The plane's captain came over the loudspeaker and announced that the flight crew would be coming through shortly to fumigate our carry-on luggage for insects. Several minutes later, the stewardesses came down the aisle waving aerosol cans of bug spray as promised. We had already paid the $100 park entrance fee at the airport, had our luggage scanned for contraband plant matter and were now being treated to the subtle aroma of Raid while in-flight- we weren't even there yet and our Galapagos experience was proving to be surprising in every way.
I love the smell of bug spray in the morning
So let's say that you do fly from Quito, Ecuador to the Baltra Airport 600 miles off the coast. You've touched down, gone through customs round 2, paid $120 per person total to enter the park (the whole island system is the park), and are heading off to the tourist hub of Puerto Ayora wih your giant backpack (like so many other tourists).... What should you have in your bag?
Cash: Everything in the Galapagos is done in cash, from $6 taxi fares to $200 day trips to $5000 cruises around the islands. A couple restaurants will take cards with a 28% service fee tacked on, but you should expect to spend cash on virtually everything you will buy there. All the ATM's we ran into had a $600 a day limit which is fine if you're staying there on the cheap but can be a challenge if you need money for a cruise, a plane ticket, etc. Don't be like the German family we met in the airport frantically draining the ATM to buy their park passes or like the crying lady in the tour office who couldn't book her $5000 cruise- come prepared to spend cash and to spend more than you want to.
Sunscreen and Aloe Vera: Speaking of being prepared, be ready for common items like sunscreen to be marked up.... way up. Like, $40 a tube up. We were ready and brought our own, but when we inevitably got burned could not find aloe vera anywhere. Ecuadorian security does not seem to care about liquids the way that TSA does, so stock up before you leave the mainland.
A waterproof day bag: Most of the cool stuff in the Galapagos involves literally jumping between small boats and trekking around beaches. Come prepared with a roll-top day bag to keep your camera, passport, towels etc safe as you climb on and off tiny harbor taxis as you make your way around the islands.
A water filter/water bottles: If you thought that overpriced sunscreen was cruel, get ready for the bottled water prices. We travel with a Lifestraw gravity water filter and a number of Nalgenes, and this really cuts down on the price of water while keeping you hydrated.
Just enough Spanish to haggle: The price of everything not on a menu seems to be negotiable- hostels, taxis, tours, you name it. Come prepared to argue for the best price and to have plenty of folks try to overcharge you. We got pretty good at arguing down taxis where we could, and got used to bargaining with tour operators for the best deal- being willing to walk away from a bad deal is also a good skill to practice.
Well, that seems like a lot of money-related information for a national park, right? The truth is that even though the Galapagos National Park covers almost the entire island system, in order to access any of it you have to either do a succession of day trips or book a cruise- there are relatively few hiking trails and no places to camp that we found. So even though we had all our camping gear we had to stay in hostels our entire time there and experience the park day-trip style... but was it awesome?
Isla Santa Cruz
This was the first and last island we stayed on, with a brief break in the middle on Isla Isabela. This island features the very busy port town of Puerto Ayora, access to airport Baltra and some pretty excellent day trips. We stayed in a couple different hostels (Hostel Salinas- awful, Hostel Sir Francis Drake- weird, Hostel Morning Glory- excellent) and used these as our home bases for trips around the island. We dicovered that for about $3 we could rent snorkel equipment and for $15 we could rent surfboards. A great DIY day on Santa Cruz is to rent some gear and walk out to Tortuga Bay to surf, snorkel in the lagoon and lay on the beach with the marine iguanas.
The walk out to Tortuga Bay, dodging surfers and joggers... don't touch the Opuntias (cactus trees)
A picture Rosie took
A picture Patrick took
Eagle rays and puffer fish swam all around us (we saw an octopus later on!)
The walk out to Tortuga Bay only takes about 40 minutes from the center of town and is a great place to set up for a day at the beach. Definitely bring snorkel equipment for the lagoon as well as water and sunscreen- aside from the kayak rental place, there are no services past the entrance gate.
