Saturday, January 2, 2016

Adventuring through the Galapagos - on the cheap

Happy New Year! 2015 has come to a close and 2016 is now upon us. My laziness took over and I didn't get my full Galapagos post edited and posted over the last week so I figured I'd just go ahead and post it now. Something interesting about 2016 is hopefully coming next week :)

For those who haven't heard me say it I'll say it again - I absolutely adored the Galapagos! If it's not on your bucket list it should be. After eight and a half days there I was quite sad to leave. I would 100% go back if the opportunity presented itself but if it never does I am honored to have been able to go to this magical place. I could just put loads of pictures into this post but I've attempted to select a few of my favorite - for all of the photos check out the Galapagos album here.

As Darwin and others discovered many years ago there’s no other place on earth like it. I never lost the excitement over seeing sea lions and iguanas just hanging out on the beaches, park benches, in the middle of the sidewalk, or wherever they deemed appropriate. The ability the get up close and personal with all the animals both in the water and on land is unbeatable.

Also, all of the people who I met there were fantastic in putting up with me as I strung together sentences in my broken Spanish (as with everywhere in Ecuador). Because I was not on a ship with the same folks the whole time I met different people everywhere - both locals and travelers - so I felt like that gave me a much better taste of things. Yes, people do in fact live in the Galapagos and there's infrastructure on a few of the islands. The locals are very proud of their islands and there’s certainly a bit of a rivalry of which island is the best. For me it's a toss up between San Cristobal and Isabela as to which was my favorite, but I think San Cristobal has the edge.

For people who think that visiting the Galapagos is ridiculously expensive let me tell you that it doesn’t have to totally break the bank. Yes, it's more pricey than mainland Ecuador and you can absolutely do it first class luxury all the way but it’s possible to have an incredible journey for much cheaper - especially if you’re willing to wing it a little bit. Like many locations in the world getting there may be the most expensive piece but what you choose to do while you’re there and how you want to do it will really determine your price. From Quito alone the flight to the Galapagos and back was about $450 - that’s almost as much as I paid for my Newark-Quito-San Francisco flight! You might be able to get them for cheaper if you book way in advance (totally not my style these days!) but I’m not sure how much lower the prices really go unless you're very very flexible. In the airport you then pay $120 just to enter the National Park. That’s expensive but in the name of conservation and national parks I accept. I have read that there's been talk for a while about increasing that park entrance fee.

Once you’re there how you spend your time (and therefore your money) is up to you. Tour agencies abound - especially in the city of Puerto Ayora on the main island of Santa Cruz which has the primary airport - so it’s possible to book all sorts of boats at a wide range of prices. I talked to a few different places when I got there trying to determine if I wanted to island hop on my own or get on a boat for anywhere from 4 to 8 days. I was getting prices anywhere from $450/500 to $1000 and beyond.  What I discovered, and had read this before hand too, was that you need to kinda know what you want to see/do and if there are specific islands on your ‘must see’ list. For me I really wanted to see both Isabela and San Cristobal Islands but since the boats spend something like 8 days on the Isabela side of the archipelago and then 8 days on San Cristobal my timing wasn’t going to work too well for that.

Ultimately I decided that I’d island hop on my own visiting a few of the accessible beaches, snorkeling sights, animal centers, and whatever else I could find in the towns and then book into a few day tours for the prime snorkeling and wildlife sightings. Since I wanted to see the three different islands there are of course a few places that I didn’t get to see but I don’t feel like I missed out, I would have just had another amazing snorkel experience to add to the record books. I ended up doing two day snorkeling trips and they were each $90 - I found that trips range anywhere from about $85-$120 and you can pretty much always get a few dollars off. If you want to just check out local snorkeling spots without a boat tour you can always rent masks and snorkels for $3 per day.

From an accommodation standpoint there’s super cheap to expensive and I opted for what felt like super cheap but I know there was cheaper! Upon arrival I had only booked two nights to begin with so I could make a plan and go on from there. After Santa Cruz I’d just eye a few spots ahead of time and then pick one and upon arrival see what rooms they had and at what price. I paid $25/night on Santa Cruz with breakfast included, $15/night on San Cristobal no breakfast, and then $25 on Isabela with no breakfast. Each place I had my own room with bathroom including hot water. Over 8 nights I spent less than $200!

