Visiting the Galápagos Islands has been a dream of ours for a long time. It’s one of our Top 5 destinations in the world, which is a big deal – and with that comes a lot of high expectations and the pressure to do it right and live up to all the anticipation. Every kid learns about evolution and Charles Darwin and this magical place called the Galápagos where he formed his theory.
Well, we can say the Galápagos Islands really is a magical place. It also blew away all of our expectations.
We came in with a list of wildlife we wanted to see, then arranged tours to the appropriate islands to maximize our chances of seeing all of these creatures in the wild. Many of them are endemic species that only exist in the Galápagos Islands. Giant tortoises. Galápagos penguins. Land and marine iguanas. Blue-footed boobies. Red-footed boobies. Frigate birds. Sally lightfoot crabs. And on and on.
We saw it all and more. Not only did we just get to see them, it felt like we got to exist alongside them. That they let us into their personal space to observe them completely unguarded. To see them up close, with their pups and families, in their most intimate and vulnerable moments. There is truly no other place on Earth that offers this kind of experience.
Land-Based Tours vs. Cruises
The two most common ways to explore Galápagos are by land-based tours or cruises – a decision we had to make coming in. How to explore your dream destination without regretting it?
On the one hand, cruises provide more exposure to wildlife, going for island landings more often and providing a more luxurious experience. On the other hand, they are usually run by foreign companies, are a lot more expensive than land-based tours and have fixed itineraries with fixed departure dates.
We found that the best option for us was to explore the Galápagos Islands via land-based tours. Yes, it is true that you don’t get as much exposure to wildlife and you spend a considerable amount of time commuting from one place to another; but it was also the option that gave us the flexibility to specifically pick the landings we wanted. On top of that, we were supporting the local economy, making local friends and seeing how they live, as well as spending less than half of what cruises typically cost, even when booked last-minute.
We did not regret our decision. All the fear of missing out on wildlife exposure was unfounded. We got to experience all the wildlife we wanted to see and more, from penguins mating, to two male giant tortoises fighting over a female, to an orphan sea lion pup and hundreds of sharks, we certainly had the experience we were looking for.
In a place like the Galápagos Islands where wildlife has never learned to fear human presence, it would be so easy to exploit it for money and ruin it for future generations to come. Fortunately, we were pleased to see plenty of conservation laws and regulations put in place by the national park, and the impression we received in general was positive. We can’t express what a step up it was from what we saw in Asia.
The national park plays a huge role in how tourists explore the Galápagos Islands. First of all, they dictate the itinerary of every boat operating in the archipelago, ensuring no more than two boats with a max of 16 people each per landing at a time. This ensures small crowds, which reduces the damage caused to the environment, while providing a better experience for the tourists themselves. We always had small groups on each island we visited (usually less than 10 people), which felt like we had private showings of wildlife and landscape on each island.
Another important regulation was the requirement of a naturalist guide for every tour group. We felt that the naturalist guide’s presence was important, not only to educate tourists about what they were seeing, but to also keep an eye on them, making sure that everyone was abiding by the park rules.
Other conservation efforts included controlling the immigration into the inhabited islands; permits for motor vehicles; inspection and quarantine of luggage to prevent the introduction of foreign species; as well as trying to indirectly control the dollar amount spent per tourist to maximize income while avoiding mass tourism.
These are just a few of the conservation efforts we personally experienced, though we’re sure there are countless others targeted towards protecting specific species. Hopefully all these measures will ensure that the park remains a wildlife sanctuary to be enjoyed by many generations to come.
Out of all of the individual Galápagos Islands, we visited only four in total. That may not seem like much, but we saw all the wildlife we wanted and more, along with other land and aquatic activities as well as a taste of local life. Here are brief summaries of the four islands, each special and unique in its own way:
Santa Cruz was our first base, from which we took day-tours to North Seymour and Bartolomé. We saw giant tortoises both at the Fausta Llerena Breeding Center as well as in the wild at the Reserva El Chato. We also saw countless marine iguanas, sea lions, pelicans, sally lightfoot crabs, sharks and even a manta ray that would just hang out around the pier.
Read more about Galápagos: Santa Cruz…
North Seymour was our first day-tour and a wonderful first experience in the Galápagos Islands. Highly recommended for bird-watching – blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. Yellow land iguana were pretty cool, too.
Read more about Galápagos: North Seymour…
Home to the most iconic landscape view in the archipelago, Bartolomé is also one of the islands visited by Galápagos penguins. We were lucky enough to see two of them mating, as well as swim with sea lions, starfish, sharks and stingrays.
Read more about Galápagos: Bartolomé…
We went 360 around the island, explored its gorgeous volcanic beaches, spotted red-footed boobies at Punta Pitt and shared the ocean with hundreds of dolphins and sharks. At the right time, it is also one of the best places to see schools of hammerhead sharks.
Read more about Galápagos: San Cristóbal…
There is really no better feeling in the world than fulfilling your dreams. Visiting the Galápagos Island was one of them and we still can’t believe we’re checking this one off the list. Now we need a new destination for our Top 5! Any recommendations?