The majority of the 170,000 tourists who visit the Galapagos Islands annually take cruises around the islands. To make it more affordable, I chose not to do a cruise, but instead divided my ten days over two islands, doing day trips from each island.
I spent most of my time on this island - 6 out of my 9 nights. There is so much to see and do and the town Puerto Ayora is a good base for days trips. I stayed at a very cool hostel - Galápagos Best Home Stay, and on arrival the host Kevin took me on a walking tour of the small centre. Santa Cruz has a population of 12,000 making it the largest island, with San Cristobel (the capital) the second biggest island at 6,000. Although I spent three days in Puerto Ayora on day trips to other islands I think I definitely made the most of my stay and explored a lot of Santa Cruz.
Heading up to the Highlands was a must do. It costs $30 for a taxi ride there and back and the taxi driver waits around while you explore. I went walking through lava tunnels and also visited El Chato (Rancho Primisicis) which is where giant tortoises can be found wandering freely. I love the tortoises and was stoked to find one tortoise who loved posing for photos with me!
This place was a highlight! It takes 30 minutes from the main street of Puerto Ayora to walk there and it's beautiful. White sand, clear water and marine iguanas everywhere! I also hired a kayak for $10 a hung out with sting rays, sea turtles and blue footed boobies. Unfortunately the sea turtles were way to quick for me to take a decent picture.
Of the five inhabited islands, Floreana has the smallest population with only 120. In Floreana's Post Office Bay there is a wooden barrel where you can drop off an unstamped but addressed postcard and take one to stamp and send on. This originated from the days of the whalers and pirates of the 18th century when a wooden box served as a mailbox for the passing ships. These ships would collect messages and take them onto the intended destination. I loved this rather romantic notion so a day trip to Floreana was the first thing I booked on arrival to Puerto Ayora. Of course I was so excited I didn't realise we would need to hire our own snorkel gear for the trip and I didn't even remember to buy a postcard! Luckily they had a few to choose from once I got to the island (and a nice guy lent me his snorkel gear after he had enough).
I'm not sure when Alex will get his postcard but I know someone in Germany will be getting the one I took out of the box and sent on! I think you're actually supposed to take a card from the country you are from but our boat was about to leave so I just grabbed the first one I could. At least someone will be happy!
On the island we did a bit of walking, visiting La Loberia to see sea lions and their cute babies. Here we also did some snorkeling and I was pretty happy to see a ray! After an amazing lunch (fresh fish!) we drove up to Cerro Allieri to get a good view of the Islands vegetation (more exciting than it sounds..) and also checked out pirate caves and sculptures at Asilo de la paz.
Another day trip I took from Puerto Ayora was to Bartolome, a tiny island at the south eastern tip of Isla Santiago. This is the island with the perfect postcard view. If you've seen one picture of the Galápagos chances are it's this one.
We had to drive the 40 minutes to the other side of Santa Cruz (near Isla Baltra where the airport is) to get onto a boat to Bartolome and once on the boat it was another two hours to the island. It was a nice cruise though and we spotted sharks and mantas on the way. We anchored near the pretty Pinnacle Rock and jumped on the little taxi boat which took us to the island where we walked to the top for "that" picture. Stunning. After lunch back on the boat we then went to a beach on Isla Santiago where we snorkeled with the smallest, speediest penguins and marine iguanas. It was the first and only time I saw a marine iguana in the water so I was very happy. Usually they are just sunbathing!
Isabela is the largest island of the Galápagos and makes up nearly 60% of the entire land of the archipelago. I was talking to a cafe owner on the island and he said this place is still a hidden gem as many tourists don't know to come here. The major town on Isabela is Puerto Villamil (pop. 2,500) and I spent three nights here.
Nerd Alert. The Galápagos Islands are formed from movements of tectonic plates. At first they form as volcanoes under the ocean but then rise to the surface as volcanic islands. The youngest islands Fernandina and Isabella are examples of this. As time goes on, and as the Nascar plate moves east and slides under the South American plate the islands become more eroded. One day these older islands, which become covered in vegetation over time, will eventually sink and disappear under the South American plate. Of course younger islands would take their place in the same process. I thought this was very cool and it explained how the islands in the west (Fernandina and Isabella) looked different to the younger, smaller and more lush islands of the east.
