For those who don’t know, or have yet to surmise, our family is no longer on the great foreign road, and instead are back in the comfort of our Portland, Oregon home, entrenched in the routine of school and work. As I write these words, I am sitting in a local playground, watching my children practice riding their bikes in an empty parking lot. I spent the morning trying to edit the hundreds of photos, snapped while in Galapagos, now 3747 miles away, feeling so very far from that bucket-list destination, which represents true dream fulfillment.
Throughout our whole trip leading up to our final arrival on Baltra, Galapagos, we had constantly reminded ourselves to be frugal, and to not spend money on trifles, so that we could afford to include these islands in our itinerary. Despite all our threats and admonishments to forgo a drink or dessert, in order to save a dollar, we still fell short of our economic goals, by the time we had arrived in South America. We had underestimated the cost of our travels by a couple thousand, leaving fewer funds for the final quarter of our trip. Still, we had made it this far to Ecuador, and scrapping our plans to visit the Galapagos did not seem to be the right choice. We argued that a smaller cushion for our US return, seemed a small sacrifice that we would be able to survive. Months later, and I can confirm that there are NO regrets. Of course, with a diminished budget, we did not tour the islands on luxurious boats, and instead planned a DIY trip of our own, hopping from island to island via ferry, and being selective about which costly boat tours were worth splashing out on.
I’ve decided to break up the story of our time in the Galapagos into three parts, each focusing on a different island that we stayed in and the unique experiences and side trips we took from there. I’ll try to be transparent about actual costs, because I know that many are curious about exactly how expensive a trip like this is. Firstly, we bought last-minute tickets on Aerogal Airlines from Quito direct to Baltra Island, then from San Cristobal to Guayaquil for $429 per adult, $271 per child (including all usual taxes). Once at the airport, we had to pay an additional departure tax of $20 per person, and then when we arrived at Baltra airport, we had to pay ANOTHER special Galapagos entry tax, in cash, of $100 per adult and $50 per child. Our family fees, just to visit these islands from the Ecuador mainland now amounted to $1780. This doesn’t include what we spent to get to South America in the first place!
The airport is situated on the tiny arid island of Baltra. From here, every visitor is provided with shuttle transportation to a simple ferry station, where we then boarded boats to cross a small channel to the main island, Santa Cruz, a 10 minute journey. Here most everyone boards more buses, either private transportation arranged through tours or cruises, or the public bus, which takes you across the entire island to the main city, Puerto Ayora, in 45 minutes. We then spent the rest of our late afternoon, searching for a place to stay, as we had NOT pre booked. This was intentional, as everything I read suggested that prices would be lower in Galapagos, and we’d have the opportunity to haggle for a better deal. This means that Dan, the kids, and all our luggage, were staked-out at an outdoor table of a port-side cafe, to drink beer and lemonades, while Mom went on a brisk search to compare hostels and guesthouses. After looking at at least 6 places, none of them particularly charming, I decided to pick a more affordable guesthouse at $50 a night. We were crammed into a small ground floor room with a bunk and queen bed, private bathroom, t.v., and a curtained window that looked out into the lobby. Not ideal, but not any worse or better than the other choices. I’m sure that Puerto Ayora has hidden luxurious accommodations, but the small town center that I explored was quite basic and not upscale at all, which served to remind us that Galapagos is about being in nature and not about spending time in man-made towns constructed as jumping off points for tourism. This is not to say that we didn’t enjoy our time strolling through the handful of main streets in Puerto Ayora, but rather that they were not the main show.
Our second day on Santa Cruz, and we booked ourselves on a morning bay tour for $100 total. A small yacht took us in a loop, close to the Puerto Ayora marina, to see blue-footed boobies, and to snorkel with sea lions and sea turtles. Along the way to Playa los Perros, we saw swarms of white-tipped sharks resting in a sheltered pool, and walked through a land of cacti trees with a bark-like surface on their trunks, similar in appearance to a redwood. Along the black lava, rock shore we observed partially camouflaged marine iguanas and easy to spot, but quick to hide, cherry red Sally Lightfoot crabs, with their blue bellies. Our final stop involved a nature walk to Las Grietas, via a salty pink pool, which ended at the most inviting blue/green fissure, and one of my favorite swimming spots. Surrounded by cliffs of lava rock, we climbed down stairs into the “cracked” canyon, and eagerly jumped into the crystal clear water. The weather was hot and humid, and the water temperature was refreshingly cool – a blissful experience.
