So you want to do Galapagos on your own? You should read my “Galapagos is not Disneyland” post first to make sure this is the right choice. It is? Great.
No need to book anything in advance (I was there in September, not the main season), except the flight – booked just over a month ahead and paid $360 instead of the usual $500.
One thing first though – if you like fluffy animals and want to cuddle them, Galapagos isn´t for you, you will mainly see iguanas, turtles and seals, many birds, but that´s it. If you love all animals and are interested in evolution and how different it was at Galapagos, then it´s for you. You might get chased by a playful seal on the pier like I did, there´s a chance you´ll get a tsunami warning and no boats will sail (luckily I was doing land trekking then :)), but you´ll be amazed by the landscape that just grows on lava rock, how the animals never developed fear of humans, see a special co-existence of humans and animals that is hard to see anywhere in the world, but also observe how humanity negatively impacts nature.
I flew from Quito to Baltra (Santa Cruz), so here´s what you need to do, not sure whether it´s the same flying from Guayaquil or landing at San Cristóbal, but I think Santa Cruz is the best, as it´s right in the middle of Galapagos islands, so easier to get to the other ones.
At the beginning of the Quito airport, there´s an office to check baggage going to Galapagos for prohibited items and purchase the $10 permit. You will also need to pay $100 park entry fee, but that´s when you land at Galapagos. This was pretty smooth and fast.
Once at Galapagos, you need to get to Puerto Ayora, first by taking a free bus from the airport to the boats that will take you from Baltra to Santa Cruz. The boat was $1 at the time, takes about 15 minutes. Then you need to take a bus to Puerto Ayora, which was also about $1.80 and takes around 40minutes.
Standard hotel accommodation at Puerto Ayora is around $25 or more, with hot water, internet etc, but as an experienced traveller, you know that there´s much cheaper options right? Yep, there´s one place called hostal Brattle. It´s right in the center, close to shops, puerto, tour agents and costs $10 a night, hot water, private bathroom, 2 shared kitchens (a must for a budget traveller, and it´s also not busy like some places where I´ve been. No queues for that one frying pan :)). They don´t have internet though (when I wrote this). To find this hostel, get to the center plaza at the port, then walk along the street with the sea on your right until you see a restaurant/bar called The Rock. Turn left, then left again into a small street and walk until you reach a yellow house on your left. Ring the bell and off you go.
In terms of food, restaurants start from around $8 for a small pizza, or you can eat like the locals do for cheaper (local “comidor”). But of course, it´s cheaper to cook for yourself, there´s plenty of shops with everything you need around, especially one supermarket right at the port that has a few things i found difficult to find even in Quito or other places. I´m a vegan, so didn´t try the local comidors or much of restaurant food.
Drinking is expensive compared to the mainland (a big Pilsener in a shop costs around $3 or $2.50 if you return the bottle). Bars sell small Pilsener for around $2.80. Or there´s always the cheap option of buying a small bottle of local Caña (36%) from a shop for about $5.
What to do?
Free or cheap stuff:
- it´s enough to just hang around the piers and you´ll see sea lions sleeping on the piers right next to you, pelicans fishing right next to you, lava lizards catching the sun on the tarmac, sea turtles, many types of fish (manta rays if you´re lucky!) and I saw one small shark too. The best time is at night, when the pier lights illuminate the water so you can see more. It´s play (or catch food) time for the seals too, so plenty to see.
- walk to Las Grietas, apparently you can also have a swim in the natural pool that´s at the end. Up to you to decide whether you want to interfere with the untouched nature of the place. On the way you will pass many little lizards running across your path, birds ad sea lions on the beach.
- walk to Tortuga Bay – amazing white sand beach with waves and another amazing beach with quiet water just round the corner, surrounded with loads (I mean shitloads) of Galapagos iguanas just lying around.
- On the main road (avenida Baltra) a bit higher up from the port is a small bike hire shop that rents them for $10 a day, which is much cheaper than the rest of them. You can then cycle to a few destinations on the island where you can see many birds and giant turtles.
- Concha de perla – it´s a short walk off the port with lots of seals on the way, the lagoon is shallow, great for snorkelling, you can see sea turtles there.
