There are simply not enough superlatives to describe the Galápagos . For scientists, visitors, divers, writers, and photographers alike, this archipelago 970 kilometers west of the Ecuadorian mainland is the ultimate experience in wildlife watching—and the creatures watch you as much as you watch them.
This truly unique ecosystem contains a bewildering array of species, most of them endemic, and the lack of natural predators means that they have almost no fear of humans.
A tour of at least five days is recommended, and seven or eight days is even better, as it takes a half-day each way to get to and from the islands. Most travelers visit the isles on package tours, but it’s increasingly easy to do it yourself, staying in the three main ports and taking day trips and shuttles between islands.
Highlights of any tour include the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz , Post Office Bay and Devil’s Crown on Floreana , León Dormido on San Cristóbal , Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé , Punta Suárez on Española , Sierra Negra on Isabela , and Punta Espinosa on Fernandina.
The high tourist season is December–April, peaking at Christmas, Carnival, and Easter; there is another July–August high season. If you are planning to travel to the islands during these months, be sure to book your tour well in advance. Also note that many boats are dry-docked for repairs and maintenance during September–October.
During the dry season (June–November), the islands become more barren as dormant vegetation awaits the rains. The ocean is also considerably colder and rougher. Rains alternate with hot and sunny days during the wet season (January–April); the islands turn green, and the waters are calmer and warmer.
Perhaps the best time to visit is just before and after the high season in May–June or November.
In simple terms, the farther you are from the Galápagos , the more you pay. Cruises , land tours , and diving tours  can all be arranged in your home country or through a travel agency in Ecuador . Keep in mind that when booking a tour from abroad, a deposit of at least $200 per person, via wire transfer or Western Union (no credit cards by Internet or phone), is usually required.
Many travel agencies in Quito  and Guayaquil  advertise tours, and shopping around is the way to go. Holding out for last-minute deals may save you 5–50 percent, but be aware that it may leave you stranded as well. Some travelers with time on their hands even fly to the Galápagos, book into a cheap hotel for a few days, and try to get on a last-minute cruise, saving even more than 50 percent in some cases; but there are no guarantees.
Transportation to the islands is generally not included in the price of a tour. Flights to the Galápagos depart from Quito and Guayaquil daily. There are two airports in the Galápagos: one on Baltra, near the central island of Santa Cruz , and one on San Cristóbal . Make sure you’re flying to the correct island to begin your tour. Prices are about $350 return from Guayaquil and $400 from Quito.
If you are traveling to the islands without being booked on a tour, Puerto Ayora is the best place to arrange a budget tour. Note that getting from Baltra to Puerto Ayora is a journey in three stages involving two bus rides and a ferry ride. There are daily ferry shuttles from $25 per person one-way to the other two main ports—Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal and Puerto Villamil on Isabela.
For cruises, there are basically three itineraries: northern, southern, and western. Five-day tours include one of these areas, and eight-day tours include two; it’s only possible to experience all three areas on the more expensive and rarer two-week tours.
Note that the western itinerary has fewer departures and is mainly available on eight-day tours because distances are greater. Most tours start off in Santa Cruz , but you can also start in San Cristóbal . Always check the exact itinerary and the class of boat before booking.
Land-based tours restrict you to sites within a day’s travel of three populated areas: Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal, and Puerto Villamil on Isabela. A five-day land-based tour can take in two of these islands, while an eight-day tour can take in all three plus a few day trips to nearby islands such as Seymour Norte , Plaza, Floreana , Santa Fé, and Bartolomé . Other islands are strictly off-limits to day trips.