Discovered by accident in 1535 by the Bishop of Panama when he veered off course on the way to Peru, the Galapagos Islands first appeared on a map some 35 years later as the “island of the tortoises.”
For almost 300 years after their discovery, the Galapagos mostly served as a safe harbor to a succession of pirates, whalers and sealers. The islands were a resource for fresh water and food for the sailors who caught thousands of giant tortoises and stored them in their cargo holds. Because the tortoises could survive for up to a year on the ships, they provided a long-lasting food source.
In 1832, Ecuador officially claimed the Galapagos and just three years later a British naval vessel brought Charles Darwin to the islands. Darwin spent 5 weeks collecting specimens to provide evidence for his theory of evolution which would be published decades later. Though he would ultimately turn out to be the islands’ most famous visitor, by today’s conservation standards he surely would have been run off the islands for not just riding tortoises but using them as a food source.
While some of the islands were declared wildlife sanctuaries as early as 1934, 97% of the archipelago was officially designated as a national park in 1959. Within the following decade, organized tourism to the area began in earnest. It had long been a dream of mine to visit the Galapagos Islands so on this summer trip around Central America, I decided a little detour farther south to Ecuador was definitely in order!
The Galapagos Archipelago consists of 24 islands (12 main and 12 minor), though only 5 are inhabited. Shannon and I had looked into cruise ship options (the primary way to visit the islands) but ultimately determined they were too expensive and a little too regimented for our purposes. So, we decided to try a self-guided, land-based tour which would allow us to visit 3 islands over the course of a week: two nights on the main island of Santa Cruz, two on the largest island of Isabella and finally 3 nights on the island of San Cristobal.
First Up, Santa Cruz
After a brief 2-hour flight from Guayaquil, we touched down on the island of Baltra, the main airport in the Galapagos, which is just across a channel from Santa Cruz. Since the airport is on its own island, it takes a little work to get to the main town of Puerto Ayora. (If you come to the islands for a cruise, of course, they pick you up.) The first step is to pay your mandatory $100 Galapagos National Park fee at the airport, no one leaves the airport without doing this and the fee must be paid in cash (US$). Next you take any one of the free airline shuttles for the 10-minute ride to the Itabaca Canal. From there, a ferry takes you across the canal to the island of Santa Cruz for $.80. Once on Santa Cruz, it’s a 45-minute drive across the island to Puerto Ayora (which can be done by taxi for about $15 or by public bus for $1.80 – we chose the bus).
After all that, it took us about two hours from the time we stepped off the plane until we arrived in the main town of Puerto Ayora. And then it took us about another 15 minutes to get our bearings and find our hotel for the first two nights, the Galapagos Suites. We’d found the hotel on Trip Advisor and it really lived up to the reviews. The room was clean, spacious and modern and the woman and her mother who run the hotel were just terrific. After dropping our bags, we headed back out to grab some lunch and check out the shops.
Though the sun was shining when we landed earlier, the weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse and it started raining as we were walking back into town. After lunch it was still raining so we decided to go ahead and do some souvenir shopping. Later that night we headed to a restaurant called The Rock for happy hour followed by dinner and hoped that the weather would improve the next day.
It didn’t, but we were too excited to explore the island to stay in any longer so after breakfast we hiked up the road to the Charles Darwin Research Station and Foundation Headquarters. A must for any visitor to Santa Cruz, the Charles Darwin Foundation is the best place to learn about the research and conservation efforts going on here in the Galapagos. The foundation is home to a giant tortoise breeding center, a land iguana breeding center and the Van Straelen Visitors Center.
The giant tortoise breeding center houses baby tortoises from every island until they are mature enough to survive in the wild. Once they reach an age where their carapaces have completely hardened to protect them, they are re-introduced into their island of origin. We walked the tortoise corrals and noticed that they were separated by island and year of birth and were each marked with a number on their backs. While the conservation program has been considered a success, the foundation did suffer a blow recently as the last survivor of the Pinta Island variety passed away in June. Despite many efforts with genetically similar females, Lonesome George, as he was known, was never able to reproduce and died in June marking the extinction of his species.
