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A trip report for the independent traveller

Philadelphia, PA
posts: 621
reviews: 542
A trip report for the independent traveller

As promised here is an outline of my family's trip to the Galapagos. We planned it all ourselves and slept on land -- no cruise.

SHOULD YOU GO, AND SOME BASIC LOGISTICS

What made the trip possible was the use of American Airlines frequent flyer miles: we flew AA to Guayaquil and connected on LAN to the Galapagos (GPS) airport. Coming back, we went through Quito. It's only 35,000 miles from the USA (you're not allowed to stop in Quito or Guayaquil for more than 24 hours), but AA's computer link with LAN that pulls up their award inventory is dodgy. If you call AA and they claim there aren't any LAN flights to GPS available for an entire month or so, look at the discussion at flyertalk.com. In theory, any oneworld -affiliated frequent flyer program can get you these same LAN seats.

Whether an independent trip to the Galapagos is "worth it" without using frequent flyer miles is VERY debatable (with "free" airfare, the experience is DEFINITELY worth it). The Ecuadorans allow legal price discrimination on flights to the Galapagos, charging gringos significantly more than locals. It seems that most folks wind up paying between $300 and $400 just for the flight from the Ecuadoran mainland. That's obviously a fair amount of money for an hour and a half flight, and I certainly wouldn't do it unless I had enough time in the Galapagos (I'd say at least 8 days) to get my money's worth. Keep in mind that if you're not South American, you'll also get hit up for a $10 registration fee when you leave the mainland, and another $100 national park fee when you land in the Galapagos (both must be paid in cash; the second fee is only $50 for kids under 12).

Candidly, there is some hype associated with visiting the Galapagos: it's undoubtedly somewhat of a "check-off" destination for the rich and well-travelled. The islands themselves are mostly what most folks would consider "scrub." I would say they're neither particularly pretty nor ugly for the tropics (in my mind, the coolest flora in the Galapagos is the opuntia, a very rare and very strange looking "cactus tree"). The Galapagos are famous for their wildlife, but unless you're a serious birder, you're not going to see what most would characterize as "spectacular" animals. Obviously, there are lots of tortoises ("Galapagos" is tortoise in Spanish), but you've probably already seen them (or their close relatives from other places) in your local zoo -- and, indeed, most (but not all) tortoise encounters in the Galapagos will be in zoo-like breading centers.

In the wild, we also saw a ton of sea lions (and got to swim with them a few times), a few seals, dolphins and penguins, more birds than we could identify, and lots and lots of crabs and marine iguanas (although if you've previously spent time on Puerto Rico, you might find the Galapagos iguanas, which are similar looking to Puerto Rico's, about as interesting as squirrels). There are also lots of fish in the sea -- including reef sharks that can make beach swimming a bit freaky, though everyone says these sharks are generally harmless to humans. Overall, I would say the sea life is slightly less interesting -- and certainly less pretty -- than the Caribbean or Hawaii, and there isn't a lot of interesting-looking coral (too cold in winter).

That said, in general, the animals and sea life you will encounter are less fearful of humans than in most places, and this behavior will "make up for" the lack of what might otherwise be considered "spectacular" wildlife. That and the sheer abundance of animals and sea life makes the Galapagos a world-class wildlife destination.

To get to the Galapagos, we flew in and out of GPS -- which is commonly referred to as "Baltra," which is a small island adjacent to the "main" island of Santa Cruz. We flew there because that's the airport "everybody" uses and therefore the only one we knew. But if you've already decided you don't want to take an expensive cruise, you should probably only use Baltra in one direction if you can. The Baltra airport is frankly a pain to use as it is somewhat isolated from Puerto Ayora, the population center of adjacent Santa Cruz island. To get to Puerto Ayora from GPS, you first have to take a free bus to a ferry dock, them a short ferry across a channel to Santa Cruz Island (less than a dollar charge), and then another bus (a few dollars) or taxi ride ($18) for the 35-40 minute ride down to Puerto Ayora. If you decide to leave the Galapagos from GPS, keep in mind that the small terminal is often packed with travellers; we waited more than an hour to check in at the LAN ticket counter (indeed, if you're flying LAN out of GPS, see if you can get your boarding passes from their office in Puerto Ayora the day before; as there is a somewhat shorter line to check baggage for travellers already holding boarding passes).

