Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
First off, we’re warning you this is a long post and has lots of photos (74 in total) that might make you book your Galapagos adventure right after seeing it all. Enjoy!
Please give the animals some space and don’t touch them
For those that do ever go, the animals are amazing. The temptation is always to get as close as possible. Always follow the guidelines of not getting closer than 2 metres (6 feet) of any animal. If they approach you, it is up to you to move away. Never use the flash on your camera when taking photos of animals; learn how to turn it off before taking a photo.
The islands belong to Ecuador and are approximately 1,000km (620mi) west of mainland Ecuador. It is made up of 13 main islands, 6 smaller isles and more than 100 other tiny islets covering a quite large area. What makes these islands so special and world renowned is its typically unique and fearless wildlife such as giant tortoises, sea lions, seals, penguins, iguanas and birds. The majority of land and sea area is protected under national park rules and only 4 of the islands have permanent inhabitants. The most popular way to visit is with an organised boat cruise that stops off at pre-determined visitor sites where you explore with a certified naturalist guide.
What size boat and what price?
This is a personal opinion only and you should do as much research as your time will allow so as to ensure you get what you’re looking for. We actually couldn’t find many reviews on our boat, but it all worked out perfectly. One travel agent said you need to manage your expectations. If you’re paying a cheap price, don’t expect first class luxury. We would strongly suggest you consider what type of passengers you’re likely to go with. This will determine energy levels, itineraries and even lengths and types of hikes or snorkeling.
This is generally how we see it from our experience.
Small boats (16 passengers or less) and low price paid: These are often referred to as backpacker boats as these are typically the passengers on board. Expect small cabins, bunk beds, nice food but don’t expect 5 star gourmet meals. These will also have generally younger and more active people on board.
Larger boats (more than 16 passengers) and high price paid: This really is just a mix of every other boat out there. Experiences will vary depending on who is on your boat. The large cruise ships with 50-100 passengers really did tend to have a quite old average age. We were told by our guide that typically hikes are shortened and snorkeling is short and not done in tough currents (such as Devils Crown). Don’t expect an overly active schedule. Many of the other boats we met along the way expect for other similar budget boats simply had a much higher average age, well beyond that of what was on our boat.
We love nature, the outdoors and everything that The Galapagos islands had to offer. Any fellow travellers we’d met along the way who had been, had told us it was a must see destination. The only downside is the extreme expense attached to spending time in the area. At the cheap end expect $150 per day per person and you can go up and over $700 per day if your bank account allows it.
The real reason to go is to gain extremely close access to unique animals and landscapes that exist nowhere else in the world. The term “endemic species” is used multiple times a day. Generally speaking, the animals see very few humans and are not going to run away as soon as you approach them, leaving you with time to get that perfect souvenir photo.
What is our plan?
There are many blogs and guides online describing in extreme detail how to do it from super cheap to super glamorous. We picked much more towards the super cheap end by picking a lower class boat called the Darwin for a 7 night / 8 day cruise that cost US$1,600pp ($200/day). These are all inclusive deals whereby you do small nature hikes on marked trails and snorkelling activities with 3 meals per day and a bed to sleep in. The added expenses on our boat were renting snorkelling gear at $25 (we bought our own in Quito for $33) and a wetsuit for $30. You then also had to pay for any bar drinks such as alcohol or coke/sprite etc. There is also an expected tip to pay the guides and crew as a sum total on your final night.
At the end of the cruise we will then spend an extra week based on the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and fly out of San Cristobal. The concept is we’ll stay in cheap hostels and do free activities mixed with some paid day tours to fill in any gaps not covered by the cruise. See our other blog post about the land based section.
Quito to the Galapagos
There are two main airports in Ecuador that serve flights to the Galapagos. Quito is the capital and a return flight will cost $430-$515pp return (TAME, Aerogal, LAN). These flights take 45 minutes to fly to the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil and make a 30 minute stopover before flying onto either Baltra Island (1hr30min) or San Cristobal in the Galapagos. You can also get flights from Guayaquil for around $400-$450pp return. We left our hostel at 6am by taxi ($25) for the 45-60min trip to the airport, needing to be at the airport 2 hours before our flight. At the airport, find a little booth near the entrance with a green “Galapagos” sign above it to pay your $10pp visa. Then you need to get your bag inspected for banned substances such as certain foods before checking in and dropping your checked baggage. We had a minor heart attack in the airport as they’d changed our departure gate and we hadn’t realised it until the final call for our flight. We had to do a quick amazing race style run through the airport to be almost the last people onto the plane, oops!
