Galápagos – sea lions, sharks, tortoises, iguanas and more!

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
  • Isabela

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.




Galapagos location

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

Galapagos – the Baltra Airport

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

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.

Grietas

Grieta in Santa Cruz island

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.

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.

The Wall of Tears

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.

Costs?

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):

Tourism #1 – Parque Cóndor

As much as lion is the king of the jungle, condor is the king of Andes.

These beautiful, respectable birds are considered threatened as their population has been prosecuted by man, falsely believing that condors attack livestock. Significant efforts have been made to protect condors and rebuild their population.

One of the places where condors are treated with special care is Parque Cóndor, a really nice venue located in the mountains (2800 meters above sea level) near Otavalo (Imbabura province). The park offers a great view on the mountains and city of Otavalo. But its main attraction is – of course – birds!

When you arrive at 11:30am or 3:30pm, you can enjoy a 45-minutes program during which a skilled guide shows different birds and give interesting details about them.

You may think: “well, birds, ok…“, but that only means you’ve never seen the white American eagle gliding effortlessly above the valley. Believe me, it’s worth it!

And finally the king of Andes, feasting.

10 reasons to visit Ecuador

So you got bored with the city, your daily routine, your Starbucks coffee and unexciting, predictable lunch and you want to try something new? Obviously there are dozens potential destinations each having something unique to offer. But let me present a country when you can experience a great variety of things and you surely will not be disappointed.

Ecuador, located just 4.5 hours away flight from Florida, is surprisingly diverse and generally affordable for the Westerners. Being known for its pleasant climate, vivid culture and great food it has become a very popular holiday and retirement destination.




What attracts people to Ecuador? Here are 10 – very subjectively chosen – reasons to visit or live in Ecuador. Treat them as a teaser and not a complete guide.

1. The equator

Ecuador owns its name to its location. The equator line is a imaginary line which divides the Earth to north and south hemispheres. Points that are located on the equator have latitude of: 0° 0′ 0″.

Ecuador is one of 15 countries which lands are traversed by the Equator, but none of them has a name that would clearly mark that fact. 🙂

What are consequences of Ecuador’s location on the Earth? First of all the climate, of course. A climate typical  for the equator zone is a tropical rainforest climate and obviously that applies to Ecuador too. A part of the country called oriente is indeed a rain forest with very high average temperatures and high humidity.

However, Ecuador has other parts too: sierra a stripe of land located in high Andes and costa at the ocean, so the climate can be very different. It’s commonly said that the city that has the best climate is Ibarra, located in the province of Imbabura at the altitude of 2200 meters above the sea level.

Ecuador celebrates its location at the equator line. Near the capitol city – Quito – there is a landmark called mitad del mundo (“the center/middle of the world”), where you can take a classic picture of half you being at the northern hemisphere and half at the southern.

Over disputes about the exact location of the equator line, a very smart Ecuadorian built his own mitad del mundo – few feet away from the “official one”. And there the magic begins…

You can see many tricks supposedly proving you are in THE spot. However, physics doesn’t back most of the tricks. It’s fun anyway…

Two times in the year, the equinox occurs (20 of March and 23 of September) . In places located on equator it means the sun is directly overhead (in the zenith) and you won’t be able to see your shadow!

The location on the equator also means that the day and the night have almost exactly the same length – 12 hours. No more dark winter days!

2. The nature

From warm blue Pacific ocean to chilly, snowy peaks of Andes. From humid and green jungle to cold, clear lakes in the mountains. From wild wolves and bears to colorful toucans, hummingbirds and turtles. Ecuador has it all.

The country has 4 regions and thus 4 climate zones:

  1. Costa – the coast.
  2. Sierra – the mountains.
  3. El oriente – the rainforest jungle.
  4. Galapagos islands.

This means you can discover different types of fauna and flora without leaving the country.

The Galapagos are especially worth mentioning as it’s know of having numerous endemics – species that only live there, such as: Galapagos land iguana, Galapagos penguin, Galapagos tortoise or famous Darwin’s finches.

3. The cities

When you decide you are already full of nature, you can chill out in one of Ecuadorian cities.

Most of the major cities have a typical landscape of square blocks with a plaza in the center. Although you won’t find monuments as old as in Europe – of course – the city centers generally preserved the colonial architecture.

Quito – being the capital city – is home for many government offices. If you have some paperwork to do – like visa, residency or other – you will visit it anyway. On your list there should definitely be Cuenca with its large historic part, Guayaquil – the biggest city in the country and Salinas – the Miami of Ecuador. If you’re looking for a place to stay – Ibarra and surroundings will offer nice prices and potentially the best climate.

4. The culture

The government puts lots of efforts to promote the local culture of indigenas (indigenous people) as well as what’s left from pre-Spanish times. You will see traditionally dressed people walking by the streets (yes, they actually wear their clothes daily), you will have chance to taste traditional stuff (for instance famous Ibarra’s ice-creams, which supposedly were invented by indigenas) and try to say ‘Hello’ in Quicha, which is the native indigenas’ language, very different from Spanish, of course.

