12 Bucket-List Things To Do in the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands have long been a bucket-list destination for nature lovers. If you long to mind-meld with Marine Iguanas or watch puppy-like sea lions show off, these islands in the Pacific Ocean near the Equator deliver.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and often called a living museum and showcase of evolution, this extraordinary cluster of islands and marine reserve is a haven for scientists and a dream destination for adventurers, wildlife enthusiasts, and those looking to step away from the mundane.

Marine Iguana in the Galapagos

Here, you won’t just relax on the beach; you’ll share it with sea lions and iguanas. Your snorkeling companions might include playful sea turtles or even the elusive hammerhead shark. The possibilities are endless, from hiking on ancient lava fields to scuba diving in the world-renowned Darwin’s Arch.

So, strap on your walking shoes, pack your binoculars, and let’s dive into a world of adventure as we explore the top things to do in the Galápagos Islands.

Volcanic Galapagos Islands
Born of fire, volcanoes formed the Galapagos Islands – and continue to be.

Where Are The Galápagos Islands?

The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago situated in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 1,000 kilometers (about 620 miles) off the western coast of Ecuador. The islands are part of Ecuadorian territory and are famed for their remarkable biodiversity and unique ecosystems.

Composed of 21 main islands and numerous smaller islets, the archipelago straddles the equator and is scattered over an expanse of ocean roughly 50,000 square kilometers (around 19,300 square miles) in size.

The Galápagos are perhaps most famous for their role in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, serving as a living laboratory for evolutionary studies. With their distinctive volcanic landscapes and unparalleled wildlife—ranging from giant tortoises to blue-footed boobies—these islands are a significant destination for scientists, nature enthusiasts, and travelers from around the world.

Sea lions on an abandoned boat anchored in San Cristobal Island Galapagos

How To Get To The Galapagos

Getting to the Galápagos Islands involves a multi-step journey, typically starting with an international flight to Ecuador. The country has two main international airports: Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito (see our recommendations for things to do in Quito) and José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil. You’ll need to catch a domestic flight to the Galápagos Islands from either of these cities.

The archipelago has two airports that receive commercial flights: Seymour Airport on Baltra Island and San Cristóbal Airport on San Cristóbal Island. Upon landing, visitors must pay an entrance fee to the Galápagos National Park and undergo a luggage inspection to prevent the introduction of non-native species to the fragile ecosystem. Transportation options like ferries or small boats are usually available from the airport to reach other islands or specific accommodations.

Zodiacs returning to Silversea Silver Origin Galapagos

How to See the Galapagos Islands

No matter how you get to and around the Galapagos, it’s not exactly cheap. It is a bucket-list destination, after all.

Land-Based Visit To The Galapagos

While land-based tours are the most economical (averaging $340 per person per day), that doesn’t include the cost of flights to Ecuador and on to the Galapagos. Plus, you won’t see as much wildlife as you would on a cruise.

The Galapagos On A Budget

Budget cruises on 16-guest ships average about $800-$900 per couple per day.

Ultra-Luxe Splurge To The Galapagos

For a massive splurge – book a week on the Silversea Silver Origin, built in 2020 specifically for the Galapagos. The cost for the week per couple starts at around $21,000 – but includes airfare from your home, three nights in luxury hotels pre-and-post cruise, all transfers (even limo service from your home to airport), luxury digs, all excursions, including deep-sea snorkeling and nature hikes, and of course, all the fantastic food and premium drinks you can handle. The service is warm and impeccable. But yes, this experience of a lifetime will cost you.

Surprised looking Blue Footed Booby in Galapagos

What To See In The Galápagos Islands

This isn’t just a place where you passively observe wildlife; you interact with it here. Expect to lock eyes with a curious sea lion or stand unfazed beside a towering giant tortoise. Get ready to traverse trails where iconic blue-footed boobies and rare flightless cormorants nest, snorkel in waters vibrant with coral and marine life, and stand on the edge of craters that speak to the islands’ fiery origins. Whether you’re on land or submerged in the ocean’s depths, the Galápagos offers an intimate experience with nature that is both exhilarating and educational.

Black Iguanas massing on lava rocks in Galapagos Islands

In fact, when Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos in 1835 on a global voyage, he spent a bit over five weeks studying the wildlife – most of which had changed over time to adapt to this seemingly punishing environment. His observations led to his Theory of Evolution, thus inspiring his book, The Origin of the Species.

