Frequently Asked Questions about the Galápagos Islands
The isolated, diverse Galápagos Islands are full of wonder and amazement. Uninhabited by people until relatively recently and now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, the largely untouched Galápagos Islands are full of unique experiences, new things to learn and never-seen-before sights.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Galápagos Islands
Where are the Galapagos Islands?
The Galápagos Islands lie approximately 570 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The archipelago sits on both sides of the equator, with some islands in the southern hemisphere and others in the north. One of the archipelago's most active islands, Isla Isabela, is located on the equator itself.
Also referred to as 'The Enchanted Islands', the archipelago comprises 127 islands, ranging from a few larger, populated islands to smaller rock formations. The 13 main islands are:
- Baltra, the site of Seymour Galápagos Ecological Airport
- Española, one of the oldest Galápagos Islands
- Fernandina, the island with the most active volcano
- Floreana, previously home to Patrick Watkins, the first resident of the Galápagos Islands
- Genovesa, home of the highest number of Red-footed Boobies
- Isabela, the largest of the Galápagos Islands
- Marchena, the largest of the northern islands
- Pinta, previously home to the extinct Pinta Island tortoise
- Pinzón, the geographical centre of the archipelago
- San Cristobal, the most populated of the islands, with its own airport
- Santa Cruz, the second-largest island
- Santa Fe, the island with the highest degree of endemism
- Santiago, the island with two overlapping volcanoes
The islands were designated a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 1979 due to their pristine ecological condition. Most of them are part of the Galápagos National Park, established in 1959.
Who owns the Galapagos Islands?
The Galápagos Islands are part of the South American country of Ecuador. The archipelago was claimed by Ecuador back in 1832, shortly before Charles Darwin made his famous voyage there.
The islands were declared an official province of Ecuador in 1973 and have a provincial government. They are split into three main districts: Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Isabela.
Before 1832, the Galápagos Islands were owned by Spain, following Fray Tomás de Berlanga's discovery of them back in the 1500s. Very few people lived there until the 1800s because of the barren nature of the land, which is why so many endemic species have survived compared to other parts of the world.
How to get to Galapagos?
The best way to get to the Galápagos Islands is to take a flight from Quito in Ecuador to Baltra Island. You can fly to Quito's Mariscal Sucre International Airport from various locations across the globe, including the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States.
With Hurtigruten Expeditions, we offer complete tours of the Galápagos Islands, including flights from the UK. With our 11-day expedition cruise to the Galápagos Islands, we take you from the UK to Quito and then to Baltra Island. Here, you'll board your expedition vessel to explore Galápagos. Our 13-day cruise, From Machu Picchu to the Galápagos Islands, takes you from the UK to Lima to visit the Lost City of the Incas before heading to Quito and onto the magical Galápagos Islands.
How many Galapagos tortoises are left?
An estimated 15,000 Galápagos tortoises remain in the wild. Scientists initially discovered fourteen distinct species of Galápagos tortoise, but after the death of the beloved Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises, 13 species are left. Despite their long lifespans, all remaining species of this iconic animal are under threat, ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered.
A lot of conservation work is being done on the islands to boost the population of Galápagos tortoises. On a Hurtigruten Expeditions cruise, you'll be able to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, where you can see baby tortoises being incubated. You'll also get to see them in their natural habitat on San Cristobal, at the tortoise reserve.
Who discovered the Galapagos Islands?
The Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, discovered The Galápagos Islands in the 16th century. The Spaniard was sent on a mission to Peru but was pushed off course by the current and strong winds. He arrived at the deserted Galápagos archipelago in 1535 entirely by chance. The rocky landscape and lack of freshwater made staying there tricky, so he didn't stick around.
The islands first appeared on a map of the Spanish New World in 1570. The map referred to the islands as 'Insulae de los Galopegos' – meaning 'Islands of the Tortoises' after the giant tortoises that lived there.
Which natural process created the Galapagos Islands?
The Galápagos Islands were created millions of years ago when a series of powerful underwater volcanic eruptions spewed out magma that gradually pushed up and solidified to form the archipelago.
Sitting upon the Nazca tectonic plate, the area of the Earth's crust beneath the islands is known as the Galápagos Hot Spot, and it's an area of significant volcanic activity. The continuous movement of tectonic plates under and around the Galápagos, and the resulting eruptions, have formed these rugged, mountainous islands over the years, one layer at a time.
Even today, the Galápagos Islands are pretty active. Most of the main isles are volcanoes, and Isabella is a cluster of six. The most recent eruptions on the Galápagos Islands were La Cumbre on Fernandina in 2020 and Sierra Negra on Isabela in 2018.
How long do Galapagos tortoises live?
Galápagos giant tortoises are some of the longest surviving reptiles on the planet. They can live for up to 100 years – and some live even longer. The world-famous giant tortoise Harriet, who was allegedly collected from the Galápagos by Charles Darwin himself in 1835, lived to an impressive 175 years of age. Harriet finally passed away in 2006.
Lonesome George was another long-living Galápagos giant tortoise. Famed for being the last of his species, George lived until around 100 at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.
It's believed that Galápagos giant tortoises live so long because of their genetics. Studies have shown they have particular genes which affect their DNA repair, immune system responses and ability to fight cancers.
How many tourists visit the Galapagos Islands each year?
Attracted by the incredible landscapes and the chance to encounter unique species, over 150,000 tourists from all over the world travel to the Galápagos Islands every year.
However, the isles weren't always this popular. For a long time, the archipelago received few visitors, as travellers had to rely on cruise ships to get there. The commercial openings of two airports made Galápagos more accessible, and the increase in cruises brought in more and more tourists over time.
Although some choose to stay in hotels on the islands, cruise ships still serve as accommodation for most travellers. On a Hurtigruten tour of the Galápagos Islands, you'll travel in style aboard MS Santa Cruz II, a recently refurbished vessel named after one of the Galápagos Islands you'll visit.
Must see Galapagos Islands
There are so many must-see Galápagos Islands, but our top four cover some of the best wildlife spots in the archipelago.
Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where you can see baby tortoises and Darwin's famous finches.
On San Cristóbal, you can visit the Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve to see the thriving giant tortoise population, as well as native species like the San Cristóbal lava lizard and San Cristóbal Mockingbird.
Most of the world's Waved Albatrosses congregate on Española to breed from March to January, so this island is a must-see for bird lovers. Blue-footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies and Swallow-tailed Gulls can also be found here.
North Seymour is rich in wildlife too. You can sport Frigatebirds, Swallow-tailed Gulls, and Blue-footed Boobies in the air. On land, sea lions and iguanas abound.
When is the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands?
Being in the tropics, it's always a good time to visit the Galápagos Islands. There's an array of extraordinary wildlife to discover all year round.
As the Galápagos Islands sit on the equator, the temperature doesn't vary significantly throughout the year. January to May are the warmer months, but it's also the rainy season. June to December are drier with marginally lower temperatures.
The sea is at its warmest in the early part of the year, making it a great time to get in the water and spot marine life. It's also the breeding season for many birds, land animals and reptiles like the Galápagos giant tortoise.
The lower temperatures from June bring rougher seas and the beginning of the garúa – or sea mist – season. This cooler period is the ideal time to see whales, dolphins and penguins, who will be feasting on the bounty of the seas around the islands.
Hurtigruten Expeditions offer unforgettable cruises to the Galápagos Islands all year round. Our itineraries cover north, east and west routes around the islands. Many include several days at the start in Ecuador and Peru, where you'll visit places such as Machu Picchu and Cusco, the old capital of the Incas. For more information on the itineraries we offer, visit our Galápagos Islands cruises page.