Some of you may have previously looked into travelling to the Galápagos Islands, and found the cost to be quite prohibitive. This is because the most commonly offered packaged trip is a cruise. A very convenient one-stop shop option for planning purposes, but also very expensive. Apart from not having £10,000 to spend on a two week holiday, Carol also gets very seasick, so for those very good reasons, cruising is not an option for us. We currently have less money, and more time, so our plan is to spend a month here, staying 10 days on each of the 3 main inhabited islands. Our trip will be largely land based, with over-water travel restricted to ferries between the islands and the occasional boat tour for exceptional trips such as the opportunity to swim with hammerhead sharks. As always, we aim to get value for money and whilst doing this trip as inexpensively as possible, we are hoping this does not detract from our wildlife experience. Like most other people, we’re here to see the animals.
We arrived in Ecuador from Costa Rica via Panamá, and stayed one night in The Airport Hotel in Guayaquil (pronounced more like Wirekeel than it looks). We were met at the airport by a shuttle bus which took us to our hotel; it wasn’t actually on the airport, but was only a 5 or ten minute drive away through heavy traffic. We drove on a multi-laned highway, and first impressions were that Guayaquil was a very large city. Later research showed it has a population of less than 3 million people, which surprised me that the number was that low.
Nothing too exciting to say about the hotel, but it was very conveniently located, had great reception staff, and we were very grateful of the help from the shuttle driver with carrying our heavy backpacks. A quick breakfast in the morning, in fact we ran out of time to finish it, was followed by a return trip to the airport by car, and both trips were included in the price of staying the night. Great vfm, which is all I ever ask for.
Checking in at the airport for a flight to the Galápagos Islands, has some key differences with flights to anywhere else in the world. Firstly you have to pay $20 each for a traffic control card. In Ecuador, their official currency is the US dollar, though I think they have their own version of the smaller coins, including the 50 cent piece. The traffic control card is how they control numbers of people on the islands, and I believe numbers are limited and strictly adhered to. You cannot enter the Galápagos Islands without this card. Secondly, the Galápagos Islands are very keen to protect their environment, and they strictly prohibit anyone bringing any organic matter to the islands. Their main concern is to prevent the introduction of invasive species, and to this end your bags are scanned, looking for seeds of any description. And that’s if you are lucky, if you’re not your bags will be emptied and manually, very thoroughly searched. Our luck was in that day, our bags ‘passed’ the scanning procedure, so no time consuming and difficult repacking for us.
A relatively short LATAM flight time of an hour and 55 minutes and we arrived in Seymour Airport, in Baltra. Baltra is an uninhabited island very close to the main, central island of Santa Cruz. For our very short flight we ended up with Business Class flights; this was not by choice but because they were the only two seats left on the flights. We checked the flight availabilty before booking our Guayaquil flight; however when we went to book our Galapagos flight to San Cristobal as planned it was full. Our only alternative without expiring our PCR test was to fly to Baltra and ferry across to San Cristobal where our accommodation was booked. It was a comfortable flight with loads of leg room but was definitely not worth the extra £100 we had to pay each for the flight.
Upon arrival the first thing you do there is pay $100 each National Park fee. If you don’t pay the fee, you cannot enter any of the national parks, and as 97% of the land has been designated as National Park, that would leave you in a very tricky situation. So tricky in fact, that it’s not an option. They don’t accept 100 dollar bills, I don’t think 50s either, so you have to come to the Galápagos Islands armed with 20 dollar bills.
The second thing you do is have your bags checked by the canine detection scanner. In other words, a dog sniffs your bags, again focusing on organic materials, especially seeds. Our detector probably had his best days behind him, and while he coped admirably with the bags on the conveyor belt, the ones which were piled high elsewhere were clearly a struggle for him to climb over. The poor old dog detected nothing on this occasion.
