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Click 'Select to Compare' to see a side-by-side comparison of up to adventures below—includingactivity level, pricing, traveler excellence rating, trip highlights, and more
See a detailed overview of what you'll experience on an adventure through the Galápagos and the Amazon.
Small Ship Adventure
Days in GALÁPAGOS
6 nights from only $1295
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Watch a detailed overview of the discoveries you'll enjoy on your adventure through Peru and Ecuador.
Small Ship Adventure
Days in GALÁPAGOS
Peru: Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu • Ecuador: Quito, 3- or 4-night Galápagos Cruise
6 nights from only $1195
7 nights from only $1995
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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Watch this video showcasing what makes this destination so unforgettable
Dive deep on an exploration of the unique marine wildlife found under the waters of the Galápagos.
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Underwater visibility is the best at the beginning of the year, and January is also the start of the wet season. However, rain is still relatively light and temperatures average in the low-to-mid 80s. You may see giant tortoises being born, marine iguanas mating, and stingrays.
Experiencing the Galápagos in February means peak snorkeling season, with warm, clear waters. Visitors with underwater cameras can capture green sea turtles, friendly sea lions, and Sally Lightfoot crabs.
The sun is at its most intense in March—which means both longer daylight hours and high heat. It’s birthing season for flamingos, and penguins can be seen waddling about the islands.
Watch this film to discover more about the Galápagos
Searching for Wildlife in the Galápagos
Get a glimpse of the wildlife you can see in the Galápagos Islands—from frolicking sea lions and blue-footed boobies—in this short film of one O.A.T.'s traveler's experience.
Submitted by Jim Guerra
Wet season comes to a close in April, but the impact that has on the skies is usually minimal. It’s peak mating season for Darwin finches, so they can be seen perched in scalesia trees on most islands. The distinctive waved albatross and giant tortoises are also commonly seen during this time of year.
The month of May turns the Galápagos into an optimal site for bird-watching. An array of species including blue-footed boobies, brown pelicans, and Magnificent Frigate birds are in mating season, making sightings more common.
Dry season takes hold in June, with average rainfall totals of around a quarter of an inch. It’s another peak month for mating, as well as the ideal time to spot humpback whales and dolphins.
Blue-footed boobies begin nesting in July and the temperatures cool down to a daytime average in the mid-70s. The cooler weather (it’s now full-blown winter here) brings on the best viewing season for whale sharks.
The winds tend to be more pronounced in August, but in the Galápagos, that usually translates to pleasant breezes. Fur and California sea lions are breeding now, along with red-footed and masked boobies.
A cool mist known as garúa can occur during this month—but there’s still plenty of sun and wildlife viewing. It brings albatross-birthing season, and average water temperature is a perfect 72 degrees.
The seabirds are all hatching this season, and due to the nutrient-rich waters of the Humboldt Current, October is the best time to spot fish and colorful marine life.
November marks the end of whale shark season, but with every end, comes a beginning. In this case, it’s back to being sea turtle mating time, and most forms of land and sea birds, as well as dolphins and iguanas emerge from the scenery.
December is the optimal time to see a giant tortoise hatch into the world. The warm season is picking back up, skies are clear, and wildlife is waiting to be discovered in the Galápagos.
Click on map markers below to view information about top Galápagos experiences
San Cristóbal Island
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
Bartolomé Island, a volcanic islet, is the youngest of the major Galápagos Islands and known for its unparalleled natural scenery. It’s uninhabited by humans and only half a square mile long, but within that space is no shortage of must-see landscapes.
The main attraction is the area around Pinnacle Rock. This distinctive landform protrudes from the ocean like a natural spire and boasts biodiverse marine life surrounding its base. People who snorkel here often encounter sea lions, myriad tropical fish, and even Galápagos penguins. The yellow-sand beaches are another common place for visitors to explore the gemstone waters and discover the creatures that call them home. While there’s no swimming allowed at the southernmost beach, visitors can still try to spot black-tipped and white-tipped sharks from the shore.
