Updated May 29th, 2017.
There were two classes of backpackers I met whilst travelling through Ecuador – those who agreed the Galapagos Islands were the highlight of their South America trip, and those who lamented they weren’t going because it was out of their budget… but “one day” they’d get there.
Whilst it is true that a trip to Galapagos is bound to burst your budget bubble, I can with complete confidence tell any traveller (unless you’re an idiot who plans to litter or touch the animals) – do it anyway.
You know those “life-changing” travel destinations forcefully touted? Galapagos is legitimate. I have never had an experience like it and doubt I ever will. It should not be something reserved for older, retired travellers. It is up to Gen X, Y, Z and all who follow to take care of this planet, and nowhere does this hammer home more strongly than where Darwin consolidated his theory of evolution by natural selection.
The Galapagos Islands are where Darwin consolidated his Theory of Evolution.
The Nitty-Gritty: How We Got There
Getting to Galapagos can be a frustrating and elongated process. Cruise or independent visit?
I heard from those who had both and swore by both, but I would strongly suggest going with a cruise. Not because I’m a tour fan (I’m not), but because this is the only way to see many of the islands, and you will undoubtedly miss out on a lot by not joining a cruise. This is not like regular destinations, where just a little daring and patience will get you where you want to go: the Galapagos Islands are highly regulated, so much so that tour boats have a strict schedule to ensure there will never be more than one in the same place. These islands are fragile and tourism unavoidably takes its toll, but the Ecuadorian government and the tourism staff do an astounding job in protecting the islands as much as they can, even scooping the inevitable rubbish out of the ocean to prevent it from littering the shores.
Unlike other destinations – taking an organized cruise is the best way
The next step is getting said tour… Which can also be an irritating mess. You can book cruises in advance online (DO NOT DO THIS if you care about money at all), or you can book from agencies in Quito, Guayaquil, or on the islands themselves (e.g. in Puerto Ayora, a town of around 12,000 people – yes, there are towns on the Galapagos!). You have to fly through Guayaquil to get to Galapagos so we booked from there (with the lovely agent from Hostal Suites Madrid), but there are actually more agencies in Quito so given the chance again I’d probably go for that.
Online prices are not always accurate as sites are not immediately updated, and flights can be tricky – whilst online it may say the flight is full (even on international sites like Skyscanner), there is a strange allocation system meaning our agent managed to get us seats after numerous telephone calls. What’s more, everyone said their flight to Galapagos was half-empty, despite whatever it stated online. It’s a similar deal for cruises – at least six people on our boat were told they were getting the last beds (including us, and the couple who booked just before us with the same agent), but in reality there were at least two empty beds the entire trip.
The saving from booking last minute is staggering: we were offered beds on a luxury class cruise for just over one third the original price… but took a cheaper one nonetheless in tourist class. To give you an idea: we paid US$1725 for an eight-day cruise leaving two days after we booked, a couple who booked online months in advance paid twice that amount, and one man got it for $100 cheaper by booking on the islands.
It’s advisable to have some flexibility in your schedule if you want to get the best-value tour, and be willing to kick around in Quito/Guayaquil/Puerto Ayora while you book and wait for departure.
It’s also a good idea to research the islands and the tour itineraries – what exactly do you want to see in Galapagos? Which animals are most important to you? Are you interested in the geological formation and the landscape? Every island is different and offers a unique experience – if you know what’s most important to you, you’ll be able to gauge which tour suits you best. But if you’re not fussed, know that you’re bound to have an amazing experience no matter which itinerary you choose.
We went with the Floreana on the northern itinerary, and have no regrets. We were a little worried about taking a tourist-class boat (we didn’t want a bad guide or bad food to spoil what should be the highlight of the trip), but needn’t have been. The food was delicious, and our guide, Fabian, was incredible (to be a Galapagos guide, he told us, it’s a requirement to be at least bi-lingual and have a relevant degree such as biology or ecotourism).
We had our own tiny cabin with our own tiny bathroom, and a sun deck upstairs to read and enjoy the view. There were only 16 beds, and we found that those who chose the smaller boat were like us – mainly younger, interested in nature, friendly, and actively engaged. Eight days was perfect to really explore the majority of the islands without getting tired of the cruise, followed by two days in Puerto Ayora to chill out and go diving. I would recommend at least this long on the islands – seeing as it is so much more expensive than other destinations, you’d better make it worth it.
You’ll need time on and off the boat to explore the islands properly
One final piece of advice: if you get badly seasick, don’t do it.
Stay on the islands (e.g. Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela) and visit that way. A young Dutch woman on our tour was so sick she stayed in her cabin for three days and only came on one short walk on the islands. She and her partner left the tour at Isabela, forfeiting all the money they’d spent so she could at least enjoy part of the experience. If you get a little seasick, make sure you have good medication, and think about the kind of boat you’re going on (apparently catamarans are better for avoiding seasickness). Sometimes the sea is rough, and our boat was small – if you’re badly affected, it’s not fun.
