We visited the Galapagos Islands (hereafter “Galapagos” for short) as independent travelers. After posting some reviews we received a fair amount of requests for information about visiting the Galapagos. We realized that some of this information is not always that easy to find, given the many tour companies that tend to dominate Google search results when searching “Galapagos travel”.
Here we have put together commentary about independent travel and travel in general to the Galapagos. I (Rosario) have included my husband Mike’s comments first, followed by mine. At the end of my comments there is a section about common questions we have received. We have also included images from Google Earth that show the trails we describe in our comments.
As a reminder, please go to our tab on “Talks” to see presentations related to the Galapagos. More direct links to presentations are here; the climate of the Galapagos, and each of the three islands we visited, Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal.
NOTE: I am a research meteorologist who first visited the Galapagos in 2005 as part of a research cruise by the Orion, the Ecuadorean Navy’s main oceanographic ship. I and a colleague were invited to make meteorological measurements from the ship during the cruise. The ship had to make an unplanned stop at San Cristobal to drop off a crewmember whose finger was injured while lifting a buoy out of the ocean. I and my colleague departed the ship at this point, since most of our measurements were completed and while we were arranging to fly back we also visited Santa Cruz Island, where we gave a talk to scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station (hereafter CDRS). From my experience on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal during our few days there – and the experience of the water taxi trips between these islands, I realized that visiting the Galapagos as an independent tourist was quite feasible. Low cost (“cheap”) hotels were available, as well as reasonable food on the back streets. This was during October, the height of the cool season. Six years later I returned with Rosario, on a 95% vacation (I gave another talk at the CDRS), and after we had lots of time to plan the details of the visit.
Some of my impressions of travel to the Galapagos Islands are contained below; they are not particularly well-organized as I wrote them down as they came to me. My wife also did this somewhat independently, and while you may see some overlap in the comments below we thought it better to keep the comments separate rather than merge them.
1) The Galapagos climate needs to be understood by visitors.
Most visitors probably only have a very broad understanding of the climate of the Galapagos islands, and may not incorporate this information sufficiently into their travel planning. Although situated on the Equator, all the tourist brochures point out that the islands are much cooler than most visitors might think. HOWEVER, this is only true of 8 months of the year, when the sea surface temperatures (SST’s) are cool, but it is not quite true of the Jan-April time frame. And this can vary with climate anomalies (particularly the phase of the El Niño phenomenon). We visited during the height of the SST’s this past February (2012) but there was a positive 2-3˚C anomaly superimposed on the mean February SST (~26˚C) and this resulted in waters of 28-29˚C – much like the summer months in the Caribbean! Since the islands are small, the land temperatures reflect the ocean temperatures to a large degree. A good research article summarizing many aspects of the Galapagos climate can be found here.
Given that air conditioning is usually not needed in the cooler months, many locations are quite uncomfortable indoors if one visits in the warmest months. Air conditioning that would otherwise be adequate or not even needed during the cooler months (June-October), is sometimes insufficient in the warmest months.
For snorkeling or scuba diving, the warmer temperatures are much better (though actual water visibility may be worse – or better, based on other factors, such as wind waves or salinity mixing (where fresh water and salt water mix, producing blurry conditions). Water in the cool season can be like Southern California in the summer months – about 70F. Local upwelling conditions can vary this by a few degrees either way.
A major factor to be considered is that there is much more cloudiness during the cool season, despite this being the dry season. Much like coastal California, it is a low stratus, with the higher volcanic peaks extending above the cloud layer. This can be better or worse for photography, depending on how you prefer the shadows (or lack of them). Certainly, don’t come to the Galapagos to get a tan in the cool season!
The small boat travel between the four inhabited islands, which is the most inexpensive and convenient mode of inter-island travel, is less pleasant during the cool season, due to the stronger winds that produce larger swells and wind waves. The boats have the objective of traveling between the islands as quickly as possible, much like commercial taxi drivers (thought the boats only seem to do one trip per day, so it isn’t clear why the rush). This yields a very rough ride when impacting the waves, and many passengers, if not getting physically sick, suffer for hours afterwards and cannot function well for the rest of the day. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THIS. Take Dramamine or some other sea-sickness medication beforehand. In the warm season the ocean is noticeably calmer, but you are not guaranteed a smooth ride, and waves can be large enough to make the ride unpleasant. Much of this is due to the unnecessarily fast boat taxi speeds. (Cruise boats go at a more comfortable pace.) On my first trip to the Galapagos in 2005 we took one such boat, which had one of its two engines out of operation. The crew said the ride would be more comfortable – as we would go slower… I didn’t appreciate this until our return trip with a faster boat – when half the time I was airborne above my seat!)
Sites at higher elevations are cooler, but there are few accommodations there and the cloud zone can be very drizzly during much of the year. Dry locations, usually on the northern side of the islands, are inaccessible by most tours.
We visited the highlands around Los Gemelos on Santa Cruz, since this is a relatively accessible and well-preserved cloud forest region with some trails. We chose not to visit the highlands and caldera on Isabela because it appeared that the road mostly passed through disturbed agricultural terrain on the way to the summit. And since it appeared that you needed both a driver and a guide it was going to be quite expensive for a private tour. I have seen volcanic landscapes elsewhere (Hawaii for example) and to make a long walk to see some recent spatter cones, and if clouds permitted, a view of the northern part of the island, was in our opinion not worth the time and effort. We might have been wrong, but our reading of the reviews by travelers and looking at the images didn’t convince me.
When planning to explore the higher elevations on the three major islands you need to understand the diurnal cycle of cloudiness that frequently occurs. It may be clear in the morning – very early, but as the slopes heat up the air rises and forms clouds over the high terrain. If you want cloud-free or less-rainy conditions you should leave early. This is primarily true in the warm/wet season. The cool season cloudiness change is much less throughout the day, and it might even be clearer in the afternoon.
