The Galapagos Islands are one of the best places to visit in South America. With literally hundreds of things to do in the Galapagos Islands, it’s a destination suited for anyone interested in nature, animals, and pristine beaches. Learn about pirates, tectonic plates, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and swim with all sorts of sea creatures on a dreamy Galapagos Island adventure!
1. Take a Galapagos Cruise
Without a doubt the number one thing to do in the Galapagos is explore the different islands on a cruise. The best Galapagos cruise itinerary will include countless excursions and animal sightings — all with a touch of luxury.
A Galapagos cruise itinerary will allow you to see the remote islands not accessible by island-hopping. With each island having a diversity of species, different islands mean different wildlife sightings. Due to its unique biodiversity, the Galapagos Islands are part of the protected Galapagos National Park (GNP). As a UNESCO site it is strictly regulated. A maximum of 1,660 people on boats and 180 on day cruises are allowed per day. Meaning, at any given time you’ll practically have the Galapagos to yourself.
Latin America for Less Director Monique Loayza says this about her Galapagos cruise experience: “I do not consider myself to be a cruise person at all, but this for me was the ideal way to experience the Galapagos. You maximize your time exploring the islands and it truly gives you the sense of being in the thick of things.”
Monique recommends a four-day cruise: “In my opinion [it was] the perfect amount of time to explore the islands and see lots of wildlife without experiencing too much ‘boat fatigue.’ Of course, if you’re a wildlife enthusiast and want to visit many more islands, then make the most of your time there and add one day for each additional island you’d like to visit.”
Learn more about the best Galapagos cruise tours.
2. Stay at a Hotel and Island-hop
Not sure if a cruise is the right fit for you? Island-hopping excursions are a beach lovers dream. Get the best of both worlds in the Galapagos by spending your days taking boat tours from your land-based hotel to nearby islands. Explore the biodiverse wonders of the archipelago. Then, spend your afternoons exploring your home island or relaxing on the gorgeous Galapagos beaches.
Expert Travel Advisor Adam Laughter says: “I did love my cruise but am itching to get back to have an island hopping tour. Personally, I think island hopping is the way to go, especially if you are not interested in [seeing] a particular island.”
3. Go Snorkelling as Much as You Can!
One of the number one things to do in the Galapagos Islands is get into the clear water and see its biodiversity from a completely different angle! Laughter, who was recently in the Galapagos, shares: “Snorkeling was by far the best part of my experience. The highlight for me was snorkeling near Bartolome and swimming with the Galapagos penguins.”
Adriana Proaño, an Ecuadorian at Latin America For Less, expresses “snorkeling with baby sea lions is probably one of the best and most memorable experiences in my life. It’s so just amazing how friendly and curious these creatures are.”
Where can you snorkel? In short, basically anywhere! Laughter explains that regardless of a cruise or island hopping package, “you’ll have plenty of opportunities to snorkel.” But according to this study from 2019, the northern Islands (Darwin and Wolf) have higher coral richness and recover more rapidly than the center or southern Islands.
Loayza also recommended this as her number one activity in the Galapagos. “Snorkeling was my favorite activity by far — getting the opportunity to swim with seals and turtles is not something I’ll probably get the opportunity to do again and was so worthwhile. When you take a cruise there are multiple opportunities to do this in your itinerary, so opt in as much as you can!”
Check out our best Galapagos Tours for countless snorkelling opportunities on your Galapagos dream adventure.
4. Admire the Galapagos Islands Volcanoes
The Galapagos Islands are a series of volcanic islands located 620 miles or 1000 km from mainland Ecuador. This unique location lies where three ocean currents converge and tectonic plates meet.
One of the reasons why the Galapagos Islands are such a distinctive travel destination is their formation. How did the Galapagos Islands come into existence? Volcanoes! The shifting of tectonic plates and volcanic eruptions over years and years pushed the surface of these islands above the sea. This means that life on these islands is “new” in geological terms. Underneath the turquoise blue waters, volcanic activity alters the landscape of these islands constantly, meaning no two visits are ever the same.
Proaño recommends the Galapagos Islands as an ideal travel destination because it “has active volcanoes so the islands are changing all the time. It’s a surreal experience seeing some volcanoes erupt.”
