I recently took part in a Lonely Planet Twitter chat and one of the questions was asking us where some of the most breath-taking landscapes were that we had seen. My answer was easy, the Galapagos, but what followed surprised me, everyone wanted to visit (no surprise there) but everyone seemed to think it was too hard to get too, or too expensive. Both of which, really confused me, as, having spent a few months living there, I found the islands to be pretty accessible and cheap to explore! I figured it was high time I put rest to the myth that the Galapagos are inaccessible and too expensive to visit.
About the Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are a series of volcanic islands located about 1000km off the coast of Ecuador. They are famously associated with Charles Darwin, as his time spent on the islands observing the various species that called these islands home, inspired his theory of evolution. It is no surprise therefore that the islands are thought of as one of the best places for wildlife lovers in the world.
The islands are located above a hot spot in the earth’s crust, where magma rises to the surface through volcanoes and over time, creating a land mass. Due to the movement of the tectonic plates above the hot spot, each island is born directly above the hot spot, and then carried away, as if on a conveyor belt. It is this conveyor belt action which has led to the diversity seen on each of the islands. Essentially, the islands are born of fire, evolve into lush green habitats as they move away from the hotspot, and eventually cool entirely until they are void of vegetation and become fairly inhospitable lands, before returning to the sea.
The islands we see now will be entirely different to the ones that our future ancestors will visit in tens of thousands of years. The mind boggles.
The Galapagos take their name from one of their most famous inhabitants, the Giant Tortoise. As Charles Darwin observed, each island has a slightly different species of Giant Tortoise. The ones that live on the more remote islands, further from the hotspot, have longer necks and a high arch in their shells to allow them to reach high vegetation, as there is a lack of food on the ground. The Giant Tortoises on the lusher island of Santa Cruz, do not need to stretch upwards to reach a food source, and so their shells do not have a high arch. This evolution over time to adapt to their respective habitats has led to different species of Giant Tortoise, all within one archipelago of islands.
As well as the famous Giant Tortoise, the islands play host to some other incredible species, including sea iguanas (famous for spitting salt out their noses), land iguanas, finches and sally lightfoot crabs. Don’t even get me started on the marine life, wow.
The thing people tend to forget about when it comes to the Galapagos, is the people. There’s around 30,000 people that call these islands home, and where there’s people, there’s infrastructure, homes, hotels, cafes, restaurants, bars, playgrounds, schools, hospitals, internet, electricity, all things that lead me onto my main point, you can stay on some of the islands.
The islands are easily accessed from mainland Ecuador with numerous daily flights from Quito and Guayaquil. Domestic airlines such as TAME, LAN and Aerogal all fly to Galapagos from Ecuador. You can fly to two of the main inhabited islands, either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal. Flight time is around 2 hours. Due to timings of the flights, you will need to stay over in either Guayaquil or Quito before flying on to the Galapagos. I was based in Quito before I visited and would highly recommend spending a few days exploring this city and the surrounding areas before carrying on to the Galapagos.
This is the part where most people, on arrival to the Galapagos, board a cruise ship for their week or so exploring the islands, but, in doing so, you miss out on so much the islands have to offer. Instead, base yourself in one of the main towns and explore at your own pace and enjoy the local life.
If you fly into Santa Cruz, you will land on the neighbouring island, Baltra, a short bus journey, water taxi and another bus journey will take you to the main town of Puerto Ayora, where I was based when I was living and working there.
From Puerto Ayora you can take local boats to all of the surrounding islands and this is the trick to seeing the islands for a fraction of the price.
I took day trips from Puerto Ayora to Floreana, Bartolome, Seymour, Rabida, Chinese Hat and Daphne Mayor and I took longer trips to Isabella and San Cristobal, As these islands are considerably larger and so require more time to explore, plus, as these are inhabited, you can actually stay on these islands as well.
You can literally walk into one of the local agencies on the island the day before you want to go somewhere and book a boat or trip to take you to one of the islands. It is super cheap and will only ever be a very small group, although, be warned, these are therefore smaller boats and the Galapagos has extremely rough seas, especially at certain times of the year, so come prepared with sea sickness tablets. I did not and spent many a journey with my head over the side of the boat.
Santa Cruz Island
Seen as I was based here for the majority of my time in the Galapagos, I figured I would centre the rest of this post around this island.