“…by far the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago…is that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings…I never dreamed that islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted.” - Darwin

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is not the largest island land wise but it’s the most developed. The town of Puerto Ayora is bustling with hotels, restaurants, tour operators, souvenir shops, and a harbor full of boats. This is certainly a town with the most services but for me it was my least favorite. However, because I started here it only got better.

Many flights come into the Baltra airport which is on an island just next to Santa Cruz. Once you get off the plane you take a bus (free) to a small ferry dock, get on the ferry to cross the channel ($1), and then either get into a taxi or public bus ($18 or $2 respectively) to make the ~45 minute journey across the island to Puerto Ayora. Upon my return to the airport I was unhappy to learn that the bus option back to the ferry dock apparently only runs a few times in the morning and not when I wanted to go at like 9:30 or 10 so I had to pay the $18 on my way back but took the cheapie option on the way into town.

Iguanas sunning on the beach
While in Puerto Ayora...

  • Charles Darwin Research Center - just on the edge of town this was my first chance to see giant tortoises. I also passed numerous sea lions and iguanas napping on the sidewalks as I walked. The research center itself felt a bit sad. They’re doing some construction so hopefully it’s going to feel a bit more alive in the future but it really felt sad and neglected.
  • Tortuga Bay beach - this is about a 30-45 minute walk from town out to a nice beach and then at the end of the beach there’s a protected bay with calm waters for swimming and kayaking. While walking along the beach you see iguanas everywhere both on the sand and the rocks and taking a swim. First time i saw an iguana swimming I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t have much luck with the snorkel seeing any turtles in the bay but apparently they’re there.
  • Las Grietas - this is a nice snorkeling spot one minute water taxi and then about 10 minute walk away from town. It was suggested to me that I make sure to go over the rocks at the end of the first pool and into the second and third pools. This was a fantastic tip! While the first pool was quite nice and incredibly clear there were not many fish. After I not so gracefully attempted to scramble over the rocks without falling there were indeed many more fish to see - and also no people.
  • Giant Tortoise Reserve, Lava Tunnels, and Craters - when I was in transit between San Cristobal and Isabela I had a few hours to kill back on Santa Cruz so I hired a taxi to take me to check out these three sights. I was going to try and just do them on my own but since I needed to be back for the boat I just went the taxi route and my new friend Eciro was very patient with my Spanish for about two hours. The tortoise reserve was fantastic. Here you put on some wellies and wander muddy paths through the natural habitat of the tortoises. These guys looked so much happier than those at the Darwin center just chomping away in the grass or having a soak in a puddle.

Under the water at Las Grietas
In the lava tunnel
Munch munch goes the tortoise
In order to get to the other islands of San Cristobal and Isabela you have to take a ‘Ferry’ from Puerto Ayora. There are two boats each day, one AM and one PM, going to and from either island and they cost $30 each. With my first ride to San Cristobal I quickly learned at ‘Ferry’ is a very loose term! I don’t know what I had in mind but these are 20-25 person speed boats with a covered top. They load the luggage in and then you grab a spot on the bench on either side and hang on! I’d read that the waters were choppy but good lord, these rides were ridiculous. I am pretty confident now that I do not get sea sick, Whew! I also quickly learned that my location on the first boat ride was not ideal (I felt like I was being thrown around like a rag doll) and I needed to make sure I positioned myself to get a spot at the back, but you don’t want to be in the back row by the engines because you’re guaranteed to be soaked a few minutes into the 2-2.5 hour journey! After the first boat there was definite strategy for the following three boats.

I will say, these 'ferries' were one of the least enjoyable parts of the trip and I wasn't even getting seasick. If you're prone to sea sickness you may want to just be on a larger cruise ship because these two to three hours felt pretty long each time!

San Cristobal

From Santa Cruz I went to San Cristobal for two days. Lucky for me the weather was probably the best while I was there. Sunny skies made the beaches and snorkeling even better! Arrival in San Cristobal immediately felt better than Santa Cruz with a small port town and a more relaxed feeling. I’d say that this was my favorite island experience.

