The Complete Traveler's Guide to the Galapagos Islands (PART 1 of 2)
by Asurah on August 2, 2011
This article is split into two parts. In the first part, I will try and detail everything I can about backpacking in the islands. In the second part, I will share my experience in the Galapagos archipelago.
Since December, I have been backpacking through South America. I have been pretty much loose with my plans and destinations, planning nothing in advance and deciding my next destination the same day or even at the bus terminal, which has worked out pretty much fine for me. And though I didn't know if I would see Carnival in Brazil or whether I would climb one of Bolivia's mountains, I knew I was going to the Galapagos. I wanted to spend the last week of my trip in the islands; it was after all one of the reasons I chose South America over other places in the world. I was going to end this trip with a bang, as I've been dreaming of the Galapagos experience for years now.
For starters, some history. Archipelago de Colon, or The Galapagos Islands as it is widely known, is a chain of islands and islets in the Pacific Ocean less than 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. It is world famous for wildlife watching, and many unique species of animals--a lot of them endemic, or found only in the Galapagos--are completely fearless. Some birds are so tame that they will come and investigate your shoes or pants, while others will fly and land on your shoulder or head. The Galapagos are also well-known for being visited by Charles Darwin, and is the place where Darwin based his theory of evolution. It is also widely known as one of the best diving spots in the world, with a very diverse marine ecosystem just a few minutes away from shore.
SO, HOW MUCH IS IT GOING TO COST?
If you are planning to visit the Galapagos Islands, the one thing you really need to be prepared for is the price. You can't really find a way around it; this is a pricey place but worth every penny you spend there. The key detail you need to know is this. The earlier you book ANYTHING related to the Galapagos, the more it will cost you. There are only two things that are fixed in price: (1) flights in and out; and (2) the park entrance fee.
Well, firstly, you need to be in Ecuador. Once you are in that wonderful country, you need to take a flight from either Quito or Guayaquil. You should know that all flights to the Galapagos leave from Guayaquil airport, so if you take a flight from Quito, you will make a stop in Guayaquil to pick up more passengers, and then you will set off for the Islands.
There are two airports in the Galapagos archipelago: (1) Baltra on Santa Cruz Island; and (2) San Cristobal on San Cristobal Island. Baltra is the more popular one, with several daily flights in and out from the three airlines operating the Galapagos line: TAME, AeroGal, and LAN Ecuador. Santa Cruz Island, however, is the biggest colony on the archipelago, so I suggest it is better and easier to fly there anyway. A flight from Guayaquil to Baltra costs $160 ($320 RT). From Quito, it is around $190 ($380 RT). Fares are pretty much the same on all three airlines, so the only thing you should really consider is the flight time. It is usually better to fly early so you can still manage to do something when you get there.
Tip: If you really need to save a few bucks, book your flight from Guayaquil and then travel to Guayaquil by bus. A top-class bus service from Quito to Guayaquil takes about 9 hours, departs every hour, and costs about $9. You can save nearly $40 on your return flight if you opt for this.
ONCE YOU GET THERE
Before checking in, you'll be asked to pay $10 for some kind of administration form. They will also check your bag(s) to make sure that you are not carrying any animals or plants that could change the ecosystems in the Galapagos. Once you land at one of the Galapagos airports, you will be charged $100 for your admission to the national park. Keep the little slip since a park official could ask to see it later.
So, you are only about five minutes on Galapagos land, and you've already spent nearly $500. Now you see what I mean when I say it's pricey?
If you land in Baltra, you will be transported to the Canal, where you'll take a short ferry to Santa Cruz Island. This will cost you about $0.80. Once on Santa Cruz, you'll take a $1.20 bus to Puerto Ayora, the main town on the island. There are various hostels and hotels to chose from in Puerto Ayora. The cheapest I found was $8/night with no AC, no fan, and no hot water. But, you can get a decent single or double room for $12-15/night with fan and hot water. There were no dorms as far as I know.