Back in Puerto Ayora, in time for a bright and lemony ceviche lunch, we decided to spend the second half of our day at Tortuga Beach and Bay. Our 30 minute walk was through a dense forest of palo santo, cacti and matasarno trees, on a well-maintained and slightly undulating brick path. It culminated at a pristine, sparkling, white-sand beach, expansive in length. We spotted more white-tipped sharks and sea turtles swimming in the waves of the turquoise-colored Pacific ocean, as we continued our walk along the beach, all the way to a mangrove. This area was populated with sunning and fearless marine iguanas, blowing salt water out of their nostrils. Here, we went for our first swim, still timid around sharks, despite being told that they were harmless. Just around the bend, we found the emerald bay with its placid waters and shady mangroves for sun shelter. Everywhere we looked, up or down, we could spot wildlife, whether cranes and flying frigates or lava lizards.
On our second full day in Santa Cruz, we decided that it was time to get on a boat that would take us further up the island’s coast, and be a more intensive snorkeling trip. After eliminating an expensive visit to Bartholome Island ($600 for our family!) and listening to other budget travelers, we decided on the Pinzon tour for a total of $330 plus tips. We were quickly learning that it wasn’t the accommodation or food that made Galapagos expensive, but all the tours! We met our guide and fellow day-trippers at the dock, early in the morning. Everyone but us had been supplied with wetsuits. Our shocked guide explained how cold the waters around Galapagos, and quickly sent us back to our tour agent to get set up with these LIFE savers. It was ridiculous that the place we had booked the trip at, hadn’t let us know of the wetsuit requirement, especially since we were with two children, and it created a bit of a morning fiasco that kept everyone else waiting, and added $20 more in rental fees.
Our first stop was to a bay on Santa Cruz only accessible by boat. We jumped into the water and snorkeled our way to a mangrove full of black iguanas. From here, we began a walk to a small peninsula of lava rocks full of red crabs and more iguanas feasting off of the green algae. We watched seals swim in clear pools, sheltered and shaped by lava-rock reefs, and black frigate birds, with red balloon-like chests, circle above. Our guide excitedly discovered a cluster of limpids, suctioned on a rock, and used a pocket knife to pry them off. He considered them a local delicacy, and started to enthusiastically eat a couple of them raw, before finally offering us a sample. After taking a bite, I was more than happy to leave them for our guide, as they had an unpleasant rubbery texture and a fishy taste not to my liking.
Our boat journey continued via rocky cliffs and nesting blue-footed boobies, on our way to Pinon Island. This was the meat of the tour, an uninhabited island, where we were going to snorkel. The water was freezing, with mediocre visibility, but we still observed lots of schools of medium-sized fish, including colorful parrot fish, and swam to a small cave in a cove, in search of penguins. No luck! I was still ecstatic every time a large sea turtle swam by, squealing in my snorkel. Next thing I knew, our guide was waving me to follow, as we swam along the shallower coastline. He pointed into the shaded water, under a rocky outcropping. At first I couldn’t make out what he was trying to show me, and then my eyes bulged in shock. We were looking into a den full of white-tipped sharks clustered together, with tails gently s-curving in the current. He grabbed my hand, and reached down into the water, placing my palm atop a shark tail. It felt like a live wetsuit, and both the shark and I flinched.
Meanwhile, Stella and Gabriel were hanging in the boat, trying to warm up after a short swim. The captain was helping Gabriel fish, and within minutes, he had pulled up a puffer fish. All aboard and hungry from our exertions, we happily lunched on roast chicken, rice and mashed potatoes. On our return to Puerto Ayora we passed a large pod of dolphins, swimming close to our boat in play. They put on quite a dance performance, jumping in synchronized arcs out of the water. Both Gabriel and the captain were not done with fishing. We saw great flocks of birds gathering in the distance near boils of fish, so it was time to go trolling! The captain ended up catching an enormous sierra mackerel, and gifting our family, and enthusiastic little fisherman, with half of the fish. Once back in the ‘city’, we headed for restaurant row, a street that closed to automobile traffic every night, when each cafe would pull out their tables to fill the road. We found an establishment with an extremely talented grill man, who agreed to cook our fish two ways for $5! It was both grilled and steamed with a bed of vegetables. We supplemented our amazing fish feast with salad, rice and fried plantains.
Early the next morning we ferried to Isla Isabela for two nights, (another story to come in Part 2), but had to return to Santa Cruz for another night stay before ending on San Cristobal Island.
Our last stop in Santa Cruz, on day 6, and we kept to the immediate areas walkable from Puerto Ayora. We first went to a mangrove lagoon to observe the flora, birds, and sting rays in the water. We continued our stroll through parts of the town that we had missed in our previous visit, finding inspiration and humor in all of the wacky Galapagos art. We passed a busy fish market, and were drawn to the spectacle of sea lions, pelicans and marine iguana, all hungrily waiting for scraps. Our walk finally ended at the Charles Darwin Research Center and beach, where we visited a museum and animal reserve, to learn about their efforts to protect and breed the large Galapagos tortoises, as well as other unique species, like the orange land iguanas.
To be continued…