Research. That’s the first thing I would advise when planning a trip to the Galapagos. It’s a pricey trip and you want to make sure that you are getting the adventure you envisioned. A few months of planning and it will ‘evolve’ into the trip of a lifetime! The biggest decision is whether you want to explore on a boat or via a land tour. My personal bias is to explore the Galapagos by boat…you have the possibility to explore more remote islands and see more animals and landscapes. With a land tour, you are somewhat limited as you are bound by how far your day trip boat can take you.
That’s only the first of your many decisions! Next up will be the wildlife. This is certainly a large factor and will dictate your other decisions. There are distinct mating periods for certain animals, times when the water will have more wildlife, and periods to witness babies hatching. The Galapagos has 2 distinct seasons, a dry cool season and a warm wet season, which will heavily influence this…and influence if you can actually tolerate snorkeling or diving in cold water necessary for some animals. I would consider the final big decision your itinerary. Many are divided into an Eastern and a Western itinerary and one is not better than the other. It just depends on what you want to see. For us, we had our heart set on those adorable Galapagos Penguins so we made sure we chose an itinerary that included Isabela and Fernandina (Western).
Sailing From Puerto Ayora To The Western Galapagos
“Mere chance … alone would never account for so habitual and large an amount of difference as that between varieties of the same species.” ~ Charles Darwin
Much has been written about the possibility of booking a ‘last minute’ trip. While I think theoretically this is possible, it requires a great deal of flexibility. You’d have to roll up to Quito with cash in hand and be ready for any leftover berths on ships. Not only does this require some luck, but it also potentially means you’d have to forego an island you really wanted to see. Heavily researching exactly what you want and planning can still allow you to get quite a bargain. I would also advise communicating with many tour companies so they can alert you if there is a deal. One of the ships that had the itinerary I wanted was consistently $5000 USD…until one night it suddenly dropped to half off as no one had booked a single cabin. So…keep checking as pricing does change esp as the departure date nears. Noticing exactly when this change happened allowed us to score the prime cabin on the boat…at the same rate as the other cabins. Some of our shipmates tried a last minute deal in Quito and found the same price we paid booking months ahead. We booked with Happy Gringo who were excellent and had scores of amazing online reviews on Tripadvisor. They also sent a flower arrangement to our hotel in Quito for our anniversary…exceptional service and email responses were incredibly prompt.
Ultimately, we booked on the Reina Silvia for the first week in December. We packed some wetsuits, snorkels, water shoes and were off! Given my ‘love’ of air travel on South American airlines (see my other posts regarding dear Latam), we have gotten a bit more savvy and now book a mandatory extra day to account for plane delays. This trip on Copa airlines was no different…partially under their airlines control and partially weather. A strong storm in Panama had us divert to a smaller local airport and after a ‘brief’ 3 hour wait on the tarmac, we were cleared to return to the main Panama airport. This, I fully concede, was not under their control. However when our 3:30 flight evolved into 5 PM on the board due to the weather, then 6, we boarded…what Copa really meant was we were leaving close to 9 PM which meant another 2 or so hours sitting on the tarmac. This was especially frustrating as we had taken quite a sprint to make the 5 PM and didn’t have time to get dinner…when in reality, the 3 hours spent on the tarmac would have been much better spent grabbing a leisurely dinner.
Arriving at the JW Marriot hotel in downtown Quito close to midnight left little time to sleep before our planned hiking/biking day tour of Cotopaxi. Side note…I book nearly everything through Booking.com to get my rewards but found a much better price for our day tour booking direct ($30 less per person). We booked through Rebecca Adventure Travel and had a very smooth pickup. Our day included a local lunch and dinner, a hike from the parking lot up to the refuge on Cotopaxi, and a bike ride down. While I am very glad we did this tour…make no mistake, it was a challenging hike. We live at sea level and hiking to 16,000 feet with zero acclimatization was a heart pumping endeavor. We’ve never experienced any challenges with altitude but we truly felt a bit lightheaded and out of breath on a fairly steep hike up to the refuge. If you go, bring plenty to hydrate and dress warmly. Our views of Cotopaxi were somewhat obscured by clouds but we still had a great view of the glacier. Biking down was quite a rush. I’m not sure how safe I felt hurtling down the gravel road on a loaner bike, but we survived! and there was always the option to bail out and hop on the van following us. With only one day before the Galapagos, we preferred this to a city tour, but the trade off was not really experiencing much of Quito.
Some travelers we met did have some issues with petty crime in Quito. A backpack was slashed open, a credit card skimmer was used, so be alert. Instead of either Quito or Cotopaxi, I would even consider flying to the Galapagos before your cruise and staying in Puerto Ayora but more on that later.
