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The Galápagos Islands (official name is Archipiélago de Colón) are an archipelago of volcanic islands around the equator in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles (970 km) west of continental Ecuador. The archipelago consists of 15 main islands, 3 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. Galapagos Islands were formed 3 - 5 million years ago as a result of volcanic activity. Piling eruptions eventually caused basaltic lava emerge from the water forming islands. In the past 200 years, there have been about 50 eruptions on islands with the last one taking place on Fernandina Island (La Cumbre Volcano). The highest volcano, Wolf (5600 ft or 1707 m), is located on the island of Isabella.
Galápagos is an Ecuadorian province; its capital is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno located on San Cristóbal island. The total population living on islands is about 23,000. Only 3% of the islands are used for settlements; only five islands are inhabited. Most people live on three islands: on Santa Cruz - about 11,500, on San Cristóbal - about 6,500, and on Isabella (the largest island) - about 2,000. Santa Cruz Island is the geographic and economic center of the Galápagos. 97% of the archipelago is designated as Galápagos National Park (created in 1959).
Very often Galápagos Islands are associated with the name of Charles Darwin during his almost six year voyage with HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836. However, by that time, islands were already well known and used first by pirates and then by whalers. The archipelago was discovered accidentally in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, when his ship went off course. Bishop Tomas coined the name “Galapagos” after his encounter with giant tortoises on the islands. The first colony on islands was founded in 1832 by Ecuadorian general Jose Villamil.
Diverse and abandoned wildlife is what Galapagos Islands are know for and the reason the archipelago is considered one of the world’s natural treasures. If you want to visit the Galapagos you must be on a guided tour.
The Directorate of the Galapagos National Park is the main authority regulating almost any aspect of conservation of the The Galápagos Islands ecosystem, and this includes tourism. The Directorate has numerous management programs and provides important services: various permits and licensing, tourist quarters, inspections, etc.
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What Makes It Special
Unlike other similar islands, Galapagos still retains much of its original biodiversity due to late colonization and latest conservation efforts. It constitutes a unique ecosystem where most ecological processes are still active; because of this, the Galápagos Islands function as a natural laboratory of evolution - 90% of reptiles, 80% of birds, and 40% of plants are unique here. Geological formations, magnificent views, and foremost a huge variety of living beings gives a unique opportunity for visitors to experience an unusual world. It charms travelers and satisfies our natural desire for both, enlightenment and adventure. In 1979 UNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands Natural Heritage for Humanity.
It is estimated that 180,000 tourists visit the islands on an annual basis. it’s hard to find someone who after visiting the Galapagos thinks it was not worth every minute or penny spent during the trip.
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Directions To Destination
The only practical way to reach Galápagos is by air. There are two airports located on islands. One of them is on San Cristóbal Island - San Cristóbal Airport (IATA: SCY, ICAO: SEST); the second is on Baltra - Seymour Airport (IATA: GPS, ICAO: SEGS). Both airports have flights to and from the two cities In Ecuador (mainland): Guayaquil and Quito. However, the main route to Galápagos currently is via the Seymour Airport on Baltra. This is probably due to the proximity of Baltra to the Santa Cruz Island which is the geographic and economic center of the Galápagos and a hub for traveling between the Galápagos islands.
Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, is served by José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport (Aeropuerto Internacional José Joaquín de Olmedo) (IATA: GYE, ICAO: SEGU). Such major airlines as American Airlines, Delta, KLM, Iberia have flights from various destinations (Miami, Atlanta, New York-JFK, Amsterdam, Madrid and many capitals of the South America). Ecuadorian airline with international flights are: AeroGal, LAN Ecuador and TAME. Nonstop flight from Miami to Guayaquil takes about 4.5 hours. You will need additional 2 hours to fly from Guayaquil to Baltra.
Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, has its own Mariscal Sucre International Airport (Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre) (IATA: UIO, ICAO: SEQU). Airlines and destinations served by Quito's airport are essentially the same. It takes 4 hours to fly from Miami to Quito. The flight time from Quito to Baltra is slightly more than 3 hours.
