Galapagos, Ecuador

A giant tortoise on Galapagos  

The Galapagos may not spring to mind as a backpackers destination but with a little planning they can provide a unique experience that will be remembered forever. The first thing that people tend to say is “wasn’t that expensive?”, and don’t get me wrong, compared to Thailand or Bolivia it can be, but with budget hostels available and dining at local eateries or self catering, costs can be kept down.

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There are two main high seasons, December to January and June till August. The second high season corresponds with what is commonly referred to as the dry season and brings slightly lower temperature (20-25 deg C) but plentiful wildlife. If you don’t mind the occasional shower (short sharp and refreshing) the warm season stretches from January to May and provides warmer temperatures (25-30 deg C) if cloudier skies. The islands are a year round destination and when you choose to go will have more to do with which wildlife you want to see!

The main islands to get to independently are San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela though Floreana (Santa Maria) also has accommodation and is reachable by ‘speed’ ferry. Travelling between islands is easy, island to island takes around two hours but can get a little rough, if your prone to motion sickness stick to the back of the boat. Keep your eyes open and you may see dolphins jumping as you move between islands.

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While there is plenty to keep you occupied on the main islands many travellers will also want to spend some time in Puerta Ayora, Santa Cruz where you can organize trips to other islands which range from days out snorkeling to longer cruises around the northernmost sights.

Top Tips for Backpackers:

  • The ferry is the best way to get between island transport hubs but remember on some islands they won’t get you to the dock. The first and last couple of meters requires a water taxi, normally 50cents or 1usd per person, they’ll load your bags and hover half way to the dock until they’ve collected the fare. Have some change ready. On a different ferry note, make sure hiking boots are clean of muds, seeds etc. Each island works to protect its specific set of species and you may find yourself hurrying to clean your boots in the local bathroom before being allowed passed dock security.
  • Budget hostals fill up thick and fast in the high season. On the islands with larger populations (especially Santa Cruz) you’ll find somewhere, but on smaller islands you might find yourself left with more expensive options.
  • While many banks have signs saying they accept all cards, the cash machines often do not. Take your passport and card into the bank and you can normally withdraw cash over the counter. In the afternoon be prepared for long queues and if like me your spanish pronounciation is a little lacking, a pen and paper to write numbers on can save confusion.

Top Trips (in no particular order):

  • Tortuga bay, Santa Cruz (Free): There are two ways of getting to Tortuga bay, water taxi from the dock or an hour and a half walk. The first part of the walk is a short distance through town then a long paved pathway leads to the beach. Take water and suncream. The first beach you come to you can’t swim at and at low tide is inhabited by ghost crabs which will run into their burrows and watch you nervously. The pea sized balls of sand you will see everywhere are formed as they filter food from the surface of the grains. A short walk on will you get to Tortuga bay, a sun drenched white sand beach suitable for swimming, snorkeling and tanning with a handy tree line at the back providing shade. The bay is bordered by mangroves and baby black tipped reef sharks are often seen in the the shallows making interesting paddling partners.
  • Concha de Perla/Port beach, Isabela (Free): Both within a couple of minutes walk off the port they make great places to swim, snorkel or just grab a coffee and watch the wildlife go by. Marine iguanas, sea lions, rays, small sharks and plentiful birdlife including penguins make these great places to kick back for an hour of two.

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  • The Darwin Statue/Las Tijeretas, San Cristobal (Free): A statue of Darwin stands on Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate bird hill) marking the place his craft first landed. To get there is an easy walk from town passing through an information centre with its own giant tortoise. Just down the hill is a rocky bay that provides a great snorkelling spot known for playful sea lions and a place where sea turtles graze the underwater rocks and catch forty winks on the sea floor. Its quiet and easy going making it a scenic spot to catch up on some guidebook reading or just be out of town for a bit.
  • Kicker Rock, San Cristobal (65usd): A scuba dive or snorkel site a short boat trip away from the main port. A must for water lovers. The snorkel trip is a journey between pinnacles of rock that includes plentiful fish, large rays and sharks that can include gently cruising hammerheads. The dive option includes the same wildlife but the chance to travel through a shoal of fish that literally blocks out the sun. The guides will tell you this is where surprises can happen and if you’re truly lucky, a passing whale shark may stop to say hello.
  • No specific trip (various): The reader will note no mention of giant tortoises or volcanic adventures. These are available on many islands as day trips as most have a tortoise breeding program and scenic hiking available. These trips can often be done independently using public transport, it comes down to if you want something easy or you’re on a tight budget. Agencies tend to have offices on the sea front or town centre but very often your hostal/hotel will suggest a company if not book everything for you.

