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Nowhere in the world is there anything else like the Galapagos Islands, read our handy guide.

The Galapagos Islands form part of South America and are a province of Ecuador but actually lie 600 miles away from Ecuador’s coast. Only 40,000 people live on this archipelago of 6 main islands, 12 smaller islands and over 40 islets. Principally famous for the vast numbers of endemic species and the studies by Charles Darwin that contributed to the theory of evolution, the island attracts travellers interested in wildlife, the natural world. If you love wildlife, this destination could be part of your gap year, career break or alternative holiday. Though many of the visitor sites have similarities, each site is special and some are quite unique.

Volcanic geology, mangrove lagoons, arid shrubby landscapes and crystal clear waters are also major attractions to the island’s visitors. Opportunities for close encounters include snorkelling with sea lions, tracking tortoises and iguanas and trekking with binoculars looking for colourful and rare birds.

The most well-known (and often the favourite) creature is the Galapagos Tortoise, only found on the island with only 200 thought to exist on the whole archipelago. This is the largest tortoise in the world and they can live up to 200 years! The tortoise can be found on nine of the islands.

Galapagos is a world-class destination for scuba divers and snorkellers because of the abundance of sharks, sea lions, fur seals, marine turtles, rays, mantas, marine iguanas, and reef fishes. However before you go diving, make sure your tour operator has been authorised by the National Park Authority. The marine iguana is the only sea-going iguana in the world. They look vicious, but are in fact harmless vegetarians found on most islands in the archipelago. Their main diet is algae from the lava rocks close to the shore. In order to digest their meal, they then spend their day basking on rocks "heating" their food after they have eaten it, meaning iguanas are quite easy to spot in the day.

Birds of note include the Frigate, the Galapagos Penguin, the flightless Cormorant, red footed boobies, shearwaters, Galapagos hawks, short-eared owls, barn owls, Lava Gulls, pelicans, Waved albatrosses, Woodpecker finches and Sharp-billed ground finches; some of which are endemic, or only found on the Galapagos Islands. For avid bird lovers there are many more species to try and spot. Each species has evolved its own breeding, nesting and feeding behaviour in order to survive in such a fragile ecosystem.

The Galapagos Islands are really expensive to visit which can make it hard to if you are on a budget. Most of the people who come here go on a three or four-day cruise of the islands which costs a lot of money. However, you can do it yourself for less, but it will take more organisation. Only 54 sites are available to tourists to visit; pre-determined by the National Park authority to prevent the negative impacts of tourism upon the delicate ecosystem. Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana are the only islands that tourists are permitted to stay on at night. There are a variety of accommodations to suit all budgets and travellers can also stay on boats.

Fast Facts

  • The Galapagos Islands can be visited at anytime of the year although peak season lies from June till September and again from December to January.

  • The park limits the numbers of tourists visiting so book well in advance.

  • Decide whether sleeping on a boat or on land would be more suitable for you.

  • It is possible to get to the islands by boat but most people travel by air from Guayaquil or Quito to San Cristobal or Baltra Island.

  • Return flights to Quito, with a stop in a Europe or US hub cost from £600, airlines include Air France; KLM; Continental; Iberia; and American Airlines. Tours cost upwards of £850 excluding flights.