***This post will be pretty boring to read unless you are looking for information on how to travel through the Galapagos on your own. Feel free to skip reading it or just look at the nice pictures.***
To be honest, visiting the Galapagos wasn’t really on our radar for this trip. We knew that just getting to these islands would blow our budget out of the water, and that would b before paying for a cruise.
We left it up to fate and decided to make our decision after seeing what we could find airfare-wise. If flights leaving the following week were on the cheaper side, we were in. As luck would have it, we found a round-trip flight from Quito for only $270. This was $100 cheaper than the lowest fare option listed in the Lonely Planet. We took it as a sign and booked it right away.
So now we were in for the Galapagos, the next question became, “Do we take a cruise or not?”
The Great Cruise Debate of 2011 went something like this:
Reasons to do a cruise:
1. You get to see a lot more areas of the Galapagos, see more wildlife, and probably learn more because there is a guide with you at all times.
2. It can be a fun experience to sleep and wake up on a boat.
3. Everything is taken care of, so you don’t need to worry about anything.
4. People claim they have less of an environmental impact. (We are not sure how well this one holds up. The boats get their supplies shipped out just like the islands do, they ditch their trash on the islands, and where exactly does the grey/black water get dumped?)
Despite the prevailing opinion (from the internet and the LP guidebook) being the best way to see this area is by a boat cruise, we found a few people who said they explored on their own and had a great time. This lead us to really consider a land-based option.
Reasons to do the Galapagos without a cruise:
(Some of these reasons we discovered during our time there.)
1. It is MUCH cheaper. We ended up spending about $100 per person per day, including airfare and park entry. Even with a “last-minute” cruise deal, you are looking at spending at least $200 per person/day and that is without tips, drinks, or airfare.
2. You don’t have to worry (as much) about being seasick.
3. You can have some personal space and see things on your own. (After the financial thing, this was probably the biggest motivation to take a pass on the cruises.) It was great to have the experience of finding wildlife on our own or sitting peacefully on the beach, instead of crowding around with 15 other people staring at the same sea lion. Occasionally we saw a few tour groups, and every time, we were grateful that we did not have to stick with the herd.
4. No schedule. A few people who have taken boat tours have said that it was a bit too structured. Breakfast at 7. Hike at 8. Sail at 10…. etc. On your own, you can schedule things however you please.
5. You don’t have to worry about your boat, crew, and other passengers not meeting your expectations. There is nothing worse than shelling out a bunch of money and feeling like you are not getting the what you paid for. We have also heard that these crews are worked pretty hard, so they might not be the most excited about answering the one-millionth question about Blue-Footed Boobies.
6. You support the local economy with your accommodations, tours, and meals. One of our guides we hired talked with us extensively about how great it was that we were exploring on our own. He told us that the boats pay their taxes, not to the Galapagos, but directly to Quito, so the locals don’t get any of the tax benefit and some of the boats are not even run or staffed by Ecuadorians. Also, being shore side gave us the opportunity to meet a bunch of really nice locals.
Needless to say, we decided to explore these islands on our own. We realized that we wouldn’t see as many places (like the outer islands) or probably as many animals, but we didn’t want to take the expensive gamble of paying for a cruise and then not enjoying it as much as we should have. Now, having returned after an AMAZING trip, we are very satisfied with our decision.
If you are considering at trip to the Galapagos on your own, here is a brief guide that will hopefully help you have as great of a time as we did.
Arriving (Flights and Ferries):
Our cheap flight meant that we were flying in and out of the island on Santa Cruz. If you can book a flight in to San Cristobal and out of Santa Cruz, that would eliminate one of the ferry rides.
Getting from the plane to Puerto Ayora took MUCH longer than anticipated. We landed at 11:45 and barely made the 2:00 ferry to San Cristobal (we were literally running). I’m not sure if this was because we were on a large LAN plane or if it was because they do such a thorough inspection of the luggage before releasing it, but it was a slow process. If time is a concern, you could take a cab ($18) to cut the drive to town down by quite a bit. Granted, this is much more expensive than the bus (less than $2 per person), but if you are concerned about time, and want to get the ferry the same day, this is a good option.
Ferries from Puerto Ayora leave from the main dock area to San Cristobal and Isabela at 2:00. Several places sell tickets ($25-$30). During our time there, some ferry rides were MUCH more unpleasant than others. Try to get a seat towards the rear (to get airflow), but still under the cover (to protect from water spray and sun). I always took a Bonine (seasickness tablet) before these trips and it seemed to help. Don’t forget to get your bags inspected and tagged before boarding!
