Galápagos Islands on a Budget – San Cristobal

At San Cristobal ferry terminal we were met by Lelanes, the 18 year old daughter of our host family. The walk from the ferry to our accommodation is one we have done several times since, is only about 800 metres and takes between 5 minutes and half an hour depending on how long we stop to look at the local wildlife, but on this occasion, fully loaded, we were grateful Lelanes hailed a taxi to get us ‘home’ and she also paid the $2 fare. We unpacked, settled in and started talking about how we would get the most out of our time here.

The next morning, after a breakfast of patacones con queso, we simply had an orientation walk from where we were staying down to the malecón, the hub of everything in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main town in San Cristóbal. The sea is visible from the next street along from us, and is only a 500m walk down a gentle slope. Where is this famous Galápagos wildlife we had seen so many TV programmes about and seen so many photos of? Would it be difficult to find? Would we have to go far to find a sea lion or two, maybe a marine iguana, a pelican, maybe even a pair of blue-footed boobies?

The answers were found almost immediately. Our road down to the water comes out very close to a statue of Charles Darwin and the boat he sailed here on, The Beagle. The display includes a concrete iguana, a giant tortoise and 3 sea lions. Wait! One of the sea lions barked a hello at us, clearly the sealions weren’t statues, they were real, live ones. Perhaps one was saying “I am here, please don’t trip over me” because trust us, that could very easily happen! We saw the 3 near the display, and a hundred or so on the nearby Playa del Oro. As we walked closer to the beach we were hit by an incredible smell. A diet consisting solely of fish will do that to a sea lion, and when they congregate in large numbers, boy does that kick up a stench!

You get used to the smell, and it in no way detracts from how simply adorable they are. They are also very noisy; the babies bleat like sheep and the adults bark like nauseous dogs, often sounding like they are retching. So they smell, and make some unpleasant noises, but they are such fun to watch! The babies start off in shallow waters for I believe the first 7 years of their lives. Everything here is entirely natural, but the beaches and harbours have evolved into a nursery-like environment where the youngsters can learn to swim, and probably to hunt for food in relatively safe, shallow coastal waters.

It’s quite a sight to see the sea lions cuddling up to their partners (I have no idea if they mate for life or not, I must look that up) but my favourite thing is to watch them play in the water. They are rarely alone, and nearly always have a friend to play with. They jump out of the water and dive straight back in, much like dolphins do, and at a similar speed! They jump over and swim under each other, and twist and turn as if playing tag. One of the sights I most enjoy is watching them glide gracefully through the water lying on one side, then they raise one, or sometimes two flippers out of the water as if they are pretending to be sharks. Cue the music to Jaws 🎵🎶

Playa del Oro is at one end of the seafront, as you walk across the length of the malecón you will see thousands more sea lions, I took a photo one evening that I think included a thousand sea lions in one small stretch of sand, and it is entirely possible that the sea lion population here outnumbers the humans. A little over 7000 people live in San Cristóbal. Unfortunately the pictures were not great quality at night but it was an amazing sight to see.

Along with the sea lions we saw huge numbers of crabs too (Sally Lightfoots), some small and black, others much larger and red. I haven’t seen any crabs here anywhere near the size of the edible ones caught off the coast of England though. They are funny to watch as they look like they have big boxing gloves on and appear to fight themselves. We have also seen a few marine iguanas, but they are not here on this island in huge numbers, we have seen maybe a dozen or so.

During the day it is a common sight to see Pelicans diving into or skimming the surface of the water looking for some food. At night the pelicans all come ashore, and seem to have favourite spots to spend the night, as we have seen one spot on the seaside fence guaranteed to have a pelican sat there every night as soon as the sun goes down.

One day we walked as far as you can along the sea front, until you get to a naval base, and it was at a cafe here we spotted our first pair of blue-footed boobies. They kindly posed for a photo for us, despite their precarious positioning the other side of the mesh wire sea front fence.

Places to Visit on San Cristobal

We strolled down to the malecón one afternoon and asked to be taken to Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a wildlife reserve where we were hoping to find giant tortoises. The taxi driver had other ideas! For $50 he would take us there, but apparently only as part of a package that also included a visit to El Junco, then the tortoise reserve, then a beach called Puerto Chino. He would wait for us to spend as long as we like at each site then bring us back to the malecón. We certainly didn’t fancy finding ourselves on the other side of the island, a long way from our base, with no local sim card so no phone signal and patchy Wi-Fi signals at the best of times, and almost definitely none at all there which would mean we’d have no way to call a taxi to bring us back. To the best of our knowledge car hire is not possible on this island, so fifty bucks to basically hire a driver for the afternoon actually sounded like a great idea, and clearly the best option available to us.

