A traveller’s guide to the Galápagos Islands
An untouched haven of extraordinary biodiversity and phenomenal landscapes, the Galápagos Islands are natures environmental gem.
Millions of years in the making, the volcanic islands are scattered across the Pacific Ocean off the western coast of South America. Most likely discovered and inhabited by chance, the archipelago is best known as the site of Charles Darwin’s 1835 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle.
Which islands should I visit?
The Galápagos are made up of 21 islands and islets. Not all of them are accessible to the public but those that are offer unparalleled experiences to intrepid explorers. Trek across barren landscapes and recent lava flows, explore mangrove forests, visit cliffside colonies of endangered birds or snorkel through crystalline waters teeming with marine life on one of these popular Galápagos islands:
Close to the centre of Galápagos, Baltra Island is likely to be the first location visitors step foot on thanks to its two airports. The history of Baltra is fascinating, an uplifted island, it was once under water before volcanic activity on neighbouring Santa Cruz Island changed the areas geology. Because of this, the island is flat making it a perfect destination for those that love to hike.
Named after Sir Bartholomew James Sullivan, Charles Darwin’s naturalist friend, Bartolome Island is just 1.2 square kilometres. Believed to be one of the youngest islands in the Galápagos, Bartolome is 114 metres above sea level making it the perfect spot to view the breathtaking volcanic landscapes that make this corner of the world so unique.
The southernmost island in the Galápagos, Española Island is believed to be around four million years old. It is a very popular destination on a Galápagos cruise and one that it is frequented regularly. Though the island is remote, there is an interesting range of wildlife including the waved albatross, marine iguanas, and lava lizards.
The seahorse shaped Isabela Island is the largest of all islands, measuring 120 kilometres. The islands rich fauna is beyond compare, it is home to more giant tortoises than all the other islands combined, with a separate species on each volcano. It is also a nutrient-rich feeding ground for fish, whales, dolphins, and birds.
Santa Cruz Island
The most populated island in the Galápagos, Santa Cruz is home to 15,000 residents. Much like Española Island, it is very popular and likely to feature on many cruise itineraries. It is an important island, not just because it is highly populated, but also because it is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where scientific research and conservation continue.
Originally named James Island, Santiago has been the main focus of conservation work over the last ten years which has resulted in rapid recovery of vegetation and native species. Here, you’ll find marine iguanas, sea lions and sea turtles as well as dolphins and sharks.
Which animals will I see?
Across these tranquil islands you will find 1,900 unique species. The highlands of Santa Cruz are one of the few places you can spot giant tortoises in the wild, and the southernmost Española is the only nesting area of the colossal Waved Albatross.
The giant tortoise is perhaps the most famous resident of the Galápagos Islands (the word ‘Galápagos’ actually derives from an old Spanish word for tortoise). Almost 3 million years ago, the giant tortoise arrived in Galápagos from mainland South America, where they underwent diversification into 15 species, differing in their morphology and distribution.
You’re most likely to see the giant tortoise on Santa Cruz Island, deep in the lush climates of the area’s highlands. All species vary in shape and size, but all have an average lifespan of 100+ years. They spend roughly 16 hours a day resting, and the rest of their time is spent eating grasses, fruits and cactus pads or bathing in water.
Endemic to the Galápagos Islands, the marine iguana is the only lizard in the world able to live and forage at sea. Described as “hideous-looking” and the “most disgusting, clumsy lizards” by Charles Darwin, the iguanas make up for their unusual looks with their unique ecological adaptations. Their short, blunt snouts and razor-sharp teeth help them to scrape algae off rocks, their flattened tails allow them to move through the water and their long claws enable them to cling to rocks.
Over the years, marine iguanas have spread across the archipelago but the best place to see them is Fernandina Island. There are six very similar subspecies of marine iguana but those on Fernandina Island are the largest. On average, the iguanas grow to 0.7 metres in size and 1.5 kilograms in weight. Their lifespan is between 5 and 12 years.
Galápagos Sea Lion
The Galápagos sea lion is the most abundant marine mammal in the Archipelago. The species primarily breeds in the Galápagos Islands but can be found just off mainland Ecuador on Isla de la Plata. They are one of two types of seal found on the islands and are a subspecies of the Californian sea lion.
The sea lions can be found along the Galápagos coastline year-round; they rarely migrate. They have a smooth, streamlined body shape which enables them to be efficient hunters. Males are typically much larger than females, often weighing up to 170 kilograms more.
A firm favourite, the Galápagos penguin is the most northerly occurring species of penguin in the world. The best place to see the Galápagos penguins is on Fernandina Island and Isabela Island though they can be spotted on other islands (such as Santiago, Bartolome and Santa Cruz) with smaller populations.
Galápagos penguins are the second smallest penguin species in the world. They reach just 0.49 metres and weigh on average 2.5 kilograms and are easily recognisable. They have a black head and body with white underparts and black bands across the breast.
The aptly named blue-footed booby is a large, distinctive birds found along the eastern pacific coastline. Their brightly coloured feet make them one of the easiest birds to identify and they’re known for their clumsy movement on land. In fact, their name comes from the Spanish word ‘bobo’ which means foolish or clown.
Despite their clumsiness on land, they are extremely agile in the air. They spot their prey (typically schools of small fish such as anchovies and sardines) from above. Once spotted, the bird folds back its wings, giving it a more streamlined shape, and plunges into the water to catch its lunch.
The largest bird in the Galápagos, the waved albatross has a wingspan of up to two and a half metres. They get their name from the wave like pattern on their wings and can be found between the eastern waters off the Galápagos Islands and the coasts between Colombia and Peru.
Couples mate for life. Their courtship ritual is one of their most interesting behaviours, their courtship dance includes bill circling, bill clacking, head nodding, a waddle, and a cow-like moo. Each breeding season the female lays a single egg on bare ground and the couple take it in turns to incubate the egg for up to months until it hatches.
When is the best time to visit Galápagos Islands?
The best time to visit the Galápagos Islands is between December and May. Though brief showers are common this time of year, the high temperatures and regular sunshine make it an ideal time for observing the Galápagos’ famous wildlife.
Are there any rules to keep in mind?
When visiting the Galápagos Islands, it is important to be mindful of your surroundings. The Galápagos National Park have introduced the following rules and regulations over time:
- Do not touch or get too close to the animals
- Do not take souvenirs from the islands
- Do not litter
- Do not smoke
- Do not take food to the islands
Sail away with Silversea
Since its launch in 1994, Silversea has welcomed almost half a million guests. The brand is recognised for its signature comfort and Silver Origin is no different. Taking what they have learned from their guests over the years, Silversea have created their most elegant ship yet.
Life aboard Silver Origin
For five years, Silversea’s has been travelling to the islands with the rare opportunity to understand how to make travel here special. For their guests, luxury cruising to the Galápagos is about much more than the utmost in comfort, style and service – it is about living sustainably, recognising the authentic character of the Galápagos and paying careful attention to the needs of its inhabitants.
On Silver Origin you’ll find innovative venues designed to extend the destination experience, such as Basecamp – a “knowledge lounge” featuring a wealth of materials and tools that provide you with inside knowledge. Floor-to-ceiling windows, Horizon Balcony’s and ocean-view bathroom features provide stunning views of the Galápagos.
Silver Origin has the largest Expedition Team of expert guides certified by the National Park of the Galápagos meaning you can learn everything you so wish during your cruise. The qualified guides – more per guest than any ship in the area – are available at any time during your stay meaning any questions can be answered.
To enhance your destination experience even further on board, top Ecuadorian chefs create authentic Ecuadorian cuisines with the freshest local ingredients.