Los Tuneles is another trip you can do on Isabella, and for me it was another highlight. So many highlights! We jumped on a tiny boat and headed 40 minutes down the coast until we came to the spot where lava from the volcanoes had made tunnels in the ocean. Los Tuneles. After exploring one part of the tunnels (and probably getting too close to the Blue Footed Boobies) we boated another ten minutes to a snorkeling spot. This is where I saw my first shark up close and personal, in the water! After about fifteen minutes in the water our guide had found a cave and so we all took it in turns to dive down to the cave to get a look at the (harmless thankfully) white fin sharks. There were about seven of them and we could get literally a metre away. Again, my expectations were exceeded. We also saw more sea turtles and I even pointed out a giant sting ray to the guide who then kindly told us "I think that was the one who killed Steve Urwin". Not cool when I'm swimming over the top of this thing!
Diving in the Galapagos
After arriving back from Isabella on a boat trip from hell (egotistical captain who was driving far too fast), I had one final day on Santa Cruz. What could I do? My philosophy on my trip is this: if I will regret not doing something, I have to do it. I had been tossing up whether to go diving or not while on the islands. On one hand, I hadn't gone diving since Thailand in 2009 and I was a little nervous but on the other hand I Was In The Galápagos Islands! The latter won and I booked in for a dive. There was no way I was leaving this place regretting not diving.
The first spot we dived at was Daphne Minor. This was not the best dive. Under the water the visibility was poor and the current was strong. Not good for someone who hadn't dived in four years. I was also so nervous that I was quite panicky when I first got into the water and it took a lot for me not to bail in those first few minutes. Luckily my dive buddy was a lovely Irish girl who had just done her dive course in Colombia so she was just as nervous as me. We managed the dive but once we got back to the boat were so put off by our experience that we were thinking of not doing the afternoon dive. After a couple of hours of laying on the boat deck in the sun my philosophy of no regrets forced me to get back into the water and wow, what a dive! The water was so clear and I was much more settled. Thankfully the dive masters buddied up with us which for me definitely made me feel more at ease. Not long after we got into the water we saw two eagle rays followed by two hammerheads swimming past us. One of the dive master knew where some white fin sharks would be too and took us to the spot where over ten sharks were just resting at the bottom. It was so cool to get so close to these placid creatures. I didn't want this dive to end!
Every day I was on the Galápagos I was blown away by what I was experiencing. I came with no expectations about what I would see and what I would do but in my ten days there I saw and did more than I imagined! Every night I got back to my hostel I was exhausted! Every morning I was up before six am to make the most of the day. When I had booked my ticket to South America a year ago I knew nothing about the Galápagos. Now I know, out of all the places I've been to in this vast and beautiful continent, I will be back.
I did ten days land based tours and all up, excluding flights but including the $100 entrance fee, this cost $1400. This is about double what the mainland on South America costs. I could have easily spent less had I been in a dorm bed ($10) rather than a private room ($30), cooked more for myself/had less lobster (boring!) and bought less presents (and expensive Ecuadorian chocolate for myself).
Although I think doing land based exploration is an amazing way to see a couple of islands if I was to come again I would also add on a cruise. Cruises are expensive but they don't have to be. If you buy them online before you get to the islands at minimum you are looking at about $3500, but if you wait to get a last minute cruise once you get to the Santa Cruz a eight day cruise can cost as little as $800. You can also get good deals from Guayaquil or Quito. Considering I spent $140 a day, this is a bargain! I would do an eight day cruise which gets to both beautiful Bartolome as well as the oldest island Espanola, which I was unable to get to because I wasn't on a cruise. I would also make sure my cruise explored San Cristobal island as this has a lot to offer including Kicker rock which is a great snorkeling spot with lots of sea lions. I would still do a few nights in Puerto Ayora as I really think Tortuga Bay and the Highlands are not to be missed. Isabela is also a must and rather than including it in the boat cruise I would rather do it independently like I did. Three nights there is also enough. Therefore you could do two weeks on the Galápagos without breaking the bank. Believe me, you won't regret it.