Floreana not only possesses the natural charms of its neighboring islands, but also has an intriguing human element to it. It was home to the very first Galápagos “settler” before Ecuadorian settlements had even been established. His name was Patrick Watkins and he was an Irish sailor who was marooned there in the early 1800s and survived off the land for two years before stealing a boat from explorers and sailing to mainland Ecuador. Floreana was also the site of the first “post office,” or rather, a wooden barrel that whalers could deposit and take mail from on their way out to sea or home.
Today, Floreana has a tiny population of 100 people who primarily make their wages as farmers. Due to the island’s flat surface, it has a naturally occurring pond that is fed by rainwater during the wet season. This is the island’s primary water source, which can present serious problems for the local residents during droughts. Few travelers ever see Floreana, as there’s only one ferry that passengers can board to get there, and it only runs bi-weekly.
Isabela Island, named for Queen Isabela of Spain, is the largest island in the Galápagos at 1,771 square miles, but home to only about 1,700 people. The island is estimated to be about one million years old and houses five active volcanoes. The last eruption occurred in 2015 from Wolf Volcano, the tallest mountain peak in the Galápagos Islands. Fortunately, the volcano sits in a remote area and didn’t affect the people living on the island.
Isabela Island is home to Galápagos penguins, giant tortoises, flightless cormorants, and marine iguanas. Pudgy pink land iguanas also inhabit the northern region of the island, although they are critically endangered and were only discovered in the mid-1980s. They sport black stripes and can grow as long as three feet, weighing as much as 30 pounds.
After Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal Island is the second-most populated island in the Galápagos, home to about 6,000 people. It’s farthest to the east and is perhaps the best place in the archipelago to spot different species of wildlife. Charles Darwin immediately noticed this when he came via the S.S. Beagle in 1835 and studied this region, leading to his publication of On the Origin of Species. This text largely shaped how we understand the natural world.
San Cristóbal is something of a bird-watcher’s paradise. Blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca boobies are all native to the island, while quite rare in other parts of South America. Two species of frigatebirds also inhabit the island, the males identifiable by their bright-red gular pouch which they inflate to attract females during mating season. Mockingbirds, flamingoes, finches, doves, pelicans, and yellow warblers are only a handful of the other bird species that can be found here. There are also two giant tortoise reserves on the island, one of which is completely natural and one of which is semi-natural and used to promote mating. The latter, or the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve, offers visitors information about their origin, habitat, and behaviors.
The Galápagos is well-known for its unique and varied wildlife, however, what some may not realize is that the island of Santa Cruz is home to 12,000 human inhabitants as well. People reside in small, slow-paced villages where they work primarily as cattle ranchers and farmers. A major shift towards agriculture occurred in the late 1930s when Edwin Stanton, an American mogul, bought 90% of the island and utilized it for his 54,000-acre ranch. When he died the land was passed to the Nature Conservancy, which ended the mass-ranching era, but the farming traditions still remain.
In 1980, a sizeable portion of Santa Cruz was designated as part of the Galápagos National Park. The headquarters are now located here as well as the Charles Darwin Research Station, and the National Park Service continuously works in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy and other organizations to preserve Santa Cruz’s natural beauty and resources.
All of this sits upon a dormant volcano, which is believed to have erupted for the last time half a million years ago. Now, however, the island boasts diverse and stunning flora and fauna as well as unique landscapes formed by the ancient magma. A large giant tortoise population resides here and in 2015, a brand new species was discovered, classified by its shell shape. Santa Cruz tortoises can be found living in groups of 250 to 3,000.
Santa Cruz is also home to a breadth of other species. Almost every type of bird native to the Galápagos also puts down roots here, from finches to owls. To spot marine life, travelers head to black turtle cove, where sea turtles, rays, and some smaller species of shark weave in and out of mangroves.
Situated dead center in the Galápagos archipelago, Santiago Island offers a diverse array of wildlife as well as rare, relatively recent lava formations. Sullivan Bay is the site of lava fields that were formed during the 19th century and visitors have the opportunity to walk across the cooled magma and observe the different colors of the stone and the small Molluga plants that poke through the fractures.
