Hello Tripadvisor friends,
I'm a longtime lurker but a newbie poster. I credit this forum for the vacation of a lifetime and, like others, wanted to post a trip report to pay it forward. The most helpful resource during our planning was Snaek’s post listed in the top questions section — and I won’t address many of the topics he already covered. This is intended mainly as a non-exhaustive list (not pretending to be an expert!) of activities accessible to land-based travelers in hopes that it makes your planning a bit easier… With the addition of our reviews and other tips. I was reluctant to start choosing activities without understanding and learning about every possible option, so I compiled master lists and worked off of those to build our family’s itinerary. In the interest of saving future type-A planners some time, I’ll share what I learned.
About us: We're a family of four (my younger sister and I are in our mid-20s and our parents are 59 and 70). This trip has been a bucket list item for my father since he was a child, and I decided to research and plan based on his interests. My sister and I were just lucky enough to tag along!
Trip details: We budgeted exactly two weeks (travel days included). Night one was spent in Guayaquil, after which we flew with Avianca to Santa Cruz (Baltra). We spent three nights in Santa Cruz and then flew on the air taxi (Emetebe) to Isabela, spent four nights there, and then again flew to San Cristobal for four more. We flew directly back to Guayaquil out of San Cristobal and took a red-eye back to the US.
Notes on airlines: My parents are nervous on airplanes — especially international/small flights. We had no issues with Avianca, LATAM or Emetebe. We enjoyed not having a layover in Guayaquil (as many flights originating from Quito have) and were TREMENDOUSLY thankful we chose to fly Emetebe instead of riding the ferries between islands. This not only made our itinerary practical (going from Isabela to Cristobal requires two ferries) but saved time too. This was less of an advantage for our first transfer, given we had to make the trek back up to Baltra from Puerto Ayora, but all things considered, the flights were a great decision and absolutely worth the cost. For those wondering, my parents fared just fine on the small planes and actually enjoyed the breathtaking views. One word of caution, Emetebe sometimes moves the departure time with little notice. Both of our flights took off 45 minutes earlier than scheduled. Not a big deal — just make sure you’re finished with your last activity for the day with time to spare.
Notes on travel requirements: We purchased travel insurance beforehand and printed confirmation of our return flight and hotels, but no one ever checked. We were only ever asked for passports and vaccination cards (all Moderna and that was 100% acceptable). Getting the TCT form/card is an easy process in the airport, just budget an extra 30 minutes or so.
Land vs. cruise: There's a lot of talk on this forum about whether it's worth it to do a land-based trip and bypass the cruises or liveaboards — especially when cost is not a factor. I won’t go into that debate here… For many reasons, though, my family opted to island hop. We ended up spending slightly less during the two weeks than a 7-day cruise would have been... And we spared no expense on activities or hotels. Cruises for sure have their merits and are likely better suited for some types of travelers, but I can 100% guarantee that with a little research, you can see SO much of these beautiful islands via a land-based trip.
We preferred to work with one Galapagos-based company to book all of our tours on all islands... And we booked everything months in advance. Sure, you can likely save here and there on tours if you book when you arrive, though given the nature of our trip, we didn’t want to risk missing anything because of availability (especially given that we were a group of four). I also found the prices I was quoted exceptionally reasonable.
**If you take one thing from this post, it’s this: find a local company that can help you during your time on the islands. For us, that was Guiding Galapagos. It’s run by a husband/wife team and they don't have a website, but I contacted them via Facebook messenger and cannot recommend these people enough. They are the most dedicated, responsive and helpful guides I've ever come across traveling. If you don’t want to research everything so meticulously, let them know what you like or are interested in and they’ll plan everything for you. Or, if you’re like us, and want more control over your itinerary, give them a list of the tours you want and they’ll handle all bookings/transfers/equipment and make sure you’re all set. The husband, Yazmany, is one of the best naturalist guides we had during our time and even greeted us the day we arrived to accompany us on our first activity. 10/10 class act operation. They were an invaluable resource and ensured that our trip was completely flawless start to finish.
Ok… Whew… That was a lot. Now for your options — all in one place! I’ll break them up by boat tours and activities you can do on the island itself… Then list other things we didn’t get to do (*) but you can research yourself and decide if you’d like to include.