Taxi rental for the day can be less expensive than a guided tour –as the latter cost will be per person. Several people renting a taxi split the costs. Some destinations that can be visited this way are Garrapatero Beach and the Tortoise site at Rancho Primicias. However, you cannot walk the trails around the pit craters at Los Gemelos without a certified park guide – for which the daily cost is close to $100 per day. This is on-top of the taxi driver, for which you might easily pay $60 per day. Thus the cost savings becomes considerably less compared with a formal tour. However, you have total flexibility when you hire the guides yourself. Tours will usually not leave until after breakfast and will stop for lunch etc., which depending on your perspective, is lost time. And during the warm season, when rain showers may develop over the high terrain by mid-day, you may want to be visiting the highlands in the early morning hours (few tourists get up this early).
Taxi rentals on San Cristobal allow for visiting all of the main sites, both in the highlands and the tortoise reserve, again with greater time flexibility.
Having said the above, we speak Spanish (wife is native speaker) and this allows for detailed discussion along the way with the guides and driver. If you don’t speak Spanish you will likely have to take a tour to make the most of the day or hire a bilingual guide for a private tour. Guides generally speak English, and many drivers will speak some, but it is true that speaking Spanish fluently greatly facilitates most aspects of visiting the Galapagos.
2) The Galapagos are for natural history tourists – not your casual tourist seeking a sunny beach.
My most important recommendation for those considering travel to the Galapagos is that they evaluate their personal interests first. No one has unlimited time and money, so all travel requires some prioritization. If you want a warm winter get-away – go to the Caribbean or the Pacific side of Costa Rica, not the Galapagos. It takes too long to get to the Galapagos – you must, at the minimum, overnight in mainland Ecuador if you fly from any part of Europe or North America. It also costs more, depending, on where you are coming from.
Even if you have a more than casual interest in natural history, think carefully about your alternative options. Where could you go for the same cost – in $$$ and in days? If you are a birder, you will see many more species in a forest on the mainland of South or Central America. In you have a fascination for reptiles, there are essentially a handful of lizards in the Galapagos (many species of the Lava Lizards but they basically look similar) and 4 snakes (not common to see). True, these reptiles are found nowhere else, but the diversity compared with the mainland of Ecuador is very poor. The same is true for plants, with the rain forests, cloud forests and dry forests of Ecuador having many times more species than in the Galapagos. The Galapagos, despite their fame, are oceanic islands much like other oceanic islands with relatively impoverished floras and faunas.
In summary, for the same cost you could spend twice as long in the US or the Caribbean or Central America and see many more species, if that is your objective.
Then why go to the Galapagos? From our experience, many people go for the novelty. Our impression is that many tourists haven’t done enough background reading to understand what is unique about the islands, and about what to expect. Sea lions and pelicans can be seen on the coast of California; why spend thousands of dollars to see them in the Galapagos?
3) the Galapagos Islands are not the best place for birding…
Many of the highlights mentioned in guides and online comments include birds. For example, the Waved Albatross on Espanola, the Frigatebird and Booby nesting colonies on North Seymour, and the penguins and flamingos of Isabela. And needless to say, the 13 different Darwin finches of the various islands. However, the checklist of birds is rather short, and many of the birds can be seen in coastal regions of North America at some time of the year. Some of the novelties are rarely mentioned in the tour brochures, such as the Galapagos Dove (which in 11 days we saw only once, on Isabela).
Sometimes detailed information is hard to come by. The flightless cormorant is often mentioned, but is present in parts of Isabela that only certain cruise tours go to. (An independent traveler not taking a cruise to west Isabela will not see it.) We saw the nocturnal Swallow-tailed Gulls only once, with a small colony at the end of a trail in Loberias on San Cristobal. The visit to the tortoise breeding center and visitor center on San Cristobal must be guided by either your own guide or one at the center (no charge) – you are not free to wander as some online information suggests (it is actually good that visitation is controlled, from our observations of some of the tourists).
Some other interesting details regarding the islands aren’t easy to find online. I was not aware that half of San Cristobal’s electrical power comes from 3 large wind turbines high on the island; this was not mentioned in online info – and we had brownouts due to weak winds while we were there. As for food on the islands, in Santa Cruz the locals (and many tourists) eat not in the restaurants found in the tourist section that abuts the Bay, but a few blocks back, where tables are set up in the street during the evening for dinner. Food here is closer to traditional Ecuadorean (more beans, rice and fried plantains) that are more filling and less costly than in the tourist-oriented restaurants only a couple of blocks away. Yet finding this mentioned online is not easy. The point is, as in most touristic locations worldwide, the local economy is geared to efficiently extracting as much of your money as possible during your visit. Your challenge, as a tourist, is to minimize this organized fleecing.
4) Independent travelers need to be aware of the visitor restrictions….
You cannot just go anywhere you want to, even if you walk. Walking through the dry forest at lower elevations, on lava flows or the likes, without a trail is very difficult. Trails for tourists are well marked and end with signs like “STOP”. And there are few beaches where you can walk for long distances. Most beaches are short and end in lava flows or mangroves.
For boat tours (either cruises or day trips) visitors are confined to specific landing sites and the trails that originate from those sites. We did not take any cruises so we cannot speak from personal experience, but both the time and opportunities to deviate from the trail are limited. If you want lots of time for photography you may not be entirely satisfied. And your sunset and sunrise photos will always be from your cruise boat.
5) Read books and the official web pages before you travel… this is critical!
