The Galápagos Islands are fantastic to visit no matter what time of year. December is popular (obviously) – especially the last two weeks of December, which means tours are sold out, hotels are at full capacity and flights are more expensive. I went the last two weeks of December in 2019. I started planning the trip at the beginning of April 2019 and had booked everything – flights, tours, accommodation by mid-July 2019. And even though I started that “early” it felt like I was just getting the last rooms/tours available.
How Far In Advance to Plan
By started planning in April, I mean that’s when I started researching. My travel style (for all of my trips) is to spend quite a bit of time researching the destination. I read a lot of travel sites, blogs, TripAdvisor Forums and I also reach out to anyone in my network who has visited. I went back and forth on whether to go land based or live aboard. In the end I decided on land based and I am so glad. I published a detailed article about making that decision. I hope you find it helpful as you consider the best trip for you.
When I booked the trip in mid-July I was already coming across sold out hotels, flights, and tours. The Galápagos is immensely popular and has limitations on how many visitors are allowed. So my advice is to book at least 6 months in advance. And if your schedule allows, book even farther ahead. That said, I should share that we had an incredible experience and we got to visit all of the places we wanted to. There was nothing that we wanted to do but couldn’t because of lack of availability.
Other times of year, like January, is still peak season but comparatively in less demand so it’s not necessary to book so far in advance but for the last two weeks of December I recommend at least 6 months ahead.
Book Through an Agency or A La Carte?
I booked my Galapagos trip with anywhere.com. This was the third trip I booked through them as I consistently have a fantastic experience with them. This trip was no different and I can’t wait until we can travel again and COVID-19 is a memory from the past. I’d definitely book more holidays with them. By the way, this is a totally honest testimonial – not sponsored or anything – just my real opinion.
Even though I really like anywhere.com, I did look into into other agencies. And I considered booking everything on my own as well. Other agencies didn’t offer the total customization that anywhere.com does. I really valued the insider knowledge and access that agencies offer so I preferred that option than booking everything a la carte.The anywhere.com rep that they connect you with specializes in that destination. And that made a very tangible and valuable difference.
Simultaneously since I did a lot of research, I had a pretty good idea of our desired itinerary. Anywhere.com totally customized it to everything that we wanted to do. Other agencies were restrictive in one way or another – dates, accommodations, food, or activities.
Pre-Book Tours or Book On Arrival?
I pre-booked our whole trip (except for one tour we decided to do last minute) – accomodation, tours, even made a couple of dinner reservations for busy nights like Christmas Eve. I liked the peace of mind knowing that we weren’t leaving anything to chance. Also, I didn’t want to spend our time there on bookings and reservations. We just wanted to enjoy. Also, since we worked with an agency, we had time to ask questions about the tours and vet their quality.
That said, you can book on arrival to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island which is the hub of the Galápagos Islands. It’s risky – as you may run into limited or no availability. You’ll find many many tour offices in Puerto Ayora. Competition is fierce but you can negotiate.
We ended up booking one tour last minute. We walked around the main road and walked into 4-5 tour offices. I found the salespeople a bit pushy; and it’s up to you to ask all the right questions. For instance, you can’t assume that snorkeling gear is included on a snorkeling tour. You can’t assume that there’s a restroom on the boat. Don’t assume anything and they won’t necessarily tell you unless you ask. Like they’d say a snorkeling mask is included but they don’t mention anything about fins.
I went right before COVID turned into a pandemic. If I went today, I’d buy all my own snorkeling gear – not rent nor use anyone else’s.
Mainland Ecuador vs. Galápagos Islands
Our focus on this holiday was the Islands. I would have loved to spend more time on mainland Ecuador. We could have easily spent an additional 5-7 days on the mainland. But we had to make a tradeoff given the amount of time we had. And now we have something to look forward to next time we visit.
- Fly to Quito
- 1 day/night in Quito
- Fly to Baltra
- 4 nights on Santa Cruz
- 4 nights on Isabella
- Fly back to Quito
- 2 nights in Quito
Weather and Packing
The bottomline from a weather and packing standpoint is to be prepared for 50 degrees F to 90 degrees F as well as rain. The hotels we stayed at offered (paid) laundry services which we availed of approximately every two days. The basic structure of the day is you wake up, have breakfast and head out for the days activities. During that time you might need a combo of cool weather, warm weather and wet weather gear. We pretty much always had a warm layer in our daypacks, a cover up and a swimsuit on.
