Nick Says: The very first thing to say here is, don`t think you can`t afford to visit the Galapagos. Sure, it’s going to be more expensive than most of your trip, but unless you’re on the most ultra-budget trip, an excursion here is affordable and probably one of the best things you can do in your life. I would go far as to say 2 weeks here is worth a month elsewhere, which is most likely the compromise you’ll have to make. But for one of the most unique adventures I’ve ever had, I’d do it all again without question. Where else can you swim with turtles and sea-lions, hike over volcanic rock, watch marine iguanas butt heads, and witness giant tortoises roam the wild – all within the same afternoon?
The only way to get to the Galapagos Islands is by flying. Choose LAN or TAM and you should be able to pick up a flight for $150 each way. You’ll also have to pay $10 at the departure airport (either Quito or Guayaquil) for your tourist visa to the park (which you must register for online first). Once you arrive you’ll also have to pay $100 to enter the Galapagos. While this seems steep, it’s actually incredible value and has been the same cost since 2000. However, from next year there is a plan to raise the entrance fee to $200, unless you stay for 10 days at least, in which case it will be $128.
There are two ways to visit the islands. The obvious and easiest is by arranging a boat cruise. This is also the more expensive option, but you can keep costs down for sure. The other way is by getting there yourself, and island hopping 4 of the islands and arranging independent day tours once there. We did both in our time there, and gained something unique and different from them each, which we will detail below.
1. CRUISING: When you arrange a cruise before going, the agency will also sort your flight and pick you up from the airport on arrival. We though, had bought our own flight and so had no-one to meet us. Nobody wanted us. We’d decided to risk it all, fly to the islands and try and arrange a last minute cruise direct at the source. It was a risky strategy, but one well worth considering if you want to snag the best bargains of all. After making the bus-boat-bus journey to Puerto Ayora (the main town in the Galapagos, located on Santa Cruz), we found ourselves some cheapish accommodation with a lady named Marysol. Mary had cunningly called her hostel Mar y Sol (sea and sun in Spanish) and as she pointed out several times, it was also her name. Marysol was pretty well known around the islands, and whenever we mentioned we had stayed with her, the locals delighted in telling her name was Marysol, just like mar y sol, and did we understand? After the 60th time, yes we did.
After a visit to the incredibly helpful Ministry of Tourism who gave us a thick book of maps, information and wildlife spot checklists, we then set out about on a tour of the agencies trying to find ourselves a bargain. We had already been offered an 8 day cruise for $750 each at the airport, so we had an idea of what to expect. There are four classes of boat, economy, tourist, first class, and VIP. The costs go up a lot by each class, but so does the experience. We saw more than a few floating rust-buckets with hose showers in the harbour. If you don’t mind roughing it though, then you’ll get a serious bargain. We met one Aussie guy who’d snagged himself a 3 day cruise for $100.
After several no-go’s we stolled into a pretty non-descript agency called Espanola. Not on the toursit map, or recommended in any guide books, it none-the-less promised us an amazing deal. Tito, the agent, made great use of a whiteboard marker to draw out an exotic route of the Western Islands (which we didn’t realise at the time were quite rarely visited on cruises), and show us photos of the boat, the Treasure of Galapagos. Quite simply,. it looked incredible. Better than any house I’ve lived in since I was a kld. After a bit of tough negotiating, we figured we had a great value deal. If you want more details on our route, we did a combination of Cruise B & C listed on this site. When you travel first-class, another major perk is an English speaking guide. On other classes, your guide will be Spanish speaking only. For us, having the otherwordly wildlife, history and landscape explained on a daily basis made the extra money well worthwhile. By going in at the very last minute, we managed to bag ourselves a cabin for about 25% of what we would have paid if we arranged it from home. However, it was a large amount of money for us and we were both literally shaking at the thought of handing it over.