After walking all of the tortoise corrals and wandering through the iguana breeding center, we headed back into town for lunch. The weather was still not cooperating so we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the town and watching the fisherman bring in their giant fish and try to fend off the pelicans while they cleaned them on the dock. It’s a constant wildlife battle in this town! We booked our ferry tickets to Isabela for the next afternoon and then took a water taxi across the bay to try out Puerto Ayora’s best restaurant, Angermeyer Point. It was a delicious and very reasonably-priced meal and after discovering the town pretty much shuts down by 9pm, we headed back to the hotel for the night.
The next morning we awoke bright and early to sunshine for the first time in 3 days!!! We’d saved the last thing we wanted to do on Santa Cruz for better weather and this morning it looked like we finally had it. So, after a quick breakfast, we started the hike over to Tortuga Bay, the island’s best beach and another terrific place for spotting wildlife. From town it was about 2 miles along a well-maintained trail surrounded by forest and Opuntia Cactus (large tree-like cactus native to the Galapagos) to reach the enormous white sandy beach known as Tortuga Bay.
We walked at least another mile down the beach past giant crashing waves before coming to a nature trail that was lousy with iguanas. In fact, at one point in the trail, there were dozens of them napping on top of each other and completely blocking our path. Our only choices were to gingerly step over them or turn back. Just as I was making the case for turning back, a few other tourists showed up on the other side of the iguana blockade, wrestled with the same dilemma and then chose to step carefully across them. Since the iguanas didn’t seem fazed and no one was harmed in the iguana crossing, we went for it. And I was glad we did because just a little farther down the trail we had our first blue-footed booby sighting!
The boobies are pretty much the rock-stars of the Galapagos and practically every item in each gift shop prominently features those baby blue feet. It’s all in good fun, though, and there are more than a few tourists walking around this town wearing an “I love Boobies” shirt featuring the islands’ dashing blue-footed mascot. (Dad, I didn’t get you one…Mom, you’re welcome.)
So thrilled by our booby discovery, we hardly noticed that the rain had returned. So much for sunshine! So, we started the long trail back into town for some lunch before our 2pm ferry to Isabela.
The largest island in the Galapagos Archipelago, Isabela is also the only one intersected by the equator. But first, a few words about the “ferry” service between islands. First, the good news. Yes, it’s possible to travel between the major islands (Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal) by ferry for just $25. Now, for the reality of the transit. The first thing we learned is that ferry is really a loose term. There is no actual ferry boat. The boats used to transport people between islands are really just fishing boats that carry about 20 people each. For our 2pm ferry to Isabella, there were two boats making the trip (I guess the number of boats used depends on demand). In Puerto Ayora, the docks are so busy that the boats can’t come up to them which necessitates the use of a water taxi to get to them.
Then everyone and their luggage are loaded into the boat and life vests are handed out for the two hour jarringly rough ride to Isabela. The whole two hours is a constant pounding with people bouncing up out of their seats, a bit like a maritime game of whack-a-mole. The ride is so rough that usually a few people get sick (Shannon and I didn’t but the girl sitting a few people down from me did) so they have tiny plastic barf bags available if you need them. Charming.
When we finally arrived at the dock in Isabela, we were happy to see someone from the hotel waiting for us with Shannon’s name on a sign (she’d booked the room on this island). Our hotel on Isabela wasn’t really a hotel but just a simple family run beach house called Cormorant Beach House. It was a short ride into town and we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at our room. The Cormorant just has four rooms, (two downstairs and two upstairs) and we’d been given one of the upstairs rooms which had a spacious deck connecting them. The deck had gorgeous views of the beach below and the sound of the surf outside our windows was hypnotic.
The room was small but comfortable (all you can ask for $73/night on the beach) and we were just so happy to be off the boat. We had a glass of wine on our new deck and then walked down the street into the tiny, sleepy town of Puerto Villamil for dinner.