Santa Cruz is right in the middle of the Galapagos and is just the right distance away from the hot spot to not have any active volcanoes and for the vegetation to have matured all over the island. Most people will fly into Isla Baltra and down into Santa Cruz before boarding their cruise ships and pretty much every cruise itinerary will include a day or two on the island, usually visiting the Charles Darwin research centre, which used to be home to the ever so famous Lonesome George (I was lucky enough to meet him!). The cruises rarely spend time on this island though, and they all arrive on the same day, so the rest of the week, it is just the locals going about their daily lives mixed in with a few ‘longer term’ travellers. This is when the island really comes to life.
Depending on budget there are numerous places you can stay. My absolute favourite is the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn, which is accessed by a water taxi from the main town of Puerto Ayora and is placed above a small cliff with fabulous views across the sea. This hotel is on the more luxury side though, so if you’re on a more limited budget, which to be honest, is the whole point of this post, there are numerous cheaper hotels dotted around Puerto Ayora which will cost anything from $10 a night upwards, depending on whether you want hot water or not. These are all perfectly adequate though with clean rooms, comfy beds and basic facilities, plus, they are all located in the heart of the town so everything is on your doorstep.
Once you have found your accommodation (which you can book on arrival (unless staying at the Angermeyer) as so few tourists actually choose to stay on the island, this also works out much cheaper!) you can then get out and explore the town and the rest of the island.
The town of Puerto Ayora is small enough to walk everywhere, so no transport costs there. Along the waterfront you can watch fisherman hauling in their catch from the day and trying to fight off the numerous sealions and pelicans that try to steal from their nets. On the way to the Charles Darwin Research Centre there are loads of boutique tourist shops selling tokens to remind you of your time here.
Throughout the town there are numerous cafes, my personal favourite was Cafe Hernans (order a chocolate con ron), bars (check out Limon y Café), restaurants, (La Garrapata is a good shout), and even a nightclub (La Panga and Bongo Bar). The locals work really hard in the day, often with two jobs, but at night they let their hair down and they sure know how to party. I spent many a night drinking rum and cokes and chatting with the locals.
There is also the famous street nicknamed $3 street (Charles Binford Street) which at night comes alive with local restaurants, with plastic seating spilling out onto the streets (the road is closed to vehicles at around 5pm). They cook fresh seafood on outdoor grills and serve this up immediately in a variety of sauces and accompanied with rice and a cold beer, all for, as you guessed, $3 (or there abouts). The food here is fabulous and I quite happily ate here most nights. You will find yourself sitting with locals, who are all super friendly, and will want to show you round the island and the place they call home. I would recommend trying Encocado de Cameron from any of the street vendors!
Through my nights here, and in the bars, I made so many friends on the island, which led to discounted boat trips, free meals, free drinks and free local tour guides taking me around Santa Cruz. The locals really love it when tourists make an effort to spend time on the islands and actually get to know the local life, rather than call in for a few hours from their cruise ships, so they really make an effort to show you everything they have to offer.
One day, a couple of the locals I met took me and a friend into the highlands of Santa Cruz and showed us around lava tunnels and large fields filled with wild giant tortoises. It was a completely off the beaten track experience that cost nothing but completely made my Galapagos experience.
I also spent many a day on the nearby beach, Tortuga, which is around a 2.5km walk from Puerto Ayora. It is a stunning stretch of white sand beach, with lava rocks jutting sharply into the sea, covered with sea iguanas, basking in the sun. It was a small piece of paradise that so few people get to explore. You could even swim in the nearby lagoon with Galapagos white tip sharks, it was incredible.
You can also catch the water taxi for around 50 cents, to take you across the harbour to another bit of the island. Here you will find another beach, as well as the Angermeyer hotel but the best bit is Los Greitas. It is essentially a hole between two large cliffs which has filled with water which you can swim and snorkel in, and if you are a daredevil, jump from the cliffs into the water below.
As you can probably tell, I had the most amazing time exploring the Galapagos Islands and I am a huge advocate for people taking the time to really visit these islands and not just pass through. It’s not only the best way to really get a grasp on local life but it also makes the Galapagos a more accessible place to visit.
I hope this post has given you something to think about and made you realise that the Galapagos are more accessible than you may first think. They are such an incredible, special and unique place and I really want everyone to realise that they can visit them, without it costing an arm and a leg.
If you would like me to cover the Galapagos a bit more on the blog, like maybe discussing the different islands and what they offer, please let me know.
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