If you get hungry easily, we suggest packing something to eat along the way as you’ll get maybe 1 or 2 drinks on the plane and a muffin or small sandwich and no option to buy anything. Travel with a snack of your choice or eat something at the airport. We had become slightly addicted to some croissants at the local mini market ($0.15ea) and took some with us as a snack with some strawberry jam.
Landing and finding our guide and boat
The Galapagos is 1 hour behind mainland Ecuador, so with the time change we landed at 11.30am. At the airport you need to pay a $100pp National Park entrance fee in cash. Our naturalist guide then met us after baggage pickup and our group of 16 people started to assemble. We then caught the local bus that took us to the boat dock and we were met by the “panga/dingy” from the Darwin to take us onto the boat. We had lunch straight away, which was quite a small portion for hungry people and then we were assigned to our cabins. We had a cabin on the lower deck (cheapest), good for sea sickness, but a little noisy with the engines and generator.
From the moment we boarded the boat we were welcomed by the lovely crew (The captain, first mate, engineer, chef, barman and the guide). The captain had our names on a sheet of paper and as it’s common to call people by their second names here. Toby was first called Paul and Rodora was called “Yate”, which means Yacht in Spanish.
We were pleasantly surprised by the number of backpackers on our boat and mix of nationalities; Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, France, Germany, Canada, Irish and Sweden.
Let the hiking and snorkelling begin – Day 1 – Las Bachas
After a short 45 minute boat transit we had arrived at our first true Galapagos destination of Las Bachas. We were lucky to have this place completely to ourselves. We had a pre-departure briefing with our naturalist guide (Alberto) to ensure we respected and observed the rules of the islands such as staying on the path and keeping a minimum of 2 metres away from any animal. We think this is absolutely essential in places such as these.
It took a matter of seconds after landing for us to find our first Sally Lightfoot Crabs. They were a little more timid and afraid than expected but much more approachable than any crab we’ve ever seen before. What made this place especially picturesque was the beautiful blue water and white sand in the background.
We were then on a short nature hike of less than 1km going through the motions of ticking boxes of the famous animals of the Galapagos Islands. The most astounding thing was the animals didn’t budge as you got closer and closer to them and just acted like they were being photographed by the paparazzi.
Day 2 – South Plaza – An introduction to cruise ships
We had been warned about the fact that we would share this island with a cruise ship of 100+ people. All groups are a maximum of 16 people per guide so they stormed the island with military precision as each group disembarked. This was a good reality check to happen at the start of our adventure as we were quickly shown the difference that even with split groups a cruise ship really destroys the serenity of this place. The clientele of that boat was much older with an average age of perhaps 50 at a guess and that might be conservative (counting the people with walking sticks). In contrast, the average age on our boat was in its mid to late 20’s and very active.
Rodora made quick friends with the sea lions as we arrived at the dock. They were so playful that they approached us for a closer look. We were told to never let the babies touch us, as they would get quite close looking for their parents and were told if they touched us they could then end up smelling like us and their mother would then reject them, risking them dieing young.
This would be a short 1.2km hike around a fairly flat island, but with sharp volcanic rocks, you want some comfortable shoes. We met a lazy sea iguana in a perfect photo opportunity on a Galapagos sign.
The terrain is full of these weird trees called Prickly Pears whose leaves are eaten by the iguanas and a reddish coloured grass. This grass changes colour by seasons and it is currently red to conserve water.
Day 2 – Snorkeling Santa Fe Bay
This location required about 2.5 hours of traveling in the boat. We were still yet to find our sea legs, so it was a little rough in our minds. We would spend the afternoon in this bay snorkeling and then a short hike. This is the first time we also got to snorkel from the panga. Wow, what chaos! As soon as we got to the drop off spot it was fins and snorkels everywhere. Everyone was disorientated and swimming in multiple directions. The snorkelling produced some great results though with many schools of tiny fish.