Other things we enjoyed on Santa Cruz were the Charles Darwin Foundations' Giant Tortoise breeding center (free to enter, easy to walk to and you definitely don't need a guide- all the signs are in Spanish and English) and the fish market on Charles Darwin Avenue.
Carefully selecting the perfect leaf...
Between pelicans begging for scraps and restaurants bidding on red scorpionfish, the market is the place to be
When you first show up on Isla Santa Cruz one of the first things that you'll notice is the seemingly infinite number of tour companies. They have pictures of happy families grinning next to sea lions, brightly colored signs advertising last-minute deals and invariably young couples inside, seated in plastic chairs grimly forking over twenty dollar bills for something. Towards the end of our trip we decided that we did want to go on a snorkeling tour (not SCUBA, our brief experience with the dive shops was not confidence inspiring) so we steeled ourselves for the hard sell and started going into tour agencies looking for a deal.
Before you start shopping around for a tour, it makes the most sense to decide what you want to see, how long you want it to take and to go from there. We knew that we wanted to snorkel with sea lions and sharks and that we were willing to take all day to do it and that helped us when the agents tried to sell us half-day tours or hiking trips. Eventually, exhausted, we ended up in Land/Heaven/Sea where we were told that for $110 each we could go snorkeling with sharks, sea lions, and sea turtles and see some blue-footed boobies. Midway through negotiations our tour agent (who had been rocking a baby stroller) pulled out the baby and started to nurse. We decided this was homey enough operation for us and sprung for the tour.
The next morning we met our tour guide at the city dock, who led us to a water taxi which took us to our tour boat and for the next hours we cruised to La Fe to see the blue-footed boobies and then to Pinzon to see sharks, sea lions and sea turtles...
The ride there was uneventful, but our experience there was unparalleled. It is easy to say ‘we went to Pinzon and snorkeled with green sea turtles, white tip sharks and sea lions’ but it is much harder to convey the feeling. After bobbing for a few minutes in the water next to the boat waiting for the group to assemble, we set off together, faces in the water, arms by our sides and feet quickly kicking.
The bottom of the bay was rocky and sparse until a gleaming school of silver fish filled our vision, shining and sparkling like shards of light as they turned in the light. Suddenly, through the school, a sleek brown sea lion lazily flippered by and just as we turned to look at it, another 3 of them appeared under and next to us. Sea turtles came into sight just as we swam up over them and they glided up and down in the water to nibble algae off the rocks.Our bodies grew cooler and stomachs growled as we circled the bay over and over again, pausing over sleeping white tip sharks piled up like puppies and an eagle ray curled up under a rock, but our eyes feasted on the colors and wildlife all around us and we felt nothing but amazement and the thrill of seeing so much, so close.
Even the sea lions came over to play
We were back in town by 5pm and celebrated an incredible day at our favorite nighttime attraction: the Kiosko Street. Remember all those fish for sale at the market? Well this is where some of them end up- the street where all the restaurants drag plastic tables and chairs into the middle of the road and grill and fry fresh seafood until the night air is thick with charcoal smoke, the clinking of Pilsener bottles and talking and laughter in a dozen different languages.
Get something with head still on- it tastes even fresher than it looks
Our ride to Isla Isabela started off with a real bang and was our first real introduction to inter-island travel. With very little idea of what to expect, we purchased ferry tickets the night before ($30pp) and showed up at the harbor the next morning. There, the very-not-helpful ticket-taker informed us that even though we had paid for our tickets and had a receipt, he could not validate them because he had not received the appropriate phone call. Or something to that effect.
Either way, after fighting with him through a translator for 10 or so minutes we were begrudgingly allowed to board a taxi ($2pp) that would take us to the ferry that we had paid for. What followed next was a gut-walloping 2-hour ride on what was essentially a 20-foot fishing boat at top speed. We’d zoom up one side of a swell and come crashing down on the other, windows rattling and various passengers running for the tiny on-board bathroom.
