Blown away by the Galapagos!
Trip Start Oct 25, 2011
97Trip End Oct 31, 2012
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Where I stayed
New Elizabeth Hotel
Encantada sail boat
What I did
Boobies, seals, sealions, iguanas, turtles, flamingos, penguins, white sands, volcanoes, lava fields...
I'll start with the basics first. In Quito we had booked ourselves onto a 6 day cruise aboard the Encantada sail boat, leaving on Tuesday 6 March. As we had flown into Santa Cruz island the Saturday before, this gave us 3 full days to explore the main island by ourselves before hopping onboard Encantada. We then ended the cruise the following Sunday, leaving us another 3 days to explore San Cristobel island before flying back to Quito. To summarise, we had an incredible experience - quite possibly what will be the potential highlight of our year...we can highly recommend exploring the islands both by yourself (it isn't as expensive as one thinks) and by organised cruise (you get to see a lot more if time is an issue, though this definitely doesn't come cheap).
With three days to kill in Santa Cruz, we boosted ourselves to Puerto Ayora town and quickly found ourselves the cheapest accommodation available at the New Elizabeth hotel ($30 for a double room with ensuite, basic but had the essentials). The town has basically been built around tourism and was full of hotels, travel agencies selling last-minute cruises, restaurants and the inevitable souvenir shops ("I love boobies" T-shirt anyone?...we couldn't resist and ended up buying a similarly-termed fridge magnet). Being the more popular of the tourist towns it also didn't come cheap, however we were generally able to feed ourselves for $5-7 a meal.
Several tourist sites can be accessed easily on foot, and more importantly for free (no Galapagos guides are necessary unlike the vast majority of the islands). These include the Charles Darwin research station (home to a giant land tourtoise breeding programme - a nice visit, however not necessary if you manage to visit the much better visitor centre on Isabela island instead), the white sands and incredibly tourquoise seas of Tortuga Bay (accessed by a paved unshaded 40min walk, home to surfers, lots of sea iguanas plodding the sands, and very few people), and Las Grietas snorkeling site (which we are kicking ourselves we missed as we unfortunately got very burnt on day one at Tortuga Bay and wanted to stay out of the sun for several days)...there were several other nearby sites accessible via taxi, however with our impending cruise we wanted to save as much coin as possible
Likewise on San Cristobel we were able to find even better value accommodation ($25 for a double including AC), cheaper local meals and quite possibly even better free sites, such as snorkelling with sealions under Frigate Hill, better surf sites and watching the sunset by the marina surrounded by literally hundreds of noisy smelling, but highly entertaining sea lions. They literally take over the towns on San Cristobel (see pics)! It was also possible to do cheap day trips around San Cristobel (e.g. diving Lion Rock for potential hammerhead sharks was available for $120, although we very reluctantly passed on this due to budget/ and being out of season for shark sightings). Getting between the islands involved an extremely bumpy 4-hour $25 speed boat taxi...quite possibly the closest I have ever been to chundering over all passengers aboard despite loading up on seasickness pills (i.e. not a pretty experience).
So that pretty much sums up our DIY portion of the Galapagos. Turning now to our 6 day cruise: it by far surpassed expectations. We had splurged in booking our own private cabin with ensuite and AC (an absolute must in March in the Galapagos, even though it didn't always work...), and shared the boat with a group of 9 other people and 5 crew. All our meals were provided, most of them 2 or 3 course meals including fresh squeezed juices daily and other goodies on the side. Our guide (Juan - the "tanga" man) was great fun, full of interesting facts about the Galapagos and had a great level of English.
Onboard the Encantada we sailed around the back side of Isabela island, stopping at Fernandina and Santiago islands on the way
What truly blew us away was the enormous variety of wildlife, and the ease upon which we were able to come so close to everything. On each walk, swim etc we literaly had to step over sleeping iguanas, sunbathing sealions, playful sealions under water, crabs, turtles etc you name it! We were spoilt with beautiful sunsets everynight, relatively calm seas (for the season) and great weather (it only clouded over on our last day). Swimming and snorkeling was another highlight: you encounter playful sealions, giant turtles, swimming iguanas and white tipped sharks at almost every opportunity you open your eyes under water. We truly couldn't have asked for more.
Before visiting the Galapagos we had seriously ummed and ahhed whether we could justify the expense. However we can now hand on heart tell you it was worth every penny - we definitely hope to return one day to explore the remaining islands we had no time for (they are individually unique) as well as dive with the many whale sharks, hammerhead sharks and manta rays which frequent the nutrient-rich waters.
Speaking of manta rays (and any diver knows these are the 'pinnacle' of any diving experience), we did actually get to see one which jumped out of the water approx 50m from our boat and slam back in with full force....they do this to kill the many bugs/creatures which attach underneath their wings. Amazing!!