You’ll be able to physically feel the difference between the textured ground of Isla Fernandina (the youngest island) and the more eroded Isla Espanola (the oldest island). But there’s also a chance that you may witness an active eruption on your Galapagos trip! 13 of the 21 Galapagos islands volcanoes are active and since Charles Darwin’s visit there have been more than 60 eruptions!
5. See Giant Tortoises
What will you see in the Galapagos islands? Tortoises the size of YOU! The Galapagos tortoises are the largest living species of tortoise. These things are huge, weighing up to 920 lbs (417 kg) making them pretty incredible to see in real life! Proaño explains “the word ‘Galapago’ comes from the famous turtles, as their shells look like a saddle.”
Your island hopping or cruise itinerary will include a stop at one of the many reserves or research centers (listed below) to see these giant reptiles. Though, it’s not uncommon for these big creatures to also cause some traffic delays as they cross (slowly) from one side of the street to the other.
- Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island
- El Chato Tortoise Reserve Santa Cruz
- Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado on San Cristobal Island
- Asilo de la Paz on Floreana Island
- Breeding Center “Arnaldo Tupiza” on Isabela Island
6. Visit the Interpretation Center of San Cristobal
Get an overview of everything you’ll need to know for your Galapagos vacation by visiting the Interpretation Center of San Cristobal. This center houses four laboratories dedicated to studying all forms of life on the Galapagos Islands. Exhibits here offer the most comprehensive overview of the history, biology, and geology of the Galapagos Islands. We recommend this as one of the things to do in the Galapagos Islands to give context to your time in Ecuador, even if you’ve already learned a lot on your trip.
7. Climb an Active Volcano: Sierra Negra
A basaltic caldera is when the summit of a shield volcano (like those in the Galapagos Islands) collapses and leaves a bowl shaped crater. The Sierra Negra volcano has the largest basaltic caldera in the Galapagos. Of all the things to do in the Galapagos Islands, taking in these vistas is surely on the top of everyone’s list! Get awesome panoramic views and the chance to observe seven species of finch. Sierra Negra last erupted for more than a month between June 27th-August 23rd 2018. Be on the lookout for evidence of this recent activity.
8. Explore a Pirate Cove on Fernandina Island
For pirates of old the Galapagos Islands were a perfect hideaway. With its many coves, lava caves, and places to hide treasures and ships out of sight, it’s no wonder why! Far enough away from South America and between trading routes back to Asia and Europe it also has a strategic location on the world map.
Tagus Cove on Fernandina Island is a known pirate hideaway. You can view graffiti from pirates, naval soldiers, and whalers on the cliff walls. This cove is also a great location for snorkeling and is near Darwin Lake, a salt-water lake in the crater of a dormant volcano.
9. Visit the Wall of Tears
Located on Isabela Island, El Muro de las Lágrimas or “Wall of Tears” is an important historical site in the Galapagos. The isolated nature of the Galapagos Islands, once admired by pirates, made it an ideal place for the government to send prisoners. For 14 years between 1945 and 1959 prisoners were sent to Isabela Island to collect and stack volcanic rocks into a seemingly endless 65ft (25m) high wall. Many lives were lost due to harsh conditions, mistreatment, and accidents. It is believed by some that if you go near the wall you can hear the cries of the men who worked to build it.
10.See Los Gemelos and Scalesia Forest
Los Gemelos or “The Twins” are huge sinkholes on either side of the main highway on Santa Cruz Island. Lava tunnels gave way forming massive bowls and then, nature grew overtop! The trees that envelope the Gemelos have their own interesting story. Scalesia trees are an endangered type of tree endemic to the Galapagos that are actually in the same family as a daisy. It’s worth it to stop here to take in the surroundings and also spot some beautiful birds!
11. Venture Into Old Pirate Caves on Floreana Island
The Pirate Caves on Floreana Island offer more insight into the interesting lives of pirates. A fresh water source nearby would allow pirates to re-up their supplies. While the caves offered respite from the rain as well as cover from suspecting eyes. Who knows? Maybe you’ll stumble upon a stowed away treasure!
