With very, very rare exceptions, travelers come by plane to the Galápagos Islands. Tame (tel. 02/3977-100; www.tame.com.ec) and Aerogal (tel. 1800/2376-425; www.aerogal.com.ec) now offer daily flights to both Baltra Airport (airport code: GPS), right off Santa Cruz Island, and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (airport code: SCY), on San Cristóbal Island. Note, however, that there are sometimes last-minute changes to flight schedules owing to inclement weather. Always check and double-check with your airline and the cruise company to confirm the airport that will be used for your particular itinerary.
Round-trip fares run just under $400 (£267), including local taxes and airport fees. During the low season (mid-Sept through mid-Dec and mid-Jan through mid-June), flights are sometimes a little bit less expensive.
Upon arrival you must pay a $100 (£67) fee to the National Park (www.galapagospark.org), which is good for the duration of your stay. This fee must be paid in cash, so be sure to plan ahead and have it ready. Children under 12 pay $50 (£33). There is also a new $10 (£6.65) "transit tax" that you must pay at a special booth in the airport before checking in for your flight to the Galápagos.
If you booked a boat tour before you arrived, the airfare and ticket booking should already be included. You can usually expect someone to pick you up at the airport and escort you through the logistics of arriving in the Galápagos and finding the way to your ship. If you're traveling on your own and you have a choice of flights (and airports), I don't recommend flying into San Cristóbal; there is very little tourist infrastructure here. There are a handful of hotels on the island, and you can book last-minute tours and day trips from its port city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. But if you plan to base your touring out of a hotel on land, or if you're looking for a last-minute berth on a boat, the place to be is Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz, which is accessed from the Baltra Airport.
All flights from the mainland originate in Quito and stop in Guayaquil. If you plan on flying to the Galápagos the day after you arrive in Ecuador, I recommend spending the night in Guayaquil. Most flights to the Galápagos leave Quito early in the morning and then stop for more than an hour to pick up passengers in Guayaquil. You can have a more relaxed morning, and gain precious sleep time, if you board the plane there.
In addition to the two airports mentioned above, a small airstrip on Isabela Island is used for provisioning and inter-island commuter traffic.
Ship or Shore? -- For many, the most important decision to make when planning a trip to the Galápagos is whether to take a cruise or visit the islands from a hotel base on land. The standard advice is that those prone to seasickness are better off staying on land. This may be true, but if you plan to take day trips from Santa Cruz Island to any of the other popular island sites, you will most likely be doing so on a very small boat. Conversely, if you book a cruise on one of the larger ships, you will be on a boat that is much more stable in rough seas, and most of the travel is done at night, while you are hopefully asleep, or, at the very least, supine.
If you're looking to avoid a regimented experience with a bit of the cattle-car feel, avoid the larger ships, and be sure to ask in advance the number of passengers per naturalist guide. I recommend you find a tour with no more than 10 tourists per naturalist guide.
Yogi Berra said: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." I personally think the best way to go is to do both. My ideal Galápagos tour is a 4- or 5-night cruise, followed by 3 nights at a hotel on one or more of the islands.
The Galápagos archipelago consists of 13 big islands, 6 small islands, and more than 40 islets. Santa Cruz is the most populated island; its main town, Puerto Ayora, is the major city in the Galápagos. From here, you can arrange last-minute tours around the islands, day trips, and scuba-diving excursions. Santa Cruz is also home to the Darwin Research Station, where you can see giant land tortoises. San Cristóbal is the second-most populated island. Several tour boats begin their journeys from the its port, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. While serving as the official capital of Galápagos province, the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is small. Moreover, there's not much to see on this island. Isabela is the largest island, but only the third-most populated. In general, most visitors only stop here on a guided tour. For more information about individual islands in the Galápagos.
To enjoy the best of what the Galápagos have to offer, I recommend exploring the islands by boat. More than 100 tourist ships ply the seas. All boats need a permit and must register with the national park, so it's very difficult to use your private craft. If you're prone to seasickness, you can take day trips from Puerto Ayora to Santa Fe, Plaza Island, North Seymour, and Bartolomé.
Flights between the islands aren't frequent, but the local Galápagos airline EMETEBE (tel. 800/481-3163 in the U.S., or 05/2520-615; www.emetebe.com) offers service on tiny propeller planes among Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Isabela islands. Fares are $100 to $150 (£67-£100) for each flight segment.
The main tourist information office (tel. 05/2526-613; firstname.lastname@example.org) in the Galápagos is in Puerto Ayora, on Avenida Charles Darwin, close to the corner of Charles Binford. It is open Monday through Friday from 8am to noon and 2 to 5:30pm.
Note: the Galápagos Islands are 6 hours behind GMT, 1 hour behind mainland Ecuador.
You Can Look, But You'd Better Not Touch -- It seems like common sense, but in no case should you touch or in any way disturb the wild flora and fauna of the Galápagos. This includes plants, birds, reptiles, and mammals -- every living thing, both on land and under the water. Be very aware of not encroaching upon any wild creature or habitat. Do not litter, and definitely do not attempt to feed any of the animals.
Bring Your Own Gear & Wear Some Rubber -- While most of the ships and boats and all of the dive shops in the Galápagos have snorkeling and diving gear for rent, you might consider bringing your own. If nothing else, bring your own mask. A good, properly fitting mask is the most important factor in predicting the success of a dive or snorkeling outing. Faces come in all sizes and shapes, and I really recommend finding a mask that gives you a perfect fit. Fins are a lesser concern -- most operators should have fins to fit your feet. But I definitely prefer to have my own snorkel. If you plan on going out snorkeling or diving more than a few times, the investment will more than pay for itself.
Even during the dry season, the waters of the Galápagos are much cooler than you'd expect this close to the Equator. Most scuba companies dive with full 6mm wet suits year-round. Even if you are snorkeling, a full or "shortie" wet suit will make the experience much more enjoyable, especially from June to November, when the Humboldt Current makes the water significantly colder. I highly recommend that you find out in advance if your ship or tour operator can provide or rent you a wet suit. If not, consider buying one.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.