When travelers consider the Galapagos they think naturally of Darwin, remote islands , sea lions, marine iguanas, tortoises, and of course the infamous blue footed boobies. In the surrounding waters world class snorkeling and diving can be found giving opportunities to swim with giant turtles, hammerheads, manta rays, and tropical fish from the small to the intimidating painted in all colors of the spectrum.
Many people perceive a trip to the Galapagos as being expensive, the sole domain of those who can afford high priced cruises with five day tours costing typically from $3000 to $5000 ( travel, some meals, and fees excluded) with longer tours reaching heights of $10,000 and above. In addition to cost, some people are hesitant to join a cruise when touring as they prefer to have control over their own agenda or don’t wish to deal with the inconveniences related to group travel.
Less known is that it is possible to visit the Galapagos on a self-guided land based tour. My traveling companions and I planned such a tour during a two-week adventure in mid-February of 2023. Following I share information relative to developing your own tour of this unique and amazing destination, incorporating tips which will assure the experience is affordable, hassle free, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Our group happened to fly out of Chicago to Quito, Ecuador. We planned to stay in Quito for two nights in order to see a bit of the city and as an insurance in case we had some flight delays. Flights were purchased well in advance, and we flew on Copa Airlines. My ticket was $450. Copa is a well known South American Airline, no frills to speak of but comfortable, dependable, and safe. We booked an excellent hotel, the Casa Gardenia, in the heart of the historical city center. The hotel is about an hour from the airport, but the hotel arranged for our pickup for about 30 dollars per taxi. The rooms were excellent, the owners were extremely helpful, and it came with breakfast which included fresh pastries, fruit platters, and eggs. All for $100 per night. There are many hotel and hostel options in Quito which are less expensive and of course for those that don’t want to venture into town there are plenty of options near and at the airport.
We spent our non-travel day touring the city both on our own and by joining a free walking tour, of which there are many, paying a tip of choice at the end. Please be aware that Quito is 9350 feet above sea level, and it is hilly. The loud pounding you may hear as you walk about is your heart trying to adjust to the altitude if you are a midwestern flatlander as we were! A second bit of important information, which you will be told over and over, is that pickpockets and purse snatchers are very common in the city. Use common sense, travel in groups, stay in recommended areas, and you will be just fine.
The highlights of our Quito tour were the beautiful churches, local markets, plazas, museums, and excellent food. As in all of Ecuador, and the Galapagos, the US dollar is the national currency. Your dollar will be more than a bit enhanced in Quito with excellent local fares in wonderful restaurants for under $10 a meal with beverages included. It was not difficult to find people who spoke English. Despite the fact that are sole Spanish was deemed “below average” in his intro to Spanish in Middle School, and had apparently lost his limited skillset in the past fifty years, we had no major issues with communication.
To transport to the Galapagos you will need to fly. We chose San Cristobol as our first island destination. I booked with Avian and my ticket was $150. A word of caution. It is possible to get much cheaper rates on their website, however, as noted on the banner at the top of their website, if you choose to pay a lesser fee you will be charged as a non-native when you are at the airport. We paid for an “L level” ticket and had no issues. Get to the airport early! Even though it is a small airport there are some tasks you will need to complete before checking in that can be time consuming. You will need to have your bags screened. You can find this area near the entrance and it is a matter of placing your luggage on a conveyer, having it screened, and having a tag placed on it. This usually goes smoothly. The longer and painstaking slower line is the one to purchase a transit card for $20. You will need a passport, cash, and proof of a flight returning from the Galapagos. This process took an hour. The checking in and security was very efficient.
Landing in San Cristobal the major event before heading to your hotel will be to pay a $100 National Park Entry fee. They will provide you with a receipt which we kept but never used again.
Our hotel was about a mile from the airport and a taxi was arranged to pick us up. Taxis are very reasonable on all the islands with most inner-city rides costing $3. Be aware that many taxis on the islands are pickup trucks where part of your party will ride in the cab and the remainder of the party would be expected to hop in the back. Consider it part of the adventure! Our accommodations were less than $100 per night. Again, there are many options available which would be significantly less than this for those on a tighter budget. Our hotel was a ten minute walk to downtown, which seemed like an inconvenience, until we learned that there was a festival happening in city center. I am from Wisconsin and know something about festivals. I admit being a bit surprised that the festival began at 10pm and finished around 5AM in the morning. Five hundred people, copious amounts of beverages, live music, and DJ’s, right in the heart of downtown, hotels, and tourists who were probably a bit more surprised than I regarding what islanders consider to be a great time to throw a party. Given that the plaza was open air, and that the heat can be suffocating during the day, the all night party actually made a great deal of sense,
The city you find yourself in, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, is a city in transition. It was making strides in infrastructure and building to be more attractive to travelers but was hit hard by the pandemic when there was no tourism, none, for more than two years. It is no up to full speed yet with many buildings in stages of completion and a bit more depressed than some of the islands we would visit later. A couple of quick notes. It is unlikely that you will have hot water at your hotel on this island, or any of the islands that we visited. Get used to it and recognize that you are in a developing country! Also, remember that you are very near or at the equator during this trip…sunscreen is a MUST!
