I read that it is possible to organize a visit to the Galapagos on your own. There is a whole webpage devoted to how to do Galapagos on a budget. (http://www.baseneelco.nl/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=197) His information is very helpful. The problem is I didn’t have 17 days to do it in. So, I booked through a horrible travel agent (see previous post) to do a land based tour that visited the 3 inhabited islands (Santa Cruz, Isabella and San Cristobal). The agency was a disaster and we ended up having to do almost everything on our own anyways. I discovered that the towns are set up with tourism in mind and because of that everything is fairly simple to organize on your own.
My opinion: I think the boats probably offer a lot that you can’t do just on the inhabited islands. However, as you probably know they are extremely expensive, small and if you are prone to sea sickness â€“ uncomfortable. I don’t think I would want to be on a boat for more than 5 days, but I would have liked some of the opportunities the boats offer.
My suggestion would be to take a 4 or 5 day cruise and then go to Isabella and/or San Cristobal for 4/5 more days depending on your time frame. That way in 8-10 days you can see the best of what the islands have to offer.
Of course we would all love to spend more time there and for those who can â€“ go for it! There is quite a demand for English teachers and volunteers if you have 1-3 months to offer. But, for the rest of us…
Some things to think about if you are organizing the trip yourself.
Many of the guides and employees in the travel agents don’t speak English or don’t speak it well. I would suggest that you have at least a basic knowledge of Spanish if you are doing it yourself.
It is very easy to go in by yourself or with 1 other person and become a part of a tour group on Santa Cruz. It is different on San Cristobal and Isabella. The boat captains generally charge between $200-300 for a trip, so to make it affordable 8-10 people are needed. That means you might have to spend some time finding other people who are interested in going on the same tour as you are. Not too much of a problem in high season. Might be difficult in the low season.
We spent just under $1000 per person including everything I mention below for our 8 day trip in high season and an undeserved commission for the travel travel agent. I think we could have done it for more like $850 -900 without the travel agent.
Flights - Right now the airlines fly into Santa Cruz and San Cristobal from the mainland. They are working on building a small airport for Isabella and it should be ready in the near future.
If you are touring the islands on your own I suggest flying into one airport and out of the other. That way you aren’t wasting extra time and expense backtracking.
Arrival- The airport is on a little Island called Baltra. If you are not part of a tour there is a very simple process to get to the town of Puerto Ayora.
There are buses waiting at the airport to take you to the ferry â€“ free 10 minutes
ferry across a little channel to get to Santa Cruz â€“ 80 cents 2 minutes
bus into town - $2 40 minutes (there are taxis too. Not sure the cost). The bus takes you to the main harbor. The town is very small so you can easily walk or take a taxi to your hotel.
Hotel- There are many different kinds of hotels in town. They range from very fancy $200+ a night to cheap and very basic.
We stayed at Lirio Del Mar. It isn’t really worth writing about. Just a concrete block with a bed and a fan in it.
But in general $10-15 per person will get you a basic room with a fan and cold water shower.
$20-25 per person will upgrade you to hot water, air conditioning and maybe a TV if you are so inclined.
Organizing Tours â€“ Santa Cruz is filled with travel agencies. The best way to find a good one is probably to ask people who just came back from something and ask them how the service was. A lot of times I think they merge their business to make the boats full.
From there you can organize local 4 hour trips ($15-40), full day trips to Islands like Plazas, Floreana etc. ($60-80), diving trips ($70-90), the boat cruises ($500-2000+) etc.
(On that note, I asked 2 different agencies how much they were charging for a 8 day cruise that I knew was about $1100. if you booked online One agent who seemed confused about a lot of stuff, so I don’t know how trustworthy she was, said it was $850. In the other agency she told me it was $1100. So, I’m not really sure how much you actually save by making the arrangements there)
Two popular local tours
Bay tour â€“ The brochure says you go visit 6 places. Our guide only took us to 4, but I was pretty tired and cold from the chilly water, so I wasn’t upset about missing the last 2 places, but I still don’t like being told I’m going somewhere and then not go to it. $25 for a boat I thought would sink if the sea got rough or $35 with glass bottom boat and snack.
*If you want an English speaking naturalist, then check with the company to make sure that’s what you are getting. The language and knowledge of the guides really seemed to vary.
There are also many places you can go to on your own that are completely free including the Charles Darwin Research Station, Tortuga Bay, Las Grietas, and other little swimming cove’s.
You can also hire a taxi driver to take you to a place you are interested in visiting. They won’t provide you with much naturalist information, but they will get you there.
Food - There are tons of restaurants. The prices are high for Ecuadorian standards. Dinners are typically between $6-10. For lunch try to order the Menu del dia (set lunch). That will save you quite a bit of money. The tourist section of town follows the beach line. The farther you go inland the more you will find where the locals live etc. There are probably cheaper places hidden in there if you are on a tight budget and care to go exploring.
One of the nice hotels called the Red Mangrove has a really nice restaurant overlooking the ocean. They had a sushi menu with really fresh sea food. It seemed like the sushi was more reasonably priced for what you got than some other the other places in town, so we would recommend it.
Leaving Santa Cruz - There are speed boats that go between Santa Cruz and Isabella and San Cristobal.
They leave every day at 2pm and cost $30
There are only 2 boats that go taking a total of maybe 40 people. So, you want to make sure to buy your tickets that morning or the day before. You also probably want to get there about 20 minutes ahead of time so you don’t end up sitting at the back in the sun trying to avoid getting splashed during the 2 hour ride.
We saw dolphins on the way. However, the boat is a transportation service, so they don’t stop to view the sea life. They just keep going.