12. See All Three Types of Boobie in Punta Pit
Punta Pit on San Cristobal island is unique in the Galapagos Islands because it is one of the few places where all three species of boobies cohabitate. As a nesting sight for many marine birds, you can see blue and red footed boobies as well as the Nazca boobie. Many other species also call this home making it an idyllic spot for other fun things to do in the Galapagos Islands like snorkeling and nature walks.
13. Photograph Pinnacle Rock on Bartolome Island
Pinnacle Rock is just one of the Galapagos islands attractions worth photographing. Bartolome Island is a tiny island next to Isla Santiago. A sharp volcanic rock juts out into the bay near Playa Dorado (or Gold Beach) where sea turtles are prone to rest. The waters are home to penguins, sea lions, starfish, and anemones so be sure to bring your binoculars and camera.
14. Hand Deliver a Letter from Post Office Bay
Post Office Bay on Floreana Island is just one of the ways that humans also adapted to the ecosystem of the Galapagos. This isolated cluster of islands offered sailors of the 1800’s a place to leave letters so that other sailors could deliver them on their return journeys to the mainland. Today, the tradition is still carried on. Tourists traveling from island to island can also take a letter from Post Office Bay and deliver it.
Proaño says not to pass up the ”southern islands, which are the oldest in the archipelago.” Why? “They have the most amazing landscapes and unique lava formations. Post office (Floreana) is probably one of the most unique places as the ‘delivery system’ is still encouraged with visitors.”
Have more questions like: when is the best time to go, how do you get to Galapagos Islands, or what to pack? Check out our Galapagos Travel Tips for everything you need to know while planning.
15. Surf on San Cristobal Island
With most of the Galapagos Islands being protected, many surfing spots are actually illegal for tourists to surf in. San Cristobal Island is the best place to surf. Not just because it has world class waves, but ones that you’re allowed to ride! Surf season in the Galapagos is year-round, though divided into the north swell (December to April) and the south swell season (April to November).
16.Count How Many Sharks You See
The Galapagos Islands are home to 33 species of sharks! Many of them are found near Wolf and Darwin Islands due to the cold Humboldt current. Similarly, North Seymor Island has cold currents that attract tiger sharks, Galapagos sharks, and reef sharks. But, depending on the species, they can also be found near Post Office Bay (Floreana), Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz), or Gardner Bay and Turtle Island (Espanola).
17. Hike in the Isabela Island Wetlands Complex
An easy hike, the Isabela Island Wetlands Complex consists of swamps and lagoons home to many unique birds including flamingos. Enjoy strolling along the winding paths as you listen to the songs of birds and spot iguanas. Best to do in the early morning or later afternoon to avoid the heat.
18. See the Freshwater El Junco Lagoon on San Cristobal Island
Did you know that the Galapagos Islands rely mostly on desalination plants for their water? El Junco is a volcanic crater filled with fresh water. This is the only source of freshwater on the island. El Junco brings frigate birds en mass to clean salt water from their wings in the freshwater. Watch these birds preen their feathers while you hike the easy trail around the lake.
19. Photograph the Boot and Lion on Kicker Rock
Kicker Rock, just off San Cristobal Island, is a uniquely shaped island composed of two rocks. Depending on which angle you’re looking from, it can appear like a boot or as a sleeping lion giving it it’s two names: Kicker Rock and Leon Dormido (sleeping lion). This is an ideal place to snorkel and dive in the Galapagos. It’s a wet landing so be sure to bring a waterproof camera for this activity!
20. Shop at Maki-Art Gallery
If shopping is on your list of things to do in the Galapagos Islands, then head to Maki-Art Gallery to pick up handmade artisan wares. Here you’ll find 100 percent fair trade products with beautiful Ecuadorian flair!
21. Visit the Santa Cruz Fish Market
If you’re wanting to experience life in the Galapagos, head to the Santa Cruz Fish Market right when the catch is coming in. You’ll see restaurant owners, locals, and sea lions all fighting for the best catch! Better yet, if you’re staying somewhere with your own kitchen, grab some catch of the day yourself to prepare a delicious seafood feast.
