The Galapagos Islands are a dream destination for many people. With their wide variety of wildlife, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, their unique volcanic scenery and their gorgeous white sand beaches, the islands are a very special place. There’s a reason the Galapagos are called “the Enchanted Islands”! I learned about the Galapagos Islands in Biology class in high school, but I never thought I would actually make it there someday. To me, it seemed as far away as the moon!
I always thought the Galapagos Islands could only be visited on a cruise. I started looking at cruise ships and itineraries, and found the prices really expensive, especially if I wanted my own cabin! While browsing forums and blogs, I realized that the Galapagos can easily be explored by land – without a cruise. In fact, land-based visitors in the Galapagos have surpassed cruise ship visitors. Many people choose a land-based visit to the Galapagos to avoid seasickness, save money or simply because they prefer exploring the islands at their own pace. The good thing about visiting the Galapagos without a cruise is that you can create and customize your own itinerary. You can visit the Galapagos on a budget, in luxury, or anywhere in between!
I spent about a week in the Galapagos splitting my time between Santa Cruz and Isabela and during my time there I saw the same animals that people who take cruises do: sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, land iguanas, finches, pelicans, penguins, manta rays, sea turtles, giant tortoises, white-tipped reef sharks and red-chested frigate birds.
I highly recommend visiting the Galapagos Islands without a cruise. There’s plenty to see and do on the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal and Floreana. Below is my guide to each island, with recommendations on where to eat, where to stay and descriptions of day trips. I have also provided some general tips for visiting the Galapagos by land.
Table of Contents
- WHEN TO VISIT THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
- HOW LONG SHOULD I STAY IN THE GALAPAGOS?
- HOW TO GET TO THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
- AIRPORT TIPS FOR FLYING TO THE GALAPAGOS
- FERRIES IN THE GALAPAGOS
- WEATHER IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
- HEALTH AND SAFETY IN THE GALAPAGOS
- DRINKING WATER IN THE GALAPAGOS
- SNORKELING IN THE GALAPAGOS
- SCUBA DIVING IN THE GALAPAGOS
- LANGUAGE IN THE GALAPAGOS
- WIFI AND CELL PHONE COVERAGE IN THE GALAPAGOS
- MONEY IN THE GALAPAGOS
- WHAT TO PACK FOR THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
- SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
- ISABELA ISLAND
- SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND
- FLOREANA ISLAND
WHEN TO VISIT THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
Peak season in the Galapagos is from mid-June till early September and from mid-December through mid-January. So if you don’t like traveling in peak season, avoid those times. I went there in late November and thought it was a good time of year to go.
HOW LONG SHOULD I STAY IN THE GALAPAGOS?
I recommend staying at least a week in order to fully enjoy the Galapagos and its wildlife. If you have a week I recommend basing yourself on two islands. If you have more than a week, you can stay on all three main islands. When I was in the Galapagos it was the American Thanksgiving holiday and I met quite a few tourists who were only visiting the Galapagos for 3 or 4 days! In this case I recommend staying only on Santa Cruz or San Cristobal.
HOW TO GET TO THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
The only way for tourists to get to the Galapagos Islands is to fly there from mainland Ecuador – either Quito or Guayaquil. Quito is a historic city surrounded by mountains while Guayaquil is a bustling port city. There are three airlines that offer flights to/from the Galapagos: LATAM, Avianca and TAME. LATAM has a reputation for being the most reliable while TAME is the least reliable. I flew LATAM to and from the Galapagos and had a positive experience.
You can fly into either Baltra or San Cristobal Airport.
Baltra: Located on a small island next to Santa Cruz island, this is the world’s first ecological airport due to its reduced energy consumption and rainwater recovery.
San Cristobal: This airport is located just a 5 minute drive or 15-20 minute walk from the town of San Cristobal.
AIRPORT TIPS FOR FLYING TO THE GALAPAGOS
•At the airport in Quito or Guayaquil, you will need to get a Transit Control Card. You will see signage directing you to a booth where you will show your passport to an official and tell them how long you will be staying in the Galapagos Islands. After you pay $20 in cash, they will print your information on a card and give it to you.
• After getting your Transit Control Card, you will put your check-in and carry-on luggage through a security scanner. This is to make sure you don’t bring any forbidden food or animals to the islands. After your luggage passes the scan, a security officer will put a tag on your suitcase (usually on the zipper part where you would put a lock).
• If large cruise groups arrive at the airport at the same time as you, there will be long queues for the Transit Control Card and security. Therefore, you should arrive at the airport 3 hours in advance. I did and I didn’t have to wait at all!
• Upon arrival at the airport in the Galapagos, you will have to show the immigration officer your Transit Control Card and pay the $100 national park fee. Remember to bring enough cash to pay.
