You know you’ve arrived somewhere pretty special when the airport bus has to stop for a marine iguana in the road. In the UK a flock of sheep might block a country road. In India it’s usually a cow on the train tracks. But in the Galápagos it’ll be a giant lizard. Another surprise on arrival, and this time not a pleasant one, is the astronomical prices.
The Galápagos Islands are part of Ecuador and lie west in the Pacific a few hours away by plane from Quito or Guayaquil. They are a magnet for travellers from all over the world, drawn primarily by the extraordinary wildlife. Many species exist only on this island and have adapted and evolved in fascinating ways. Charles Darwin came here in 1835 and his discoveries led him to develop his theories on the Origin of Species. The world’s last Pinta tortoise, Lonesome George, lived here until his death a few years ago.
Most people arrive as a part of a package tour and head straight out to multi-day boat tours. Booked in advance, these are eye-wateringly expensive. I’m also not keen on organised trips and, since I have time and flexibility, I decided to travel independently. My daily budget when travelling is around US$35. It would be more if the stupidities of Brexit hadn’t severely devalued sterling over the past year. Once on the islands, I quickly discovered that this barely covers basics like accommodation and food. Anything extra, like snacks, drinks and tours dramatically increase your spending.
To get there I used the excellent app, Hopper, which monitors flights and costs. For months, flights to the Galápagos were around £330, then I got an alert showing they’d dropped to £250, so I quickly booked, just a few weeks before departure. At the airport in Guayaquil, I had to pay a $20 transit tax just to get on the plane to the Galápagos. On arrival at the airport in Baltra you have to pay another $100. So, I’d already overspent by four days before I’d even collected my luggage.
I stayed on Santa Cruz for four nights. It’s the main island and there is a bewildering number of tour agencies, offering day trips and last-minute boat deals. The cheapest of these was $800 for four days. Day trips start around $100 for a basic six hour boat trip and can go up to $150 or higher. However,there are also many things you can do for free or at comparatively low cost.
I heard one travel agent trying to cajole some young tourists into signing up for a multi-day boat tour by telling them their experience would all depend on how much wildlife they see. The more they see, the better the experience. I immediately reacted against this nonsense, and decided to go independently and maybe splash out on a few day trips. Here’s what I did in Santa Cruz.
Day One. After I’d checked into my hotel in Puerto Ayora, the main town, I walked to the Charles Darwin Research Centre and got my first viewing of giant tortoises. I was surprised when an attendant asked me if I wanted to see Lonesome George, as they were just opening up the special room. Of course I wanted to, but didn’t he die in 2012? It turns out that Lonesome George has spent the past five years in the US being stuffed and preserved and only returned here just a few months ago. It was a slightly depressing experience, with a timed visit and selfie-stick wielding tourists jostling for position. Much more interesting was the opportunity to get close to real life tortoises. Cost = Free
Day Two. I walked a trail to a beautiful beach, Playa Tortuga, where pelicans swoop down to fish in the ocean. Marine iguanas nest and relax in the shade. I even saw some baby sharks swimming in the shallows. On the way back I saw many of the famous Darwin’s Finches. It’s amazing how tame and unafraid so many of the birds and animals are here, and I sat for ten minutes as one finch hopped curiously around me. Cost = Free
Day Three. I caught a water taxi across the bay to visit Las Grietas, a fabulous canyon where you can snorkel and which also has great views over the bay. In the afternoon I walked on the small boardwalk around the Laguna de las Ninfas, past amazing mangroves. Cost = 80 cents each way for boat taxi.
Day Four. This was my big excursion, a day trip to Isla Pinzon, and it turned out to be my least favourite day. We had three stops for snorkelling and we were promised a landing on a beach, but for some reason, that wasn’t possible. One of the snorkelling stops was great and we saw turtles and sharks, but at the others visibility was not good. Also, the guide was not very helpful and the fellow passengers were aloof and boring. I could only imagine what it would have been like trapped on a cruise with them for four days. Cost = $110
Food tip – if you’re looking to save money, ignore the exorbitant restaurants along the seafront where you’ll pay Manhattan or West End prices. Several local restaurants offer set lunches and dinners for around $5. They’re basic but filling. A couple of blocks back from the harbour Charles Binford street has some great and lively outdoor restaurants with more reasonably priced seafood dishes.
Next blog – Isabela Island