I can’t remember who first said, “Let’s go on a trip to the Galapagos Islands!” Our ski buddies from the US were visiting us in the UK, the wine was flowing and the wanderlust took hold. I do recall us all agreeing that we did not want to go on a cruise, the usual way to visit the Galapagos, and would much prefer a land-based trip.
It did not take long for us to find a multi-activity, island-hopping trip to the Galapagos (details below). We would have the opportunity to stay on and explore three different islands, using a speed boat to transfer between them. The trip was activity based with lots of snorkelling, kayaking, biking and hiking. It suited us perfectly. In addition to staying in small hotels on two of the islands, we would also stay in community project accommodation on Floreana. This was a way of putting something back into the community as well as offering a different experience.
So we booked it!
Our trip to the Galapagos Islands was one of the most memorable travel experiences we have had.
The Galapagos Islands – a few facts
The Galapagos islands form an archipelago approximately 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The islands were designated a National Park in 1959. In 1979 the area was declared Natural World Heritage Site and later a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The archipelago comprises 13 main islands, but there is also a myriad of tiny, uninhabited islands. The Galapagos is famous for its fabulous wildlife, in particular the giant tortoises, but also the wonderful sea-life. Charles Darwin visited the islands in 1835 and based much of his research on what he observed there. Today, around 30,000 people live on the islands.
The islands are volcanic and there are several active volcanos. Small eruptions are frequent. The last significant eruption was in 2018 on the Sierra Negra volcano on the island of Isabela.
Travelling to the Galapagos Islands
We travelled to the Galapagos Islands in November, the end of the “dry season” and just before the start of the “hot season”. All flights to the Galapagos fly from Ecuador and the flight takes a couple of hours. The number of people allowed to enter the Galapagos is restricted and carefully monitored.
There are two additional charges to enter the Galapagos Islands National Park: $20 for a Transit Control Card, payable at the airport before leaving Ecuador and a $100 fee for entry to the National Park, payable upon arrival. Both fees must be paid in cash.
There are strict regulations about what one may take, or more importantly, not take to the Galapagos. The ecosystem is very fragile so anything which might contaminate it is forbidden. This includes certain foods, seeds and plants. For the most up-to-date advice it is best to consult the official foreign travel advice for Ecuador and the Galapagos.
We flew to the tiny island of Baltra. There is very little on the island other than the airport. Our bags were checked again and sniffer dogs crawled over them to search out any forbidden food or plants. At this point, we met with our guide, Dario. We then took a short bus ride down to the jetty and caught a water taxi across to the nearby island of Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is the most populated island in the Galapagos and of the islands we visited, it was the busiest. We stayed in the main town of Puerta Ayora, which is right by the water. There is a real buzzy vibe in the town with lots of small shops, bars and restaurants, but it is not loud or rowdy in any way. We were scheduled to spend the first two nights on Santa Cruz and our small hotel, Hotel Coloma, was lovely. The tortoise-themed decor gave it a quirky character and the people were very friendly.
Before heading to our hotel, however, the bus which collected us from the water taxi took us to our first stop for lunch. This was at Rancho Primicias, a tortoise conservation area. We saw several giant tortoises along the road as we drove to the reserve. Lunch was great and afterwards, we had the opportunity to wander through the extensive park with Dario and see all the tortoises. They are enormous – and there were lots of them!
The giant tortoise is an endangered species and because tortoises can be vulnerable to unscrupulous people out to make a profit, as well as wildlife predators, they are looked after in a number of conservation areas. Although there appeared to be lots in this area, in the grand scheme of things, their numbers are still perilously low – but improving.
Our visit to Rancho Primicias was informative and fun. One cannot help but marvel at these wonderful creatures. Dario gave us lots of background information as we toured the site, but he was also mindful of making sure that we observed a strict 2m distance from the tortoises – and other wildlife later in the week. Wildlife is very precious in the Galapagos and it is cherished.
On the first full day in the Galapagos, we hiked to Tortuga Bay to snorkel and kayak and hopefully to see some wildlife. The hike from our hotel took about an hour through a volcanic, rocky landscape peppered with all kinds of cacti and other vegetation.
Eventually, we arrived at a fabulous, white, sandy beach.
The first wildlife we saw was iguanas – lots of them – just sunning themselves and minding their own business!
We walked along the beach for another 15 minutes until we arrived at Tortuga Bay. Then it was wetsuits on and into the water to see what we could see. We were the only ones there when we arrived, but more people had arrived by the time we left.
We were pleased we had hired wetsuits. Given that we were on the equator, the water was surprisingly cold, but we quickly forgot about that as we saw sharks and turtles under the water. This was our first time in the water on the Galapagos and it was a magic experience – although, if I am honest, it paled in significance in comparison with some of our snorkelling experiences later in the week.