A better way to start (or end) your independent travel to the Galapagos would be to use the San Cristobal airport in one direction. In addition to being mellower, this airport is immediately adjacent to the main settlement on Cristobal island, the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (which everyone just calls "Cristobal"). I believe Cristobal airport is served by most/all of the airlines that serve GPS, but LAN only flies there on Wednesdays and Sundays. The other nice thing about flying in or out of Cristobal is that it saves you a less-than-comfortable 2-hour $25 ferry ride in one direction from Puerto Ayora: you'll only have to do this route in one-direction.

SAN CRISTOBAL

While much less visited than Santa Cruz/Puerto Ayora, Cristobal is definitely a "must see" stop on an independent, land-based tour of the Galapagos. The town itself is attractive in a sleepy-fishing-village kind of way -- and much more pleasant to hang around than Puerto Ayora, which is almost large enough to be considered a city. Cristobal's claim to fame (such that it has any fame) is the enormous sea lion population that overruns the malecon (the main seaside promenade in town). The sea lions -- and there are at least several hundred of them at any given time -- don't really disturb anyone; they generally keep to the ocean side of the street, while the human population mostly keeps to the other side. It's certainly an amusing site.

From a sightseeing perspective, I think you need at least 2 full days on Cristobal island. On day one, you will probably want to stay close to town. Start at the surprisingly large and professionally-arranged museum at the Information Center, which is just northwest of the town (10 minute walk). From there, some extremely pleasant (and mostly paved) trails set out to various nearby and scenic sites though an attractive forest. You'll certainly want to do the easy climb up up Tijeretas Hill for the view of the island, and to see the nesting frigate birds (in season).

Below the hill, and reachable by the network of paths, is Tijertas Bay, which was probably our favorite snorkel spot in the Galapagos. There's no beach there, but there is a walkway and ladder into the water. The experience changes with the tide, but you'll generally see lots more sea lions here (they'll swim with you if they're so inclined), plenty of fish, the occasional sea turtle, and the birds circling overhead. It's a very idyllic spot, and you can easily spend a couple hours snorkeling here (the water currents are generally calm). We enjoyed the experience so much, we came back the next day.

On your way back to town from Tijertas, if you continue in the loop (after passing a very large statue of Darwin), you'll come to Mann Beach, which is the town's main swimming spot. It's an OK beach, but I wouldn't call it a "destination beach." A little small, a little dirty and a little too much undertow. We stayed for about a half-hour. Frankly, even without a beach, it was a lot more fun to swim in Tijertas Bay.

The guidebooks can direct you to a few other modest sites near town (including a surfing beach), but the other major sightseeing activity on Cristobal is to go into the highlands. I would start in the morning (lower chance of rain) and plan on about 5 hours. Negotiate a price with a driver, but it should be about $40 or $50 total for the trip. On this trip, you will get to walk around the interesting small fresh water lake of El Junco, visit the tortoise breeding center of Cerro Colorado (not my favorite center, but certainly enjoyable) and swim at the VERY pretty beach at Puerto Chino.

Our driver only wanted to give us about an hour, 15-minutes at Puerto Chino but, if you like beaches and want to relax, I'd try to negotiate a 2-hour stay there. It was our favorite beach in the Galapagos. Very pretty, very peaceful, gentle waves and good sand. You do have to wade out relatively far (in shallow water and modest current) to get to non-murky water. As soon as we did, my wife immediately saw a reef-shark. As I've said, it's a little bit freaky to be swimming by yourself with the sharks, so prepare yourself for this (or don't venture too far out).

On the way back, we were also going to stop in the highland town of El Progreso to see a famous tree-house. But before we got there, we came across an injured bicyclist on the side of the road. She seemed to have just skinned her knees and hands, but was very scared. We punted the rest of our excursion to drive her back into town for medical attention. Unfortunately, this experience dissuaded us from renting mountain bikes, which -- if you didn't get hurt -- did look like a fun way to get around the islands at your own pace. I guess you need to weigh your own skill level and risk tolerance for mountain biking and other potentially injurious activities and plan accordingly. Medical facilities exist on all the islands, but they obvlously won't be like the ones at home.