• When your luggage comes out on the conveyer belt, you can’t run over and collect it right away. You must wait for a sniffer dog to check all the bags first.
FERRIES IN THE GALAPAGOS
There are two main ferry routes in the Galapagos- the Santa Cruz/San Cristobal route and the Santa Cruz/Isabela route. There are ferry departures twice daily – once in the morning and once in the afternoon. From Santa Cruz ferries leave at 7:30 am and 2:30 pm to both Isabela and San Cristobal. From Isabela ferries leave at 6am and 3pm to Santa Cruz. From San Cristobal ferries leave at 7am and 2pm to Santa Cruz. When planning your trip, don’t forget that there is no San Cristobal/Isabela ferry route. There are also ferries available to Floreana but on a less frequent basis.
When you hear the word “ferry”, you might picture one of those large ferries that you drive your car onto and dine in the cafeteria and browse in the gift shop during your ride. But in the Galapagos? Nope. The ferries are nothing like that. They are actually small speedboats that hold around 20 or so passengers. Several ferries depart at the same time. Due to their small size ferry rides can be quite bumpy, so take anti-nausea pills if you suffer from seasickness. Some people prefer to sit at the back of the ferry where they can get fresh air. I sat in the covered interior part.
You can buy ferry tickets from any tour agency. They will ask for your name, contact details and passport number and tell you the boat name and what time you need to show up at the docks. Usually it is half an hour before departure. Ferries cost $30 each way.
When you get to the docks keep an eye out for people holding clipboards. They will ask for your name and check if it is on the list. Then you will receive a pass with the boat’s name to wear around your neck.
After this, your luggage will be inspected to make sure you are not bringing any introduced species like live animals or exotic fruits to other islands. The inspector will unzip your bags and take a look inside.
Next you will wait around with the other passengers on your boat until someone yells your boat’s name. Then you will take a water taxi to the ferry. These water taxis cost between 50 cents to $1. Crew members will help load luggage onto the water taxis and ferries. On my ferry ride to Isabela, most of the passengers were only going there on a day trip so they had no luggage. As a result, I was the only passenger who had a suitcase! But on my way back to Santa Cruz a lot of people had suitcases or large backpacks.
When I boarded the ferry I noticed a roll of plastic bags hanging from a pole. These are barf bags in case someone gets sick. The ferry ride from Santa Cruz to Isabela was extremely rough and bumpy. A girl nearby me put a sweater over her head for the entire duration of the ride. Some people prefer to close their eyes during the ferry ride, but I find doing that makes me concentrate more on the rocking motion so I prefer to keep mine open and just watch the view. Two girls threw up on the ride to Isabela, but only a kid threw up on the way back to Santa Cruz. The Isabela- Santa Cruz route was much smoother.
FLYING BETWEEN ISLANDS IN THE GALAPAGOS
Emetebe Airlines operates small planes (usually with 9 seats) that transport passengers between the islands (except for Floreana). You can book at their office in Puerto Ayora (although it never seemed to be open whenever I walked by) or through a travel agent and the price is more than $150.
WEATHER IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
Unlike other destinations, there isn’t really a bad time of the year to visit the Galapagos. The weather is hotter and wetter from December to May and cooler and drier from June to November. The hottest and sunniest months are February and March.
HEALTH AND SAFETY IN THE GALAPAGOS
The crime rate in the Galapagos Islands is extremely low. It is among the safest places in South America. The greatest dangers you will face are getting sunburnt or falling on rocks.
Since the Galapagos Islands are located next to the equator, the sun is extremely strong. Bring plenty of sunblock with you, especially if you are fair-skinned like me, and remember to apply it EVERYWHERE. Don’t forget the backs of your legs especially if you are snorkeling. I did and got burnt there. Reapply your sunblock after swimming or snorkeling. I used SPF 50+ sunblock. Remember that your scalp and hair can get damaged from the sun too, so wearing a hat is a good idea! A burnt flaky scalp is unsightly and uncomfortable especially if you have dark hair! Covering up your skin is also a great way to avoid sunburn, especially when snorkeling. You can wear a wetsuit or a rashguard over your swimsuit.
When walking on some islands during day trips or getting into the water for snorkeling, be very careful as sometimes there are sharp rocks. Don’t walk barefoot or use flip-flops to walk on the rocks. Water shoes will protect your feet during wet landings.
DRINKING WATER IN THE GALAPAGOS
Tap water in the Galapagos is not drinkable. To play it safe, do not even brush your teeth with it. Most hotels have water tanks that you can fill up your water bottle with. Bottled water is also available in many stores. If you want to be more environmentally friendly consider bringing your own water bottle.
