Cover: Blue footed Boobies, North Seymour, Galapagos Islands.
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull
There are few places on earth that still offer the adventure and diverse wildlife that can be found in the Galapagos Islands. The enchanting islands that captivated Charles Darwin over 200 years ago offer a unique opportunity to experience creatures found nowhere else on earth.
The terrain is rugged, remote and magical. The waters are clear, warm and offer amazing snorkeling and diving. Giant tortoises slowly make their way through grasslands and mud pits, marine iguanas dart about, blue-footed boobies sit on their nest of eggs, and so much more.
Getting to the Galapagos Islands
Located in the Pacific Ocean 605 miles/973 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, the 21 islands that make up the Galapagos Islands straddle the equator across a span of 137 miles / 220 kilometers.
Travel to the Galapagos Islands typically begins with a flight to the Ecuadoran mainland cities of either Quito or Guayaquil, followed by another flight to Isla Baltra, one of the Galapagos Islands. An overnight stay may be required in either Quito or Guayaquil when connecting to flights to the Galapagos. Guayaquil is the largest and most populated city in Ecuador, with close to three million residents.
Located on the coast, Guayaquil has a tropical climate and a rainy season from January to April. The Guayaquil airport, José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport (Airport code: GYE), is modern facility built in 2006 and the city has a wide variety of hotels and hostels.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is the second largest city in Ecuador. Home to over two million people, Quito is located in the Andes mountains at an elevation of 2850 meters/9,350 feet.
The airport in Quito, Mariscal Sucre (airport code: UIO) is also modern and easy to navigate, with many shops and restaurants. As the Quito airport is located 18 km from the city, if an overnight stay is required, staying near the airport is a good option. We stayed at the newly built Wyndham Quito Airport, which is a luxury hotel with large rooms, marble baths with rain showers, a bar and restaurant, WiFi, and a free airport shuttle
On our way to the Galapagos, we stopped for one night in Quito, staying at the Wyndham Quito Airport. Built in 2016, the hotel is modern and luxurious, with large, well-appointed guest rooms, beautiful marble baths with rain showers, a bar and restaurant, 24-hour room service, WiFi, and a free airport shuttle (requires a call to the hotel to have the shuttle sent).
Many visitors to the Galapagos extend their visit to Ecuador with time in one or both of the cities, either en route or on their return from the islands, as we did on our return.
Galapagos travel tip: Limit your carry on contents and bring cash
The carry-on bag weight limit on flights to and from the Galapagos is 8 kilos.
In 2007, UNESCO put the Galapagos Islands on their List of World Heritage in Danger because of threats posed by invasive species, unbridled tourism, and overfishing. As a protected environment, no food, plants, seeds, etc. can be brought into the Galapagos. Additionally, about one hour before arrival, flight attendants open all overhead bins on the aircraft and spray each bin with a disinfectant/insecticide, so you may want to keep your makeup or toiletries under the seat.
Passengers must purchase Galapagos immigration forms upon departure from the mainland for $20 each. Upon arrival in passengers pay an entrance tax of $100 per person, so make sure you have sufficient cash on hand.
Flights arrive on the island of Isla Baltra at Seymour Airport (airport code: GPS). Following arrival, passengers pay an entrance tax and collect their luggage. Once outside, airport buses transport passengers to a barge to cross the canal to the island of Santa Cruz.
The fee for the barge is $1 per person. Luggage is placed on the roof of the barge and passengers find seats inside for the short crossing.
Arriving on Santa Cruz, most visitors stay across the island to the main city of Puerto Ayora. Unless your hotel or cruise ship has sent someone to transport you to your destination, visitors can either take a bus or a taxi. Taxis on Santa Cruz are white, crew cab trucks and the fee at the time of this article from the dock to Puerto Ayora was $20.
Galapagos travel tip: Maximize your first day with a land tour
Our taxi driver offered to take us to some attractions on the trip across the island for $50 instead of the $20, which allowed us to spend the majority of our first afternoon visiting the Los Gemelos sink holes, Rancho Primicias where the giant tortoises roam free, and to hike the Lava Tunnel – all key attractions on the island of Santa Cruz.
Touring the Galapagos – Cruises vs. Hotels
Famous for the varied species that reside throughout the archipelago, travel between the islands is a requirement in order to view the different animals on each the islands.