Early the next morning, we were off on a flight to the Galapagos! There are 2 additional costs to travel to the Galapagos 1) a $20 tourist transit card that allows the Ecuadorian government to keep track of who travels to the Galapagos and 2) a $100 Galapagos entry fee that you will pay on arrival to the Galapagos. You need cash to pay for these items and I would advise that prior to travel to the Galapagos, you obtain your cash. You’ll need it for these entry requirements, tips for cruise staff, and extra charges on the boat and I believe there are only 2 ATMs on the islands that are rumored to run out of money often. To note, there are no international flights that arrive to the Galapagos. Also note…Ecuador uses the USD as their currency. There are no plastic bags or bottles allowed in the Galapagos so bring a reusable bottle (or most ships will provide one) but you can bring in alcohol and other liquids on this domestic flight.
Our arrival to the Galapagos was smooth and we were immediately met by our tour guide after claiming our bags. It was nice to know our next 8 days were planned to perfection by our guide and we would’t have to do much rather than photograph and relax! The airport is located on the tiny Baltra Island. Thus, to travel to San Cristobal, where most ships depart, or to find a hotel from which to explore, you’ll need to catch a ferry over the Itabaca Channel. Our tour guide seamlessly arranged this (as would all of the cruises), but it’s easy to navigate on your own if you were not doing a cruise. I assumed we would hop right on the boat, but we instead enjoyed a leisurely first day before boarding the boat around 5 pm.
Immediately after arrival to the main island of San Cristobal, we boarded a shuttle and began our true Galapagos adventure. First stop: El Chato Ranch, a private ecological tortoise reserve. Within minutes of exiting the bus, we had our first Galapagos animal encounter! We saw close to a hundred of these giant tortoises gradually working their way through this very large reserve snacking on grass and calmly observing us. Our next stop was a delicious outdoor lunch at Rancho El Manzanillo. To complete our day of giant tortoise amazement, we stopped at the Charles Darwin Research Station where they are working on tortoise rehabilitation, monitoring animal migration, and much more. Our guide allowed us to stroll from the research station through the town of Puerto Ayora before boarding our ship. Our 15 minute walk took us through the main street in Puerto Ayora filled with countless trendy appearing restaurants, shops, and boutique hotels. We regret not being able to spend more time here. If we were to recreate our trip, we’d maybe try to fly into town a bit before our ship departed to explore the research station and Puerto Ayora further. We booked our flights through Happy Gringo but you can book flights to the Galapagos independently (which possibly would be cheaper). This is a great (and maybe the only stop) for souvenirs as the other islands are not really inhabited (except by the wildlife!). I grabbed a t-shirt from the aptly named Darwin + Wolf Clothing Store.
Next up, embarking on the Reina Silvia. This is a somewhat older ship with excellent upkeep with 6 cabins for 12 passengers, a crew of 7 plus our guide.( UPDATE 2023: The Reina Silvia had a major upgrade and is no more. It is replaced by the Reina Silvia Voyager, a luxury 16 passenger catamaran) Our cabin was the cabin located on the top floor which was great for avoiding noise from the engines though it could get a bit more listing with any rough seas. Each cabin had a private bathroom and plenty of storage. There was also a main dining area where you shared 3 tables with your shipmates and a communal lounging area on the top deck. Finally, the zodiac boat to travel to each island was located at the stern. Any shoes worn exploring were left on the back of the boat to keep the boat free of dirt and debris. Many opted to go barefoot on the ship, but I wore either flip-flops or deck shoes as my feet are always chilly. A few other words about daily life on the ship…each day our guide would post a detailed itinerary of the next day’s activities including meal times, excursions and what equipment might be needed. For example, landings from the zodiac are either “dry” (they’ll bring you up to the rocks where your feet will stay dry) or “wet” (you’ll hop off the zodiac at the beach directly into the water). Snorkeling gear (free) and wetsuits (paid) are available though we chose to bring our own. Water temps vary based on the time of year. In December, I snorkeled with a 1 mm wetsuit and was quite comfortable…some without wetsuits appeared pretty cold though my husband just wore a rashguard and was fine. Finally, the cuisine was surprisingly delicious for a 2 person operation in the middle of nowhere. We had 3 meals and 2 snacks daily and there was free beer in the communal area and soft drinks. Food was incredibly plentiful…we hardly used any of the snacks we packed. Water is filtered and tastes fine. We typically bring a few powder drink mix packets on every trip just to have some variety in flavor.