SNORKELING IN THE GALAPAGOS
Most day trips in the Galapagos include snorkeling time. The snorkeling skill level among the people on your day trip will vary. Don’t worry if you cannot swim or are not a good swimmer. On quite a few the day trips snorkeling is done from the beach rather than in deep water. You can ask for a life jacket to wear and just float on the water. If you tell your tour guide in advance they can also get into the water with you and help you.
On one of my day trips there were several people who couldn’t swim and they still went snorkeling and enjoyed themselves. However, it would be better if you practice floating and swimming in your local pool with a snorkel mask on before you go to the Galapagos. I can swim but don’t have much experience swimming in the ocean so I wore a life jacket for most of my snorkeling. This also makes it easier to take photos and videos without worrying about staying afloat.
A lot of people wear a shorty or long wetsuit to protect themselves from the sun and to keep warm. Some tour agencies include wetsuits in the price or you can rent them for an extra fee. Most tour agencies provide snorkel equipment (mask, fins). Make sure you ask the agency what is included when booking your tour as you don’t want to end up sharing fins with five other people and waiting for your turn to snorkel. Wetsuits are quite cheap to rent ($5 a day) but if you have your own equipment and wetsuit you may want to bring it to the Galapagos.
SCUBA DIVING IN THE GALAPAGOS
The Galapagos is one of the best places in the world to scuba dive. In some spots you can see huge schools of hammerhead sharks. However, diving in the Galapagos is not for beginners as the currents can be very strong and visibility poor. There are some agencies that will take you on scuba diving day trip even if you are a complete novice but they don’t really specialize in lessons for beginners. You are better off learning to dive somewhere with easier water conditions and good training facilities for beginners like the Caribbean.
Advanced divers usually take liveaboard dive tours which take them to the faraway islands of Wolf and Darwin which are only accessible to divers. Scuba diving day trips are also possible though. You usually need at least 20-30 dives to do these day trips. The most famous scuba diving day tour from Santa Cruz is Gordon Rocks and from San Cristobal, Kicker Rock.
LANGUAGE IN THE GALAPAGOS
The native language of Galapagueños is Spanish but most people working for tour agencies like guides and travel agents can speak English. However, you will still meet many locals who speak little or no English like boat crew members, taxi drivers and restaurant staff. In my opinion it’s worth learning some basic conversational Spanish before your trip as being able to talk to these locals will make your experience in the Galapagos much more positive and memorable!
WIFI AND CELL PHONE COVERAGE IN THE GALAPAGOS
Wifi in the Galapagos is very slow. When watching videos or making video calls, expect a lot of lag. Santa Cruz has the best wifi, with San Cristobal coming in second and Isabela and Floreana coming in last.
There are two main cell companies that operate in the Galapagos: Movistar and Claro. You can buy an Ecuadorian SIM card on the mainland or in the Galapagos. I kept my own SIM card and had an international plan that alternated between Movistar and Claro depending on my location. Claro has a reputation for being more reliable than Movistar. On Isabela I couldn’t get a 3G signal anywhere but I could on Santa Cruz.
MONEY IN THE GALAPAGOS
The Galapagos Islands is still primarily a cash-based society. Major hotels and some tour operators do accept credit cards, but most shops and restaurants don’t. If you book your day trips online you can pay with credit card or PayPal but if you book in person they usually prefer cash. You may face additional fees if you pay for tours by credit card too.
ATMS are available on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal but not on Floreana or Isabela. If you are going to Isabela or Floreana make sure you have enough cash to cover your entire stay. It would be terrible to miss out on a tour or go hungry because you don’t have enough cash! Even before you arrive in the Galapagos, have some cash ready to cover the $100 national park entrance fee. Like the rest of Ecuador, the currency in the Galapagos Islands is the US Dollar.
In the Galapagos (as well as the rest of Ecuador), US $1 coins are frequently exchanged. This may be surprising to Americans who rarely or never use $1 coins at home. You can still use $1 bills though. As it can sometimes be difficult to get change especially on Isabela and Floreana, bring some smaller bills and coins with you. You will need change to pay for water taxis and snacks.
WHAT TO PACK FOR THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
Memory cards: The Galapagos offers many wonderful photo opportunities, so remember to bring enough memory cards to store all your photos and videos.
Camera: A DSLR camera would be best for taking high-quality shots of the wildlife.
GoPro: a waterproof camera that is perfect for taking photos and videos while snorkeling.
Swimsuit: A swimsuit is a must in the Galapagos! You may want to bring a few as they can take a long time to dry in the humid climate.
Sunblock: As the sun in the Galapagos is extremely strong, make sure you bring plenty of sunblock! It is expensive to buy it on the islands.
Raincoat: A light jacket or raincoat will keep you warm during boat rides and in the evenings as well as protect you from the sun.
Hat: A wide-brimmed hat will protect your hair and face from the sun. Some tourists like to wear a hat with a chin strap to prevent the wind from blowing it away.
