If you’re looking for something really, really special to visit in Ecuador – you should definitely try Galápagos. We’ve been there and it was amazing! Here’s what you need to know about these beautiful islands.
Galapagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean around 1000km (~620 miles) from the west coastline of Ecuador. There are 18 major Islands. The most visited ones are:
- Baltra – there is only an airport there, so you’d typically spend there only few hours
- San Cristobal (another airport, but you can actually stay on this one)
- Santa Cruz
We visited Baltra, Santa Cruz and Isabela. This is how we spent our time (for more practical details, scroll down):
How to get there?
The only reasonable way to get to Galapagos is by flying there. You can choose from Quito or Guayaquil. Typically, the flight both ways costs around $370 and is a bit cheaper from Guayaquil than from Quito. There are some promotions from time to time and you can get as low as $250, but you have to buy immediately after the promotion is announced. Flights are offered by three companies: Latam, Tame and Avianca. The prices are not much different between the airlines.
The check-in procedure, however, is probably very different from what you are used to. Galapagos are extremely protected from any alien biological material. That’s why it’s prohibited to bring any seeds, plants, animal etc. Your luggage will be carefully checked before check-in and then sealed. Here you have the full list (in Spanish) of products you can take with you: http://bioseguridadgalapagos.gob.ec/lista-de-productos-2/. The luggage procedure is obligatory and costs $10. You will be given Galapagos Government Control ID Card, which you have to maintain until you’re back.
Now, Galapagos are a national park. That means you have to pay to enter there. The Ecuador residents are charged $25, but non-residents have to pay $100 (another reason for getting Ecaudor’s residency…)
What to do there?
The word “galápago” means turtle in Spanish and that is what the islands are known for. But not only that. In the islands there are many endemic species of which most famous are:
- Galapagos tortoises
- Marine iguana
- Galapagos finches
- Galapagos penguin
- Blue-footed boobies
- Fur seal
The best thing to do while in Galapagos is just to observe and admire the nature.
We visited two islands (Isabela and Santa Cruz) and – however similar – there are some big differences. Let’s start from Santa Cruz.
Baltra and then Santa Cruz
First, after leaving the Baltra airport you need to take a free shuttle bus which – during 10 minutes ride – takes you to the small harbor, where a boat cruises constantly from one side to a canal to the other. They’ll charge you $1 for that. Then you can take either taxi ($20-$25 – but you can share with other passengers) or a bus ($2). Obviously, the bus is a bit slower, but we thought that doesn’t justify the price of the taxi. The ride to Puerto Ayora – the main city takes ~45 minutes.
Peurto Ayora is a nice, little town, with many restaurants and hotels, so you will have no problems finding a place to stay even if you didn’t book in advance. The island has a big and really well maintained marina, where you can stumble upon on a sea lion, lying next to benches. But be careful, the law says you should always maintain at least 2 meter distance between you and any animal. Otherwise you may be fined. Sometimes, however, it’s really difficult to obey that law as the animals occupy space right in the middle of your way, just like this:
In the same spot in the night you can watch baby sharks swimming very close the pier attracted by the lights and small fish.
There are at least two places worth visiting in Santa Cruz.
Tortuga Bay is a really nice beach with almost-white sand and iguanas lying in the sand. The main part is towards the sea so it’s called la playa brava (in this case: stormy), so swimming is seldom possible. The beach, though, is really impressive – very long and wide, and the sand is pleasantly fine and hot. If you’d like to swim, just a few hundred meters there is another part of the beach which is separated from the open sea with a small peninsula. There you can swim all the time. It’s super-safe, also for children. At the Tortuga Bay beaches you can rent snorkeling mask for $5.
To get there you have to leave the town heading south-west down the Charles Binford street and walk for like 45 minutes. On your way you’ll pass salinas which are salterns (or salt evaporation ponds) where salt is obtained from sea water. It looks amazing – kind of moon-like landscape.
A grieta is a crack in the rocks made by seismic activity to where the ocean’s waters flow. You have on of them in Santa Cruz Island. To get there you have to go to the marina and get a boat taxi (costs $0,60) to get to the other side of the main bay, and then you’ll walk for 20 minutes. You have to go down the nice wooden stairs and there it is. We recommend to go there while the sun is still high, so you can see stuff while snorkeling in the water. The grieta is up to 10 meters deep, so you better have good lungs!