There are two primary methods of traveling in the Galapagos Islands – on board a cruise boat for a multiple day stay or basing on land in a hotel and taking day trips between the islands.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Staying on land in a hotel generally, provides more spacious accommodations, increased amenities, such as access to swimming pools and, obviously the ability to sleep on land. It also provides the ability to explore a variety of shopping, bars, and restaurants on the island. Staying on land is far more economical than cruising as well.
The small cruise ships in the Galapagos typically accommodate 16 – 20 passengers (a few are larger, with up to 96), who are your cruise mates day in and day out for a week or two, depending on the length of your cruise. Additionally, while land excursions occur each day, the majority of dining is onboard.
We opted for the land-based option, booking one of the top hotels in Puerto Aroyo and visited three other islands during our stay on day tours.
The downside of basing on land is that it restricts the islands that can be visited, as many islands are simply too far to visit on a day trip from Santa Cruz, where the majority of hotels are located.
From Santa Cruz, day tours to Bartolomé, North Seymour, South Plaza Island, Pinzón, and Santa Fe are easy day trips. Isabela, San Cristobal, and Floreana are possible, but the boat ride is two hours or more, the waters are choppy and the boat trip is not enjoyable. Imagine 24 people crammed on a small speedboat that is not well-ventilated bouncing through the water and the only amenities – a roll of barf bags for the boat to share, which quite a few did. It is definitely a trip that is about the destination and not the journey.
The remainder of the major islands cannot be visited on day tours from Santa Cruz. That said, while there are thousands of interesting species throughout the Galapagos, the majority of the key wildlife most visitors come to see, with the giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds at the top of the list, can be viewed on the islands accessible by day tours, as well as Santa Cruz.
Without leaving Santa Cruz, giant tortoises, pelicans, marine iguanas, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, rays, flamingos, land iguanas, dolphins and sea turtles can be viewed. Santa Cruz is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station.
An uninhabited island, North Seymour is home to blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, land iguanas, sea lions, and much more.
The incredibly picturesque Bartolomé is a beautiful island to explore, providing panoramic views and snorkeling near Pinnacle Rock. Here, Galapagos penguins can be found, as well as sea lions, white tip sharks, and green turtles.
As stated above, the journey by boat to Isabela is far from enjoyable adventure, but once on Isabela, the island provides numerous opportunities to view wildlife. Day trips go to Puerto Villamil on the southern tip of Isabela where giant tortoises, flamingos, Darwin finches, Galapagos penguins, pelicans, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and Sally Lightfoot crabs, and an abundance of rays, sea turtles and sharks can be found. Additionally, a giant tortoise-breeding center is located near Puerto Villamil, where tortoises are bred and the offspring are reintroduced into
their natural habitat.
What did we miss by not having access to the other locations? The red-footed boobies can only be seen on Genovesa, Wolf Island, or San Cristóbal. The Galapagos petrel can only be found on Floreana and the winged albatross on Española.
While it is possible to go to San Cristóbal or Floreana on a day trip, the journey is similar to the Isabel boat trip in length, boat type and through rough waters, so we ruled it out after the Isabela experience.
Galapagos travel tip: Purchasing Galapagos day tours on Santa Cruz
Near the main port in Puerto Ayora, numerous day tour companies operate out of small businesses. The tour companies broker spots on the various boats that actually operate the tours. We visited at least a dozen different brokers during our week in Puerto Aroyo and not one took credit cards.
ATM machines are found at various locations but at times the network is down or there are long lines so it may take various tries to access enough cash for the tours. Most of the tours we priced ranged from $140 to $180 per person, depending on the island visited, the boat, the day of the week, the time of day and the broker.
For example, we visited three different brokers at around 4:00 in the afternoon the day before our Bartolomé trip. The first offered three options, each aboard different boats. The mid-level boat was offered at $180. We visited another broker about a block away and were told $170 for that boat. The third, where we booked, offered the trip for $160.
The tours typically begin early, between 6 AM – 8 AM, with the boat’s private bus making stops at each of the hotels of the day’s tour participants. After a ride across the island to the dock where the barges cross the canal to the airport, participants board a dinghy and are taken to the boat. The day’s itinerary normally consists of the boat ride to the island, a nature hike, lunch, snorkeling, and the return boat trip. An English-speaking guide accompanies the group on all excursions away from the boat.
