Planning to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and spot the extraordinary wildlife on the Galapagos Islands? A great way to make this journey is on a land-based tour: sleeping in hotels by night and shuttling between the islands by day. In between, you’ll have the chance to spot giant tortoises in their native habitat, snorkel with sea lions, hike up an active volcano and spend time experiencing the culture of these Enchanted Islands.

Highlights

  • Kayak the waters around Isabela Island and look for penguins sea turtles and rays
  • Snorkel with turtles, playful sea lions and other underwater creatures
  • Hike up an active volcano, one of the world’s largest calderas
  • See giant tortoises sauntering about in their natural habitat
  • Learn about the history and culture of those who live in the Galapagos
  • Visit the Breeding Center on Isabela and the Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz

Benefits of a land-based tour

The Galapagos Islands are a once-in-a-lifetime destination for wildlife watching, with opportunities to see rare seabirds, marine iguanas, giant tortoises, whales and sea lions cohabitating in a compact archipelago. On a land-based tour, you will overnight in hotels on the islands. This option compares to a so-called sea-based tour, where you would be sleeping on a cruise ship (which can sail from island to island as you sleep).

The advantage of a land-based tour is the greater ability to explore coast and headlands of the islands. You will also be able to spend more time in the small towns and villages on the islands, soaking in more of the local atmosphere. On a land-based tour, you will have the ability to get up early and walk right down the shore for an early morning stroll to spot sea lions. However, if choose a sea-based tour, you will have more time to explore the remote islands of the Galapagos. Cruise boats also have better access to the uninhabited islands.

Fixed schedules

Land-based tours depart on fixed schedules and are typically six days or 10 days. Given the cost of reaching the islands (airfare and permits), you’ll get more for your money the longer you stay. Note that the six-day tours start and end in the islands, while the 10-day trip includes a couple of days in Quito.

Small children are not permitted on some tours (minimum age is typically 8 or 10 years old), so be sure to discuss family options with your tour operator. 

6-Day Land-Based Adventure

Off-shore destinations such as Kicker Rock (above) can be accessed by boarding small tour boats, even from land-based tours. Kicker Rock is visited on day 5 of the 6 day itinerary, departing from the Island of San Cristobal.  
 
Day  Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive Santa Cruz Island, giant tortoise reserve visit Puerto Ayora
Day 2 Visit Tortuga Bay and the Charles Darwin Research Station Puerto Villamil
Day 3 Hike Sierra Negra volcano, sea kayaking or biking Puerto Villamil
Day 4 Flamingo spotting and a flight to San Cristobal Baquerizo Moreno
Day 5 Snorkel with sea lions & swim with sharks at Kicker Rock Baquerizo Moreno
Day 6 Opc. Interpretation Center & Tijeretas lookout, departure Mainland Ecuador

This 6-day adventurous trip begins with a flight to Santa Cruz Island where you will be met by a guide who will take to the main town of Puerto Ayora. On the way, a stop will be made in the Highlands at a private giant tortoise reserve. Nearby lava tunnels can also be explored, giving you an appreciation of the natural forces that shaped these islands. 

Start day two with a swim or walk along the beach, followed by a visit to Tortuga Bay, which is sheltered by mangroves and perfect for swimming. Baby sharks can be spotted in the waters and there’s a walk through a cactus forest, where you may marine iguanas or nesting blue-footed boobies. A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station will provide insight into the repopulation of the once endangered land iguana and several species of tortoise. After lunch, you’ll take a boat ride to Isabela Island — the largest island in the chain.

On day three you’ll hike up the active Sierra Negra volcano. Birdlife to be spotted here includes the bright red Vermillion Flycatcher and the elusive short-eared owl. Spend the latter part of the day doing some optional activities such as kayaking around the sheltered bay near Puerto Villamil to spot Galapagos penguins, sea turtles and rays. Another option is to rent a bike and cycle along quiet paths to the Wall of Tears, which was built in the mid-20th century to house prisoners.

Day four begins with a leisurely stroll through a coastal lagoon, where you may spot flamingoes. The walk continues through mangroves until you reach the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center. In the afternoon, you'll fly to the island of San Cristobal, the easternmost island of the archipelago. After lunch, you’ll visit La Loberia, an area frequented by sea lions. You can swim here, or just watch the sea lions frolic in the water.

