5 Reasons to go to the Galapagos Islands

5 Reasons to Visit Galapagos in 2017

Are the Galapagos Islands still on your bucket list of places to go?

Why not make these volcanic isles 1,000 kilometers (650 miles) from Ecuador’s mainland and populated by unique animals, your dream destination in 2017?

Here are five reasons to come this year!

1. Lonesome George has come home!

Lonesome George (called Solitario Jorge in his homeland) has returned to the Galapagos Islands. He was the last giant tortoise of the Pinta Island species and became the icon for conservation in the Galapagos. When Lonesome George died without heirs in 2012, he was sent to New York to be preserved. He now resides in a climate-controlled chamber at the breeding center in Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island). Your tour will include a stop to visit him, or you can get there on your own.

2. Ruta de la Tortuga

Also awaiting you at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island is a new route, the Ruta de la Tortuga. It includes five stations explaining giant tortoise breeding, evolution, Charles Darwin, and the environmental importance of these gentle reptile giants. This will be a popular stop for both tours and independent travelers.

3. El Niño

El Niño affected much of the Pacific Ocean basin, including the Galapagos Islands, in 2015-2016. This climate phenomenon raises water temperatures, affecting rainfall amounts and food supplies for wildlife. In May 2016, sea temperatures began to drop, making food more abundant for marine iguanas and sea birds. In March of 2017, the Eastern Pacific (including the waters around the Galapagos Islands) has begun to warm again, leading scientists to believe there is a 50% chance another El Niño may develop by the end of 2017. If it does, you can expect warmer, wetter weather in the Galapagos, with clearer waters for snorkeling and scuba diving.

4. Dive with Sharks!

Is part of your Galapagos dream to dive with hammerhead and other sharks? A handful of yachts are authorized to offer live-aboard scuba expeditions to the far-flung islands of Darwin and Wolf, in the northwest corner of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. In March 2016, the Ecuadorian government declared a special marine reserve around these islands, to protect 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) where the world’s highest concentration of sharks can be found. The seas around Darwin and Wolf are home to over 34 species that include hammerhead, whale and Galapagos sharks.

5. Meeting the Galapagos Island’s Inhabitants

Each month offers different events in the Galapagos Islands. Perhaps you want to see the mating dances of the gigantic Waved Albatross – found only on Española Island – or of the humorous Blue-footed Boobies. Or maybe you’re more interested in spotting sharks, whales and dolphins migrating through the archipelago. If you’re a marathon runner and looking for an enchanting place to win a prize, the three major islands offer competitions throughout the year. You can use Galapagos Travel Planner’s calendar to plan precisely when you come to the Galapagos.

 

So, start making your plans for visiting the enchanting Galapagos Islands in 2017. It is sure to be the Trip of a Lifetime!

 

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Photo credit: Lucy Rickards

Albatross courting 1

Galapagos Islands: What Happens in April

The rains in the Galapagos Islands begin to subside, leaving behind a lush, emerald landscape (especially in the Highlands). The sun is strong and the waters are warm, with great visibility for snorkeling. April is definitely one of the best times to visit these tropical isles.

On Land

  • Marine iguanas are nesting.
  • On Isabela Island and elsewhere in the archipelago, new-born land iguanas are emerging from their shells.
  • In the wild, it is the end of the giant tortoise hatching season.

At Sea

  • Green sea turtle eggs are also hatching on Galapagos beaches. Be sure to follow all special instructions about staying away from their nesting areas.

In the Air

  • Waved Albatross arrive en masse to Española Island, and begin their mating and nesting rituals.
  • Over on San Cristobal and Genovesa (Tower) islands, Great Frigatebirds are also reproducing, with the males inflating their crimson throat pouches.
  • On North Seymour Island, Blue-footed Boobies are performing their courtship dances.

Humans

  • Some years, Easter (Semana Santa) is observed in April. (Click here to see future dates of Semana Santa, which runs from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.)
  • Galapagos is a popular destination for vacationing Ecuadorians during both of this holiday. Expect higher prices and many more people checking out Galapagos’ wonders.
  • Outside of this holiday time, it is the low season in these Islands, which means you can find some great deals on tours and cruises.
  • If you are into running, join in the Sierra Negra Volcano marathon and half-marathon on Isabela Island, held in mid-April.

Climate
April is summertime in the Galapagos Islands. Days are hot with strong sun tempered by sporadic showers, and evenings pleasantly are cool.

  • It’s comfortably warm in the Galapagos during April, with temperatures reaching daytime highs of 31ºC (88ºF) and dropping to 22ºC (72ºF) at night.
  • The Highlands receive nearly 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) of rain during April.
  • Despite the rain, there will be over seven hours of strong sunshine per day. (Be sure to use sun protection!)
  • The sea is warm (25ºC / 77ºF) and clear, making terrific scuba diving and snorkeling.