If you have a third full day on Cristobal, you might also want to consider the snorkel/dive excursion to Kicker Rock and Islas Lobos. We heard mixed things about this; some folks warned us that the water clarity was bad that week due to a swell, and that we wouldn't really see much "different" from Tijertas. Others said it was very worthwhile. In the end, we didn't really have the time for the half-day trip, and the $250 total price tag for the 5 of us cemented that decision.

If you didn't fly directly in to Cristobal, you'll likely get there from Puerto Ayora on the public ferry -- which isn't what most folks would consider a "ferry boat." Rather, the ferries in the Galapagos are a random collection of 25-or-so seat, 2-engine motor boats. You generally want to book them a day ahead of time, direct with the boat company or from most local travel agencies. The cost is $25. From Puerto Ayora, you leave at 2 pm. From Cristobal, you leave at 7 am (it's not as early as it seems because it gets light at 6 am, and hardly anyone stays up late in the Galapagos).

SANTA CRUZ/PUERTO AYORA

Puerto Ayora has a completely different feel than Cristobal. It's not exactly "a city," but it does feel like a big Latin American town with lots of locals and lots of tourist infrastructure. Most of the restaurants, shops and accommodations are clustered on a half-mile strip around the waterfront. I wouldn't say Puerto Ayora is a great town to relax in -- it's too hectic -- but it's definitely THE place in the Galapagos to book a last-minute cruise or tour, have a good meal, enjoy some nightlife, buy supplies, etc. It's the undisputed hub of the Galapagos, and it's hard to imagine any visitor not setting foot in Puerto Ayora at some point.

The most popular tourist thing to do in town is walk (10 minutes) to the Darwin Research Center, where you can see the giant tortoises and iguanas in captivity. It's free, which is a good thing, because -- from a visitor's perspective -- it's probably the least interesting of the tortoise breeding centers in the islands. You will get to see the famous Lonesome George (the last tortoise of one sub-species), and the paths through the center are pleasant enough. We also got to see some tortoises mating (you'll know it when you see it!), which is the only place we observed this. It takes about a leisurely hour to see the entire center.

The other big attraction in town is the walk to Tortuga Bay and its nice beach. The walk is on a very well maintained path through a Galapagos forest (lots of interesting opuntia cactus trees), and is quite enjoyable -- if it's not too hot. During the warmer months, I'd try to avoid doing it midday. Once you get to the beach (about 25 minutes), if you're not willing to brave the rougher surf (we were warned against it, and it did look rough), you need to walk another 10 to 15 minutes to the cove where there are no waves. You'll likely pass some marine iguanas on the way. It's a pleasant beach among the mangroves, but the water is murky, so no real snorkeling. A nice outing, but due to the somewhat remote location, you probably will only do it once. Bring something to eat and drink, because these are largely unavailable at the beach.

The other nice activity in Puerto Ayora is to visit Las Grietas. To get there, you pay a water taxi (I think it was 60 cents/person) to take you across the main harbor, where the fairly well-marked path to Las Grietas begins. This is the most pleasant part of town, and if you don't mind the mild inconvenience/expense of always having to take the water taxi to do "something" in town, this might be a good place to stay (the expensive Finch Bay lodge is here, but there are also other options). The path starts out great, taking you past an OK beach (Playa de los Alemanes). But then it starts to deteriorate, becoming muddy and rocky (bring decent shoes). After scrambling over a bunch of large rocks -- which will make you wonder why you are doing this walk at all -- you will get to Las Grietas. It is basically a small, narrow body of cold water between two cliffs that you can snorkel in. The snorkeling OK, not great; not that many fish and mediocre water clarity. More interestingly, you may see an islander jump off the cliff into the water ("look -- he didn't kill himself"). The whole experience is certainly pleasant enough -- and was a crowd pleaser for my family. Definitely worthwhile as long as you don't mind the scramble over the rocks.

For a pleasant late afternoon/evening diversion while in Puerto Ayora, walk along the waterfront, past the restaurants and shops. In the late afternoon, don't miss the waterfront fish market, which is quite a spectacle with the animals "begging" the fishermen for the scraps.

