Galapagos Islands land iguana

Ecuador: Galapagos Islands on the cheap

The EarlybirdAdventures, South America, Travel Tips

I was in Mancora, a popular surf town on the north coast of Peru. One night in a bar, I ran into a fellow backpacker who told me he had been to the Galapagos Islands. “Wasn’t that expensive?” I asked him. Well, he said, then let me into a secret – book everything last minute on the islands. “And, do they have travel agents on the islands?” I enquired. Sure, just go there and you’re sure to pick up something cheap within a couple of days, as the boats are not always full and they need to fill the births.

I had not been planning to go the Galapagos Islands due to the exorbitant costs. I had researched online and the prices were astronomical! I had thought the only other option would be to book a cruise on the Ecuador mainland – in Quito or Guayaquil. Before I had set out for South America, friends who had been had told me to forget the cost – it’s a once in a lifetime experience and I might never be back in that part of the world.

So, armed with this new information and a renewed determination, I set forth to the internet cafe the next morning to book my ticket. By coincidence, a German woman sat right next to me and we got chatting. It turned out, she had just come from the islands and gave me all the insider tips I needed. She told just to book a one way ticket and then decide on the island how long I would want to stay.

So, I followed her advice and got a reasonably cheap ticket of $175 one way – two one-way tickets cost me around $350, which is a good price for the Galapagos, as it’s quite a long flight.

Some tips for the arrival process: the Galapagos islands are not cheap and they screw you at every opportunity. At the airport, you have to pay a $10 tax. Get to the airport (I flew from Guayaquil) really early. There is only one queue and there are 3 or 4 flights in the morning. It took so long, I had to run to my gate to catch my flight, missing the chance to withdraw cash from a machine (Ecuador uses the US dollar as its currency, so there is no problem withdrawing dollars). This meant I had no $US cash to pay the $100 tax at the airport upon arrival. In the end, I didn’t go to jail or get put on the first flight back – they confiscated my passport and I had to pick it up some days later from a govt office upon payment of the $100.

So, I arrived on at the main airport of the Galapagos, the small island Balta. There are only 3 islands which are inhabited and where tourists are allowed to go without a tour. The airport on Balta services the main island, Santa Cruz. Buses pick tourists up from the airport, then shuttle them across to Santa Cruz, where there is a small port full of boats rendezvousing with the flight. The main town, Puerto Ayora, however, is in the south on the other side of the island. Another option is to fly to the second most populated island, Santa Cristobal. Finally, there is one more island, Isabela, the largest island, but the least populated of the 3 inhabited islands.

I headed down to Puerto Ayora, booked into a cheap hotel, had a look round town and checked out the local giant tortoise sanctuary. I managed to get a snap of Lonesome George, the oldest and famous tortoise on the Galapagos, who was the last of his sub-species, and passed away in 2012. There were several unsuccessful attempts to get George to mate, due to the lack of females of his sub-species. Finally in 2009, the old guy managed to get his leg over and the lucky ladies produced some eggs. Alas, it was not be, as the eggs failed to produce any offspring.

Puerto Ayora is a pretty nice place. There is a lot of money on the islands – they have found the perfect balance between exploiting their resources to the max, whilst still maintaining and therefore protecting the environment, their main asset. Along the waterfront, there are several boutique artists stores selling expensive, but exquisite original works from local artists. It is quite common to see wildlife along the waterfront. In seaside restaurants you have to be careful not to trip over sleeping iguanas and sea lions and pelicans are a common site at the morning fish market hoping to catch a stray morsel.

Although the tours are very expensive, other goods and services are remarkably cheap. You can pick up a room in a cheap hotel for $15. Food is very reasonable, despite almost all of it (except fish, of course) having to be imported from the mainland.

There are banks, nice restaurants and plenty of travel agencies. Back in the town at about 6pm, I decided to take a stroll through downtown and make some enquiries. Maybe there would be a cruise going in the next few days. With no return ticket, I was in no hurry. As it was a Sunday, not all shops were open. I entered one agency and the dude offered me a tour straight up – 1st class yacht for a bargain $640! The catch – I had to leave right there and then.

