The Galápagos Islands is an Ecudorian archipelago (about 1000km or 600 miles off the coast) in the Pacific Ocean, composed of over 120 islands, isles, and rocks that were formed through seismic and volcanic activity. It’s considered one of the world’s foremost destinations for wildlife-viewing (blue footed boobies, penguins, sea lions, iguanas, tortoises and more), and made famous by Charles Darwin’s research and his theory of evolution.
Accessibility for almost all disabilities is limited here. HOWEVER, most of the people and tour guides are willing to help in any way they can to make things accessible. This isn’t to say that the Galapagos isn’t wheelchair accessible, however. Several organizations offer specialized tours for the mobility impaired, and many cruises offer the most accessible options.
Flights to the Galapagos are only from Guayaquil or Quito. Once you arrive to one of those airports, you must go to the migration desk and pay a $20 fee for the migratory card. Furthermore, once you arrive in the Galapagos, you must pay a $100 national park fee to enter.
If you arrive via Baltra, once you exit the airport, you must take the $5 Lobito bus to the Itabaca Channel, pay for the boat to cross the channel and then pay for either a taxi or bus for the 40 minute drive to Puerto Ayora. None of these are wheelchair accessible. However, most of the people are friendly and are willing to assist in transferring/with luggage.
The government of Ecuador has designated 97% of the land area of the Galapagos Islands as the country’s first national park. Founded in 1959, the Charles Darwin Foundation is dedicated to the preservation and conservation of the Galapagos Islands and the animals and plants that live there.The Charles Darwin Research Station based in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, serves as headquarters for The Foundation, and is used to conduct scientific research and promote environmental education.
The highlands of Santa Cruz is home to El Chato, 12 hectare natural reserve that is a roaming grounds for the Galapagos Giant tortoises. They are the world’s largest tortoises, with some species exceeding five feet in length, over 150 years and reaching more than 500 pounds. El Chato Rancho is also home to lava tunnels that tourists can descend into and explore underground tubes formed when volcanic lava solidified. There are minimal trails at El Chato and the lava tunnels (steep stairs to descend and ascend) are not accessible.
Overall, Santa Cruz is probably the most accessible of the major Galapagos Islands, but that isn’t saying much. There are steps to access most of the stores and restaurants on Charles Darwin Road (the main road in Santa Cruz). The Charles Darwin Research Station is pretty wheelchair accessible, until after the inside exhibits. There is also air conditioning in this building. The movie played in the exhibit hall has English subtitles. Unfortunately, non of the information provided in the educational sections has braille nor is there any tactile exhibits or educational materials. The tortoise research area is less accessible and there are some steps. In Santa Cruz, I stayed at Hotel Fiesta in a ground floor room. While they don’t have official accessible rooms, the regular room I stayed in was spacious. Although the bathroom was small, there was a walk in shower (not roll in but great for limited mobility). There is a great courtyard and bar area with a pool and jacuzzi which feels great after being outside during the day. The pool and jacuzzi do not have a lift. There is a breakfast area, which can be accessed via a small ramp. Taxis here are pick up trucks, which are great for extra luggage or mobility equipment.
If you’re taking a land based tour or doing land based on your own, you’re likely to island hop. There are two ferries per day to other islands. The ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabela takes about two hours and costs $35 on a 15-20 passenger speed boat. People at the dock are more then willing to help those with limited mobility to get on the water taxi and the ferry. Furthermore, my guide from Nature Galapagos was helpful with my luggage and explaining to those at the dock that I needed extra assistance.
Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago, being home to a little over 2000 people. It is also home to the Sierra Negra volcano, which is the second largest crater in the world and is still considered active today. Isabela’s Puerto Villamil is a small beach like town and is the rich hot spot for both marine and land ecosystems. Although I didn’t get to see penguins, some of my favorite things to see here were los lobos (sea lions), iguanas, rays, lots of fish, and it was a great point for other adventures!
From Puerto VIllamil on Islabela in the Galapagos, you can take an hour boat ride to Los Tuneles, named for the lava tunnels that are formed in the area. These lava tunnels were formed years ago when the lava flows from the volcanos on the island were solidified on the outside after their contact with water, while remaining liquid on the inside, leaving the lava tunnels which have been eroded by the elements over thousands of years. The tunnels are a marine paradise, home to many species such as white tip reef sharks, black tip sharks, spotted eagle rays, manta rays, sea turtles, giant mantas, and colorful fish. From Isabela you can also snorkel and kayak near Las Tintoreras and Puerto Villamil.
From Isabela, I traveled to San Cristobal by plane. Instead of a whole day trip via two ferries, I took the 40 minute plane ride to San Cristobal. Although a bit more expensive option, it is the most accessible. The only inter island flights are on Emetebe Airlines, and they have 1-2 flights per day on around 10 seater puddle jumper planes. One of the downsides to this mode is that you have to pay per pound for luggage. They also have no policy for medical or assertive devices, so it is up to the agent if you have to pay for an assistive device or medical supplies.
San Cristóbal is the fifth largest and easternmost island of the Galapagos. It is a bit of a mix between the two previous islands, small scale touristy with a laid back vibe. This is my favorite of all the islands. Just a short walk from town Playa Mann Beach is a popular spot to relax and take a break with friendly sea lions. During sea lion breeding season the beach visiting hours are even limited on weekends. Honestly, on San Cristobal los lobos (sea lions) are EVERYWHERE and they rule the island. I’ve watched one come up and sit right in the middle of a dive class ON the materials, a bunch chasing people, one sit on someones beach towel while they were in the water, and a few get in kayaks at different points. The Interpretation Center on San Cristobal is accessible to those in a wheelchair both inside and out but if you have limited mobility, some of the outside areas may be hard to navigate. There are no tactile or deaf services here, however most guides that can accompany you can provide necessary services. I HIGHLY recommend working with a tour company so that they can help arrange the services you need.
The sidewalks on most of the Galapagos Islands don’t exist in many places or aren’t level, so it is best for those with mobility issues to walk or roll along the edge of the street, which seems to be perfectly acceptable among locals.
There are several hotels around the Galapagos islands that boast specially equipped rooms for guests with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs. Some of the bigger hotel to cater to disabled individuals include the Blue Marlin in San Cristobal (where I stayed but in a non accessible room – which was VERY spacious and no steps – only downside was a high sided bathtub), which offers seven spacious specialty rooms with a dedicated shower bench. Most specialty rooms feature wider doors, room service support, and safety installations in the bathroom. It’s best to look for a room located on the ground floor, as most hotels in the Galapagos don’t have elevators.
Several tour groups and kayaking organizations offer specially adapted tours for mobility impaired guests. Trained members of the boat crew generally assist transfers in and out of the kayak. For the most part, kayaking companies aren’t able to offer electronic lifts of similar devices. Nature Galapagos is the company I have worked with, does not specifically cater to people with disabilities but are more than willing to work with individuals to figure out how needs can be met!
Check out some of our snorkeling and other accessible Galapagos videos on our Youtube page!