The Galapagos Islands are an Overseas Adventure Traveler’s dream. To get there, you normally fly to either Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador and then take a jet to the islands. For people with time limitations, it is too far to take a ship as it is over 700 miles from the mainland. I recommend flying into the largest airport on the islands and staying on Santa Cruz Island.
There are several options for spending your time after you arrive in the Galapagos Islands.
1) Book an island cruise and spend the majority of time on the cruise ship with daily tours.
2) Stay on the islands and book day trips to explore other islands.
3) Take a 3 or 4 day cruise and spend the rest of the time on an island or two
We chose option 2 just because we wanted maximum flexibility to meet some of the locals and plan more spontaneously. I heard from many people that a cruise is the best way to see the islands so make your own choice here. It is more about what you like.
If you want to book a deep discount cruise, wait until you get to the islands before booking it!
That way, you maximize your leverage because you are there ready to buy and you might find something for a third of the price of what you would get ahead of time. I have read of many people doing just that. We in fact, went into a number of travel agencies just to check out the deals. The three to four-day cruises could be purchased at rock bottom prices. When it is last-minute bookings, you can get terrific deals.
How to book a deep discount cruise in the Galapagos Islands
If you are on Santa Cruz Island (most populated), as soon as you get to the island, go down to the water front known as Charles Darwin Blvd. Walk down toward the main pier where the taxi boats pick up tourists. Along the road Av Baltra and other side streets in that area are many travel agencies trying to sell tours. I would suggest going to at least 2 or 3 and find the best deals. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. I would recommend the three to four-day cruises since this will give you a chance to go to many of the islands.
Our Favorite Things to Do in the Galapagos Islands
1. Giant Galapagos Tortoises – Visit the privately owned park near the town of Santa Rosa. There are giant Galapagos tortoises roaming in the wild. They look like some type of prehistoric creature they are so large. The park was free or there might be a small fee in season. A taxi ride is $15 to $20. Make sure you reserve a ride back to town if you are staying in Puerto Ayora.
Another good place to view Galapagos tortoises of all sizes and read about the history is the Charles Darwin Research Station walking distance from the water front in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.
2. Fish Market Puerto Ayora – Santa Cruz Island – Fishermen deliver fresh seafood to the fish market on the waterfront on a continuous basis during day hours. This attracts birds of all types, sea lions and any species that likes fresh seafood. It’s a great photo opportunity. Late afternoon and evening it turns into an outdoor restaurant with fresh seafood caught that day. Bring your own adult beverage. See photos below.
3. Lava Tubes – The tubes almost look manmade they are so perfectly formed. The ones we went through were at the Tortoise Park near the town of Santa Rosa on Santa Cruz Island. It was a tube-shaped tunnel about a mile long. Don’t go if you are claustrophobic.
4. Tortuga Bay – This is a park on Santa Cruz Island in the town of Puerto Ayora. A 1.5 mile long boardwalk leads down to the waterfront and beautiful white sandy beaches. Where white sand came from on a volcanic island I am not sure. If you walk further down the beach there is a secluded bay and mangrove swamp. See the photo below.
5. Las Grietas – This is a small island with some really colorful salt water bays. There is a hiking trail that takes you around the island past giant cactus trees. There are swimming holes and cliff diving. See a photo below. It is sparsely inhabited but has a small hotel and a bar along the hiking trail. This is a popular stop for tour guides.
6. Waterfront on San Cristobal Island – We took a day trip to San Cristobal and really enjoyed the shopping along the waterfront. There are a number of restaurants and bars along this area as well. Along the beaches, you can get some good photos of the sea lion families that live there. Don’t get too close to the baby sea lions. The parents get a little upset over this.
7. Las Tintoreras – This is an uninhabited island near the larger island of Isabela. It has abundant wildlife and some colorful lagoons. One lagoon is shown in the gallery below. Cruise ships stop here for tourists to walk through. We went there during a day trip on a small boat.
8. Waterfront at Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island – This is the most populated area of the islands and is the place to go for restaurants, bars and shopping. You can pick up local handmade souvenirs in this area.
9. Charles Darwin Research Station – Located on Santa Cruz Island. The park offers free guided tours or you can walk through on your own. This is where studies on the Galapagos tortoises takes place. There is a Science Center that educates you on the islands and their evolution. Of course, the history of Charles Darwin and his studies is documented here. It is free. You pay a tourist fee upon entering the islands and this covers it.
10. San Cristobal Island Interpretation Center – This is a large museum that explains the biological, human and geological events of San Cristóbal Island and the surrounding islands. The museum goes into the national history, which showcases elaborate illustrations and interactive exhibits depicting the Galápagos’ volcanic history, unique climate and rare native species. It also does a great job of documenting the colonization of the islands and how they evolved over the years. It also has a very nice hiking trail around some highlands on the island that offer the visitor some excellent photo opportunities. This is worth the time to visit.