At least when compared with many other parks in Latin America, the information about the Galapagos National Park visitor sites is very detailed. We suspect that many tourists never read the official sites, since the web site requires a bit of exploring. In fact, Goggle-ing the relevant topic related to the Galapagos usually brings up innumerable commercial sites, mostly related to tours. Unless the Internet web surfer is quite savvy they will be overwhelmed by the large number of commercial sites, each one selling a particular service with less than impartial perspectives. (Exactly the same is true in the US, where commercial sites seek Internet visibility whereas government sites (non-profit) don’t have such a financial need. The Charles Darwin Foundation site and some other sites might be overlooked. These sites are a must:
and especially this link about each island
and the Charles Darwin Foundation
There are several excellent books that can be obtained in the US that describe the natural history of the islands. These are a must read before visiting the islands. Given that you will be spending at least $1000 just to get to the Galapagos and anywhere from $1000 to $5000 or more for land or cruise costs (per person!) you certainly can afford $100-$200 on books that provide the essential background for your visit.
Some of the books we read before going were:
1) Wildlife of the Galapagos by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter and David Hosking (Essential field guide to the island plants and animals – carry it with you.)
2) Galapagos: a natural history by Michael H. Jackson
3) Galapagos: the islands that changed the World by Paul D. Stewart (excellent book)
4) Galapagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy by Tui de Roy (expensive but worthwhile) – most chapters written by scientists at the CDRS.
You need to understand what is really novel about the islands… to appreciate the rare from the common… (i.e. sea lions are found in many places, Galapagos Doves only in the Galapagos…).
Expanding a bit upon this idea of “know before you go”, we were surprised by the number of people booking cruises without knowing exactly which islands they would be visiting. While I can partially understand this “care-free” attitude, especially if the object is to enjoy the cruise, rather than to see the wildlife, a tourist with a strong interest in natural history should make a special effort to select a tour that goes to sites where they will see what they hope to see. For example, it is easy to see Marine Iguanas near the towns on Santa Cruz and Isabela, and you will easily see innumerable Sea Lions and some other wildlife from a land stay on San Cristobal. If you want to take your time photographing the more common species, do so during a lower-cost land stay (ideally before taking a cruise) and then focus your high-value (and high cost) shore time during the cruise looking for, and photographing wildlife and landscapes you cannot see during a land stay. Also, by spending a few days on land before your cruise you will have time to learn what is common and this will help you see more during your cruise.
If I were to take a cruise I would focus on the region of strong upwelling and cooler water west of Isabela, where the flightless cormorant and penguins are more likely to be seen. The fresh volcanic landscapes and large volcanoes are more impressive there as well, and there is less overcast there during the dry season. Whales are apparently more common in that region as well. But most cruises do not go there, especially shorter (less costly) ones. There is no perfect cruise where you will see everything, and it is important to remember that some of the most unique habitats are at higher elevations – and the accessible parts of this zone are mostly disturbed by agriculture. Few tours focus much time in this zone, unfortunately for the natural history tourist, especially those with an interest in the vegetation (admittedly a minority of tourists).
6) Cost of travel to the Galapagos is higher than many other natural history destinations
If we were Europeans and wanted to see novel wildlife, we would 1) first go to Florida and rent a car. The daily costs would be no higher than in the Galapagos and the infrastructure to see wildlife (of much greater diversity) is much better for the independent traveler. In fact, the US tourism industry and parks (whether state or national) are built around the assumption that most travelers are independent travelers. Tours exist in some parts of Florida (around Orlando and Miami in particular) but it is absolutely not necessary unless you cannot drive (driving in the US is more “organized” than most other countries in the world) or you cannot read or speak any English.
As for travelers from North America, I would still recommend travel within the US first if you have not traveled widely there (many Americans have not). Yes, there are novel things in the Galapagos, but it is expensive and I would put such a trip off until a better appreciation has been developed for the unique aspects to be found there.
As for the costs involved in visiting the Galapagos, these are substantial, but depend on how you plan to travel. For an independent traveler not taking a cruise the costs might be roughly as follows:
Air fare (from USA or Europe) to Ecuador $800-$1200
Air fare from Quito or Guayaquil to Galapagos Round trip $260
Entrance fee $100
Transport on islands – taxi’s (total) $20-$150
Food ($25 per person per day) $25/day
Hotel (room per night) $25-250/night
Cruise (per day $200 – $500+/day)
Thus, just to get to the islands will require minimum of $1200, if you are sharing cheap hotel rooms and cooking some you can probably get away with $50 dollars per day. But if you plan to do any day trips to nearby islands (@$150/person), take inter-island water taxi’s ($25 – $30 each way), or buy anything the costs will add up. A figure of $50-100/day/person might be closer to what a low-end tourist might expect to pay, sharing a room.
The longer you plan to stay the more important the daily lodging and other costs will be. The cost of a week-long visit to the Galapagos will be dominated by the airfare cost, whereas for a month-long visit the lodging costs will become more important than the airfares. Needless to say, most tourists who are working at a full-time job cannot take a month off very easily, so most tourists come for no more than a week or two, and are thus willing to pay more for better facilities in their hotels and food options.
Compared with a cruise, the land-only expenses are quite a bit less per day, so you might be able to spend two or three times as long in the islands if you don’t do a cruise. But the experience will of course be different.
Finally, a word about the Ecuadorean perspective. They actually don’t prefer the low-end tourists – those tourists who expect a discount on every transaction or want to get by for the least possible cost. Those working on the islands appreciate those who come prepared to pay without complaint, those who have done their calculations beforehand and know what to expect to pay and accept it. A taxi driver in Puerto Ayora (often they don’t own their taxi’s) must pay their first $50 to the owner – at $1 per ride that is their first 50 rides each day. Wages are not that high, costs are high in the islands for the locals, and they need to recover their costs. Without the higher-end tourism the islands would be a much different place, perhaps more like other low-end tropical beach towns elsewhere in Latin America (we’ve passed through quite a few – they are often not much to write home about).