View from the San Cristobal port
While here...

  • La Loberia beach - a beautiful spot about 30 minutes walk out from town, much nicer than Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz. Initially you see mostly iguanas lounging on the lava rocks while the waves crash a few meters away but then as you walk along a sandy path you’re lead to a beautiful white beach with tons of sea lions. This was my first chance to swim up close with them in super shallow clear water. They were absolutely adorable, very curious, and playful.
  • Las Tijeretas snorkeling - another easy walk from town the other direction past a few beaches and an informative education center with lots of info about the islands and history of the Galapagos. This snorkeling spot appeared to be pretty popular but large in size so even if there were a lot of people there's plenty of space - just drop your shoes on the little wooden platform and jump right into the water!
  • Playa Mann and Amor - nice little beaches just at the edge of town and great sunset views. I walked over to these beaches a few times to check out the local scene and take in the sun sets.
  • Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido) snorkeling day - I knew heading to San Cristobal that Kicker Rock was one of the day trips I wanted to do. I’d also heard that Cerro Brujo beach was a must see so I asked around at a few of the tour operators to find one who was going to be going to that beach in addition to Kicker Rock the next day. Both were absolutely amazing and Cerro Burjo was definitely the most beautiful beach that I saw - very Caribbean feeling. The snorkeling started off slow and I wasn't seeing much but once one turtle was spotted all of a sudden it got so much better. By the end we were swimming among turtles, sharks, sea lions, rays, and of course loads of fish. The GoPro got a ton of use here!
  • On a side note people who can’t swim really just shouldn’t sign up for a snorkeling tour! A few people weren’t confident in the water so had to be essentially pulled around on a life buoy and were apparently grabbing on to two of the other girls I was with, glad they weren’t grabbing at me!

Baby sea lion rests on the beach
Kicker Rock
Peaceful turtle at Kicker Rock
This was my final stop and quite a different feeling to the other islands. It’s the largest in size but least developed and according to a local tourism really only came to Isabela about 10 years ago. It was traditionally a fishing village with a small main town made up of sandy streets along a nice beach. You definitely feel the difference here in that there’s just less of everything but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s low key, more relaxed, and far fewer people. Even though my Lonely Planet book was published in 2015 a few spots weren't actually open - business seems to come and go here and it's all very causal. Just go with the flow and find a local to tell you where to go!

Blue Footed Boobies
While here...

  • Los Tuneles - Walking and snorkeling among blue footed boobies, turtles, sharks, and sea horses. The GoPro was in full effect again on this trip. The turtles here were massive compared to the ones that I saw at Kicker Rock - these had to have been as big as me. And we swam right up to a shark den and just watched as ten or more sharks swam around. There were even some penguins as well - Isabela has loads of them.
  • Tortoise breeding center - Here you can see land tortoises of all ages and sizes. There’s pretty much a zero chance of survival for tortoise eggs laid in the wild so this center is very important to continuing the population. It was neat to walk around the various areas where the tortoises of different sizes and ages are and see them moving in what really did look like slow motion!
  • Flamingo lagoon - I don’t think I’ve ever seen flamingos in the wild before so these were another exciting wildlife sighting. They're definitely pretty in pink.
  • Concha de Perla - a short walk through mangroves near the port brings you out to a great protected snorkeling spot where sea lions sun on the dock and then splash into the water to cool off and all sorts of other animals can be found while swimming around.
  • Penguins and playful sea lions are all over Isabela. I could have spent hours watching these guys swimming around and enjoying the waves as the tide was coming in right at the town's main beach.
  • Afternoon drinks at the Beto beachfront bar is a great spot to meet locals and others while staring out at the sea while lounging in a hammock.

Happy sea lion
Hello Shark Den
After eight and half days, three islands, four rough ferry rides, two fantastic snorkeling tours, and uncountable animal sightings my time in the Galapagos came to an end. Sadly that was it but the amazing time in the Galapagos kept me on a travel high for two more weeks throughout mainland Ecuador and I had many more adventures to follow.

Sun sets behind a boat off San Cristobal

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