The big one. The money shot. The one place that everybody jealously goes “ahh” when I mention I am going to visit. The Galapagos is an absolute must see, but outside of the ability of many South America travellers due to one thing: money. Fortunately I had budgeted for this trip from the very beginning, but even my fairly generous slush fund was not quite enough. Still, I feel that it is an absolute tragedy for anyone to find themselves in Ecuador and not make it to this place. If anywhere deserved the tag “magical”, then the Galapagos is it and money be damned.
As I mentioned in the previous entry, I was able to get a desirable deal online which was considerably cheaper than anything else I could find. It was an 8 day cruise aboard a “Tourist” class vessel including food etc but nothing else, costing $1180. National Park entrance fees were extra ($110) and flights also were extra ($450 return approx). It’s worth mentioning that this is about as rock bottom a price as anyone will ever find, and if you head in the other direction it becomes alarmingly expensive. You want 8 days aboard a luxury yacht? $5000 minimum. Throw in SCUBA diving? Double the price. Galapagos Cruise Links is a great site that will give you a quick way of getting a feel for what is available on a “last minute” basis, and allows you to contact the owners of the boats directly.
So, those are the details, but what was it all like? Hold your tortoises, and let me tell you. I flew in from Guayaquil – I’d opted to use LAN as they were the cheapest I could find (this turned out to be untrue: Galapagos flight prices are fixed, but sometimes agencies will be able to find these prices while the airline websites inflate them slightly), but it is worth mentioning that if you use the Ecuador LAN site, the prices are far lower… DON’T GET THESE! These are for Ecuadorian citizens only, and if you can’t prove yourself to be Ecuadorian, then you will be landed with a fine for the difference or more at the airport. The airport at Baltra is small but clean and modern, and you will likely pass through with no trouble. Get on the bus outside (free) and it will shuttle you to the canal which divides the small airport island from the larger Santa Cruz. If you have a pickup from your agency/boat, the boat across the canal and the transport after will be free; if not, it is still cheap. Less than $5 for the 45 minute drive across the island to the town of Puerto Ayora.
If you have the pick up service, you will likely be ferried straight on to your boat which will most likely be in the harbour. If you ask you might get shore leave to explore the town itself which is touristy and quite expensive but very nice. I can strongly recommend the Best Galapagos Homestay as a budget place to stay. It’s a 15 minute walk to the dock, but all taxis are $1 within town (fixed price) so it’s not an issue. Perfectly clean and cheap as all hell (for where you are). The owner Kevin will also give you a free tour of the town when you arrive. There is also a supermarket in town if you want to smuggle some rum on board your boat (recommended). With some more time before your departure, visit Tortuga Bay (45 minute walk) and/or Las Grietas ($2 boat taxi and a 20 minute walk). If you are only staying on the island, then this is obviously a must do (you can do both in one day if you want). A quick note on this: it astounds me that so many people visit the islands and don’t take a boat tour. A vast majority of the archipelago is accessible only to live-aboard boats and this applies to the wild life that exists on it. At least ensure a few days on a boat, and then spend a few days either side on the island, maybe doing boat tours or SCUBA diving. You may consider supplementing a regular boat trip with a separate dive day after your boat gets in. I regret not doing this, if only because I never got to see Hammerhead Sharks.
Our boat was as basic as they come, and you’ll be glad you haven’t brought along your cat; there is no room to swing it. Cabins are very small, but there is not much reason to stay within your cabin other than to sleep. Our super budget vessel was clean all over, if cramped, so expect high quality service on whatever boat you choose. Each boat by law has to carry a park licensed guide. We were extremely lucky in that we had a “Level III” guide who has been working in the park since 1989. On shore visits, many other guides asked his advice on matters. Breakfasts are around 7am, lunch at 12pm and dinner around 6pm. Meal times become all important on a boat! Expect two snorkeling sessions a day with at least one landing for a walk/hike (make sure you hire wetsuits: the water is cold, but ensure the suits are in good nick as many are not). One last detail: most boats will drop back in to port to let off and pick up passengers as well as restock food and water supplies. Many people fear this day as being a wasted day but unfortunately there are very few boats that don’t do this. We were stuck in the dock near the airport for several hours waiting for the passenger changeover. It’s tough to avoid, and impossible on the budget boats. There is an afternoon visit of some sort however, so it’s not a completely wasted day.