7) Galapagos tourism is built around guided tours… not independent travelers
The services provided by the tourism sector in the Galapagos are aimed, not at independent travelers, but rather at tourists coming as part of organized tours on cruises. Often tourists do not realize that there is a land option – it is downplayed – though it is a growing sector within the Galapagos Islands. Advertising in other countries emphasizes the cruises since international tourists are more likely to want to see more islands and their wildlife, and don’t care to put up with the complications involved in a land-based trip. For some, an evening on the Malecon in Puerto Ayora is as much as they see of the civilized parts of the Galapagos, before returning to their cruise boats in the harbor for the night.
A visit to the CDRS (Charles Darwin Research Station) is mandatory for each cruise, but while the CDRS is free (and open from 6AM to 6PM every day), it might often be done at the end of the cruise (when in fact some of the knowledge is most useful at the start of a cruise). All such tours for cruise participants are guided by certified park guides, which is valuable – and needed, from some of the questions that we heard tourists asking their guides. Though we did not really contract with any formal guides during our independent travels, we could not help but hear their comments at times and it appears that the training of the guides (they go through a 6 month course) is very good for the level of the tourists they encounter. They are usually not biologists by training, but their overall background and conservation concerns are genuine. The same can be said of the Galapagos National Park (GNP) staff (there are 244 staff listed on their web page) – so do not complain about your $100 fee to the GNP upon arrival – they really need it to patrol and manage the huge GNP area and many difficult of access islands. Many parks in Africa charge $100 per day per tourist; the Galapagos park fee is a deal, compared with the overall cost of your trip. It may be steep compared with US park prices, but those are supported by tax dollars that the Ecuadorean Government doesn’t have much of.
Day trips to nearby islands
We cannot imagine why people would want to do day tours to Isabela or San Cristobal from Santa Cruz. It takes more than 2 hours to go each way between the islands and you may well arrive seasick from the voyage. Then you are bused (in small buses to be fair) to the destinations, which are marginally different from those on Santa Cruz. You may see a few flamingos and penguins on Isabela, and a different tortoise-breeding center, but these are hardly worth the voyage. At least one or two nights should be a minimum if you visit another island by water taxi.
All boat tours, even the most expensive cruises, are limited to daytime access at specific sites. Each site has specific features of greatest interest. Permits have to be obtained by the cruise ships in order to visit any of the islands. Not every cruise ship can get permits to every site and typically two different sites are visited per day. Visitors cannot leave the trail or separate from the group too much. Photography will be more limited, though sites are more pristine than those close to the population centers
We discovered, speaking to locals that work in the tourism industry on the islands, that many tourists don’t realize that people live in the Galapagos. This is possible to understand because upon landing in Santa Cruz (actually on Baltra) those passengers joining a cruise are whisked away to the boat dock, while the others going to Puerto Ayora go another direction, cross a channel, and then go over the mountain 20 miles to the largest town in the Galapagos.
Then why go to the Galapagos?
Natural, relatively pristine landscapes, wildlife unafraid of humans, dense concentrations of certain wildlife, small boat cruises, snorkeling…. these are some of the main reasons for visiting the Galapagos. We were impressed by the cleanliness of the beaches, especially on Isabela. There was virtually no trash, which is impossible to find in most areas closer to civilization.
Of these features, the unafraid wildlife and the concentrations of some wildlife are relatively unique. The infrastructure is in place to see the wildlife in habitat, unlike some other locations where you can see similar or the same species of animals but with less-than-ideal environments and access.
The human side of the Galapagos
Tourists may not realize (especially if they don’t visit and read the material in the visitor centers of the National Park on San Cristobal and at the Charles Darwin Research Station) that the human population in the entire Galapagos was only about 3000 in 1962. It is now something near 30,000. Most of this population supports the tourism activity, and most of the introduced organisms are associated with the agricultural zones on the 4 islands where some farming exists. Most tourists will not see these agricultural zones unless they travel to the highlands.
Although the main street in Puerto Ayora is full of touristy shops catering to well-heeled tourists, the reality of each of the towns in the Galapagos is found on the back streets. Though real poverty is lacking in the Galapagos, these towns are for the most part similar to other towns in tropical Latin America. Construction is similar, the houses are similar, and the general interests of the population are similar. Tourists may not realize that most people are in the Galapagos because there is money to be made and the opportunities are better there, living off the tourist trade, than in the other parts of Ecuador. The residents do not have a special interest in natural history, rather most Ecuadoreans are there for the higher income that buys them a better life. Do not expect them to have a special communion with nature – if it were profitable to exploit nature and it were allowed, most of the population would. The GNP staff is vigilant to monitor illegal fishing (artisanal fishing is allowed, just not commercial) which still exists. Long-time residents of the islands appreciate the environment but many more recent arrivals have less of an appreciation and are more business-oriented. Fortunately, Ecuador is now actively controlling the population influx to the islands, but tourists need to be aware that the population is a response to the tourism. Of course if they spend most time on the boat they will not see any of the human side (and problems) of the Galapagos.
Below is a summary of some of the good natural history sites and trails available to independent travelers. They can usually be accessed from sunrise to sunset. They are visible in the Google Earth kmz file that we have prepared. (Be sure to download the kmz file to see in Google Earth.)
Trail to El Muro de las lagrimas (Wall of tears), including beach walk and many short side trails before you get there.
