What you need to know before going to the Galápagos

During my trip to South America this summer, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance of visiting the Galápagos islands. It was a truly magical few days, and the experience itself deserves its own post. But for now, I wanted to share a bit about the maybe-not-so-fun-but-very-important parts of visiting the Galápagos, aka how you can get there and what you need to take into consideration when visiting the Galápagos islands.

Because the Galápagos islands are so unique, there are certain measures taken by the local government to protect the islands. Tourism obviously can have a negative impact on the ecosystem if not regulated, which is why it’s important to get acquainted with the rules and regulations in place to protect this unique destination, and prepare your visit a bit more ahead than for another destination. To be clear though, I didn’t prepare my visit months or even weeks ahead – if you have a valid visa for Ecuador, there is not bureaucratic steps to take that would require planning a long time ahead, but rather some extra steps and costs in the process of getting to the islands to be aware of.

Quick disclaimer before getting into it: I’m sharing my personal experience here, but do always make sure to also do your own research and check official websites – this is only my experience visiting in summer 2022. If you’ve been backpacking before, you know that a lot of useful information about how to travel from one place to another or what to do or not do in a place gets to you through the grapevine, but while practical, that information is not always 100% accurate or can change quickly. Always refer to official instructions when they exist.

Marine iguanas on the beach in the Galápagos
One animal you can be 100% sure to see without even taking any tour – the marine iguanas

How to visit the Galápagos

There are two main ways you can visit the Galápagos: with an organised trip, or independently. An organised trip mainly means a cruise of several days that will take you around the islands. It’s more expensive, but obviously a very convenient way to travel as someone else take care of the practicalities for you. If you want to travel independently, book your own trip, accommodation and activities by yourself, there’s a few practicalities to know about before going, which I’ll tell you more about now. It’s also good to know in advance that even if you are traveling independently, there are a lot of places and activities on the Galápagos islands that you must be accompanied by a guide for. As there is a big effort in protecting the ecosystem, you will need to still pay for guided tours to see all the beauty of the islands. You don’t necessarily need to book these tours in advance though. There are a lot of operators and options, and you can easily book tours for the following day once on the islands. Some very popular tours were booked for the days or even weeks ahead when I visited (like the Bartolome tour), so if there is something very specific you want to see, I’d recommend booking that tour in advance to be sure to get a spot. If you don’t have it planned out, no stress – no matter which tours you take, you’ll see some fantastic things.

Before going – buying flights to the Galápagos

This was probably the trickiest part of the whole process for me and you’ll soon find out why. First, the basics: if you are not going to the Galápagos on a cruise, flying is pretty much your only option. There are several domestic flights per day to the two airports in the Galápagos (one on San Cristobal and one on Seymour island) from Quito and Guayaquil, operated by Avianca and Latam. If you fly from Quito, make sure to check whether your flight is direct or has a stopover in Guayaquil if it’s important for you to get the shortest/quickest flight.

And now to the tricky part: I had been warned by other travelers that when flying to the Galápagos as a tourist, you have to book the most expensive price class for your flight, no matter how much luggage you have and even if you don’t care about any extras. If not, you would need to pay an extra fee of 150 USD at the airport. I tried to research this before booking flights both on the airlines’ websites and on official websites, but couldn’t find anything that supports this. I also heard personal experiences from other travelers one way and the other – some were charged the extra fee, and others weren’t. So the cheap person that I am went ahead and booked the cheapest flights as I only had a carry on bag. However, when I got to the airport I was indeed required to pay 150 USD at the gate because of having booked the ”wrong” ticket not being an Ecuadorian resident. This whole thing seemed really shady to me, but when you’re standing there and denied boarding until you pay, there’s not much else you can do. The reasoning behind this seems to be to give Ecuadorian residents the opportunity to travel between the Galápagos and mainland Ecuador in a more affordable way especially as flying is the only option, which I understand very well. However, my critique goes to both the airlines and the autorities for not disclaiming this clearly. I checked several times, and discovered that only on certain domains of the website there is a small banner in the booking process mentioning that some prices are only for Ecuadorian residents. This was not the case on the Avianca website I booked my ticket on, and therefore I had no way to know that I need to book a specific ticket.

Do also take into consideration that the goverment in theory requires you to have a return flight when going to the Galápagos. This rule wasn’t strongly enforced by the agents at the airport in my experience (I was only asked what day I was flying back, not to present proof of it), but to avoid any hassly, it might be better to book your return ahead and change it if you want to stay longer. The perk of booking the expensive flight is that you can change flights later on.

Girl at Laguna de las Ninfas in the Galápagos
If you’re staying on Santa Cruz, take a walk to the Laguna de las Ninfas. It’s in Puerto Ayora, so you don’t even need to plan this quick visit.

Before flying – Transit Control Card and security

All right, you’ve got your ticket and you’re at the airport. Before heading to your gate, you have to get the INGALA Transit Control Card without which you won’t be allowed on the islands. This costs 20 USD, and you will also need to sign a form stating that you understand the rules of the national park. After having your paperwork, you have to head to a special baggage control before actual security, where your bag gets cleared for the Galápagos.

On arrival – customs and national park entrance fee

You made it to the Galápagos, yay! A couple more steps before you’re finally there. At customs, you will have to hand in a customs form that you sign during the flight, as well as pay the entrance fee to the national park. This is 100 USD and has to be paid in cash, so make sure to have some on you.

And that’s it, you’re there! It’s a bit more bureaucracy, rules and costs than a normal trip, but I can assure you that it’s 1000% worth it. You’ll have an absolutely insane experience and will remember it your whole life. I hope this guide is useful for planning your trip, and that you have an amazing time in this magical corner of the world!

To sum up, here’s your checklist before traveling to the Galápagos:
– Book a return flight being aware you might have to pay and extra fee if you book the cheapest option
– Get a Transit Control Card for 20 USD and go through the special baggage check at your airport of departure before security
– Get through customs and pay the 100 USD entrance fee in cash upon arrival

Baby seal swimming in the Galápagos
And the real deal – one of the absolutely incredible things you can get to experience in the Galápagos is definitely all the animals you can see up-close on a snorkeling or diving tour

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