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Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers

Adelaide, Australia
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Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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This thread has been created as a comprehensive guide for future travellers to the Galapagos Islands who have no interest in taking a cruise but want to have a great travel experience without it becoming a “wallet-crippling” trip. This is my 2nd edition on this subject with updated information and additional details from my own land-based experience as requested by the fans of my previous thread.

I tried my best to be as accurate and up to date with prices for food, accommodation and Day Trips, but it’s almost impossible to get straight answers regarding costs online. Websites continually quote prices of $100 USD or more over the prices you can get when you are actually on the islands (in some cases 3 times more expensive). This forced me to rely solely on comments by people in various forums who had travelled to the Galapagos reasonably recently. This is why I continually use words like “about” and “around” in regards to costs (meaning that it is a “best guess estimate” but you could pay slightly higher or slightly lower that the price quoted). So it is better to look at “costs” in this post as a rough guide rather than an “absolute”.

All “COSTS” in $’s you see throughout this guide are in US North American Dollars (USD) which is the standard currency of Ecuador.

*Note - Some people chose to print out my thread last time (and even laminated the pages) to take with them on their Galapagos trip and found it useful to read each night to help plan or prepare for their next day. You’re also more than welcome to do that with this new improved version on the condition that you pass it on to another “worthy traveller” before you leave the islands (I recommend setting narrow margins on the pages before printing because it’s pretty long).

(This guide has been divided into 7 separate “chapters” in the comments directly underneath the initial post on Page 1 of this thread).

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Adelaide, Australia
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1. Re: Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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GENERAL THINGS WORTH KNOWING

The regional language of Ecuador (and the Galapagos Islands) is Latin American Spanish. Because a great deal of tourists travelling to the Galapagos speak English, most people employed at any level of that tourist industry will usually have some level of English speaking ability (some exceptional, some more basic). Most people involved in tours have good English (tour operators, guides etc) as do most people working on the “tourist strips” of the islands (restaurant staff, hotels, shops etc). Many of the taxi drivers also have at least a reasonable grasp of the language.

However, when you leave the “touristy” areas (back street café’s, areas outside of the towns that aren’t designed specifically for tourists to visit etc) English ability starts becoming more random with some locals speaking it quite well and others only understanding some words or sometimes none at all. So while knowing Spanish is not essential, learning some basic words can occasionally come in handy (and locals seem to love it when foreigners try to speak the local language, even if it is awkwardly or incorrectly).

DO NOT book anything big or expensive for your 1st day of arrival in the Galapagos. Plane flights get delayed and things can go wrong, which runs the risk of your time and money getting wasted and can ruin your trip before it has begun. Things like accommodation is fine to book for day 1 on the islands, but be smart and organise your bigger expenses for later days when are confident that you will have definitely arrived, got basically settled and had a little time to orientate yourself.

The less things you book before you arrive, the more money that you can save. Online pre-booking of things like accommodation and Day Tours can cost as much as 3 TIMES more than what you can pay if you just wait until you are on the islands in person. If arriving in the Galapagos without arranging anywhere to stay makes you too nervous, then I recommend booking only the 1st night (or 2 nights max) for when you arrive, which should give you plenty of time to find alternative accommodation in the following days. *Note - While I admit that not booking ahead is a bit of a gamble, I literally booked nothing but my plane tickets when I travelled there in early August for 16 days (14 full days and 2 half days). Despite August being considered to be in the last month of the “peak tourist” period, I still had a plethora of options of places to stay from day 1 and never experienced any problems whatsoever. I also never missed out on any of the Day Tours I wanted to do and in the process saved myself a MASSIVE amount of money.*

The “peak tourist” seasons are considered to be around mid-December to mid-January (near Christmas and New Year’s) and from around mid-June to early September. During these times it may be more difficult to barter for discounted accommodation and Day Trips due to higher demand and things may be filled up or sold out on some days if they are popular. Therefore, it might be best to decide what your “must have” experiences are and consider booking those specific things in advance, but be prepared to pay more for the privilege. The “low tourist” seasons are considered to be April to May and September to October.

Weather wise, the Galapagos Islands only has slight climatic variations throughout the year. The warm, slightly rainier season is from late December to June. This means warmer waters for swimming, but the chance of cloud and showers (though these are often quick passing).

The cool, dry season is from late June to December (meaning blue skies and occasional mid-day showers). However, “cool” is a relative term in the Galapagos as the days are still warm but the water is cooler due to the southern tradewinds. The warmest and sunniest months are usually February and March and from December to May the waters are meant to be clearer and calmer which should mean increased visibility underwater.

**IMPORTANT - Ecuador only uses North American dollars (USD) and locally minted Ecuadorian coins as its currency and once on the islands there’s nowhere to exchange foreign currency.

There will be a $20 fee for the INGALA Transit Control Card (up to 90 day Tourist Visa) which you MUST PURCHASE at the “check in area” BEFORE going through security at the Airport in Quito or Guayaquil (they won’t let you board the plane without it and you risk potentially missing your flight). There’s also a $100 fee per adult ($50 for children 11 or under) for the National Park Fee that you buy after you’ve landed at the Galapagos Airport (which is a requirement for all foreigners). THIS MUST BE PAID IN CASH before you can enter the islands (so credit/ debit cards will be useless for this). Therefore it’s 100% NECESSARY to have the PHYSICAL MONEY you need on you BEFORE catching your plane.** *Hint - You can fill out your details for the $20 “INGALA Transit Control Card” (Tourist Visa) online and pick it up in the Ecuador Airport to save yourself some time and hassle.*

*Additional Hint - As soon as you receive your $20 “INGALA Transit Control Card” at the Ecuador Airport, KEEP IT INSIDE YOUR PASSPORT at all times for your entire trip. You do not want to lose it until well after you have left the islands and returned to Ecuador.*

**WARNING - There’s a local rumour that the $100 National Park Fee is going to be increased to $200 per adult at some point this year (unconfirmed).**

**IMPORTANT - While the islands are much more expensive than the Ecuadorian mainland, many things in the Galapagos are still cheap enough to make credit cards worthless for smaller purchases and services (also there’s between 12% up to 22% for VAT and card surcharges). On top of that, most places do not take credit cards anyway, which MAKES CARRYING PHYSICAL MONEY ALWAYS ESSENTIAL in the Galapagos (preferably in lower denomination notes as many local vendors will also refuse to give change for $50 and $100 notes).** *Note - Traveller’s cheques are pretty much useless as well. But the banks on the islands MAY accept them (but I couldn’t confirm this).

There are several ATM’s at Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz) and near the San Cristobal town waterfront, but they have a withdrawal limit of $300 per ATM and $600 maximum daily total withdrawal limit. This being said, there have been past reports that sometimes ATM’s in the Galapagos have been used for “scamming”. Therefore the safest method to withdraw money is from one of the banks and getting your cash from a human teller directly (You will need to bring your passport as proof of ID to do this). Banks will also exchange $50 and $100 notes into smaller “more useful” denominations for you. There’s a bank on the main street of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz that is perfect for this.*Hint - If carrying large amounts of money to cover foreseeable expenses on your trip, it’s probably in your best interests to seek out accommodation that has onsite or in-room safes available (I found multiple mid-range expense accommodation that offered these).

**IMPORTANT - THERE ARE NO ATM’S OR BANKS ON ISABELA ISLAND OR FLOREANA and Credit Cards are useless there. So MAKE SURE you are cashed up BEFORE catching the “inter-island” boat (ferry) to Isabela or Floreana.**

Adelaide, Australia
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2. Re: Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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MORE SPECIFIC THINGS WORTH KNOWING

Things To Bring With You - Most things that you need can be purchased in shops on the islands with few problems and “reasonably” (cough, cough) cheaply. HOWEVER, there are a few things that are so mind-bogglingly expensive in the Galapagos that I STRONGLY RECOMMEND you bring them with you in your luggage. These include… Sunscreen (which you will definitely need, so bring enough for your entire trip), insect repellent (often useful) and toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, body lotion etc. and a “US standard power plug adapter” for charging your electronics (if you are not from North America).

Additionally, I also recommend that you bring extra memory cards and to always carry charged spare batteries for your camera on tours. It is worthwhile bringing a small torch (and spare batteries) if you plan to see any of the underground lava tunnels. Polarized sunglasses are extremely useful because you can more easily see the marine life swimming under the water from boats. Bringing your own thermos bottle to the islands is a good idea to save some money and to reduce unnecessary plastic waste… and finally bring an underwater camera if you have one (this was the one thing I deeply regretted not having when I was there).

Clothing - Since you’re not going to be on a long cruise, you don’t need to bring much clothing to the Galapagos because laundry services are plentiful, cheap and fast. The best place to do laundry is in Puerto Ayora: you'll pay only about $1 per kilo ($5 should easily do a couple's weekly wash). Isabela and San Cristobal also have laundries, but you'll probably pay about 50% more. This will also help you to keep your 22kg luggage limit down (as mentioned in the “Flight” section later in this post). *Hint - I recommend bringing at least one pair of good shoes with decent grip and a very lightweight (thin) waterproof jacket, regardless of whether you plan to do any hiking.