Have you visited the Galapagos islands in April? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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Photo credit: captjmh

Lonesome George, Galapagos Islands

Welcome Home, Lonesome George!

Lonesome George – THE symbol of the Galapagos and the threat of extinction – has finally returned to the Islands. He arrived 17 February, and his new home was opened to the public on 23 February.

His homecoming included the inauguration of his new climate-control “apartment,” the Symbol of Hope Salon, and the new Giant Tortoise Route at the Galapagos National Park headquarters and Charles Darwin Research Station at Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.

Lonesome George was also given the title Cultural National Heritage by Ecuador’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Lonesome George: The Galapagos Icon

In 1972, Lonesome George (called Solitario Jorge in Ecuador) was discovered on Pinta Island and brought to the breeding center on Santa Cruz Island where he spent the next 40 years. He became a symbol of the fight against species extinction.

Despite repeated searches of Pinta Island and in zoos around the globe, no female Pinta Island tortoise was ever found. With the advent of genetic testing, scientists discovered that tortoises from Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island were close relatives. Several times, the females laid eggs — but all proved to be infertile. Later, two females from the Española Island, a species even more closely related, were placed with him. Again, no offspring were produced.

Lonesome George, the last pure-bred Pinta Island giant tortoise, died on June 24, 2012 without heirs. He was approximately 90 years old.

After his death, his body was taken to the United States, where with the assistance of the Galapagos Conservancy and taxidermy experts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, his body was painstakingly preserved.

After two years of work, Lonesome George was exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History September 2014-January 2015. In the meantime, the Galapagos National Park along with The Galapagos Conservancy and other agencies worked to build his new home with state-of-the-art climate control to ensure his preservation for many generations to come.

A New Route Awaits You

When visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station, tours now stop in at Lonesome George’s new show case, the Symbol of Hope Salon (Sala Símbolo de Esperanza). It is the last stop on the new Tortoise Route (Ruta de la Tortuga) that begins at the renovated Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island.

The Tortoise Route is a series of boardwalks leading to areas with different themes: Everything Changes (Todo Cambia, which examines evolution in the Galapagos Islands), Curious Traveler (Viajero Curioso, about Charles Darwin), New Travelers (Nuevas Viajeras, about breeding giant tortoises in captivity) and Giant Tortoises (Tortugas Gigantes, the environmental importance of giant tortoises, their threatened extinction, and the restoration of ecosystems in the Galapagos Islands). All displays are bilingual.

If you are traveling on your own to the Galapagos Islands, the Ruta de la Tortuga and Lonesome George’s new gallery are open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Future of the Breeding Program

The ecological niche that giant tortoises occupy is extremely important to the environmental health of the Galapagos Islands. To restore the four islands where tortoises are now extinct (Fernandina – due to volcanic eruption; and Pinta, Floreana and Santa Fe, due to humans) is a seemingly impossible goal.

However, a new project is one step to making this dream a reality. Geneticists have discovered that tortoise populations on Wolf Volcano (Isabela) are a genetic mix of the now-extinct species of Floreana and Pinta islands. Specimens have been gathered, and will be bred to repopulate these isles.

Perhaps in the future your tour to these islands will feature the sighting of giant tortoises.

 

To learn more about the preservation of Lonesome George and the future breeding programs, watch the fascinating documentary, Preserving Lonesome George.

 

 

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Photo credit: A. Davey

Swallow-tailed gull with chick, Genovesa Island, Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Islands: What Happens in March

It’s Summer in the Galapagos Islands!

March receives the most precipitation in these desert isles (though not every day), and the Highlands and the arid coastal areas are lush with vegetation. The sun is intense (use plenty of protection!) and humidity is high.

You will have no doubt you are in a tropical paradise.

On Land
  • Marine iguanas are nesting on Fernandina and North Seymour islands.
  • Their cousins, the land iguanas, are also nesting.
  • New-born giant Galapagos tortoises are emerging from their shells. In some areas, these gentle giants are still laying eggs in the wild.
At Sea
  • Green sea turtles are nesting on Galapagos beaches. Be sure to follow all special instructions about staying away from their nesting areas.
In the Air
  • Male Great Frigatebirds are inflating their red throat pouches, part of their mating and nesting rituals. You can catch the action on San Cristobal and Genovesa (Tower) islands.
  • The March equinox (19-21 March, depending on the year) marks the return of the Waved Albatross to Española Island.
  • Galapagos Penguins are still very active in the water, especially around Isabela Island.
  • Keep your eyes on the cliffs, as you have a good chance of seeing fluffy Swallow-tailed Gull chicks.
Humans
  • Some years, pre-Lenten Carnaval, which ends on Ash Wednesday, occurs in March. Other years, it is Easter (Semana Santa) that is observed during this month. (Click here to see future dates of Ash Wednesday and here for future dates of Semana Santa, which runs from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.) Galapagos is a popular destination for vacationing Ecuadorians during both of these holidays. Expect higher prices and more sightings of Homo sapiens.
  • Outside of these holidays, it is the low season in these Islands, which means you can find some great deals on tours and cruises.
Climate

March is summertime in the Galapagos Islands. Days are hot with strong sun tempered by sporadic showers, and evenings pleasantly are cool.

