The Galapagos Islands, located off the coast of Ecuador in South America, are a bucket list destination. From the clear turquoise water and white sand beaches to the incredible variety of unique animals and happy, ecologically protected wildlife, the Galapagos Islands are a magical place to visit. We spent 9 incredible days exploring the Galapagos Islands on a budget (our massive guide to a land-based Galapagos trip is right here) and it was by FAR the highlight of our trip to South America. But there were definitely some surprises along the way.
Like for starters, the Galapagos Islands aren’t tropical. At all. In fact, from island to island, the geography completely changes: Isla Isabela has palm trees and sandy beaches, but Santa Cruz is actually covered in desert and cactus and volcanic rock. The geological variation is part of what make the islands SO interesting – and surprising!
But hey, that’s why you’re here before your trip, right? So you can learn from our mistakes! Now that we’ve had some time to reflect, we’ve created an essential Galapagos Packing List to help you plan your trip. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
For even more information about the how to visit the Galapagos Islands without a cruise, you can read about our trip to the Galapagos in more detail:
- How to Visit The Galapagos Islands Without a Cruise: A Complete Guide
- Trip Breakdown: Santa Cruz Island and Puerto Ayora
- Trip Breakdown: Isla Isabela and Santa Fe
Frequently Asked Questions about the Galapagos Islands
I know this is technically a packing guide, but if you’re wondering what to pack for the Galapagos, chances are you might be wondering some of these other questions, too! Here are the most frequently asked questions we get about the Galapagos Islands.
Are the Galapagos Islands safe?
In our experience, the Galapagos Islands felt very safe. There are no large, bustling cities to worry about. The islands aren’t terribly crowded, since most of the tourists are taking cruises and traveling in groups. The Galapagos Islands are legally protected as well as reliant on tourism, so there is a low incentive for anyone to commit crimes. So, generally speaking: yes, the Galapagos Islands are safe.
That said, we always recommend a travel insurance policy for ANY international trip. You never know when your flight will be delayed or cancelled due to weather, you’ll lose something expensive, or if you’re Lia, get a raging ear infection after swimming (EVERY TIME). During our year-long honeymoon we filed two claims with World Nomads Travel Insurance and were very well taken care of!
What time of year is best to visit the Galapagos Islands?
The Galapagos Islands have two seasons: cool and dry, and warm and wet. We visited during the cool and dry season, which lasts from June to November. During this time the weather is actually closer to what we’re used to at home in California than what we’d expect from a ring of islands: sunny and warm – not really hot – during the day, and foggy and cool at night. Perfect weather for a light jacket – or a warm jacket, if you’re up at 6am to catch a tour, which we often were.
Between December and May, the islands are warmer, but also rainier. Er, and sunnier. Wait, what? Yeah, we were confused too. Basically it’s sunnier and warmer overall, but it rains every day. You can expect sun in the morning and rain in the afternoon – the perfect time to take a siesta!
The temperature of the water follows the seasons, as well – blame those crazy Pacific currents. We kind of assumed the Pacific ocean would be warm just because we were on the equator? But it wasn’t … at least not during the cool and dry season! We ended up renting wetsuits every day of our trip – along with snorkel gear and other things that we would’ve saved money by bringing, rather than renting.
Visit between December and May, however, and you may not need a wetsuit at all: both the air and the water are warmer.
Do I need to book a cruise to visit the Galapagos Islands?
You sure don’t! This was our biggest question when we scheduled our trip, because frankly, a cruise wasn’t exactly in our budget. We decided to play it by ear, and we’re so glad we did! There are plenty of places to stay, eat, and book tours on the islands themselves, and you do not need a cruise to explore the Galapagos Islands.
That said, you won’t be able to access ALL of the Islands during a land-based trip: some spots are only accessible on a cruise, and most of the Galapagos is protected, meaning you’ll need a certified tour guide to take you there anyway. Still, during our 9 day land-based trip, we were able to see everything we wanted and didn’t feel like we were missing out on by not taking a cruise! We’ve got a massive guide to visiting the Galapagos by land which has a ton more details on how to experience the Galapagos Islands without a cruise.
Where should I stay in the Galapagos if I’m doing a land-based trip?
We’ve got tons of details and suggestions in our Galapagos Land-Based Trip Guide, but here’s a quick list of our favorite mid-range hotel options in the Galapagos Islands.
- Puerto Ayora: Sueno Silvestres or Galapagos Native
- Isla Isabela: Drake Inn or La Casa de Marita
- San Cristobal: Casa Playa Mann or Hotel Mar Azul
Do you have any other resources to help me plan my Galapagos Islands trip?