Usually, there are four flights every weekday to and from Quito and Guayaquil on Baltra and six - eight during weekends. At San Cristóbal airport these numbers are two - four respectively.
Since most flights to Galápagos arrive now at the Seymour Airport on Baltra, your next step will be to transfer to Santa Cruz Island separated from Baltra by a narrow Itabaca channel. The transfer is not difficult and takes about 1 hour. You will use a bus at the Baltra Airport to the ferry which will cross the channel. Once on Santa Cruz shore, you can take bus or taxi to Puerto (Isidro) Ayora located on the opposite side of Santa Cruz. The cost of the bus trip is about $2 but it takes almost one hour in a crowded vehicle to get there. Taxi costs about $20 but must faster and more convenient.
If you do not intend to stay in a hotel and want to cruise the islands, Baltra can be the starting point of your itinerary as well. Another dock next the ferry is where boats cruising Galápagos await passengers.
You can travel between inhabited islands on your own. You can do it by boat or by small airplane. Flights are available between Baltra, Isabella and San Cristóbal in any direction to and from. The price for such inter-island flight is about $160 (one-way, 2011). Boat passenger routes are available between Santa Cruz (Puerto Ayora) and Isabela (Puerto Villamil) islands. Boat trips are about 3 hours long and cost about $30 (2011).
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Best Time To Go
There are two distinctive seasons on the Galapagos Islands: the warm season from December to May and the wet season the rest of the year.
During the wet season daily highs are 77 - 79 ºF (25 - 26 ºC); daily lows are 68 - 72 ºF (20 - 22 ºC); average sea temperature is 72 ºF (22 ºC). The rainfall is 0.2" - 1.2" (5 mm - 30.5 mm).
During the warm season highs are 80 - 87 ºF (27 - 31 ºC); lows are 72 - 76 ºF (22 - 24 ºC); average sea temperature is 76 ºF (25 ºC). The rainfall is 1.3" - 3.7" (33 mm - 94 mm).
You may be curious, why the rainfall during the "wet" season is significantly lower. Probably, it's because of the garua which is Spanish for mist - it happens when warm air masses move over the cool Humboldt current resulting in the condensing of moisture. Because of the this, mist and fog often take place during this time. However, this is more typical for the highlands that are most green and lush, while the low altitude areas and shorelines have little precipitation. The mid-day showers are usually short with blue skies sun breaking through quickly.
For the Galápagos Islands, the best time to go depends more on your personal preferences and expected activities. During the warm season, the climate is more tropical with daily rain and cloudier skies. Water temperature is warmer for swimming and snorkeling. The sea is also calmer - something to consider if you have seasickness and not as agile when going ashore from a boat. If such things are of a concern, keep in mind that waters can be rough in August and September.
Final consideration is the timing of the high tourist season - from June 15 to September 14 and November 1 to April 30. During this period prices are higher and it can be more difficult to find a place for activities beyond cruising.
If you are trying to find the best of the best time, it will be probably May. It is already low season with less people; the water is still warm; rain is not significant; highland are green and lush.
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Where To Stay
There are about 30 hotels used by tourist on four Galápagos Islands. Most of them in a close to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. If you decide to stay in a hotel, you should clearly understand that hotels' prices are based on the increasing demand for accommodation on the Galápagos Islands where there is a limit on total number of visitors. Because of this, the level of service often does not match the price you may pay. This is also true for the Puerto Ayora area.
Before getting to a specific recommendations, my main one is to lower your expectations and remember that Galápagos archipelago is not a usual tourist destination and is not meant as a place to accommodate any whim of guests. Secondly, notwithstanding to what I just said you may find some areas around popular hotels, especially beaches, shockingly (for a nature reserve) polluted. I think the best attitude is to understand that your hotel accommodations are nothing more than a means of fulfilling your main goal - to explore as much as you can the amazing beauty of Galapagos.