Enough details. What did you see? Well. Sea Lions. These clowns are everywhere, on almost every rock in the area. Big colonies are a common sight and you will unlikely go more than a few hours before seeing at least one. When relaxing, they enjoy showing off their aqua-nautic skills by doing barrel rolls and so on all around snorkeling humans. They love bubbles, so dive under the water and blow, and they will follow suite. To see Giant Tortoises you will certainly have to visit the refuge areas nearer the centre of Santa Cruz where numbers have been increasing thanks to the nursury projects that have been going on for a number of years. El Chato reserve has many Tortoises that are free to roam as they want, and so live lives as they are supposed to. There are a number of animals at the Darwin Centre in Puerto Ayora also, but this is a little underwhelming given they are all in captivity. Out guide was unhappy with the situation they were in; many males do not have access to females and so become aggressive and frustrated, even raping the other males. Marine Iguanas inhabit every rock in the Galapagos and you will frequently nearly step on them given how effectively their black camouflage makes them blend in with the lava rocks. Magnificent Frigate birds are a common sight and will often shadow your boat when you are under power. They are best seen however when the male is displaying his inflated gullet; a bright red flag that can be seen at quite a distance. Blue Footed Boobies are very frequently spotted in flight and diving in to the water at high speed to catch small fish 5 metres or more beneath the surface. These guys are best seen near nesting sites where you can actually see their bright blue feet and witness them courting; a wonderful display that makes you swear you can hear Attenborough in your ear. One can also see Red Footed Boobies, Masked/Nazca Boobies, Galapagos Hawks, Pink Flamingos and many other species in many different spots.
One particular type of bird is the star of the show, despite being very innocuous in appearance. Commonly known as Darwin’s Finches, these tiny birds helped shaped the theory of evolution. From a single type of finch, the Galapagos now homes a number of different species each adapted to their particular niche. The woodpecker finch uses wooden tools to extract grubs. The ground finch has a small sharp beak for picking up seeds; The cactus finch a much larger beak. There is even a Vampire Finch that pecks the necks of Nazca Boobie chicks and feeds on their blood.
Within the water it’s another world entirely. Every spot you care to visit will be full of an array of tropical fish such as Angelfish, Moorish Idols, Parrotfish and more. The real treats are the rarer animals on the checklist: White Tipped Reef Sharks, Manta Rays, Eels of various types and my personal favourite the Galapagos Penguin. These little buggers are incredibly fast swimmers and also pretty tame so will often come to investigate you and maybe your mask. Turtles are a fairly common sight but always breathtaking. In some places they are so numerous they will appear next to you, lazily swimming in the same direction. Sea Lions are also apt to make you crap yourself as a large fast dark shape suddenly darts in front of you.
I was very lucky with the crowd on the boat; if you pay more, you might well end up sharing with a load of families and retired people. Keeping a low budget helps ensure (but certainly does not guarantee) a more relaxed (and it must be said, younger) group of people. Obviously this is mostly down to luck, but you would be unlucky to not have a few likeable people on-board. Sharing a small space with idiots would be trying indeed.
Visiting the Galapagos is only going to become more expensive. Within the next year the entrance fee will be doubled to $200 and there is talk of banning the older wooden hulled boats for what seems to be arbitrary reasons. In essence this is going to destroy the budget end of the tourist industry. But it’s surely to allow the park authorities to do their jobs, yes? Guess how many patrol boats I saw in 8 days. 0. None. Zero. Nada. As a result a huge amount of illegal fishing still goes on, catching turtles and dolphins as a matter of course. The long lines frequently catch the Waved Albatross which only exists here. Sea Lions are often killed by angry fishermen. It’s not just the fishermen either; irresponsible tour guides and stupid tourists just have to touch. After they touch the sea lion pups, leaving a veneer of suncream and Chanel, their mothers reject them and they starve to death. We saw several dead pups on the trail, there for this very reason.
A paradise like this is sure to have its problems and it’s certainly improving but slowly and there are many issues still to address (all caused by humans): rats still live on islands where other introduced species have been destroyed. These eat turtle and tortoise eggs and spread disease. The number of people living on the islands is still increasing annually. Many efforts to assist in the safety of the wildlife is met with anger from the residents of the islands and the more people that live there, the harder that will become. Tortoises are doing better now however, but with the death of Lonesome George in 2012, a lot of funds have dried up. It’s hard to know what the future will hold. Go soon, or you might not be able to go at all.