Santiago is the most volcanically active island in the Galápagos. Visitors can walk trails along the south, east, and west coasts of the island to see a wealth of young flows and cones. Thanks to the preservation of natural habitats here, visitors are likely to encounter species of wildlife including but not limited to lava lizards, sea turtles, fur seals, blue herons, and marine iguanas. High tide brings in a stunning display of ocean fauna, making this one of the best islands to swim and snorkel off of.
Immerse yourself in Galápagos with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
In 1835, a young scientist set foot on an outcropping of South American islands, not knowing his experience there would rock the scientific community.
Learn more about the world’s only living swimming lizard: the marine iguana.
We’ve got you covered for your next Galápagos adventure with the wonders you can expect to see and packing essentials.
by Jessie Keppeler
Six hundred miles west of mainland Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean lies an archipelago of huge scientific significance—the Galápagos. When these volcanic islands formed roughly five million years ago, they were devoid of all life. The creatures that make the Galápagos famous today crossed hundreds of miles of open ocean to get there. Some flew or swam, but others reached the islands by less conventional methods—carried in animals’ stomachs, attached to the feathers or feet of birds, or floating on rafts of vegetation.
Because of these circumstances, the wildlife on the islands today consists primarily of birds, sea mammals, and reptiles. The Galápagos giant tortoise crawls slowly along the rocks, land iguanas scurry across ledges, and playful sea lions and penguins swim offshore. Since the islands were never inhabited by large predators, the animals of the Galápagos have little fear of visitors.
A naturalist arrives in the Galápagos
These fearless creatures caught the attention of a young naturalist named Charles Darwin when he arrived in the Galápagos aboard the HMS Beagle. On September 16, 1835, Darwin first set foot on San Cristobal Island. Initially, he was not impressed. He wrote in his journal, “The black rocks heated by the rays of the vertical sun like a stove, give to the air a close and sultry feeling. The plants also smell unpleasantly.”
Darwin referred to the marine iguanas that he found scurrying along the shore as “hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in their movements.” He conceded, however, that in the water the iguanas swam “with perfect ease and swiftness,” and he was amazed by how tame all the animals and birds were.
Darwin was further impressed by the wildlife of the Galápagos when he first saw the islands’ giant tortoises. When the Beagle sailed on to Floreana Island, the governor of the Galápagos told Darwin that he could identify the island of origin of any of the giant tortoises simply by the shapes and markings of their shells. The governor’s comment stayed with Darwin, and its full impact struck him later.
A theory is born
Soon after Darwin had returned to England in 1836, he formulated his idea of “natural selection” as a mechanism for the creation of new species. In his own words, “Natural Selection … leads to the improvement of each creature in relation to its conditions of life; and consequently, in most cases, to what must be regarded as an advance in organization.” But it wasn’t until 1859—over two decades after his time in the Galápagos—that Darwin finally released his masterpiece: The Origin of Species. The scientific community embraced Darwin’s theories, and the general population was quick to follow. The book has remained in print since 1859 and has been translated into more than thirty languages.
Although Darwin was not the first to theorize about the topic, he is credited with laying the foundation for the modern theory of evolution. He achieved this by linking natural selection to biological evolution in a way that no one else had before, based on his thorough study of the subject.
For the research that led to his theories, Darwin had the perfect location in the Galápagos Islands, whose geographical isolation made them ideal for studying evolution. Separated from the mainland by 600 miles of deep water and swift currents, and isolated from each other, these islands allowed species to develop independently, making differences across populations—like those of giant tortoises—more apparent to an observer.
The Galápagos today
In the Galápagos Islands today, visitors still arrive by boat, stepping ashore much as Darwin did nearly 200 years ago. The geology has changed little—the islands’ surface is basalt volcanic rock, with many lava flows. And the islands are still bustling with rare animals and birds—from the playful fur seal to the bright red vermilion flycatcher. In 1979, the Galápagos were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for their incredible wildlife.