Another interesting activity on Santa Cruz island is to get out of Puerto Ayora town and into the highlands. We hired a taxi driver for $35 to take us to the Primicias Ranch (additional $3/per person entry fee) to see the giant tortoises "in the wild" and walk through a lava tube. Very fun -- probably the best place to see the tortoises because it's all a bit adventuresome. They give you rubber boots to put on, and then you walk out on the very muddy trails to locate the tortoises doing their tortoise things (mostly sitting around). They also have a gazebo where you can "try on" a tortoise shell and take a fun picture of yourself "being" a tortoise. Nearby, a lava tube (there are many on the island) is also very interesting; it's lit so you don't need a flashlight (unless perhaps if you continue to the "wild cave" portion).

With more time, an outing to Primicias could be combined with other highlands stops. Most well known is the walk around Los Gemelos (the sinkholes). All of this is on the way from Puerto Ayora to the Baltra airport, if you can work out the logistics of combining these stops with your flight in or out of Santa Cruz.

The other major thing you can do from Puerto Ayora is arrange day trips to other nearby uninhabited islands. But keep in mind that these are very expensive. The prices we heard were almost $200 per person per day for the excursions (Floreana is cheaper). As a family of 5, we didn't think we could possibly get our money's worth -- compared to visiting the inhabited islands, which you can get to for $25. The day trips also involve A LOT of time on the water in less-than-comfortable boats. If you're interested, read more trip reports about these trips and decide for yourself.

ISABELA

We thought 2 full days in busy Puerto Ayora was enough, and were ready to find a more peaceful Galapagos. So off to Isabela. It's a 2+ hour ferry ride leaving twice a day. There's a morning 7 am "tour ferry" which costs $30, and a more crowded 2 pm "public ferry" for $25. Coming back to Puerto Ayora, the public ferry leaves at 6 am, while the tour ferry leaves mid-afternoon. The tour ferry is designed for day-trippers (which is a horrible idea given how long the ride is and how short your time on Isabela would be). But as an overnight traveller, you can "mix and match" the ferries to best fit your schedule.

Of the 3-major inhabited Islands (a few people live on Floreana, but it has no affordable "public" transport to it), Isabela is the least populated and the most relaxed. But it has a real town ( Puerto Villamil, which is almost universally referred to as "Isabela"), with almost all the infrastructure a tourist would likely need. The town itself is almost a mile from the boat dock so -- especially with luggage -- you'll probably need a ride when you arrive. Taxis (which, as everywhere in the Galapagos, are just pickup trucks) usually charge a flat $2 for the trip, but sometimes try to charge $1 per person for larger groups (especially for the 6 am ferry!) You can also sometimes hitch a ride on a jitney or other vehicle going to and from the dock; sometimes you pay, sometimes not. It's possible that you'll have to wait a few minutes at the dock for a vehicle to come along and, of course, you can just choose to walk.

The town itself has sand (aka "muddy after it rains") streets and a very casual vibe. You'll immediately recognize "the plaza" at the center of town. This is where the tourist office is (regardless of the sign in front of the building which shows it being at the boat dock!). If you haven't already picked it up in Santa Cruz, the office has a nice free map/guide to all the islands in a spiral-bound book.

On the other side of the street -- which is also the best place in town to hail a taxi -- is "restaurant row" with a bunch of tourist-appealing dining options. Several of these places offer $5 or less "almuerzo" lunch deals. Try Cesear's -- everyone recommends it, and the $5 lunch (soup, main, juice) is good. For dinner, Los Delfines has an astonishing dinner deal. For $6.60, you get soup, main (steak, shrimp, fish or chicken) desert (usually flan) and juice. Generally, the other decent-looking restaurants on Isabela charge more than twice that for dinner.

Two blocks from the plaza is the main swimming beach in town, which extends for quite some distance in both directions from there. The sand is good, the waves are gentle and the swimming is fine -- with the water a tad murky for my taste . In town, there are a bunch of palm trees next to the beach, and lots of small marine iguanas hang out by the pier. Some of the guidebooks paint Isabela as a beach destination, but that is extremely generous in my opinion; the beach is OK, you'll use it because it's there. But it's not a "good enough" beach to be a real beach resort and, from what I observed, the foreign tourists don't spend that much time on the beach.