Dry bag: Sometimes you may get splashed during panga rides, so putting your camera and valuables in a dry bag is a good idea.
Insect repellant: Big flies, wasps and mosquitoes may bother you in some parts of the islands, so bring along some insect repellant.
Water bottle: As it can get hot during the day in the Galapagos, water is essential! Consider bringing your own to be more environmentally friendly.
Footwear: You will need good sneakers or walking shoes for exploring the islands. Water shoes will protect you from sharp rocks on the beach.
SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
With a population of more than 12,000 people, Puerto Ayora is the biggest and busiest town in the Galapagos. Travel agencies, restaurants and gift shops line the main street.
HOW TO GET TO PUERTO AYORA FROM BALTRA
You can get to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz’s main town, by first taking the free shuttle bus from the airport. They try to squeeze as many people onto the bus as possible so you will have to stand if you are one of the last to board the bus.
After a very quick ride, the bus will drop everyone off at the Ithabaca Canal dock where you will board a ferry to Santa Cruz. All luggage is placed on the flat roof of the ferry. This ferry ride costs $1, so make sure to have some change ready.
Once you get off the ferry, you will see many taxi drivers hanging around. It costs $25-$30 to take a nonstop taxi ride to Puerto Ayora (45 minutes). If you want to stop at a tortoise ranch and Los Gemelos on the way, it will cost $50-$60. All taxis are white pickup trucks.
The cheapest way to get to Puerto Ayora is to take the bus, which costs $2.
WHERE TO STAY ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
You can find some cheap rooms for under $30, but note that air conditioning and breakfast probably won’t be included. You could also consider Couchsurfing with a local, which is free.
HOTEL SANTA FE
I stayed here for 4 nights and highly recommend it! Hotel Santa Fe is located on a quiet street near the trailhead to Tortuga Bay. Nearby are Los Kioskos, which are food stalls where you can find cheap food. The rooms are spotless and the staff are kind. I was glad to have a fridge in my room to keep my water cold. The wifi at the hotel was the best I had in the Galapagos.
The family who runs Hotel Santa Fe also owns a yacht for day trips as well as a travel agency called Galapagos a la Carte. If you want someone to book your tours for you or make a travel package, Byron is very helpful!
LA CASA DE JUDY
La Casa de Judy is a hotel a few minutes’ walk from the fish market and is also one of the closest hotels to the Charles Darwin Research Station. There is a large courtyard with a pool area, lounge chairs and breakfast tables. I stayed there for one night. The room was quite basic but all the staff I encountered were pleasant. Wifi was spotty in the room but decent in the courtyard.
FINCH BAY HOTEL
The Finch Bay Hotel is the only beachfront hotel in Puerto Ayora. You can relax in a hammock and enjoy the view of Playa de los Alemanes.
RED MANGROVE ECOLUXURY HOTEL
Located in a mangrove forest next to a bay, this hotel’s deck is often visited by sea lions and marine iguanas.
Located in the wet green highlands of Santa Cruz, Pikaia is an ecolodge with solar panels and a wind turbine. After a busy day of sightseeing you can relax in the infinity pool. The lodge has a luxury yacht for day trips. Every guest gets their own cabin aboard the yacht to shower and rest in. At more than $1000 per night, Pikaia Lodge definitely falls into the category of ultra luxury!
WHERE TO EAT IN PUERTO AYORA
A popular restaurant on Charles Darwin Avenue, Isla Grill is a great place for pork ribs, seafood and steak.
LA REGATA SUSHI-GRILL-BAR
Formerly known as Galapagos Planet, this restaurant is located on the main street near the docks and town square. It is the perfect place to sit and people watch. I ate here several times and enjoyed their seafood. Service is fast and friendly too.
This restaurant was recommended in many travel guides so I went there for lunch one day. I ordered fish but had to wait a very long time (almost one hour). This could have been because a large tour group was there at the same time as me and the staff were busy serving them though. The drink straws here are made of metal instead of plastic to be more environmentally-friendly.
The Galapagos Deli specializes in pizza, sandwiches and ice cream.
Los Kioskos is a street filled with food stalls. At 6pm every night, the food stall owners move chairs and tables into the middle of street, transforming it into a food court. Because of the cheap prices, many locals like to eat here.
DAY TRIPS FROM SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
There are many boats that do day trips from Santa Cruz. If you want the cheapest price, you should walk around Puerto Ayora and ask at different agencies if they have any availability. However, during peak season, popular day trips like Bartolome and North Seymour sell out fast, so if you have your heart set on a particular day trip, I recommend booking in advance. Some companies, like Yacht Santa Fe III, offer online booking. I took my day trips to Bartolome and North Seymour on this yacht and had a great experience. The yacht is spacious with a nice upper deck where you can sit and enjoy the view or even lie down and sunbathe. The crew members were very kind and both guides were excellent. Lunch and snorkeling equipment were included. There are 2 cabins and 2 bathrooms on the lower deck that you can use to change.