There are 58 resident bird species on the Galápagos, and another 25 species that migrate to the islands. A visitor to the Galápagos today could find over 40 species of birds during a week of careful observation, and everyone sees at least some of the famous Darwin’s finches, of which there are 13 different species.
Among sea birds, the charming and playful Galápagos penguin is notable. The waved albatross stands out for its courtship ritual of 20 minutes of bowing, honking, and whistling, as do the boobies, who fly fast and plunge deep into the ocean. There is also plenty of reptile viewing. Just like Darwin, visitors today can observe the marine iguana, the only sea-going lizard in the world, and the larger land iguana.
Because mammals had fewer chances to survive a great ocean crossing, there are fewer of them on the Galápagos. There are, however, two bat species, two species of rice rat, and the Galápagos sea lion. These mammals, a subspecies of the California sea lion, are generally curious and will join snorkelers at play. Fur seals, whales, and dolphins are also found in the waters offshore.
In 1964, the Charles Darwin Research Station was established on Santa Cruz Island, and today, its more than 100 scientists, educators, and volunteers work to preserve the natural heritage of the Galápagos. Named for the naturalist who brought the world’s attention to the unique wildlife of these isolated islands, the Research Station helps to ensure that Darwin’s legacy will endure.
Straddling the Equator some 600 miles west of South America, the nineteen islands that make up the Galápagos Archipelago constitute some of the most biologically unique and scientifically important land on Earth. But before Charles Darwin visited in 1835, the islands were virtually unheard of, nothing more than a tiny cluster of blips in the Pacific Ocean.
That would all change when a survey ship bearing the now-legendary young scientist came to call. When the crew of the HMS Beagle first set eyes on the Galápagos, they were greeted by a series of desolate, black-rock islands inhabited by strange creatures—sea-going iguanas, overgrown tortoises, flightless cormorants, and brightly-hued finches. Because of the remote location of the islands, these animal populations had been able to grow and develop in isolation, without threat from larger, more predatory species.
During his five-week stay in the Galápagos, Darwin only visited five of the archipelago’s islands. But this was enough for him to notice the distinctive colors and markings specific to each of the islands’ flora and fauna, and in turn, to develop the theory of natural selection. In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species based on his time in the Galápagos. Immediately, the scientific community was ignited by his ideas, which provided the foundation for the field of evolutionary biology and forever changed our understanding of evolution.
Little has changed in the Galápagos since Darwin first stepped ashore nearly 200 years ago: Colorfully-plumed birds still fill the sky and spiky iguanas continue to scuttle across black volcanic beaches. And visitors still arrive by boat, just as Darwin did aboard the Beagle—though these days, there are significantly more eco-tourists to the islands, each hoping to glimpse the legendary blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises for which the Galápagos have become famous.
The islands’ rare wildlife are now formally protected by UNESCO, which conferred World Heritage Site status upon the Galápagos in 1979. Continuing the islands’ rich legacy of scientific discovery, the Charles Darwin Research Station was founded on Santa Cruz Island in 1964. Today, more than 100 scientists, educators, and volunteers work at the Research Station, studying the islands’ flora, fauna, and geology and preserving its ecological uniqueness for generations to come.
Discover the exotic wildlife and unspoiled beaches of the “Enchanted Isles” when you join us on our Ultimate Galápagos Exploration & Ecuador's Amazon Wilds adventure.
Set sail with Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle on an excursion that changed the face of biology.
Dive deep on an exploration of the unique marine wildlife found under the waters of the Galápagos.
Tom Lepisto, from Dispatches
In the age of dinosaurs, giant aquatic reptiles like the ichthyosaurus ruled the seas. But today, if you want to see a swimming lizard in its natural habitat, you can only do so in the Galápagos Archipelago.
Located 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, this volcanic chain of islands is far removed from other land masses. Existing in such splendid isolation for millions of years, these islands have been a breeding ground for several kinds of endemic wildlife, including the world’s only living swimming lizard: the marine iguana.