Why yes, we do! We have 3 other blog posts AND a massive downloadable guide. Plus, when you download the guide we’ll also send you some tips for booking your trip! Sign up below in that big box with the button thingy.
Galapagos Packing List: Swimming & Snorkeling Essentials
No matter whether you’re doing a cruise or a land-based Galapagos trip like we did, or visiting during the cool and dry season or the warm and wet season, you’ll be spending a LOT of time in the water! Much of the magic of the Galapagos Islands is found underwater. Here’s what you need to enjoy your time while swimming or snorkeling.
- High SPF Sunscreen: The Galapagos are ON the equator, and the sun is STRONG. Seriously, it’s WAY stronger than you’d expect, especially considering how not hot it feels! But skimping on sunscreen here could mean the worst sunburn of your life. I really like this Neutrogena sunscreen because it soaks into your skin quickly and doesn’t leave that icky filmy feeling.
- Reef Safe Sunscreen is imperative when you’re snorkeling or swimming to protect the coral reef and underwater critters! You’ll be swimming right through their home, and wearing regular sunscreen harms the very wildlife that you’re there to see. For more information on how your sunscreen can harm wildlife & the environment, this Vogue article is a fantastic source of information.
- Bathing Suit Cover or Swim Shirt: I’m gonna be honest with you: reef safe sunscreen is not the easiest to apply. It’s thick and doesn’t soak in easily. But like, I love animals and the environment. So my solution is actually to cover up my skin as much as possible so I don’t HAVE to wear sunscreen. Win/win! When swimming, especially in cold water (like in the Galapagos) I like wearing lightweight merino wool shirts (his & hers). The thin layer of wool protects my skin from the sun and insulates me, keeping me warm even when it’s freezing! Another good option is a UV Swim Shirt, or even just a white button-down quick dry shirt.
- Snorkel Mask & Fins: I so wish we’d brought our own snorkel gear. Not only would we have saved SO MUCH MONEY on rentals during our entire week in the Galapagos Islands, but we would’ve looked so legit rolling up to the ferry like “oh, we don’t need rental gear, we have our own.” Every time I met someone with their own gear on a tour I was like oh, you must be an expert – here, you go first. They probably got better pictures just because we were intimidated. Snorkels equal power.
- Anti-Fog Spray: Even if you don’t bring your own snorkel gear, at least bring your own anti-fog solution. Every time we rented snorkel gear, they claimed the masks had been treated with anti-fog, but we ended up surfacing to furiously spit in our masks ever 10 minutes. So annoying! A little bottle of this will save you a LOT of irritation.
- Water Shoes: For every minute that you’re not wearing flippers, you’ll want to be wearing water shoes. Whether you’re trying to walk over one of the insanely spiky black volcanic rocks – they’re pretty, but they hurt so bad – or just wading into some water (surprise! more volcanic rocks) your un-cut feet will thank me later. I swear by my trusty leather Tevas, and Jeremy likes classic close-toed water shoes.
- Dry Bag: Don’t set foot on a boat without putting your stuff in a dry bag, just in case. You never know when a wave/rogue sea lion is going to splash your sh*t. This one is excellent and comes with a phone protector too, so your phone is extra safe (and usable while you’re in the water)!
- Travel Towel or, if you want to really ball, a Travel Towel Robe. Towels are not typically provided on the day tours you’ll be taking on your land based Galapagos Islands trip so you’ll want to bring your own lightweight, quick-dry towel. The robe would be perfect for the hour or 2 you’ll be spending on the boat ride back, still dripping wet and being blasted with not-warm-enough ocean breezes.
- Dramamine: For the long boat rides to get to and from the best swimming and snorkeling spots. Trust me, you will need it.
Galapagos Packing List: Clothing
Clothing is one of the hardest things to pack for travel. On the one hand, you don’t want to look like a hot mess (or an obvious tourist). On the other hand, you don’t want to be totally unprepared. Here’s the best clothing to pack for the Galapagos (for men and women, and everyone in between)!
Note: What we’ve included here is just the essentials and specific items that we recommend – make sure you pack plenty of basics, too!