If you really what to stay in hotel (vs. cruising), there are only two places to stay I can recommend:
- Galapagos Safari Camp (Finca Palo Santo, Salasaca, Santa Cruz) located on a 55 hectare farm offering an upscale stay in a natural setting in the highlands of Santa Cruz in the Santa Rosa area on the edge of the National Park. The camp has a stylish central lodge is perched on a hill with panoramic views from its spacious veranda of the Pacific Ocean as well as the other islands. Nine nicely appointed tents are located below the central lodge not far from it. The tented camp follows the African safari tradition where guests can enjoy comfort under canvas while experiencing nature in its purest form. Meals are served in the dining room or outside on the central lodge veranda. Good thing about the camp is the plethora of activities offered. By the way, some packages include combinations of sea cruises with staying Galapagos Safari Camp. Lodging rates (2011) including breakfast and dinner but excluding local taxes (12%) or service charge (10%) are $455 double occupancy and $350 single occupancy.
- Iguana Crossing (Av. Antonio Gil, Puerto Villamil, Isabela, Galápagos) is the Isabela's newest hotel built on the southern end of the island. Iguana Crossing is located directly in front of a sandy beach behind a wildlife-filled lagoon. The hotel has a contemporary design with 13 rooms ranging from ocean and volcano view rooms to junior suites and one master suite. Rates are from $200 to $400 per room per night (2011).
If you are interested in cruising, you choice may depend on so many personal preferences that it's virtually useless to recommend any particular boat (with also so many of them available). However, if you are looking for something close to the traditional Carribian or Mediterranean style of voyages, I would recommend 92 passenger Celebrity Xpedition, a 296 ft long cruise ship built in 2001. The ship belongs to the Celebrity Cruises lines offering itineraries in all parts of the world including Galapagos. Celebrity Xpedition offers a relaxed atmosphere, spacious cabins, top-grade naturalists. The ship visits outstanding western islands often skipped by smaller boats. With possible minor exceptions, 7nt, 10nt, 11nt, 13nt cruises are available all year round with prices from $2,700 to $10,200 (2011) per person (depending on the duration, time of the year and type of room). Longest cruises include a 4-day excursion to Cusco (Peru) and Machu Picchu.
Research and book hotels in or near Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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Generally, what you do while visiting Galapagos is hiking, biking, swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving and kayaking - and while doing all this you are watching animals that are not afraid of you. However, each and every archipelago island is different. Below are some highlights to give a better idea (though very far from anything comprehensive) what you can do on some of the islands.
It is the geographic and economic center of the Galápagos. The Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park Service are on the island. Puerto Ayora is the largest town on Galápagos with a thriving commerce activity - if you miss urban life, you can get a glimpse of it here as well as buy some souvenirs. Highlands of Santa Cruz offer abundant flora. Interested in geology - there are famous lava tunnels and a pair of gigantic volcanic craters (called Los Gemelos - The Twins) near Santa Rosa. Santa Cruz give an excellent opportunity to watch giant tortoises in El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
Isabela is the largest of the islands and about 80 miles (100 km) in length. There is a lot to see on Isabela but its size with most visitor sites far apart makes them accessible. Isabela is home to just a few thousand people living mostly in the laid back town of Puerto Villamil on the southeastern part of the island. Isabela, formed by five volcanoes, is known for its geology. One of the volcanos, Sierra Negra (4,900 ft.) is a day hike from Puerto Villamil. It’s one of the active volcanoes in the Galapagos, erupting most recently in 2005. The massive caldera covers almost twenty square miles with safe spots to observe. Other geological formations include Darwin Lake, the perfectly round saltwater crater, accessible through the narrow channel of Tagus Cove (in the past an anchorage place for pirates) and Urbina Bay (example of geological uplift and marine iguanas). For animal lovers places to visit are Punta Vicente Roca (good for diving, no landing), Elizabeth Bay (no landing - penguins, sea turtles, brown pelicans, cormorants, rays, sea lions), Punta Moreno (penguins and shore birds).
Fernandina is the youngest of the islands and the most pristine. Punta Espinosa (northeast) is only visitor site on Fernandina; it's covered with lava - the sign of ongoing eruptions started in 2009. The largest colony of marine iguanas calls this place home.
Bartolome is a desolate but the most visited island. Its beaches are the excellent snorkeling sites. Among notable things is that Bartolome is the nesting site for the green sea turtles.