These water-loving reptiles differ physically from their terrestrial cousins in having a horizontally broader tail that aids in swimming. The dorsal spines on their back have developed to play a role like the dorsal fins of fish, helping with stability while moving through the water. And because immersion in ocean water causes the marine iguana to take in more salt than it would be healthy to retain, another of its unique adaptations is a gland in the nasal area that removes excess salt, which is then expelled through the nose. The ejected salt is often visible as a white “frosting” on the faces of iguanas after they’ve emerged from the water.
Because they are cold-blooded, marine iguanas have to warm themselves in the sun after each interval of immersion in cool ocean water. This makes them easy to observe, but be warned that—to paraphrase the old saw about dogs—it’s best to “let sunbathing iguanas lie.” Though they may appear to be docile, as a defense mechanism they will respond aggressively to any perceived attack while they are warming up.
The largest marine iguanas are more than four feet long from nose to tail, but this remarkable creature has been given an even larger profile by Hollywood. The computer-generated monster in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 remake of Godzilla was modeled on a marine iguana— transformed, in the film’s concept, into a city-crunching giant by a radiation-induced mutation. While that scenario is (thankfully) fictional, the real-world story of marine iguanas is a notable evolutionary tale.
Biologists believe that about ten million years ago, marine iguanas and the land iguanas that also live in the Galápagos today both evolved from a common ancestor. Although the islands where that took place have since eroded and now lie underwater, volcanism produced newer islands in the Galápagos which have continued to provide habitats for the archipelago’s unique wildlife.
All marine iguanas are classified under the scientific name Amblyrhynchus cristatus. But in a testament to the continuing role of the Galápagos as a crucible of evolution, scientists recognize seven distinct subspecies that have developed on different islands. The smallest marine iguanas inhabit Genovesa Island, while those found on Fernandina are larger. On Española, the iguanas have patches of red and green that make them some of the most colorful.
When Charles Darwin sailed to the Galápagos in 1835, the unique fauna of the islands and the way that different species had developed on different islands sparked his theorizing about evolution. But he did not find the marine iguana particularly attractive, calling it “a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in its movements.” Though not enamored of the iguanas’ appearance, Darwin observed them extensively, and their distinctiveness as species certainly influenced his thinking about natural selection. And in fact, iguanas appear slow-moving only while warming up on land; in the water, they are quite agile.
So whether you find the most intriguing thing about the marine iguana to be its evolutionary distinctiveness, its turn as a model for Godzilla, or its resemblance to a little dragon with more of a knack for treading water than breathing fire, it is one of the creatures that make the Galápagos truly unique.
by Amanda Morrison
Melville dubbed them the “Enchanted Isles,” and travelers routinely describe their visits as “otherworldly.” But what is it about the Galápagos Islands that makes them so enchanting?
Find out by delving into the highlights below—and get a jump on what’s essential to bring with you.
Snorkel in a sea of starsGalápagos sea stars are stunning. They range from jumbo-sized with cherry red “pin cushioned” bodies to small, stout, and darkly dotted—lending them the nickname “chocolate chip starfish.” And depending on the coves you venture to, you may also spot marine iguanas, sea turtles, and even white-tipped sharks.
What to pack:
Island-hop with easeWhile your ship is on the move, you can relax in the lounge, take a catnap in your cabin, or kick back on the Sun Deck. Since half of the deck is canopied, you can catch a breeze—and take in your sublime surroundings—in the comfort of the shade.
Ride the waves in search of wildlifeWhile dinghy-touring along the edges of islands, you’ll bob mere inches from species like Sally Lightfoot crabs, oystercatchers, penguins, and perhaps the most beloved icon of the isles: goofy blue-footed boobies.
Walk on lavaThe Galápagos is so well-preserved that on each island, you can spot traces of its beginnings. Lava trails are especially revealing: As you walk on them, you’ll notice rough, dry aa (ah-ah) rubble that has long since crumbled apart, and smooth, swirling pahoehoe (paw-hoey-hoey) that has flowed more recently.
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