The next morning the sun made an appearance again for only the second time since we’d arrived. Hooray! Excited, we headed out early to explore the surrounding areas of Puerto Villamil. We had originally planned on booking a day trip up to one of the many volcanoes on the island but changed our minds after speaking to another American on the dock waiting for our boat the day before. She’d just come from Isabela that morning and said that since they’d had so much rain in the past few days the volcano trails were muddy and slick and everyone who’d done them the day before said it was terrible.
Luckily, there were plenty of areas around the main town that could be reached on foot so that’s how we decided to spend our day. The beachfront town of Puerto Villamil is backed by a lagoon with flamingos and marine iguanas. A boardwalk allows access through the lagoon and leads to the island’s giant tortoise breeding center (all the main islands have one). After spending some time watching the flamingos and again gingerly stepping over iguanas trying to block our path on the boardwalk, we spent some time at the tortoise center. It turned out to be even better than the Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz. They had tons more tortoises and even a helpful staff member to explain the process to us (the Darwin facility was completely self-guided so we weren’t always sure what we were looking at).
Next, we walked back into town to inquire about our options for getting to San Cristobal the next day. There is a daily 6am boat from Isabela to Santa Cruz and then another 2pm boat from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal (which leaves you with a 6-hour layover in Puerto Ayora) but we figured there had to be an easier way.
Turns out, there wasn’t. So we booked the two boats for the next day and then popped into a few excursion shops to see if we could book a trip to another part of the island for the afternoon. Unfortunately, all tours leave in the morning so that ship had already sailed.
That afternoon we walked back down near the main dock because I was sure I’d seen some sea lions hanging out on the beach near where we’d arrived the day before. There turned out to be several of them lounging on the beach, the boardwalk, in a fishing boat…pretty much wherever they felt like it.
From there we followed another boardwalk trail through a mangrove forest and came out on a dock where there were several more sea lions swimming around and playing. You could hop right off the dock and swim with them…amazing! Yes, there’s lots of wildlife hanging out right here in town on Isabela.
By late afternoon it had clouded up and started raining again so after a late lunch we headed back to the room and spent some time on the deck overlooking our own beautiful beach. It was an early night since we’d be getting up at 5am for our boat back to Santa Cruz.
Last Stop, San Cristobal!
After a full day in transit between Isabela and Cristobal (including a 6-hour layover in Puerto Ayora) we were thrilled to finally arrive on the island of San Cristobal. And if we thought we’d seen a lot of wildlife on the first two islands, we hit the sea lion jackpot on San Cristobal. The main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is famous for the countless number of sea lions lounging everywhere around town. They’re sleeping on benches, on playgrounds, waddling down streets, you name it, there’s a sea lion sleeping on or near it.
Exhausted by our two boat transfers, we were excited that we’d picked a hotel right in front of the main dock so it was just a short walk. We’d chosen a hotel called Casa Blanca and like the other two Galapagos hotels we’d picked, it was terrific. In fact, it was my favorite of the three just for the view of the harbor alone. Our room was lovely and had a great terrace (and again, only $70/night).
With only two full days left in the islands, Shannon and I decided it was time to spend some money on full day excursions to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. So we wandered in and out of a few excursion offices comparing prices and options and ultimately decided to book consecutive day trips with an outfit called Galapagos Fishing Adventures.
On Cristobal, there are basically two major excursions, snorkeling trips out to Kicker Rock and day trips through the island’s interior up to the El Junco Lagoon, the only fresh water lake in the Galapagos. We decided to do the Kicker Rock trip the next day and the lagoon trip on our last day.
The next morning we headed to the dock to board our boat with about 6 other people for the trip out to Kicker Rock. Our first stop was Isla Lobos for some shallow water snorkeling where we saw a sea lion and a couple of sea turtles and rays before heading out to the main attraction. The water around Kicker Rock was much deeper and darker and our guide enthusiastically assured us we’d see plenty of sharks here (oh, goody!). For some reason, we got in the water anyway.