Cheap Accommodation - Accommodation is plentiful on each island, but the term “budget” doesn’t always apply. A budget hostel usually runs around $25-$50 for a single, private room and a basic double room for about $35-$60 (with hot showers and sometimes a simple breakfast). But lower prices can be found and negotiated with a little time and effort. You can also meet local residents in the main tourist streets who offer a cheap place to sleep on the properties where they live, often a unit separate from the main house (I did this a couple of times and they were quite good and SUPER cheap). Looking online for Airbnb places while you are there’s also a cheap alternative.

If you ever feel like “splurging” there are 4-star hotels rooms for around $120 a night, but in my opinion the 5-star hotels there (while they can be impressive) are not really “value for money”).

*Hint - Always ask if you can take a look at the room they are offering before you hand over any money. Not only will you see if the accommodation is suitable for your needs (always smart), but it strengthens your position if you then ask to negotiate the price (they will assume you noticed something you didn’t like with the room without you actually having to say anything).

*Additional Hint - I never booked any accommodation in advance and had no problems. But when you do happen to find a place you really like and want to stay more than 1 night (or if in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz you know which days you plan to return after visiting one of the other Islands), I suggest negotiating for a lower daily rate by offering to pay them for all the nights you plan to stay in advance (but get a receipt).

Cheap Meals - Food on the islands can be surprisingly affordable if you’re willing to wander around and check out the different restaurants. It is quite easy to find lunch and dinner deals for only about $5-$7 if you check out the back streets directly BEHIND the main town streets (outside of the “tourist zone”). These meals usually include soup, bread, a main and fresh juice (sometimes even dessert). At this price don’t expect anything too fancy, the main mostly consists of grilled meat/fish, rice, beans and a bit of salad. *Hint - If you add some of the free fresh-made chilli salsa they offer, it really ramps up the flavour for even the cheapest meal.

On the days you feel like spoiling yourself, for about $10 you can get a “bruja” fish (one of the tastiest fish on the planet). At a “kiosko” (a higher class of street stand) you can get things like filet mignon or tuna steak in coconut sauce for about $20. In some restaurants you can get grilled lobster tail for under $30.

Water - The tap water should not be drunk by foreigners in the Galapagos. To be safe, it is probably best not to not even brush your teeth with it. Most accommodation places offer water tanks that is fine to fill up water bottles from and deli’s etc sell bottled water. When you shower you will notice that the water is reasonably salty (especially in Isabela). *Note - I also recommend bringing your own thermos bottle to the islands to save money (and to reduce unnecessary plastic waste).

Alcohol - In restaurants alcohol can be a little pricey (especially wine), but smaller places that serve food offer local beers at a reasonable price. However, if you find a supermarket, you can get a bottle of wine for about $15 and small bottles of Ecuadorian rum for only about $5.

Wi-Fi on the Islands - Wifi services on the islands vary somewhere between at best “painfully slow and occasionally dropping out” and at worst “basically non-existent”. So prepare yourself for this when you travel there. You can find a few internet cafes in Puerto Ayora, and some accommodation places, restaurants (and occasionally boats) offer free Wifi as part of their service. Santa Cruz has the best Wifi, San Cristobal comes second and Isabela has the worst. *Note - If your phone is unlocked you can get sim cards with data packages for use on the islands (Movistar or Claro are the major phone companies there). These can be bought on the Ecuadorian mainland before you travel, at the Galapagos airports when you first arrive, or in places like supermarkets in any of the islands towns.

Snorkelling - If you’re planning to snorkel during your trip (which you definitely should) then I also advise to bring your own mask and snorkel (and perhaps fins) with you. They won’t take up much room in your luggage and although they are easy to hire for a day on all of the islands (about $5/ or $10 with fins), the equipment there’s not what you would call “state of the art”. Wetsuits and fins on the other hand are heavy and/or take up a lot of luggage space. So personally I wouldn’t bother and just hire those when you are there and feel you need them. *Hint - Don’t forget to put sunscreen on your ears, the back of your neck and especially the back of your legs when snorkelling (everyone always forgets). The Galapagos sun is quite fierce.

Airport Visitors Centre - When you first arrive at the islands, go to the “Visitors Centre” in the airport to grab any free maps, information or “visitors guides” they have on offer before you start your adventure (they don’t give them out unless you ask for them). Not only are these useful because they give you the latest “up to date” island information, they can give something to read while you wait for transport to take you to the nearest town.

Tourist Information Centre/Visitors Centre - Once you have found a place to stay and somewhere to stash your luggage, one of the first places you should always go to is the “Visitors Centre/ Tourist Information Centre” in town. These are usually easily found on the main street of whatever island town hub you’re in. There’s always someone there who speaks decent English and will have all the latest information of what is happening on the islands, maps, special events, timetables, weather details and recommendations. Grab the “visitor’s guide” in particular. It is invaluable. *Note - This is especially useful if you’re travelling solo because they can warn you about any recent potential issues you might need to be careful of. *Hint - If you ever run into any kind of trouble during your visit (ie. Lost money, problems with a local businesses, refund issues, misplaced passports etc) these centres are very useful to try and get help. They are eager to assist tourists, speak English and will know who in the islands to get you in contact with to try and sort it out.

Day Tours - The price you will pay for “Day Tours” on the islands should range from around $50-$220 per tour (the same tours can be up to $350 or even more if booked online). As a general rule “Land Tours” are usually the cheapest, “Scuba Diving Tours” are usually the most expensive and “Boat Tours” are somewhere in the middle. They usually they have a meal and some drinks included (but ask beforehand to be sure). Tour agencies usually stay open until about 7 or 8pm.

*Hint - People always forget to ask for details about the day trip and ask questions about the boat itself. Ask the tour operator to show you photos of the boat and the maximum amount of people that will be on it during your tour. How long is the tour? Will you need to bring/hire a wet suit or snorkel, need to bring refreshments or food, a towel or warm clothing, or are they are provided as part of the tour? You don’t want to be trapped on an overcrowded small speed boat, miss out on opportunities to snorkel at amazing spots, go hungry or freeze because they don’t provide towels just because you forgot to ask if you should bring your own.

*Additional Hint - The more questions you ask about tours before handing over money the better. Because then if anything they guaranteed you doesn’t happen, isn’t offered or if you are switched to a “lesser quality” boat etc you should be entitled to a refund of some of the money you paid. If this happens and the tour operator is being stubborn, you can bring the issue to one of the “Visitors Centre/ Tourist Information Centre” on the main street of the island for help.

**Secret - At the island ports or after finishing a tour, if you can manage to talk to one of the actual boat owners directly (ie. cut out the tour operator completely) you can save even MORE money on tours. Start the conversation by complimenting them on their boat, some basic Spanish is useful for this but not always essential (shhhhh… keep it to yourself).

Inter-Island Boats (Ferries) - The “inter-island” boat trips when travelling between the 3 main islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela) are long, loud, boring and unpleasant. They are referred to as “ferries”, but in reality are just speed boats with rooves fitting about 16-20 people.

Remember to charge your music devices, bring headphones, something to read, snacks (but not fresh fruit, veg or nuts/seeds due to quarantine) and anything else to entertain yourselves for a few hours. **IMPORTANT - MAKE SURE that you arrive extra early to get seats INSIDE of the boat. DO NOT get one of the seats at the back of the boat or you will end up miserable, getting saturated by sea spray and sunburnt for 2-3 hours straight.** *Hint - If you suffer from seasickness, don’t eat too heavily before getting on the boat and take a seasickness tablet about 30 minutes before departure. Also sit somewhere in the mid-point of the boat and bring devices that can hold your focus and distract your attention (earphones with loud music or something to read/watch etc.).

Inter-Island Flights - It is possible to catch a small 9 seater “puddle jumper” plane between any of the 3 main islands (San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz) rather than an inter-island boat. The company that offers this is called “Emetebe Airlines” and it is the only way you can go directly from Isabela to San Cristobal and vice versa (which the inter-island boats cannot do). Once on-board (which can take quite a long time supposedly) the flight itself will take only around 45 minutes or less and is apparently a unique and beautiful way to see the islands. However it is not a cheap option and the company has unfortunately built itself a reputation of being very unreliable. *Note - I couldn’t find any evidence online of anyone successfully negotiating a “cheaper ticket”. Cost - about $195 per adult and about $165 per child 11 years or under (online).

Rent Taxis for a Half/Full Day - The Taxis in the Galapagos are white pick-up trucks that cost about $1.50 to go anywhere within any town hub. But if you want to travel somewhere outside of town, it’s a great option to negotiate with the driver for a half day or full day car hire. They will drive you from location to location all over the island, waiting patiently for you to come back each stop and can provide “local knowledge” of things such as obscure fresh food markets, secret beaches and places not on the “tourist brochures”. If you happen to come across a great driver this may possibly lead to some of your most memorable moments of your entire trip. *Note - Remember that you can do a “1 Full Day Taxi Adventure” 3 times (Once on each of the main islands) during your Galapagos trip and if they are done with other people, the cost can be split which makes for a very inexpensive day.