What the tourists do like to do -- including the visiting daytrippers and cruise passengers --- is snorkel at Concha y Perla, which is adjacent to the boat dock (consider the $2 taxi from town to save your feet). You walk through a nice mangrove forest to get to the small pier, where the snorkeling is easy and enjoyable. I did see one ray there -- and got to play with a sea lion for an hour (the sea lion REALLY enjoyed swimming with the humans) -- but it's mostly fish and some modest coral. Not the snorkeling experience of a lifetime, water clarity is only fair, but it''s fun (and less crowded in the morning). If you're on the island for a couple days, you'll probably head back here. Also walk around the nearby boat area to see the occasional penguin and other interesting bird/marine life.

From that dock area (where you arrived from Santa Cruz), you can also get a small boat owner to take you out to the Tintoreras, a series of small islands directly offshore. Even though the area is close by, there is more wildlife there than on the main island. It's a particularly good place to swim with penguins and see the blue-footed booby; the snorkeling is very good too (some of it is calm and some more turbulent; use your judgment as to when to enter the water).

On one of the small Tintoreras islands, there is also a short path which takes you past what's called "shark alley" -- where you can supposedly observe some reef sharks from land, as they pass below you. I'm not real sure about this, because the park service ranger at the dock would not let us walk on the island because we did not have an official guide with us. From the behavior of our boat owner, this seemed to be a bit unusual -- perhaps the ranger was an unusual stickler for the rules -- but we didn't get to walk. If I were to take this boat trip again, I would negotiate a price that made sure we could land on the island -- and a lower price if we couldn't. A couple can probably expect to pay about $35-40 for a two hour trip, with a family paying $20 more (you'll have to negotiate the price; an official tour that will guarantee trail access will be considerably more).

In addition to the Tintoreras, the other "must see" attraction on Isabela is to go out to the Muro de las Lagrimas (Wall of Tears). From the guidebooks, we did not really appreciate what a great outing this was. We did it by taxi ($20 for 2+ hours), but you could also rent bicycles, which might be nice (if you feel comfortable riding them on the uneven surfaces)because you could go at your own pace.

The wall itself is very interesting (as is the story behind it -- a harsh penal colony after WWII), but what's even better is the setting. This is a coastal portion of the protected Galapagos National Park (you'll pass an entrance station, but you don't seem to need a private guide) and there's great scenery and several nice, short walks (if you go by taxi, make sure your driver stops at the various pullouts). You will also see many wild tortoises walking around on the paths and along the main road.

This taxi trip can be combined with a visit to the local tortoise breeding center and the Pozas de las Diablas. These two sites are close enough to town that you could also easily walk to them (10-15 minutes, maybe?). The Pozas is a large pond where pink flamingos tend to hang out; we saw several. The tortoise breeding center is pretty typical, but better than the Darwin Center in Puerto Ayora. The staff is friendly and you can get very close to the baby tortoises (as well as observe their gigantic parents).

The other big attraction on Isabela is the hike to and around Volcan Sierra Negra and the adjoining Volcan Chico. It's also administered by the park service and, best I can tell, they will not let you hike there independently. This is unfortunate, because it means you can't just take a taxi up the mountain (it's 20 minutes or so from town), so you'll have to go on a tour with a guide. A "tour" in the Galapagos generally means "overpriced," and you'll have to get lucky to have your guide provide you with any meaningful insight (indeed, if you can, try to meet your guide before you sign up). The tour agencies like to charge a ridiculous amount for this 5-hour or so walk (like $65 per person), but we managed to negotiate a total price of $120 for 5 people.

Even at that price, however, it was not money well spent. The hike was just awful -- probably the worst walk I've ever taken. First, it's long -- I'm not exactly sure how far, but perhaps 10 miles. To cover that distance in a few hours, you're led at a "forced march" pace. That might be tolerable -- except that the trail conditions are terrible; with bad footing and mud everywhere, particularly on the upward portion to the volcanoes.

And then the rain started (even though the morning had started out very sunny in town). There's almost no shelter on the mountain, and the trail became a river. Our socks were completely ruined, our clothes soaked (don't bring any important papers, like passports with you), and our shoes damaged and in serious need of rehab.