Upon arriving in Isabela we were boarded by the harbor police who photographed the over-capacity load and wrote our captain a ticket of some sort. By this point we didn’t even care, we just wanted off the boat. Pro tip: if your ticket receipt is not the name of a boat, but rather the name of the captain, you are probably in for an exciting time…
Isabela itself was great, however! The roads are winding and sandy, marine iguanas laze around in the coconut tree shade, wild flamingos preen in the town lagoons and there is honest-to-god hiking that you can do without a guide!
Aside from a small misadventure where to took a taxi out to a desolate eco-lodge and had to hitchhike back (ecolodges always seem like a great idea until we get there, it seems like) we were able to stay at the Las Frigatas Hostel which had great wifi for the Galapagos and was in the center of town giving us easy access to the short block of restaurants, the tour companies and the walking paths out to the wild parts of the island.
You only get to see the flamingos and tortoises if you can run the gauntlet of marine iguanas
On day one we walked about 2-3 miles out to the island’s tortoise breeding center (excellent signage, beautiful walk) and photographed flamingos hanging out in the lagoons along the way. We enjoyed the flamingos so much that we went back to lagoon in the evening and just watched them for an hour, flying between shallow lakes while the iguanas traipsed through the mud below them.
On another day we steeled ourselves and went into the tour sales part of town (about 1 block from our hostel and 1 block from the beach- Isabela is SMALL) and after a couple hours of haggling decided to go on a half-day snorkeling tour of a bay called Tintoreres.
The tour started with the requisite walk-around-a-rocky-iguana-beach that all Galapagos tours seem to include where we saw giant males trying to out-macho each other while smaller ones hung out on lower rocks and basked in the sun. Even though by now we had grown used to seeing the scaly little guys hanging around everywhere, it’s still fun to see them in a natural environment doing their thing without cars whizzing by. Then, we got to the good stuff- the snorkeling!
Galapagos snorkeling tours are a little bit follow-the-leader and a little bit free-for-all. Our guide snorkeled up and got in the water and then proceeded to chase sea turtles and eagle rays as we attempted to keep up with him. We swam over almost a dozen different types of sea stars, massive black sea urchins and gliding rays. Eventually we got within sight of a sea turtle swam with it for a few minutes, eye to eye- a pretty incredible experience all around.
That same evening we decided to follow the walking path that paralleled the beach out to the ‘Camino de Los Tortugas’, where we saw on the map that wild tortugas supposedly lived. By now we had seen giant tortoises at breeding centers but we desperately wanted to see them in the wild. Since we knew that it was at least a 4-mile walk one way, we brought our headlamps with us which turned out to be a great move. We trekked past the touristy downtown, past the public beaches and just as dusk was starting to fall we entered the highlands marked by cactus trees and brushy undergrowth where wild tortugas live.
We walked and walked in the falling light, straining our eyes to see one of the giants and just after we had turned ‘one more corner’ for a third time we saw one- giant and still, almost camouflaged against the brush with its rear end nestled down in a pile of dirt. All of a sudden it became apparent that we had not only found a wild Tortuga, but a mother laying eggs! Very quietly we took her picture and then began the long, slow walk back in the dark, amazed at what we had seen.
Wild tortugas- they DO exist!
The Galapagos was an incredible experience in all its ways- the wildlife seems to exist in impossible numbers and is closer and even more approachable than we had hoped for. The ferries and day trips blend exhilarating/terrifying transport with unbelievable sights and with a little bit of planning and flexibility all kinds of incrediblee experiences are possible. We celebrated our final snorkeling trip with caipirinas (cuba libres made with sugarcane liquor!) on what we thought was our last night in the Galapagos and toasted our savvy travelership.
But the Galapagos wasn't done with us yet...The next morning we packed up and left the hostel in good spirits, happy to be headed to the airport with one day left on our visas. On a whim, Rosie checked the our plane tickets just before we hailed our taxi and made a sickening discovery - we had missed our flight.
Read about the next hectic 30 hours in The Great Galapagos Escape!
Ever Further, y'all!