Thursday, 20 February 2014

Independent Galapagos

In planning our trip to South America, the Galapagos Islands were pretty much number 1 on my ‘not to miss’ list.

They are expensive to visit, and on top of the cost of getting there you have to pay US$100 as an entrance tax to the islands (though you get a very cool passport stamp in return). "Cash is King" on the islands too, and trying to pay by plastic will result in very heavy price mark-ups. 

Most people visit the islands by cruise boat. There are various different classes of cruise boat at different prices and offering different types of trip, however I didn’t really fancy this - the cruises were really a bit out of our price range, I was anxious at the thought of getting sea sick and being unable to enjoy the islands fully, and I also didn’t like the idea of having every minute of my day dictated by the a group timetable. I wanted to be able to wander and discover things for myself.

Against the advice of the hostel manager in Guayaquil, from where we organised our trip, we bought only flights; from Guayaquil to Baltra (for access to Santa Cruz island) and back from San Cristobal island. I organised the rest myself, looking up reviews for accommodation and seeking out day trip itineraries. We didn’t have long enough to do too much – I mean, I could have easily spent the full allowable 6 months there without ever getting bored! – but they are so incredible that even 5 days there will stay fondly in your memory forever.

I was surprised at how many accommodation options there were on the Galapagos, some sounded fantastic but were far too expensive for us, but despite warnings from Guayaquil (where people are, after all, trying to sell you their trips) there was a great choice of more budget accommodation options.

Giant land tortoise, Isla Santa Cruz

A special mention really needs to go to the hostel I booked in Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz island. Galapagos Best Homestay hostel was really reasonably priced considering the unique location, US$20.00 a night for a room in a nice clean dorm, which included a kitchenette and bathroom, free drinking water in the room, and access to free internet (although this is a bit slow as Galapagos internet is only via a satellite connection and so is limited). Most significantly, Kevin from the hostel not only emails you all the information you need to find you way to the hostel when you book, but when you arrive he also takes you on a free orientation tour of the town. This was invaluable. Restaurants, tour companies, internet sites, places to walk to, places to buy groceries from, best times to visit, everything is pointed out to you so you really can get the most out of the time you have there. He must have saved us an entire day – if not more – of wandering around trying to figure things out and trying to find the best ways to do things. Some elements we may never have realised without his help.

On their website, they say:

What I find most rewarding is when my guests come back for the night and tell me what a great day they had exploring the Galapagos. They tell me about all of the places and animals that they saw and how special it is that the animals are not afraid of them. Then they go on to say 'Thank You, Kevin' for the tour of the town and telling us what we can do here, it was so helpful. They then go in to town with the new friends that they met here at the Hostel. This is very heart warming for me. Because I do care about my guests and that they have a good time here. I feel that the mission of the hostel has been accomplished. It has never been about the money, but to provide a nice clean comfortable place to stay while you are here to explore the Galapagos."

And while this sounds too good to be true, it is in fact a very true reflection of we what we found there.

Bringing in the catch, Puerto Ayora

From Puerto Ayora itself there is quite a bit you can do and see without even booking a tour – excellent if you are on a very tight budget:

  • Enjoy the town: in Puerto Ayora itself you can see all manner of wildlife, sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, pelicans, frigate birds, marine iguanas, various finches, sharks and rays from the jetty, the list goes on. There also plenty of great places to eat, and shops for souvenirs – everything from the usual fridge magnets and t-shirts to proper gallery pieces.
  • Walk to the Charles Darwin Research Station: see the results of the land tortoise captive breeding program – otherwise known as baby tortoises!
  • Walk to the beautiful white sand beach of Tortuga bay: swimming here is forbidden, but following the beach as it bends around to the right after some mangroves, and you can swim there quite happily. You have to sign in and out at the start of the path with the Galapagos Park Service office, and it is open from 6am to 6pm.
  • Swim in Las Grietas: I did not have time to fit this in as well as everything else, but I would love to do it if I can go back one day. A water taxi from Puerto Ayora followed by a walk takes you to this beautiful swimming site. For directions, see this write up.  
  • See giant land tortoises in the wild: for US$30 you can hire a taxi to take you up to the highlands and El Chato, where you can walk amongst the wild tortoises. The $30 is per taxi, so if you have / can gather some friends to come along then you can split the cost. On the same trip you can walk through some large lava tunnels – created when the molten lava within continued flowing out of the cooled external layer, leaving behind tunnels.
  • Watch the catch come in: in Puerto Ayora in the morning you can watch the catch arriving and being prepared – and being begged for by jostling crowds of sea lions, pelicans and frigate birds!

Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz

If you want to island hop, a ferry boat can take to Cristobal for US$30 one way, from where there are more free/cheap sites. The main town is much more basic here, and it is harder to find good restaurants. However there is cheap accommodation available and still plenty to see! I was only on this island for just over a day, so I have fewer options to offer from experience, but I’m sure could find more if you were there:

  • Discover Galapagos history at the interpretation centre: You can walk here from the town or take a taxi, and read about the natural and human history of the islands. From the back of the centre you can also take a path to the beach where you can swim with sea lions and sea turtles. Sea turtles are just incredible.
  • Walk the coast and enjoy the beaches: there are several spots where you can walk coastal paths to spot wildlife and take in scenery, or swim with the animals from the beaches. Ask directions once you’re there, or just take off and explore!

I didn’t get to stay on any other islands, but I did also visit Isabella as part of a day trip. This was a beautiful island with a very laid back relaxed vibe, and I thought it looked like a lovely place to stay if you had time. There was a flamingo lagoon, surfing opportunities, nearby lava islets to visit on boat trips… I would definitely head there on a future trip. There is a landing fee of US$5 for this island.

Swimming with sea lions, San Cristobal

In addition to these low budget options for enjoying the islands, there are plenty of tour operators in the towns that you can visit for more day trips. These vary in price depending on how far you travel, what activities are involved etc etc. If you can already dive there are many diving options, in fact some places are only be visited by the dive trips. It’s not a great place for beginner divers due to water currents, but there are also snorkelling options for non-divers. You can snorkel independently from beaches, but there are also some great snorkel boat trips you can go on.

Young marine iguanas

My favourite and much recommended snorkel trip was to kicker rock. This involves a boat trip out to the rock, which is an old lava plug that has split in two, leaving a bit of a canyon in between through which you can snorkel (or dive). Assisted by the current you swim/drift through, while being mesmerised by the sights of various reef sharks, rays and sea turtles along the way. We went through twice, with a lunch break in between. On the second occasion, towards the end, there were quite a few sharks below us. Then more. And more. In the end there must have been hundreds of them – more than the guide had ever seen at once before. He was so excited he was waving and shouting out to people to come and see this phenomenal sight. Also very special, was duck diving down to follow a convoy of three eagle rays swooping past with their magnificent ‘wings’ gliding them through the water. Sadly none of our photos remain from this trip as the camera with its memory card in was stolen back in Guayaquil. 

Kicker Rock (from Wikimedia Commons)

For me, the beauty of doing these day trips rather than doing a full cruise itinerary was that you could fully tailor your experience. I did the trips I wanted to, my husband did what he wanted, we were both happy and in the evenings we were free to explore and find restaurants that we liked for dinner, get a drink if we wanted to, and did not have to get back to boat for a certain time.

If you want to do an organised trip to the Galapagos, then go for it – I have no doubt that you would have an incredible time.

But if you want to see the Galapagos independently? Then do just that – don’t let anyone put you off! 

A magnificent marine turtle

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