Recently returned from an outstanding 2 weeks in the Galapagos. Six days was spent on the Calipso, a liveaboard dive boat. There doesn't seem to be a lot of scuba talk on here, but I can heartily recommend the boat and can't fathom why anyone would spend more to go on one of the competitors. The facilities and the crew were outstanding. And, of course, the diving was incredible. Now is the time to go as trips are heavily discounted.
Speaking of which, there will not be a better time in your lifetime to go to the Galapagos Islands than right now. There are no crowds anywhere. Nothing needs to be booked ahead of time. And prices are lower than they've been in years (and presumably will ever be again).
Okay, on to the land part of the trip...
Getting into the Galapagos is easy. Make sure you have an electronic backup of your PCR test. If, like me, you manage to lose the paper copy between your arrival in Quito and your departure to the islands, the electronic copy is sufficient. The Quito airport is as empty as you'd expect it to be in the middle of a pandemic, so no need to arrive crazy early to make your flights.
If you fly into Baltra, you're going to need to spend $5 for the short bus ride to the ferry, $1 for the ferry and either $5 for the bus to Puerto Ayora or up to $25 on a cab. The buses don't run on a regular schedule but one was waiting for us. With so few flights these days, I'd guess that's a common thing but who knows. The bus is as fast as a taxi - everyone's going on the same two-lane highway to Puerto Ayora.
One detail about money: bring a lot of small bills and bring more than you think you're going to spend. And if you can bring $2 bills, people seem to love them.
It took a couple of hours to get from the airport to my hotel and by the time I had a late lunch, all I had time to do was explore Puerto Ayora, admire the sea lions, and go to bed.
A note on food: The food I was most looking forward to was what I'd find at Los Kioskos. Unfortunately, the government shut it down and there's no apparent plan for it to come back. Generally speaking, I found the food on Charles Darwin Ave, the main street on the water, to be overpriced for what it is. I had a decent meal at El Chocolate (a pile of grilled fish and seafood and fried green plaintains), but I found the various places a couple blocks inland to be better and much cheaper. I found a fantastic place for empanadas called Milenita. It's about 3 blocks from Mercado Municipal (the main grocery store). For fruit, there are multiple stands right by the Mercado Municipal. Guanabana was surprisingly hard to track down, but I was able to find one woman selling them (we made each other's day - her by selling me a guanabana and me by including 2 $2 bills in my payment). Fruit seekers should be aware that fruit on the Galapagos is not nearly as diverse as fruit on the mainland. Makes sense given that all of Galapagos is build on lava. Still, the pineapple and bananas were amazing and, in a couple of weeks, Santa Cruz will be bursting with guava.
Next day I got up and rented a bike to head to the highlands. Bike rental was $15 for a full day and includes a helmet, a lock, a bike pump and a tire patching kit. I forget the name of the place I rented from, but it was at the corner of Charles Darwin and Isla Floreana.
There are two ways to get to the highlands - you can bike a long way uphill or you can grab a $10 taxi (they're all pick up trucks) and throw your bike in the back. I opted for the latter and went all the way to Los Gemelos, two beautiful craters about 21.5 kilometers from the bike rental. From Los Gemelos, you're going to want to coast downhill a short way, take a sharp right off the highway at the tiny town of Santa Rosa and go to one of the ranches that doubles as a tortoise reserve.
I went to Rancho Primcias, which was absolutely incredible. There were a ton of tortoises. The guide was fantastic. He's a national park employee who needed work as a result of the massive decline in tourism in the Galapagos and is friends with the owner of the ranch. It's unclear whether the guide was required or not, but I was happy to pay for the extra information (his English is great).
The bike ride from the ranch back to the highway was a challenge for me on an uphill bumpy dirt road. But once I got to the highway, I spent far more time breaking than pedaling on the long downhill ride to town. One note - it rains a ton in the highlands this time of year so if you're bringing a fancy camera, you're definitely going to want to bring a waterproof bag.
When I got back to town, I headed to Las Grietas, which is gorgeous and highly recommended. Again, the guide (required) was great, spoke English, and provided a wealth of information. There's an option to snorkel. Normally the water is crystal clear, but it poured the night before so it wasn't as good as usual.
On Day 3, I headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station for more tortoises. Once again, the guide was required, spoke great English, and provided all sorts of information. Another can't miss stop on Santa Cruz.
That afternoon I boarded the boat for six days. There was technically a seventh day but day 6 was on Santa Cruz and since I wasn't going to the airport the next day, there was no reason to get back on.
When we got to Santa Cruz, the group visited El Chato, the most famous tortoise reserve on Santa Cruz. It's adjacent to Primicias but there were far, far fewer tortoises at El Chato. The tortoises are wild so presumably it was just luck of the draw. But I'd say if you go to one and don't see a lot of tortoises, go ahead and head to the other. Going to the Galapagos and not seeing a lot of tortoises seems like a big missed opportunity to me.