El Junco

Our first stop was at El Junco. This is a dormant volcano which we climbed a few hundred steps to reach the top of. At the top is a water filled crater, which is the source of much of, if not all of the island’s fresh water supply. We spent a good few minutes there admiring the view down to the coast, the cloud covered nearby mountain tops and had a close up view of some frigate birds fishing there. How do fish end up in an inland volcano crater lake? I must look that one up.

We took the few hundred steps back down, got into our waiting taxi and headed off to our next stop. Would we recommend a trip here? Probably not especially , but as part of a taxi tour then why not? The steps aren’t too bad, and you do get a lovely view from up there.

Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado

There are giant tortoises roaming wild in San Cristobal, but only in a very small area in the inaccessible-by-road north, so we cheated and headed for the tortoise reserve. The reserve is free to enter and involves walking round a lava trail to try and spot the tortoises hiding in the dense, arid shrubbery. We saw one initially right by the entrance and wondered if he was strategically placed here as we walked for quite a long part of the trail without seeing anything. Eventually we made it to the breeding pens and found some big and little fellas here, then on our way back to the entrance they just kept coming!

We were the only people there when we visited and it didn’t have a zoo feel but they were confined to the area of the reserve. We had a chat with the guy at the breeding centre and spent about an hour. We would recommend a visit here, especially as it is free, you don’t need to pay for a guide and you can wander at your leisure.

Puerto Chino

The final stop on our impromptu taxi tour. Puerto Chino is reached by a walkway 500m in distance which gives you a good opportunity to look out for the famous Darwin Finches within the cacti.

We reached the end of the trail, and were met by a spectacular white sand/azure blue water beach and rocky cove. Beautiful. Sadly we hadn’t planned to visit here, it was the taxi driver’s idea, so we were unprepared for having a swim/snorkel there, but we did at least manage a paddle. – Don’t be like us; come prepared but do watch for the horseflies.

Playa La Loberia

On another day we decided to check out La Loberia as we had heard good things about it. It took a $3 taxi ride to get here, just a few kilometres outside of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. For once, here the people outnumbered the sea lions. We snorkelled and swam with the biggest turtle we have seen on this trip, and also saw a stingray, hard as he tried to hide from us by burying himself on the seabed. The phone camera wasn’t doing it its work today so we didn’t manage to get him.

Luckily, when we had finished our swim and headed back to the malecon there were a few taxis waiting to bring people back to town. Phew! That saved us a 3 or 4 Km walk under the fierce equatorial sun. We have been told by locals that this where the vast majority of sea lions used to live, before they decided to relocate themselves to the malecon. On the day of our visit, less than a dozen sea lions were at this beach. A nice spot though to spend an afternoon.

Playa Mann

Another lovely beach, with its appeal being its proximity to where we were staying. Probably a 15 minute or so walk, albeit ever so slightly hilly. Here you will definitely be sharing your beach space with sea lions. They kind of keep themselves to themselves with their own little favoured spot to the right of the beach as you look out to sea, but some do come and play down by the water’s edge and if you’re lucky they’ll come and swim with you too. The beach has a couple of kiosks and a restaurant which close around 5pm.

I managed to pick up a minor injury here, the water for the most part was very calm, with our biggest problem being that the tide was low, meaning we only just had enough water to swim over the massive rocks as you find your way out to sea. Then a ship went by without me noticing, and its wake caused some very big waves and twice I was hit onto the rocks and sustained a few cuts, scratches and blood blisters.

We were amazed by the fish we saw though, 2 to 3 foot long, one displaying all the colours of the rainbow and the other with thick, light blue vertical stripes over a mostly golden body. Absolutely beautiful so the minor incident in no way detracted from what a great time we had here. If you’re snorkelling here though swim out to the right of the beach and wear hard soled shoes because of the rocks.

Punta Carola

We had to go here, its translation into English would be Carol Point. This is a great spot to come to and watch the sunset. There are also a few sea lions here and their silhouette against the setting sun makes for a fantastic photo. It’s also a great spot for surfing and body boarding.