Bee Says: One essential piece of information for the Galapagos is that 90% of tour agencies don’t accept payments by credit or debit card. Or if they do, they charge a 10% fee, which can mean hundreds of extra dollars, which you will really want to save for buying
tacky classy “I love Boobies” souveniers. Therefore arrange with your bank in advance that you will need to exceed your daily ATM limit or you will need permission to withdraw a large sum from the local bank in Puerto Ayora. The bank here is very used to frantic looking tourists bowling in and needing a wad of cash, and we successfully managed to withdraw the mega $$$ needed for our cruise which we then had to carry (wrapped in a rubber band, drug dealer style) down the road. After handing this over to the agency, we had a nervous 24 hours of fully expecting to end up on some sort of Galapagos edition of Crimewatch. We had just blindly given the largest chunk of cash we’d ever seen in our lives, over to a virtual stranger. Our shredded nerves weren’t helped by the fact the agency rep wasnt there to meet us at the agreed time on the morning of our cruise departure. In fact, the whole office was shut up and this meant we had to drag our bags to the pier and desperately ask locals where our boat (Treasure of Galapagos) departed from. Or yknow… if it even existed! Eventually Nick managed to get a phone call to our rep and I think his use of “God Dammit!!!” in Spanish (which he learnt from watching Dantes Peak with subtitles) convinced them we were pretty mad and the rep turned up and whisked us off on a boat-taxi to our awaiting catamaran. Finally, we could relax…
Or so I thought. Lets take a moment to take about sea sickness. If you are planning a trip to the Galapagos, you need to be pretty confident in your sea legs. If you do suffer sickness, you need to see your GP in advance and get some heavy duty medication, as for me – over the counter stuff didn’t stand a chance against the Galapagos tides. Even when the boat is docked in a harbour, the fact that the Galapagos oceans are home to the meeting of many different currents, means that the water is perma-choppy and just varies from pretty choppy to what the locals gleefully call “mini monsoon!”. For me, I didn’t really know if I got sea sick. I have grown up in the most land-locked city in England and my only experience of sailing is listening to The Decemberists alot. It became evident that I am not a natural born sailor when I had thrown up 4 times within the first 2 hours onboard, and had to miss my Welcome Cocktail, opting instead to just sit alone on the deck staring psychotically at the horizon. Luckily for me, a lovely American girl on our cruise clled Kelley had a spare patch which you put behind your ear and it slow releases some sort of mega strength anti-sickness medication over the course of a week. On day 2 I woke up feeling better than ever and stuffed my face with breakfast buffet and never felt the dreaded rolling tummy/wobbly legs again. A very close shave, she really saved my skin there!
Nick Says: Our 7 day voyage of dreams followed the same basic pattern every day. We would be called for breakfast at 7am every morning (by a little ringing bell) where we would eat copius amounts of fresh fruit before heading off on our first outing of the day at 8am. Attached to the boat were two little zodiac craft, little rubber launches with motor engines which could pilot into the shallow waters and get up close and personal to the wildlife. Then we would come back around 10am ready to go out and snorkel (in the very cold water. Our old 3mm wet suits which we had to hire weren’t really up to the job) in a spot picked out by our guide. Then we would come back for a midday lunch (two courses, and some of the most delicious food we’ve eaten on the trip) before heading out again for our afternoon landing at 3pm and a couple of hours of hiking. Then it was back to the boat for a briefing on what we would see the next day, before dinner and then usually an early night! The landings would either be ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. Wet meant that the zodiac would get near the beach, and then we would have to jump into the water and wade ashore, while dry meant we could get close enough to rocks to leap ashore dramatically. Considering the average age of people on these cruises would be considered elderly, it was pretty tough going.