Trail to the tortoise breeding center (1200 m one way)
Optional walk up a gravel road to paved road junction (see attached images)
Concha y Perla mangrove boardwalk for snorkeling and birding
Los Gemelos, trail around larger crater for cloud forest vegetation
La Garrapatera trail to beach from parking lot (dry forest vegetation and beach)
Charles Darwin Research Station round trip walk from entrance
Trail to Tortuga Bay through dry forest (2.5 km one way)
Trail to Las Grietas swimming location, past hotel and beach
Guided walk in Las Primicias wet meadow (tortoises wander freely and are obvious at certain times of the year)
Malecon (developed walking path along the waterfront with places to sit). This is good for viewing and photographing sea lions and a few bird species.
Trails to Frigatebird Hill via National Park visitor center. Multiple trails, mostly paved, some elevation changes, good coastal lookouts and one designed snorkeling access (swell dependent). Take your time reading the visitor center information – there is much here that is valuable but we fear very few visitors see or understand the info presented.
Trail in Tortoise center (La Galapaguera). Best seen with a guide from the visitor center. 900m total length.
Trail up to see Los Juncos cinder cone lake. Possibly slippery trail (if wet) with many wooden steps. Seen best in early AM in wet season (before clouds develop).
Trail to beach below tortoise center. (Playa Chino) This is a good trail through dry forest vegetation.
Trail to La Loberia beach. A taxi can take you to almost the beach but you need to walk to see iguanas and Swallow-tailed Gulls down the coast. You have to go to the small beach (with lots of locals on weekends).. You may want to walk back to town – but beware of fast drivers on the nearly empty paved road.
The Galapagos is a unique and somewhat expensive destination. Most people have heard of the Galapagos but few have a good idea of what to expect and how best to visit. Most people (including myself until recently) think that the only way to see the Galapagos is by taking a cruise. It is true that a cruise, if chosen carefully, will allow you to visit more islands, some of which can only be visited if you take a cruise.
The Galapagos is an archipelago with many islands, 4 of which are inhabited (Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal, and Floreana) by substantial populations (though Floreana has only a small population). San Cristobal and Santa Cruz (Baltra actually) have airports and you can choose to fly to one and depart from the other or do a round trip to one of them.
I will try to convey the information I have, based on a trip my husband did in 2005 and on our most recent trip in February 2012.
Our previous knowledge: Before my husband’s visit during a work trip in 2005, we did not realize that there were that many people living on the inhabited islands and that you could see some attractions and wildlife without having to commit to a cruise. He disembarked in San Cristobal and discovered that there were water taxis to Santa Cruz. He visited Santa Cruz this way. He also saw that there were many hotels to choose from in Santa Cruz and that in general Santa Cruz appeared to have good infrastructure. Another discovery was the fact that there are many tour agencies in Santa Cruz so that if you want to do a last minute cruise you probably can get one if you are not too particular about the itinerary. There are also day trips to some of the islands (Floreana, Bartolome, Seymour) that you can do from Santa Cruz.
We planned our trip in 2012 based on this information. We also searched the web, read many comments on the travel forums, asked questions and corresponded directly with hotel owners.
Itinerary: Based on what we knew we decided to do independent travel rather than a cruise. We checked on possible day trips to other islands from Santa Cruz, but decided that it would be best to check on this option once we got to Santa Cruz. We did not get many responses from the tour operators we contacted and the ones that did quoted high prices.
In the end, due to Carnival (vacation period in Ecuador), the tours to Seymour island were full. Most of these tours don’t go everyday so if you are interested it is best to check as soon as you arrive. The price was $150 per person and we realized that a lot of the trip would not be spent visiting Seymour island, but instead commuting from Santa Cruz and back. This particular day trip would have been expensive and exhausting so we are not sure if we would have gone if room had been available.
We opted for visiting the three main inhabited islands and taking water taxis between them. We flew to Guayaquil where we spent two nights, and then we flew to Baltra / Santa Cruz. We spent 4 nights in Santa Cruz, then took a water taxi to Isabela where we spent 4 nights. We returned to Santa Cruz and spent 2 nights, then took a water taxi to San Cristobal where we spent 3 nights. Finally, we flew from San Cristobal to Quito where we spent 2 nights. We wanted at least a day in Quito to visit the Botanic Gardens and do some shopping. This was our 4th trip to Ecuador but our first trip together to the Galapagos.
It may seem like a lot of time on each island, but most of the attractions involved a fair amount of walking and we wanted to have time to rest (during the mid-day heat) since we knew this time of the year would be warm. It is possible that more energetic people can shorten the times in each place, but you will definitely feel rushed and won’t have much time to rest.
Tickets: We bought our tickets from Guayaquil to Santa Cruz and San Cristobal to Quito with Aerogal. I called the airline directly and their tickets were more expensive (same flights) than booking with Travelocity, so we decided to go with Travelocity and saved about $100 on each ticket.
Hotels: I read many comments on the forums trying to find a balance between price and location. I send many emails to different hotels and many did not respond. Eventually we selected Mi Caleta Inn in Santa Cruz, Cormorant Beach House in Isabela and Casa Blanca in San Cristobal. All three hotels had good reviews. We checked their locations using Google Earth to get an idea of where were they with respect to each town.
It is true that if you visit almost any place in the world you can probably always find a hotel and no reservations are needed, however your location or price may not be ideal (we have slept in our car over the available accommodation on occasion). In this case we wanted to know where our hotel was located with respect to trails and attractions and I wanted to make my decision based on travelers reviews. Once we decided on the hotels we wrote and asked questions directly to the owners or managers.
Some hotels are very small, like the Cormorant beach house on Isabela, which only has 4 rooms and is really more like a beach house than a hotel. While we were there people came around asking if there were rooms available – they were full so they had to turn these people away. I believe that if you find what you like and communicate with the owners so all your questions are answered, it is better to make a reservation. Another thing is that you don’t want to go half way around the world and then waste precious vacation time looking for a place to stay. That may be OK if you have lots of time or don’t really care if there is a disco or bar next door or the location is not that ideal.