*Hint - Ask the driver to take you to THEIR personal favourite spots on the island and you might discover something that few tourists ever get to see.

*Additional Hint - At the first destination, ask the driver to pose for a photo in front of the taxi (with someone else in your group if possible) and sneakily get the taxi licence plate number in the shot. There’s unlikely to be any problems (I never had any), but if you have already paid them in full then it is always a good idea to cover your bases.

COST: Around $40-$70 (Negotiable) for half/full day taxi hire.

Bike Hire - On any of the islands it is easy to hire a bike in town which not only saves you money on taxi rides, but means you can ride hiking paths that are inaccessible to cars much quicker than you could walk them (I particularly recommend this for Isabela). This not only enables you to explore certain areas quicker, but to also relax and enjoy any beautiful spots you find for longer. With a little planning and a map you can also visit nearby different areas, stop at various points of interest on your route and then just ride back into town when you’re finished (a reasonable level of fitness is recommended if you want to make a day of this and don’t forget to bring snacks and drinks). *Hint - Because the taxis are pick-up trucks, you can chuck the bikes in the back and get them to drop you off at locations. Later in the day you can also hail them down on main roads to take you back to town (if you’re feeling tired after a long day of riding and the ride back to town feels too daunting).

*Additional Hint - If you hire a taxi for a half/full day (above). Then at each stop you can get around quicker and easier in places where cars cannot go, ride back to the taxi, and get them to drive you to the next spot. Then just rinse and repeat all day. If you start early, this is probably the best way to explore multiple locations all over any island in a single day (recommended).

COST: about $8-$15 (for day bike hire).

Adelaide, Australia
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FLIGHT DETAILS

The names of the airlines that provide flights from Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands are…

LATAM Ecuador, Avianca Ecuador (Aerogal) and TAME. LATAM has the reputation of being the “most reliable”, while TAME is considered to be the “least reliable”.

It’s recommended that you aim to arrive in Ecuador at least 1 day before your flight to the Galapagos and stay there overnight (in Quito or Guayaquil depending where your flight departs from). This way you increase your chances of making your morning flight to the Galapagos the next day with no complications. When spending this kind of money on a trip, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

There are no international flights directly to the Galapagos Islands so your flight will leave from either Quito (the Capital of Ecuador) or the Ecuadorian coastal city of Guayaquil and will land in one of the two main airports in the Galapagos. One airport is located on the deserted small island of Baltra (Seymour) just north of the main central island of Santa Cruz and is about 1 hour travel time (by shuttlebus, then a ferry and then a taxi/bus) to reach the main Santa Cruz hub town of Puerto Ayora. While the other airport is on San Cristobal Island and is only about a 15-20 minute walk to the islands main town (or about 4 minutes by taxi for about $1.50).

A flight from Quito in Ecuador will stop in Guayaquil anyway (to pick up additional passengers) and from there it will take about 1 hour 40 minutes to fly the 1000km off the coast of Ecuador to get to the islands. Flights cost around $400 to $600 USD (although children 11 and under can get discounts of up to 50%). Your bags will be hand-inspected for fresh fruit, nuts (seeds), organics and any other prohibited items at both your departure airport in Ecuador and again by staff at the Galapagos airports due to the necessarily strict quarantine laws. Your luggage is also strictly limited to 22kg so packing light is necessary. *Note - Be warned, the Galapagos Island authorities have strict laws regarding attempted importation of illegal drugs (no matter how little an amount) and persons caught doing this will be immediately incarcerated (quite possibly for weeks).

If arriving in “Baltra Airport”, there’s a visitor’s area where you can ask for free maps and info (which I advise to do). After going through customs all visitors wait outside to get transported by shuttlebus to 1 of 2 waterfronts. The 1st waterfront is located in a small bay (where cruise boats are waiting to take passengers who booked a cruise). The 2nd waterfront is for the ferry which connects Baltra to the island of main central island of Santa Cruz and from here you will be able to catch a bus or taxi to the port town of Puerto Ayora (which will take about 45 minutes to drive to). *COSTS: Shuttlebus (Free), Ferry ($1), Bus to Puerto Ayora ($2.50) or Taxi to Puerto Ayora ($18-$20… but you can split this cost by getting other people from your plane to share your taxi). *Note - My personal experience catching the $2.50 bus to Puerto Ayora was basically “sardines in a can” and very uncomfortable. In my opinion, paying for a taxi to Puerto Ayora instead would be worth the extra expense. However, the bus I caught from Puerto Ayora back to Baltra Airport at the end of my trip was virtually empty and perfectly fine.

*Hint - When booking your flight it’s worth considering buying a plane ticket to “San Cristobal Airport” rather than the main airport at Baltra (Seymour). It’s closer, much less of a hassle and cheaper to get to the nearest town (within walking distance or a very quick trip by taxi for about $1.50). The roads are smooth and flat with street art to look at on the way and it’s basically a much better first introduction to the islands. *(Note - this advice is dependent on whether San Cristobal is an island that you’re planning to visit. If not or if you find a significantly cheaper plane ticket to Baltra airport, then the other airport is the better option). *Additional Hint - If you do fly into San Cristobal then it would be smart to arrange an open-jaw flight (flying into one island and out of another) by making your outgoing flight out to leave from Baltra Airport near Santa Cruz Island instead. This way once you do everything on your checklist for San Cristobal (before heading to Santa Cruz), you can save yourself unnecessary time wastage, some money and 1 additional “inter-island boat” at the end of your trip by not needing to travel back to San Cristobal to catch your flight back out.

Adelaide, Australia
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THE TOWN OF PUERTO AYORA (ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND)

Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos archipelago. It’s also the most populated and the most central. Santa Cruz offers a lot of activities and sightseeing that don’t necessitate a guide or a special tour, which means that you can actually visit most of the island on your own. Puerto Ayora is the principal town on Santa Cruz Island.

Puerto Ayora is the “capital” city of the islands. Despite this, it’s still quite a small town that appears a bit dusty and run-down in places. The anchorage of Puerto Ayora (also known as “Academy Bay”) is usually quite overcrowded with visitors and locals. This the principal tourist town of all the islands, with numerous tour booking agencies, restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels. Also this is where you have the best chance to haggle for the best deals and last minute discount tickets for Day Tours.

INTER-ISLAND BOAT SERVICES FROM PUERTO AYORA (Santa Cruz Island)

The inter-island boats (ferries) from Puerto Ayora to San Cristobal Island (The town of Puerto Baquierizo Moreno) leaves at 7am and 2pm every day (departure times may vary slightly).

The trip takes about 2.5 to 3 hours (depending on the boat and ocean conditions).

The inter-island boats (ferries) from Puerto Ayora to Isabela Island (The town of Puerto Villamil) leaves at 7am and 2pm every day (departure times may vary slightly).

The trip takes about 2 to 2.5 hours (depending on the boat and ocean conditions).

There are also inter-island boats to “Floreana” from Puerto Ayora, but they leave on a less frequent basis.

**IMPORTANT - There are NO ATMS OR BANKS ON ISABELA ISLAND OR FLOREANA ISLAND and credit cards are useless there. MAKE SURE you bring enough physical cash with you to cover EVERYTHING you plan to do on the island.

All inter-island boats cost between $25-$30 per person (one way), plus a $0.50 to $1 levy per person for each water taxi from the dock to the boat and vice versa (1 at departure and another at arrival). *Note - There’s an additional $10 per person “entrance fee” to pay after arriving at Isabela Island.

*Additional Note - There are several different tour booking agencies that sell tickets for inter-island boats so if you can’t get tickets at one office, just try another. However, there are no “last minute” discounts to haggle for with inter-island boats as the price is fixed, so purchasing tickets days in advance is fine.

PUERTO AYORA - SOME THINGS OF INTEREST

“Puerto Ayora Pier” - This area is a great place to take photos of the blue-footed boobies, especially late afternoon to sunset. Here you can also see marine turtles, different kinds of sting and manta rays, small sharks, sea lions, marine iguanas, crabs, pelicans, cormorants, herons, seagulls and many more.

“Ship Ports At Night” - Once the sun goes down the main waterfront gives you the opportunity to see nocturnal marine animals and fish that are attracted to the lights shining into the water. You may have to wait a bit, but if you're patient, there's a good chance you'll see baby sharks, manta rays, sea lions and many types of unique tropical fish.

“Puerto Ayora Fisherman’s Market” - If you walk along the main street next to the waterfront you will arrive at a small jetty where the local fishermen land their catch. In the morning and afternoon many friendly resident sea-lions and pelicans come to eat the fish entrails as the fisherman prepare their fish to sell at market. This is free entertainment at its best.

From late afternoon onwards you can also pick any of the freshly caught fish you see and have it cooked right in front of you at a little barbecue stand. A tasty platter will include some salad and plantain (a tasty thinly sliced grilled local banana) and the meal costs about $10. *Note - Possibly not open on Mondays.

