After having spent some time in Colombia where literally everything is dirt cheap, the price of things in Ecuador hurt pretty bad. Especially in The Galapagos. Hostels can cost anywhere between $30-60 for a room for two and meals for up to $30 if you don’t look out for cheaper local eateries. As Londoners that is technically ridiculously cheap, but try spending some time in Columbia!!
Tip: Before travelling to the Galapagos, specifically if you are doing it DIY, DO YOUR RESEARCH. This really helps with keeping a tab on the spending (activities are NOT cheap). It also helps to not undertake too many activities and focus on the ones you really want to do as they are exhausting and usually a full day long and there are only so many types of fish you can see! Also if you can afford a luxury cruise, then no research is needed other than the type of cruise to take as from the look of things, anything and everything was chaperoned with a local guide. Another reason we opted to do it ourselves.
After sifting through tons of blogs and tripadvisor reviews we decided to do two of the three inhabited islands in the Galapagos, starting with Isla Santa Cruz followed by Isabela. Isla Santa Cruz has the largest settlement in the South, in a little town called Puerto Ayora. It is situated about an hour from the island of Baltra, where the majority of flights land and is therefore the logical starting place for both land based tours and cruises.
Our first impression of Puerto Ayora was that of any touristy seaside town except for one thing. You see 3 animals you wouldn’t normally see at any other seaside destination! Pelicans, Sea Lions and Marine Iguanas. These are all there in abundance and to say that they aren’t at all phased by humans is an understatement. Large Sea Lions and iguanas perched on street corners and boardwalks that refused to move for passers by. Animals have the right of way much like the cows back home in India. We had to walk around the marine iguanas whilst they snorted sea salt in the air. Further down the main street the local fish market had dozens of pelicans as large as me waiting patiently for their turn to eat some tuna scraps.
Despite its size there is tons to do in Puerto Ayora for a maximum of 3-4 days that is. Beyond this, moving on to another island is highly recommended!!! If you are a diver and your pocket is bottomless, Santa Cruz is extremely popular for crystal clear waters and great diving/snorkelling in places like Gordon Rocks, Santa Fe and Pinzon. Gordon rocks in particular is renowned for sighting of dozens of Hammerhead sharks and Manta rays. We toyed with the idea of diving with hammerheads, but with a Hefty price of nearly $200pp for just 2 dives and around $150pp for snorkelling day trips it wasn’t hard to say no! Instead we decided to explore the island on foot/bicycles and save our dollars for activities in Isabela, a wilder less inhabited island!
In the 3 days we had in Puerto Ayora, we managed to see loads!
A 13 km bike ride to see Lava tunnels (all up hill!). Well worth it though. These naturally formed rock tunnels once had lava flowing through them, which eventually cooled and collapsed on the inside forming humungous arched tunnels. The one in Bellavista is one of the largest in the world and over 2km long!
Darwin research centre
A short walk to the end of town, this conservation house is dedicated to saving the local Galapagos Giant Tortoise population. A great way to spend the afternoon learning about Lonesome George (heart breaking story) and spotting several giant tortoises, land iguanas and finches.
A narrow crevasse between two really high cliffs (literally what La Grietas means in Spanish) with crystal clear brackish water that you can snorkel in, absolutely free of charge. What’s not to like? We snorkelled with some very large parrot fish and marine iguanas. You can even swim in narrow underwater lava tunnels which is actually pretty scary! I would try and visit in the morning or after lunch while everyone else is having a siesta as it gets pretty packed and scares away the fish! La Grietas is a 20 second boat ride from the Puerto Ayora harbour/docks and costs 50 cents each. If you spend half a day there, you can also spend some time soaking up the sun on a little private cove en route to or from the La Grietas. If you’re lucky a sleepy sea lion will try and push you over to make room for sleeping and then proceed to snore rather rudely for the rest of the afternoon.