There is a lot to see on the Galapagos Islands. There are plenty of fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling trips available from the waterfront of San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz islands. If you have limited time, I would pick out a few islands to visit and don’t try to cram in too much. For those of you who like some civilization, I would recommend Santa Cruz or San Cristobal islands as they have more of the restaurants and shopping opportunities.
Areas for Caution
From everything I have read and from our own experience, crime is almost non-existent in the Galapagos Islands. The largest towns are only a few thousand people so you are really in the small town type environment. We walked around at night in the neighborhoods of the most populated town, Puerto Ayora, and did not feel threatened.
The main areas for caution would be boating, diving or sporting accidents that could occur. However the main area of caution is……
Don’t Drink the Water!
We talked to a number of locals who warned us that the water is bad and can make you sick. Many of the restaurants have purified water brought in. Be sure and ask though. Ask if the ice cubes are made with purified water. It is such a problem in the Galapagos Islands that even the locals are often very careful.
Stephanie and I visited the Galapagos Islands in November, 2013. The Islands are located about 700 miles off the coast of Ecuador and just below the equator.(Location Map) This is one of the most unusual and unique places on the face of the earth. This is where Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution and wrote his landmark book, Origin of Species.
The weather affects the Galapagos Islands due to three main ocean currents. The Humboldt brings colder, nutrient-rich waters from the Antarctica region, the warm Panama Current is fed by the Northern Equatorial current and provides the environment for the development of tropical marine ecosystems. The Equatorial Undercurrent upon meeting the Galápagos platform upwells bringing deep waters, both cold and nutrient-rich, to the surface. This helps explain why animals from colder areas and tropical areas evolved and flourished. Where else would you find penguins, sea lions, and tropical birds living in the same habitat.
We traveled to this privately held reserve. Giant Galapagos tortoises were walking around in the wild. We got completely lost and had to get directions in sign language from local kids on a scooter. Here is Stephanie trying to keep up with a really fast tortoise on the dirt road. These guys get up to 800 lbs. and can live as long as 150 years.
We learned about the lava tube when we got to the reserve. We read that these are common throughout Santa Cruz Island. This one was about a mile long and almost looked like a man-made tunnel for a subway it was so perfectly cylinder shaped. They form when the cooler outer parts of lava flows hardened into thick walls while the inner flow was insulated and kept flowing. When the flow subsided, remnants eroded away leaving the perfectly shaped tube. This was an unusual surprise bonus for me, since I am a geologist!
The sea lions liked to hang out in big family type settings. We saw them crawling into boats, hanging out on park benches, and sunning on the beach. They had very little fear of humans but tended to get a little upset if you approached them when they had babies.
Iguanas of all shapes and sizes inhabited a number of the islands but were completely absent from others. These iguanas were very competent swimmers and would take off from the beach, crash through the waves and would swim off. They are bizarre looking animals who clearly inspired punk bands in the past.
Tortuga Bay was a beautiful secluded area just off of a white sandy beach. The park constructed a 1.5 mile boardwalk through the forest to give people easy access to the area. We saw one poor guy trying to carry a heavy cooler to the area. It’s not recommended!
Stephanie took this photograph on the walk down the boardwalk coming back from Tortuga Bay. This is a very strange tree that appears to be a hybrid cactus and a tree with bark. It is known as a tree cactus and they are all over the place.
We visited the Tortuga (tortoise) Reserve on our 3rd day on the Island of Santa Cruz. This is a privately owned farm that has wild Galapagos tortoises roaming the large farm. We walked around for miles and would meet herds of tortoises, some up to 800 pounds. They looked very prehistoric. Some of them became spooked by seeing us and would hiss and go into their shell. Others were more curious and were not frightened.
I shot this photo during a bay tour to the small island of Las Grietas near the island of Santa Cruz. Las Grietas is a series of deep volcanic fissures that collect a mixture of filtered fresh water from the highlands and tidal seepage from the sea. Las Grietas is a popular swimming destination for locals and visitors. The island has turned into a salt flat due to small pools of salt water being captures and then evaporating leaving the salt behind. Pools of water have an amazing pink color probably due to the high manganese content.
The photo was snapped during a day tour which included the island of Las Tintoreras. We traveled by boat to this small uninhabited island located in a bay off the coast of Isabela. We saw marine iguanas everywhere, frigates, blue-footed boobies, American oystercatcher, white-tipped sharks, golden rays, penguins, sea lions and birds of all types. The small channels and ponds had turquoise water.
Fresh seafood was easy to come by. This market cooked meals every evening of the seafood caught that day.
The seafood market was an interesting place to hang out. The animals had no fear.
The first day in the Galapagos, we visited a National Park and research center near the town of Puerto Ayora. They are a reserve for the giant Galapagos tortoises.
These red crabs were all over the place. I have not seen them anywhere else but the Galapagos.
This was an aerial photo of the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos where we spent most of our time.