Although the entrance is free, you will be told to stay there maximum 45 minutes. This makes sense because the place gets pretty packed at times.
The transfer between the islands.
After a day and a half packed with snorkeling, animals and walking, we changed the island. To go to other part of Galapagos you have to book a ticket for a speed-boat (lancha). Do it in advance in one of the local tour centers, because the trips get booked out quite quickly. The ticket costs $30. The procedure is quite complicated. First, you’ll be given a plastic card with the name of your boat, then the guards need to check your bag (again, if you don’t have any seeds or plants) and seal it. Then a boat taxi will get you to your lancha. It takes roughly 2 hours – depending on the weather – to get from Santa Cruz to Isabela.
When you arrive on the boat to the Isabela’s marina, you’ll notice it’s much smaller and simpler. That is a sign of what you can expect there in terms of infrastructure. While Santa Cruz can offer good restaurants and fancier hotels, Isabela is a more interesting place in our opinion. It’s much less urbanized. There is no single ATM there and the food is probably a bit more expensive, but it’s quieter, there are more (and more interesting) animals.
From the Marina you can actually walk to the town (15 minutes walk) or you can take one of the small buses or trucks and it’ll take you there. I don’t remember how much exactly it was, but around $1 or $2. Again, you can search for a hotel there. We stayed in the Gran Hostal Tintorera and we can absolutely recommend it. Rooms are recently renovated, clean with A/C, the bathrooms are well equipped and the staff is nice and helpful. The standard price is $30 per person per night (including breakfast) but you can negotiate a bit. 😉 The only potential problem are roosters that belong to the locals and start to crow very early, but unfortunately there’s nothing you can do about it. Unless you pick a hotel at the very beach, but it would be much more than $30 (negotiable!)…
There various options of what to do on Isabela.
Riding a bicycle to the Wall of Tears
Get a bike. There are many places where you can rent it. Rent it for the whole day. Note that the tires are reinforced. It’s important because the terrain is difficult. You can leave the town along the beach heading west and you’re on a really nice road to a really nasty place… But before you reach it, you can admire iguanas and giant Galapagos tortoises. They are really amazing!
The nasty place at the end of the road are ruins of old penal colony. The wall was built by the prisoners between 1945 and 1959. The colony was set up in 1944 by the decision of the José María Velasco Ibarra. Obviously, most of the persons held there were political prisoners. A sad, but interesting spot.
Concha de Perla
Concha de Perla is a nice little bay near the main marina where you can snorkel and play with the sea lions. They’re really friendly but you still need to be careful as they may bite you. The bites are difficult to cure because of bacterias living in the sea lions’ mouths. If you’re lucky you can see starfish, stingrays, turtles and many, many fish. To the bay leads a wooden pier that goes among a mangrove forest. Sun beams penetrate the forest and hit the cristal clear water where the iguanas rest. It’s really beatiful.
And if you want to see more lazy sea lions, just go to the other side of the marina. There should be plenty of them!
Tintoreras and others…
There is plenty of activities that you can do while on Isabela, among others:
- all-day hiking to the Cerro Azul volcano
- a cruise to small islands and snorkeling there
- diving with equipment
We went for a short cruise to a small island called Tintoreras, where – supposedly – you can see sharks. We were unfortunate and we couldn’t see any, but we saw a turtle, Galapagos penguins and the famous blue-footed booby, although we realized that only by looking at the photos we took. 🙂 The island itself is interesting because it features an amazing moon-like landscape.
Unfortunately, everything is expensive on the islands. It is because there are not many products produced there, so everything has to be transported from the mainland Ecuador. One shop owner told us they have to paid $1.90 for every pound of goods carried from the continent. That’s why you should not be surprised that a small lunch costs $6, a small bottle of beer costs $5 in a restaurant and $2.25 in a local shop. Pretty much everything is almost twice as expensive and it’s good to have cash, as the only ATM is on Santa Cruz island. Is it worth it? Totally… again, see for yourself (this time, animals and animals only):