Puerto Ayora docks by night
One of our daily rituals post dinner on Charles Binford street was to walk down to the harbour, not only to walk off our dinner, but also to watch dozens and dozens of baby white tip reef sharks catch sardines in the dark! Quite the sight!
We didn’t end up doing Tortuga bay or Garapattero beach as we had shite weather for the days we were in Santa Cruz and gauging from fellow travellers’ experiences the visibility was rather poor! Highly recommended on a sunny day though!
If you want to spend $30-40 for dinner every night then there is a lot to choose from in Puerto Ayora. Some household favourites include Isla grill, The Rock, Lo&Lo to name a few. But we were on a budget and that kind of price for at least 2 meals a day was really unrealistic for us. We spent all our lunches and dinners on Charles Binford street at the local Kiosks. This street is lines with dozens and dozens of local restaurants serving the freshest, cheapest and the BEST local food one could ask for!! All at $5 for 2 courses per person and a drink for lunch, and $7-10 for the same for dinner. The typical first course is a meat/fish soup followed by meat or fish with rice, lentils and veg. It tastes much better than it sounds. The fish is almost always tuna and most popular fish main course, enconcado de pescado or fish in a coconut sauce MUST NOT be missed! The most interesting thing about Charles Binford street is that by day it is rather quiet and lazy, but by night the atmosphere completely transforms into mellow version of Khaosan road! The streets are lined with rows of long tables and restaurants flaunting their catch of the day (rather large lobster) ready to be grilled to perfection on the BBQ! Dinner can cost anywhere between $10-25 here, well worth the money. For breakfast or a pre dinner snack, make sure you head to Mercado Central to enjoy some of the best Carne Empanadas we have had in South America thus far! (Just $1)
We chose Isabela over San Cristobal as it is renowned for wildlife at its doorstep, which meant the activities were all very close to the island. A 2.5 hour water taxi from Puerto Ayora to Isabela quickly reaffirmed our decision of not adding on another island or having to travel long distances on a boat of any shape or form in the Pacific. For those of you that thought a water taxi ride in Belize was bumpy you haven’t been to Galapagos clearly. There were 16 of us on board nearly performing our last rights with a few even more worse for wear who spent most of their time chucking up breakfast at the back of the boat! Note to self..never do that again! Spend the money and take the plane!
Upon arrival at Puerto Villamil in Isabela, thanking the Lord for putting us on solid ground safely, we were soon greeted by a family of Sea Lion pups and more Marine Iguanas. With only 3 days on the island, our first task was to book the two most famous snorkelling tours on the Island. Los Tuneles and Tintoreras. After going to a few tour operators we settled on Sea Lion tours. The owner seemed lovely and gave us a really good price for the two trips ($240 total for both of us). With the next two days planned we decided to spend the rest of our afternoon exploring what the island had to offer.
Flamingo Lagoon and Tortoise Breeding Centre
A short walk from the main square in Puerto Villamil is the entrance to a 30-40 minute long trail through a series of lagoons that is home to hundreds of Flamingos either asleep on one leg or sweeping their heads under water back and forth looking for their favourite food – brine shrimp! Past the lagoons the scenery quickly changes to that of a woody forest leading to the Cerro Azul Tortoise Breeding centre where you can spend hours watching these amazing creatures! The entire trail is simple but special as it was built entirely by hand with no heavy machinery involved, and without disturbing the surrounding mangroves! To finish off the walk we recommend stopping off at the Sports Bar (a beachfront lounge bar) for sunset and a happy hour cocktail or two, or three whilst relaxing on a beanbag or a hammock.
Concha de Perla
This was by far the highlight of our stay on Isla Isabela. A small lagoon by the docks in Puerto Villamil that you can snorkel in till your hearts content AND its FREE!! After about 45 minutes in the water we had seen an eagle ray and a star fish, and thats about it. Plus the water was freezing cold, as is everywhere in The Galapagos (we recommend hiring a wet suit for your stay if you aren’t doing any tours). We quickly began to realise why this activity was free. Disappointed, (especially as our tour guide from earlier had told us that this was the best place to swim with Sea Lions) we decided to try our luck the next day. On our way out another group of travellers suggested that it was best to snorkel in the mornings or late evenings as the Sea Lions went out fishing at those times.