Day 2: Floreana was the next island and was a very busy day. Most days were incredibly full with a daily snorkel and one or two short hikes. The wildlife on this adventure was the most abundant of any of our travels. Flamingos, marine iguanas, sea lions, blue footed boobies, sally light-footed crabs, more tortoises, and the galapagos penguins all greeted us on Floreana. There is also the famous Post Office Bay where an 18th century tradition continues to this day. Postcards are placed in a wooden barrel and travelers find a postcard located near their home and hand deliver on their return. Each night we’d hop back on the ship for a delicious dinner and the ship would set sail for the next island. Most passengers were asleep very early…there is definitely no nightlife on the ship! We stayed up later than most which allowed us to edit some photos and enjoy the sea air as we cruised under hundreds of stars.
Isabela and Fernandina
Day 3-5: Isabela and Fernandina were our next days. Isabela and the island of Fernandina are located far west in the Galapagos and are really only accessible by cruise ship. Marine iguanas and the penguins are most abundant here. A highlight was pulling up on the zodiac to an island teeming with hundreds of blue footed boobies mingling with marine iguanas, penguins, and pelicans. We also had the opportunity to snorkel with penguins and marine iguanas. It’s a crazy experience to see these tiny dinosaur like creatures swimming toward you. Our favorite moment of Isabela though was a playful sea lion who followed us along the shore chasing our boat until he lifted his flipper in a goodbye wave. Sea lions have quite the personality! We also fell in love with a baby sea lion who entertained himself by tossing a piece of seaweed in the air and falling over trying to repeatedly catch it. My personal favorite Galapagos animal though is still the waddling 20 inch tall Galapagos penguin. It’s a trial of persistence trying to capture a photo of a penguin swimming underwater. They are stealthy and streak through the water much faster than a lumbering human in flippers! On day 5, we gathered with the captain as we watched the GPS flash zero as we crossed the equator from the south to the north. The crew had a generous serving of appetizers and snacks and we sipped champagne to celebrate the occasion.
Day 6: Isla Santiago: In Isla Santiago our weather was very windy and we got a great kayak workout in battling the currents and wind. Sea lions were abundant here as well and many baby sea lions were nestled in and nursing with their mothers.
Santa Cruz & North Seymour
Day 7: Most of our Galapagos days were filled with volcanic rock and craggy landscapes, but our final day included a stop on the northern shore of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz has a beautiful white sand beach and we got to walk along the soft sand to a lagoon filled with flamingos and get to partake in a bit of swimming. Our final snorkel of the trip was in the rougher waters off North Seymour to try to see sharks. We saw many resting along the sandy ocean floor but failed to see the elusive hammerhead shark. North Seymour itself has a plethora of birds…painting every rock surface of the island with a white bird poop. We witnessed the magnificent frigate bird whose male will puff out its red chest to a balloon size to attract females.
Our final day was just a trip to the airport to depart. This day involved a lot of waiting. We were at the airport hours before our flight left. As we were unsure what time we would return to Quito, we booked a final night at the Quito Airport, before our international flight left the next morning. Downtown Quito is somewhat of a distance from UIO (Mariscal Sucre International Airport), so we elected to stay at the Wyndham Airport Hotel. This hotel was beautifully modern and when we experienced our first mini earthquake at 3 am, it was also structurally very solid!
The Galapagos is truly a must visit destination. The wildlife is otherworldly and it is a privilege to be in their presence. In our opinion, a small ship cruise is the best way to experience the islands. It allowed our group of 12 to easily embark and disembark each zodiac excursion onto the islands and our ship could explore the more remote locations. You’ll take too many photos but it’s hard not too with so many perfect moments.
The cruise itself is a bit of an indulgence as there aren’t really any inexpensive Galapagos travel options. However, our main splurge was our hotel in Quito. As we arrived on Thanksgiving, we wanted a little nicer accommodation so we could celebrate. The JW Marriott Luxury Hotel Quito was beautiful and covered in roses. Who knew that Ecuador was one of the world’s largest flower exporters?
Open Rhode Insider Tips
- After our share of South American airline travel, I think we’ve learned it’s best to budget in an extra day of air travel in case of delays. We’ve yet to seamlessly arrive to a South American destination without a hiccup.
- On our ship, all cabins were the same price even thought they were of varying size. Definitely ask your tour operator for advice on which cabin to book so you can nab the best one.
- Most Ecuador travel agencies will ask you to pay in cash or bank transfer. You could pay with a credit card for a supplemental fee (2-3%). I was a bit leery of forking over thousands to an unknown tour agency so chose to pay the additional fee so I had some recourse in case of trouble. Happy Gringo, with whom we ultimately booked, were fantastic however and that probably wasn’t necessary.
- You’ll need cash in the Galapagos and ATMs are not plentiful, so make sure you have cash for the Galapagos entry fee and tourist card (totaling $120 together) and tips for the cruise crew.
- If you do hike Cotopaxi, you may want to acclimatize a bit first. Otherwise, you’ll be huffing and puffing the whole way up as we did!
- This is definitely a trip for a waterproof camera or GoPro equivalent. There is as much to see on land as underwater!