Access to the Galapagos Islands is restricted to a limited number of visitors.  When it comes to environmental and conservation rules and regulations, the Galapagos wins the highest of praises. These have paid off in pristine habitats, healthy wildlife, and awe-stricken tourists who can dive into a world where animals have no fear of humans. It’s an undeniably humbling experience.

Best Things To Do In The Galapagos Islands

Start In San Cristobal Island

Most visitors to the Galapagos Islands fly 1 ½ hours from Guayaquil, Ecuador (flights from Quito stop in Guayaquil first), and land in San Cristobal Island – one of four inhabited Galapagos Islands.

Most visitors have arranged to tour the Galapagos via cruise boat, which range from private yachts to 16 through 100 guests capacity.

Cruising is one of the best things to do in the Galapagos Islands and definitely the preferred mode to explore. Boats can reach islands that airplanes can’t.

Galapagos sea lions on harbor platform in San Cristobal

Things To Do In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno – San Cristobal Island

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galápagos Province, is situated on San Cristóbal Island and offers a mix of natural beauty and local culture. It is a convenient launchpad for exploring nearby attractions like La Loberia, a beach teeming with sea lions, and the Interpretation Center, providing valuable insights into the archipelago’s ecology and history.

For those interested in aquatic adventures, snorkeling and diving tours frequently depart from the town’s harbor, offering a chance to swim alongside sea turtles, rays, and an array of colorful fish. A leisurely walk along the waterfront will often result in encounters with lounging sea lions and scuttling marine iguanas.

The town has various shops and restaurants where you can sample local cuisine or pick souvenirs. Bird watchers can venture to Frigatebird Hill (Cerro de las Tijeretas), a short hike from the center, to observe frigatebirds and enjoy panoramic views of the coastline.

Start of hiking trail to volcano summit on Bartolome Island Galapagos

Hike Up A Dormant Volcano – Bartolome Island

Pinnacle Rock, standing tall on Bartolomé Island in the Galápagos, is not only a magnet for snorkelers and photographers but is also the endpoint of a scenic overlook trail hike, which offers breathtaking views of the rock formation itself as well as the surrounding crystalline waters and intricate landscapes.

Rocks take center stage on this moderate hike. On the way, you’ll learn about all the ways lava flows – and how that impacts the cold stones it leaves behind.

It’s amazing how animals have adapted to this seemingly uninhabitable environment. You’ll see Darwin’s Finches picking at sparse vegetation, cactus growing from chunks of lava, and moonlike vistas.

Snorkelers in Buccaneer Cove on Santiago Island Galapagos

Snorkel Buccaneer Cove – Santiago (aka San Salvador) Island

See countless colorful fish, sea lions showing off, and the occasional reef shark on this easy beach access snorkel session. The fact is, every day, every minute, leads to wonderful surprises.

Praying Monk rock formation is just one in the Galapagos that whaling ships navigated by

See Praying Monk And Other Rock Formations Off Santiago (San Salvador)

Rock formations were important navigational tools in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whalers and sea captains identified islands by these rocks and boulders. The Praying Monk is one of the most obvious, but there are many others.

Black Marine Iguanas crowd a patch of black lava on Fernandina Island Galapagos

Commune With Marine Iguanas on Fernandina Island

Everywhere you look, you’ll see creatures in sea, land, and air.

Marine Iguana taking in the sun in Galapagos Islands

Just watch your footing on this black lava island teeming with black Marine Iguanas. The reptiles are so camouflaged, and in some cases, so concentrated in creepy numbers, you might (almost) step on one.

Sally Lightfoot Crab in Galapagos

A marine environment- you’re also bound to see plenty of Sally Lightfoot Crabs – bright red and speckled yellow against the black lava rocks. Imagine – crustaceans this color before being cooked!

Galapagos Hawk on Fernandina Island Galapagos

You can also get eyeball-to-eyeball with the regal Galapagos Hawk if you’re lucky. It’s so fearless it won’t even flinch when a human gets within inches of its personal space.

And, of course, you’ll see the ubiquitous sea lions: some young ‘uns waiting weeks for Mom to return from her fishing trips.

Graffiti from 1836 to present on Isabela Island Galapagos

Explore the Sierra Negra Volcano On Isabela Island

The Sierra Negra volcano, located on Isabela Island, is one of the most active volcanoes in the region and boasts one of the largest calderas in the world, making it a compelling destination for hiking and geological exploration.