From the airport you get a bus to the ferry terminal for $5. The ferry terminal is the only destination, so that’s where everyone goes. English is not widely spoken in Galápagos, so knowing a little bit of Spanish is more than a little bit handy, life here would be very difficult without it so I feel a basic knowledge is pretty much essential. Anyway, as much as you need a little Spanish, you don’t need it on the first bus, you pay your 5 bucks in a little office there, your bags are loaded onto the bus for you, and you head off to its only destination, the ferry port. The area is very flat and barren, we were surprised how many cacti we saw in the short journey to the boat.
We took a short ride on a small ferry to cross from Baltra to Santa Cruz, which costs $1 per person and then you’re at the busy northern Santa Cruz ferry terminal, where you will also find a fleet of taxis. My little Spanish came in handy here, and we negotiated a taxi to the southern ferry terminal in Santa Cruz, at Puerto Ayora. The maximum taxi fare on Santa Cruz is $25, and that is how much we paid to travel the length of the island, about 40km.
Every taxi on the islands is a white pick-up truck with orange number plates. For reasons best known to themselves they don’t have a ‘For Hire’ sign, on a plus there’s plenty of them around town, often touting for business. On a long trip they will take you where you want to go, wait for you and bring you back. This costs $35 for a half-day, and presumably double that for a full day. The pick-up trucks are great for carrying your bulky, heavy luggage, grocery shopping or even bring a bike and put that in the back. When we first arrived in Baltra, we noticed that at least 5 people had brought their bikes with them on the plane. Bikes are a very good way to get around each island.
The Spanish-only speaking driver talked throughout the journey, with me understanding about one word in five, but if I understood correctly, the first 20km of the trip was through national park, and the second 20km were privately owned by a single individual.
Since our arrival in Baltra the only Galapagogueño wildlife we had seen was a solitary pelican. For the duration of the 40km taxi ride we saw no further animals, just a landscape surprisingly full of cacti, it was only when we arrived in Puerto Ayora that things began to get interesting on the wildlife front. Carol spotted 2 marine iguanas, one grey, one black, one twice the size of the other, mainly due to the fact that the younger, smaller one had lost half of its tail, but yay we had seen Godzilla! 😊
The queue for the ferry to San Cristobal was a bit of a pain. We were told to get in that queue, then that one, then back to the first queue. Our hosts had kindly booked our ferry tickets for us and our names were on all the right lists, but here is where we learned that everything in the Galápagos Islands costs money. $30 per person had already been paid for for our tickets on The Gaviota ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristóbal. The journey involves walking along to the end of a jetty to board the boat. Included in the cost of the ticket? Not on your life! A $2 fee for access to the jetty, which means more money and another queue to join to pay your fee.
After paying our jetty fee we queued up (again) and had to walk through some disinfectant spray, have another bag scan through an xray machine and we were then allowed to proceed to the end of the jetty to wait for the boat. Here we saw another of the sights the Galápagos Islands are famous for; a sea lion sleeping on a bench meant for humans.
We were called to board a boat, but not the boat you’re about to have a 2 hour plus journey on to take you to a faraway island. Nope, this small boat takes you to that larger boat. This first step is 100 metres or so, and costs 60 cents. Finally after a dodgy transfer from a small taxi boat to the larger boat we set sail on the Gaviota, a smallish 4 engine boat which accommodated about 30 people. As boats go it was quite comfortable; reclining seats and an open back for those who wished to get a soaking whilst getting some fresh air; there was a toilet on board but at high speed it was impossible to use because of how bumpy the ride is. Trust me, that hull slams hard into the water. We were treated to pan pipe music for the duration of our extremely rough and bumpy trip.
The boat timetable lists the journey as being 2 or 3 hours, depending on sea conditions. Ours took 2 1/2 hours, and we have since found out that the afternoon sailings are notoriously bumpier than the early morning ones when the sea is much calmer. We disembarked the boat, extremely glad to be on terra firma, and collected our bags which were unloaded for us and made our way down the jetty, stopping to watch loads of sea lions just chilling below us.
After hours of travelling, navigating confusing systems, planes, taxis, and boats we had finally reached our first destination! now for 10 days of exploring San Cristobal.