After snorkelling for the best part of an hour, we got out of the water and into the kayaks.
We were more aware of sea turtles popping their heads up out of the water from the kayaks and also some of the birds on the rocks around the edge of the bay. Tortuga Bay is really beautiful.
The Charles Darwin Research Station
The Charles Darwin Research Station in Peurta Ayora was established to oversee the conservation and management of this special eco-system. It is a base for scientists and researchers as well as an educational facility where visitors can learn about the importance of conservation and how it is managed here.
We visited the Station and found it to be really interesting, not least because it is possible to see various types of Galapagos Tortoise and at every stage of development.
One of the main attractions is “Lonesome George” a giant tortoise from Pinta Island and the last of his kind. Sadly, he died in 2012, but he was preserved and is on display here.
Our group was actually more interested to learn about Super Diego, a Hood Island Tortoise. Hood Island Tortoises were on the verge of extinction until Diego was found and brought to the Charles Darwin Research Centre where he fathered around 900 babies! He was officially retired and 2020 and released into the wild – where, we hope, he may still be going about his important work!
The second island we visited was Floreana. It took about two and a half hours by boat to get there and we were advised to take seasickness tablets. As the sea seemed quite calm though, Peter and I decided to risk it. It was a trouble-free voyage!
We were collected from the jetty in our fully air-conditioned bus! This converted truck was fairly normal on our trip in the Galapagos Islands.
The Community Project Accommodation on Floreana
Accommodation is limited on Floreana and we were to experience community project hospitality. We had a similar social enterprise or “homestay” experience on a trip to Cambodia a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Basically, people in the community provide rooms in their homes, so the group is separated out and distributed around the village. All meals are served in different homes so the work and the benefits are spread around the community. Peter and I stayed in a specially constructed wooden guest house with an ensuite shower room. It was lovely!
All our meals were served in the gardens of local people. It is an interesting experience and a way of putting something back into the community as opposed to simply staying in a cabin on a cruise ship and eating on board.
Snorkelling and hiking on Floreana
On Floreana we did more snorkelling at different points around the island, including the volcanic “black beach”, and we saw lots more turtles and iguanas.
The Galapagos Islands are home to the world’s only marine iguanas. They have evolved to swim and take food from the floor of the sea. Some of them are quite brightly coloured, which was a surprise.
We also hiked highlands of Floreana where a precious fresh water source is located. It is also a conservation area for giant tortoises – and there were lots of them!
The History of Floreana
Our guide, Dario, shared some of the history of Floreana with us. In the early 20th century, strange disappearances among the few inhabitants led to stories of intrigue and murder. He also shared the story of Patrick Watkins, an Irish man who was marooned on Floreana in 1807 and is widely thought to be the first inhabitant of the Galapagos. He survived because he found water and foraged for food. Dario would have us believe that Patrick Watkins was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. I did not point out that actually, Daniel Defoe wrote Robinison Crusoe about a hundred years before Patrick Watkins was marooned!
The third island we stayed on was Isabela, the largest of all the Galapagos islands. Again it took almost three hours by the same boat to reach Isabela from Floreana and again, Peter and I opted not to take sea sickness tablets. All was well!
We really enjoyed Isabela and I would say that this was my favourite island.
The roads were sandy and traffic calming was a rope across the road. There were a few shops, bars and restaurants, but it was not as busy as Santa Cruz. It had real character and felt “unspoiled”. We also had the best experiences here!
Accommodation on Isabela Island
We stayed in a small hotel in Puerta Villamil, the main town on the island. It was clean and comfortable, but lacked the quirkiness of the hotel on Santa Cruz or the quaintness of our hut on Floreana. Apart from breakfast, we ate in local restaurants.
The Sierra Negra Volcano
The Sierra Negra Volcano is an active volcano on Isabela. It last erupted in 2018.
On our first morning on Isabela, we hiked up to the caldera of the volcano, the largest of all the calderas in the Galapagos. It was a relatively straightforward hike and well worth the effort. It was an amazing sight, the lava field stretching out before us with a clearly defined rim.
Afterwards, we caught the bus part of the way down to the town, and picked up bikes to cycle the rest of the way. As it was mostly downhill, this was an easy option ( – the bikes were rubbish though!)
Exploring Los Tuneles on Isabela
We almost missed this experience. That would have been a mistake. It was the highlight of the entire trip.
Our guide recommended this “optional extra” to us and insisted that it was an absolute “must-see”. It would take up a good portion of a day and involved a boat trip to the lava tunnels on Isabela where we could snorkel. He was happy to organise it and would adjust the rest of the itinerary to accommodate it. In truth, I was a bit miffed: if it was such a fabulous trip, it should have been part of the main tour. At the same time, we did not want to miss it. In short, we opted to pay the additional $150 each to go. Most of our group did likewise.