Bartolome has an unusual landscape formed by an extinct volcano. A lava formation called Pinnacle Rock is the island’s most prominent feature. Climb 372 steps for a breathtaking view of two golden-sand beaches and the volcanic island.
After enjoying the view, you will swim or snorkel at one of the beaches. Sometimes you can see penguins standing on the rocks or swimming nearby.
Main Attractions: Spectacular views, penguins
NORTH SEYMOUR ISLAND
North Seymour Island is a birder’s paradise! As you stroll down the trails of this island you will see blue-footed boobies, and frigate birds. On the rocky beach, you can sometimes see sea lions playing and splashing.
After visiting North Seymour, you will sail to Playa Las Bachas, a gorgeous white sand beach where you can either relax or snorkel. Sometimes you can spot flamingos in the nearby lagoon.
Main Attractions: Birds, particularly the red-chested frigatebird
SOUTH PLAZA ISLAND
Original Photo Credit: “Sesuvium edmonstonei, South Plaza, 23rd Jan 09, 01” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Wildlife Travel
One of the smallest Galapagos Islands, South Plaza has a large colony of yellow land iguanas. The island has vibrant red vegetation made from sevusium as well as many cactus plants. Sea lions, blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies and swallow-tailed gulls can also be spotted here. After walking around South Plaza island, you will go snorkeling at Punta Carrión.
Main Attractions: Unusual red landscape, land iguana
SANTA FE ISLAND
On Santa Fe Island, you can enjoy the sight of dozens of sea lions lying on the white sand beach. On this island you can find several endemic species (found only on Santa Fe) such as the Galapagos Hawk, the Santa Fe iguana, Santa Fe lizard, and Santa Fe mockingbird.
You can swim or snorkel in the turquoise waters of Barrington Bay.
Main Attractions: Sea lions
When sailors landed on Pinzon during the 18th century, they introduced rats to the island. These rats ate tortoise eggs and even baby tortoises, drastically declining the tortoise population. In 2012, rats were completely eradicated from the island and in 2014 the first tortoises hatched on the island in more than a century! Since the tortoise restoration program is still ongoing, tourists are not allowed to land on Pinzon.
However, snorkeling day trips are available where you can snorkel in the water next to Pinzon Island. On this day trip, you can also snorkel at Daphne Major and visit the beach at Bahia Borrero.
Main Attraction: Excellent snorkeling opportunities
ACTIVITIES ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
VISIT A TORTOISE RANCH
In the highlands of Santa Cruz you can find many giant tortoises. At Rancho El Chato and Rancho Primicias, you can walk on a path around a grassy field and watch tortoises munching on grass. Rancho El Chato has a $3 fee while Rancho Primicias is free. Remember not to touch or feed the tortoises. If you want to take a photo with them, you can get the best shot by standing a couple of metres behind them. This will make the tortoise look larger. That way you won’t startle them either.
To get to one of the tortoise ranches, you can hire a taxi to take you there from Puerto Ayora. Usually the taxi will also stop at Los Gemelos. The driver will hang around the parking lot and wait for you. This excursion is often referred to as the “Highlands Tour” and costs $40-50 per car. You can also visit a tortoise ranch and Los Gemelos on the way to or from the airport which would save you a bit of money and time.
There are a few lava tunnels at El Chato as well as near the town of Santa Rosa. I only walked through one as I was more interested in the tortoises.
Los Gemelos are two huge sinkholes located in the highlands. Many interesting birds like finches and the vermillion flycatcher live nearby.
Las Grietas is a rocky gorge where you can go swimming or snorkeling in clear blue water. To get there, take a water taxi (less than $1) from Puerto Ayora’s main docks to Finch Bay Hotel. Follow the path for 15-20 minutes past Playa los Alemanes until you reach Las Grietas. There is a stall where you can rent snorkels. As the rocks are slippery, bring sturdy shoes.
The fish market is my favourite place in Puerto Ayora! In the morning and late afternoon, you can watch people chopping up and preparing fish while hungry pelicans and a sea lion wait for scraps. One time, I saw a fisherman spray a group of pelicans with a hose to keep them away from the fish, much to the delight and amusement of tourists. But the pelicans were not deterred and returned a few minutes later. The fish market provides hours of free entertainment!
Near the edge of town, you will find a path that leads to Tortuga Bay, a stunning white sand beach. Near the beginning of the path, you need to check in at the guard station. You will write your name, country, passport number and arrival time in a big book. This is your last chance to buy drinks or use the toilet for the next few hours as there are no food kiosks or toilet facilities at Tortuga Bay. On your way back you will need to sign out again.