As luck would have it though, our cruise was made up of people our own age. Assured by the crew that this was very unusual, it made for a really fun week and the chance to make some new friends. Following our three weeks of illness, we’d started to get a bit lonely, so it was great to chat and chat and chat again. And we had a lot to talk about – the Galapagos is an experience like none other, and one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. The sheer amount of wildlife is unequalled anywhere else. Both Bee, and an American couple called Skyler & Jordan had been on Safari, and compared it to that. Except while you would occasionally spot a lion or elephant there, here you would be seeing something every minute. It became almost a joke amongst us all that the animals would be doing something new and riveting each day to attract our attention. It wasn’t enough to just see a marine iguana, now they had to fight and swim. One turtle wasn’t enough, we had to see 16 swimming around. A sea-lion lazing on the rocks? Pah, give me two baby sea-lions chasing iguanas! And all these aninals were next to each other, on the same beach or rocks. I’ll never get over it.
Swimming with the animals was also an unforgettable joy. While some would stare at you curiously, or ignore you and go on their way, others would decide to come and play. A juvenile sea-lion found us snorkelling one day, and then entertained himself and us by performing underwater acrobatics between us, diving down when we did, and swimming right up to our masks to have a good look. However, get too close to a big male sea-lion though and they would bark and even bite! We would return from each snorkelling session and compare tales. While I was swimming with a turtle, Jordan had seen sharks and a blue footed booby dive into the ocean next to him to fish. It was impossible not to get to get caught up in everyone’s enthusiasm, and the crew were obviously having a great time. When we asked if we could jump off the 10m high top deck into the water of Tagus Cove (where graffiti dating from 1836 can be found) the captain was all smiles, and the crew jumped into a zodiac to take pictures of us falling through the air.
Bee Says: Nick was not exagerating when he said that this is a life highlight, let alone a trip highlight. I can barely put into words how magical and mystical my two weeks on the Galapagos were, how you can never get used to the fact that everywhere you look, you will see something so incredible your brain can hardly process it! Every time on day in the Galapagos is beautiful, and on the cruise we were awake so much we could really make the most of it. The stunning sunrise, the baking hot days and then the nights where the stars were so dazzling that the cabins never got dark and we had a clear view of the milky way. Shooting stars, with perfect cartoon-like pointed edges, exploded like fireworks as we bobbed along through the night. A personal highlight was trying snorkelling for the first time. I have always wanted to have a go, and being half girl half mermaid, water sports are a huge draw but the UK isn’t exactly a hotspot for the type of clear oceans needed to snorkel. In our tour group we had plenty of avid snorkellers, who all said the Galapagos was amongst the best they had attempted in the world, so I think I picked a good time to start!
Once I had got past the psychological barrier of believeing that yes I can breathe underwater with this funny mask & pipe on, I was hooked. All I can compare the snorkelling to, is swimming in the best aquarium you have ever seen. I loved the fact that you are in a team – sharing the news when you spot something exotic and experiencing the amazing parts together. Yet, there is also something completely independent about unique moments in the deep blue. The best for me was when a giant turtle grazed past my belly and then swam beneath me for ten minutes. In those ten minutes I have never felt so fortunate, peaceful and awed by nature. Once I had got the hang of snorkelling, I was proud of myself to even spot some of the more rare sea-sights and share them with the group. I saw a HUGE stingray that was wider than if I held my arms out as wide as they will go and also an endemic chocolate chip starfish. Every inch of ocean was packed with parrot fish (the ones wearing lipstick!) and other Finding Nemo cast-members at every turn. At one point I found myself in the middle of a school of tiny silver slither fish that stretched as far as my eye could see in both directions. I swam amongst them until their journey took me into a freezing cold current, then it was time to wish them goodbye.
