The Galápagos Islands are so exotic and unlike any place in the world. It is a place that doesn’t belong to humans – it is a kingdom of the animals.
Walking around it is – common for one to encounter sea-lions languishing on benches in the glistening sun, to see pelicans blatantly nicking fish off markets, to wait patiently while a tortoise crosses the road or to see an iguana have no shame in blocking your entrance to an island. If you do not interfere with animals – you can feel safe, but if someone crosses into their comfort zone – they may even be attacked. So you have to be very careful and very gentle, and not like my husband, chased by half of the sea lions everywhere.
Most of the islands are so rich in variety and individuality that it’s almost a given that the island that you’ve visited the day before will change its face beyond recognition today. Every island is distinct, not only in terms of its landscape but in its wildlife, flora and fauna. The species are not only endemic to the archipelago; they can only be found on one particular island.
Locals and tourist guides are infatuated with the islands and its non-human habitants, the stories surrounding the animals are made legend. Diego the Tortoise, for instance, is a local celebrity. Rightfully so, his sexual exploits saved an entire species. When the scientists began studying the wildlife of one of the islands they made an alarming discovery, there were only 8 female tortoises remaining of an entire species. The search for a male of the same species was on and fortunately one was found at the San Diego Zoo. Many were concerned that Diego might not take to the natural lifestyle, yet he outperformed everyone’s wildest expectations. He saved the species and the population grew at a brake-neck- pace, with some scientists estimating that the sex-giant’s descendants number at 800. The worldwide media adored Diego and covered his story, they wrote about how «Sexploits of Diego the Tortoise save Galapagos species». To this day Diego still roams the island and despite his olden age he is promiscuous as ever.
A different island seemed to project more hope, with 13 females and 1 male tortoises. The locals, excited about the species’ savior, dubbed the tortoise King George and to commemorate his coming glory drew a giant painting, in a billboard format, of George with a halo over his head. Unfortunately, George was unable to produce offsprings, the species died out and the locals, to memorialize George and his species drew a more solemn painting of him, no halo this time, on the back side of the billboard.
Yet another island is home to Albatrosses, for an unknown reason they always come to the island to settle down and form a family. They are, like swans, monogamous in their family life, having only one partner in their entire lifespan. Sex, on the other hand, is unrelated to either family or children so it is common for pairs of albatrosses to be raising kids that are not theirs, biologically speaking.
Most of the islands are infested with a plethora of different bird species, the most common of which are boobies (fool). There are two widespread sub-species, the blue-foot boobies, known for their inability to react to danger and its blue feet. Nazca boobies are known more sinister reasons; they lay two eggs and whoever hatches first kills the other, thus eliminating potential competition, which, in my opinion, discredits Darwin’s theory. Speaking of Darwin, the scientist visited this Galapagos islands, there is a museum in his honor.
Another island belongs to bachelor sea-lions, whether they are, in fact, bachelors is not clearly known. Women, however, are not allowed, not unless they are quietly sitting at the periphery, letting the men rest and soak in the sun and the ocean breeze. Crawling to the island is a task in itself, so much so that the island’s rocky surface has been polished to perfection by the seals’ stomachs. A truly odd visual experience, if you add the cactus trees to the landscape.
Practically all tours include snorkeling options. In a way, it is like going to an aquarium, although here no glass wall separates you and the wildlife. You are in the aquarium, so to speak, surrounded by fish with the most expansive and luminous color array, there for you to reach out, touch and stare in wonder. Perplexity, most of the fish are not frightened by a human presence, instead, they seem curious, it is as if they’re as surprised to see you as you are. Swimming with tortoises sounds fun, but how about sharks? You can, as the local shark species are harmless, but when a flock of them encircles you, this significant fact is forgotten for a moment of two, as you experience the chilling sensation of danger. Sea lions are everywhere, they can even keep you company and play with you, if they so wish.
When to go and how much it cost
The number of people allowed on the archipelago at any given time is restricted by the government, however, the cap is high enough so that most can get in.