The Interpretation Centre

This is a museum of sorts, and it tells some of the history of the Galapagos Islands, including about Charles Darwin. You have to pass through it if you’re heading for Cerro Tijeretas, and you can go this way to make it to Punta Carola, although shorter routes to the latter are available. If you’re interested in such things it’s probably worth a visit on its own, and you should allow 20-30 minutes for it. Alternatively just allow a little more time if you’re planning to visit Tijeretas.

El León Dormido (Kicker Rock)

The highlight of our Galápagos visit, thanks to our wonderful guide Ariana from Planet Ocean Dive Centre. The one trip we decided we needed to splash out for was Kicker Rock, it wasn’t cheap at $110 each but this included a full day boat tour including lunch and all equipment including wetsuit, snorkels, fins and the services of a guide. We set off with Ariana on our small group tour. There were only 6 of us on the tour which was a lovely size; 4 snorkellers including us and two scuba divers.

After about an hour or so boat trip we approached Kicker Rock. From one angle, this rock looks like a boot, hence the name Kicker’s Rock. From another angle, with a great deal of imagination, it looks like a sleeping African lion, hence the name El Leon Dormido (The Sleeping Lion). It is visited for bird watching, because here you will see the Nasca Booby, and we were lucky enough to see a Frigate Bird with it’s chest all puffed out and bright red, as per their mating ritual. As much as Costa Rica had turned us into a couple of birdwatchers, that is not why we were here.

We came for the opportunity to swim with Hammerhead sharks, or to be precise, Scalloped Hammerheads (big ones!) The appeal of Kicker’s Rock for us is for its great location for scuba divers and snorkellers alike. Our first two swims were great, if not quite as spectacular as we had wished for. We could immediately see the outstanding clarity of the water, and the beautifully coloured coral wall, and it wasn’t long before we joined by a turtle, and then a sea lion. Fantastic, but we were there for the sharks!

Green Turtle

The water around the Galapagos Islands is quite cold. All divers and snorkellers are kitted out with wet suits. 20 degrees Celsius sounds quite warm, but I was feeling very cold after spending a while in the water, and I initially turned down the opportunity to have a third swim in search of the sharks. Carol was having none of that, she couldn’t bear the thought of missing out, so she jumped straight back in. Swimming with Ariana our group leader/dive instructor the pair quickly got very excited. “Aqui, aqui!” They had found the sharks, and I jumped straight back in to join them. The boat pulling up so close to them scared the sharks away, but Ariana was confident they would return.

She was right! I had been in the water 5 minutes when I saw my first Scalloped Hammerhead. It was huge, I would estimate 3 to 4 metres, and it swam about 5-6 metres beneath me. Then another, and another, and so on. I saw easily a dozen, and what a thrill that was, the highlight of my snorkelling time to date. For Carol it was even more exciting. At one point she was being circled by around 20 or more Scalloped Hammerheads and they were only about 3 metres below her in the water.

Snorkelling with Scalloped Hammerheads!

I need to add that we are both reasonably knowledgable about shark behaviour, and Hammerheads have a great record of very rarely attacking humans, practically never unless severely provoked. I think more people have been killed by cows, and besides we don’t go around provoking any animal!

This lifetime highlight had a cherry on top too. Our dive instructor had a go pro and got some great footage of our day which you can view more videos on our instagram page here. We had an amazing day – Carol dodged sea sickness, we had a great guide and swam with sharks!

Cerro Brujo

Our spectacular trip to El Leon Dormido, or Kicker Rock, included a visit to Cerro Brujo which was reached on a zodiac dingy from the main boat. There was a photograph recently published of a giant tortoise going into the sea at Cerro Brujo, yes a tortoise, not a turtle. Interestingly, to me anyway, the Spanish use a single word to describe both tortoises and turtles; Tortuga, although where it’s not clear what they are referring to they will clarify with ‘Tortuga de tierra’ meaning tortuga of the land, or tortoise, or ‘Tortuga de agua’ meaning tortuga of the sea, or turtle. What they would call a tortoise that goes into the sea and swims I have no idea. We looked for the giant tortoise and did manage to find some tortoisey looking tracks, but sadly failed to find the Galapagos’ latest media celebrity animal.