Both ranches also have lava tunnels. They didn't do a ton for me, but worth checking given how unique they are.
The next morning I hopped on a ferry to Isabela. Don't bother trying to figure out the ferry schedules online ahead of time. They seem to be changing as demand changes. As of now, there is just one ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabela each day and it leaves at 7:00 AM (or close to it). I was told I had to buy a ticket the night before, though I'm not sure if that's right. Cost is $30 and it takes about 2 hours to get to Isabela.
Isabela is absolutely gorgeous. I arrived in the Galapagos without firm post-diving plans and every local person I asked said Isabela was a must-visit. I had three full days there spread out over four actual days. On the first afternoon after my ferry arrived, I rented a bike ($2/hour or $10/day) and rode to the Wall of Tears. There are a lot of beaches and nature trails to stop and see along the way so plan on that taking a few hours. Also plan on applying more sunscreen than you've ever applied in your life. It was a gorgeous day.
The next day was filed primarily with a hike to Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico ($35). You're definitely going to want to do this. It's 8 KM each way but not steep at all. First portion of the hike to the caldera is on a dirt road with farmland on both sides. Highlight was finding some early season guava to eat. After about 3 kilometers, you get to the caldera which is a truly impressive sight. As cool as the caldera is, that's actually just the start of what makes this hike great. The next 5 km to Volcan Chico are like hiking on another planet. Nothing but lava and some cactuses with a few signs of sulfur and iron. There are all sorts of cool formations and holes made by flowing lava over time.
The next day was a trip to Los Tuneles ($90), which is an incredibly cool series of rock formations, many of which form arches above the water. There are a lot of pools of crystal clear water between the various formations where you can see turtles and other sea life. This trip also included a snorkeling stop and a boat drive near a few other rock formations (one covered with a handful of blue footed boobies and another with a penguin). We also had a few mantas come swim by the boat.
The following morning was a snorkeling trip to Las Tintoreras. The land part of this trip was nice (saw some sea lions and tons of iguanas), but part of it was cut short because it's iguana nesting season. Not a big deal - you'll see more iguanas on Isabela than you can imagine. The highlight of the Las Tintoreras trip is the chance to see penguins. I'm told it's pretty consistent and we were able to spend several minutes swimming with a group of 8 of them. Without the penguins, I'd say Tintoreras can be skipped. With the penguins, it's a trip highlight no matter what else you do.
Incidentally, Isabela is pretty much a ghost town these days. You can easily have an entire beach to yourself (you may need to share with iguanas). The bus to the start of the Sierra Negra hike had seats for 24 and there were just 4 passengers. We saw a total of 2 other groups on the mountain - one group of 2 and one group of 3.
There are currently two daily ferries from Isabela to Santa Cruz, one in the early morning and one at 2:30 PM. I heard there's also a ferry directly to Baltra (or at least the northern side of Santa Cruz at the channel across from Baltra), but it's not every day and I don't know the schedule.
The following day, my last full day in the Galapagos, I did a day trip to North Seymour to see the hordes of mating blue footed boobies and frigate birds as well as the orange land iguanas (as opposed to the green marine iguanas on Santa Cruz and Isabela). This was absolutely incredible. I've heard that Genovesa is better for birds but it's not possible to get to on a day trip. In addition to the bird watching on North Seymour, the trip also includes Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz (flamingoes!) and some snorkeling. Snorkeling is scheduled to be near Bachas Beach, but our guide proposed we snorkel at North Seymour instead, which was turned out to be a great recommendations.
One cautionary note on day trips. And this is my one criticism of the Galapgos Islands. There's no transparency at all on pricing. There are far more companies selling day trip tickets than there are companies actually running day trips. I was quoted $170 and $180 for my North Seymour trip, but someone else paid $150 the day before and someone else paid $130. Up to you whether you want to spend vacation time going door to door to ask about pricing, but figured I'd share that info.
As far as Covid precautions in the Galapagos, I can say that people are far, far more conscientious about wearing masks there than in the US. On the boat, it was a different story - none of the passengers wore masks nor did most of the crew. It was absolutely wonderful to be mask free for six days. All of us had obviously been tested within three days of our arrival and infection rates on the Islands have been low.
In terms of Covid tests to get back into your home country, it is incredibly easy to get tested in Quito. Most hotels will happily arrange for someone to come administer it. I got an antigen test (all the US requires) and got my results emailed to me in about 2.5 hours and my friend got a PCR test and got his results in about 7 hours. There's also Medical Vip at the Quito Airport, which I've heard is open 24 hours and doesn't require an appointment. Bottom line is you don't have to worry about wasting too much time in Quito worrying about a Covid test.
Apologies for the length. Happy to answer questions.