It is true that a trip to the Galápagos islands is one of the most expensive trips you can go on. Although, the unbelievable prices only apply to the peak times of summer. In the months of November and December the prices become perfectly manageable. A 5 days cruise, that included a roundtrip flight from Quito, transfer, 5 meals per day (no alcohol) and tour guide services cost a $1,800 in total, compared to $10,000 for the same basic services in peak times during the summer. Bargaining and negotiating is welcome during off-peak times.
Some trips could be purchased on the spot, with a potential of a 20% discount if you pay cash. We paid $140 instead of $180 for a trip to Bartolomé, for example. Furthermore, tours and cruises can be bought on the spot too, the price for a day’s tour and a day on the cruise ship are going to be roughly the same. Additional services can be bought, unsurprisingly, a popular one seems to be snorkeling.
The service is of a very high standard, the number of cruise ships is limited, however, especially the more popular and the higher end ones, so advance booking would be advised.
You might assume the weather to be warm, after all it is the equator, but at times, especially in the months of winter and autumn, the nights get chilly so warm clothes are advised. Late fall and early winter has perhaps the most pleasant weather, the air is warm, water nice, at 20 degrees Celsius, practically no rain and the ocean is still. Summer gets worse, rain, storms, cold water and soaring prices await.
Fortunately, there is no visa for most citizens but the separate customs control system might just make up for that pleasant fact. Upon arrival you’ll have to fill out a declaration and will pay a separate $100 bill for visiting the islands. Your immigration card is important, in case you lose it you’ll have to pay a $20 fine at the airport upon departure. No food or wildlife can be brought in or out of the area and the airport customs control staff will search you with utmost diligence. The general rules and regulations associated with entering the islands will surely be drilled into you at several points of your trip, so don’t bother memorizing them.
The currency is American dollar.
How to get
First, you’ll arrive at either Quito, the capital, or Guayaquil, the second largest city and industrial heart of Ecuador. Both cities have enormous international airports. From there, you will take a plane to the archipelago. Even if you decide to go to Quito and fly from there, you’ll get to visit Guayaquil, as the plane will make stops in the airport to drop off and pick people up. I thought air-travel as public transport was only a thing in Africa, clearly I was wrong.
There are three islands you can fly to, either Santa Cruz, Santiago or Isabella, with flights leaving for every two hours. It is convenient too, you can arrive at one island, and leave from another, a fairly common practice for the locals. We, for instance, arrived at Santiago but left from Santa Cruz. Tickets are usually 200 dollars, depending on the season of course. If you decide to buy the tickets independently, the prices for Avianca airlines could be twice as cheap as tickets bought from the expedia for example.
It is important to note that if you’re flying from Santa Cruz you have to be aware that the airport is not situated on the mainland of the island. Instead, you will have to travel first by boat, which leaves every thirty minutes and then take a 10 minutes bus ride to the airport. We didn’t know that and arrived at the boat, not at the airport, 30 minutes before our fly. Personal boats are strictly forbidden with menacing coastguard watching for just that.
What to do
Clearly, you should explore the islands and soak in the exquisite nature. There are two most common ways to spend your time on the islands, you can either take cruises (most popular 4, 5 and 15 day) or go solo. In my humble opinion the 5 day option on the cruise is the most pleasant way to spend your time. It’s the ideal balance, as you’ll get to see plenty of different places and won’t be as tired. People on the 15 day tours tend to come back drained. Several classes of cruise ships are on offer, ranging from the smallest yachts to the largest cruise ships, from basic class to luxury. If you want to enjoy more you can always stay on an island for a few days. But remember, exploring by your self can only be done on the three inhabited islands Santa Cruz, Santiago and Isabella (plenty to do on them as well). Since the rest of the archipelago consist of small, animal-occupied islands, visiting them is only permitted under the supervision of the tour guides, called “naturalists” by the locals. There aren’t many ways around this issue, the government is strict, to the extent of taking passport details of every visitor of a particular island.
