April and May are mating season for many of the extraordinary creatures that inhabit the Galápagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles west of Ecuador. Though their name literally means tortoises, the Galápagos have been synonymous with evolution -- or natural selection and diversification -- since Charles Darwin's investigations of wildlife on the archipelago, in 1835, radically upended our understanding of how we humans got here. Strangely beautiful configurations of lava boulders, pushed above sea level by volcanic activity and inhabited by thousands of species found nowhere else on the earth, the Galápagos rightly have been called a "living museum and showcase of evolution."
Of course, we all know there's only one way to evolve a species. And from April through May, Galápagos sea lions do it -- leaving their newborn pups to waddle around the crystal white, pink, black, and greenish sand beaches. Enormous, endangered, prehistoric-looking sea turtles do it, heaving themselves ashore to build their nests and lay their eggs. Bam-rumped storm petrels lay their eggs at this time of year as well, while land iguanas hatch theirs. And blue-footed boobies arrive en masse on the island of North Seymour, to begin their annual courtship ritual, as do waved albatrosses on Española.
Paradoxically, while April and May are considered the best time of year to visit -- in terms of weather, the number of species on hand for observation, and the profusion of flora -- they also signal the start of low season for travelers. Weather-wise, there's no bad time to go. Sprinkled across the equator, at the crossroads of three ocean currents, the Galápagos climate is always temperate. In March, however -- when the 19 islands are at their sunniest, hottest, and rainiest (sprinkled almost daily with showers) -- prices begin dropping. They're lowest from May 1 through June 14, and again from September 15 through October 31.
Planning a trip to this shrine of modern science, however, takes time and effort. In 1959, Ecuador created the Galápagos National Park in order to protect the islands' fragile ecosystems. Twenty years later, UNESCO joined in, inscribing the archipelago into its list of World Heritage sites. Darwin himself would no longer be able to work here without a hard-won research permit, and all visitors must pay a $100 park fee upon arrival. The government strictly regulates and staggers the schedules of the official tour boats that shuttle through the archipelago, which effectively limits the number of visitors allowed in the park at any given time.
Marcelo Román, vice president of GT Tours (tel. 866/496-9600; www.ecuador-si.com), the only U.S. travel agency with ticket stock in the Galápagos airlines, says spring and much fall travel in 2005 is already booked solid. He advises planning now for next spring, though you should expect to pay 5% to 10% more than this year's prices.
Package deals are the easiest but priciest way to go, and those that we found only give you three to four days on the islands; we recommend at least a week, to do justice to this extraordinary destination. Traveland (tel. 800/321-6336; www.traveland.com) is the cheapest. Full airfare from Miami to the Galápagos, three nights' hotel stay in Quito, three nights aboard the three-star Angelique cruise, and most meals are $1,449. The price includes snorkeling equipment, English-speaking guides, and a Quito city tour. Many alternate departure cities are available at additional cost, and $164 air taxes and fees roundtrip are not included. Traveland has only six spots left in 2005, on September 10, but they're opening up additional dates, at the lower price of $1,229, for later this year and for spring 2006. Call for details.
For more than double the money and only one extra day, Monograms' "Galápagos Highlights" tour (tel. 866/270-9841; www.monograms.com) offers three nights in Quito and four on the islands, with all air, accommodations, and boat transport starting from $2,992 from Miami. The price includes four lunches, four dinners, all breakfasts, and five island stops, on Baltra, Bartholomew, Fernandina, Isabela, and Santa Cruz. Guests stay on the Coral I or Coral II. The price doesn't include air taxes up to $365 roundtrip. Alternate departure cities are available at extra cost.
Without a package, planning a trip here is a little like doing a puzzle -- backward -- but it's less expensive, and you can travel the islands for a full week. It's best to book your boat first and work in reverse from there. GT Tours has worked with the following two-star and three-star M/Y companies before, and recommends them as offering "good value, good service, and good tours." All boats offer three-night, four-night, and seven-night cruises. Tourist vessels begin at $475 a person, based on double occupancy, for three nights; $590 for four nights; and $900 for seven nights. Tourist superior boats are between $150 to $250 more per total trip. Most of these boats have websites (a good summary can be found at www.ecuador-travel.net/galapagos.boats.htm), where you can book the trip yourself: M/Y Rumba (tourist), M/Y Aida Maria (tourist superior), M/Y Angelique (tourist superior), M/Y Darwin Explorer (tourist superior), M/Y Floreana (tourist superior), M/Y Golondrina I (tourist superior), M/Y Guantanamera (tourist superior).
Most of the boats are yachts that hold from 12 to 24 people and function as sailing hotels. Unsanctioned boats also make the rounds, but they're frowned upon as a genuine threat to the delicate balance. Visitors can eschew the boat trips, by flying into Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz island, finding lodgings there, and staying put. This option almost defeats the purpose of traveling halfway around the world, though; the wildlife is distinctly different on each island, and you won't experience a fraction of it other than by boat.
Of the couple dozen hotels in Puerto Ayora, on the main island of Santa Cruz, GT Tours has had a favorable experience with the following budget accommodations: Hotel Castro, Hotel Fernandina, Hotel Fiesta, Hotel Galápagos, Hotel Las Ninfas, Hotel Lobo del Mar, Hotel Salinas, Hotel Palmeras, Hotel Flamingo, and Hotel Sol y Mar. They range in price from $35 to $55 a night, based on double occupancy, not including taxes. Reservations are recommended; without one, Román ventures you stand a 50% chance of scoring a room.
Once you make a boat reservation, you can work backward and investigate flights from Ecuador. Only two airlines -- AeroGál (www.aerogal.com.ec) and Tame (www.tame.com.ec) -- fly to the Galápagos, from either Quito or Guayaquil. Airfare from Miami tends to be the same to either city, but flights into the Galápagos tend to run about $40 cheaper roundtrip from Guayaquil, compared to Quito. You'll have to spend at least one night in Ecuador, however, and most visitors prefer to stay in Quito, from where you can explore the capital's old city (another UNESCO World Heritage site), the surrounding Andes mountains, and the Amazon region.
From there, you can book your international flights. From the United States, roundtrip airfare to Quito runs between $550 and $750. Using May 10 through May 24 as sample travel dates, roundtrip flights from Newark to Quito are $551, on Continental, through Cheap Seats (tel. 800/243-2773; www.cheapseats.com); Chicago to Quito is $677 roundtrip, on Continental, from One Travel (tel. 866/567-3594; www.onetravel.com); and $725 from Los Angeles to Quito, on multiple carriers, from One Travel. All air taxes and fees are included in these prices.
GT Tours has a great deal of experience with travel to the Galápagos. They're a great resource for information on this tricky destination, and they'll book as much or as little of your trip as you'd like. Román says only the most adventurous travelers should try winging a trip here. He says the locals are friendly, though, and just might end up renting you their couch for a few days, if you're stranded.
"It really is like another world down there," he adds.
Do you have a question or comment about this article or travel to the Galápagos? Click over to our Ecuador Message Boards to have your say.