We scored an amazing apartment for our 4 night stay there. For $30/night we had an apartment complete with our own kitchen! This also helped cut down on food costs because we were able to cook our own food (yea for pasta!). We stayed at Casa Mabel run by a sweet couple who helped us book our tour of the Highlands as well. Mercedes found us at the dock and offered the apartment, but if you want to find her, walk 2 blocks straight up from the tourist dock, and she is located on the right. She only has a few apartments to rent, but if they are all booked up, I am sure she could give you an idea of where else to try.
There were also a few hostels on the island, even a few located on the main street (boardwalk). Not sure on prices/quality.
What to do:
Interpretation Center: Has good information- free. A few good hikes start from here. We hiked up to the highest lookout over Las Tijeretas, and then hiked down and along the beach for a while. Lots of sea lions and marine iguanas, and we didn’t see another person there. Bring food and water. Also, the snorkeling looks like it could be good at Las Tijeretas cove (we didn’t get a chance to try it).
La Loberia: Taxi $2. Walking takes about 30 minutes from town to the beach (we took a cab there and walked back after sunset.) Beach with a lot of sea lions. Just a warning: sea lion beaches tended to be a bit smelly. Fun to watch sea lions play here and snorkeling is also supposed to be good here. If you are up for a short hike (15 minutes) over lava rocks, keep walking down the beach. There is a marked trail that takes you to an amazing lookout over cliffs. We say a Blue-Footed Booby here and lots of Frigate birds flying. Once again, bring water and snacks.
Punta Carola Beach: beach with sea lions (notice a pattern here?). To get here, keep walking on the road past the Interpretation Center (don’t go up to the center) and a trail will take you there.
Playa Mann: The small beach in town. Sea lions. Nice to watch the sunset. Snacks and drinks are available here.
Snorkeling Trip: Great snorkeling at Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido). Lots of places sell the same snorkel trip ($50 for an all day trip including lunch). We snorkeled once at Isla Lobos (shallow and lots of sea lions) and twice at Kicker Rock (deep, beautiful, lots of turtles and a few sharks!). Don’t wait to the last minute to book this, because while we were there, it wasn’t running everyday. Not sure if that’s because it was low season, or if that’s how it always is.
Highlands trip: We had a private guide take us to a few of the spots inland. $50 for the two of us (no lunch). We checked out El Junco Crater (filled with fresh water and birds use it to clean off their wings), the tortoise facility (great set up as you can wander through and the turtles are in a fairly natural state), and Puerto Chino Beach (beautiful beach). There are a few agencies selling different versions of these highland tours as well.
We had the most wildlife interaction on San Cristobal. Watching the sea lions take over the town is quite the sight.
Although we didn’t try it out, it may be worth renting snorkeling equipment and trying it out a few beaches within walking distance to town. (If you like to snorkel and have previous experience.)
There are quite a few small hostels in town, especially a block or so back from the beach, and you could wander around and check them out before deciding on one. The town is about a 15-20 minute walk from the dock where you get dropped off by the ferry.
We stayed at two places during our time on Isabella… Caleta Iguana had a great location (right on the beach) but it was pricey and there was a rat issue (thinking about rats in your room does not lead to a great night of sleep). We changed to the Volcano Hotel (across the street) and stayed in 2 different rooms. Definitely go for the rooms on the 2nd floor.
What to do:
The Beach: Isabella’s beach is gorgeous! Sunsets are amazing. It is great for long strolls, relaxing in the sun, and even surfing. It also is not overrun by seal lions, so it doesn’t have sealy smell.
Rent a bike: We rented bikes ($10 for a half day) and rode around to a few sites. Head out West on the road that runs parallel to the beach- all the sights are clearly marked by signs. There are ponds, beaches, a lava tube, and a mangrove forest. We also rode to the Tortoise Breeding Center- it was nice to walk around, but the tortoises are in pens and you can’t walk through them (like you can in San Cristobal). We rode all the way to the “Wall of Tears” (a wall built by prisoners as a punishment) and there is also a great looking “Mirador” but it was under repair when we went by. We never saw any flamingos in the ponds by the beach, but if you ride inland on the road past the Tortoise Breeding Center, there is some sort of a rock quarry that we saw a dozen flamingos at. Bring water!!
Snorkeling at Concha y Perla: This snorkeling area is right next to the dock. There is a place next to the dock to rent equipment and it is just a few minutes walk down a nice path to Conch y Perla. We first swam around in the first pool you enter, and we weren’t impressed with the snorkeling. Then we saw people walking over the lava rocks (not easy to do while wearing flippers) and we followed. The snorkeling here was awesome! We saw a ton of fish, turtles, and a huge sting ray! Highly recommend!