Whilst the ocean captured my heart, the rest of the landscapes of the Galapagos are just as stunning. On one morning we took a hike through the lava fields, where we staggered over lava that had exploded into the water then been pushed back up to land by the tectonic movements. There were huge crevices to clamber over and the island was a vast expanse of black molten masses. Evere five minutes our guide would repeat his helpful mantra of “whatever you do, dont fall over – falling on the lava is like falling on a THOUSANDS KNIVES” !! In the middle of these barren landscape we found a lush lagoon, surrounded by fresh green mangroves and home to a flock of neon pink flamingos! The flash of colours against the bare burnt land was hard to believe. Galapagos is full of these sort of surprises. Here we posed for photographs in front of what our guide assured us is the most active volcano in the world, and also the one that is most due for an eruption any day now. When we all, in unison, asked if these erruptions could be predicted in any way, he smiled, shrugged and said not really, as the eruptions are internal not explosive.
One night as the sunset, we sat on deck and something caught my eye in the water. I whipped out my binoculars and sure enough, that something was a fin cutting through the waves. As I focussed in, I counted nearly 50 sharks, all of whom were circling in a wild frantic manner as if I were Spielberg and they were auditioning as Jaws extras. It was a wonderful act of nature to watch (from the safety of the boat) but my lip started to tremor a little as I realised they were in the exact patch of water we would be snorkelling in a few hours time. It was ok though, our guide reassured us they were vegetarian… although I got the impression that was his go-to line about any of the wildlife we were worried about.
I feel like I learnt so much on the cruise, every day I noted down facts and figures and amazing new lessons I had learnt. In some ways, doing no research on the Galapagos paid off, as everything was shiny, new and fascinating. One of these learnings was just the simple fact that along the equator, a line of fluffly clouds dots the line. These were visible from a few of our landing points and for some reason I just found this very magical (I dont even want to count how many times I have used this word in this post! Another word for magical anyone?). At 8pm on one of our last nights, we actually crossed the equator. We were invited to the bridge of the boat, crowded round to watch the monitor hit 0.00.000 and then celebrated with an aquamarine coloured cocktail. I noticed even the Captain indulged in one… and that night we hit the choppiest water where the windows of our cabin basically kissed the ocean all night long. Maybe he indulged in more than one! I should also mention that at the exact time we crossed the equator, Nick´s brother Joe and sister in law Mel welcomed his new neice, Ada Horton, into the world! We cant wait to show her this when she is old enough.
I also just wanted to mention that the staff on the cruise made every moment on board almost as “magical” as snorkelling the oceans and hiking the lands. One night, pooped from a day of exploration, we all huddled on the sofas in the lounge and watched the BBC Galapagos documentary! The cruise manager bought us our bowls of popcorn, and it was a slighty surreal to be watching the wilds that we had been tramping around on just hours earlier.
Nick Says: Of course, not everyone can afford to splash the cash on a bells & whistle cruise, nor does everyone want to do one. While I can’t reccommend doing one enough, and upgrading to the best boat you can, I understand those who can’t, or won’t go on one – it was only the fact we’d been given such a good deal by the agent that persuaded us to take the plunge. But have no fear though, for those who don’t the Galapagos Islands are surprisingly easy to visit totally independently, despite all the nay-saying of the guidebooks.
2. INDEPENDENT TRAVEL: If you don’t fancy spending several days at sea, then your best bet is still to head to Puerto Ayora. A busy metropolis by Galapagos standards, you can find countless tour agencies who can arrange day tours to many of the places visited on the boats, but for a much cheaper cost. You can also haggle any quoted prices down if you’re there in low season (the best low season is October-November). Its perfectly possible to stay here for $25 a night, although some of the accomdation is questionable (we stayed one night in a shed in someones garden that stank of pickles and was being patrolled by two hellhound dogs!) – after much trial and error, we highly recommend Hostel Los Amigos as the finest budget lodgings here. You can visit the Charles Darwin research centre, free of charge. Here you can see all the different species of giant tortoise, from baby ones to fully grown adults. You can also see the former home of the magnificent Lonesome George, or Solitario Jorge as he preferred to be known. The last of his kind, he refused to mate with his two wives, Georgette and Georgina, and eventually died age 96 of loneliness. Several islanders think he would have preferred a male tortoise companion, and that was the reason for his celibate and solitary existence. I now proudly sport a Lonesome George black memorial band (gone but not forgotten) and wept openly at the sight of a t-shirt declaring him to be the last of a dying race. RIP Solitario Jorge.