Española is the oldest and rather remote island in the chain. One of the island specialties are brightly colored marine iguanas (usually black). Another prominent specie here is the waved albatross. The Gardner Bay on the island is an open area offering excellent snorkeling.
San Cristóbal is the location of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos province. A former penal colony, now it's a sleepy town overlooking the harbor. The beaches near town are one of the few places where visitors are allowed to camp. In fact, here you can spend a night if you are taking a sea kayak tour (check ROW Adventures for more details) - perhaps the most adventurous and at the same time personal encounters with Galapagos nature.
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Useful Visitor Information and Tips
The Galapagos National Park collects an entrance fee of $100 per person ($50 for children under 12) visiting the Galapagos Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve regardless of staying in a hotel or taking a Galapagos cruise.
The only way to take a tour of the Galapagos Islands is by boat. Most cruises to and around the Galapagos are often part of all-inclusive vacation packages, offered by many travel companies in Ecuador.
There are two types of cruises: (1) daily cruises usually originated from Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz) to each of the islands and (2) boat cruises to spend entire vacation aboard a cruise liner or boat/yacht going ashore when the boat approaches next island. There are pluses and minuses with both approaches. Daily cruises are more flexible and you can adjust your plans as you go - you do not commit you whole time to one cruise. Also, you sleep at night on a firm land in a comfortable environment. Another plus is that hotel-based tours are usually the least expensive. The big minus with daily trips is that they take time to traveling back and forth between the islands. If you are thinking about staying aboard a cruiser, keep in mind that some of them specialize in sightseeing tours while others in scuba diving and adventure tours.
One of the ways to explore the Galapagos Islands is by combination of land-based accommodations and traveling between islands by small private planes and speedboats. Such tours tend to be more expensive and more active and challenging in terms of physical fitness. Their big plus is the most efficient use of the time to enjoy the personal encounters with wildlife and engaging at the same time in adventurous activities (for example, kayaking, mountain biking, horse riding, snorkeling).
There is a tremendous variety of cruises available. One of the way to decide on a cruise is to think about your budget - prices vary from less than $300 per person/day to more than $500 per person/day (all prices are 2011). The price usually depend on the class of the boat and features (accommodations and level of service). Some of them are real ships taking 100 and more passengers - some of them are most expensive (up to $5,500 and more for 7 night voyage); others are luxury catamarans and high-end yachts with typical prices of $4,000 - $4,500 for seven nights. On the lower end are mid-range budget-priced boats ($1,600 - $2,400 for seven nights). Make no mistake, the price will determine what you get during the cruise.
Yet another consideration is the number of passengers which starts from 10 - 12 to more than 100. 16 passengers seems to be the magic number Galapagos cruises providing the best flexibility and personal attention during the trip, price, selection of boats. Generally, if you are traveling with a family you may want select a bigger, more comfortable and stable boat. Select a small boat for more intimate experience to be more an explorer and less a tourist.
While planing your trip to Galapagos Islands, keep in mind that islands are different in terms of specific species you can find.
When on Galapagos Islands have the following: cash (there are places when you will need it), a lot of memory for your digital camera (it is never enough), good hiking shoes (keep in mind that in many cases you will experience "wet" landing), sunscreen/hat/sunglasses (it's the equator, baby!), something warm to wear (at may be chilly in the evenings), pills for motion sickness (if you need it), mosquito anti-repellant (can be very useful if you stay in a hotel).
There are a lot of DON'T's the Galapagos National Park. You should not leave the marked trail or leave your group, litter, smoke, take food, get too close to or touch animals, take souvenirs made of anything natural to islands, fish. One important DO's - clean your shoes' soles before disembarking in the islands.
Vaccinations are not required for Galápagos Islands.
United States Dollar is the main currency accepted on islands.
If you are staying in a hotel in one of the towns on inhabited islands you can use taxis as a means of transportation. The cost is a dollar regardless of destination. On Santa Cruz you can use a water taxi to get to some popular tourist places further from Puerto Ayora.
If you are not a frequent flyer to destinations in South America and planing a trip to Galapagos Islands, think about combining such trip with other places such as Ecuador mainland, Peru and Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca just to name a few.
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