Souvenir Shops - There are numerous souvenir shops that are in the main street area. As well as the usual t-shirts and trinkets, you can find locally made crafts and jewellery. Puerto Ayora is likely where you will buy most of the memorabilia of your trip and gifts for friends and family.

SOME SANTA CRUZ FREE ACTIVITIES

“Laguna de las Ninfas” (Lagoon of the Nymphs) - About a 15 min walk from Puerto Ayora pier, this very quiet lagoon is surrounded by three different types of mangroves and many birds. Cost: Free

“Darwin Research Station” - Only 1.5km from Puerto Ayora, this is an easy walk from the centre of town (about a 20 minute walk). There an interpretation centre full of interesting info about the Galapagos Islands. You will also find a tortoise breeding centre and corrals where endangered giant turtles can roam safely before being returned to their islands of origin, as well as endangered land iguanas. Also the body of the last Pinta Island Tortoise is here, the famous “Lonesome George”. It’s open every day at 8am-12:30pm and 2:30pm-5:50pm. Cost: Free (but a donation is encouraged as it goes towards endangered local species).

“Playa De La Estacion” (Station Beach) - Near the Darwin Research Centre (above) there’s a short trail that leads to a popular beach frequented by both locals and tourists (and sunbathing iguanas). The beach is quieter during the week and a bit busier on weekends. You can snorkel here as well, but you will find more fish at a small beach a bit further along nearby, however that beach is a bit rockier and the water is not very deep. Cost: Free

“Bahia Tortuga” (Tortuga Bay) - The most impressive beach on Santa Cruz and one of the largest white-sand beaches in archipelago. The beach opens at 6am and closes at about 5pm (because it’s a sanctuary nesting area for the marine turtles, which shouldn’t be bothered at night) and you have to register at the entrance (this is also the last chance to buy refreshments or go to the toilet until you return). When you get to the beach there’s a stand with kayaks to hire if you want.

To get there you walk 2.5km south west from Puerto Ayora (about a 25 min walk) to reach the beach via a very well maintained path through a Galapagos forest (Opuntia cactus trees). It’s an excellent place for swimming, snorkelling, kayaking or walking and is a popular beach for surfers due to the large waves. There are numerous marine iguanas, small sharks, sea turtles, crabs and many different bird species. If you continue further up the sand another 1km you will come to a beautiful shaded lagoon semi-hidden behind the furthest section of beach. Bring sunscreen. *Hint - Tortuga Bay is even more spectacular if you make the effort to get up early and see it at sunrise (trust me). Cost: Free

“Media Luna Hill” (Half-moon Hill) - This hill is named after the shape of this ancient volcanic crater. It's about a two-hour uphill hike (about 5km) north of Bellavista. If you continue 3km further you can reach “El Puntudo” and the base of “Cerro Crocker” (A volcano that has the highest peak of Santa Cruz). Along the way you can see birds such as Vermillion Flycatchers, Paint-billed Crakes and very elusive Galapagos Rails. There are some areas here that do require a guide however. Stay on the main trail. *Hint - Wear good shoes with grip and bring food and plenty of water. Lightweight waterproof jacket advised. Cost: Free

OTHER SANTA CRUZ ACTIVITIES

Reserva El Chato” (Giant Tortoise Reserve) - One of the most popular reserves on the island is located in the highlands of the island about a 30 minute taxi ride from Puerto Ayora. Here you'll be able to observe giant land tortoises in the wild and an array of bird life like Darwin Finches, Short-eared Owls, Vermillion Flycatchers and Paint-billed Crakes. You'll also have the option to visit “El Chato Lagoon” and nearby underground “Lava Tunnels”. You will likely need to hire a taxi to get there. *Note - I really enjoyed visiting this reserve. Seeing giant land tortoises wandering free and wild everywhere was really awesome. They are very shy though and retreat into their carapaces if you move too fast or too close. Don’t forget your camera.

*Additional Note - It’s definitely worth visiting the underground lava tunnels while you are here because there’s is no additional charge to go inside them. Bring a good torch with you if you can, as it’s fairly dark inside. Cost: $3 (entry) + Taxi 1-way (about $15-$25 negotiable).

“Santa Cruz Highlands Tour” - In the highlands of Santa Cruz (about 30 minutes by taxi) you can see wild Giant Tortoises in their natural habitat on your own. But you can also choose to hire one of the local guides to access some unique parts of the area (these being some of the few places that require a guide on Santa Cruz). *Hint - You can catch the $2.50 “Airport bus” to the entrance and walk for 1 hour to get there. Cost: Bus ($2.50) or Taxi (about $25 negotiable) or if hiring Guide (about $35-$50).

Las Grietas” (The Cracks) - This site is an interesting lava fissure formed by two giant walls crossed by an arm of brackish water that filters down from the highlands and mixes with seawater. It’s recommended that visitors come to swim in its clear waters, but not so much for snorkelling. To get there you have to take a taxi boat from Puerto Ayora for and then follow the trail for 15-20 minutes. There’s a stall there where you can hire snorkel gear if you want. Bring good shoes with grip as the rocks can be slippery. Cost: about $1 (for the taxi boat).

“Punta Estrada Beach” - A small beach on the way to Las Grietas (above). To reach it also requires a water taxi and apparently is quite a good place for snorkelling, especially for beginners. Cost: about $1 (for the taxi boat).

“El Rancho Manzanillo” (Giant Tortoise Reserve) - In the highlands of Santa Cruz, giant tortoises roam freely in and out of farms and at the El Chato lagoon. The Tortoises are very shy, and will typically withdraw into their carapaces as soon as they see you coming close. You’re not accompanied during your visit, so it’s your own responsibility not to bother, touch or feed them. To go there from Puerto Ayora you can take the bus that goes to the airport and disembark at the ranch entrance, from there it’s an hour walk (2.8 km) until you reach the ranch or you can take a taxi from Puerto Ayora and ask the driver to wait for you if you want. The ranch offers coffee or tea, a snack and will also lend you plastic boots to walk around in. Cost: $3 (Entrance Fee) + Bus ($2.50) or Taxi (about $25-$40 negotiable).

“Los Gemelos” (The Twins) - The twins are two collapsed craters/sinkholes that were formed by a series of eruptions when the islands were still active. This is also the only place in Santa Cruz where you can see a forest of the endemic Scalasia tree. The place is gorgeous and really worth seeing. You can take a taxi or you can catch the airport bus and disembark when you get there.

*Hint - This site is only a few kilometres beyond the “Rancho Manzanillo” (above), so you should probably do both in the same trip. Cost: Free + Bus ($2.50) or taxi (about $25-$40 Negotiable).

“Garrapatero Beach” - A secluded beach about a 35 min drive (19km) from Puerto Ayora and then a 20-min walk along a trail. This is a beautiful beach featuring white sand, black lava and turquoise water where you can swim and snorkel. Here you can see blue-footed boobies, pelicans, crabs and marine iguanas. Behind the beach there’s a small lagoon with mangroves and poison apple trees where you can see flamingos, black-necked stills and white-cheeked ducks.

*Note - It’s also possible to camp here if you want, but you must get permission from the caretakers. Cost: Free + taxi (about $30-40 negotiable roundtrip).

“Bike, Horse or Kayak Hire” - Hire a bike, horse or Kayak for the day. You can bike/horse ride from Puerto Ayora to the secluded, gorgeous beach of Garrapatero (above), and be sure to try the fresh breads and sweets in the bakeries in the small towns along the way. Cost: Variable

SOME SHORTER TOURS FROM PUERTO AYORA

“Caleta Tortuga Negra Tour” (Black Turtle Cove) - You need to arrange to go on a tour to get to Black Turtle Cove as it is only accessible by rubber dinghy, but it is definitely well worth the trip. This shallow mangrove has extremely clear water and is a bit of a nursery, so you can see baby sharks (even baby hammerheads) in the water swimming by, as well as lots of turtles and stingrays swimming past the boat. You might also see blue footed boobies dive-bombing the water for fish. Bring insect repellent.