- long and empty (i.e. no people!) beaches to explore with a
couple of nice quiet bars to have a coconut drink, Bar de Beto was really cool, right at the beach with hammocks, chilled out music (rock, jazz, blues – makes a nice break from the usual cheesy pop stuff), the owner is a traveller too.
- El muro de lagrimas (Wall of Tears)- the actual wall is not as exciting, but the walk to it has so many things to explore, land turtles crossing your path, many creeks and wetlands and big land iguanas. Make it a day trip, start around 8 and by the time you explored everything and returned, it´s going to be around 3-4 in the afternoon.
- I would recommend the volcano Sierra Negra tour for $35 – you´ll be taken to a different planet, when you walk over hardened lava and see hardened lava rivers. The lava landscape is amazing, and there are not that many times you´ll walk on actual lava from the second biggest crater in the world!
- Las Tintoreras – I didn´t do that, but it´s a set of small islands close to Isabela, where you can snorkel with sharks and penguins. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to do this one. The cost was $25, much better than some other day tours for $80.
There were NO CASH MACHINES in 2012 there, so take enough cash with you.
accommodation – Posada del Caminante was amazing. Rooms are clean and spacious, some have a kitchen and cost $25 per night (so try to share with a fellow traveller). The best thing about this place was the hospitality of the owners – free bananas and oranges every day for you, they organize your tours and even if we needed to cancel one, they were ready to help and got our money back. There is also a nice chill out area outside with a TV and hammocks. They also have free internet, but only in one of the two houses that belongs to them.
- Cruises to all over the place, mainly from Santa Cruz. Day ones are around $80, start around 7 and finish around 5 in the afternoon. Then there´s 3, 4, 5 etc day ones, with a variety of destinations, you should check with various tour organizers and decide what´s best for you.
- Diving costs around $180 for two days if you have a licence or if you are a complete newbie like me, you will have to take a course that costs around $500 for 3-4 days, usually 1 day learning in a pool, then 2 days diving, each day going deeper, up to 18 metres deep, around 1.5 hrs of diving time each day. You will receive a licence, a book, a logbook, free photos of whatever you will encounter in the water (and there´s plenty, especially big animals, sharks and manta rays!) and the price includes all equipment, food and transport of course.
Whilst I was checking various agencies for prices and options, one of them was erm…interesting. I sat down listening to the options, whilst the woman behind the desk whipped a boob out, whilst talking to me, and started breast-feeding, still talking about diving. Kinda takes your attention away from the topic you´re there for. Breast feeding in public is normal here, but this was the first time it happened so obviously, right in my face. If she spoke english, I would have asked about seeing more boobies as a joke. (The birds man, the birds!)
Best option to me was doing the diving course, so you get close to the multitude of marine animals here, and apparently you can see more big animals here compared to other diving destinations. Also, people say that it´s difficult here (cold water, lower visibility and choppy) so anywhere else you dive afterwards is going to be easier. I didn´t feel like the water was cold or the visibility was bad – up to 10m, but then I knew fuck all about diving until now and don´t know other destinations.
In between the sessions, you can do plenty of free stuff mentioned above. I spent 5 days at Santa Cruz, doing free stuff and the diving course, then went to Isabela doing more free stuff and the volcano tour.
A thing to mention is transportation between islands – costs around $25-$30 to go for example from Santa Cruz to Isabela, but if you tend to get seasick, make sure you take enough pills – the ride is in a smallish boat, very bumpy and non-stop two hours.
As I mentioned at the beginning, don´t go to Galapagos if you think they are full of lovely animals who want to play with you and pose for your pictures. Galapagos is for people interested in the lizards, turtles etc living there, in their evolution and their environment. It´s not for people who like to go to ZOOs or feed animals in the wild, destroying their natural instincts.
Total cost of 10 days at Galapagos: $1390
- Food $200, including a few restaurant meals to treat myself
- Drinks $80
- Transport $120
- accommodation $100
- Activities (diving & tours) $530
- Flight $360
If you don´t do diving or a long tour, but do more stuff yourself and a couple of day tours, you could save yourself around $300.
Enjoy Galapagos, but keep in mind that we are the intruders there, the islands belong to the endemic animals, so treat everything with respect!