If you decide to build your own land-based itinerary and customize your trip, you will be able to access the majority of the Galápagos Islands. While you can only stay overnight on four of the islands, you will have access to the vast majority of the archipelago via day trips from these inhabited islands.
Below, we have put together a comprehensive list of the islands, as well as a break-down of the accessibility of visitor sites for land-based, day trip-based, diving live-aboard and multi-day cruise travelers. Let’s go through some of the general rules to help you understand your island access when travelling on your own versus on a cruise ship.
A view of most of the larger Galápagos Islands from Southwind Adventures; Isla Wolf and Isla Darwin are further off the map and several islets are too small to really make out at this scale.
Is It Possible To Visit Every Island?
In short, no – it is not possible to visit every one of the Galápagos Islands. Some islands are physically difficult (or even impossible) to make land on and several islands are limited to research-based scientific permits only. A handful of islands only have marine-based visitor sites and can only be seen from your boat and from the water once you jump in. If you have a fear of open water, I would recommend against visiting these particular marine-only islands since you will not be able to make shore or use land as a home-base to snorkel from.
Isla Pinzon is one such example – snorkeling is done by jumping in from your anchored boat, letting the current lead you around the craggy off-shore before returning to your boat without making land. Though this is a snorkel trip, it is more akin to what divers are used to on day trips versus visitors who have previously snorkeled or day-tripped in the Caribbean. The snorkeling is incredible since you are in such deep water and near an island with such a precipitous drop-off, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart.
There are also some sites and some islands that are only available via multi-day cruises, which can be cost prohibitive for many. Some of these cruise-only locations are too far away to be visited as a day trip and require extended or overnight travel, as with Isla Fernandina and Isla Genovesa. These islands tend to be some of the most memorable experiences for visitors due to their remoteness and less-traveled feel, so you have to decide if you are okay with missing out on these experiences by forgoing a multi-day cruise. The are also remote sites on the far western and northern sides of Isla Isabela that also require multi-day travel via cruise due to both the size of Isla Isabela and the lack of land infrastructure to traverse the island outside of its southernmost coast.
Once you stop to think about it, of course there aren’t just roads criss-crossing every inch of these remote and pristine islands, so most sites you visit will be reached by water. Travelling by water gives you an incredible opportunity to witness both the geological variety of the young archipelago and a chance to see numerous pelagic species, both avian and marine, in their natural habitats. Isla Santa Cruz has the most comprehensive road and land-travel infrastructure, followed by Isla San Cristobal, Isla Isabela and Isla Floreana with the least.
Another caveat that I haven’t seen discussed very often is the fact that some sites that seem like they should be accessible without a multi-day cruise won’t be accessible to you. Some sites on the inhabited islands you visit will require a permit that is only issue to multi-day cruise operators. There are not many sites that fall into this category, but I’ve noted them in my list below. I’m not sure what the national park’s criteria are for these choices, but my best guess is the ecological sensitivity of the area. Until a few years ago, Isla Espanola was only available via multi-day cruise and the expansion of day trips to the island has been a controversial decision.
Black Turtle Cove and Cerro Dragon on Isla Santa Cruz are two such examples of sites inaccessible to land-based and day trip-based travelers. Though there a dozens of sites to visit on Santa Cruz, these two are only accessible as part of a multi-day cruise itinerary. In my list below, I’ve noted any sites that would be excluded from your trip if you are pursuing a purely land-based and day trip-based itinerary.
A final oddity is the Devil’s Crown on Floreana, reportedly some of the best snorkeling in the islands. Though you can visit Isla Floreana on your own by ferry from Santa Cruz (and even stay overnight), this site and several others aren’t accessible to you. This lack of access is due to the lack of tour agency infrastructure on Floreana, by far the least-populated of the inhabited islands. Counter intuitively, in order to visit Post Office Bay, Mirador del Baroness and the Devil’s Crown requires booking a multi-day cruise and is not accessible from Floreana or Santa Cruz despite its close proximity.
So, Which Islands and Sites Can I Visit and Which Require A Cruise?
We put together our own comprehensive list and color-coded the islands and visitor sites to make it easy to digest. Islands that you can visit on your own are listed in green. Islands that require a day trip departing from Islas Santa Cruz, San Cristobal or Isabela are listed in purple. Islands that are only accessible to multi-day cruises due to distance or permit limitations are listed in orange. Islands that are only accessible via live-aboard diving trips are listed in blue. Islands that are not accessible to the general public and require special scientific research permitting are listed in red.