Trip to Tintoreras: This trip can be booked at a few different travel agencies in town. You go by boat to the islands right outside the port. We saw penguins, marine iguanas (a lot- it is the nursery for the young ones), sea lions, and the best part- sleeping sharks. The snorkeling part was OK, but we thought that Conch y Perla was far superior.
Trip to Sierra Negra and Chico Volcanoes: Another trip to book with an agency and it takes most of the day (includes lunch). You drive up to the highlands and hike along the rim of the Sierra Negra crater. This is HUGE. Then you hike over a lunar-like landscape to amazing views from Volcan Chico. Bring a lot of water (they recommend 2 liters per person) and sunscreen/hats as there is very little shade. Plan to do about 4.5 hours of walking (but it’s not too steep). There is also some sort of a horse option, but I am not sure of the specifics.
There is also another snorkeling/boat trip to Tunnels (that we didn’t do), but it was quite a bit pricier.
There is a $5 arrival tax per person when you arrive on Isabela.
Isabela has a much more laid back and beachy atmosphere.
We only stayed 2 nights in Puerto Ayora, and we stayed a the very basic Hotel Salinas. It was fine, but the personnel wasn’t too friendly. It served its purpose. There are quite a few hotels within walking distance from the pier.
What to do:
Las Grietas: take a water taxi to the other side of the harbor and follow the signs (10 minute walk) to these cliffs and clear water. It is fun to swim and jump off the cliffs. Not too much to see snorkeling wise, but the water is really clear! There is also a chill bar located along the path to Las Grietas.
Charles Darwin Center: This was our least favorite of the tortoise breeding centers. Since people were busted riding on the giant tortoises, they have closed the pens and you can only the tortoises from afar. There are some beautifully colored land iguanas and “Lonesome George” (the last tortoise of his species) is there. There is also a little beach off of the path. The information center here wasn’t as good as the one in San Cristobal either. Taxi to here from the port costs $1.
Tortuga Bay: This beach is HUGE and beautiful. It’s about a 10 minute walk from town to the check-in office. Then it is a 30 minute walk to the beach on a nice path through a cactus tree forest. The beach you arrive at has pretty strong currents/waves, so be careful swimming. For more calm action, turn right and walk down the beach for about 15 minutes. There is a protected bay here. We tried snorkeling in the bay, but the visibility and wildlife wasn’t too impressive, but we did see two fairly decent sized sharks. You can also rent kayaks here to try to spot wildlife from above the water ($10 per hour)- we saw a few rays. This part of the beach would be great for relaxing the day away because there were quite a few trees to provide comfortable shade to sit under. Bring water/snacks and beach closes at 6pm.
Highlands Tour: We did a highlands tour on Santa Cruz as well. We walked through a large lava tube. We were also taken to family farm adjacent to the national park (Rancho Primicias ) where giant tortoises roam free. There were so many HUGE tortoises and it was great to see them “in the wild” and walk among them. Overall, we felt this tour was a bit pricey for what it actually was, and the tortoise farm was by far the best part. If all you’re interested in is the tortoises, and you have time before your return flight, I think you could just pay the cab a little extra (it is $18 per cab for just the 45 minute ride to the airport) and they can stop here at the tortoise farm for you. Of all our tortoise viewing experiences, this one was our favorite.
There are buses that go to the airport (much cheaper than cabs) but confirm the times the day before. The times listed in Lonely Planet were incorrect (surprise!).
There is a street of restaurants (I think it was Charles Binford) in Puerto Ayora that takes over the street at night. Reasonably priced food and a fun place to watch futbol games!
Random tidbits of advice:
The supermarket in Puerto Ayora is by far the best market on the islands (both for price and selection).
We visited during the low season, so prices may be a bit higher depending on the timing of your visit.
We got a fairly handy and free spiral bound guidebook at the tourist information center.
We tried to book a day trip to Bartolome (an island that is highly recommended by everyone), but it was all booked up. In hindsight, we should have booked it further in advance. If we would have been really smart, we would have used the time we had in Puerto Ayora (we had about 5 hours between ferries) to walk around and secure the day trip for when we would return.
Ferries from San Cristobal and Isabela to Santa Cruz leave very early in the morning (7 am and 6 am respectively).
We hope this quick little guide helps if you are planning to visit the Galapagos on your own. Feel free to comment if you have any other questions that we can help you out with. Most importantly, go and enjoy the Galapagos!