What the city, and island, does have is everything you came to the Galapagos for. In the city center you will find the marina. Don’t expect to sit on any of the benches which line the walkways, most likely there will be a sea lion laying under it, on it, or beside it and it is best to give him/her space. My experience is that they are not interested in sharing and they make no bones about letting you know so if you wander too close. There are hundreds of sea lions which make their home on the beach and bay of the marina. There you will also see your first Marine Iguanas sunning on the rocks, and giant red crabs scurrying about.
The premiere tour of the island, and perhaps of all the islands I visited, is unquestionably the 360 Tour which will be sold by store front vendors throughout the storefront near the marina. The cost for the tour was $160. On this three-site snorkel trip you will circumvent the island making several stops to snorkel and to view nesting areas from the boat. During this full day tour we saw almost everything we had hoped to see in the Galapagos during our stay. All excursions from the island are “guided “which are good both for the environment and I assume the economy. We had our best guide of the trip for this tour. At Kicker Rock, the star of the tour, Alejandro pointed out Eagle Rays, White and Black tipped sharks, the Galapagos Shark, and Hammerheads. Later in the tour we swam with Sea Turtles and of course more sharks. We also visited Punta Pitt were we had our first sighting of the Blue Footed Boobies and Frigates. As a note for those who are shark adverse, they showed no interest in us at all. As my wife was “a bit” hesitant herself I can assure you that my research indicated no shark fatalities in the Galapagos and only a very rare nip or so. We returned home with all our fingers and toes and so will you.
Another must do on the Island is a Highland Tour. You can take a bike but our senior citizen wisdom led us to choose to go by cab. Any cab on the island knows the tour and will charge about $40 for the half day tour per taxi. You will visit the largest fresh water lake in the Galapagos (Laguna El Junco) atop a dormant volcano, a Tortoise Reserve, beautiful Chino Beach, and a uniquely Ecudarian Roadside Oddity called the Treehouse. The tree house itself and the tree it resided in has since fallen to ruins but for the low-cost of $2 you can visit the somewhat new “Submarine in a Tree” ARBNB, the Good Energy Lava Bed, the bar made entirely out of used Club Beer Bottles, the room under the roots of the now devasted tree, (too odd to describe, but don’t hesitate to venture down), and other oddities which you would expect from any Roadside Oddity attraction worth $2!
On our last tour day on the Island, we visited the beach Cerro Tijeretas, within walking distance from the marina. The walk to the beach was lined with marine iguanas that were preparing for nesting. Arriving at the beach we were somewhat surprised that it was much less beach and a lot more lava rock, making the entrance and exit just a bit more problematic! We still saw many fish and swam with sea lions. This experience would have been a bit more appreciated had we not already snorkeled in such amazing places during our 360 Tour.
After four night on the island we took a ferry to Santa Cruz. The ferries cost $30 per person and tickets can be purchased at storefront throughout the main areas of town and from many of the hotels. Please note to buy your ticket as early as possible. Ferries serving the islands are limited and it is possible you may not be able to get the ferry of your choice if you wait too long. We had once such situation when we tried to get a morning ferry the day before only to discover that option was no longer available. We altered our plans, which is helpful strategy when traveling in places you are not familiar with, and with a bit of luck we were able to get on the afternoon ferry. Lesson learned, from that point on we made arrangements for our ferry rides well in advance.
Our next stop in the Galapagos was the island of Santa Cruz, an approximate ferry ride of two hours away. You arrive in the port city of Puerto Ayora and it is immediately evident that you are in the tourist hub of the Galapagos. In the marina you will find sail boats, yachts, and cruise ships embarking passengers on the ever-present water taxis found throughout the populated islands of the Galapagos.
Generally speaking anytime you take a ferry, a snorkeling tour, or just want to get from one part of the island to another via water you will take a water taxi. The trips are short, usually just to a bigger boat which is in the harbor. Most trips cost about a dollar with longer trips to other parts of the island for a reasonable ten dollars per person.