Quito. The weather varied from cold to hot. I was cold in Quito. Quito sits in the Andean foothills at an elevation of 9,350 ft. It was in the low sixties degrees F and dropped to about 55 at night. During the day it was sunny and there was a breeze. Personally, I run cold and was really glad that I packed my North Face jacket.
Mindo Cloud Forest. I layered for our visit to Mindo. We were hiking much of the day so I didn’t to take my bulky North Face jacket. Instead I wore my rain jacket with a few layers underneath that were great for shedding as it warmed on the hike and putting back on as it got cooler in the evening. It did full on rain for about 10 minutes while we hiked and we were really glad to have brought our rain jackets, rain covers for our backpacks, and worn waterproof pants as well as waterproof hiking shoes.
The Galapagos Islands. It was a combo of hot and sunny and overcast days. For my fellow photographers that is really important because when it’s not overcast the water and scenery look completely different. When it’s not overcast it looks even more paradisiacal. The warm-wet season is from December thru May. And it did rain a few times – ranging from sprinkles to full on showers. I packed a couple of breezy dresses, board shorts as well as waterproof pants. Board shorts are great as they double as clothes and swimwear. My husband was basically in swim shorts or hiking pants and a T-shirt for the entire trip. He did pack a couple of long sleeve moisture wicking tops to provide sun protection while snorkeling and hiking.
Water Temperature. As for the water temperature, for most activities most people wore their swim gear and no wet suits. However, when we went snorkeling at Los Tintoreras in the late afternoon, most of us wore wetsuit tops. I tend to get cold in the water in general. I wore swim leggings and full sleeve rash guards. Even though they’re not made of neoprene the layer was perfect for me – and doubled as sun protection.
ProTip As in any tropical climate, hair frizz is real. I was glad I for my hair serum that calmed down my tresses when we went to the cloud forest.
Shoes. As for shoes, I mostly wore my Keen water shoes. I packed 3 pairs of shoes: hiking shoes, water shoes, and flip flops. The only time I wore my flip flops was around the hotel. Even when we went out in the evening for dinner after we were finished with the days activities, we ended up walking a lot and often along uneven pavements and dirt roads, so I preferred to wear my water shoes rather than my flip flops.
From a wildlife standpoint December is really good. But to be honest you can’t go wrong no matter when you visit. Most (not all but most) land and marine species are possible to spot throughout the year. Bird lovers set on seeing an albatross might want to avoid December, as this is when these majestic birds leave land and head out to sea.
I published this article about the Galápagos, including when and where to see the most iconic and popular species. The only two species that we didn’t see were an albatross and hammerhead sharks. I won’t lie, I would have liked to see hammerheads, but I knew that there was a skim chance anyway since I don’t like to scuba dive.
December, especially the last two weeks of December are the peak of peak season. It was definitely busy – there were a lot of people – but we never felt like it was, Disneyland during summer nor the mall during Christmas. Restaurants were definitely packed and there were a couple nights on Isabella where we got turned away from restaurants that were full or had to wait more than an hour for our food. The key is to eat before peak dinner time. We were enjoying the sunset one evening and lost track of time and set out for dinner at 7pm. Half an hour earlier would have made a big difference. Bu we were two adults and didn’t mind so it was fine.
On Santa Cruz, we always got seated at restaurants immediately. Isabela was a different story. Isabela is significantly smaller than Santa Cruz. Out of the 4 nights, there were 2 where we were turned away from restaurants that were at capacity.
One night on Isabela, we were turned away from 3 restaurants before we found a place. The key again, is to avoid the peak time of 7pm-8:30pm. But the problem with that, is that sunset was around 6:30pm. We paid for ocean view rooms and wanted to enjoy the sunsets. My husband and I being vegetarian didn’t help either as there were fewer restaurants for us to select from to begin with…but those are the joys of travel.
The same applied to the tours we went on. Our tours to North Seymour and The Highlands were just us and another couple. And on Isabela all of our tours were great as well. We never felt like they were too crowded.