Day five starts out with a boat ride along the coast to identify shorebirds such as the blue-footed booby. You can then snorkel in the shallow waters, looking for damselfish, pufferfish and sea lion pups. You'll later boat to Kicker Rock, which rises 143 m out of the sea. It's a great spot to view sea turtles, eagle rays and sharks. After a stop a beautiful beach its back to the town of Baquerizo Moreno, where you'll have free time to explore to explore the town on foot or bike. 

The trip ends on Day 6 with a flight back to the mainland. Before heading back you can do some shopping, swimming in the sea or visit the Interpretation Center.

10-Day Land-Based Adventure

See Giant Tortoises living in their natural habitat.
Day  Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Quito, welcome briefing and dinner Quito
Day 2 Fly to San Cristobal, downhill bike ride, sea lion spotting at La Loberia San Cristobal
Day 3 Snorkel at Kicker Rock, visit Interpretation Center San Cristobal
Day 4 Visit Floreana Island, snorkel, visit Highlands Floreana Island
Day 5 Boat to Isabela, Bay kayak, Wetlands walk, Visit Breeding Center Isabela Island
Day 6 Hike Sierra Negra Volcano, Volcan Chico Lava Fields Isabela Island
Day 7 Visit Tintoreras, Snorkel, free afternoon (optional visit to Wall of Tears) Isabela Island
Day 8 Wild Tortoises, Charles Darwin Station and Tortuga Bay Santa Cruz Island
Day 9 Return to Quito, final dinner Quito
Day 10 Final day, Departure or day tour  

A ten-day land-based tour of the Galapagos will visit many of the same places mentioned in the six-day package, with a few additional stops to extend the tour in the islands by two days.

After arrival in Quito you'll be briefed on your upcoming tour and introduced to your travel mates. If time allows, you can take a tour of this historic city, the world's second-highest capital, and some of its nearby points of interest.

Next, fly to San Cristobal, landing in the Puerto Baquerizo, the administrative capital of the Galapagos. Then take a scenic bike ride from the viewpoint known as La Soledad, through the tiny town of El Progreso until you reach La Loberia beach. Here we'll have opportunities to spot sea lions and go for a swim.

On day three, board a boat for birdwatching and snorkeling, and then a trip to Kicker Rock. Stop at a beach on the way back to San Cristobal. Then visit the Interpretation Center to learn about the history of the archipelago.  Complete the day with a short hike to Tijeretas, a panoramic viewpoint near the town. 

Day four starts with a boat ride to Floreana, the least-inhabited of the main islands. En route we may spot dolphins, whales, and albatross. You can do some snorkeling off the boat and then go ashore to a black sand beach. On Floreana, you can explore the sleepy town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra, spot wildlife and visit caves once used by pirates. 

After a final walk on Floreana, you'll travel by boat to Isabela Island, the largest in the Galapagos. A visit to the island includes kayaking, wildlife spotting, hiking up Sierra Negra volcano and a visit to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center. You'll also visit Tintoreras (Shark Alley), an iguana-nesting site where we can see hundreds of marine iguanas.

The final stop on this tour is Santa Cruz Island, where you'll observe lava formations, spot giant tortoises in their natural habitat and visit the famous Charles Darwin Research Station where we will learn about the successful reintroduction of threatened animal species to the islands. The journey ends with a walk at beautiful Tortuga Bay. 

Extending Your Land-Based Tours

Extending your trip provides more time for activities such as scuba diving with sharks. 

If you'd like to spend more time on the islands, there is the option of taking the above-mentioned 10-day group tour, and simply staying on the islands for however many days you like. The additional days will be spent with a private guide. 

A good reason to extend the trip beyond the fixed tour would be to spend some time relaxing for a day or two on the islands, such as Isabela Island. You may want to include in an extra day or two for scuba diving. Or you could use extra days to visit lesser visited islands and other unique places in the Galapagos. These include:

  • North Seymour Island: a great place to see land iguanas and visit Bacchus Beach, perhaps the best beach in the Galapagos.
  • South Plaza Island: you can see land iguanas and colorful vegetation such as the carpetweed.
  • Santa Fe Island: home to the unique Santa Fe land iguana, this island also features very tall prickly pear cacti.
  • Española Island: the only island where you can see nesting Wandering Albatross birds (most of the year).
  • Bartolome Island: this island features an isthmus in the middle and a rock pinnacle where you can snorkel with penguins.