A Natural Aquarium
The boat took us out along the coast of Isabella for almost an hour and then anchored in the lava tunnels. We could already see all the sea turtles in the crystal clear water, hundreds of them! Over the side we went and led by our guide, Michael, we snorkelled through this amazing natural aquarium.
The turtles were completely unphased by us and sometimes it was difficult to get out of their way.
There were also shoals of colourful fish and sharks. Lots of sharks! And much bigger than the ones we had seen previously.
Most exciting of all though was the giant marble ray which swam right out towards me. It took me completely by surprise and I screamed into my snorkel!
We were in the water for about an hour and were absolutely frozen when we got out, despite the wetsuits. The warm tea and the sandwiches provided by Michael’s team were very welcome.
Some of us ventured back into the water for a while to see the Galapagos penguins and the sea horses, but after this, we had had enough. Off came the wetsuits!
On to the lava
We clambered on to the lava fields to gain a different perspective of Los Tuneles. What a fabulous landscape!
We had seen the blue-footed boobies from a distance before, but there were more of them here – and this one just posed patiently for photos!
Standing on the lava bridges and looking down into the tunnels, we could see the turtles and sharks swimming beneath us.
The captain also navigated the boat through the narrow lava tunnels so that we could see this wonderful landscape from the water.
We also saw lots more penguins and more blue-footed boobies.
This really was a magic experience and I am so pleased we did not miss out.
Kayaking on Isabela
After snorkelling through Los Tuneles, we returned to Puerta Villamil. Some of our group went snorkelling again in the afternoon, but some of us just chilled for a while – taking our lead from this sea lion lazing in the kayak!
Afterwards, we all went out in the kayaks again and said hello to more turtles and sharks.
Return to Santa Cruz
Our last full day on our trip to the Galapagos Islands included a visit to the Arnaldo Tupiza Tortoise Breeding Centre on Isabela. The centre supports the five tortoise sub-species native to Isabela.
The giant tortoises are really looked after in the Galapagos Islands through projects like this and their numbers are improving.
We then boarded our boat for the return trip to Santa Cruz and our tortoise-themed hotel. This was our last opportunity to purchase a few souvenirs before we said goodbye to the Galapagos. The following day we flew back to Quito.
Highlights of our trip to the Galapagos Islands
People ask: why visit the Galapagos and is it really worth it?
The answer is a resounding yes, absolutely!
For us, the highlights of our trip to the Galapagos Islands were:
1. The wildlife (including the marine life and the birds)
This is why people go to the Galapagos, and it is easy to see why. The wildlife co-exists with humans in the community and the creatures are completely at home there. Wander down the road in Santa Cruz and there are sea lions on the pavement and on benches, just hanging!
Go to a bar and iguanas, seals and crabs will be just feet away whilst you sip your mojito.
The giant tortoises, the turtles and the sharks are there in abundance. And let’s not forget the boobies and the penguins – magic!
2. Exploring Los Tuneles
This was another highlight and definitely the most memorable experience of our trip to the Galapagos. It really was very special.
3. Staying in the social enterprise accommodation on Floreana
This took us into the heart of the community and was a memorable experience.
4. Finally, the sunsets in the Galapagos are incredibly beautiful
A trip to the Galapagos Islands? Need to know
If you are thinking about taking a trip to the Galapagos Islands, there are a few things which surprised us and other bits of information we wished we had had before we went.
Firstly, we expected the Galapagos Islands, given their proximity to the equator, to be warm. In fact, the water was cold. Wetsuits are necessary. The good news is that they are easily rented and it costs just a few dollars. The evenings were also cool so I would suggest packing a fleece or a jumper.
The tap water is not for drinking. Filtered water was readily available in all the places we stayed, but I would strongly recommend taking a filter bottle. I did (Water-to-Go filter bottle) and it was useful . It saves on plastic to just filter the tap water rather than buying bottled water when out and about.
The islands are volcanic so strong shoes and water shoes are useful for comfortable walking on the lava.
Currency: Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands use the American Dollar. Take plenty of cash as cards are not accepted everywhere. There are ATMs but some in our group had difficulty making them work.
Our trip to the Galapagos Islands
We booked our multi-activity trip to the Galapagos with KE Adventures, although it the trip was delivered locally by G Adventures. It was a land-based, island-hopping trip and I firmly believe that this is the best way to see the Galapagos. We were in a group of 15 and it was a brilliant group of like-minded people from Ireland, the UK, the USA, Canada and Malaysia. We had a lot of laughs!
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