Galapagos… is it all it’s cracked up to be? Is it as expensive as everyone makes out? Is the wildlife super amazing? Is it absolutely stressy sorting it all out? The answer to all of these is undoubtedly, yes!
Again, this is in part about our trip, but also with some comments that we hope might help others in their planning if they come this way.
Having read lot of other traveller’s advice the big debate is over ‘doing a boat’ or not. Pros – seeing a greater variety of wildlife, more islands visited Cons – EXPENSIVE! Even the most basic ‘tourist’ class boat comes out at more than 200usd per person per day. If you start wanting to get fancy with your cruise you can be looking at up to 500ppp/d…not in our budget!! The routes the boats all take are very proscribed as you can only have a certain number of boats in a certain place for a specified length of time… if you go on a 5-day cruise, you join the boat at lunchtime on day 1 and finish at 9am on Day 5 so it’s really a 3 ½ day trip! Essentially the boats all do 15-day round trips and most people will make a 3/5 or 7-night trip out of that. Last minute deals are the way to get the best value for these trips… some say you get a better deal on the islands, some say you do better in Quito… who knows? But we went for the latter.
We knew we wanted to visit the southern islands (variety of wildlife) and we wanted to go on a boat which is expensive but, from all that we read, worth it. Rich wanted to do an 8-day trip, I said it was beyond our budget, he said, let’s see what options turn up. Once we arrived in Quito, we went to a variety of agents and soon had heads spinning with routes and ‘last minute’ options. We settled on an 8-day cruise on a ‘tourist superior’ boat, which, while eye wateringly expensive (1700usd each) was apparently very good value. However, luck was not on our side – although ‘off season’ it was Carneval, school holidays and Ecuador was on holiday so while we could get on a boat, we couldn’t get flights to Galapagos for love nor money. So frustrating! And back to square one. This time around we settled on a 6-day trip on a ‘tourist’ boat which was significantly cheaper and doing much of the same route… I placated Rich by booking flights that gave us a day before and 3 days after, so we could do further exploring independently. I won’t go into the stress of having booked flights with cheapfares.com and the phone calls to Avianca and India and goodness knows where else from internet shops in the hills of central Ecuador to make sure we actually had seats on the plane. All’s well that ends well. Bear in mind that 95% of boat trips must be paid in cash.
We flew from Guayaquil where we left the car in a hotel carpark… less separation anxiety this time as it was surrounded by 20ft walls and various security cameras. Once on the plane (business class out – not sure how that happened!) it’s an easy 2-hour flight and soon you spot the tiny pinpricks in a huge blue ocean.
We landed in Baltra and took a bus, a boat and luckily got a freebie lift in a taxi (thanks SwimTrek lady!) to cross Santa Cruz and stay our first night in Puerto Ayora, the main town. It could be anywhere, small restaurants, souvenir and jewellery shops abound.
Our first stop was the Charles Darwin Research Centre – home of many various sized tortoises – including Lonesome George, the very last of his species of tortoise, who died in 2012 and is now stuffed and in a refrigerated room!
The next day we joined our boat, Floreana. Much trepidation at ‘tourist class’ (says us who has lived in a tent for a year!) but we need not have worried. The boat was just right; in fact better than alright as we were incredibly lucky and there were only 7 of us on board… the full 16 would have been somewhat squashed! Clean bunk cabins, plenty of hot showers and stacks of food made for very happy sailors, not to mention the islands themselves. All trips essentially have 2 or 3 activities a day always including snorkelling and we started that afternoon with a trip to the Santa Cruz highlands to see wild tortoises roaming free and walked through a few lava tunnels to remind us of the islands’ heritage.
Our route took us from Santa Cruz to Floriana, Espionola, San Christobel, Santa Fe, Las Plasas, and back to Baltra. Over the course of the next few days we hiked through blue footed booby colonies, saw frigate birds feeding their young, tried not to step on camouflaged marine iguanas, watched huge male marine iguanas in full mating colours fight, spied a lonely baby albatross who should have left weeks before, swam with seals and huge turtles so close you had to try and back off to take pictures, dived down to spot sharks hiding in the shadows, chased rays and on the very last day, on the last minutes of the final boat trip… we saw a baby hammerhead!
Each island is noticeably different in its flora as well as fauna. Our favourite was Las Plasas, which has bright red ground cover at this time of year – absolutely stunning.
Having disembarked the boat we took ourselves across to Isabella – the newest of the islands and still very volcanically active. Having both managed to get stinking colds while we were there we sadly ruled out diving for fear that we wouldn’t be able to clear properly. To be honest, the snorkelling had been so amazing (see pictures above – we have more…..many more!!) it wasn’t that distressing a call. On Isabella we didn’t manage to find anywhere to stay below $40 a night, but Tera Real (ioverlander)was absolutely lovely for that price. We had a day chilling (trying not to burn) on the beach with our new friend Andras who had been on the boat with us and the next morning went on the Los Tunneles tour. It was pricy ($110pp) but it’s a captive market! The scenery was stunning as you can see – all the passages are old lava tunnels and flows, but the highlight was seeing this solitary seahorse!! If we hadn’t had such amazing sights of turtles during the boat trip this excursion would have felt a lot more worthwhile. Let’s be honest – we’ve been spoilt for wildlife encounters!! 😊
In summary, 6 days on the boat was plenty, we did feel that it was the right amount of time to see the variety of flora and fauna. On the islands nothing is cheap, but Puerto Ayora is better value in terms of food in that you can eat well for a reasonable amount. Not so much in Isabella, the meals we had were distinctly mediocre. The little expenses all add up – a boat from Santa Crus to Isabella is $30 one way – but then you must pay the 50c for the water taxi at one end and a $1 at the other… then the ‘port’ in Isabella is 1.5km out of town so it’s another $1 each unless you are prepared to walk which with the heat is not advisable.
However, let’s not focus on the costs; big picture – a trip to the Galapagos Islands should be on everyone’s list of things to do. The variety of the wildlife by sea and land coupled with the ability to get so close to so many amazing sights makes any visit an unforgettable experience.