A quick note on the types of boats… there are basically 4 classes of boat: luxury, 1st class, tourist superior and tourist. Most luxury and 1st class vessels are 16 birth luxury yachts. In these classes, you get better food, beds instead of bunks, a more stable boat (making sleeping at night easier), etc.

I was caught unawares and told them I had to get some fresh air and think about it. A guy followed me out of the agency, walked around the corner and told his mate in another agency. His mate came running out calling me – offered me the same birth on the same boat for $550 – absolutely bargain basement. He called the boat and told them I would be joining. I had to withdraw the cash from a machine and pay 100% up front. I also had to sign a contract saying if I didn’t get to the boat on time, it would leave without me and I would lose everything. Well, they can’t f**k around all day waiting for one guy who missed his flight. I wasn’t too happy about this, but he assured me he had called them and they were waiting for me.

So, I reluctantly signed and handed over the cash. As soon as I had done this, he told me I had 40 mins to get to the harbour (in the north) or they would leave without me. Little did I know it takes 45 mins to drive from one side of the island to the other! I raced to grab a taxi (pickup truck on the Galapagos), gather my stuff from the hotel and we were on our way. We were speeding down the hill (the island is a volcano) at 180 kph in the dark to try and make it. When we got there, there were only a couple of fisherman! I called my name in vain out into the darkness of the ocean. There was no reply and I thought I had just been had – there was never any cruise in the first place! But then suddenly from nowhere came a voice calling me… it was a small dingy with a local guy and another English guy, who, it turned out had also bought his ticket last minute that day.

I boarded and we sailed out into the darkness of the ocean for about 40mins. Finally, in the distance, we spotted a light. As we neared, I realised it was a luxury yacht, moored in the middle of the ocean. We boarded the yacht and as we ascended to the main deck, were asked: “Chicken or Fish?”. We sat immediately down to dinner, joining a couple of seniors from the USA. Later, they remarked, “We were just sitting down to dinner when you guys walked in – where the hell did they come from?!”.

I shared a room with my English companion, Charlie, whilst Jim and Audrey, our mature companions another. By sheer luck, the other 12 passengers were on their own private tour with their own guide. This meant the four of us had the boat’s guide all to ourselves. This was brilliant, as we had his full attention at any given time and didn’t have to fart around waiting for the last guy to get ready before setting off in the morning.

How it works with the Galapagos cruises is roughly this: most boats follow 2 set routes – the northern circuit, or the …. wait for it, southern circuit, or variations thereof. Each circuit is 4/5 days. The first and last days are half days and are spent picking up passengers, so there is no difference between a 4 and 5 day cruise. You can do a longer 8 day cruise which covers both circuits. Unless you are hard core and have to see the mating of the blue-footed booby in season, I don’t recommend the 8 day cruise. 4 days is more than sufficient to get your fill of wildlife. One woman I met remarked that on the 8 day cruise, one whole day is wasted dropping off and picking passengers. Then the guide repeats all the same information to the new passengers.

The boats follow a typical schedule of morning island walk, followed by lunch and free snorkeling, then a further island walk on the other side of the island. Early to bed following dinner and a recap of the days events. The yacht then sails overnight to the next island and you awake fresh to the wonderful sight of turtles mating in the water as the sun comes up!

The island walks were special and definitely lived up to the hype. It is true that the animals have no fear of humans. You are meant to keep at least one meter’s distance from the wildlife, but my guide just stood there as an iguana walked right between his legs as if he were a tree! We visited a bird colony during breeding season. I expected the mothers to start intense squawking as we approached, but not a peep.