  • Daytime air temperatures reach 31ºC (88ºF) and drop to 23ºC (74ºF) at night.
  • The Highlands receive up to 5 centimeters (2 inches) in March. Even though it will rain most days, you can still expect about six hours of clear skies per day.
  • The sea is warm (25ºC / 77ºF), even out at the western isles. Visibility is fantastic, making for great snorkeling with penguins and colorful tropical fish.
  • Expect challenging disembarkations at Bartholomew, Gardner Bay, North Seymour and Puerto Egas (Santiago Island) due to deep surges from the north.

 

Have you visited the Galapagos islands in March? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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Photo credit: claumoho

Nazca Booby with chick and egg, Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Islands: What Happens in February

In February, the Galapagos Islands are a birdwatcher’s Eden. Many land species are mating and nesting, and migrant birds are still visiting the isles’ beaches. Snorkeling is excellent.

On Land
  • Marine and land iguanas are continuing to nest. You’ll easily see this on Santa Cruz Island as you visit the Charles Darwin Research Station or Tortuga Bay.
  • Giant tortoise eggs are hatching in the wild.
At Sea
  • Green sea turtles are nesting.
In the Air
  • White-cheeked pintail ducks are beginning their mating season.
  • The breeding and nesting season for the beautiful Galapagos dove is reaching its peak.
  • Out on Española Island, Nazca (masked) boobies are ending their mating season.
  • On the central and southern islands, flocks of majestic Red-billed tropic birds are sailing the skies.
  • On the southern island of Floreana, Great flamingos are nesting.
  • Galapagos penguins are migrating from Bartholomé Island to Isabela and Fernandina, in search of cooler waters.
  • Migrant shore birds continue to visit the beaches and mangroves of the Galapagos Islands.
  • The rare, endemic lava heron is nesting.
Humans
  • 12 February is the Galapagos Islands’ birthday, marking the anniversary of when it became part of Ecuador in 1832. All of the cities will have parades.
  • Many years, Pre-Lenten Carnaval, which ends on Ash Wednesday, occurs in February. (See future dates of Ash Wednesday here.) Galapagos is a popular destination for vacationing Ecuadorians at this time. Expect higher prices and more sightings of Homo sapiens.
Climate

The Galapagos Islands feel more like a tropical paradise, with warmer land and sea temperatures. These conditions continue until June.

  • Most of the day (up to 7.5 hours) is clear, with strong sun. Be sure to use sunscreen or other solar protection.
  • It is delightfully warm in the Galapagos in February, with air temperatures reaching a high of 30ºC (86ºF). Evenings are cool (23 -24ºC / 74 – 75ºF).
  • The sea temperature reaches its height, and remains constant until April. It’ll be a refreshing 24 – 25ºC (76 – 77ºF). Underwater visibility is excellent.

 

Have you visited the Galapagos islands in February? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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Photo credit: Adam Tr

Galapagos sea lion near Tagus Cove, Isabela island

Isabela Island: The Galapagos Islands’ Wild West

Out on the western edge of the Galapagos is seahorse-shaped Isabela, the largest of the archipelago’s islands. For several centuries, it was known as Albemarle – a name pirate Ambrose Cowley gave it. To this day, this far flung island has an air of a last outpost, the Wild West.

This Wild West feel may be because of it locale, or its immense size (4,640 square kilometers / 1,790 square miles in area and 100 kilometers / 62 miles long) or the fact five of its six volcanos still occasionally spew ash and lava. Or perhaps it is because giant tortoises still lazily plod the road just outside of town.

The confirmed history of Albemarle begins with the pirates who found safe harbor and supplies at Tagus Cove, including Crowley who stepped foot on it in 1684. Throughout the ages, this bay on the west coast of the island at the foot of Darwin Volcano continues to draw visitors, from whalers to Charles Darwin, from hopeful settlers to modern-day tourists wanting to see giant tortoises and penguins.

Continuous human occupation, though, would not happen until the end of the 19th century. In 1893, Antonio Gil of Guayaquil scouted the Galapagos Islands for a place to found a town. He decided on Isabela, establishing Puerto Villamil on the southern coast. By 1906, the island had 200 residents.

Soon, various industries sprung up, including a plant making lime from coral and a coffee plantation at Santo Tomás in the highlands outside Puerto Villamil. A sulfur mine (minas de azufre) on the flanks of Sierra Negra Volcano also began operating. Although the Sierra Negra-Cerro Chico volcano hike is more popular, you can get off the beaten tourist track by joining a horseback riding excursion to the Minas de Azufre.