When you arrive on any of the inhabited islands by ferry for the first time you can expect to pay a tourist tax. The tax is generally anywhere from a dollar to ten dollars. Have cash available. As an aside it is a good idea to bring more cash than you think you might need to the Galapagos. Yes, there are ATMs on each island, with more on Santa Cruz than the others. While many places take credit cards, most places, and all tour companies, handle cash only. The ATMs limit the amount of funds that can be withdrawn, they run out of cash, and sometimes they just don’t work.
Puerto Ayora makes a strong impression of a community which is both dependent upon tourism and aptly prepared to serve tourists. There are many restaurants, stores in which to purchase both trinkets or high end shopping, and may venues willing to assist you in the arrangement of tours. There was also a wide range of housing available from hostels to high end hotels.
Due to the higher pressure of tourism, you can expect to pay a bit more for food and drinks on the island, but there were still plenty of deals to be found. The most notable food bargains can be found in an area known as Restaurant Alley. Here there is several blocks of small kiosk size restaurant that aggressively pitch their selection of fresh seafood and you navigate from one end to the other. We chose a restaurant selling a meal of swordfish with rice and salad for about $10 per plate. Honestly, the food was excellent.
A word about the array of restaurants in the Galapagos and the concern regarding becoming ill with intestinal issues. First, it can and does happen. The thought of some is to avoid the mom-and-pop restaurants frequented by locals and stick to high end tourist venues. Surprisingly, they all use the same water, and we had members of our group who became ill with dysentery after eating at both options. The best advice is to plan proactively to have issues and bring along some medicine from your local pharmacy. Some of our members utilized medicine purchased at pharmacies on the islands with mixed results.
Our accommodations for the island of Santa Cruz were an ARBNB which was only a short block from the marina. The cost of my room was $100. It was roomy, somewhat dated, and had consistently cold water. It was very close to the main grocery store, the bus stop, the ferry, and the large retail area.
The Darwin Research Center is a short 10-to-15-minute walk from the downtown area. The admission is free unless you wish to pay to see the tortoise exhibit. As we had already visited a tourist sanctuary, we chose to forego the tour. The center itself was informative and interesting. It was o a must see because how can you visit the Galapagos without learning a bit more about Darwin? Having said that, my opinion was that it was more souvenir shop than research center but a worthy stop just the same.
A visit to Las Grietas is on most visitors itinerary when visiting the island. The tour involves taking a water taxi across the bay and walking for about 15 minutes to a check point where you will pay for a naturalist who will be your guide during your visit. The cost is $10 per person. The naturalist will give some background on the fauna of the area as you work your way to Las Grietas. Essentially you will have the opportunity to snorkel in a narrow canyon containing some sizable freshwater fish. There is a series of three different pools but your guide will let you know which pool you are to enter. It is possible to climb over rock to access the other pools but it is not recommended, is not safe, and most importantly they are all pretty similar. The water is refreshing, especially given the heat of the day. There is concerted effort to assure that there is a limited amount of people in the pools at any given time. After your stay of approximately 45 minutes, you will exit the area, but not before you have the opportunity to purchase a cold beverage or snack at one of the several snack bars that line the path.
There are a wide variety of snorkeling/diving tours from Santa Cruz. The costs of the all day tours range from $140 to $160. They differ from those on San Cristobol in that they generally include a land excursion, or walk, upon an uninhabited island off the shores of Santa Cruz. The snorkeling portion of the tour is what you expect and hope for. You will have close encounters with sea turtles, the occasional ray will pass you by, you will have sharks swimming in front of you, on the side of you, and underneath you. Most importantly, again, they want nothing to do with you. You will see huge schools of fish and singular encounters so close you are tempted to reach out and touch, but don’t. While the land excursion portion of the tour was less than 40 minutes, it left me with one of the most lasting impressions I had of the Galapagos. I was standing on the shore looking at two blue footed boobies which were nesting only 6 feet or so away, when a marine iguana swam past them. To my right about 8 feet away a mother sea lion was nursing her pup while six to eight other sea lions basked in the sun. On every other rock a marine iguana stood sentry, for what purpose I am not sure. As we had swam out to the beach before we began our walk, I had neglected to bring a camera, naturally, though it was one of those scenes which I firmly believe no picture can do justice. You must see it, and that is why you go.
Tortuga Bay is a beautiful stretch of beach in which, not surprisingly given its name, you will find many turtles! The bay is very shallow and with too many visitors the water can get a bit murky. If you get dropped off by water taxi, as our party did, you might not notice that just around the corner is another beach primarily utilized by surfers which is gorgeous and worth the walk of several hundred feet. You can walk to Tortuga Bay, and honestly like all the walks I had planned, it sounds very reasonable. What is hard to prepare for is the ever-present heat which might deter even the hardiest adventurist. The $10 per person charge for the water taxi is a bargain in my opinion. It is very good idea to book your boat taxi for a round trip. We neglected to do so as we were not sure how long we would be there. The issue is that there are a limited number of water taxis serving the area and you could be waiting a long time for the lift home if you don’t have a reservation. It is my opinion that two hours at Tortuga Bay is ample time.