We then moved around in a big group finding other typical fish of the area. There was then the shouts of “Turtle, turtle!”. We all swam at maximum speed to follow this beautiful turtle for the next 5 or so minutes. These really are so graceful underwater and just a pleasure to watch. It eventually swam away out of sight as it was crowded by so many people.
The next animal was a medium sized spotted eagle ray. We managed to get one not so great photo before it was on its way. It wasn’t interested in hanging around 16 eager snorkelers, just like the turtle.
Day 2 – Santa Fe hike
The boat had been parked in this little bay all afternoon but we hadn’t realised a fairly large sea lion colony was based on the furthest beach where we had landed for the start of our hike. Rodora immediately jumped into photo posing mode.
Off on the hike, we came across more land iguanas. This one was enjoying some of the remaining green grass, though it looks like it would chew your toes off if it was given a chance.
With the hike over, we were then told we had about 30 minutes to relax on the beach and enjoy the sea lion colony, perfect! Rodora was in posing mode again as we found a young pup at maybe a month old who was on the search for its mother. With its big cute eyes, it did offer some great photo opportunities.
Day 3 – Espanola Island – Gardner Bay
Espanola is known as one of the oldest islands, with an estimated age of 3.3 million years and it is at the south eastern edge of the Galapagos. Our introduction to Espanola was a white sandy beach with some playful sea lions and a bit of rain. We did spot a Galapagos Hawk, one of the only predatory animals in the whole of the Galapagos.
Day 3 – Espanola Island – Snorkeling
Our next encounter was snorkeling with sea lions. This really was an amazing experience that we could have done all day if we were allowed. Toby was constantly diving down to play with the ever inquisitive animals who would then show off their tricks as close to you as possible. All up we had a bit over an hour in the water trying to swim with them as much as possible.
Day 3 – Espanola Island – Punta Suarez
The afternoon activity was in search of the endemic Waved Albatross. The initial landing found more Sea Lions, crabs and some endemic Marine Iguanas. These Iguanas have a brown/red pigment from the type of algae they eat. We suspect it made them very sleepy as most that we saw were deeply asleep.
We continued on our nature hike finding a variety of small and medium sized birds such as Mocking Birds, Blue footed booby, Nazca booby, Galapagos Hawk and Yellow Crown Night Herons. It wasn’t long until we found the nesting area for the Waved Albatross. At the start of June is approximately the beginning of nesting and mating season for these birds which only occurs in this one place in the entire world. They tend to only move to one other area in Ecuador known as the budget Galapagos, Isla de la Plata. We were lucky to see the males and females going through their mating rituals with some very interesting clapping of their beaks. These birds walk quite awkwardly on land, but there enormous wing span of around 2 metres makes them amazing in the air.
Waiting for our panga to return us to the boat we had ample time to sit and watch the young sea lions play around with each other. It was another one of those nature moments you just want to sit back and absorb for as long as possible.
After dinner on the boat we would then sail for 6 hours to our next island of Floreana. This was to be a good test of our sea sickness tablets and overall sea worthiness.
Day 4 – Floreana Island – Gardner Bay
We started off at the local post office barrel that has been in use for some 200 years. Its current use is for tourists to drop a postcard so that the next person will hand deliver it to its final destination anywhere in the world. An interesting and fun activity but we didn’t get involved beyond reading through some. Strangely there were a lot of people leaving them for other family members to come and pick up such as “Mum and Dad”. We didn’t quite understand the desire to do this.
A short walk later we were walking down a wooden stairway and into a lava tube. Flashlights were needed and quite an interesting few minutes looking for anything alive down there.
Day 4 – Floreana Island –Snorkeling Devils Crown
Devil’s Crown is a volcanic crater that has been eroded away by the waves, with a few rocky spikes protruding above the water in a semicircular pattern.
This was a challenging snorkel as we fought against waves and the ocean current. Most of the group was sitting on the back deck of the Darwin awaiting instructions to get in the water. This all happened in a mad rush and Toby was one of the first in the water. Sadly this also meant the person directly behind him came in too quickly and kicked off one of his fins, never to be recovered. This certainly made for a more challenging swim.