Part of the fun of snorkeling Kicker Rock is going through the narrow crevice between the two giant rock formations. A ton of sea life surrounds the rocks and we saw dozens of sea turtles, lots of colorful fish and – circling below – the aforementioned black-tip and hammerhead sharks. (Sidebar: I truly can’t believe I have knowingly gotten in the water with sharks twice in the past two months.)
Next, we headed over to a beach called Puerto Grande to anchor for lunch. After spending some time walking the beach and doing a little bird watching, we headed back to Kicker Rock for an afternoon snorkel before heading back to town. It was a great day out on the water and we were lucky that the nice weather finally held out for most of the day.
We got back in town around 4pm and decided to walk over to a beach we’d seen from the water that looked close to town. It turned out to be Mann Beach and it was home to a sea lion colony as well as a variety of human beachgoers. Part of the wonder of the Galapagos is how the animals easily co-exist with the humans. There’s no fear at all and, honestly, they barely seem to notice us aside from a mild curiosity. Being able to get so close to the animals without spooking them is truly a unique experience.
After playing paparazzi for a while, we walked back to Casa Blanca to clean up for dinner. Later that night, we learned that sleeping at night in Puerto Baquirzo Moreno is interesting if you have a room near the water. The sea lions pretty much talk to each other all night. They sound a bit like donkeys braying and it’s kind of comical to think that these are the kinds of things that keep you up at night in the Galapagos.
The next morning we awoke to a gorgeous rainbow over the harbor out our balcony. Unfortunately, our tour the second day wasn’t nearly as good as the first. It was a rainy morning in the highlands (where the lagoon is located) and the conditions were too muddy for us to make the hike up. So, we visited Cristobal’s turtle breeding center (awesome but the third one we’d seen at this point so not exactly riveting), hiked up to a lookout point and then were dropped off at La Loberia beach for the afternoon.
Since there were only four of us in the group and La Loberia was home to a large sea lion colony, this was my favorite part of the day. The four of us had the whole beautiful beach to ourselves. The water was a little too rough to snorkel but I managed to get in near the shoreline long enough to take some underwater video of all of the sea lions and sea turtles swimming around. That evening we headed back to town for our last meal on the islands.
Overall, I’d say we enjoyed our three days on San Cristobal the most. It was much more like what I pictured a Galapagos island to be. We took a chance by visiting the islands during the low (i.e. rainy) season but I think it paid off. The hotel rates were extremely reasonable (especially compared to the exorbitant rates on the cruise ships) and though we did get a lot of overcast days, we had a few sunny ones as well and the temperatures were very mild. It was fairly cheap to get between islands, but of course, those inter-island crossings aren’t for everyone.
We definitely did miss out on a few places on the islands that only the cruise ships are allowed to visit (for example, Punta Pitt on Cristobal). But, truly, I still feel like I had a terrific Galapagos experience at a fraction of the price of a cruise ship.
To wrap things up, I thought I’d share a few things I learned during my week in the Galapagos Islands:
- Sea lions nap like it’s their job
- If someone names their hotel “Iguana Crossing” it’s not just a cute name for a hotel, it’s a warning sign
- Harbor front hotels are also known as “sea-lion-adjacent”
- The sea lions below your window chat to each other all night sounding something akin to Chewbacca clearing a hairball
- For every perfectly-maintained hiking trail there’s an equally-organized lounging pack of iguanas busy setting up a roadblock
- It is proper (and even encouraged) zodiac etiquette to point and enthusiastically shout, “Nice boobies!”
- Don’t be surprised when the sea lion occupying the park bench looks up at you as if you’re the one who doesn’t belong here (he’s right)
And that’s it from the Galapagos! For anyone considering a visit, it gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from this globetrotter. And while I’m sure the cruises are fantastic, don’t be afraid to strike out on your own and try a land-based trip. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time (7 nights would be a minimum) to see as much as you can.
Next stop, Quito!