Now I suppose you could enjoy the volcano trail if it were dry but, from what I observed, that would not be the "normal" conditions. The views on top are very interesting (no lava, but you can see smoke rising from the crater), especially if you haven't spent much previous time at volcanoes. For me, I didn't see anything much different from what I've observed in Hawaii or Costa Rica, at certainly much less expense and physical discomfort. And the inability to do the trail "at your own pace" would pretty much have ruined the experience for us even without the rain and mud. So you've been warned; despite the hype, I'd pass on this hike and do other stuff on the island. Without the hike, you probably need 2 full days on Isabela to see the other sites and get a good feel for the island's way of life. But a couple more days to "chill" on Isabela would likely also be enjoyable.

ACCOMODATIONS//FOOD/LODGING/CRUISES

Once you've gotten your airplane ticket -- and paid the $110 to enter -- the good news about visiting the Galapagos as an independent traveller is that expenses are pretty low (assuming you don't take a cruise or pay for a lot of tours). I've already started a thread about the two-tier pricing in the Galapagos. Basically, everything geared to the cruise ship crowd is expensive, and everything geared towards locals and non-money-bags tourists is not.

On a land-based trip, the single best way to save money is to keep your accommodations at the "3 star" level of comfort -- the type of simple, small places that Rick Steves would recommend to Americans for European travel. These are not backpacker accommodations and -- if you choose right -- can be extremely comfortable and pleasant. You'll generally have decent beds, clean sheets, AC, hot water and TV, and often pleasant surroundings (like a nice garden).

Unfortunately, if you book your accommodations ahead of time -- which is easier -- it will likely cause you to spend more money. You will get a better deal, and find more options, if you wait until you're on the island and just show up. I've separately reviewed the places we stayed in to give you an idea of what's possible. On Cristobal, I highly recommend the Casa de Laura, where we got 3 rooms (for 5 people) for $75. On Isabela, we got an enormous 5-bed suite for $50 at the Hostal Tintorera (also nice, and a good deal). In Puerto Ayora, the decent Sir Francis Drake was $75 for a 5-bed room. Couples will obviously pay significantly less for their accommodations.

These were all what I would consider 3-star accommodations. The problem becomes when you want slightly nicer, almost "luxury" accommodations. These properties are geared to the the free-spending cruise ship crowd (who sometimes spends time on land, and usually have their accommodations booked through overseas travel agents). Instead of finding a comfortable double room for, say, $40, you will likely be quoted several hundred dollars for the accommodations -- which will probably be only a LITTLE nicer than the 3-star hotels for a fraction of the price. The only solution I found to this disparity was to avoid the fanciest hotels on each island.

Food works the same way. I don't really recommend seeking out accommodations with cooking facilities because, frankly, the food available in the local markets is pretty uninspiring. Even in Puerto Ayora, there's nothing that would be considered a "supermarket" elsewhere in the world. Also, there are a lot of clean, "non scary" restaurants that provide great food at low prices. In Puerto Ayora, the no-brainer strategy is to head to Binford street and eat in the kioskos. For dinner, K.F. William (see review) is great for inexpensive, fast and tasty Creole-inspired food. For lunch, William is closed, but many of the surrounding kioskos offer solid 2-course lunch "almuerzo" deals for under $5. Pick one that looks good to you. While this food is "Ecuadoran," it won't seem too unfamiliar to American or European palates. Lots of grilled fish, beef and chicken dishes. Everything comes with white rice, which did grow a bit tiresome after a week (you can't get them everwhere, but you can try to substitute papas fritas for rice).

There are also plenty of non-Ecuadoran restaurants, particularly in Puerto Ayora, catering to the tourist crowd. Many of these are stylish, but you'll pay quite a premium for the privilege of eating "foreign food": I'd guess at least twice the price of comparable Ecuadoran restaurants. And unlike the prices posted at the Ecuadoran restaurants, the waiter will add 22% to your bill for tax and service (already included in the "local" restaurant prices). Puerto Ayora has the best foreign restaurants, but it also has the best Ecuadoran restaurants, so it's a hard decision to make there. Pizza is widely available in the Galapagos but is oddly expensive: priced as a Western luxury item. Ice cream is cheap and readily available, particularly in Puerto Ayora and on Cristobal. In Puerto Ayora, you can walk along the water up to Il Giardino (an otherwise nice but expensive Italian restaurant) for some excellent $1.50 gelato.

