory of natural selection, no less—the Galápagos is also one of the most exciting to visit right now.
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 Quito's Mariscal Sucre International Airport takes about four hours and is serviced by most of the major airlines.
To transfer to the Galápagos, you’ll typically fly into 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 in and roam freely about without a tour group (you can always book a tour to hop to other islands via your hotel). Or you can opt to embark on a live-aboard boat cruise (like those offered by Hurtigruten, Intrepid Travel, and National Geographic), whose itineraries typically last between five and eight days and tend 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.
Get to know the local 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. March 2022 saw another first when Ecuador became the first country to recognize the legal rights of wild animals. And this past May, the Ecuadorian government announced an historic “debt-for-nature” deal, pledging hundreds of millions of dollars towards marine conservation efforts around the islands and ensuring rich biodiversity for years to come.
Even though visitors are required to keep at least 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 at gorgeous Gardner Bay; Fernandina for penguins, hawks, and blue-footed boobies; and Isabela and Santa Cruz, home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, for tortoises. Elsewhere, Floreana brings you close to all species of birds.
We’d also be remiss if we didn't mention that the Galápagos is home to 102-year-old Diego, a giant tortoise whose rampant sex drive essentially repopulated his species. (Thank you for your service, Diego, and we hope you're enjoying your retirement.) You can visit the father of over 40% of the Galápagos’ tortoise population on the island of Española.
Make it a bucket list two-fer with a mainland volcano trek
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 take advantage of the shared passport stamp. Ecuador is considered one of the world’s great mountaineering destinations thanks to ease of access, multilingual climbing instructors, and peaks that span a wide range of difficulties. It’s also where you'll find the 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 that result in gorgeous rewards. One of those rewards is 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.)
Skip the crowds at laid-back small towns
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 running through town, or pick up a Panama hat, which originated in Ecuador long before it was adopted by Instagram 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 Otavalo, perhaps the most famous market town in Ecuador (for tourists, anyway), where trading dates back to pre-Incan times.
Soak your tired muscles in mineral hot springs
In the foothills of the volcanic Mount 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.
Back in town, you’ll find opportunities for adventure by way of horseback riding, rock climbing, cycling, whitewater rafting, and paragliding; it’s also the last mountain town before you reach the Amazon, so pack a raincoat for potential jungle treks. And if you’re looking to capture that one perfect shot, Baños is home to the famous Swing at the End of the World, which dangles 8,530 feet in the air above Casa de Arbol. If you don’t have someone to take your picture (or your travel buddies are notorious bad at focusing the camera), rest assured there will be people there to help out. They’ll also give you a little push if you ask nicely.