Cruise or solo
As you might’ve already discerned from the above mentioned information the cruise option is the better one. There are several reasons, one is that most of the islands you’ll visit on a cruise you simply won’t have access to if you travel from a fixed location, they are simply too far. Perhaps as importantly, you won’t get as tired from traveling, the cruise ship is always moving you to your next destination. The maximum effort you’ll have to put in is a 2 hours walking tour twice daily and 1 hour snorkeling session that will be even in the middle of the ocean.
Your group on the cruise will be arranged based on language, which might seem like a small detail but if you imagine the amount time it would take the naturalist to deliver the same message in both languages you’ll realize that this details is crucial. Moreover, if the group is mixed it is very likely that all of the jokes and additional interesting facts will be conveyed through Spanish, as this is the fluent language of the locals.
Service quality becomes important on long cruises and thankfully the level is usually very high. Every smallest detail will be considered, towels, creams for snorkeling masks and disinfectants will be provided and you will be cared for.
A rating system is in place. Both guides and cruises get a grade from one to four. Our guide and boat the “Galaxy” were both rated a 3 and the service was amazing. Later we discovered that cruises on this boat considered to be one of the best. Most of the information regarding the ratings can be found out from the travel agency during the purchase of your cruise journey.
You can order here, for instance https://www.facebook.com/ColumbusTravelEcuador/
Cruises, as surprising as it is, turns out can be cheaper than solo travel. Considering you stop at one of the three main islands and take separate tours the cost could be above $200 per person. Additionally, staying on the island you need to budget at least $100 a day for a mid-range hotel and food. Your daily tours are likely to unfold like this. You’ll have to wake up at 5 am., your mixed language groups are going to be put into small, less-equipped boats, then you’ll go not far off coast and snorkel. The service will be worse, for instance, you’ll get towels but you most likely won’t get an anti-fog cream for your masks.
However, if you choose to live in a hostel ($20 per night, usually), of which there are plenty, catch happy hours in restaurants and pay for tours by cash on the spot, you will definitely save money.
The minimum that you will get will suffice for an unforgettable experience.
When picking housing on one of the islands I would advise you pick hotels slightly further away from the main coast. First it is cost of course. Even during off peak times the prices of beach front hotels can be up to $400-500 per night. In land the prices will be a fraction. We stayed at Hotel Palace Galapagos, for 125 per night with fabulous service. Second, it will be quieter as it is further away from the nightlife. But since the islands are so small the coast will be just a couple minute walk away.
Since the import or export of foods from the Galápagos islands is significantly controlled most of the food you’ll eat will be local. The cuisine is mostly sea-based, ranging from dishes fairly well-known, like lobster ($20) or octopus ($10) to the less known and exclusive to the island, like pilot fish ($10). Alternatively, you can order a mixed bowl of sea-food for the same price as the lobster, enough to feed two hungry travelers. Catch the happy hours for alcohol to get three cocktails for the price of two ($10 on average).
On Santa Cruz island a must go is fish market-street, at evening times it turns into one giant restaurant. The place might look a bit dodgy at first but in actuality the food is fantastic and the place itself safe.
There is of course an abundance of restaurants A dinner within the tourist area would cost you $40 and a dinner out of it might be $10. You can get a full meal of only $5 during day time.
A cool place to go in Santa Cruz is the Bongo Bar, a place that promises to give you the best night on the island, famous among the tourist as well as locals. Another place you could visit is Angermeyer waterfront inn restaurant, which is not just a restaurant but an entire multi building complex with hotel, made out of lava stone. The trip to the Angermeyer is an experience in itself, the complex is situated right at the mouth of a bay, the way you get there is by 80 cent water-taxi that operates 24/7.
Market-places are common; there you can buy jewelry made out of local precious stones or t-shirts with Blue foot boobies. Alternatively, you can visit shops where you can buy art made out of recyclable materials, or hand-made chocolate shaped like tortoise and seahorses. If for any reason you didn’t have time to shop, don’t worry, the same products could be bought in the airport for the same prices.
Connection to the outside world
In the kingdom of animals, it’s not surprising that modern communication methods are minimal. On the island mobile service is sporadic, internet connections spotty and only on a few cruises will you have any internet – enjoy the silence and disengage from the hectic world, it’s really a pro rather than a con.