“A picture can paint a thousand words” but in this case no photo can tell the whole story. White sand, azure blue water, looks absolutely beautiful, but don’t be fooled! The problem here is the number of horseflies. They are absolutely vicious, they cut you, draw blood, and are absolutely relentless. Unlike a mosquito which manges to suck your blood unnoticed until your body reacts some time later, these critters can be felt in action immediately. They hurt, but on a plus their noticeabilty also makes them easy prey. Whilst I received a good few painful bites, which stung for days afterwards, the wounds do heal and the itching does stop eventually. The wounds on them were fatal and I managed to kill ten of the fuckers! Our guide told us these were the only living things on the Galapagos Islands that humans were allowed to kill, so I did!

Our advice would be to either stay on board the boat for the hour long duration of this stop, or if you do go on the beach, cover-up as much as possible, using a towel around your legs or anything you can get your hands on. The horseflies are attracted to salty water and you had no option but to get in the sea as it was a wet landing here.

Cerro Tijeretas

This one has the added attraction of being fairly local, about a half-hour walk away, carrying on from the Interpretation Centre. We first visited it one evening trying to catch sunset, and we visited the mirador, a viewing point high above the water below, featuring another statue of Charles Darwin next to an iguana and a giant tortoise. This isn’t a beach, just a rocky cove with steps and rocks down to the water. Even from the viewpoint high above, the clarity of the water was outstanding, and we made a mental note to return another day to snorkel in that beautiful looking water. It had also been recommended by our landlady Iliana at the property we were stating at.

On the day we visited for swimming there, we met by quite a crowd of people. Not a great look during the pandemic, where we still try very hard to keep our distance from people. At the Interpretation Centre which you have to go through to get here, you have to sign in and quote your passport number, this is part of their Covid security measures where each beach/swimming area has a maximum capacity of people, and I imagine it is also used for contact tracing in the event of a Covid outbreak.

We found a spot where we could change into our swimwear and get our snorkels and water shoes out, and in the time that took, the crowds largely disappeared. Initially, we must have shared the water with around 20 people, but slowly they too finished their swims and left us.

Just the two of us in the water and maybe two or three other people. With the number of people severely reduced, we soon found we were not alone at all. We were joined by four very young, and very playful sea lions. They dived beneath us, swam straight at us, turning sharply at the very last second so as to never actually make contact, and played tag amongst themselves right in front of us, for our entertainment. These lumbering beasts can be huge, and even the smaller ones are very cumbersome on land. Every step they take seems to great a great effort as they clamber over the rocks, and quite often over each other. Clumsy could be another word for it. Nothing gets in their way, they just jump, slip, slide, clamber over anything between them and where they want to be. On land humans are advised to never get closer to them than 2 metres. Sometimes this is unavoidable, such as when they block a pathway you are on and you have to step over them or at least walk very close past them, or sometimes between two that are blocking your way. When you get too close they will let you know with a bark and a pretend show of anger. I’ve seen them bite each other, but it is usually only playfully, rarely is it meant.

In the water, it is a completely different story. The clumsiness and awkward movements are replaced by grace, agility and a great sense of fun. Even the fattest ones on land are sleek in the water. They travel at great speed when they want to, and play games such as diving to the bottom to pick up a rock as well as their fantastic, fun interactions with humans. The water is their territory, and here no keeping your distance rules apply. Whilst it is still highly advised against touching them, they will come as close as they want to you. At one point one of our little playmates appeared to have a fit of jealousy as I spotted a turtle and swam with him for a while. The young sealion pup didn’t seem to like that one bit. “Come back here, I want to play with you” seemed to be his message as he followed me, twisting and turning and generally showing off for me. He got his way of course, and I swam back to continue play time with the boys 😊

Playful Sea Lions

Again we had the cherry on top of our glorious cake, with Carol using her mobile-phone-in-a-bag trick to capture their playfulness. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t due to water pressure pressing all the wrong buttons. Today it worked and Carol got some great footage.

Where We Stayed

Casa Huespedes ‘Darling’. Casa Huespedes just means Guest House, and I don’t know where the Darling comes from because the family name is Ruiz. The family are fantastic, the parents Iliana and Frederic have three fantastic children; Lalenes an 18 year old female, Nomi, a 6 year old girl, and 15 year old Jose Daniel and they all work hard together to improve their lives and to make their businesses work. They have been very friendly and incredibly helpful, booking some of our tours for us, and taxis, and they make our breakfast every morning.

The breakfasts have always been edible, though fair to say not always to our taste. Patacones con queso is not something either of us will ordering in a restaurant anytime soon. They have also recently opened a pizza restaurant, of which I believe we were their first customer. For all I know, the fee we paid for staying here may well have bought their first pizza oven.

