For nature lovers there is no better destination to travel than the Galapagos Islands. It is the paradise with incredible wildlife that Charles Darwin put on the map where you can see endemic species of great curiosity. There are two options for visiting – a cruise or land based. There are pros and cons to both. When thinking about a cruise one benefit is you have the ability to access more of the archipelago. In the Galapagos there are 13 large islands, 6 small, and over 40 tiny ones. A con is that you don’t get to pick where you go, who you are with, and you have to pay a whole lot more. I chose a land based trip for freedom and frugality. While I could only visit certain islands, it was on my time and dime. If you’re an independent person who wants to experience the Galapagos at their own pace, here are some important tips to get you started:
You’ll have to fly to mainland Ecuador and spend the night – it’s just the way the flights work out. Options are Quito or Guayaquil. Know that ALL flights from Quito stop in Guayaquil, but you may not need to leave the plane while other passengers come on and off to their destination.
Before heading to the Galapagos (Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have airports) you will need to acquire a Transit Card for $20 in the airport. When you arrive in the Galapagos you are required to purchase a $100 national parks pass. Keep your ticket stubs or you will be charged a small fee when leaving the islands.
Where to go
From the airport to get to the main town of Puerto Ayora it is a bit of a journey. As long as you know the steps to take, it is very easy to follow the crowds. First find the free airport bus, which takes you to the canal. Next, hop on the water taxi ($1 to get across) for a brief cruise. Last, find the $2 bus to the city (or take a taxi for a much higher price).
This island is the most populous and allows the most freedom to have adventures on your own, without a tour – many activities are free. There are options to join tours for places you can’t get to alone, with plenty of outfitters on all of the main roads. Here you’ll find the best food on the islands and the place to grab all your souvenirs for everyone back home.
Note that to get to the main beach it is a 1.5 mile hike one way (worth it), unlike the other islands which have the beach right beside town.
From the airport it is a short taxi ride to the main city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It is a bit smaller and more posh than the city on Santa Cruz. This island has the biggest population of Galapagos sea lions we encountered, they seemed to have taken over!
When you arrive on the island you must pay a $10 fee to enter. The pier is a 10 minute walk on the road or a 2 minute taxi ride from the main town of Puerto Villamil. It is the biggest island and by far the most laid back of the three we stayed on. Sunsets are glorious. It is down right sleepy, in a wonderful way that rejuvenates you completely.
How long to stay
Forever? Just kidding. I believe that 3 days on each island was perfect to get to know them very well. You can decide to take one or two day tours, visit the highlands, and enjoy the beaches.
All of the islands feel like small towns. In most cases, walking to all of your destinations is possible. For places outside of the main city on the islands, cabs are readily available – be sure to agree on a price. To get to quieter coves there are water taxis.
To get from one island to another, there are speedboats. They have set departures and should be booked a day in advance to make sure you get a seat. Have change because on Santa Cruz and Isabela a water taxi will take you to the boat, you will need to pay them a small fee. If you are prone to seasickness, be warned this ride is no joke. If at all possible sit in the back of the boat. On our first experience we sat towards the front and went completely airborne, it was a miserable experience but we learned from it for our next three journeys! There are two departures a day morning and afternoon. I suggest morning and don’t eat breakfast when you arrive.
If going from Isabela to San Cristobal, consider flying. It is a bit more expensive but it will save you a lot of time. We had planned on doing this, but the island was experiencing a fuel crisis so we had to take two speed boats instead!
Ecuador uses USD as their main currency and in the Galapagos CASH IS KING. Really and truly, you will get charged ridiculous fees if you try to use your credit card and a lot of places will simply not accept them. ATMs aren’t always working and are all but nonexistent on Isabela Island. Bring plenty with you, the islands are extremely safe.
Supermarkets and cuisine
Best is on Puerto Ayora by the main docks. Enough fruit, granola bars, cereal, yogurt, and snacks to pack for your hikes. My favorite thing about this place is the café on the third floor – it’s a hidden gem. The view is incredible overlooking the green bay and many water taxis. Sit on the balcony and you can watch the fishermen selling their catches, while the heron and sea lions try their best to score some scraps. The coffee is good (on Monday’s its 2×1) and breakfast hits the spot.
Finches will join you for the meal and try to pick up the crumbs you leave behind. Free wifi, restroom, and a book exchange. We really appreciated this spot.
When eating around town know that ‘meriendas’ is a dinner option for $5 including a soup, entrée, and drink. Lunch is called ‘almuerzo‘ with the same. Asado is BBQ and it is a must!
I was surprised at the weather in the Galapagos. I expected that since it is on the equator for it to be HOT. However, the Humbolt Current brings cold water through the islands from June through November. It is much more pleasant snorkeling with a wetsuit during this time and the water is brisk for taking a dip. The colder water brings more wildlife! During this time there is often Garua, a misty rain which is a bit chilly. Best to bring a sweater, especially for nights (and the highlands). The seas are rough at this time, making for some nauseating speedboat experiences. The season warms up from January to June and becomes more tropical with daily rains.
Wifi is notoriously poor. I highly suggest the free app Maps.Me and downloading the maps for Galapagos ahead of time. You will be able to use it for direction on your phone without an internet connection.