Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

A friend and I were comparing bucket lists and the one place that we both wanted to visit was the Galapagos Islands, so we started planning it. Generally, I prefer landscapes to wildlife and the limited research I had done on Galapagos Islands led me to believe I would have to take a cruise to see anything of interest.  I suffer from serious seasickness, so being on a small boat for seven nights didn’t appeal to me. After more extensive research I found that I could visit a few of the inhabited islands with minimal time on boats.  So we set a plan in motion to visit mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

I spent 12 days in Ecuador in May 2016, where I visited the Galapagos Islands and Quito. The trip began with an overnight stopover in Panama en route to the Ecuador with Copa Airlines. In the Galapagos, I visited Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabella Islands over one week. Afterwards, I spent four days in Quito. Then I spent an additional four nights in Mexico (Mexico City and Puebla) to take advantage of a free stopover on Aeromexico.

Day 0: fly from NYC to Panama City to Santa Cruz Island via Quito, overnight on Santa Cruz Island
Day 1: explore Charles Darwin Center and nearby attractions, visit Tortuga Bay, overnight on Santa Cruz Island
Day 2: Bay Tour and visit to local beach, overnight on Santa Cruz Island
Day 3: early morning ferry to Isabella Island, relax, afternoon tour to Las Tintoreras, overnight on Isabella Island
Day 4: walk to Turtle Breeding Center, Los Tunneles tour, overnight on Isabella Island
Day 5: Wall of Tears bike ride, midday flight from Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island, overnight on San Cristobal Island
Day 6: morning Highlands tour, afternoon visit to Interpretation Center and beach, overnight on San Cristobal Island
Day 7: morning visit to La Loberia beach, midday flight to Quito via Guayaquil, overnight in Quito

Only two islands in the Galapagos have direct commercial airline service from mainland Ecuador – Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.  So we decided to start in Santa Cruz due to award flight availability.  Flights actually arrive at airport on Baltra Island, a small island adjacent to Santa Cruz. Walking from the plane, we were greeted by some land iguanas. From the airport, we took a bus to a ferry to cross the narrow canal that separates the two islands.  From there it’s an hour bus ride to the main town, Puerto Ayora.

DAY 1: Santa Cruz Island

On our first real day on Santa Cruz Island we visited the main attractions within walking distance from town.  Our first stop was the Charles Darwin Research Center for our first of many encounters with tortoises and land iguanas. Punta Estrada beach is the public beach next to the Charles Darwin Center.  We snorkeled in the rocky waters along the beach for an hour and saw many fish, but I unfortunately I had left my GoPro at the hotel.

After a second breakfast we walked to the Laguna las Ninfas, a small lagoon surrounded by boardwalks.  We didn’t see much wildlife there, but the landscape was beautiful and peaceful.

The walk takes at least an hour and the path is mostly exposed and the midday heat was relentless.  We eventually arrived there drenched in sweat and ready for a swim.  Tortuga Bay beach is very long with white sand and gorgeous blue water. The main beach is not recommended for swimming due to the strong currents.  The second beach is smaller and protected with calm water.

Puerto Ayora has all the basic tourist needs including good views of the sea. The town comes alive at night when all the tourists return from their excursions.  Our nightly routine consisted of dinner and hanging out on the docks, where sea lions rest on the benches and small sharks swim underneath.

DAY 2: Santa Cruz Island

There are tons of excursions that depart from Santa Cruz Island.  We checked at several agencies and eventually decided on the cheap, half-day Bay Tour as a Galapagos Islands introduction.  The tour included stops at La Loberia, a sea lion colony that lives on an island; walking across volcanic rock; and Las Grietas, a rocky canyon filled with crystal clear water. In the afternoon, we snorkeled at Playa de los Alemanes, a public beach, where I saw my first sea snake (I was too terrified to take a picture).

DAY 3: Isabella Island

Isabella Island is the largest island in the Galapagos and I would argue it has the most activities and the most diverse landscape.

We took the earliest ferry from Santa Cruz Island at 7:00 and arrived on Isabella Island at 9:30.  By the time we reached our hotel, we had missed the majority of the Los Tunneles tours.  The ones that hadn’t departed were all booked or only had space for one person.  This put a small wrinkle in our Isabella itinerary.

The only half-day tour available was to visit Las Tintoreras, the small group of volcanic islands just off the main port of Isabella Island. We were planning to do this tour if we had extra time, so we did it to salvage the day and I’m very glad we did. There were only three people on the tour and we had one guide.  The guide also served as a naturalist.  The tour has three main parts: 1) sailing around the islands to view land and marine wildlife, 2) snorkeling, and 3) walking on one of the larger islands.  The trip was excellent as we saw blue-footed boobies, sea lions, iguanas, snarks, and penguins.

DAY 4: Isabella Island

The second day began with a walk to the Centro de Crianza Tortugas Gigantes along a beautiful boardwalk and path, where we saw flamingos and other wildlife.  The center had lots of giant tortoises of various ages.  We visited rather quickly to make it back to town to start Los Tunneles tour.