Man has been making his mark in the Galapagos since at least 1836. See graffiti both etched into and painted on boulders, indicating that not Kilroy, but seemingly everyone else, was here. As a protected National Park, the Ecuadorian authorities frown on such things. But some people can be sneaky.

Drop a Letter, Pick up a letter in Post Office Bay Galapagos

Send and Pick Up Mail From Post Office Bay – Floreana Island

There is a post office of sorts – a barrel, really – based on a Whaling Ship communication of old in Post Office Bay. Back in the 1800s, when whaling crews pulled into the Galapagos, they would leave letters for their loved ones, hoping that departing ships returning home would deliver them. Continuing that tradition is one of the coolest things to do in the Galapagos.

Leave a postcard with your name and address for a future guest to pick up. And go through the stack already in the box to see if there’s a traveler who lives near you. Pick up their card and hand deliver it when you return home.

Floreana beach with clouds in late afternoon - Galapagos

Bliss Out to Late Afternoon Sun at Punta Cormoran – Floreana Island

There is nothing so blissful as being bathed in the golden sunlight of a fading day, especially if said sunlight envelops a turquoise sea, soft sand, brown-black lava rock, and green hills.

Add to all that magnificent Great Blue Herons, swooping Frigatebirds, bustling Sanderlings, and, if you’re lucky, turtles emerging from the sand to run to the water, and you’ve got one soothing, euphoric experience. The sense is so ecstatic it led one of my fellow travelers to exclaim, “I want to live right here. Starting now.”

Montemar private Giant Tortoise Sanctuary Highlands Santa Cruz Galapagos

See Giant Tortoises Roam – Santa Cruz Highlands

Visit the private preserve of Montemar, and not only will you be privy to roaming giant tortoises, but you’ll also find a pretty gift shop, beautiful bathrooms, and a coffee-tasting lesson.

Find one-of-a-kind crafts at the gift shop – mostly recycled from trash or cast-offs found on the island. There’s a man who makes jewelry out of old broken skateboards. Another who fashions silvery figurines from ships chrome. Of course, you’ll find jewelry made from colorful plastic that washes ashore.

Giant Tortoises roam the 40 acres of Montemar Preserve in Highlands Santa Cruz Island Galapagos

The old as Methuselah tortoises are left alone to meander these 40 acres, and are so not in a rush. Their pace is contagious, so you’ll feel your breath deepening and blood pressure dropping as you meander, too.

Private environmentally designed villa at Montemar in Santa Cruz highlands Galapagos

To stay in that moment – you can always reserve a night or two in an on-site Luxury Eco-Villa. Built of local stone, wood, and concrete – it’s a Zen escape from an escape.

Visit Charles Darwin Research Station – Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is home to 15,000-18,000 humans (depending on which source you use) – making it the most populated island in the Galapagos. It’s a jumping off point for cruising tourists (many of the 16-person cruise boats are anchored in the harbor), has a bustling downtown with some upscale galleries, and is home to the Charles Darwin Research Center and Giant Tortoise Breeding Center.

If you’ve been to a tortoise sanctuary (see above), be sure to come to this place. The shelled creatures here are more active and animated. Plus – you’ll see little ones just beginning what could be a 100-plus-year-old life.

While walking back to the docks, check out cool art in several upscale galleries. A small painting of a Blue Footed Booby might just call you to.

Galapagos Land Iguana at Cerro Dragon Santa Cruz Island

Hike Dragon Hill – Santa Cruz

You’ve been startled by the number of Marine Iguanas on Fernandina Island. Now, meet their more colorful cousins one by one on a hiking path at Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill). Their scaly, dimpled hides, sharp claws, and beady eyes indeed bring to mind those larger fire-breathing creatures from ancient tales.

Flamingo dining in mudflat on Santa Cruz Island Galapagos

You’ll also witness flamingos sucking at the mud for dinner if you’re lucky. Their beaks make a clicking sound as they wade and feed – a most unusual experience for those of us who only know these elegant creatures as plastic lawn ornaments.

This area of Santa Cruz Island is also host to an abundance of strange prickly pear cactus trees – like their Southwest US versions, but with soaring tree trunks. Adaptation in action.


  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

    View all posts

2 thoughts on “12 Bucket-List Things To Do in the Galapagos Islands”

  1. I’ve done this trip! It’s beyond amazing!
    Great article… really tells the story and shows only a piece of its beauty!

Comments are closed.