It's a little harder to eat well and cheaply on Isabela and Cristobal, as restaurant prices there tend to be a bit higher. On these islands, the exact same food can be twice the price in some restaurants than others, so it definitely pays to look at the menus (usually available in English) and compare. I've already given Isabela recommendations. On Cristobal, look for the small Deep Blue restaurant on the Malecon. Good Ecuadoran food and good value there (like tasty $8 entrees).

Breakfast is the worst meal in the Galapagos and, if you get a deal on a room, your innkeeper is unlikely to include it in the rate. Americans, in particular, are unlikely to be happy with the offerings -- as what's considered an "American breakfast" in the Galapagos really isn't. The only place we found a true American breakfast was on Cristobal, where an Ecuadoran-American has just opened a cafe called "A Comer," across from the Mockingbird cafe on Espanola. I didn't think her cooking was fantastic, but she did offer things like pancakes and bacon (and some heathier options) at affordable prices. Otherwise, bakeries are good places to grab bread (and often inexpensive savories like bread stuffed with chicken) that are enough to hold you over until lunch. The local produce markets are good places to grab fruits although, oddly, the regular food stores often don't carry such obvious choices as bananas.

If you're staying on land, don't bring a lot of clothing to the Galapagos because laundry services are plentiful, cheap and fast. The best place to do laundry is in Puerto Ayora: you'll pay only a dollar a kilo ($5 will do a couple's weekly wash). Isabela and Cristobal also have laundries, but you'll probably pay 50% more there.

There are many travel agencies -- particularly in Puerto Ayora -- that can book boat trips and excursions for you (but see my cautionary thread about giving cash to such agents). The biggest problem with using such agents is that you will likely enter the world of "high Gringo prices": anything you can arrange yourself (like hiring a taxi driver or boat owner to take you someplace) will certainly be at least half the cost of booking through a travel agent. Indeed, the single worst expression in the Galapagos for an independent traveller is the phrase "you'll need a guide to take you there" (due to park service entry stations). Those words will at least double the cost and likely reduce your enjoyment of the place you plan to visit. While there are undoubtedly good guides in the Galapagos, most of the ones we encountered, at least at the "budget travel" level, weren't worth much (I think the taxi drivers gave better tours!).

Finally, I should briefly discuss the world of last-minute cruises. We decided not to take one, because I didn't think I could get the price down to what I would be willing to pay (less than $1000 per person) for the type of quality 7-night cruise I was interested in taking. With more time, I might have been successful, but paying this kind of money for something you're not certain about is obviously a significant financial risk. That said, if you want to try it (and, for just a couple, you're obviously talking a lot less money) the place to do it in is Puerto Ayora. On Avenida Baltra (just left of the main dock) you can find some small boat company offices, and there are plenty of travel agencies everywhere that will be happy to quote you prices. You'll probably have to negotiate "hard" to get a good price. You can also hang around the harbor and try to talk to folks who run the boats. I'd plan on spending a full day negotiating if you want to try to find a deal.

I hope others find this information useful and I will try to answer additional questions as they come along. Enjoy your trip!

93 replies to this topic
Creede, Colorado
posts: 840
reviews: 148
1. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

Dave, Thank you for taking the time and writing everything down, the good and not so good. it certainly paints a realistic picture of the islands.

Were you able to see the blue footed boobies anywhere on the islands?

if you had more time what would you have liked to do?

I contacted hostal Tintoreras and the price she offered was $50 for just two of us, what room would you recommend?

did you write the review for Casa Laura, I did not find it.

Philadelphia, PA
posts: 621
reviews: 542
2. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

We saw at least a dozen blue-footed boobies on the Tintoreras boat trip, just off of Isabela. Great bird watching there, including penquins (which also swam with us as we snorkeled).

We had 8 full days in the Galapagos and, honestly, that was about perfect for what we wanted to see. As noted above, there certainly were a few more things we could have seen, but I don't feel I missed anything -- at least anything that I could have seen at an affordable price.