Bearing this in mind we don’t want to say anything in a review that would harm them. The trouble is, if someone was to book here based on our review, it would be negligent of us to fail to mention that currently, it is a building site! The view isn’t great, views of piles of dirt from our doorstep, but the worst of it is the noise, starting each day as early as 7.30am. They are working on the floor directly above our ground floor apartment and today particularly the noise at that time was unneeded by our sleepy heads.

The location is great for the Malecon and nearby beaches and coves, the room has working air conditioning, it’s a long time since we’ve had a hot shower but the water isn’t too cold here. They speak less English than I do Spanish so communication hasn’t been easy, and the wi-fi isn’t great here so using a translator app isn’t always an option, but our overriding memory of this place will be the lovely family, and of course just how fantastic a time we have had in San Cristobal. We wish them well in all their ventures and we are sure when the property is completed it will be fantastic.

Around Puerto Baquerizo Moreno

The main town is based around the Malecon where the main shops and restaurants are at the seafront and this is where we spent most of our time watching the sealions. There were some interesting sculptures and things to see around the malecon and it was clean and well maintained. It is a really lovely place to just stroll along with an ice cream day or night.

Like most tourist places the most expensive places are on the front so if you are looking for a cheap meal head a few streets back.

Also we aren’t sure if it was just when we were there but there seemed to be some sort of dance competition behind the San Cristobal sign on the Saturday night. Whether this was a one off we can’t be sure, but watching the Ecuadorian dancing was a fun way to spend our evening. Some footage of the entertainment can be found here.

Food and Drink

Food and drink were a slight challenge for us; we don’t eat fish which is the main food available but we did manage to find a couple of nice places which are worth a mention. Guiseppe’s Restaurant was a great option for us as they served really tasty pizza and pasta and takeaway was available too. We also found a nice burger restaurant CRI Burgers located centrally on the Malecon. In respect of supermarkets there weren’t any big ones here but lots of small shops. We didn’t have cooking facilities here and our diet was pretty crap but we managed. For snacks and takeaway coffee at a reasonable price minimarket 2000 on the Malecon was a good choice. If you self cater there are some larger shops a few streets back from the Malecon but we never got to check these out but many of the shops had limited items on the shelves when we were there.

A couple of things to note; the water is not drinkable in the Galapagos so don’t even clean your teeth in it. Make sure you buy enough to keep you going. Alcohol is readily available with Club and Pilsen beer served in most places; although there are always a range of 2 for $10 cocktail offers in the restaurants along the front. Don’t expect to find any diet or ‘sin azucar’ soft drinks in any shops here.

Weather and Climate

It would be remiss of us not to mention the climate here. We experienced a very light drizzle one evening, the entire rest of our time here was dry. Gone are the lush green jungles we had grown accustomed to in Dominica and Costa Rica, the most common vegetation is cacti, which gives a big clue as to the dryness here. And it’s hot, very hot! The equatorial sun is fierce! Factor 50 sun screen is recommended here, and on our trip to Kicker Rock where we were in and out of the water all day, we were advised to reapply sunscreen every 30-40 minutes. I would expect most people to ignore that advice, I would also expect many people to burn! We took note of the advice on our trip but also mostly only went out early morning or late afternoon.

Overall Thoughts on San Cristobal

Just wow! what an amazing place; not overly busy with tourists and we were often on our own visiting places. The highlight here was definitely the scalloped hammerheads, or was it the sealions? So many that we just spent hours just watching them and laughing at their antics. Time to leave in the morning after 10 days here, 10 of the fastest days of our lives and we will be sad to leave it behind, but then there’s always another adventure on the horizon. Next stop is still in the Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz here we come!

Nigel & Carol x

May 2021

2 thoughts on “Galápagos Islands on a Budget – San Cristobal”

  1. Thanks again for the entertaining and descriptive days you both are enjoying.And the vids and pics..i must say if that is the actual size of the Beagle,those chaps were brave to sail as far as they did in it..Brave sould back then….Swimming with sharks,,uh better you than me mate.. lol

    1. Very brave Dennis! Not only did they sail in an apparently tiny ship, but they lived on board on a diet of tortoises! Apparently the Giant Tortoise can go a long time without food or water so they made an excellent source of fresh meat. I couldn’t eat that, that’s what I call brave 😊

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