You will also hear the legend of the Blood Lake (Yahuarcocha) and learn about the Incas’ kingdom and sad history of Atahualpa – the last great Inca king.

Finally, you could try karaoke – which seems to be the Ecuadorian national sport – and see for yourself how bad they are at singing. 🙂

5. The food

Leaving the good old stuff behind, you will encounter new, sometimes exciting, sometimes baffling food.

You will try balls made of banana stuffed with cheese (“interesting…”), or deep-fried empanadas (“tasty!”) or mote (“essentially tasteless…”) not to mentioned all sorts of meat grilled directly on the streets.

If you like seafood perhaps you will become a fan of ceviche (a sort of cold soup or salad made of shrimps/prawns and lime juice) or encebollado (a kind of fish soup with onion and yuka). And of course you will able to try tasty crab or spiny lobster.

If you ready for extreme experiences, why not try cui which is essentially a grilled guinea pig… Or you can just stay with a soup – locro quiteño will be something more usual.

6. The ocean

The coast line of Ecuador has length of 2,000 km and offers sunny beaches, high temperatures and warm ocean. You can pick up a nice hotel just at the beach and enjoy the view and a fresh mojito in your panama hat.

Swimming, snorkeling, surfing or whale-watching – this is only a sample of what you will experience.

7. The mountains

If you’re not exactly the sea person, don’t worry – you won’t be disappointed. Having the longest continental mountain range in the world withing its borders, no wonder the mountains of Ecuador are something really special. The large part of the country lies in Andes, including some major cities, such as: Quito (2,850 meters above sea level), Cuenca (2,550) or Ibarra (2,225).

The Ecaudor’s top 3 highest mountains are:

  1. Chimborazo (6,310 meters).
  2. Cotopaxi (5,897) – which is also an active volcano.
  3. Cayambe (5,790) – which is also the highest point on the equator and only point on the equator with snow cover.

Good news is most of the peaks can be easily climbed without special equipment.

And here’s a movie from climbing the Imbabura volcano – 4,630 m (15,190 ft):

8. The panama hat

If you thought the famous panama hat comes from Panama, you were wrong!

The original, the genuine, the unique panama hat is a national treasure. This very distinctive hat is hand-made of toquilla straw which is so strongly related to tropics was added to UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists on 6 December 2012.

So, why panama hat and not ecuador hat? Well, US president Theodore Roosevelt who was photographed in the hat while visiting the construction of Panama Canal which boosted the hat’s popularity. But, unfortunately, like the Ecuadorians say: “Panama stole the hat from us”.

It comes in a variety of qualities, fashions and sizes. It can cost anything from 10 bucks to 500-600 dollars depending on the quality grade. Those most expensive you’re supposed to be able to roll and pass through a wedding ring. Be it truth or not, if you’re for a panama hat, the city of Montecristi or Cuenca are your destiny!

9. The people

In Ecuador you’re gonna meet some really nice and friendly people! Generally, they’re more relaxes and open for a causal conversation, even if they don’t completely understand you. 😉

The greetings are typically quite long and include a series of questions such as “¿Como esta? ¿Como le va? ¿Como ha pasado?” (How are you? How is it going? How have you been?) . Or the very-ecuadorian “¿Que mas?” (literally: “What more/else?” in a sense: “What’s new?“) at which you can just say “¡Bien, no mas!” (“Good, nothing new!“). And all the people that live in a proximity of a mile will call you vecino (neighbour). 🙂

But be aware! While the Ecuadorians generally have lots of patience towards foreigners that try to speak Spanish, they are terrible English speakers. If you don’t speak any Spanish, you will find it very difficult to communicate. So better start now!

10. The bananas

Banana. What can be so exciting about banana? Well… first of all, there is no fruit that would be called just “a banana” in Ecuador (which btw. is number 1 world exporter of the fruit).

Think apples. In Europe they come in a great variety of styles, flavours and colors (if you don’t believe visit Poland – the largest producer of apples in Europe).

So, banana is like the Ecuadorian apple.

There are yellow bananas (called guineos) which are commonly known as “bananas”. They’re generally sweet, but they come in different sizes, different “angles” and different tastes. Some of them are sweeter, some of them smell a bit like raspberry and some are really tiny.

Then you have verdes which are green bananas used for cooking. You can make really good stuff out of them (see: 5. The food, for more details).

And finally you have maduros which are quite huge and typically grilled before eaten.

The best part is the prices: in a normal shop you can get a banana for 7-8 cents, but you can also buy a big, giant bunch for a dollar. The banana-eaters paradise.

Summary

Ecuador offers a unique combination of rain-forest jungle, high mountains and stunning coast line. The prices are affordable, the currency is US dollar and a tourist visa will allow you to enjoy the country for up to 3 months. Getting the residence is relatively straightforward (I’ll write about it soon), so you can even stay for good. True, you would need to learn some Spanish to survive, but if you are looking for a great adventure, Ecuador is definitely a place to consider.

Stay tuned for some other practical hints that will be posted soon.