ACTIVITIES & TOURS
-Santa Fe: This was the hardest decision for us to make because there are so many day trips from Santa Cruz and we only had one day to work with. We chose this tour because it was one of the shorter boat rides (45 minutes) and offered the chance the swim with sea lion pups. Sea lions are plentiful in Galapagos, but we loved snorkeling with so many at one time — made for amazing GoPro footage! — and also enjoyed getting to see Galapagos sharks and a few sea turtles. After the two snorkel tours, we stopped at a nearby beach called Hidden Beach to observe hundreds of marine iguanas making their way from the sea to the beach. We heard great things about all of the other boat trips but had a fantastic time at Santa Fe.
-Gordon’s Rock Dive: We’re scuba divers but didn’t want to spend our entire trip on this one activity, so we made this our dive day and chose this dive to see the things we didn’t think we’d see on other snorkel tours: hammerheads and eagle rays. Difficult dive with the current, but we went out with Academy Bay and had a spectacular time. These guys are pros and also have some of the biggest boats (which help with the rough seas). Saw a school of 70 hammerheads, rays… This was a WOW moment for all four of us.
*South Plazas, Bartolome, North Seymour, Pinzon, Floreana
-Las Grietas: Beautiful walk to this natural swimming spot. At this moment requires a naturalist guide but you can walk right up and find one. I was the only one brave enough to swim without a wetsuit and managed a quick 10 minute dip. You won’t see anything amazing in the water but worth the trek.
-Charles Darwin Station: We stopped here for two hours after our Santa Fe tour. It was our first interaction with the giant tortoises and we definitely enjoyed our time.
-Tortuga Bay: Did this on the way home from our dive. A bit of a walk from the main entry point (we had our taxi driver drop us here). We didn’t spend too much time once we got to the beach — mainly just wanted to see it! The first part is rough with huge waves, but you can continue walking past the furthest red flag to the calmer bay where you can swim and snorkel. This is also where you catch the water taxi back to Puerto Ayora.
-Lava Tunnels: We coupled this tour with Primicias Ranch and Los Gemelos on our way back to Baltra the last day on Santa Cruz. Didn’t quite know what to expect but were pleasantly surprised by the sheer size of the tunnels. There’s a point at which you have to army-crawl under part of the tunnel to make it to the other side. Worth it even for the laugh of watching each other struggle to make it through.
-Los Gemelos: Beautiful scenery — the craters were much larger and even more impressive than we anticipated.
-Primicias Ranch: Chose this tortoise ranch over El Chato but I’m sure both are great. Really enjoyed walking around the natural preserve and learning so much from our guide.
*El Chato, Rancho El Manzanillo (told they had a fantastic farm lunch), Garrapatero Beach, Playa de la Estación, Nymphs Lagoon
-Los Tuneles: One of our favorite tours! Don’t miss this spot. The landscape, we thought, was one of the most breathtaking in all of the islands. Arches, tunnels… Serene and crystal-clear water. We first navigated around in the boat and spotted penguins on the rocks, then jumped on land to observe the nesting Blue-footed Boobies and sea turtles popping their heads above water. The snorkeling was absolutely amazing… We counted more than 15 HUGE turtles, seahorses, an octopus, blacktip reef sharks. On our way back, my mother saw a massive manta ray leap out of the water, and I spotted a sea lion flying through the air wrangling an octopus in its mouth — tentacles flying every which way around its head!
-Las Tintoreras: Also amazing - wouldn’t miss this tour either. It was a cloudy, overcast day, so we actually decided not to hop in the water to snorkel, but chose instead to walk around on land with our naturalist guide… Watching sea lions taunt sharks in the water below us and taking in all that was around us — penguins, more turtles, tons of marine iguanas.
*Think we (miraculously) exhausted the boat trip options here
-Sierra Negra Volcano: This is not for the weak! No one warned us about how strenuous this hike would be (luckily my 70-year-old father is in great shape!)… In fact, I think it’s billed more as a “walk” to the caldera and around to Volcan Chico. The trip lasts around 5 hours and is definitely intense, but 100% worth the effort. Turned out to be the highlight of the trip for my dad. The weather started out hazy but cleared for us when we made it to the top — allowing us perfect views of the caldera and then all of the north part of Isabela from the top. The landscape is what I imagine Mars would look like — really exceeded every expectation we had for a day trip.