*Hint - Considered to be one of the most beautiful and peaceful mangroves, this is often the first tour people do when they arrive from the airport near Santa Cruz or the last tour that people do before leaving the islands because it can be done easily on a “half-day”. Cost: Unknown (No prices I could find online) but should be inexpensive. (Takes about 2 hours)

“3 hour Boat Tours” - Rather than an all day tour to the islands (which can be $160 and up) you can go for a 3 hour morning or afternoon cruise around the bay at Puerto Ayora. Cost: about $70

“Floreana Island Tour” - This takes you to “La Loberia” which is a sandy/rocky path of 900m length, covered in sea lions, marine iguanas, followed by snorkelling with a chance to see turtles. “Asilo de La Paz” which is a historical place with the ‘cave of pirates’ and a freshwater lake at 450m. In season you’re likely to see dolphins and whales. Cost: about $90

“Playa Punta Estrada Tour” - This is a recommended trip. It’s a pleasant beach you can reach by taking a water taxi from your boat to the Finch Bay hotel Isla Bartolome. Cost: Unknown

SOME DAY TRIP TOURS FROM PUERTO AYORA

There are day trips from Santa Cruz to 5 other islands: North Seymour, Bartolomé, Santa Fé, S. Plaza, and Floreana. Not all trips run every day and some of the more popular ones can sell out during busy times. You can only do 1 day trip a day, due to long travel times on a small speedboat (sometimes more than 2 hours 1 way). *Hint - The North Seymour and Bartolomé Day Tours are very popular and seem to get booked out VERY quickly. It is advised that if you want to do either of these that you book them on your first day of arrival on Santa Cruz for a later day when you know you will still be or will have returned to the island. Cost: about $120 to $180

North Seymour Island Day Tour” - This day trip will start with an early pick-up from the agency you booked with, and 45 minute ride across the island to the north where you will board you boat. Then you will be taken to North Seymour Island and have a guided tour to see the nesting frigate birds, fluffy frigate chicks still in their nests trying to make their first air-borne flight, blue footed boobies strutting their courting dance, large land iguanas, and various plants endemic to the Galapagos. Your will also be taken on two snorkelling stops. At the last stop you can walk a short way along a beautiful sandy beach to see turtle nests and flamingos feeding in the shallow lagoon behind the sand dunes. This day trip may not go every day and it's one of the most popular, so it can get filled up very quickly. Cost: about $145 per person (maximum 16 people).

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND TIPS

“Using Puerto Ayora As Your Base” - This gives you your best chance to find the great deals and discounted tickets for day trips because there are more tour booking agencies here than anywhere else. It may take some time and decent bartering skills, but if you have the time to invest, some great deals can be found. *Hint - The success of discounts can be affected by things like knowing when a tour is due to leave and waiting until just before times up to get a seat, booking multiple tours via the same company/person (recognised repeat customer), or purchasing multiple different tours for different days but offering to pay for them all at once (which can include inter-island boats if you know when you’re going to your next island).

“Cheap Travel” - A very cheap option to get to a few places on Santa Cruz is to catch the same bus that goes back and forth from the airport. It can drop you off on the set route along main road and then you can walk to any nearby destinations on your map from there. For the ride back, you can hail the last bus coming from the airport on the main road between 2-2:40pm (for specific bus schedules ask at the Visitors Centre/ Tourist Information Centre). Otherwise you’ll have to stop a taxi to return to Puerto Ayora. COST: $2.50 (1 way).

Adelaide, Australia
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5. Re: Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND (Puerto Baquierizo Moreno)

Puerto Baquierizo Moreno is the main town of San Cristobal Island and is definitely a "must see" stop for any independent traveller. The town itself is attractive in a “sleepy fishing village” kind of way and in terms of development and style it sits right in the middle of Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil… not overly fancy, but nicely done. The area near the port is beautiful and there’s an enormous sea lion population that overruns the main seaside promenade in town. The sea lions don't really disturb anyone; they generally keep to the ocean side of the street, while the human population mostly keeps to the other side. It's certainly an amusing site.

There are also great hiking trails and snorkelling spots within walkable distance from town. Simply follow the path from the San Cristobal Interpretation Centre.

INTER-ISLAND BOAT SERVICES FROM PUERTO BAQUIERIZO MORENO (San Cristobal Island)

The inter-island boats (ferries) from Puerto Baquierizo Moreno to Santa Cruz Island (The town of Puerto Ayora) leaves at 7am and 2pm every day (departure times may vary slightly).

The trip takes about 2.5 to 3 hours (depending on the boat and ocean conditions).

All inter-island boats cost between $25-$30 per person (one way), plus a $0.50-$1 levy per person for each water taxi from the dock to the boat and vice versa (1 at departure and another at arrival).

*Note - There are several different tour booking agencies that sell tickets for inter-island boats so if you can’t get tickets at one office, just try another. However, there are no “last minute” discounts to haggle for with inter-island boats… the price is fixed, so purchasing tickets for them 1 day (or more) in advance is fine.

*Additional Note - You CANNOT go directly from San Cristobal to Isabela by inter-island boat and will have to go via Santa Cruz first, then pay for another separate inter-island boat to Isabela. While it’s possible to catch the morning boat to Santa Cruz and then the afternoon boat to Isabela to get there on the same day, this is NOT recommended as this will end up being a very uncomfortable minimum 4.5+ hour trip in quick succession and will effectively use up almost an entire day.

SOME SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND FREE ACTIVITIES

“The San Cristobal Sign” - if you look closely at the letters, they are each painted with a different animal that you can find on the island.

“The Tourist Information Centre” - is a couple of blocks back from the waterfront, near the church. They have free booklets and DVDs about the islands with excellent maps and picture of the various sites. Definitely worth seeking out when you first arrive to plan your first days.

“Playa Mann” (Mann Beach) - This is a great place to see sea lions up close and personal. It’s a small beach, but one of the more popular beaches due to its central location and the waters are usually calm. Cost: Free

“San Cristobal Market” - Up a little hill you can find the “Mercado” (market) which is brilliant on Saturdays when there’s an additional organic market. The food is well priced and has very fresh avocados, tomatoes, paw paw, plums, pineapple, green apples, iceberg lettuce, papaya, etc.

*NOTE - The meat looks a bit dodgy, but the fresh fish and seafood is great value. Cost: Free

“Playa Cabo de Horno” (Cape Horn Beach) - About a 15-20 minute walk from the main town and has resident sea-lions and marine iguanas. It’s also a reasonable surfing beach. Cost: Free

“Centro de Interpretacion” (Interpretation Centre) - An informational museum that is surrounded by hiking trails and wooden walkways. The museum offers a complete history of the Galapagos Islands and its ecosystems, both the good and the bad. *Hint - Nearby at the top of the hill is a little cafe which has delicious home-made blackberry milk shakes and blackberry ice cream (Honestly, try these out. They are AWESOME). Cost: Free

“Tijeretas Bay” - This is a beautiful cove that is within walking distance (45-60 minutes) along a path behind the Interpretation Centre (above). There are spectacular lookout points at the top of the hill where you can see “Shipwreck Bay” and “Kicker Rock”. The cove makes for a reasonable snorkelling spot, to see turtles, sea lions and various birds (a friendly shark swam right past me here), but be careful descending down the steep”ish” rock stairway. On the way there are several beaches, including Punta Carola where there are also plenty of sea lions and a lighthouse. Just remember to take food and drinks (or the blackberry milkshakes above) with you. *Note - This cove was one of my first “Wow” moments in San Cristobal and ended up being a perfect place for me to practise my snorkelling technique for later Day Tours (recommended) Cost: Free

La Loberia” (The Sea Wolves) - About a 20-30 minute walk from the main town, this beach attracts many snorkelers and surfers, although the water can be a bit rough. The scenery is beautiful, though, and you'll see numerous sleepy sea lions lounging on the shore. Cost: Free

“Galapaguera Cerro Colorado” (Breeding Centre of Giant Tortoises) - Here you'll see the giant tortoises that the Galapagos Islands are so famous for. You'll also see baby tortoises, walk through an informational museum and possibly see the tortoises in the mating process. Cost: Free

“Puerto Chino” (Beach) - This white sand beach is about 25km out of the city, but is a great opportunity for viewing wildlife. Plan to bring a lunch and spend the day on the beach and hiking the trails around it. The white sand beach offers calm, clear waters and the chance to see a lot of wild life and unique rock formations. Climb to the top of the big, black volcanic rock formation for aerial views of the clear water and marine life. It’s a pleasant spot and is a decent place to snorkel and see booby birds on the rocks (watch out for their courting dances). It’s also possible to see sharks jumping out of the water. Cost: Free + Taxi (negotiable)

“El Junco Lagoon” (Crater Lake) - Despite its name, this is actually a lake that has formed in a crater of a sleeping volcano. Located in the highlands of San Cristobal about 19km outside of the main town, “El Junco” is the only permanent freshwater lake in the Galapagos. You can catch a taxi through many different vegetation zones to reach the lake where you will get an outstanding panoramic view of the entire island from the lookout. It’s really quite beautiful and you can walk around the entire rim or explore some of the nearby forest trails. *Note - There are no toilets at the top where the lake is, only at the base. So go before you ascend. Cost: Free (entry) + Taxi (negotiable)

SOME SAN CRISTOBAL DAY TOURS

“Highlands of San Cristobal Tour” - This tour goes to the highlands of San Cristobal, including “El Ceibo” (a 300-year-old tree house and bar), “El Junco” (a freshwater crater lake in a volcano), “La Lobaria” (a white beach overflowing with sea lions), “Puerto Chino” (a soft-sand beach with crystal-clear water), the “Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Centre” of Giant Tortoises and includes lunch. Cost: $35-$50

“Kicker Rock/Leon Domido Day Tour” - First there’s great snorkelling first up in a shallow, crystal clear area where you can see sea-lions swimming, marine iguana feeding on the bottom, and various fish. Then you head to “Kicker Rock /Leon Domido” (2 massive rocks 140 metres high, close together and poking out of the ocean that you snorkel between) to attempt to see Hammerhead sharks. You have much more chance of seeing them if you scuba dive as they prefer to swim deep, but this is your best chance to see Hammerhead sharks while only snorkelling. *Note - This Day Tour ended up being one of my favourites (recommended). Cost: about $80

*Additional Note - This is one of the most famous “Day Tours” for scuba divers, but to do that it costs more.

SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND CAMPING OPTIONS

In San Cristobal you can camp for about $5 a night at “El Ceibo”, which is home to the largest tree on the island. You can also camp at “Puerto Chino” with permission from the caretakers of the park.

SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND TIPS

There’s a tree house in a massive cotton tree that you can actually stay overnight in “El Progresso”, complete with running water. Definitely makes for a fun night that most tourists (especially cruisers) would never have a chance to do. It is only a short taxi ride away from town. *Note - If you can, it’s worth doing this for a night. Even if only for the unique novelty. Cost: Unknown (Can’t find details online).

Adelaide, Australia
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6. Re: Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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ISABELA ISLAND (Puerto Villamil)

Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos and is actually made up of 6 different volcanoes. It is one of the most volcanically active places on earth, with plenty of volcanic landscapes and the second largest volcanic crater on earth. There are fewer things you can do on Isabella without paying for a guide, but some of the tours are great value for money and some of the most beautiful places I found on all the islands were here in hidden away little spots. This island is a delightfully relaxed place with plentiful wild life swimming in the surrounding clear waters and even from the docking waterfront it is possible to see hammerhead and other sharks, sea horses, shoals of barracuda, turtles, sea snakes, rays, mantas, seals and penguins without even needing to snorkel.

The town of “Puerto Villamil” (which most people refer to as just "Isabela") is the smallest and least “touristy” of all the islands. It has a long and sandy white beach right in front of the town (whereas on the other 2 islands you have to walk quite some way to get to a decent beach) and you can see seals, penguins, tortoises and flamingos easily. There’s an awesome little church in town with stained glass windows depicting various Galapagos native animals. There are less shops, less people, less of everything (except animals) on Isabela, however the food options are far more limited and a little pricier than what you can find on the other 2 islands.

*Note - Isabela is the only island that tourists need to pay $10 to enter when you disembark off your “inter-island” boat.

*Additional Note - The docking waterfront where the inter-island boat drops you off is a reasonable walk away from the town centre along a dusty unsurfaced road (about a 20 minute walk). Which when dragging lots of luggage with you, kind of sucks. It’s doable, but it’s worth considering getting a taxi or shuttlebus COST: $1.50 (for taxi/shuttlebus).

**IMPORTANT - Isabela has NO ATM’s and NO BANKS anywhere on the island and credit/debit cards are worthless. Meaning that if have not brought the money you need to cover all your expenses with you from Santa Cruz, you’re basically stuffed. So MAKE SURE you cash up BEFORE you get on the inter-island boat to travel here.

INTER-ISLAND BOAT SERVICES FROM PUERTO VILLAMIL (Isabela Island)

The inter-island boats (ferries) from Puerto Villamil to Santa Cruz Island (The town of Puerto Ayora) leaves at 6am and 3pm every day (departure times may vary slightly).

The trip takes about 2-2.5 hours (depending on the boat and ocean conditions).

All inter-island boats cost between $25-$30 per person (one way), plus a $0.50-$1 levy per person for each water taxi from the dock to the boat and vice versa (1 at departure and another at arrival).

*Note - There are several different tour booking agencies that sell tickets for inter-island boats so if you can’t get tickets at one office, just try another. However, there are no “last minute” discounts to haggle for with inter-island boats… the price is fixed, so purchasing tickets for them days in advance is fine.

*Additional Note - You CANNOT go directly from Isabela to San Cristobal by inter-island boat and will have to go via Santa Cruz first, then pay for another separate inter-island boat to San Cristobal. While it’s possible to catch the morning boat to Santa Cruz and then the afternoon boat to San Cristobal to get there on the same day, this is NOT recommended as this will end up being a very uncomfortable minimum 4.5+ hour trip in quick succession and will effectively use up an entire day.

SOME ISABELA ISLAND FREE ACTIVITES

“The Beaches In General” - You can take many walks off the beaten path on truly picturesque, white sand, turquoise water beaches. These are the only beaches like this all of Ecuador, so take the time to enjoy them. Cost: Free

“Laguna Concha y Perla” (Shell and Pearl Lagoon) - Just near the docking port where you arrived by inter-island boat there’s a (slightly hidden) wooden walkway which sometimes has sea lions lazily sleeping all along it which leads to a gorgeous little “laguna”. This spot is a perfect place for beginners and kids to practise their snorkelling skills and you might see manta rays, sea lions, tropical fish, penguins, white tip reef sharks, sea turtles, iguanas and more. It is popular so it might be a bit crowded, but everyone should come here at least once if visiting Isabela (recommended). Hint - Also near the docking port are some food vendors that sell fried snacks filled with octopus for only $2.50 (they are delicious). Cost: Free

“Laguna Salinas” - This is a pristine spot very close to town where you can view wildlife, especially flamingos. Cost: Free

“Pozas De Las Diablas” (Pools of the Devils) - Sinister sounding name, beautiful little place. The Pozas is a large pond where many pink flamingos spend their time. It’s about a 10-15 minute walk from Puerto Villamil. It’s also very close to the National Park Tortoise Reserve (below). Cost: Free

“Centre de Crianza Arnaldo Tupiza” (Tortoise Breeding Centre) - Here, you'll be able to see a species of tortoise that isn't found anywhere else in the world. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk from Puerto Villamil. The baby tortoises are way too cute and you can also see flamingos on the way there. *Note - It has less information than the Darwin Centre in Puerto Ayora, but otherwise I personally thought this one was better and is less crowded. Cost: Free

“Muro de las Lagrimas” (Wall of Tears) - About a 5km walk west from Puerto Villamil, this historical site was created by prisoners who were forced to build this wall from 1945-1959. Supposedly thousands died during its construction and the site is said to be haunted by their ghosts. There’s a lookout there that overlooks an eerie “ghost forest” as far as the eye can see. Along the way to the wall there are numerous paths that lead to beautiful hidden locations, little lagoons, a lava tunnel, small beaches and volcano summits (with clear signage telling you where they all are) and you can see various indigenous animals (flamingos, iguanas, sea-lions etc.). There’s also the “Centro de Crianza Arnaldo Tupiza” (above) on the way worth stopping for a look. *Be Warned - This is a time consuming journey, especially if you stop to walk down to all the spots on the side tracks (which I recommend) then this trip can take up most of the day. So remember to take plenty of water with you and some food. Cost: Free, unless hiring taxi (about $15) or bike day hire (about $8-$15).

*Note - You can hire a taxi to drive you to the wall and then just walk back to town which would save significant time, but I personally recommend that it’s much more fun to hire a pushbike from town to ride there and back (relaxing at all the spots along the way) and make a day of it.

“Playa del Amor” (Beach of Love) - This is the definition of a perfectly relaxing “walking beach”. Cost: Free

“Local Farm Visit” - You can arrange to share a truck to visit a local farm for about $5 per person. The farmer will cut whatever fruit and veggies are in season. Green pineapples, bananas and tomatoes can be chosen for later ripening. You can also buy various herbs, papaya, passionfruit, melon, watermelon, peppers, capsicum, onions, etc. It’s inexpensive and local produce doesn’t get much fresher than this.

Alcedo Volcano - This has the largest tortoise population and is the only volcano that visitors can climb.

SOME ISABELA DAY TOURS

Las Tintoreras Day Tour” - “Las Tintoreras” (The Rifts) are a group of small islands 10 minutes directly off Isabela. Although the area is close by, there’s significantly more wildlife there than on the main island. It's an excellent place to swim with penguins and see blue-footed boobies and the snorkelling is very good too. You can snorkel with sea turtles during the bay tour and see amazing amounts of Sally Lightfoot Crabs on the lava rocks. Sometimes penguins swim alongside the boat, and there are sea lions and eagle rays. “Las Tintoreras” is covered in cooled lava and on one island is a place called “Shark Alley” where you can see sharks very closely in an “alleyway” of seawater that is carved though the island (If you want to see sharks without getting in the water this is the way to do it and was one of the coolest things I saw on Isabela). *Note - You can also kayak out to Las Tintoreras, which is something worth considering if you’re planning to go there, but you will still need to pay for a guide to come with you if you want to walk on the islands. Cost: About $30-$45 (Only takes about 3 hours).

*Additional Note - This tour is economical, quick and rewarding. Definite value for money and I can’t recommend it enough.