- Wool Clothing: Yes, seriously. Merino wool is a miracle fabric. It keeps you cool when it’s hot out, like at 12pm on the beach. It keeps you warm when it’s cold out, like at 6pm when the temperature drops. When it gets wet, you’ll stay warm until your clothing dries. It naturally resists the growth of fungus and bacteria, so it never stinks – PERFECT for travel. It’s even flame retardant. What more could you ask for? Performance wool isn’t like the itchy wool of the past – it’s thin, stretchy, and and super soft to the touch, like cotton. Honestly, most of the clothing we brought to Ecuador was wool, and we highly recommend wool clothing for travel. Here’s what we brought:
- Packable Down Jackets (His & Hers): We did mention that the Galapagos aren’t tropical, right? Don’t worry: they’re not freezing cold, either, even during the cool and dry season. But you WILL want to have a warm layer to wear late at night, early in the morning, and during ferry rides, particularly if you’re visiting between June and November. We brought these super lightweight packable down jackets that are warm and insulating but also pack into teeny tiny little balls of nothing to stuff into our backpacks when they aren’t needed!
- Ultra-Light Rain Jackets (His & Hers): The rainy season in the Galapagos lasts from December through May, so if you’re visiting in that time frame, you’ll definitely want to bring rain protection. These fantastic rain jackets are some of the best jackets for travel. They’re ultralight and pack down into nothing, just like our down jackets – so even if you never need to use them, you won’t be sorry that you brought them! We wore these frequently as light jackets or windbreakers, especially on ferry boat rides when we wanted to protect ourselves from sea spray.
- Travel Hiking Pants (His & Hers): These awesome prAna hiking pants were designed with both travel and hiking in mind and have been up to every challenge we’ve thrown at them – including the sand and rough rocks of the Galapagos Islands! They dry incredibly quickly, making them the perfect pants to bring along on snorkeling and day trips.
- Travel Shorts (His): These are Jeremy’s favorite travel shorts! They’re basically the shorts version of his hiking pants, so they’re super quick dry (you can even swim in them) and made to handle anything.
- Travel Jeans: Don’t forget to pack a pair of jeans for the Galapagos! Sometimes you just want to go out to dinner or explore the island on a cool night, and these jeans are perfect. I wore my travel jeans in Ecuador pretty much whenever I wasn’t wearing hiking clothes. Unlike regular jeans, travel jeans are designed specifically to solve travel-related issues – such as having pockets (these have 6, including a hidden, zippered back pocket). Plus, they’re cozy enough to wear on a plane, stretchy enough to accommodate that 5 extra pounds of vacation weight I always seem to bring back home with me, and they’re super cute! Jeremy and I are both obsessed. You can get a pair of men’s or women’s black jeans (my personal favorites) or a pair of indigo jeans (which are slightly less stretchy, in my experience – size up) on the Aviator USA website.
- Travel Shoes: We have a lot of opinions what shoes to wear to the Galapagos Islands, and after a lot of field testing, we’ve managed to whittle our favorites down. We each wore three pairs of shoes during our trip.
- Travel Sandals: We both brought leather Teva Sandals (his & hers). They’re super durable, lightweight, cute, and double as water shoes – crucial for the Galapagos or when you’re canyoning or white water rafting in Banos. We both wore our Tevas just about every single day during our Galapagos trip.
- Sneakers/Hiking Shoes (His & Hers): We each brought a pair of trail runners. They’re lightweight, breathe nicely, and have insane grip. They were made for running on mud, dirt, and gravel, so their quality is incredible – and they’re the perfect hiking shoes. No, you don’t need to lug around your heavy boots, especially if you’ll only be doing one or two hikes in the Galapagos! As a bonus, these dry quickly so that even if you’re hiking in the wet season, you’ll be good to go – just be sure to bring a pair of waterproof socks if you’ll be visiting between December and May.
- We each brought a pair of “cute” travel shoes that were both totally comfortable and fashion-friendly. Jeremy brought his Gobi Boots and I brought these adorable flats, both made by Vivobarefoot. If you haven’t gotten into the barefoot shoe movement, now is the time. Your feet will thank you! You can read about the science of why here, but it comes down to this: your feet have more muscle than any other part of the body AND an arch is the strongest shape, so all this arch support BS is just that…BS.
- Sun Hat: We actually did not bring our own sun hats. We found an excellent Panama style hat left behind at a hostel, which Jeremy wore for 4 months straight because he lost his sunglasses a week into our trip. Anyway, we were extremely glad we had at least 1 hat in the bright, extra-strong Ecuador sun! Not only does it look awesome (you’ll fit right in with locals and other travelers alike) but it’s super practical.
Galapagos Packing List: Health & Toiletries
We want you to have an amazing time in this once-in-a-lifetime destination, so here are the essentials to pack to keep you feeling clean, healthy, and happy!
