Well, they are a group of islands (hardly surprising lol) which belong to the country of Ecuador. They are not exactly sitting just off the Ecuadorian coast though, in fact they are around 1400km from Ecuador, which means there aren’t a lot of buses going there. They sit in the Pacific Ocean, a group of 127 islands, most uninhabited, basically straddling the equator. Some are north, some are south. Your main islands are populated, which includes Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, San Cristobel and a few others. For the record, when I went I only visited Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobel although I may have set foot on one or two of the very small islands that make up the archipelago.
How do you get there and from island to island?
Obviously options are pretty much limited to flying and going by sea. I’m told that regular boats leave from Guayaquil, a huge coastal city in Ecuador regularly and can take around three or more days to get to the Galapagos.
Flying will take far less time, from Guayaquil I think it’s a little under two hours, and if like me you leave from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, it’s going to take a 30 minute flight to Guayaquil. I am unsure if you’ll be able to get a direct flight from Quito (mine wasn’t) but I imagine that would take a little over two hours. I flew Avianca, which is – or was – the main Colombian Airline, one of the biggest in South America and one of the world’s oldest airlines. However, due to Corona-Virus they closed down. Whether they will fly again, I don’t know, but such a large state airline I would presume has a good chance to take back to the skies once air travel has become normal again. As far as I know, they are not flying at all at present (mid-2020). Obviously there are other options – LATAM Airlines Ecuador and apparently Iberia fly to Galapagos according to Mr Google.
Should I take a tour?
And so this is what I did. But perhaps I could have done it independently, the way I generally prefer to travel. And look, from outside South America there are a number of tour agencies you could go with, and at the time Intrepid were having 25% off or something like that and I went with them. Another choice was G-Adventures, which I like to call GADventures, because well, it sounds amusing to me! There are other companies, and then there tours I’m sure you could book from Ecuador.
Then you can do it independently. And there are a number of advantages obviously with that. And I should say that the snorkelling, which was absolutely a highlight of the visit, was run by a different company that I guess Intrepid sub-contracts. A small company on Isla Isabela, so there is no reason why you can’t find a hotel yourself and go around to the different businesses there and organise all your day trips at your leisure. You’ll need to research of course and plan, maybe trips will be full, and for example hiking trips I don’t know if companies are organising them, because that was just the group and our Intrepid guide.
Tours take you through security and I guess prep you for what you need to do and know as well, and that’s not a bad thing, and ultimately, if you can score a little discount especially, you won’t be spending much more than if you did it yourself. But it is POSSIBLE to do it all yourself. There aren’t a lot of budget options for accommodation and some on our tour found our one budget digs to be too grim and splurged for a hotel on San Cristobel. And for me, they said there was a single supplement available and then changed their minds, and so I had to put my poor roommate through my snoring.
It’s fun to do it as a group of course. And interesting to see many on the tour were just taking Intrepid tour after Intrepid tour. Linking up discovering South America. Others were older than me. Some were really young. Luckily for me it wasn’t a crowd itching to get drunk and party because I’m not that dude. And there is that potluck factor that you’ll be the odd one out in your tour group.
Money, Tips and Formalities.
Ecuador doesn’t require a visa for Australians or a number of other nationalities which is nice. Brazil for example requires Aussies to get a $200USD visa – we have to be fair we probably charge just as much for Brazilians but with 1000 more requirements – but anyways any country where you don’t have to spend time and money on a visa is always nice!
We had an early morning flight from Quito and arrived at the airport before dawn. There was a fee to pay in cash, maybe a departure tax, some sort of fee which I think was around $20USD at the airport – collected though by Intrepid. Be warned, there are fees here there and everywhere involved in going to Galapagos.
Also, a word on the money, Ecuador does not have its own currency these days, instead they use the USD. I guess this works out pretty good for travellers especially if your American, but even if you’re not, it’s as easy a currency to get your hands on as any in the world, right? On arrival at Galapagos you have to declare you’re bringing nothing harmful in – biosecurity type things – and pay a fee of $25USD. You’ll also be screened as will your bags in Quito (or Guayquil if you’re leaving from there) for any biohazards. This is because Galapagos has its own very delicate environment I guess. It takes time, especially if you are on a tour and you want to be at the airport at LEAST two hours early for your flight, if not more despite the fact that technically you are not going to another country.