In the case of Isabela and San Cristobal they just held our reservation and we did not have to pay anything. For Santa Cruz we used PayPal and deposited half the amount. In this case the hotel, its surroundings, and the location were important and I did not want to take chances. So my advice to travelers would be to look into the matter and make a decision and make a reservation so you are sure you will get a place that is reasonable and meets your needs. If you are there a long time you can always move to a different hotel if you are unhappy with your chosen accommodation or need to save money.
Trails: We read a variety of books and used my husband’s previous trip information to get an idea of what places could be visited on our own on the three islands. Also we read the Galapagos National Park website which has (or had) a good description of every site you can visit in the Galapagos. Reviews were also useful. We always check Google Earth to see what things look like as far as topography, disturbance of the vegetation etc. since we are focused on the natural history.
Cruising versus Independent Island hopping:
Advantages: You can get to places you won’t be able to visit otherwise. Good for volcanic landscapes and getting close to some species such as boobies. More opportunities for snorkeling. Naturalist guide with you to provide useful information.
Disadvantages: Not all cruises go to the same islands. Not all islands are the same. Depending on your interests you may want to choose carefully so you can visit the islands that will be of most interest to you. For example the volcanic landscapes may be more dramatic at some landing sites. Certain birds like the Waved Albatross nest only on one island and only at certain times of the year. So the specific island and time of year are important in choosing the cruise. Then comes the type of ship you want. The larger ships are more stable and have more comforts but also have more people. None carry more than 100 people.
Because the ships are small sea sickness can be a real issue. The Jan-April months are the hottest time of year but have the calmest seas. The rest of the year it can be overcast most of the days, it is colder and the ocean is rougher with larger swells. (Not like the North Atlantic in winter, but remember that most cruise boats are quite small.)
Finally on a cruise you will be in close quarters (depending on size of ship – some are fairly small, 12-16 or so passengers) for a week or more. Your meals will be communal and you are not allowed to wander on your own anywhere while visiting the islands. You have to stick to the trails and stay with the group. While this is generally true everywhere you go (staying on the trail), if you are not on a cruise you can go at your own pace and you have more time to stop and take pictures and observe the wildlife at leisure.
Again, I am not saying that cruising is a bad option, only presenting the pros and cons. In an ideal world I would like to do both, a carefully selected cruise at the right time of the year for my interests, and I would also do the island hopping. If you do not enjoy being with a group and being led all the time, island hopping on your own may be more rewarding and enjoyable – even if you do not get to see some of the beautiful sites that can be seen only on a cruise. This is a very personal choice and it is not just dominated by costs, although cruising is usually much more expensive per day than island hopping.
1) The Charles Darwin Research Station. This is a nice place to get an introduction to the tortoises. It also has nice trails that meander past the different tortoise enclosures. There are some small shops to buy drinks and snacks and souvenirs. Not too many interpretive signs explaining the natural vegetation you see. The display areas with educational exhibits are in not very good condition given the large number of visitors that come here and they need updating. Overall I would still visit and we actually went there 3 times since it has nice trails. Marine iguanas can be found at Academy Beach inside the station. It is best to go early since tourists from cruises start arriving early.
2) Los Gemelos, Rancho Primicias (tortoise gathering place but not many tortoises there in February), and Garrapatero beach. Took a private tour to the highlands where we visited these three sites – the last is a beach on the east coast. This was our only “tour” and was arranged by the owners of our hotel. The tour was $60 for the two of us. It lasted from 7 am to 4 pm. After visiting the first two sites early (we were the first tourists to the Rancho and that was after we visited Los Gemelos) we were dropped off at the beach for 4 hours and the driver came back for us. This driver, having worked for the National Park, was able to take us to Los Gemelos, but we learned that, as of this year, you need an official Guide as well as a car and driver. Guides cost anywhere from $80-150 per day. Not sure where you would arrange for a guide but I suppose a travel agency would probably be able to arrange it. It would probably cost more, but if you visit all 3 places and spend considerable time on the trail at Los Gemelos (the only location where a park guide is officially needed) it may be worthwhile for the botanically-inclined.
3) Tortuga Bay. For this we took a taxi (taxis are $1 each anywhere in Puerto Ayora) to the trail entrance. Then we climbed the steps to the park office where you register. The trail is paved with lava rock and goes through nice dry forest vegetation. Eventually after 30-45 minutes (2.5 km) you arrive at the main beach. This one is primarily used by surfers. You can continue on to another beach that borders a mangrove lagoon (we didn’t go). Many marine iguanas were at the first beach.
This is a nice and very clean beach with marine iguanas wandering about on the sand. It is a rather long walk if you just want to go to the beach. I personally enjoyed the trail getting there (1.5 miles) as it goes through nice examples of dry forest vegetation. The trail is in very good condition. No facilities or water along the trail or at the first beach where surfers go, not even bathrooms. Personally if you want a really nice beach I would get transportation to go to Garrapatero beach which is a bit far but also less crowded, and in my opinion, nicer than Tortuga Bay.
Some photos from Santa Cruz:
1) Concha y Perla. This is a small lagoon surrounded in places by mangroves. It is protected from the waves as it is partially enclosed. Marine organisms such as stingrays, sea turtles, and sea lions can come in. The water is relatively clear and you can see a good variety of fish, sea cucumbers, starfish etc. Lots of sea lions, some penguins and marine iguanas. During our stay we saw one large stingray and a large sea turtle near the platform. It is best to go there as early as possible (they open at 6 am and close at sunset), because later in the day the tours, and on weekends, the locals, begin to arrive. We walked everyday from our hotel to this area. In the afternoons we visited other places.