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Places to Stay:

This list is by no means definitive and there are many options in the major population centres on the Galapagos. For me, backpacking entails trying to get budget accommodation that I can use as a base for exploring the island. It should be noted that the presence of hot water is hit and miss in most hotels and hostels no matter what they might tell you. I have heard tales of places where the presence of water itself is hit and miss… I hasten to reassure the reader that I am not THAT budget orientated.

  • Posada del Caminante, Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela: There are two Posada del Caminante just round the corner from each other and both are pretty similar except that only one has wifi (available to guests of the other in the communal area). For 15usd per person the rooms are basic but spacious and some have a small gas hob for self caterers (and those like me who just want a coffee in the morning). The owner, Lauro, can arrange anything from maps to directions and excursions, the downside is it is a bit out of the way, being a ten minute walk from the beach where other slightly pricier options can be found.
  • Hotel Gardner, Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz: The largest population centre of the Galapagos provides plenty of choice, however if you are looking for the rare 15usd per night option, I recommend this place. The rooms come with air conditioning and WiFi in communal areas. It is located just back from Avenue Charles Darwin, the main street in town and is an easy base for exploring the island or investigating your onward travel options.
  • Casa de Laura, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Isla San Cristobal: Sticking to the 15usd per night theme the Casa de Laura is clean and tidy with nice rooms. There’s no WiFi but the air conditioning and use of a fridge are worth their weight in gold. There are hammocks for you to chill out on or the malecon (sea front) is a 5 minute walk with internet cafes and a large numbers of sea lions.

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Getting There and Away:

  • Flights to the Galapagos are commonly advertised from Quito (return, approx 500usd) or Guayaquil (return, approx 460usd) and land in San Baltra, an hours combined ferry and bus to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz.
  • On arrival catch the free public bus to the port, take the 10 minute ferry to Santa Cruz (under a dollar) where you are met by a bus to take you to Puerto Ayora (45 minutes and under 2 dollars).
  • Alternatively, flying from the same locations but less frequently, you can choose to land on San Cristobal, a sub half hour transfer to the capital of the Galapagos province (though not centrally located), Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The flights from Guayaquil take 1.5hrs and from Quito 3.5hrs, this is due to all Quito planes going via Guayaquil anyway. Airlines include LAN, Tame, Aerogal and Avianca.
  • If you book with an internet agency to go from Quito you may well end up with a combination, if this is the case make sure you have time to collect and recheck your baggage with the new airline at Guayaquil. Before you fly out you must purchase a tourist transit card for 10usd from booths at the airport and your baggage will be checked for fruits, seeds etc, it’s much like normal airport security except your bag will be sealed with a tag.
  • On arrival on the Galapagos you will have to present your tourist transit card and pay a further 100usd national park fee (cash). Be warned this does not preclude dock taxes or other national park entrance fees, however, these other supplementary fees do not amount to much and it is a wise precaution to keep some dollars in your back pocket. Once all that’s done kick back and watch the wildlife go by.

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About the Author: Written by Iain Leighton. “I have always had a desire to see what was just over the horizon, this has led to a slightly eclectic life working as a watersports instructor, theatre technician and scare actor while completing a PhD in subglacial dynamics. This has all fuelled and funded my passion for travel and I love to photograph and write about my travels in the hope that even if I don’t inspire others to get out there (go on, you know you want to), I can bring a smile to peoples faces and let them daydream for a moment or two. For underwater images from some of my previous trips check out my blog.”

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