During World War II, the US had military installations in the Galapagos Islands. The most famous of these was “The Rock” on Baltra Island. Scattered throughout the archipelago, though, were radar installations on San Cristóbal Island and at the now-seldom visited Albemarle Point on the northern tip of Isabela Island. US troops were also stationed six kilometers (3.6 miles) west of Puerto Villamil, where you can still see a water desalinization tower they used. During this time, the local people traded products with the soldiers.

As it had done on Floreana and San Cristóbal Islands in the past, the Ecuadorian government established a penal colony on Isabela. In 1946, 300 prisoners and 30 guards were sent to occupy the wooden houses and other facilities the US troops left behind, The prisoners were charged with the task of building a stone wall – and tearing it down again and rebuilding it, over and again. This is the Wall of Tears (Muro de las Lágrimas), now a popular day trip from Puerto Villamil.

The prisoners could no longer stand the harsh conditions. In 1959, they rose up, holding the entire village of Puerto Villamil hostage. When the crisis passed, Ecuador decided to close this far west outpost, the last of its Galapagos prison colonies.

In the mid-1990s, an air strip connecting Isabela with the other Galapagos Islands was built and tourism took root on this distant island. In 1980, Puerto Villamil had only one hotel and two restaurant-bars. By 2006, over a dozen hotels and twice as many restaurants served visitors. Tourism is even opening up in the highlands, with such enterprises as the organic farm-camping site Campo Duro Eco-Lodge.

The centuries of human presence on Isabela, though, had begun to take its toll. The population of goats pirates and whalers had left behind grew astronomically and was affecting the survival of giant tortoises and other endemic wildlife. In 1997, the national park undertook a project that conservation scientists worldwide had said would be impossible: to eradicate the goats. The goal was reached in 2006, after 100,000 goats were slaughtered. The environment has since rebounded.

Today, most of Isabela’s estimated 1,800 residents live in Puerto Villamil and the nearby highlands. They dedicate themselves to fishing, farming and tourism. It’s a perfect place to soak in Isabela’s laid-back vibe for a few days, wandering down the main town’s sandy streets and chatting with the locals, or bike riding out to the Wall of Tears and encountering a giant tortoise in the middle of the road.

(But be sure to bring plenty of cash with you for this Wild West isle doesn’t have an ATM – let alone a bank – not even for any masked outlaw!)

 

Have you visited Isabela Island? Share your tips for travellers in the comments below.

 

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Photo credit: Les Williams

Final approach to Baltra airport, Galapagos islands

Baltra Island: The Galapagos’ Fifth Inhabited Island

In the latest chapter of Galapagos Travel Planner’s series on the colonization of the Galapagos Islands, today we visit the history of Baltra.

Baltra is often forgotten on the list of islands where the Galapagos National Park allows habitation by the species Homo sapiens.

Of course, it is so obvious that many do not immediately see it. After all, Baltra is the destination that is marked on most Galapagos visitors’ plane ticket. This airport serves tourists who’ll begin their Galapagos explorations from Santa Cruz Island, which lies on the other side of Itabaca Canal.

As the plane approaches Baltra, you’ll see buildings down below around a bay. Then you see only flat, scrub brush-covered lava before the aircraft touches down.

At the airport, those of you scheduled to begin a Galapagos Island cruise will board a bus marked “Muelle”. This will take you to Caleta Aeolian, a broad cove on Baltra’s west coast. This is where the Muelle de Pasajeros Seymour (Seymour Passenger Wharf) is located.

The airport and the harbor are remnants of the military base the US had here during World War II. Base Beta, home of the 51st Fighter Squadron, was established to protect the Panama Canal from Japanese attack. The US Army also had radar installations on San Cristóbal and Isabela islands.

Lovingly called “The Rock” by soldiers stationed there, Baltra (then called South Seymour) was known for its bleak, boring setting. Despite the extra perks like a bowling alley and a beer garden, stints were limited to six months. The only things to do were to go fishing and make friends with the numerous goats.

After the war, Ecuador took over the airport and other installations left behind. The Galapagos Islanders carried off the barracks to Santa Cruz to be personal homes. If you look closely, though, on the bus trip to Itabaca Canal, you’ll see the concrete footings and platforms where buildings once stood.

On Baltra today, you’ll find no hotels and only a few tourist shops at the airport. Other than the unknown number of military personnel at the Ecuadorian naval and air bases, Baltra has no permanent human residents.

The island’s most numerous inhabitants are the almost 2,500 yellow land iguanas that scurry across the barren landscape. These reptiles are products of the Hancock Expedition’s land iguana relocation in 1932, and the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park’s successful breeding program.

 

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Photo credit: A.Davey