There’s nowhere on Earth quite like the Galápagos. This ultra-remote Ecuadorian archipelago is a rare double World Heritage Site—both land and marine territories are recognized for hosting pristine ecosystems and unique animal species. Long before its UNESCO designation, the Galápagos was already synonymous with Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking Theory of Evolution—a fascination that hasn’t faded one iota. Chances are you won’t get to visit all 19 of its mostly uninhabited islands on a single journey, though sailing through on a multi-day cruise can get you pretty close. While exploring by sea might be superior, we certainly wouldn’t discourage land-based trips, which can be a much more affordable option. Consider basing yourself in vibrant Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, where most inter-island ferries and excursions depart. Here’s how to explore the Galápagos, in Puerto Ayora and beyond.
A seven-day loop on the Celebrity Flora presents a life-changing sampling of the Galápagos. Purpose-built for the environmentally fragile island group, the vessel—a 50-cabin megayacht—was engineered with a slew of eco-innovations, including anchorless dynamic positioning to protect seabeds and deck lighting that minimizes attraction from insects past dusk. Flights from Quito to Baltra (the Galápagos’ main airport) are included in the passenger fee, as well as all gourmet meals and drinks, naturalist-led shore expeditions, and park fees.
Finch Bay is the only beachfront hotel on Santa Cruz—and by far the poshest in the Galápagos. The nature-focused retreat blends into its secluded surroundings with lush landscaping and low-slung buildings; rooms feature local artwork and contemporary island-inspired furnishings. Of all the excursions offered by Finch Bay’s concierge team, the ability to book tours on the resort’s private yacht is a privilege that’s hard to beat.
There’s no better place for authentic island grub than Kioskos Street in Puerto Ayora—especially if it’s fresh-caught lobster you’re craving. The series of street vendors specialize in local cuisine, especially the famous Galápagos spiny lobster, which is featured in rich soups, grill platters, and sautéed in coconut sauce. El Kiosko de William and El Kiosko de Renato are two of the most popular kioskos.
Simple, healthy vegetarian breakfasts and lunches are the specialty at Ukku, which serves delicious tropical smoothies, juices, açaí bowls, and sometimes even ceviche. There’s also super-fast Wi-Fi in case you need to catch up on some remote work.
This waterfront restaurant and bar is a solid spot on Puerto Ayora’s main drag for lunch and dinner overlooking Academy Bay. The kitchen innovates on Ecuadorian flavors with shareable plates and seafood dishes like grilled tuna filet in a peanut crust and fried fish with avocado salad. There’s a lot of variety on the drinks menu, too.
As the signature restaurant at the luxury lodge Galápagos Habitat, Almar also has a stellar bayfront location surrounded by mangroves. Grab a seat on the patio in time for sunset happy hour, then stick around for a feast of lobster, morro rice, and green plantains.
This rooftop bar is the most happening nightlife destination in Puerto Ayora. Don’t expect anything fancy—Bongo Bar is a sweaty good time with thumping Caribbean beats, cheap drinks, and lots of socializing on the dancefloor.
Santa Cruz Brewery was founded in 2015 as the first true microbrewery in the Galapagos. Sample a flight of top-notch craft beers—including unexpected brews like passionfruit and English porter with coffee—on the outdoor deck. If you get peckish, there’s a solid menu of pub noshes like burgers and fried shrimp.
This hip coffee shop sources all its beans from local farms and roasts them on the premises. Cool off with a cup of cold brew in the morning, satisfy your sweet tooth with a brownie frappuccino in the afternoon, or come for an espresso martini nightcap.
It’s well worth the water taxi from Puerto Ayora to dive into this trio of picturesque swimming holes. (If you’re staying at Finch Bay, it’s just a short hike from the hotel.) While access runs at around $10 per person, you can spend all day swimming, cliff jumping, and snorkeling in the crystal clear pools, or strolling the surrounding lava fields and old salt mines.
This stretch of talc-fine sand is a 30-minute walk (or quick water taxi ride) from Puerto Ayora—and it’s one of the best beaches in all the Galapagos. Whether you’re lounging about or renting a kayak, keep an eye out for the park’s most famous residents including seals, red crabs, turtles, and brown pelicans.
Santa Fe Island
Santa Fe Island, one of the oldest uninhabited islands in the Galapagos, feels worlds away from the relative bustle of Puerto Ayora. It’s a stunning spot to swim, snorkel, and spot wildlife. A day trip typically lasts around eight hours.
The youngest island in the archipelago is also the largest, formed when six volcanos emerging from the ocean joined together to form one land mass. Isabela Island boasts the largest population of Galapagos penguins anywhere, as well as five different species of Giant Tortoises, and an enormous diversity of land birds. Other than wildlife safaris, this island is famous for its scenic hikes around Sierra Negra, the world’s second-largest volcanic crater.
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