Puerto Ayora also has an amazing street we named Calle Hambre (Hungry Street) where at night it’s filled with open-air tables, food stalls, and a party atmosphere. Lobster for $15 is a good deal, and I ate my first ever one there. It was gooooooood. We also stopped by the fish market on Av. Darwin one evening, where the sellers had set up plastic tables and chairs and were frying up fresh fish for the customers. Persuading a shop-keeper across the road to stay open an extra 10 minutes, we loaded up on beers and ate some of the best sea-food of my life.
The jewel in Puerto Ayora’s crown is Tortuga Bay. The walk there and back is an hour each way, and takes you through endless woodland of silvery white trees. Bee kept exclaiming that she felt like we’d walked into a fairytale, as lizards trotted over our feet and an albatross swopped down over our heads. The bay itself is one of the most beautiful beaches Galapagos has to offer, and is home to nesting turtles and marine iguanas (the only swimming lizard in the world) that launch themselves off the craggy rocks and surf the tide.
When not stuffing our faces with fish or ice-cream, we also noted that Puerto Ayora enabled you to get to any of the other inhabited islands for $30 each way. The hustle and bustle of this town (population 5000) was too much. It was time to return to Isabela, the gorgeous island we had visited once on our cruise and loved it’s even sleepier atmosphere.
Bee Says: If you are travelling independently, I highly recommend a few nights on Isabela. Here you can expect to find: The best sunsets, the cheapest menu del dias (daily set meal offers, usually around $5 for a plate of meat, rice, beans and plantain plus a juice) and the easiest navigation to some hot tourist spots such as the mangrove coves, wall of tears and the estury where fresh and salt water meet (and sea lions lounge on all the benches). Oh and the amazing invention that is… COCO LOCO! A fresh coconut containing half coconut water… half the worlds strongest rum. If you are shoe-stringing like us you can just buy the coconut yourself and spike it with your own rum (about $3 in the local shop) for half the price of the beach bars.
The lure of Isabela was so strong, that we talked our shiny new friends from the cruise, Skyler and Jordan, into moving their flight back in order to come to Isabela too. The airlines must be SO used to people falling in love with Galapagos and wanting to extend their trip, that it is actually free to move your flight times with all the local airlines. A good tip if you are uncertain of cruise dates etc! On Isabela we paid $25 a night again, in Posada Del Caminante, and spent our days walking around, lazing on the beach and bar crawling the ramshackle offering of booze serving beach huts. Our favourite was Bar Beta, which had the best sunset view tables and tiny lizards that would scoot up the table leg and lick condensation off your beer bottle! Casa Rosada (the pink house) also had a bargainous happy hour and a bonfire to huddle around as night fell. We became obsessed with a dish called Bolon in Isabela, a daily breakfast fix of mashed plantain, soft cheese and a fried egg. After the heady pace of our cruise, a few days of peace and quiet and beachlife was the perfect end to our Galapagos dream. What made this extra special was the time we spent getting to know Skyler and Jordan, two of the most fascinating, generous and insightful people you could wish to find in the world. They are on a year long adventure, spanning the whole globe, after simiarily quitting high pressure careers and taking the plunge like us. You can read all about their adventures in Africa, Europe, South East Asia and South America here at their blog 180degreeswest. We are already pining for our travel buddies, but at some point in the future we have a grand tour of southern America planned with them – mostly revolving around eating BBQ in Texas – and an invite to theirs for a proper family Thanksgiving! So we hope you´ll be reading about it right here one day.
From here we would break from our overlanding tradition and catch 4 flights in 2 days (one of these days being Friday 13th…) to make up for lost sick-time in Peru and make our way back to where we started, the Caribbean coast and our final country of South America: Colombia!