We swam around the island and then we all climbed back on board the panga (not designed for 16 people) to take us back to the start point to start the drift snorkel again.
Some people claimed to have seen a Hammerhead shark; sadly neither of us saw it. We did see more white tip sharks, sea lions and another sea turtle.
Day 4 – Floreana Island – Punta Cormorant
This would be a beach landing with a slight difference of it having slightly green sand. See the photo for an up close view of the green pebbles that uniquely exist on this beach.
A 2 minute walk and we were at the Flamingo lagoon. There must have been over 30 birds meandering their way around the lagoon looking for food in the water.
The rest of the hike was a little rocky but short as we arrived at another beach. This time it was to play with Sting Rays in the surf. It was a little cloudy at times, so you had to watch where you were walking. Rodora also found a good photo opportunity which was then photo bombed by one of our fellow boat travellers, Matt.
We would then cruise for about 5 hours to arrive back in Santa Cruz at Puerto Ayora for the night. We would get a few hours after dinner to walk around town and explore a little.
Day 5 – Santa Cruz
Today was not going to be a normal day, as we would be saying goodbye to those doing the four night cruise and saying hello to new people on a three night cruise. This meant the schedule was arranged based on people’s flight times, both leaving and arriving and also meant those continuing on for the whole 8 days had some spare time to check out the area.
Day 5 – Charles Darwin Research Center
In the morning we had an early start leaving the boat at 6.30am. We had a short walk to the breeding centre which was not yet officially open. The centre is famous for its captive breeding program for giant tortoises where tortoises from various islands are cared for until they are released to give them a greater chance of survival.
Day 5 – Las Grietas
Las Grietas is made up of two giant walls of lava to form an amazing canyon filled with crystal clear water, which turns from dark blue to transparent with the rays of the sun.
Las Grietas is a short water taxi ride ($0.60ea) across the bay from the main port. From here it’s a short (30 min) hike along a rocky path. You could easily spend hours in the canyon admiring the rock and light formations when snorkelling. There are large parrot fish swimming in the water amongst a few other varieties.
On the way back we stopped at Playa Los Alemanes (white beach) to cool off and relax; although we needed some bug spray to keep off the painful and annoying sand flies.
Day 5 – Waiting for the new passengers
When we got to the boat we were pleasantly greeted by a sea lion sleeping at the back of the boat. This seems to be common in the Galapagos, as there are countless sea lions sleeping on boats and docks.
After demolishing our lunch, we were told that our guests wouldn’t be arriving for a few hours as their flight had been delayed. Later we found out that 6 out of the 7 were booked through Intrepid Tours and their whole arrangement had been messed up. From what we have heard and seen it seems if you book your cruise way in advance (several months or more), you aren’t guaranteed a boat or the itinerary.
Day 5 – Santa Cruz highlands
When the others finally arrived, we were all put into a mini bus and headed up to the Highlands. First we stopped off to view Crater Gemelos; a large inactive crater that is overgrown with vegetation.
We then headed to El Chato Reserve; a Giant Tortoise reserve where tortoises can be found wandering freely. We had to pay a $3pp entrance fee here.
At the start of the tour we stopped to take the tourist shot of us in real tortoise shells.
We then went walking through the reserve and it wasn’t long until we saw our first giant tortoise. Wow, they are huge and amazingly slow creatures.
We also visited another lava tube. This tube had electric lights and stairs; so not as natural as the last one we visited on Florena, but great for taking photos.
Tonight would be another long navigation of around 7 hours on the water and a test for the sea sickness tablets.
Day 6 – Puerto Egas – Hike
Puerto Egas is a black sandy beach formed from Sugar loaf volcano. This is where our guide took us on a walk on the rocky lava to check out marine iguanas, crabs, and the two types of sea lions the Galapagos sea lion and the Galapagos fur sea lion.
On the way we passed an underwater lava tube, which made it appear as if you were walking on water if you stood on it.
We also passed numerous marine iguanas swimming in the water.
While we were watching the sea lions playing in a water pool below, we were lucky to witness a sea turtle pop its head out of the water to look at us.