There are also Upland Tours available on Santa Cruz where you can explore sea lava tunnels, more tortoise reserves, and the areas outside of Puerto Ayora. We chose not to take the tour on the afternoon we had set aside for on our itinerary and spent the time shopping for souvenirs and sampling a variety of happy hours instead. Tortoises are amazing, don’t get me wrong, but after a while they all do the same thing, pretty much nothing, and look remarkably similar!
Our next ferry was to Island Isabella. From my viewpoint Isabella Island and the port city of Puerto Villamil are the crown jewel of the Galapagos land excursion tour. Villamil gives off a relaxed vibe with a sandy beach which runs along the entire stretch of the city proper, dirt roads, and a low-key tourism industry. Our party stayed at the Hotel Laguna for $90 per night. There were generally less accommodations available in Puerto Villamil but also much less tourist presence than the other islands we visited.
The most noted tour from Isabella is the Los Tuneles (The Tunnels) Tour. This tour runs from about $100 to $120. I consistently found that regardless of the amount you pay for a tour in the Galapagos it is very likely that all parties end up on the same boat! As such, it pays to look around a bit and engage in some mild negotiations. In addition to snorkeling you will have the opportunity to come within feet of nesting Blue Footed Boobies and witness their strange mating dance up close. Like all creatures in the Galapagos the birds will give you no mind as they have not been condition to fear humans. While snorkeling the guides will spend a bit more time than what I considered warranted, pointing out sea horses which are generally near the bottom of the sea floor. Unless you are comfortable free diving the 12 to 15 feet to get a closer look, I would not get your expectations up too much. I did hold my breath and struggle to get nose to nose with one or two and I can honestly say that I was more entertained by my aquarium of Sea Monkeys in my youth than by the reality of what a Sea Horse looks like in the wild.
In truth, some of the best snorkeling of our trip was at Concha de Perla swim area which is conveniently situated aside the ferry dock. This is a roped off area in a lagoon, with calm, clear waters, and a lot of fish, turtles, rays, and the occasional small shark. There is a marked board walk which winds a short distance through a mangrove patch and ends at a small dock with steps that lead into the water. Morning and late afternoons may be the best time to visit as there are less people and more critters. This area is especially welcoming to tourists who have a tighter budget but still want to have an excellent Galapagos snorkeling experience.
Another low cost activity which is a must see on Isabella Island is a bike ride, or walk, I suggest bike ride, to the Wall of Tears. I won’t get into the full history of this site but think penal colonies and man’s cruelty to man solely for the sake of cruelty and you get the idea. What I found shocking is that the era when so many individuals lost their life under the forced labor and harsh conditions was not hundreds of years ago during a time of non-enlightenment but from 1946 to 1959. The wall itself is a stoic testament to the thousands of men who perished in this penal colony, many political dissidents, and low-level offenders. The one to two hour route out there is broken up with stops which include a marine iguana breeding site and natural nursery, a lava flow cave, hikes to elevated viewing platforms which afford breathtaking vistas of the island, treks through the mangroves, and many opportunities to access the beaches. The highlight of this bike trip for me was running into dozens of Giant Tortoise either in the road or just off to the side of the road that were ambling through the brush and doing whatever it is that tortoises do when they are in their natural element. A unique experience not found on too many other places on the planet. Bikes cost between $15 and $30 dollars per day. There are plenty of place that rent them and while the costs are comparable there appeared to be quite a difference in the qualities of bikes. Be selective.
A tour that we did not participate in, but is well known on Isabella, is a guided tour of the Sierra Negra Volcano. The hike consists of about 9.3 miles out and back, up and down hill naturally! There was not a “taxi to the top” option so for better or worse, we opted out.
We departed from Isabella after three nights and began our journey back home. This is a time consuming, but not necessarily complicated process. It began with a ferry ride back to Sanat Cruz, arriving in the early afternoon allowing for another meal at a seaside restaurant sharing with our companions our reflections of the once in a lifetime experiences of our trip. We spent the night and the next morning we boarded a bus (7am/$10 per person) to a ferry ($1 person) to Baltra Island where we took another bus ($10) to Seymour Airport to catch our flight back to Quito. Once again we flew Avianca for about $150 each, which were First Class Seats allowing for more room, but no amenities. Having never flown on first class otherwise I cannot speak as to what those amenities might be.
We spent a final night in Quito and flew home the following day to cold and snow but also to family and homes. As my Russian friend used to say, “East or West, Home is Best!”.
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