What to do? That's a pretty good question. If you came to the Galapagos and paid all this money, you probably want to see animals. You have pretty much two choices for viewing wildlife:
1. Take an organized cruise around the islands; or
2. Take day trips from one of the main islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, or Isabela) to the different islands.
There are pros and cons for each option. With an organized cruise, you will pay more, but you'll get full service with accommodation, food, a visit to at least two sites each day, and a guide to accompany you and the rest of the group. Cruises are more comfortable than day trips because you travel mostly by night, which saves time and also saves you the trouble of having to experience the sometimes really harsh seas of the archipelago. This is also probably the only way you can see the really far islands like Genovesa, Marchena, and others. These more remote islands are simply too far for day trips.
With day trips, you pay less but you also see less. Most day trips leave really early and have to come back before sunset, so you only have a limited time on the island itself and spend a lot of time just getting there. The sea can also get pretty rough, so if you're prone to seasickness, this might not be the option for you. The main pro is the freedom you will get. With a cruise you can't chose the exact spots you want to visit, as the itinerary is predetermined and cannot be changed. With a day trip, though, you tell the agency where you want to go, and they get you there.
DIVING / SURFING
Other than wildlife watching, you can also dive around the islands. As I've said before, most dive sites are less than an hour by boat from Puerto Ayora or the Itabaca Canal, which makes diving really accessible. There are a million dive shops around Puerto Ayora, and most of them offer the same package--two air tanks for two dives, usually at the same site or two nearby sites. Also included are transport, snacks, a guide, and usually underwater photography if you don't have the necessary equipment.
A diving tour like this takes about six hours total, ends at around mid-day, and costs $150. Most dive sites have pretty harsh currents, so they are not recommended for rookie divers. However, at some sites it is possible to do an instructed dive even if you don't have a diver's license. It probably costs more, but I have no information on that. The most popular dive sites are Gordon's Rocks, famous for schools of hammerheads, sea turtles, and different types of rays, but also notoriously strong currents; and North Seymour, which is more diverse with different types of sharks, schools of different marvelous fish, and turtles. I dove them both, and I highly recommend them.
If you really really want, there are also a few surf spots around the islands. I don't surf, but on Santa Cruz you can get a water taxi to transport you to different beach spots around the island for some surf action.
SO YOU WANT TO GO ON A CRUISE
First rule of the Galapagos is that the earlier you book anything, it will cost you more. This applies heavily to booking a cruise. There are three options for doing this.
1. Option A - Book your cruise from home (no more than a month in advance). This is the most expensive option. Booking a cruise this way might cost you double the cost of booking the same cruise in Puerto Ayora. The advantage here is that you don't need to waste any time. You can go straight from the plane to the boat with no worries at all. You should note that a lot of the money you will pay is divided between the travel agencies involved, and only about half goes to the boat operators in the Galapagos.
2. Option B - Book your cruise from mainland Ecuador. This would need to be done about 1-2 weeks in advance, and would probably be about 75-80% the price of Option A. This is still considerably more expensive than Option C, but it would give you the some assurance and a schedule. Most travel agencies at this level will also throw in the cost of the flight, so keep that in mind and ask for it.
3. Option C - Get to the Galapagos and book your tour there. This is the hardest, least secure, and scariest option of the three, but also insanely cheaper. Prices are usually 50% or less of that of Option A, but you will need more time and a lot of patience to find a good cruise. Personally, I spent about 10 hours in different agencies until I found the tour I wanted, but it cost me about 40% of the price some people on my boat paid who booked the exact same tour from the States. This difference could be hundreds of dollars, and on the high-end cruises, sometimes thousands.
TYPES OF CRUISES
There are several types of cruises to choose from. Most boats go on a pretty regular wildlife-watching tour, which involves excursions by foot on the islands and some snorkeling as well. The differences between the many cruises are the following.