“Los Tunneles Day Tour” - One of the most popular Day Tours on the island, this trip involves an exciting fast ride through the surf to the sheltered waters within. There’s good snorkelling at 2 different stops, you will see fantastic “lava bridges” and tunnels and a stop en route at “Rocas Union”. You will also stop at a sandy bay to swim with the giant tortoises that feed there. You might see Blue-Footed Boobies, Penguins, Sea Lions, Giant Sea Turtles, White Tip Reef Sharks (in a cave), Golden Sting Rays, Sea Horses and more. As a bonus the guide may even take photos of everyone and then load them onto your USB or memory card back when you return to the office for free. *Note - This is an excellent “snorkel tour” for beginners and children and is often referred to as the “highlight” of their visit to Isabela by visitors (recommended). Cost: about $80-$100 (takes about 5 hours)

“Volcan Sierra Negra Day Trip” (Black Mountain Volcano) - This tour leaves at 7:30am and takes you to the two volcanoes of Sierra Negra (Black Mountain) and Volcan Chico (Little Boy Volcano) and includes a packed lunch and a National Parks guide. Sierra Negra is the second largest active volcano in the world and last erupted as recently as 2005 and you get continually more impressive views of it the further along the hike you go. The walk will take about 5 hours but is a fairly easy hike because most of the walk is flat”ish” with little elevation gain, however the guides do make you walk between the viewpoints at a reasonably fast pace. You also have the option to continue past the highest point onto Vulcan Chico (Little Boy Volcano), which is worth the extra effort as the landscape becomes strangely “alien” and there are places where you can put your hand on the volcanic rock and feel the heat coming out of the volcano. On the way back you can have lunch at Campo Duro which is a campground with a turtle refuge and a fruit farm (Bring good shoes with grip). *Note - There are small native berries that you can eat growing all along the way (the guide will tell you which ones). Cost: about $40

*Additional Note - Apparently you can also hire a horse to ride this trail, but I couldn’t find any prices for this online.

*Hint - I enjoyed this tour, but I do not recommend it if you are quite unfit or the day is predicted to be rainy as it becomes very muddy and there’s no shelter anywhere on the hike. But no matter what you should bring some lightweight waterproof gear anyway.

SOME ISABELA ISLAND TIPS

If you’re a beginner snorkeler or are going with young children, Isabela has some of the easiest free spots (and certain tours) that I found to practise your technique before going on “more advanced” snorkelling trips. It has areas close to the town that are easy to access, with calm waters and good visibility. These “practise spots” might not impress more seasoned snorkelers, but there are lots of tropical fish and sea lions and many other species everywhere here.

Staying on Isabella Island is a good option for those who have a scuba diving certificate. Many of the dive many locations are easy to reach and you get to see a lot of marine life with a good chance to see hammerhead sharks.

Adelaide, Australia
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7. Re: Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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A FEW THINGS THAT PEOPLE ALWAYS ASK…

WHY BOTHER TRAVELLING TO THE GALAPAGOS IF YOU DON'T TAKE A CRUISE?

The reasons why someone may prefer to do an independent Galapagos trip rather than a cruise are numerous. Top of the list usually being that the cruises are so damn expensive.

But some people don't enjoy being tied down to someone else's schedule, or prefer travel being pliable so if things out of their control don't go to plan then they can easily adapt (meaning someone else’s "hiccup" doesn't ruin the rest of their trip and that a large chunk of their time or money is wasted). Maybe you get severely seasick and scoffing down seasickness meds for 4-12 days straight just isn't your idea of a "good time" or the thought of being trapped in a small area with the same people day after day makes you cringe.

Then there are those unique and special moments when you discover something that you absolutely love and you prefer the freedom to relax and enjoy it for as long as you want without someone impatiently tapping their watch and telling you "time’s up".

Or perhaps like me you simply want your Galapagos experience to be uniquely your own and not a pre-packaged succession of moment after moment planned out exactly the same way as the thousands who came before you.

All “independent travellers” have their own combination of perfectly rational reasons.

IS IT WORTH TRAVELLING INDEPENDANTLY ON THE ISLANDS?

Most of you who have been looking for information about travelling independently in the Galapagos will have no doubt discovered that there is an overwhelming bias from most "advisors" on forums towards taking a cruise. In fact, when you are reading through all these threads a person could be forgiven for feeling that without paying for an expensive cruise, the Galapagos will inevitably be nothing but a disappointing experience and a waste of money... so you shouldn't bother.

This is exactly how I felt as well when I first looked into doing an independent trip to the point that I seriously considered not travelling there at all.

So firstly let me ease those fears. My land-based Galapagos trip is without a doubt one of the major highlights of all my personal travel experiences. I saw all of the native animals I went there to see (except a whale unfortunately) and when I traded stories with “cruisers” that I met on the islands, not a single one ever mentioned seeing a species that I didn't get to see myself (I should add that none of them had seen whales either and many hadn’t seen some of the animals that I did). I saw many gorgeous places and experienced many wonderful things, I met interesting and funny local residents, ate some great meals and witnessed many awe-inspiring "once in a lifetime" moments. I never once felt bored and even after 14 days I felt that there were more things I could have done. One day I hope to return and if I do, my first time was so great that I most likely will do it independently again.

Basically, it was just a fantastic experience even when things didn't go exactly to plan and while it is possible that I was just extremely lucky, this is still the 100% honest conclusion of my personal experience. So you can relax and ignore the “naysayers”. I guarantee that a great Galapagos land-based/independent trip can definitely be achieved without paying for a cruise, or spending a ludicrous amount of money and will likely become an incredible memory which you will still be telling friends and smiling about for many years to come.

WHAT TO EXPECT (AND WHAT NOT TO)

If you are expecting the Galapagos to be some kind handcrafted tourist tropical resort with bronzed men displaying six-packs and attractive girls in grass skirts serving you cocktails in coconuts with little umbrellas while you get massages and lounge on hammocks between palm trees… then perhaps the Galapagos Islands are not for you.

The Galapagos is one of the last vestiges of a pristine nature park trying desperately to find the balance between leaving the majority of the islands as untouched as possible while also satisfying tourist’s needs, as a means to provide income to the locals who live there and the money they need to protect the numerous endemic species and their habitats. On top of that, they attempt to breed up the numbers of certain local species that are near the point of extinction.

It is also the literal birthplace of an entirely new perspective that forever changed how our own species perceived the very nature and origins of all life itself (which if you pay close enough attention you can see where these insights came from). The animals that you see there are not “tamed” or trained to perform tricks for your entertainment, nor there to pose for your photos. But instead live their lives quite indifferent to our existence seeing humans as neither of particular threat nor benefit to them… and these ARE some of the things that make it such a uniquely amazing and special place to visit.

In some ways this makes the Galapagos Islands probably as close to a genuinely authentic travel experience as many of us are ever likely to have, which also means that it can feel quite “raw” and bare bones at times. It has not been designed by expert marketing teams to be the artificially tailored tourist experience that so many foreigners from wealthier countries have become so used to. So if that is what you are after then perhaps places like Hawaii and Bali are closer to what you are looking for.

The Galapagos is something else entirely.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO TRAVEL TO THE GALAPAGOS?

Honestly, there is no “best or worst time” of the year to visit the Galapagos. There are benefits to visiting throughout the year because all the Galapagos species have different breeding and migration seasons. This means that all times of the year offer something different from every other time of the year.

Jan to Feb - Giant Tortoise eggs start hatching and Green Sea Turtles start laying their eggs.

Feb to Mar - Penguins migrate to Isabela and Fernanda from Bartolome and Marine Iguanas nest on Santa Cruz.

Mar to Apr - is mating season for Frigate Birds and Marine Iguanas nest on North Seymour and Fernanda.

Apr to May - Waved Albatross complete migration to Espanola for nesting, and Sea Turtles, Marine and land Iguanas are nesting.

May to June - is Blue-Footed Boobies mating season and Waved Albatrosses lay eggs on Espanola.

June to July - Humpback Whales can be seen and in the North might be Whale Sharks.

July to Aug - Nesting Season for Blue-Footed Boobies and Flightless Cormorants, and Sea Lions mating season.

Aug to Sep - Sea-lions give birth and Giant Tortoises return to highlands after laying eggs.

Sep to Oct - Penguin courtships on Bartolome and Sea Lion Pups.

Oct to Nov - Blue-Footed Booby Chicks on Isabela and Espanola and Fur Seal Lions Mating Season.

Nov to Dec - Green Sea Turtles mating season and Chance to see Whale Sharks in the North West.

Dec to Jan - Giant Tortoise eggs hatching and Sea Lions and Fur Sea Lions breeding season.

The “peak tourist” seasons are considered to be around mid-December to mid-January (near Christmas and New Year’s) and from around mid-June to early September. The “low tourist” seasons are considered to be April to May and September to October.

Weather wise, the Galapagos Islands only has slight climatic variations throughout the year. The warm, slightly rainier season is from late December to June. This means warmer waters for swimming, but the chance of cloud and showers (though these are often quick passing).

The cool, dry season is from late June to December (meaning blue skies and occasional mid-day showers). However, “cool” is a relative term in the Galapagos as the days are still warm but the water is cooler due to the southern tradewinds. The warmest and sunniest months are usually February and March and from December to May the waters are meant to be clearer and calmer which should mean increased visibility underwater.

CAN I TRAVEL TO THE GALAPAGOS ON A BUDGET?

The truth is… yes and no.