- Steri-Pen Water Purifier: The water in the Galapagos Islands, much like the rest of Ecuador, is not safe to drink. And although most hotels will provide a limited amount of drinkable water, having the Steri-Pen with you means you won’t need to worry about water during your trip! This handy little water purifier saved us a LOT of money (not to mention waterborne illness!) in Ecuador, where the tap water is not safe the drink. The Steri-Pen purifies water in 90 seconds using an UV light to kill whatever is lurking in untrustworthy tap water. Rather than have to buy multiple bottles of purified water per day – wasting money and damaging the environment – we were able to easily purify our own water for cooking or drinking in a re-usable water bottle every single day. (Note: you can also use a Lifestraw water bottle or water purification tablets to purify undrinkable tap water, both of which we brought just in case, but we found that we preferred the Steri-Pen for ease of use and taste.)
- Dramamine: This deserves another mention. Seriously, pop one of these before every boat ride!
- Apple Cider Vinegar: I know, this isn’t a typical travel item. But hear me out. ACV is an incredible multi-tasking travel problem solver that we used several times during our trip to the Galapagos. We filled up a little travel spray bottle (we prefer glass for environmental and ick reasons) with ACV from our pantry to bring with us, and here’s why. First of all: ACV helps soothe and heal sunburns. If you get a sunburn from the intense equatorial sun, mist a little ACV on a towel or directly on your skin to draw out the heat and jump-start healing. You’ll go from “I can’t put on clothes, it hurts too bad” to “itchy but doing OK” overnight – it’s insane. Secondly: ACV heals rashes. You know those awful bumps you get when you sit in your wet swimsuit for 2 hours on a boat ride back from a long day of snorkelling? Look, you know the kind of rash I’m talking about here. Well, ACV cures it! Sure, it hurts like hell when you spray it on, but the next day your rash is all gone and you’re ready to … sit for another hour in a wet swimsuit on a boat. Whee!
- Leave-In Conditioner: Generally speaking, you’ll want to bring your own shampoo and conditioner to the Galapagos – selection in South America is not good and I wouldn’t count on any free bottles in your hotel room. But above and beyond that, what you’ll really want to bring is a good leave-in conditioner to help nurture your hair after all the salt water it will be absorbing during your Galapagos Islands trip! My hair was a tangly, frizzy mess during our trip; there IS such a thing is TOO much sea salt, it turns out. I wish I’d brought this stuff! It’s is a surfer cult favorite – just put it in your damp hair after you shower and comb it through. If you prefer something a little more granola, a small amount of Coconut Oil on your ends will also help. But please, remember: anything you put on your skin, body, or hair BEFORE you get in the ocean will be ingested by the marine critters you’re here to see, so PLEASE be careful not to bring chemical-laden products in the ocean with you!
- Anti-Diarrhea Pill & Vaccinations: Here’s the good news: you won’t need anti-Malaria pills or altitude pills in the Galapagos. Here’s the less-good news: even if you’re super careful about sterilizing your water, traveler’s diarrhea is still very common. Imodium is fantastic to have on hand, but if you can, get a prescription antibiotic from your doctor to take with you just in case. You’ll also need some vaccinations before you leave, like Yellow Fever and Tetanus. Here’s the full list of recommended vaccinations for Ecuador from the CDC. We got all of them and stayed in good health – other than wobbly stomachs – during our trip.
Psst: Wondering if we forgot to include bug repellant? We didn’t – it’s just not really necessary in the Galapagos Islands. You won’t find netting on the beds, you can sleep with the windows open, and generally speaking, live a blissfully mosquito-free life. If it makes you feel better though, here’s our favorite bug repellant lotion.
Galapagos Packing List: Travel Gear
- Day Bag: You’ll want to pack a good day bag to take with you on day trips, including both self-guided hikes and trips and guided tours. It should be big enough to include your water, some snacks (and all trash associated with those snacks – pack out what you bring in), your binoculars, your camera, and any swimming gear you need, like your travel towel, a dry bag, etc. We split our gear up between our Camelbak Hydration Pack, which holds 85oz of water and a few supplies, and a lightweight backpack that packs down into nothing when you’re not using it (except the one we actually brought was incredibly cheap and terrible – we’ve since upgraded).
- Binoculars: The Galapagos Islands are one of the best places in the world for nerding out about wildlife, so embrace your inner Lia’s Mom and get you a pair of binoculars! They don’t have to be fancy, they just have to help you spot frigate birds or penguins in the distance (yep, there are penguins in the Galapagos). Most tour operators will have a pair of binoculars, but by the time they make it to you after all 8 other people have ooh’ed and ahh’ed, the wildlife in question may have already vanished. Bring your own binoculars and you’ll be covered in the event that absolutely any critter is doing anything adorable within a mile radius!
