Over the years we’ve watched several documentaries of the Galapagos Islands and have always thought, right along with millions of others, “Wow! Would we love to visit there s-o-m-e-d-a-y!” Upon our arrival in Ecuador we started researching affordable ways to visit the islands that were somewhere between the high-end luxury cruises and backpacker hostels. Most flights embark for the 1½ hour journey from Guayaquil which was only a little over a three hour bus ride from Manta where we’ve been staying. We consulted a couple of travel agencies whose prices were roughly $999 per person, for a four day/three night stay in a four-star hotel with meals included, excluding beverages. A five day tour, with the same inclusions and exclusions was $1299 per person. Not covered were tourist/park fees and docking fees. We read a few articles online, talked to friends about their visits and decided that we wanted to add extra days as well as select which islands we wanted to visit. And so we planned our own “Indie” excursion.
We took an early morning cab to the bus station ($2) and boarded the bus line Reina Del Camino (Queen of the Road) to Guayaquil with our previously purchased tickets, $5.00 for adults, $2.50 for seniors for a total of $7.50. Upon our arrival at the major bus terminal in Guayaquil, a three-story affair, we claimed our bags and then cabbed ($4) to the airport. The bus terminal and airport are actually adjoined but one-way streets necessitated an extended drive around the parameters of the two facilities.
Our plane fare on Avianca Airlines was $577 for two round-trip tickets from Guayaquil to Baltra Island in the Galapagos. We were a little out of sync with the order of steps and procedures but they basically boil down to:
- Stop by the Consejo de Gobierno del Regimen Especial de Galapagos for the control card for transit into the Galapagos ($20 for two people).
- Next go to the Inspeccion y Cuarentena, a quarantine that checks to make sure you’re not bringing in seeds or other items that could affect the balance of the flora and fauna in the archipelago. Bags will be scanned, checked and stickered. Some people elect to get their luggage wrapped in multiple layers of plastic but we’re not quite sure why.
- Finally, we checked our two bags, proceeded through security and awaited boarding.
We landed without incident on Baltra Island at the small airport and claimed our checked bags. Customs was a breeze and we were separated from another $200 for two people for the Galapagos Islands National Park entrance fee. Our passports received the requisite stamp for the Parque Nacional Galapagos.
We followed the crowd to the waterfront and deposited our suitcases with a man who heaved them on the roof of the covered launcha, clambered aboard and set off for the Isla Santa Cruz, the island we were staying on ($2 ). Upon disembarkation we reclaimed our carry-ons, and boosted ourselves and our luggage onto a bus for the 45-minute ride to Puerto Ayoro, the largest metropolis on the islands, with a population of perhaps 12,000 hearty souls. The bus, incidentally, was gratis. At the terminus we hailed a taxi (a bit of a price gouge of double the normal fare at $2 for the short trip) and proceeded to our hotel.
We had reserved our room through AirBnB previously and found The Hotel Fiesta to be charming, clean and quiet although the room was small. It was also very close to the “downtown area” and restaurants and was a great value at $100 per night, including tax and gratuity, for a total of $500. The room included an enormous breakfast of fruit, yogurt, granola, coffee/tea and juice which was then followed by eggs, bread, cheese and sausage or ham. The Hotel Fiesta also had a travel agent, a delightful woman named Deanna, who booked all our tours for us, including a lucky break on a highly desired island tour.
We explored Santa Cruz beginning with a walk of roughly 6 miles round trip from the hotel to Playa Tortuga on the island. The vegetation was remarkable and the ocean view was spectacular. Small birds showed no fear and wandered freely around us. Afterwards we went took another ambling walk around the Charles Darwin Center (free) to view rescued land tortoises and large multi-colored iguanas.
We joined a small group for a 4-hour tour of the Academy Bay ($70.00) and cruised by some of the smaller islands and rocky, jutting cliffs for up close glimpses of sea lions, sea turtles and blue-footed boobies. We beached at a rocky point for a walking tour where we saw marine iguanas emerging from the sea and heaving their large bodies over the lava rocks, finally gaining purchase on the sandy beach and hence into the sparse vegetation searching for warmth under the scorching sun. A calm lagoon had at least twenty white tip sharks floating and sleeping. Snorkeling was the final activity but only three stout hearts attempted it because, hey, the water was c-o-l-d! The boldest swimmer made it no more than 15 minutes with only a few fish seen. On shore, following a late lunch at a wonderful Italian restaurant, we wandered over to a pier adjacent to the fish market. The vendors were gone but we were treated to very close encounters with large Peruvian pelicans.
We’d scheduled a tour to North Seymour Island (cost $320 for a couple which included meals) and our day started at 8:00 AM when a shuttle picked us up to transport us to the north end of the island. Here we caught our boat for the day, a 37 foot Bay Liner, for the 1 hour trip. North Seymour Island is a flat-topped island, an uplifted piece of the ocean floor raised during one of the tectonic upheavals that created parts of the Galapagos. Aridity was the hall mark of this island but here we saw sea lions with their pups, some suckling and some juveniles old enough to brave the waters for short periods. As for our avian viewing highpoint, the male Magnificent Frigate Birds were courting and in full display with completely distended air sacks – brilliant red with black spotting. The Lesser Frigates were fun to watch but no competition for our admiration and the Blue Footed Boobies, while not in abundance, were sufficient enough to fill our quota.
Our last tour, St. Bartolome Island, was a genuine score for Deanna, our hotel’s tour agent, ($340 with meals). This island, especially, has a very high demand for on-shore tours and a daily limit of people allowed. We started our day at 6:00 AM with the shuttle across the island followed by a 3-hour boat ride to St. Bartolome Island and an exciting sighting of a few manta rays. The island shores are a combination of rugged bluffs, sandy beaches and pyroclastic lava flows from 1898 which almost resembled an elephant hide in places and served as a geological lesson in island building. At a second drop site, we climbed 364 steps that circled the island’s extinct volcano for a panoramic view of the whole island. On our way down we were lucky enough to spot sea turtles regally swimming by, penguins darting rapidly in and about the water with a couple on shore and curious sea lions cruising by the beach for a closer look. However, the only apparent inhabitants appeared to be grasshoppers in this stark landscape. The long boat ride back was drowsy and filled with quiet talking and gazing out at the water, contemplating our visit.
Transportation (Buses, taxis, launchas, airfare) – $639
Meals – $219
Tours – $730
Park Fees – $220
We saved where we could but we didn’t skimp because this journey will be one of the highlights of our travels. Going to the Galapagos Islands can be done for much cheaper with hostels starting out at $25/night or it can be done for a lot more money in luxury accommodations.
By Richard and Anita