Visitation hours are from 6am to 5pm. You will follow a long red pathway surrounded by cactuses and trees until you reach Tortuga Bay. Along the pathway you will spot many of Darwin’s finches chirping in the trees. Tortuga Bay is really split into two beaches: Playa Brava and Playa Mansa. The ocean is too rough to swim at Playa Brava but you can swim at Playa Mansa. You can see many iguanas here. There is a kayak stand at the beach where you can rent a kayak for a few hours.
You can also get to Tortuga Bay by taking a water taxi to and from the main docks, but they don’t come very often.
LAGUNA DE LAS NINFAS
A short walk from Puerto Ayora is a boardwalk where you can enjoy views of a lagoon, mangroves and birds.
CHARLES DARWIN RESEARCH STATION
The Charles Research Station is located a short walk from Puerto Ayora along Charles Darwin Avenue. Here you can learn about all the conservation and research efforts that go into protecting the wildlife of the Galapagos. You can see many giant tortoises and some land iguanas, but they are behind fences so it is more like a mini zoo and not as interesting as the tortoises ranches. Inside a glass case you can see the taxidermied Lonesome George, who was the last Pinta Island tortoise.
PLAYA EL GARRAPATERO
This is a quiet beach about 19km from town. You can sometimes see flamingos nearby. A round trip taxi there costs $30-40.
Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos, but Puerto Villamil is the only town. It has a population of 2000 and a very laid-back, beachy vibe. The main street where most hotels are located is sandy and unpaved. The sunset views from Playa Grande, which is Puerto’s Villamil’s main beach, are amazing! Remember that there is no ATM on Isabela and not many places accept credit cards so bring enough cash for your stay there.
HOW TO GET TO ISABELA ISLAND
Ferry connections to Isabela are only available from Santa Cruz. Ferries leave daily at 7am and 2pm and the journey takes about 2 hours.
Isabela has a small airport, so flying there from Santa Cruz or San Cristobal on Emetebe Airlines is possible.
All foreigners must pay an entry tax of $10 at the docks upon arrival to the island.
WHERE TO STAY IN PUERTO VILLAMIL
POSADA DEL CAMINANTE
Probably the cheapest option on Isabela. You can get a bed in a coed dorm room for about $20.
I stayed at the Volcano Hotel and the ladies at the front desk were so nice, always asking what time my tours were so they could arrange breakfast for me! When I arrived I was given a refreshing welcome drink, which I really appreciated after the ferry ride! My room was clean and modern. The wifi in the room was terrible, but that is not the hotel’s fault as the wifi on the whole island is very slow. You can get a decent signal in the lobby.
Hotel Albemarle is just steps away from the beach with lovely views of palm trees.
Scalesia Lodge is in the middle of the forest on Isabela Island. You can stay in a luxury safari tent and eat your meals in the main lodge.
WHERE TO EAT IN PUERTO VILLAMIL
THE BOOBY TRAP
This restaurant is often called the best on Isabela. I ate dinner here twice and tried the tuna tataki and a taco which were both pretty good.
Across from the town square is El Velero, where you can eat a set meal or order from the menu. I had a sandwich with plantain chips.
LA CASA ROSADA
Known as the “pink house” in Spanish, La Casa Rosada is a popular beach bar for both tourists and locals to hang out. In the evenings you can relax in a hammock or bean bag and watch gorgeous sunsets from here. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try out the slackline (which is like a tightrope).
ACTIVITIES IN PUERTO VILLAMIL
CONCHA DE PERLA
At the end of a boardwalk trail covered with sleeping sea lions is Concha de Perla, a place where you can hop in the water and go snorkeling. Bring your own snorkeling gear here or rent it in town. Here you can swim with sea lions, rays and fish. The water is calm and perfect for beginners.
WALL OF TEARS
From town you can follow a 7 mile long path to the Wall of Tears. The hike is very long (about 2-3 hours each way) so a lot of tourists rent a bike to go there, which reduces the journey to one hour each way. I didn’t want to do such a long hike and I never learned how to ride a bike (don’t laugh!) so I didn’t get to see the Wall of Tears unfortunately. The Wall of Tears was built during the 1940s and 50s by prisoners who toiled every day in the hot sun. As they had to carry heavy lava rocks many of them died, which is how the wall got its sad name. During the hike you will also see a magnificent view of the forest and ocean.
CENTRO DE CRIANZA (TORTOISE BREEDING CENTER)
At the tortoise breeding center, you can see tortoises of all ages. The baby ones are especially cute! Behind the center there is a flamingo lagoon.
DAY TRIPS FROM ISABELA ISLAND
Los Tuneles is a must-do day trip while you are on Isabela! I saw a few penguins during the boat ride. You will take a walk on lava rocks that resemble bridges. Cactuses grow on these bridges, which makes them very unique. You can spot many blue footed boobies nesting here. You will also go snorkeling under these bridges. The gaps under the bridges look like tunnels, and in these tunnels you will find white-tipped reef sharks.