* Duration. You can go on a 4-, 5-, or 8-day cruise on most boats. The boat will have a fixed route, and will do the route non-stop for weeks at a time. Some people spend 4 days on the boat and leave; others stay 5 days; and some stay for the full route, or 8 days.
* Service level. Boats are divided into several classes: Economy or Tourist, Tourist Superior, First Class, and Luxury. You can imagine that the service varies between the different classes. With Economy or Tourist Superior, you can expect a double-bed cabin or twin cabin, usually with a private bathroom, but no hot water or AC. The quality of the food will be lower and, also, the quality of the guide. With Economy or Tourist, it is highly possible that your guide will speak only Spanish. With First Class and Luxury, you will get everything. A very comfortable cabin, hot showers, AC, top-notch food, excellent service and a bi- (or tri-) lingual guide with years of experience.
* Itinerary. Perhaps the most important detail here. The itinerary is known in advance, and you should ask for it before you book your cruise. If you are an avid bird-watcher, you would want to spend time in the northern and southern islands, as some species are only found on one island, and only there (Waved Albatross on Espanola, for example, or the Red-footed Booby on Genovesa). If you're more into landscapes, you would want to visit Isabela and Fernandina. And if snorkeling is your thing, then the southern islands are the best. Just make sure you've got San Cristobal, Floreana, and Espanola on your route.
* Size. Most boats occupy between 16-18 passengers, but some boats on the Luxury class can carry 30, 50, or even 100 people. The bigger the boat is, the slower the disembarkation will be when you reach a site. So, you should take that into consideration. But also, the bigger boats tend to be more stable while at sea; so if you're prone to seasickness, you might opt for a big cruiser boat, Caribbean-style.
It is worth noting that the more interesting itineraries can only be found on high-end cruises. It is very hard to find any economy boats going to Genovesa, for example. The reason is that the cheaper boats are slower, and the distances to northern or western islands are usually very far, so they simply can't get there on one night's sail.
Also, if you really like sailing, you know, with sails and everything, sometimes it is possible to find a sail yacht that actually sails. But these boats tend to be less comfortable due to the boat structure. So, if comfort is your preference, you should go for a motor-yacht.
COST TO CRUISE
Now for the costs. For Option A, on a first-class boat, for an 8-day cruise, you can expect to pay around $3,500-4,000. This will usually include a roundtrip ticket to the Galapagos, and sometimes a night or two in Quito, including a day tour in the city (more common in oversea deals). If you book on the mainland for the same thing, you will pay about $2,500, usually including airfare to the islands. With Option C, the cheapest, you will pay your own airfares, but it is highly possible to find a first-class boat for 8 days for about $1,200. I found an 8-day cruise with northern and southern islands on a luxury boat, for $1,350. I was also offered an even better boat with a better itinerary for $1,600, a third of its regular price. I chose to spend those $300 on two days of diving, however, and I do not regret this decision. My experience was priceless; it was amazing; and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.
The key to having a good Galapagos experience is these three things: (1) the wildlife; (2) your group; and (3) the quality of the guide. You cannot really control any of these things, but you can have some influence. It is probable that if you go on a cheap boat you will have a less experienced guide and a younger group. If you'd like a more experienced guide, and a more diverse group, it's best to cough up some more money and go on a higher-class boat.
You can't control or influence the wildlife. You have to remember this is not a zoo, the animals in the Galapagos are free in their own native environment. So no one can promise you what you will see exactly. But believe me, whatever you see, it will amaze you. I talked to a lot of people prior to my visit, and some said their trip was good, some said the trip was excellent, some said it was only OK. But I have never heard of anyone who was disappointed by the wildlife. For example, I really wanted to snorkel with a sea lion, as they tend to be really playful underwater. But luck was not on my side this time, and I only saw a sea lion really briefly underwater. But a day later, we snorkeled with three Galapagos penguins, which was incredible and also quite rare. So, like everything in South America, todo possible, nada seguro. All is possible, nothing is sure. Remember that, and you will have a truly amazing experience.