22. Explore Lava Tunnels on Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is home to lava tunnels so big that humans can walk through them! On the way to the El Chato Tortoise Reserve (#5 on our things to do in the Galapagos Islands list), you’ll have the chance to also explore a lava tunnel. See, touch, and try not to bump your head! Explore how volcanic activity created these magnificent islands, pretend to be a pirate, or photograph the fantastic formations on your Galapagos adventure.
23. Go Bird Watching
One of the interesting things to do in the Galapagos Islands is channel your inner ornithologist! Bird watching is one of the top activities of the Galapagos islands largely in part because that’s what’s made them so famous.
Darwin’s finches are a group of finches endemic to the Galapagos Islands. They were unclassified until specimens were examined after Darwin’s expedition. Unknowingly, Darwin had discovered more than 20 species of birds. He hadn’t realized that they were the same species due to the variations in their shapes, sizes, and beaks. The understanding that each of these birds evolved to the specific islands ecosystem would help shape his theory of evolution.
You’ll see more than Darwin’s many different finches though. Galapagos penguins, flamingos, blue and red footed boobies, Nazca boobies, frigate birds and so much more make up the list of incredible winged species you’ll spot on the Galapagos Islands.
24. Enjoy Glass-Bottom Boat Rides
Want to see under the sea without putting a wetsuit on? While snorkeling is one of the top things to do in the Galapagos Islands, it’s by no means mandatory when you have so many options for wildlife viewing. A glass bottom boat ride offers you a chance to see into the waters without the nerves of swimming near sharks or the need to get your hair wet.
25. Dive With Whale Sharks or Manta Rays
If you’re a diver, you haven’t experienced it all until you’ve explored the rich underwater ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands. There are two main seasons for diving in the Galapagos, whale shark season and manta ray season. Whale sharks are more abundant during June through November due to plankton levels in the waters. While many species of manta rays can be found between December to May.
Most standard island-hopping and cruise itineraries don’t include scuba diving activities but our expert Travel Advisor’s would be happy to assist with adding diving tours to your Galapagos itinerary.
26. Go Kayaking on Fernandina Island
Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island is a popular spot for marine iguanas. So many in fact that you’ll mistake them for dried lava covering the beach! Some find it hard to find footing between these creatures so we recommend a kayak adventure here to check out the Galapagos penguins, sea turtles, and incredible rock formations.
27. Photograph Lava Patterns at Albemarle Point
Basaltic magma on the Galapagos produces two types of lava flows. The majority of the one’s you’ll see are called a’a lava flows which tend to be more jagged. On Isabela Island at Albemarle Point you’ll see an old WW2 base, flightless cormorants, and iguanas. But also, less common for this region, a pahoehoe lava flow. Pahoehoe lava is smoother and forms into picturesque natural patterns.
28. Jump off a Cliff at Las Grietas on Santa Cruz
Las Grietas is a rift between two tectonic plates on Santa Cruz Island that is filled with crystal clear blue water. Here, a mixture of saltwater and freshwater meet, creating one of the many unique ecosystems found on the Galapagos Islands. Those looking for adventure can jump off the cliffs into the deep clear water. Others can snorkel and swim in a place that you’ll remember as paradise.
29. Bike the Galapagos Islands Trails
Looking for things to do in the Galapagos Islands that don’t involve going under water? Biking on Santa Cruz or Isabela is a great alternative to balance out the water activities. The landscapes are breathtaking, the trails diverse, and giant tortoise jams are not uncommon! A bike rental can cost as little as $3USD a day but guided tour costs will vary. With everything in the Galapagos being clearly marked, the trails are easy to navigate.
30. Get a Massage
The Galapagos is a destination perfectly balanced for luxury mixed with adventure. If your Galapagos cruise or Galapagos hotel have spa services, we recommend you budget enough to opt in! Delight in a massage or other treatment while listening to the sea lions and ocean waves crash onto the volcanic rocks of this pristine paradise. Take a moment on your busy adventure to cross off some “you time” as one of the many things to do in the Galapagos Islands.
Ready to check the Galapagos Islands off of your bucket list? We’d love to help you plan the perfect Galapagos vacation.
Originally from Canada, Michelle is a wanderer who has made Peru her home since 2018. In search of the best Red Velvet cupcake, she has been eating and travelling her way through Peru and South America ever since. Obsessed with glaciers, mountains, and french fries Peru has become her home away from home.