I went with Pahoehoe Tours and Gabriel was an excellent guide! He was very enthusiastic about the tour even though he does it almost every day! He took photos of the group and the wildlife and loaded them onto everyone’s memory card or USB stick in the office at the end of the tour. While snorkeling I saw turtles, a seahorse, colourful fish and reef sharks hiding in caves. Gabriel helped push each tourist’s head under the water so that they could see the reef sharks.
Near the main pier in Puerto Villamil is Las Tintoreras, a series of rocky islets where huge colonies of marine iguanas live. You will take a walk around the iguana colony and also peek into a lagoon where white tip reef sharks rest. The snorkeling near Las Tintoreras is great because the water is calm. I saw many large sea turtles! On the boat ride near Las Tintoreras I saw a couple of penguins. Read more about my day trip to Las Tintoreras here.
SIERRA NEGRA VOLCANO HIKE
Sierra Negra is one of five active volcanoes on Isabela island. With a guide, you can hike to the edge of the caldera for impressive views. I opted not to do this excursion as I was more interested in seeing wildlife than hiking.
If at least 5 people sign up, Pahoehoe offers a deep water snorkeling excursion at Isla Tortuga where you might see manta rays and hammerhead sharks. You will also go to Loberia Grande, where you can try fishing with the crew or do more snorkeling.
SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the administrative and government center of the Galapagos Islands. It has a population of around 6000.
HOW TO GET TO SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND
Ferries depart Santa Cruz for San Cristobal daily at 7am and 2pm. Return trips are available at the same time. A ferry ride costs $30 each way. There are no direct ferries from San Cristobal to Isabela so you would have to transfer in Santa Cruz.
Flights to San Cristobal are available from the cities of Quito and Guayaquil in mainland Ecuador. You can also fly to San Cristobal from Isabela or Santa Cruz on Emetebe airlines, which has 8-seater planes, but a one-way flight will cost you more than $150.
From the airport on San Cristobal, you can take a cheap taxi ride to the main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno for less than $2, or even walk if you don’t have much luggage.
WHERE TO EAT ON SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND
Hotel Miconia: The restaurant at Hotel Miconia has views of the bay from its second floor. Its specialty is Italian food.
Midori: A sushi pub which also has a location in Puerto Ayora.
Descanso del Marinero: A tropical-themed restaurant that specializes in seafood. It is pricier than other restaurants in town.
Lucky’s: The best place in town to get cheap set meals (less than $5).
ACTIVITIES ON SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND
Also known as Frigate Bird Hill, Cerro Tijeretas has spectacular views of Shipwreck Bay and Kicker Rock. You can find the path to the top of the hill behind the San Cristobal Interpretation Centre. The walk takes about 45-60 minutes. If you are feeling hot and sweaty after the hike you can go snorkeling or swimming at Tijeretas Bay if the waves are not too strong. Be careful of the rocks when getting into the water.
CENTRO DE INTERPRETACION
This is a museum about the history of the Galapagos, and is divided into three parts: formation, settlement, and conservation.
Punta Carola is a beach where you can see a huge sea lion colony and go snorkeling at high tide. At the end of the beach there is a lighthouse.
LA LOBERIA BEACH
La Loberia beach is about a 20-30 minute walk from town and is another great place to see sleepy sea lions. You can also get there by bike or taxi. As the beach is rather isolated, you may want to arrange for a taxi to wait for you or pick you up.
SAN CRISTOBAL HIGHLANDS TOUR
You can hire a taxi or book a guided tour of San Cristobal’s highlands. Usually, the taxi stops at El Junco Lagoon, the Galapaguera Tortoise Breeding Centre and Puerto Chino Beach. El Junco Lagoon is a freshwater crater lake in the caldera of a volcano. If it has rained recently, the trail around the lagoon will be muddy so don’t wear nice shoes. If you take a tour, you will have lunch in town followed by a guided walk to Cerro Tijeretas.
Playa Mann is very close to town and is a good place to try kayaking or paddle boarding
CASA DEL CEIBO
A short cab ride away from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in the village of El Progreso is a treehouse. You can rappel up the side using a rope or just relax in a hammock downstairs and enjoy some coffee and cake.
DAY TRIPS FROM SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND
Kicker Rock (also known as Leon Dormido, or Sleeping Lion) is an eroded volcanic cone which towers 140m high. It is one of the best snorkeling and diving sites in the Galapagos because of all the wildlife in the water around it. You can see Galapagos sharks, white-tipped sharks, sea turtles, sea lions, rays and sometimes even hammerhead sharks. The best time to take this day trip is from December to May when the waters are clearer and calmer. On your Kicker Rock day trip, you will also visit either Manglecito, Puerto Grande or Cerro Brujo beach.