2) Tortoise breeding center. There is a very nice trail to this place and you can quickly walk from the hotel (Cormorant Beach House) to the trailhead since it is fairly close. The mile walk is very pleasant and goes over boardwalks, over lava flows, and through some short forest. The interpretive center is nice and you can walk around on your own. We saw almost no one on this trail each time we took it – tourists are driven to the center from the town so they miss the trail.
3) National Park, Playa del Amor, Los Tuneles. This is a walk we did while not planning to go that far. We were just planning to take a walk on the beach and left our hotel wearing flip-flops. We ended up walking almost 5 miles round trip. A fair amount of this walk to the park entrance (directly west of town) was done on the beach and was very nice and relaxing. After registering with the park ranger (you have to be out by 5 pm) we continued into the park and took several trails including La Playita. This was a nice trail and had lots of very large marine iguanas.
4) Lookout on the beach (in front of Albemarle Hotel). We walked to this place twice. Next to the lookout there is a marine iguana nesting zone and we had a lot of fun watching the females argue over territory to lay their eggs. Nice views from the platform.
Some photos from Isabela:
On San Cristobal we stayed at the Hotel Casablanca. The service was not great but their location is hard to beat. They are right in front of the dock where you arrive from Santa Cruz so it is a short walk to the hotel from the water taxi. Prices are OK and it comes with breakfast. Unfortunately the breakfast is served starting at 8 am. We wanted to be out earlier than that to take advantage of cooler weather in the early morning. Many shops and restaurants are near this hotel.
In San Cristobal we visited:
1) The national park visitor center. Very nice trail system and there are some good hikes like the one to Cerro Tijeretas. All trails are paved with stone. One of the places you can visit is the point where Darwin first landed (supposedly). Saw many frigate birds and some boobies and pelicans. The visitor center at the park is excellent and has many interesting exhibits and a lot of information about the islands and its people. I suspect very few tourists go to this visitor center. All the visits to the parks are free since you have already paid $100 to the park service upon arrival at the airport.
2) El Junco lagoon, the tortoise-breeding center (La Galapaguera) and the beach at Puerto Chino. We hired a taxi to take us to these sites – $50 for the round trip (we gave a generous tip as well) – it is at least 13 miles one way from the town to the tortoise center so you cannot realistically walk.
To get to the lagoon at El Junco is a good hike. It is important to go as early as possible because the clouds form early. We were lucky to see the lagoon and it was close to 8 am. A few miles farther on, the tortoise-breeding center has a very nice trail and the tortoises can be seen wandering inside the fenced-in facility so you get a feeling that they are roaming about free. You need a guide to walk the trails so if you don’t come on a tour, or bring your private guide, you have to wait and one of the two park rangers will take you free of charge.
3) Las Loberias. This place has a nice beach where the sea lions are abundant at certain times of the year. It is also a popular beach and people snorkel. The trail is nice and continues past the beach and goes for a long way towards a colony of rare swallow-tailed gulls that inhabit the cliffs. You can walk back to town or can arrange with the taxi to come back for you. We took a taxi to get there, then walked back. It is about 1.5 miles to the town.
4) Finally if you are in San Cristobal don’t miss the dock at night. The water around the dock is illuminated and you can see some very interesting fish, seal lions swimming, and we also saw beautiful groups of Cow-nosed rays.
Some photos from San Cristobal:
Commonly asked questions:
- What was your favorite island? We only visited three islands and they all had memorable places that were worth visiting. If I had to choose I would say my personal best experience was on Isabela. The food and lodging here were not 5-star and in fact I cooked two of the four nights we were there. Our location right on the beach was excellent and it allowed us to explore a variety of sites just by walking right out of our place. The sunsets were very nice and it was convenient to be at the beach for these. The pace was relaxed – there are fewer tourists here because of the lack of an airport for major flights, and the place in general felt very safe. The marine iguanas here were the biggest and most numerous in my opinion. Normally I would prefer a place with nice food and nice hotels, but in this case the slow-paced atmosphere, the wildlife, and the fact that we were able to snorkel every day, made this a most memorable place to visit.
- Snorkeling at Tintoreras (Isabela)? This is a place that comes up in many forums. Once we started asking questions about it we learned that the sharks that you can see there are not always there and their presence may depend on whether it is high or low tide. You can no longer be dropped off there by a local water taxi (short ride from the dock) and explore on your own. You now have to be with a guide. You can hire one ($80-150/day) and have a private tour (expensive for what is there) or you can go with a tour offered by the 3-5 companies on the island. We noticed that most companies are bundling this trip with a visit to Sierra Negra volcano in the morning and afternoon at Tintoreras. That is not a good idea in my opinion. Sierra Negra can be a tiring trip and they will be rushing you there so they can get back and take you to Tintoreras. Also we discovered that you no longer can snorkel at Tintoreras, instead they take you to a nearby place to snorkel. This is our opinion was no better than snorkeling on your own and free of charge at Concha y Perla (see my reviews). Therefore, for all the reasons listed above we decided not to go to Tintoreras. We feel that the snorkeling at Concha y Perla was very good and relaxing since you can do it on your own and stay as long or as little time there as you wish. We saw penguins at Concha y Perla although not too close. We saw penguins very close when we were waiting inside our water taxi that would take us back to Santa Cruz.
It is always very important to discuss the details with the tour companies when you are thinking of purchasing a day tour. Many of these details are not really emphasized and most people don’t really know what they are buying. If you know about the places you want to visit you can ask all the right questions and then decide if it is really worthwhile to do the tour or not. This applies especially to booking tours online. It is best to ask lots of questions with the details about where they are going, how long they will be at the place, etc.