The next day, before our Los Tuneles trip which was meant to start at 11:00am, we decided to give Concha Perla another go. About 30 seconds in we were greeted by a Sea Lion pup, and then another, and then another until we were surrounded by them. Sea Lions are the most amazing creatures you can encounter. We quickly saw why they had earned the title of ‘Labradors of the Sea’. They know no fear when it comes to humans. Infact, with flippers on they think you are one of them, constantly bumping into the Gro-Pro and swimming in circles around you. Needless to say we lost track of time and the temperature of the water, and had to run to our Los Tuneles departure point. No regrets there!!
After our morning adventure with the Sea Lions, we were intrigued to see what else the Galapagos had to offer as we had pretty much seen all the animals on our hit list in the first 4 days. Unfortunately the trip did not get off to a good start. Bumpier than usual, it was a nail biting one hour journey to Los Tuneles. I am going to put it out there, I have absolutely no idea why Los Tuneles is considered the jewel of Galapagos snorkelling! The water is freezing cold, mirky, and there really isn’t that much to see! To make matters worse we had the worst guide in the world, who didn’t even wait for the entire group to be off the boat and in the water (there were two children in the group btw), instead swam off to look for sea horses without telling the group what he was doing. When he found the sea horses eventually he decided that the entire snorkelling trip would involve him swimming off in the distance and then calling each of us to him ‘one by one’ to look at whatever he had discovered. Needless to say, this resulted in 8, unhappy people freezing their absolute bollocks off in the water just waiting and twiddling their thumbs! He also expected us to have ears under water as he made use of not even one basic under water symbol, instead shouted at his leisure above the water, with only about half of us actually able to hear him. After about 30 minutes, Jamie decided to swim off on his own and managed to find a group of Manta Rays, a shark and a giant turtle (He should have been the tour guide instead). The only other remotely interesting thing the guide showed us was a school of massive white tip reef sharks, which I must admit was pretty cool. However, to see them required you to be dunked under the water. This would have been OK with prior warning but felt more like a water boarding experience! All in all, we were quite disappointed if I am being honest. We have snorkelled in much better places in the world with warmer crystal clear waters at less than half the price! In fact, the highlight of the trip was a visit to a small island where we saw a number of Blue footed boobies nesting with their babies, and the packed lunch! 🙂
After the disaster that was Los Tuneles (luckily we weren’t the only ones that felt that way!), we hoped for a better trip to Tintoreras. About a 10 minute boat ride from Puerto Villamil, it was like we had teleported to another world with hundreds and hundreds of marine iguanas, reef sharks and Sea Lions. It was here that we saw a lot more male Sea Lions which was a completely different experience to swimming with pups the day before. These guys can be twice the size of females, extremely territorial and rather aggressive! On our way there we also spotted a family of the biggest eagle rays I have ever seen in my life! Almost as big as our boat. The highlight of the trip had to be again, swimming with 10-15 humungous sea turtles, penguins and sea lion pups that seem so unfazed by humans you practically had to fight for room to swim! All in all, I would recommend this snorkelling trip in a heart beat over Los tuneles. Clearer water and a lot more to see, and, at less than half the price ($45pp)
While we didn’t go on a live-a-board or dive with hammerheads in Gordon Rocks, the Galapagos truly amazed us with the amount of wildlife at its doorstep. Moreover, the symbiotic relationship a lot of these creatures have developed with their fellow human inhabitants is like nothing you have seen before. For those wildlife enthusiasts out there, there is no better place to be one with nature. Plus..you cant really beat this sunset either! 🙂