While you can certainly travel there for a significantly less amount of money than the Galapagos tour websites would seem to indicate, the reality is that the islands are still far more expensive overall than if you were travelling to anywhere else in South America on the mainland.

For starters, there are 3 costs that are completely unavoidable (or at least cost frequent flyer points).

1) The cost of a return flight to Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador from wherever you are travelling from (Cost: variable per person).

2) The return flight from Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador to the islands (Cost: around $400-$600 return per adult and children 11 or under up to 50% off)

and 3) The “INGALA Transit Control Card” (up to 90 day Tourist Visa) (Cost: $20 per person) and the “National Park Fee” required by all foreigners (Cost: $100 per adult and $50 for children 11 or under).

*Note - I won’t put “Travel Insurance” because it is not technically “unavoidable”, but personally I do think it is pretty foolish to travel anywhere overseas without at least minimal cover (Cost: variable per person).

After those unavoidable costs, it depends on… How long do you want to stay on the islands? What do you want to do/see while you are there? How many luxuries are you ok with living without? Are you willing to arrive there without booking anything online? And are you the type of person who is comfortable haggling face to face for better prices?

Accommodation at $15 solo per night ($20 for a couple) is a little difficult to find, but possible. However, it is easier to find accommodation at about $25-$30 per night ($35-$40 for a couple). Bear in mind, that at these prices the rooms are basically just a place to sleep and to safely leave your luggage.

Food can be found quite cheaply if you go to the smaller places in the backstreets behind the “Tourist Street”. Breakfast ($3 to $4), Lunch ($5 to $7) and Dinner ($5 to $7). These meals are very basic, but filling (you won’t starve).

If you want to visit 1 or 2 of the other main islands, the inter-island boats cost $30 (price non-negotiable one way) per person (+$10 if it is to Isabela). Remember you will have to travel to the island you will catch your plane home from. So to see all 3 will be a minimum of 3 inter-island boat trips (more likely 4) which is a minimum cost of $100 per person (more likely $130 per person).

You don’t HAVE to do Day Tours, but it would be a bit silly to visit the Galapagos without doing at least a couple. Prices can be as low as $35 per person (although I only know of 1 you can haggle that cheap) but they usually range from around $50 to $220 per tour, per person (Land tours cheapest, Boat tours mid-range, Scuba tours most expensive).

Lastly, there are plenty of free activities you can do within walking distance of the 3 main islands towns, but most of the better ones would require hiring a taxi (or at least a pushbike) to realistically reach them.

*Note - This is the most minimalistic Galapagos trip that I can imagine without any luxuries or splurging whatsoever on the entire trip. I did some of these things on my trip sometimes to save cash, but not certainly not the WHOLE time. Treating yourself at least with an upgraded room or a nice meal every now and again during your trip is probably a good idea and having some extra dollars in your pocket while there is advantageous.

If your savings are REALLY bare bones, unless you are already in South America travelling and unlikely to ever come back again… it is at least worth considering waiting a little while longer so you can add a bit more money to your stockpile before doing a Galapagos trip. You are likely to only do it once in your lifetime and if you can wait, you should try do it well.

HOW LONG SHOULD I STAY ON THE ISLANDS?

That depends entirely on the kind of person that you are.

If you are a person who just loves being in nature, or who loves animals of all kinds. If you find things like biology, history or evolution fascinating, or fantasise about being in places that feel practically untouched by man. Or if you love to do “outdoorsy” things like hiking and riding… and if “roughing it” occasionally does not bother you at all. Then you are more likely to want to stay longer than a person who prefers to stay in resorts and get foot massages when they travel overseas.

It is just my personal opinion, but I believe that going to the Galapagos for 4 or less days wouldn’t be worth it (cost vs value for money). 1 week would be borderline ok. You could see some pretty cool things in that time and have some great pics and stories to tell your friends, but you would most likely leave wanting more (however, I would still recommend basing yourself on only 2 of the 3 main islands to make the most of your time over a 7 day visit).

At around 14 days I have noticed Galapagos traveller’s opinions in forums starting to differ. Some people say that at 2 weeks they were starting to get “bored”, that they were “over it”, that animal sightings were becoming “repetitive” and they would have even been happy to have left a day or so earlier. While other people say they were still having a great time and looking forward to the next day’s adventure. So like I said, I think it depends on the kind of person you are.

I personally travelled there for 16 days (2 of those were half days arriving at or leaving from the airport so I couldn’t do much). So in the 14 full days I had on the islands I had done everything I had planned to do, seen all the animals I had wanted to see and was feeling pretty satisfied about the whole experience... yet I could easily have stayed another week and more done things I still hadn’t done yet and felt a bit sad that I was leaving. But maybe this is because I love walking in nature and I love animals. I find things like biology fascinating and I prefer to “soak in” experiences rather than go to locations just to take selfies and “check them off” my list before moving on. For me, travelling to foreign countries and staying in 5-star hotels without ever “roughing it” is just not my idea of a good travel experience.

But everyone is different. So as I said in the beginning, if you want to know how long is enough time for you in the Galapagos, you need “to know” what kind of person you are.

ANOTHER THING WORTH MENTIONING

There is no problem with wanting to be economical with your money when travelling. Especially when you can see on various websites that many operators there are exaggerating their prices or trying to manipulate people using the “buy now or you’ll miss out” and other crappy tactics etc. So as far as I am concerned, haggling and negotiating to get better prices is fine. Especially when you don’t exactly have money to burn.

HOWEVER, remember that there are also many owners of businesses who you will meet in the Galapagos who are not like that. They are just good people trying to make a living and provide for their families and it is pretty easy to tell them apart from the others. I have always felt that it is somewhat ironic that when you are travelling using the “budget method” that it inevitably means you are more likely to come across those genuinely good souls.

So if you ever cross paths with a particularly amazing guide, or a cool taxi driver, or some really great people who run a little hotel, or a place where you eat regularly where the owners are especially nice. Basically, those rare moments when you meet some locals who go out of their way, or above and beyond to make your Galapagos experience special… even though tipping in Ecuador is not strictly necessary, at least consider slipping them a $10 or $20 note before you part ways as a “thank you”.

Even if you genuinely just can’t spare anything, at the very least take the time to tell those people how appreciative you are of everything they did for you (and perhaps give them an outstanding recommendation on Tripadvisor etc to send some extra dollars their way in the future). It’s the decent thing to do.

Being frugal with your money, doesn’t mean you have to be a ***** (insert derogatory word here).

ONE LAST THING I FEEL OBLIGATED TO SAY (UNFORTUNATELY)…

Outside of the main towns on the islands there are very few rubbish bins to put your trash in. This means that any water bottles, chip packets, plastic bags, cigarette butts etc. that you take to these places, you will need to take back with you until you find a proper bin to put them in (sometimes all the way back into town). I found always bringing a plastic bag of some kind with me to put rubbish in was useful.

PLEASE try to remember that the Galapagos Islands are a protected park and one of the last remaining areas left on the planet that has not been trashed by bad human behaviour. The worst part of my entire trip was having to watch the local guides/caretakers carrying bags full of rubbish (sometimes literally as large as themselves) at the end of each day after the tourists had left and gone back to town. I just couldn’t fathom how people could travel to such a beautiful place like this, see what it is and somehow still not understand where they were… and this never failed to make me feel disappointed, angry and ashamed.

Please don’t be one of those people, not in this place.

Adelaide, Australia
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416 posts
8. Re: Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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*Request - This is a personal request to anyone who ever read this thread and found the information useful on their own land-based/independent trip.

By far the most difficult thing for me to find online is accurate up to date costs for anything in the Galapagos, because all the tour websites heavily exaggerate the prices compared to what they are when you are actually on the islands.

So after you return from your Galapagos trip, it would be great if you could make the effort to revisit this thread and leave a comment saying the date when you travelled and updating any costs that are incorrect or out of date in my original posts (especially for day tours, accommodation, food, inter-island boats, horse riding etc). If you could also mention any new tours that have recently started up, bargains you found or anything else that you consider definitely worthwhile for people to do or visit when travelling to the Galapagos on a limited budget (but are not taking a cruise).

I’m positive any updates you can contribute will be appreciated by many future independent travellers for years to come.

Thank you

Jake

Boulder, Colorado
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1,793 posts
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9. Re: Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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Whoa Jake,

That is quite a bit of info. Maybe I should introduce you to a publisher I know. :)

I’m sure this will be terrifically helpful to many.

You better get back to your day job.

Bill

Edited: 3 years ago
Adelaide, Australia
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416 posts
10. Re: Galapagos Islands - Detailed Guide for Land-based Travellers
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Yeah, it is a lot. But to cover all of the details people kept asking for that were missing from my previous thread and also update the info that was there last time... this was actually as short as I could make it.

On the other hand, I wish I had some of this extra info when I travelled there. I researched pretty good, but not nearly this good.

Hopefully I can use it if I go back again.

Haha... The only reason I finally had time to do this (I promised people on this site I would do it 4 years ago) is because as of recently I don't have a "day job".

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