Your experience of getting offered a higher rate by trying to book in advance is accepted practice in the Galapagos, and I've warned about it. From what I've read on the web, I believe it will happen EVERY time you try to book a 3-star property in the Galapagos. If you want to pay the lowest rates, you have to just show up.

Of course, there is a risk that your first choice property will sell out. For example, I'd read a few very favorable online reviews of the Hostal Espana in Puerto Ayora. When I arrived at the property to ask for a room, it was sold out -- even though it didn't really look better than other places that seemed empty. Based on my favorable comments about the Casa de Laura, I bet it will now see an uptick in business (as your inquiry suggests!). So it may get busier, the rates might rise a bit, and it might sell out more often. Too bad I can't get a commission. :)

I did try to get the Casa de Laura listed, but tripadvisor hasn't gotten back to me. When they do, I'll write a formal review.

Edited: 7:52 pm, May 01, 2012
Creede, Colorado
posts: 840
reviews: 148
3. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

It is listed. tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g297530-d270674…

COLORADO SPRINGS
posts: 1
reviews: 1
4. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

Dave:

I haven't even begun to study your post but it's timing could not have been better. My daughter (18) and I are heading to the islands May 12 and I am confident your comments will make our trip more enjoyable, less stressful (I hope!) and more economical.

Best regards,

Barry - Colorado Spriongs

Philadelphia, PA
posts: 621
reviews: 542
5. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

Thanks -- Tripadvisor usually sends me a note when I request a new listing and it becomes available. My review of the Casa de Laura should show up in a day or two.

boston
posts: 422
reviews: 186
6. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

Dave,

Good honest review and I have already copied it to a special folder to be included in my research for our trip, hopefully in 2014...thanks so much, very helpful information.

Creede, Colorado
posts: 840
reviews: 148
7. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

Dave since you were not really impressed with the visibility for the snorkeling, I wonder if there are times that the visibility is better or do you think that it is this way year round?

I would be great to have an access to the spiral bound visitor book before the trip, would you know if it is somewhere on web site?

Philadelphia, PA
posts: 621
reviews: 542
8. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

Good question Boleslav. Anyone an expert on water clarity in the Galapagos? Since it's not really known as a GREAT snorkel/dive spot my guess is that what I experienced is pretty typical.

It would obviously be useful (but not essential) to have the official Galapagos visitors guide before arriving in the Galapagos. Indeed, the book seems sort of designed for that purpose! Unfortunately, Ecuador does not maintain overseas tourist offices, so I don't know how you'd get a copy.

BTW, when I landed at Baltra, I went to the small information desk and asked for a map. They did give me one, but didn't offer me the spiral bound book. I don't know what would have happened if I asked. Frankly, they should just give EVERYBODY the book when they pay their $100, but I guess that would cost them more money. You can pick it up at the tourist office in Puerto Ayora as well.

Paris, France
Destination Expert
for Galapagos Islands
posts: 2,255
reviews: 17
9. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

Dear Boleslav,

I lived in the Galapagos for 4 years and did a fair amount of snorkeling while there. I didn't think the visibility was a problem. My husband, who was with me, and who has snorkeled/dived in Belize, Yucatan, Seychelles, British Columbia, Thailand .... also indicates that he thought the visibility in Galapagos was pretty good. There are one or two exceptional places (e.g. the far end of Tortuga Bay beach, where there is a secluded mangrove cove, or perhaps in certain dive places during the change of the tides) where the visibility is very poor (no use even snorkeling), but otherwise, I would expect at least 7-10m visibility as a rule of thumb. Of course, if you decide to take a cruise, the cruise ships take you snorkeling at the choicest spots around the islands - whereas what is available if you don't take a cruise is more restricted.

I recall my very first "wild" snorkel in Galapagos. My husband and I tagged along with a group of scientists we knew. They were being dropped off at Santa Fe island (non-visitor spot) and while they were off-loading equipment, we went for a snorkel along shorelines no-one ever visits. I recall being a bit spooked by a fairly large white tipped reef shark swimming by at about 10-15 m distance (visibility was very good), and the many colourful fish. The best was going down about 3 metres, hanging on to a rock, and having a huge school of yellow tailed surgeon fish forming a huge type of whirlpool swimming around me as I hung on.

Warmest regards,

Heather Blenkiron

10. Re: A trip report for the independent traveller

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