When visiting the Galápagos Islands, make sure you know what you want to get out of your visit before you book your flights. Many people plan their trips around specific animal sightings, such as the albatross which can only be seen certain times of the year due to their migration patterns. It can get overwhelming really fast if you try to keep track of all the different times of year are best for maximizing your odds for specific encounters, but we’ve got you covered.
So that it won’t keep you at night, know that you will have absolutely amazing encounters even if you never leave the island of your arrival. We saw free-roaming land tortoises by the side of the road before we even reached our accommodations and stepped around sea lions and marine iguanas nearly anywhere within 10 feet of the water in Puerto Ayora. Darwin’s finches greet you inside the airport upon your arrival and frigate birds tangle with great brown pelicans for scraps of today’s catch at the open-air fish market on Santa Cruz. You don’t even have to leave the city hubs (or even pay oftentimes) to encounter animals completely unknown outside of these islands and these experiences are guaranteed year-round.
Setting Your Expectations
What is critical is to set your expectations appropriately. If you can’t afford flights during high season, your options for seeing albatross may be limited. Also, you may find flights that are cheaper, but during peak season when it will be harder to haggle for lower accommodation rates and harder to find last-minute cruise deals. Also know that your goals for the trip may not be the same as your travel partner’s goals, so be sure to have these conversations before you arrive so that you can best compromise and meet everyone’s expectations for the trip.
If you are the type of person who wants to book a cruise in advance and maybe build out your trip around it, be aware that itineraries on multi-day cruises are always subject to change as per national park guidelines. Weather (and even volcanic eruptions) may mean that the $5,000 cruise you booked specifically so you got to see albatross may not even be able to stop at Isla Espanola if anything goes awry. Also be wary of prices that may be too good to be true or are much cheaper than other sailing dates – is there a reason that the price has dropped? For example, is the cruise visiting an island known for a specific sighting, such as Espanola and the albatross, when the sighting is less likely to happen?
On a personal note, a dream of mine is to scuba dive in the Galápagos, but know that this requires an absolute minimum of 20 logged immersions and an advance open water certification at any reputable scuba shop worth its salt. I am still a novice and won’t be able to complete the necessary dives beforehand. It is always possible find an operator willing to take out divers who fudge their experience and act confidently, but I highly advise against this. The currents are no joke more on this later) and some of the most “iconic” diving shots you see of the Galápagos are only available by live-aboard to Wolf and Darwin Islands, which requires a minimum of 50-100 immersions for consideration. Knowing that I won’t be able to really enjoy the type of dive I want until I’ve had at least 50 immersions means that I can take that option off my mind for this trip and focus on my reasonable and tenable goals this time around. Now I can focus in on the snorkel experiences I want to have and which locations will be most likely for me to have the encounters I’m looking for.
Choosing When to Visit
Quasar Expeditions has great resources on what to expect in terms of weather and likely animal sightings in the Galápagos for each month of the year, which can be a great place to start if you have the privilege to schedule your trip any time of the year. We are looking forward to increased water clarity and for slightly warmer waters (snorkeling off of Pinzon was VERY chilly) compared to our end-of-November trip in 2016. Also consider if you will be visiting during rainy season (December to May) or dry season (June to November). Rain and garúa, the misty clouds found at higher elevations, is particularly a consideration if you are planning hikes to the highlands of Santa Cruz or to planning to hike volcanoes, such as Sierra Negra on Isla Isabela. During rainy season, views may be obstructed by the mist depending on the day and timing of your visit.
Here is a great air and water temperature, as well as rainfall reference from Southwind Adventures.
Here’s a different representation of temperature and rainfall from Responsible Travel for those who are more graphically inclined.
Timing Your Trip Based upon Animal Encounters
Albatross viewing – April through November of Espanola
Galápagos penguin feeding – year-round in limited locations, but more common when the plankton-rich Humboldt current is strongest from June through November
Sea lion pupping season – May and June on multiple islands
Marine iguanas at their most colorful – January through March during their mating season
Manta ray spotting – December through May when they come to the surface in greater numbers
More diverse marine wildlife via the Humboldt current – June through October
Whale shark encounters on live-board diving trips – June through November at Darwin and Wolf Islands
Blue-footed boobies mating season – May through July on multiple islands
Sea turtle hatching – February through May; adults seen in water year-round
Sea turtle nesting – December through March; adults seen in water year-round
Giant tortoise baby hatching – December through March
Best underwater animal spotting – September through November
Short-eared owl breeding – July on Genovesa
Racer snakes hunting marine iguanas (as seen on Planet Earth II)- Fernandina during hatching season April through May
Best on-land animal spotting – April and May
Timing Your Trip Based Upon Weather Preferences
Avoid busy tourist season – skip mid-December through the end of January and June through August
Cooler days, generally dry – August and September
Calmer seas – December through April
Warmer waters – December through April
Rainy season, generally warmer – December through May, though showers are brief
Avoid rainy, hot season – May through November
Better water clarity – December through April
Dry season, generally cool – June through November
Timing Your Trip Based on Cost and Planning Considerations
Travel during shoulder seasons – October through mid-December, April through early June; tours may run less frequently
Most likely to need accommodations in advance – December, January, June to August
Most likely to find cut-rate cruise and accommodation deals in-person – February through June, September through early December
Travel during low season – May and September; tours will not run as frequently