Note: The inter-island water taxi’s, despite their small size, don’t arrive right to the dock on Isabela at low tide because it is too shallow for them. Instead they stay out a bit and you have to take an even smaller water taxi to the dock. Once there you have to pay $6 per person to enter the island. If you have not arranged to be picked up it may be hard to get a taxi to your hotel. There did not appear to be that many taxis on Isabela and most were picking up people that had made prior arrangements. Our hotel, the Cormorant Beach House, provided free pickup. It is only one mile to the hotel from the dock, but with luggage it is nice not to have to walk, especially if it is hot. The entire walk is on a dirt road. I must add that most of the roads in Isabela are not paved except for one that goes up the mountain, they are dirt or sand – so it would not be easy to roll wheeled luggage.
- Should I visit Volcan Sierra Negra? This may be a worthwhile trip if you are energetic and find the right tour. A private tour, though expensive (must pay for transport plus guide), may be better for small groups that have a particular interest in seeing the natural features. There are tour companies in Isabela that can arrange this for you. With the private tour you would have more time and freedom to go very early (before clouds develop), walk as far as you want to go, rather than be forced to walk the miles to Volcan Chico (a main attraction) once you get there, and you would have more time for photography of the vegetation (commonly ignored). Guides have different levels of training and the cost of hiring one depends on that as well. A good guide can be an asset and make your experience more memorable by showing you all kinds of things you may not otherwise appreciate.
- If I can only visit two island which ones should I visit? I would suggest Santa Cruz and Isabela, but see the following comments. For logistical reasons if you really want to visit Isabela you are better off landing at Baltra / Santa Cruz. If you land in San Cristobal you have to take a water taxi (7:30 am departure only) to Santa Cruz (~2 hours), then wait for the water taxi that goes to Isabela (2 pm or so), arrive at Isabela late in the day. If you are going back to San Cristobal the procedure is the same. This would be very tiring to do in one day. The sea trips could be rough depending on the time of year so Dramamine or its equivalent is highly recommended.
You could fly to Santa Cruz, visit Isabela, go back to Santa Cruz for a day or so and take a water taxi to San Cristobal and fly out back to the mainland from San Cristobal. That is basically what we did. Otherwise you would fly to Santa Cruz (Baltra), go to Isabela, back to Santa Cruz and fly out of Santa Cruz (Baltra).
Alternatively, if you want to minimize water taxi’s between islands, you could fly into Baltra and visit Santa Cruz, then take a water taxi to San Cristobal and fly out from there. For a short vacation option that is probably the easiest option and with the least risk of seasickness.
Note: The procedure for getting from the main airport on the island of Baltra to the main Galapagos town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is not as simple as the same procedure on San Cristobal. In Santa Cruz you arrive to the Baltra airport. Then, after paying your $100 per person national park fee and getting your luggage, you have to find the bus that goes to the canal that separates the islands of Baltra and Santa Cruz. There you pay $1 per person to get on a very short (.3 mile) ride in a small boat to the other side. Once there, you find a taxi (~$18) or bus (about $3) that will take you to Puerto Ayora, about a 35-minute ride. These are timed to the arrival of the jets to Baltra so this is not a problem. On San Cristobal the airport is about 2 minutes from the town, so the procedure is much easier and faster.
- Are there decent places to eat on Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal?
Food is a very subjective topic. My husband and I have travelled extensively in most of Latin America as well as southern Africa, West Africa, Australia and the Caribbean. We like many types of food, but some countries have better food than others. Based on my experience the food on the three islands we visited was OK but not anything too special. It was more expensive than on the mainland and sometimes I felt that the food was just too expensive for what it was. The place with the least options for food was Isabela. This is understandable as the island only has about 3000 people. The supermarkets are very small and the supplies not as varied as in the largest Galapagos town, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. The two times we went out to eat on Isabela the food was OK but expensive in my opinion (but what you find expensive may be inexpensive to someone else…). This motivated me to cook with simple ingredients. Our hotel had a small communal kitchen and a place to eat with ocean views so I preferred a more relaxed meal at our place even if it meant that I had to cook. This was more enjoyable than walking to so-so restaurants down the street.
Santa Cruz has many restaurants, the ones in the tourist zone tend to be somewhat expensive and crowded. Two blocks up from the main drag/malecon are the kiosks that set up at night. These are small restaurants that offer slightly cheaper fare. Tables are set up on a street that is closed to traffic at night. Food was OK but nothing special, but you could get beans, rice and fried plantains, which were difficult to get in the more touristy restaurants. The ice cream shop in Puerto Ayora on the malecon is a good place to visit. Very good ice cream and good prices. The supermarket, at the end of the malecon next to the dock, sells fresh bread and a fresh type of cheese made in Santa Cruz that is quite good.
The best food was on San Cristobal. The two restaurants we visited were recommended by locals, one was the restaurant of Hotel Miconia on the malecon. This restaurant had a set lunch menu that was very good and reasonably priced, good service and great views of the bay. The other place was restaurant Rosita. This was in my opinion the best one I visited while in the Galapagos. Excellent service, excellent seafood dishes, large portions, nice ambience (open restaurant on a street corner) and the prices, while higher than on the mainland, were reasonable.
- Should I cruise or not? This is a very personal decision and it really depends on your budget, interests, and tolerance to being in a group all of the time. An independent island-hopping trip requires a good bit more work and research but you have the luxury of total freedom when deciding where to go and how long to stay in any of the places you can visit on your own.
- Which one was your favorite walk? We enjoyed every walk we did while visiting the Galapagos. Perhaps the walk from our hotel on Isabela, along the beach to the entrance of the national park, and then the continued walk on the road that goes to the Wall of Tears was the nicest experience (it was also near sunset which helped). We saw some very large marine iguanas on the short trail to La Playita. The trail to the Tortoise nursery on Isabela (1200m one way) was also very nice and we did this several times, as it had a boardwalk as well.