The exception to this are the trips to San Cristóbal or Isabela, which meet at the main pier in Puerto Aroyo and actually use a ferry, which is a speed boat with a capacity of 24, to access the islands. A guide accompanies the group on the ferry and throughout the day.
Summing it up
In summary, cruises are more expensive and restrictive in that you are with the same group for the duration but provide access to far more islands. Depending on the quality of the itinerary, they also can provide more activity time since going to and from the islands each day can be accomplished in the evening or at night. They also take the negotiation and decision-making out of the process, since the cruise company presets the itinerary for your vacation.
Land based lodging with day trips are less expensive overall and offer more freedom to create your own itinerary but, require navigating the web of day tour operators in Puerto Aroyo, require access to cash while visiting the islands and don’t make use of traveling between islands during downtime.
An alternative to basing solely on Santa Cruz is to travel to Isabel or San Cristóbal one way on the ferry, allowing a stay of multiple days on each island. Hotels are available on all On Isabel, this would also enable exploration of Volcán Wolf on the northern part of the island.
A final option is to travel by plane between the islands with airports – a more expensive option, but one that enables a quick trip without the boat travel time.
Where we stayed: Hotel Solymar
Hotel Solymar is conveniently located along the waterfront and within walking distance of numerous restaurants, shops, and a market. Hotel Solymar’s staff was friendly and helpful, providing assistance whenever needed.
Our room was a good size and very clean with a flat-screen TV, desk, safe and a beautiful view overlooking the pool and the bay. The hotel offers a complimentary breakfast with a good selection and a friendly service staff.
The pool has a laid-back atmosphere and is a great spot to grab a beer or glass of wine after a day of exploring. We dined in the restaurant on two occasions and the food was delicious and, again the staff was attentive and very nice.
Galapagos travel tip: Visit the supermarket in Puerto Aroya
A supermarket is located in Porto Aroya across from the main pier that in addition to food and snacks, has an upstairs section with a great selection of pharmacy-type items including toothpaste, toothbrushes, sunscreen, and other items you may have forgotten or run out of. Additionally, the store sells wine, beer, bottled water and has a good selection of fresh bread and rolls that are very inexpensive.
Know before you go
The climate in the Galapagos is tropical and, depending on the time of year and location on the islands, precipitation can range from almost non-existent to daily.
The warm season is from December to May, with average temperatures reaching in the 80°s F/XX °s C and daily lows in the 70°s F/XX°s C. Average rainfall during this time period is 1.5 inches in December and January, rising to 3 inches in March and April, before it begins to taper off in May with an average of 2.7 inches of rainfall.
Water temperatures from December to May range from 74° – 76° F/XX° – XX° C.
In the cooler months of June through November, daily highs range from 74° – 78° F/XX° – XX° C and lows are in the 60°s F/XX°s C. Rainfall decreases from an average of 2.2 inches in June to a half an inch per month from August to November.
Water temperatures from June to November range are typically in the 70°s F/XX°s C.
Tap water in the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador should not be consumed. Do not swallow water from the shower while visiting the Galapagos and brush your teeth with bottled water. Additionally, we decided on the better safe than sorry approach and did not drink anything with ice or water, only consuming bottled water, wine, beer, sodas and juice, and very hot coffee or soup. We also only ate food that was cooked or fruit that could be peeled or had the exterior removed – bananas, watermelon, etc., which meant no salads or fruit with skins.
Located on the equator, the sun in the Galapagos is very strong and can cause sunburn quickly. Apply a strong sunscreen each morning and multiple times throughout the day.
Voltage: 110-120 Volts, the same as U.S./Canada. Primary Socket Types: North American
Currency: American dollar. There are ATMs, but sometimes the lines are very long and the network was out frequently.
Your return trip
Allow plenty of time when returning to the airport on Isla Baltra. After crossing the island by taxi or bus, the wait for the barge to cross the canal can be up to 30 minutes (they wait until it is full). If you find yourself short on time, take one of the water taxis that are typically present at the dock. After the barge ride, there may also be a wait for the airport bus to the airport. Our experience with passing through security was incredibly fast and efficient, but that is situational. There are no taxes or fees to depart from the Galapagos or re-enter the mainland.
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