Day 6 – Puerto Egas, Snorkel
We then had about an hour to snorkel from the beach. The captain came with us this time; who seemed to love snorkelling and was eagerly swimming with us picking up and pointing out various things. At one point he was trying to chase and point out a lobster that I don’t know if anyone else actually saw.
Day 6 – Espumilla beach
After lunch we headed to Espumilla beach, with brown/red sand. Here we found crabs hiding in deep holes in the sand, pelicans, swooping birds trying to catch fish, sea lions and sting rays. It was awesome walking for miles on our private beach not interrupted by any other tourists and admiring nature all to ourselves. We even came across a sea lion who had caught a fish, letting the fish go to catch it again as a game they apparently play sometimes.
Day 6 – Bucaneer’s Bay Snorkel
We returned to the boat and after a quick change, we were in the water for a snorkel at Buccaneer’s bay. This is when we got the surprise of our lives; one of the crew shouted out there was a shark in the water. Any normal person at this point is looking for the nearest exit point out of the water. Instead, we took our cameras and started chasing it. Even more of a surprise was when we found out it was actually a 4 metre wide Manta Ray which completely freaked Rodora out.
The captain joined us on this snorkel and to our surprise dove down suddenly to pull out a blow fish.
We also swam into a cave which gave amazing silhouetted images and blue water.
Day 7 – Isla Bartolome – 6.30am Penguin ride
Today would be an activity before breakfast with a ride in the Panga to see the local Penguins. The early morning light gave a great photo for Pinacle Rock.
It wasn’t long until we saw the Penguins standing on their rocks preparing for their day of swimming and fishing. They were quite cute with a colony of around 10 living in this area.
Day 7 – Isla Bartolome – Morning hike
This island is known for its spectacular moon landscapes and lookout point with Pinacle Rock as one of its highlights. One again off the boat we were met by young sea lions ready to pose for a photo.
This hike would actually involve the tiniest amount of effort since we had to climb to a lookout. The trail was entirely on a wooden board walk though, so the biggest effort was one foot in front of the other. The landscapes really were moonlike with interesting formations and colours. The climb up only had the occasional lizard and a couple of colourful locusts to look at. The view at the top is worth the effort and one of the better scenic vistas we had all week. This also gave us a good opportunity for a group photo on our last full day together.
Day 7 – Isla Bartolome – Snorkel
An interesting snorkel location with clear water and some interesting animals including Starfish, Blow fish, Trumpet fish, Flounder, Sting Rays and even an octopus who briefly came out of hiding. Most impressive of all was some white tip sharks that with the water being so shallow allowed for a quick dive and great photo.
Day 7 –Sullivan Bay – hike
This area has some great lava to look at. It’s the sort of stuff you typically imagine from movies where it is black and looks like it was once a river. This is mainly caused by the cooling affect from the water as it slowly trickled down and out of the volcano.
Day 7 –Sullivan Bay Snorkel
We jumped into the water straight after our hike and the time was around 3.30pm. The water was certainly fairly cool and without a wet suit it would have been a very quick time in the water before freezing. We were initially a little bored with the fish until we spotted some white tip sharks and sting rays. The highlight here was that there was a penguin swimming around chasing some fish. He was a very hard one to get a photo of as he darted around under the water. When more snorkelers turned up including some over ambitious GoPro people trying to get extreme closeups, the Penguin soon disappeared. It might be the Galapagos, but these animals still want their space.
Day 8 – North Seymour – Hike
This would be our last moments on our cruise as after this hike we would eating breakfast and leaving the boat. The island itself has a lot of animals and is definitely worth seeing. It plays host to the largest breeding colony of the Magnificent Frigate bird. Our first minute on the island provided us a great example of a flying bird.
Mating season was again in motion on this island and the males inflate their red pouch to attract the females.
The male blue footed boobies were also shaking their tails and feathers to attract a female. We even got really lucky to see one blue footed booby nesting her new born chicks.
With one last viewing of some young sea lions we were back on our boat and on our way to Baltra Island and the airport. Luckily for us this would only mark the halfway point of our time in the Galapagos as we would then begin our land based adventures.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates.http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/