-Concha de Perla: Checked out this spot before our boat tour to Las Tintoreras. We had our snorkel gear in hand but didn’t get in since it was a chilly morning and we didn’t want to be cold and wet on the boat. It wasn’t crowded and we spotted several sea lions playing in the water around the dock. It’s just a short walk from where the taxi drops you off (and where the boat tours depart) and we were glad we made the stop.
-Laguna Salinas: We stayed at Iguana Crossing at one of end of town and thus were really close to the entrance of two trails - one which leads to the tortoise center and another which leads to the Wall of Tears. The first is about a 20 minute walk and bypasses a few lagoons where it’s possible to spot flamingos and other birds.
-Arnaldo Tortoise Center: This center, mentioned above, can be found at the end of the trail (or right off the nearby road if you want to access it by taxi. It’s smaller than some of the other breeding centers we visited, but we had some free time after Las Tintoreras so decided to check it out.
-Wall of Tears: This was the last activity we did on Isabela. The morning of our flight to San Cristobal, we rented bikes in town and road the trail to the Wall of Tears. It’s about an hour bike ride to the entrance, at which point you have to get off and walk the rest of the way. It’s another minute or two to the actual wall and then about a 25 minute walk around and up a set of stairs/steep trail to a lookout point. There are various offshoots along the initial trail where you can get off your bike and walk to various beaches/other points of interest. This was another activity that I thought would be fairly easy but turned out to be really strenuous and intense. It’s a long, often steep bike ride — but as with most everything else I’ve written about, worth the trip.
*Mirador del Mango
-Kicker Rock/Punta Pitt: These are actually two separate tours but we did both in one day by taking the 360 Tour of the island, which includes these stops, some fishing and brief exploring/snorkeling at a few other beaches. This was the only tour we weren’t absolutely crazy about — mainly because it was really long with hours spent on the boat. We should’ve expected this (after all, the tour takes you around the entire island) and probably would’ve been fine toward the beginning of our trip, but by day 11 or 12 we had seen so much and probably could’ve used a nice beach day. We were all still really glad we went — the landscape at Punta Pitt and the chance to see Red-footed Boobies there, and then the stunning end of the tour when we made it to Cerro Brujo/Kicker Rock made the 8 hours completely worth it. However, if we were to do it again, we probably would’ve picked either Kicker Rock or Punta Pitt separately and bypassed the really long time spent on the boat. A note on Kicker Rock — most people decided to snorkel here but didn’t see much due to low visibility. We heard this can be hit or miss. The naturalist guide saw a few hammerheads in deep water. We actually chose to stay on the boat and navigate in and around the site with the captain, as it was so beautiful and we enjoyed looking at the landscape/taking photos. We had done a lot of snorkeling by this point too! So in either case, it might be worth it regardless of the water vis. It’s impressive just observing this iconic spot.
-Espanola: Our very last tour — and my favorite! It was the longest boat trip we took (aside from the 360 Tour) but so very interesting. Quite frankly, I didn’t know what to expect despite my research. For me, though, I had so many WOW moments on this island. So many birds — from boobies and the Albatross (which were courting) to hawks and finches. And all of the chicks running around! Not to mention the scenery and the point overlooking steep cliffs where the Albatross fly overhead… And the blow hole spraying water high into the air. On the way home, to make it even better, we were joined by a pod of 200+ dolphins that played around our boat for almost half an hour.
-Mirador Cerro Tijeretas/Muelle Tijeretas: Nearby to Playa Mann, there’s a path to Playa Carola that splits. Go left and you hit Carola, right and the trail continues. Eventually, it splits again and you can go down to Muelle Tijeretas or up to a viewpoint called Mirador Cerro Tijeretas. We chose to walk up to the viewpoint — which is actually several tiered observations decks that overlook the bay and the swimming spot below, which is the Muelle Tijeretas part. Additionally, past the very last viewpoint, there’s a small dirt trail that continues. We made it about 10 minutes down that part of the trail before turning back. It got rocky and difficult, and we weren’t sure where it led — we still don’t have a clue! So if someone can answer this question, we’d love to know. It seemed to go downhill in the opposite direction.