I felt safe the entire time we were in Ecuador. When we visited old town Quito it was crowded and we definitely stuck out as tourists. So I wore my backpack (daypack) on my front. At the end of our city tour, our guide dropped us off at old town and from there we took an Uber to the restaurant for dinner and from there another Uber back to our hotel and it all went smoothly. I will say that it wasn’t necessary, but helped that I speak Spanish.
We flew AeroMexico from San Francisco to Mexico City to Quito. When you read online there are several tales of delayed flights and missing luggage. Thankfully we had no problems with our luggage. But our AeroMexico flight from Mexico City to Quito was rerouted to Guayaquil due to weather. We landed there and after about 30 minutes took off again and flew to Quito. So overall, that delay wasn’t so bad and didn’t put a wrench in our plans for the day.
If you’re flying through Mexico City. The Mexico City Airport’s international terminal is pretty sparse in terms of restaurants and shops – so there’s not much to entertain. And the entire terminal is freezing. Thankfully I had read about the frigid temperature ahead of time which was the real catalyst for even taking my North Face ski jacket on a tropical holiday in the first place. The layover, each way, was 7 hours, and into the wee hours of the night, so I knew that if I wasn’t prepared, I’d be miserable. I wore my North Face ski jacket the entire time I was in the Mexico City Airport and I had a travel blanket and I was still cold.
International Data and Phone Plan
Having an international data plan and/or phone plan was necessary. If this isn’t part of your regular phone plan then make sure you add this on before you go to the Galápagos (or anywhere). We relied on WhatsApp and email to communicate while we were there.
Dining for Vegans and Vegetarians
This doesn’t have anything to do with visiting in December but since I specialize in vegan and vegetarian travel, I wanted to include this. We were pleasantly surprised at how much vegetarian cuisine there was in Quito. South America is known to be very non-vegetarian and the fact that we found two 100% vegetarian restaurants in Quito felt like a win. We ate at El Maple and appreciated that this place is 100% vegetarian.
Aside from Anker on Santa Cruz Island and the Punjabi restaurant in Quito there were no meals on the trip that were particularly memorable. But I will say that all of the meals we had were good food, nice atmosphere and good service. Being vegetarians in South America, as I said, we weren’t expecting this holiday to be about food so we were quite happy with all of the meals. And we were able to pay with credit card everywhere which made it very convenient.
Plus, we found a very good Punjabi restaurant that we ended up eating at two out of our 3 nights in Quito. Vegan options were more limited in Quio as well as the Islands – especially when it came to milk. Almond and soy milk had not made their way to the hotels and restaurants we went to but avoiding cheese wasn’t that challenging.
Restaurants We Visited on Santa Cruz. The day we arrived on the islands we did pre-book a fine dining experience at Anker by Urko and it was exquisite. They prepared a 6 course fully vegan meal that was presented beautifully. Chef Boris was in touch with me beforehand to inquire about our dietary restrictions and things we like – the attention to detail was so nice. We also ate at Il Giardino – fun atmosphere, nice fruity drinks, great for couples and families, and nice views in the main area on Charles Darwin Avenue.
Restaurants We Visited on Isabela. El Velero had good pizza, accepted credit card and was a fun outdoor atmosphere. We liked the Booby Trap as well. We only went for dinner and it was packed and they were short staffed. But it was one of the few places highly recommended by vegetarians and we were not in a hurry so it was fine. The food and drinks were good but expect long waits during peak season. I wish we had gone back for lunch as the views seemed beautiful from the restaurant but we were always out at lunch so we only went the one time. We also ate at Shawarma Hot Chip. Again nice food and friendly service.
On the Galápagos, we carbed it up. We survived on a lot of fruits, salads, toast, pizza and pasta. The food was all tasty and overall fine. We were not expecting that much from the food so the fact that we weren’t looked at oddly when we said we were vegetarian or don’t want cheese, exceeded our expectations.
ProTip: Buy Pacari chocolate bars to bring back for yourself and give as gifts.
I hope this article was helpful to give you an overview of what to expect when you visit Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. I gave a succinct overview about how far in advance to plan, weather, crowds and safety, food and dining, how to split your time on the mainland vs. the islands.