- Travel Clothesline: We had this hanging up in every hotel room we stayed at in the Galapagos. Every day we hung up our wet towels and bathing suit to dry. It keeps your stuff from getting moldy and avoids the dreaded wet bathing suit rash *shudder*.
- Waterproof Watches: You don’t want to be pulling out your phone to check the time when you’re on a boat, and you definitely won’t have your phone on hand when you’re in the water! Besides, service in the Galapagos is pretty universally terrible, which means that your smart phone is just about only useful as a watch and an alarm clock. Leave it in the hotel room and wear an old-fashioned waterproof watch instead.
- Kindle Fire: The WiFi in the Galapagos is not good. What did you expect? They’re islands! So, load up some books onto your Kindle and plan to catch up on your reading. Having a Kindle saves you the effort of lugging around books – much as the charm of the hostel book exchange appeals to me – and they’re also great travel tools. You can load them up like a tablet to watch downloaded movies, audio books, and music. Like what you can do with an iPad, except for people that can’t afford an iPad.
- Solar Powered Flashlights: Depending on where you’re staying and which island you’re on, chances are that there won’t be a lot of streetlights – the Galapagos aren’t exactly the most on-the-grid of islands. It’s not pitch black at night, but we found ourselves using our travel flashlights quite a bit to navigate back to our hotel after dinner. We love that these flashlights are solar powered: no batteries needed and totally eco-friendly!
- Eco-Friendly Cups and Water Bottle: The Galapagos Islands authorities have recently banned single-use plastics as part of their conservation efforts. But we still think you should carry your own eco-friendly travel supplies with you to your trip to help minimize your plastic waste and environmental footprint. Think of all the adorable turtles and sea lions and other marine critters you’re here to visit, who often mistake plastic for food, leading to their death. Bring this collapsible cup along on your flight and you’ll save several of those tiny plastic cups they serve drinks in. Not just on your trip to the Galapagos Islands, but on EVERY trip – and that means every trip to the coffee shop or deli by your house, too! Bring the lesson of conservation home with you from the Galapagos Islands everywhere that you go.
Galapagos Packing List: Cameras & Gear
Look, I’m gonna be real with you: you will kick yourself if you come home without 916872867826 photos of adorable sea lions, colorful fish, sneezing marine iguanas, ridiculous blue-footed boobies, and so on and so forth. But your phone won’t exactly cut it, since … ya know, you’ll be underwater most of the time. So we’ve got some camera essentials to recommend for your trip!
Before we do, though, there is a line we need to draw, and that line is flash. NEVER use flash on ANY animals in the wild, PERIOD, especially underwater in the Galapagos. It harms the animals, and it’s freakin’ illegal. Don’t do it!
If you’re a casual photographer (IE for the ‘gram, the ‘book, and the grandparents), here are our recommendations for camera gear to capture your trip to the Galapagos Islands.
- GoPro: You didn’t come all the way to the Galapagos Islands to NOT get underwater footage of baby sea lions swimming with giant sea turtles and reef sharks. You gotta have a GoPro! They’re hands down the best camera for capturing footage underwater. Just make sure you also pick up the Standard Housing, the waterproof case that you’ll definitely need before you go underwater!
- GoPro Waterproof Floating Handle: GoPro’s are tiny little things, and they don’t float on their own. If you’re clumsy AF and accident-prone like we are, that’s a disaster waiting to happen. Prevent it by attaching your GoPro to a floating handle like this one. It secures with a wrist strap, but even if you somehow let go of the camera, it floats safely to the surface where it can easily be retrieved. We didn’t lose our GoPro a single time in the Galapagos (er, we lost it later on dry land. RIP).
- Canon Powershot Point & Shoot Camera: The perfect camera for casual photo-taking! This tiny, travel-friendly camera takes surprisingly good pictures for a point & shoot. It’s pocket-sized, which means it’s incredibly convenient and theft deterrent because it looks like nothing special (not that you’ll need to worry much about theft on the Galapagos Islands, but you will when you’re in Quito). We used our Canon Powershot the entire time we were in the Galapagos Islands – and the rest of South America! So if you don’t think the photos in this post are terrible, guess what? They were all taken with this baby.
For even more information about the how to visit the Galapagos Islands without a cruise, you can read about our trip to the Galapagos in more detail in the posts below. Or, if you’re looking for more packing tips, check out our guide to what to pack for South America!
- How to Visit The Galapagos Islands Without a Cruise: A Complete Guide
- Trip Breakdown: Santa Cruz Island and Puerto Ayora
- Trip Breakdown: Isla Isabela and Santa Fe
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