Reaching Los Tunneles requires a one hour boat ride from the main docks.  After putting on our wetsuits, we were in the water and exploring with our guide.  There were tons of sea turtles..  We also saw sharks, a very large manta ray, and tiny seahorses.  The next stop was open water diving around a small set of rocks that was home to a penguin colony.  I’ve never been so closed to so much exotic wildlife in my life.  The animals are not afraid of humans.  They don’t approach you, but they don’t run away either – it’s like humans don’t even exist.  The last stop was a walk around the area of Los Tunneles that is attached to the main island.  Here we saw a large number of blue-footed boobies up close.  Then we headed back to main dock on Isabella Island.   The entire tour takes about 6 hours, but it feels like a long day.

DAYS 5: Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island

My friend spent a few hours doing the Wall of Tears bike ride. I spent the morning in bed and by the ocean. By late morning we were on our way to the tiny airport to catch our prop plane to San Cristobal. The one hour flight was great and offered incredible views on Isabella Island.

San Cristobal was the last stop on our Galapagos adventure. We used the first afternoon to walk around the main town.  We eventually made our way to Playa Mann for sunset surrounded by sea lions.

DAY 6: San Cristobal Island

The next day, we did a half-day Highlands Tour that included El Junco, a sunken freshwater lake; Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a tortoise reserve; and Puerto Chino beach.  We also stopped for an amazing lunch at a local farm and restaurant.

At the end of our tour we were dropped off at the Interpretation Center.  The main center has tons of useful and interesting information about the geological and evolutionary history of the Galapagos.  There was also good information about the islands’ unique wildlife and plants.  Within the center grounds, we were able snorkeled at Playa Carola, which had rough waves but good marine life.

DAY 7: San Cristobal Island

Unintentionally, we saved the best for last.  On our last day in the Galapagos Islands we woke up early to go to La Loberia Beach to swim with sea lions.  There was only one family at the beach that early and they were not swimming.  It was just us and the sea lions, sea turtles, and fish.  It was incredible! Sea lion pups are very curious and will swim right up to you and get very close to your face. We spent a few hours snorkelling and swimming before walking back to town.


FLIGHTS

Copa Airlines  (business): JFK-PTY-UIO-GPS
When I was United Gold, I was upgraded to business class on every Copa flight I took.  Sadly, I no longer have status with United, so I burned 35k United miles to fly business class from NYC to the Galapagos via Panama City and Quito.  Copa business class is just a large recliner seat, but the food is good and the 5 hour flight is comfortable. The flight to Quito was 2 hours on the same plane and the final flight to the Galapagos was on AeroGal (Avianca Ecuador).

Comair (economy) : Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island
We splurged on this flight to save time and potential seasickness.  The only other way to get from Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island is to take a 2 hour ferry to Santa Cruz Island and wait for 5 hours for the next 2 hour ferry to San Cristobal Island.  We figured we would have great views from the small plane and we were not disappointed.

LAN (economy):SCY-GYE-UIO
I used 2.5k British Airways Avios points to reduce the cost of this flight from the Galapagos to Quito from $250 to $100.

Aeromexico (economy): UIO-MEX-JFK
I redeemed 20k Alaska miles to fly from Quito to NYC with a five day stopover in Mexico City.  Sadly, Aeromexico and Alaska Air are no longer partners.


HOTELS

Hospedale Vista del Mar, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos – budget
There are not a ton of midrange hotel options on Santa Cruz.  In the end we choose Hospedale Vista del Mar due to its location and the possibility of seafront rooms.  Unfortunately, we did not get one.
Recommend: No

Hotel Albermarle, Isabella Island, Galapagos – moderate
For the rest of our time in Galapagos, we choose nicer hotels since we knew we wanted good amenities and beds after long days snorkeling and exploring.  This hotel is located on the main beach in Puerto Villamil and we had an oceanfront room.
Recommend: Yes

La Zayapa, San Cristobal Island, Galapagos – moderate
La Zayapa is located along the harbor and is in the central part of town for access to tours and restaurants. Once again, we choose a room overlooking the ocean.
Recommend: Yes


TRANSPORTATION

We took the 2-hour ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabella Island.  The water wasn’t particularly rough, but I’m prone to seasickness.  I didn’t get sick, but I was definitely ready for the ride to end after the first 15 minutes. I’m glad we opted to fly from Isabella Island to San Cristobal Island. On the islands, most of our excursions included all transportation.


HIGHLIGHTS

La Loberia Beach, San Cristobal Island
We visited this beautiful, white sand beach on our last morning on San Cristobal Island.  We were able to snorkel with a group of five sea lions and a couple of sea turtles for a few hours with no one else in the water.

Los Tunneles, Isabella Island
This is one of highest rated snorkelling trips in the Galapagos and now I know why.  Over the six hour tour we had close encounters with sea turtles, sharks, rays, penguins, and tons of fish and other wildlife.

Las Grietas, Santa Cruz Island
Las Grietas was the highlight of our Bay Tour on Santa Cruz Island tour. These volcanic crevices are filled with clear water.  Swimming is the only way to access the entire site.


PLACES TO VISIT NEXT TIME

Sierra Negra volcano hike, Isabella Island
This full-day hike travels along the caldera of a giant volcano.  We missed this tour because of logistics and limited time on Isabella Island. I would recommend visitors spend at least 3 full days on Isabella Island.

Bartholomew Island, Galapagos Islands
Bartholomew is one of the iconic pictures of Galapagos Islands. The island is mostly for the views and has little wildlife. We debated whether to do the all-day tour to Bartholomew Island from Santa Cruz and in the end decided against it due to the high costs, long boat ride, and limited wildlife.

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