For visitors who don’t have much time on San Cristobal, the 360 island tour is a great way to see the main sites in one day. It is called the 360 tour because you literally circumnavigate the island. It’s a busy day as you leave around 7:30 am and return at 5pm, visiting Rosa Blanca, Punta Pitt, Sardine Bay, Punta Pucana, Cerro Brujo, and Kicker Rock.
If you have more time on the island, it would be better to take separate day trips to Kicker Rock and Punta Pitt so that you won’t feel rushed.
Original Photo Credit: “Waved Albatross Pair on Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Island Conservation
From April to December beautiful white waved albatrosses breed on Espanola, and you can see their cute fluffy chicks. On this day trip, you will snorkel at Gardener Bay, which is called one of the most beautiful beaches in the world because of its white sand and turquoise water! As well, you will take a 2 hour walk around Punta Suarez to look at blue-footed boobies and red & green marine iguanas (also called Christmas iguanas).
Punta Pitt is the only place in the Galapagos where you can see all three species of boobies – red-footed boobies, blue-footed boobies and Nazca boobies. On some tours, you stop at Cerro Brujo beach first. From the beach you can see an amazing view of Kicker Rock. Then you will go to Punta Pitt to spot boobies. After the bird-watching excursion you will snorkel in the water in front of Punta Pitt.
A half-day excursion to Isla Lobos, a small island where you can see marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and sea lions, is available from San Cristobal. You will also visit the sandy white Ochoa Beach.
With less than 200 residents, Floreana is the most isolated and least visited of the inhabited islands. It has the most interesting human history of the islands as it used to be a water and food stop for pirates, whalers and merchants. Pirates used to hide in the island’s caves! The island is well-known for its eccentric early settlers and a few mysterious deaths which took place in the 1930s. Several books and even a movie have been made about these events. Floreana is the only inhabited island that has no cell phone coverage. The residents actually declined it because they thought it would speed up the pace of life there too much. As a result, calls can only be made from landlines. There is spotty wifi coverage in the town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra. If you want a peaceful, unique experience where you can immerse yourself in nature and disconnect from the real world, consider spending a night or two on Floreana! Stargazing opportunities on Floreana are exceptional due to the lack of light pollution.
HOW TO GET TO FLOREANA ISLAND
Floreana is included as a stop on many cruise itineraries, but few land-based visitors make it there. However, a day trip or an overnight stay from Santa Cruz is possible – you just need to arrange everything in advance if you want to go there as boats only operate if there are enough passengers.
Visitors who want to spend the night on Floreana Island get there by taking the same boat as the day tour from Santa Cruz. The boat departs Santa Cruz around 8am and arrives on Floreana at 10am. The boat returns to Santa Cruz around 2:30 pm.
Typically, visitors who decide to stay on the island do a 3 day/2 night itinerary, arriving in Floreana on the morning of the 1st day and leaving on the afternoon on the 3rd day. They often join the day trippers on their tour on the 1st day. Galapagos Ocean Expeditions offers day trips there. The tour includes a visit to Playa Negra, snorkeling at La Loberia, and a Highlands Tour where you will visit pirates caves, see a huge face carved in stone, a turtle farm, and a freshwater pond.
WHAT TO SEE ON FLOREANA ISLAND
POST OFFICE BARREL
A post office barrel, built in 1793, was used by pirates and merchants. There is a tradition that people check the mail from the barrel and if they live nearby the addressee, they must personally deliver it. The original mailbox fell into disrepair and has since been replaced by a replica at the docks in Puerto Velasco Ibarra. Today, tourists leave postcards in the mailbox and continue the tradition.
As its name suggests, this is a black sand beach!
You can see sea lions, sea turtles, and iguanas at this beach. You can rent a kayak or snorkel from La Loberia.
ASILO DE LA PAZ
Hidden in Floreana’s highlands are caves where pirates used to live! You can also see a freshwater spring which early settlers relied on for water.
WHERE TO STAY ON FLOREANA ISLAND
On Floreana Island most visitors stay at the Floreana Lava Lodge or the Wittmer Lodge. There are also guesthouses available.
FLOREANA LAVA LODGE
The Lava Lodge has private small cabins right in front of the Black Sand Beach.
This hotel is run by the daughter and granddaughter of Margret Wittmer, one of Floreana’s first settlers. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available here. If you are interested in the island’s history, there is a small museum here.
WHERE TO EAT ON FLOREANA ISLAND
There are only a few restaurants on the island, and sometimes all the seats are taken by tour groups, so if you are staying overnight, contact your accommodation in advance to help you make reservations. If you are coming with a day tour, lunch will be included.
I hope you found my guide helpful! Which islands would you like to visit most? Tell me in the comments below!