Each island on the Galapagos developed independently over the millennia and has different terrain and therefore a different colour of iguana – some black due to the volcanic rock, other land iguanas golden and turquoise sea iguanas. We happened to be on the island during mating season for the sea iguanas. The males get a dark red streak across their backs to indicate to the females they are ready to rock and roll. The golden land iguanas mate under a cactus. They are able to live for long periods without water and the cacti provide liquid sustenance during the searing summer heat. Therefore, each male tries to secure the best cactus and therefore attract the best mates. We were lucky enough to witness a fierce battle for territory between 2 veteran males!

The highlight, however, had to be the snorkling. The Galapagos are known for their abundance of sea life, not just land-based fauna. Normally, to see big fish or turtles you have to go scuba diving, because the big stuff is only to be found really deep. If you manage to see one turtle or even a shark on a dive, it’s the diving equivalent of multiple orgasms! Well, we were swimming with sharks, turtles and rays. Sea lions came to swim all around and play with us! Then, the highlight – one day I was free snorkeling along a reef, just floating on top of a turtle as it drifted gently with the current munching on seaweed, seemingly oblivious to my presence. Then, I heard shouting coming from the beach. Was someone in distress? I hurried back to find something wondrous – in the shallows of the beach were penguins chasing tiny fish! I had never seen a real penguin before except in an aquarium. Now they were brushing my body as they darted back in forth in search of a meal! Incredible!

In the evening we swapped stories over dinner. I got to know our companion Jim, a 76 year old from California, on the road non-stop (except for annual visits to his children and grandchildren in the States) since 1988! An inspiration to all of us!

We also watched a BBC documentary about the islands. Interestingly, Darwin visited the Galapagos as a young scientist gathering samples. On the way back on the ship, he compared 2 samples of some bird, let’s say a finch. Each bird was from a different island but from the same species, but had some differentiating feature, like a different coloured breast. Darwin thought, each island evolved differently and therefore each bird of the same species must have….. ping! He developed his theory of evolution. Cool, huh?

I asked our guide how much the cruise normally cost and he told me $1750!

Following the cruise, I did one day’s scuba diving. It was the most expensive of my life costing $190 for 2 dives. The Galapagos is famous for diving due to the fact that several currents converge on underwater shelves forcing plankton and other scrumptious goodies to the surface drawing in enormous schools of fish, which attract the bigger fish, and so on. The strong currents mean many sites are for advanced divers only. There are no reefs but the huge number of fish was mind-blowing. I saw huge schools of barracuda and giant tuna, but alas the most famous attraction, hammerhead sharks, proved elusive.

I then moved to Isabella, the largest, but least inhabited of the 3 inhabited islands. Isabella has a really cool, laid-back vibe. You can chill out there and see giant land tortoises, the ubiquitous iguanas and flamingos for free. You can also do land tours to visit the volcano and other sites. It is pretty much impossible to visit any of these sites without a guide. The guides are bilingual and incredibly knowledgeable, so it is worth taking the tours. That said, it seems like you cannot just take a stroll along the beach with someone telling you, sorry you need a guide, that’s $20. That’s because the beach is of course a protected breeding ground for baby turtles….

One more amazing thing happened on route to Isabella. On the way there, we saw dolphins in the distance, leaping out of the water. But these were no ordinary dolphins – they spun and pirouetted performing half-pikes and other spectacular maneuvers as if showing off to their human audience. On the return journey, they appeared again – this time the captain slowed and started circling, allowing the dolphins to catch us up, before heading off again at a reduced speed. The crew encouraged me to get onto the bow through a trapdoor… swimming alongside the boat and leaping into the air was a whole school of dolphins, including baby ones. Incredible!

So, all in all I spent 10 unforgettable days on the Galapagos. If you feel a cruise is still beyond your reach financially, it is possible to do day tours (again, book on the islands) and you will see plenty of wildlife. A friend of mine just took his surfboard to San Cristobal and had a great time hardly spending a penny.

And if you plan to visit this part of the world, do not skip the Galapagos, one of the highlights of Latin America and a once in a lifetime experience.

Click here to see all the photos of this incredible trip.