Land-Based in the Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago of 18 main islands straddling the equator in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 600 miles east of mainland Ecuador. After flying to the islands, there are two ways to visit the Galápagos: take an all-inclusive multi-day cruise between islands or stay land-based in hotels and explore from there.

View from our hotel in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
Calle de los Kioskos (Kiosk Street), a popular tourist dining option in Puerto Ayora

During the first part of our 16-day Galápagos adventure, we stayed land-based in hotels on two inhabited islands and explored on foot, by bike, and on day tours. Our first base hotel was in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, a tourist hub and the most populous town in the Galápagos.

Galápagos National Park comprises 97.5% of the islands land area
Darwin and his bird-brained assistant at the Charles Darwin Research Station

Puerto Ayora is also home to the Galápagos National Park headquarters and the Charles Darwin Research Station. Upon studying the unique animal life in the Galápagos during his voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin was inspired to develop the theory of evolution.

Black Galápagos marine iguanas lounging on boardwalk (lounge lizards)
Large black marine iguana strolling along the beach at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island

In and around Puerto Ayora, we were quickly introduced to some of these same native and endemic species co-existing with the human population. Just a short walk from town, on the white sands of Tortuga Bay, a mess of the world’s only marine iguanas lounged, swam, and walked the beach with us.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise on bike path, Santa Cruz Island. Life in the slow lane!
Galápagos Giant Tortoise at El Chato Ranch, Santa Cruz Island

Later, biking from Puerto Ayora, we made the acquaintance of the world’s largest tortoises, another famous endemic species only found in the Galápagos. Stopping at El Chato Ranch, we learned that the Galápagos Giant Tortoise can weigh over 900 pounds and live to be 175 years old!

Land-based stay on Isabela Island, Galápagos
Submerged natural lava tubes, Los Túneles, Isabela Island

Our second land base was Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, two hours by speed boat from Puerto Ayora. Isabella Island is the most volcanically active and largest island, making up 75% of the Galápagos land mass. Here, we snorkeled with sharks, tortoises, and penguins, and visited a tortoise breeding center to learn how baby tortoises are made.

Mating tortoises at Arnoldo Tupiza Breeding Center, Isabela Island
Juvenile tortoises at breeding center

Just outside town, five species of giant tortoise are bred in captivity at the Arnoldo Tupiza Breeding Center. Like all things about giant tortoises, breeding is a slow and steady process. The unhurried males are rather amorous too, usually taking up to five hours to complete their work.

Concha Perla natural pool, Isabela Island
Two sea lions hogging the shade at Concha Perla natural pool, Isabela Island

Also near town, we found the popular Concha Perla natural pool, a clear and lively snorkel spot. With mask, snorkel, and fins rented for the day, we went swimming in the calm cool water with sea lions, tortoises, and a variety of colorful fish.

Snorkeling with reef sharks, Los Túneles, Isabela Island
Facing off with a sea turtle, Los Túneles, Isabela Island

For a more expansive snorkel experience away from town, we joined a day tour to Los Túneles, where fresh lava flows have created underwater tunnels inhabited by a wide range of marine life. On this trip, we swam with sea turtles, Galápagos penguins, and white-tipped reef sharks, and observed giant Pacific seahorses and a myriad of other strange and beautiful creatures.

Galápagos Giant Seahorse, Los Túneles, Islabela Island
Galápagos penguins (only penguin found north of the equator), Los Túneles, Isabela Island

By visiting the Galápagos from land-based hotels, we enjoyed a relaxing independent travel experience where famous animal species were easy to find coexisting with the archipelago’s human population. In the second part of our Galápagos trip, we checked out of the hotel and found a last-minute five-day cruise, to access more remote island locations and discover additional extraordinary animals thriving in their natural habitats.

Shopping for a last-minute Galápagos cruise, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Blogger’s Note: This is the first of two articles I plan to post from the Galapagos. In the second post, I will describe the experience of visiting the islands on a multi-day cruise.

Feature Photo: Map of the Galapagos Islands at the Charles Darwin Research Station with your friendly travel blogger pointing out the location of the equator running through the archipelago.

16 thoughts on “Land-Based in the Galápagos

    • The animals in the Galápagos are amazing, Marci. Not only are they weird and unusual like the giant tortoises and beach-walking iguanas, but they are also very cute and docile. They are so unafraid of humans that you have to be careful not to step on them! Esther did a great job photographing the sea life with her phone camera enclosed in a waterproof plastic case. The sharks, penguins, and sea turtles were especially breathtaking.


    • Fantastic indeed, Phil & Michaela. The wildlife encounters during our land-based Galápagos experience became commonplace, as the animals co-exist peacefully with humans on the inhabited islands. It was crazy how many interesting species we found just hanging around town. In my next post, I plan to describe some of the more remote marine life and birds that we ran into on uninhabited islands during our five-day cruise. Surprisingly, they were also very docile and approachable.

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    • Visiting the Galápagos Islands has been one of our favorite trips so far, Sylvia. We love seeing the natural settings and beautiful animals. It has been a very active place to visit, with all the swimming and snorkeling, hiking and biking, and boating and cruising. Like the Hawaiian Islands, the Galápagos are a tropical chain of volcanoes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Galápagos archipelago is about half the size of its Hawaiian cousin, has a much smaller population, and a more arid climate. There are no luxury resorts or golf courses here, but the national park and protected waters are a nature-lovers dream.


    • Thanks Marty! I knew you would appreciate my doltish humor. Snorkeling opens up a whole new underwater world, but does take a little getting use to. Our daughter has a similar claustrophobia, but still enjoys snorkeling in shallow water. As long as she can stand on the bottom, she is comfortable putting her face in the water and breathing through the tube. For me, after a couple of snorkel sessions, I even became comfortable diving in deep water. By going below the surface, it feels like you actually become a fish, always on the lookout for a bigger fish wanting to eat you.

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  1. I can’t imagine being that close to so much amazing wildlife! (Although I have to admit that the iguanas gave me pause….but probably just because I’m not used to them.) I always enjoy reading about your travels, but this is one of the best yet!

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    • I am happy you enjoyed hearing about our Galápagos travels, Ann. These islands and the varied wildlife made this trip one of our best yet! The animals, birds, and marine life are so beautiful and varied, but the common denominator is how approachable and unassertive they all are. I credit the Ecuadorian government’s efforts to protect the islands and surrounding ocean waters and control the number of human visitors to the most ecologically sensitive locations. You are right about the iguanas. These giant reptilian lizards are scary looking creatures, but all they want to do is lead a relaxed life feeding on algae and small plants. Even so, it still freaked me out to walk next to them.

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    • I am happy to hear that you were also able to experience the Galápagos. We were especially impressed by the conservation efforts that are attempting to protect the wildlife and their habitats. Our land-based experience included many sites and activities that were mostly self-guided. The cruise took us to more sensitive and remote locations, where small groups are allowed to visit land and underwater sites in shifts and only accompanied by a licensed guide. Because of these measures, the animals are not afraid of humans and allowed us to observe them from very close range.

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    • The weather in the Galápagos was pretty nice, Dave. The afternoons were a little hot and humid, but quite tolerable, especially since the cool ocean waters were never far away. The waters were teeming with life and the perfect temperature for swimming and snorkeling. Not only were the underwater species interesting, like the penguins, tortoises, and reef sharks, but they also were very approachable. The giant seahorse in the photo was about five inches long. The Galápagos species is the only known oceanic island population and can get as large as 12 inches long.

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