Most boat cruises don’t go visit this island, so you have to organize the trip here yourself if you are interested.
Arrival - The boat docks a little ways outside of town (1 Â½ km). If you have a reservation, someone should be there to meet you. Otherwise there are taxis you can take. A couple of times we just hitched a ride on the back of a truck with someone heading into town
Hotel - I can’t remember the name of the place we stayed (sorry). But, it is really easy to find. Just outside of town on the way from the dock there is a hostel called Ballena Azul. The lady who owns that also owns nicer rooms right across the street. You have to go into the Ballena Azul to talk to her.
Ballena Azul has smaller rooms with less character. I think some have shared baths, so they are cheaper. They cost more like $10 per person.
The one we stayed at across the street were large nice rooms with fans and hot water. $15 per person. They serve a good breakfast, but it isn’t included in the price. You can hear and see the ocean from the room.
The lady who runs the place is extremely helpful and efficient. She will help you organize any tours you want to go on.
San Vicente in town was highly recommended by some other people we met there.
Organizing Tours - The hotel San Vicente is one of the major organizers of local tours. You can go talk to them about anything you are interested in doing. They keep a list of other people who want to go on the same trip and then you can check back in at the end of the day to find out if enough people signed up to give it the go ahead.
These are the two tours we went on.
Horse riding to the Sierra Negra Volcano. 1 Â½ hours riding to the volcano. Then another hour or so of walking into amazing lava fields. Then 1 Â½ back down to the mountain. Beautiful, fascinating, but painful on the way back. $25
Boat ride, visiting the ocean lava tunnels and snorkeling. The trip lasts all morning. We saw hundreds of sea turtles on the boat ride there. The lava tunnels are some of the most fascinating scenery I’ve ever been to. There you can see more sea turtles, rays, birds, fish etc. from the bridges made of lava. Then you go snorkeling with penguins, turtles, fish etc. Not the greatest snorkeling ever, but good.
There are many places you can go on your own such as the tortoise breeding center, on the way to the center there is a stinky lake that flamingos and other interesting birds visit, on your right hand side if you are leaving the docks go down the path into the mangroves to a lagoon with some interesting snorkeling, the water at the beaches is a tad cold, but still very nice for swimming or lazing around for a while.
Food - Food is cheaper here than on Santa Cruz, but there is less variety. It is more along the fish/chicken and rice vain at around $5.
Leaving Isabella - The water taxi heads out for Santa Cruz at 6am. Your hotel should be able to organize a taxi to take you there in time for the departure.
When we were leaving I was surprised that a boat was heading out for Floreana. It may just have been a special charter, but you should ask around if you are interested.
Arrival - We took a boat from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal. It was 2 hours long and arrived at 4pm. The tour company who was supposed to pick us up wasn’t there, but there is a giant map of the town at the end of the dock including the location of hotels, travel agencies etc. So, it is really easy to find your way around the small town. If you don’t have a lot of luggage walking shouldn’t be much of a problem. There didn’t seem to be taxi’s waiting there like they were in Santa Cruz.
Hotel - The place we stayed at here was again not worth writing about. Northia was another concrete box with a bed in it. This time there was air conditioning, but no hot water. I think it was about $30 for 2 people, but I wouldn’t really recommend it. There were fewer options of places to stay here, so it wouldn’t take too long to visit a couple of the places and choose one.
Organizing Tours - There are a couple different travel agencies in town that can help you. Good hotels should also be able to organize things for you or at least point you in the right direction.
Snorkeling at Kicker rock and swimming with the sea lions. I don’t think I have ever had so much fun in my life. We were in the water with the juvenile sea lions all around us. One even grabbed on to my bright pink flipper and played with it for a minute. They were swimming, playing and dancing with us! Absolutely amazing. The snorkeling was cool we saw sharks, but very very cold and pretty deep. I think it would have been a better dive spot. 5 hours. $30.You can’t count on always being able to do this trip. You need to have a minimum of 6 people or so for it to be a go.
Highlands tour. Drive up to El Junco lake. It is a beautiful drive and lake. Short hike up the mountain and around the lake. Go to the tortoise breeding center. This one is different than the others because the center is fenced in, but the tortoises can roam around anywhere in the area, so it looks more natural. Stop at a vista point of kicker rock on the way back. 2 hours. Not sure on the cost. It was included in our tour. My guess is $20. If I had to pay that amount, I think I would have forgone the trip. You might check on how much it would be for a group of 4 or 5 to just hire a taxi. I have no idea how much that would cost, but it might be less than with an organized group.
There are many places you can go on your own such as the interpretation center. An interesting museum that talks about history and ecology. Little beaches to swim in, and my favorite, the main beach in the middle of town in where the sea lions come up to sleep on every evening. You can easily spend an hour sitting on the bench watching all their antics in the evening.
We ran out of time, but my friend who lived there said the best snorkeling spot is La Tijeraretas.
Food - We kept picking bad restaurants, so I don’t have much to recommend. My friend also says La Playa has good sea food. This town has a mixture of local and tourist restaurants. You can easily get a cheap almuerzo or merienda for a couple bucks or pay the $5-10 asked at the tourist places for more variety. The breakfast place was really good. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was on the main street that runs along the ocean. It was next door to the chamber of commerce.
Leaving San Cristobal - Boats return to Santa Cruz at 8am.
There is an airport just outside of town. You can even check in early and then leave. We had a taxi driver take us to the loberia to see the iguanas. Then he took us back to the airport because it is all in such close proximity to each other.
The Galapagos Islands really are amazing and worth the money. Don’t allow the financial problems to prevent you from going. Just take some information I provided, prioritize and you should be able to have a great trip without feeling like you are missing out on everything.