On top of that, some islands, if not all have a fee too, for example Isla Isabela had a fee of $5USD on arrival. Tipping is excepted too, so keep some money for that especially for your guide if you are on a tour, I can’t remember what we all tipped but it was anywhere between $25-$50 for the tour. You’ll have other guides for things like the tortoise sanctuaries or maybe hikes if you’re independent, so they should be tipped too. Obviously much smaller depending on length and quality of service (although I gather quality may not always be important – it’s still expected).
Meals at the restaurants on the islands, and I must admit the food was decent on Galapagos, are never going to be dirt cheap, but they weren’t highly expensive either. So $10-20 per meal should see you right. Then your tours and transport will be on top of that if you are going the independent route, obviously included in the price of the tour if you go that way.
Not every island has an airport. In fact only a couple have an airport with connections to the mainland, and we flew into Baltra Island, which is north (just) of Santa Cruz Island and the main Galapagos Island. Isla San Cristobel also has a smaller airport, and we left from there going to straight to Guayquil before Quito. It’s an amazing approach as you might imagine, which features in my review of Avianca – Airline Review – Avianca to Galapagos!
- The flight was operated by AeroGal
From there we took a local bus to Puerto Ayora, the main town on Isla Santa Cruz. This included a ferry crossing – very short, maybe 100-200 metres or not even – from Isla Baltra to Isla Santa Cruz, and then a drive over the island to the port town. Ayora is perhaps the biggest town on all of Galapagos, and if you were going independently, you might start here. As it was we took a boat to Isla Isabela that afternoon, returned a few days later before taking a boat to Isla San Cristobel.
Boats cost somewhere in the region of $30-$40USD from island to island, and are sort of speed boats that can carry maybe 20-25 passengers at most. They have life jackets and I believe are safe, but the ocean can get choppy and because the sun is hot there, you want to stay undercover which increases your chances of sea sickness.
Around Santa Cruz Island taxis and local buses operate. For the independent traveller on other islands you may need to do a fair bit of walk, or hire motorbikes (or bicycles) I guess. Both are possible. Isabela probably has taxis. Not all will.
What to do?
Well, you’re there now and hopefully you’ve taken care of all the annoying details meaning you can enjoy yourself! You will see iguanas everywhere, especially Isla Isabela, and there are some good hiking possibilities on this island as well. Take one or two of various snorkelling trips on offer as well – I swam with freaking sharks baby! And saw some amazing stuff too. Go on half-day tours to some of the smaller islands. There’s loads to do
Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora has a bit of life to it, probably the best dining of the islands and there’s the port itself. You’ll see pelicans and sea-lions, but there’s also a Tortoise Sanctuary worth visiting. I’m not 100% sure, but I think if you are after a bar and a drink, Puerto Ayora is going to be your best bet!
San Cristobel was my favourite island. There are more sea-lions there than you can poke a stick at, and a beach where you can go snorkelling by yourself and find all sorts of fishes, but nothing beats swimming with sea-lions! There’s more wildlife too, and if you are patient you’ll be able to find the blue-footed boobie, a bird with blue feet I kid you not, undoubtably the coolest bird there is on Galapagos. The Interpretation Centre there is worthwhile to learn about the history of the islands and the eco-system, and a little about Charles Darwin too.
If you’re into diving, there is plenty of diving too to be had around Galapagos and there are other tours you could choose to take which are boat-based which cater more to divers, and I think that would be a pretty awesome way to explore Galapagos. And certainly there are many more than the four islands (including Baltra) that I visited. I was on a nine-day tour, but when you take Quito out of the mix it was more like 7.5 days or less. You could easily spend much longer there.
The sun is brutal in the Galapagos, you need to put on the sunscreen, even if you normally don’t need to. I thought Australia was bad for sunburn, but it has nothing on Galapagos. The weather in October was mid to high twenties Celsius everyday which was perfect, the water was just as warm. It does get hotter, and a little cooler but there isn’t a huge variation in temperature through the year.
June/July is the coolest time, December to May it’s hotter. Generally it sees around 1 – 2 inches of rain per month depending on the month, but it does not experience a lot of rain. Remember when there to always be conscientious about the environment, because it is very delicate and special on Galapagos. But it is one of the most amazing places I have ever been and if you are planning on going, providing the world situation makes it safe to do so of course, then you MUST!
Other relevant posts –
Thanks for reading today, feel free to add any comments or tips for Galapagos you might have below. May the Journey Never End!