-Playa Mann: Made a brief stop here on the way to Tijeretas. Nice beach if you’re looking for a place to relax.
-Playa Carola: Stopped here on our way back from Tijeretas. One of our favorite beaches, mainly because of all of the sea lions. They’re just so amazing to watch.
-La Loberia: Took a short taxi over to this beach after the morning doing all of the above. There’s also a trail that takes you to the cliffs on the other side of this beach if you keep walking.
*Puerto Chino, El Junco Lagoon, Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, Interpretation Center (closed when we were there)
We stayed at Finch Bay on Santa Cruz, Iguana Crossing on Isabela and then Golden Bay on San Cristobal. We enjoyed them all for very different reasons. Finch Bay was separated from Puerto Ayora by a short water taxi ride, which was nice in some ways and not exactly inconvenient… But also made it a little more cumbersoåme to pop over to town for dinner. The standard rooms were very small, but we spent all of two minutes there when we weren’t sleeping. Iguana Crossing is probably the sparsest of the group but sits directly in front of what we thought was the most stunning beach in all of the islands. Golden Bay was very upscale and we had no complaints — the fact that we could watch the sea lions play right outside was only a plus. Breakfast everywhere was fantastic.
All good, none particularly amazing — but we didn’t go searching/nor did we need the best food:
Santa Cruz: Finch Bay’s restaurant (great cocktails), Almar, Midori
Isabela: Endemic Turtle
San Cristobal: Muyu, Midori, El Descanso Marinero
OTHER TIPS & THINGS TO KNOW
-We expected it to be chilly in the evening but did not anticipate feeling cold during the day. However, all four of us wished we would have brought warmer layers and a bigger jacket. When the sun is out, 68/70 F feels great… But when it’s overcast/cloudy and you’re on a boat with wind and mist, that same temp seems much different. You’ll be coming out of the water cold and you’ll want to change into long sleeves and pants on cooler days, not to mention when the sun sets.
-THE WATER IS COLD! At least in the cooler months of July/August. We needed wetsuits everywhere and sometimes we were still absolutely freezing. We used 5mm with hoods when diving. I doubled up with a shortie on some of the snorkel tours. Maybe we’re just weak North Carolinians (likely!) but don’t be afraid to ask for long wetsuits/more wetsuits. :)
-THE SEA IS ROUGH! Not everywhere and not all the time, but it can get choppy. We get incredibly sea sick, so we wore scopolamine patches on almost every boat ride. We were completely fine with these… But not sure how we would’ve done without them.
-The tips left by others about cash still apply. Isabela is largely cash-only and though we did see an ATM, it’s often hard to pull out larger amounts at once.
-Make friends on your tours. We met so many amazing travelers throughout our two weeks, and often we’d see the same family or couple multiple times on the same island or even different islands. The chance encounters were some of our favorite parts of our trip.
-Learn some Spanish! Most of your naturalist guides will speak great English, but not everyone on the islands can. It’s helpful if you know basic phrases. And we could tell they appreciated the effort — even when we made little sense.
-Stay close to your naturalist guide. Some of the most amazing things we saw we would’ve missed had we not been right next to the guide during snorkel tours or hikes. You will be doing plenty of exploring on your own. When you have a guide, take advantage of their expertise and knowledge.
In the end, what started as a quest to make sure my father had a fantastic trip turned into a passion project… And then a real-life experience my entire family will cherish forever. I’m so thankful we got to explore this place together. I hope some of my information gives others the courage to take the leap and begin planning their own adventure.
One final thought - No tour guide, agency or traveler can promise you anything for sure. Follow our plan exactly, and you’re bound to have different experiences. This isn’t a theme park. Galapagos is a dynamic place bursting with life while also grappling with the harsh rules and realities of nature. More than anything else, though, this is what makes the islands so magical. Don’t go with high or low expectations — go with no expectations, and be charmed by where your journey leads.
Happy and safe travels to all!