How to visit the Galápagos Islands responsibly

A marvel of isolated evolution, the Galápagos archipelago is without doubt one of Ecuador’s greatest attractions and an unforgettable travel experience. But the impact of travellers visiting the islands can be harmful to their conservation. Here’s how to see them without leaving your mark.
Eye contact with a blue-footed booby, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. Photo: Steffen Foerster/Shutterstock
Eye contact with a blue-footed booby, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. Photo: Steffen Foerster/Shutterstock

A volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean around 960km (570 miles) west of mainland Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands are emblematic of the country’s fabulous natural diversity. However, in order for their wonderful wildlife to survive, visitors must adhere to strict rules. Follow these responsible travel guidelines to ensure that the islands remain unaltered by your visit.

1. Stay on the path!

The only places where boats may land on the islands are at the 56 designated visitor sites. Some of the more fragile sites are further restricted so that only small groups are allowed to visit, or limits are imposed on the numbers each month. The landing by panga is either wet or dry; your guide will tell you which to expect. Wet landings simply mean that you leap into the water up to your ankles (sometimes up to your knees), so keep your shoes aside; dry landings are at natural or manmade jetties, where you should keep your shoes on.

2. The company you keep

All groups visiting the Galápagos National Park must be accompanied by an approved, qualified guide. The visitor must follow the guide’s instructions, while the guide must ensure compliance with the National Park regulations.

Do not leave the designated visiting sites. Where trails to points of interest are marked with wooden stakes, you should remain within the stakes.

Galápagos marine iguanas on Española island, Galápagos, Ecuador.Galápagos marine iguanas on Española island, Galápagos, Ecuador. Photo: Marisa Estivill/Shutterstock

3. Look but don’t touch

No natural object, whether it’s a plant, shell, bone, stone, or scrap of wood, should be removed or disturbed. Note, that these actions are illegal and can alter the islands’ ecological conditions.

Of course, this means that animals may not be touched or handled either. Young animals that have been handled may be rejected by their mothers because of their smell and will consequently die soon afterwards.

The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island is the classic location to have your photo taken with one of the giant tortoises: mature specimens of several subspecies are kept here. While you may see pictures of tourists riding tortoises, this can damage their shells and is prohibited.

It is also forbidden to feed animals. Not only can it be dangerous, but in the long run it can destroy the animals’ social structure and affect their reproduction capabilities.

4. Unexpected baggage

Be careful not to transport any live material to the islands, or from island to island. Before leaving the boat, check the soles of your shoes for dried mud, as it may contain plant seeds and animal spores. Inadvertent transport of these materials represents a special danger to the Galápagos: each island has its own unique fauna and flora, and introduced plants and animals can quickly destroy them. Obviously, no other animals or plants should be brought to the islands.

For the same reason, do not take any food to the uninhabited islands. Along with the food may come insects or other organisms that might threaten the fragile island ecosystems. Fresh fruits and vegetables are especially dangerous: a dropped orange pip, for example, could grow into a tree.

A giant Galápagos turtle, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.A giant Galápagos turtle, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. Photo: Anna Azimi/Shutterstock

5. Be aware of your surroundings

Do not startle or chase any animal from its resting or nesting spot. Exercise extreme caution among the breeding colonies of seabirds. These birds will fly from their nests if they are startled, often knocking the egg or chick to the ground or leaving it exposed to the sun. A recently hatched booby chick will die in 20–30 minutes if it is exposed to the sun – frigate birds will also eat any unguarded chick.

6. Take your trash with you

Litter of all types must be kept off the islands. Disposal at sea must be limited to certain types of garbage which can be thrown overboard in selected areas. Keep all rubbish in a bag or pocket, to be disposed of on your boat. The crew of your vessel is responsible to the National Park for proper disposal of garbage. Never throw anything overboard.

7. Only shell out for responsible souvenirs

Do not buy souvenirs or objects made from plants or animals. Black coral has become endangered by the islanders’ use of it for carvings. If anyone offers you any of these souvenirs, please advise the National Park (see below for contact details).

View over Bartolomé Island in the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador.View over Bartolomé Island in the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador. Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

8. No place to pitch

All visitors should be aware that camping anywhere within the Galápagos without a permit is against the law. Camping is permitted only in certain sites designated by the National Park. Contact any of the National Park offices to get a camping permit.

9. Don't keep quiet

Notify the national park service if you see any serious damage being done. Speaking up may be a decisive factor in the preservation of the islands. The head office is a 10-minute walk east of the main town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (tel: 05-252 6189; Mon–Fri 7am–12.15pm and 1.45–4.30pm), but there are also offices on San Cristóbal (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno; tel: 05-252 0497), Floreana (Puerto Velasco Ibarra; tel: 05-252 4869), and Isabela (Puerto Villamil; tel: 05-252 9178).

Ready to take a trip to the Galápagos Islands?

Our local experts can help you to plan and book unforgettable trips to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. Simply get in touch to let us know your ideas for the trip and when you would like to travel. We will then create a personalised itinerary that you can amend until you're completely happy with every detail before booking. Take a look at our existing itineraries for inspiration, and keep in mind that they can all be tailored to meet your own specific needs.