Communing with Nature…
Our tour began on Santa Cruz with a visit to private land crossed by giant tortoises on their search for a mate. We saw dozens from the bus, and when we got out to wander the fields were able to sit so close to hundred-year old males we could hear every wheeze, grunt and sigh. The old men of nature didn’t seem to mind our presence – it’s widely known that Galapagos animals are especially tame (or “tame-less” as our guide said in one of his few adorable slips in English) due to lack of predators. You can stand amazingly close, and many times we inadvertently broke the two metre rule.
Curious ‘tame-less’ animals of the Galapagos Islands
The rest of the tour we were mainly on the boat, travelling long distances overnight and going on two walks and snorkelling trips per day. We were amazed by the bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs, our first marine iguana, and a bunch of sea lions lazing on the shore. But soon these sights became common-place – nature was everywhere. Frigate birds flew beside the boat, and even when we visited an island with few animals besides lava lizards, we were surprised on arrival by a sea lion lazing on the steps. It jumped in the water and continued to surface, barking at us – perhaps in indignation that we’d disturbed its sleep.
Bright red Sally light foot crabs
We also saw nature’s dark side: a blue-footed boobie chick being pecked at by an adult. The baby was huddling into itself and taking the attack without a murmur, blood streaming down its head and neck. Fabian told us some adults attack chicks while the parents are out hunting, reminding me of The Simpsons line: “some of them are just jerks.” Sadly, he told us that if the chick survived it would most likely behave in the same way as an adult – the bullied becomes the bully.
Don’t mess with me!
This was a reminder that nature is not just a happy place here for our entertainment, but it is nonetheless a true marvel. On Fernandina island, the ‘youngest’ of the Galapagos, we saw all kinds of incredible lava formations, including the jagged a’ā lava (pronounced “ah-ah” lava). The name comes from the Hawaiian word for rough, stony lava, or “to blaze”, but Fabian joked it’s also because of the sound people in bare feet make when they walk across it. Lava lizards were running through the cracks, whilst running through my head was the phrase “life on Mars.” It was truly like another planet, yet life had made it here and would continue to change and adapt as the island aged.
Strange other-worldly lava formations
I cannot tell you of all the incredible sights. One island was full of newborn sea lions and their mothers; hawks and crabs picking away at the placentas lying on the rocks. We saw a mother roughly carrying her pup for its first swimming lesson at just a few hours old. We visited an island full of so many marine iguanas we had to walk over them on the paths, the males doing an aggressive head jerk (like ‘how you doin’?’ on a loop) to warn off challengers.
Iguanas blending in with their environment
We saw Galapagos cormorants drying their useless wings, swam with reef sharks so close we could see their eyes swivelling, and visited a church with a tortoise statue and a painting of Jesus on a tropical island surrounded by Galapagos creatures (if I were Jesus, Galapagos is where I would be, too). Often I would find myself staring out into the ocean, full of so much joy to be alive.
But the most amazing day, the Moment amongst many Moments, came on one particular snorkelling trip. It started with a pack of eagle rays that swam right by us, then the most enormous ray I have ever seen fluttering right underneath me, in such shallow water I froze my whole body so as not to touch it. Like all close nature encounters, there was a thrill of fear followed by awe once the animal had passed.
The whole group of us then became the subject of a game played by two sea lions. They swam around the circle of ten or so people, coming right up to our masks and gaping faces then racing away. Eventually everyone swam away, and after a few minutes I followed so as not to be left too far behind. To my delight the sea lions twirled behind me for over 100m, shimmying up and darting back, getting closer and closer. I saw one shoot right under me and open its mouth… then felt it bite me square on the behind! I made a squeaking noise, as I had never expected them to cross that invisible line – the barrier of mutual respect between species – and actually touch me. Had the game changed – were they going to attack me? I felt the sea lion tug my flippers slightly as I got the attention of the man in front. I watched the sea lions play in the bubbles of his flippers, then swim away.
Knowing they weren’t trying to kill me, I was free to enjoy the moment – how many people can say they’ve been bitten on the bum by a sea lion? As we continued our trajectory marvelling at an enormous turtle feeding below, the pair flashed by us every now and then as if to say: “Remember me? Look at me!” The turtle started rising up to breathe, directly beneath us. It floated lazily up towards me and hovered just beneath the surface, staring only centimetres from my face. I was looking into the eyes of a wild sea turtle, and it felt everything: beautiful, serene, euphoric. I backed off slightly so I wouldn’t scare or touch it, and it rose up to breathe. I breathed with it, and with that acknowledged I had found something I would never lose.
About the Writer:
Alice Walker is a travel addict who has visited more countries than she’s had birthdays. Her latest adventure was 3.5 months around Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, but she’s now back in Melbourne to write a Literature/French thesis and executive produce community radio. You can read some of her work with Madrid-based The Bo Review of Human Arts or check out Art Smitten and on SYN radio.