Galápagos Islands: advice and costs

tl;dr:  We spent twelve days in the Galápagos for less than $US2000 per person including flights from mainland Ecuador – and about a quarter of that was my prodigious eating efforts, so you can definitely do it cheaper, especially if you’re not a glutton.  It’s not spare change, obviously, but it’s not as prohibitively expensive as you might guess.  And it’s worth every cent.

An AeroGal plane on the tarmac at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos

An AeroGal plane on the tarmac at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos

This one’s a nuts and bolts post for those of you potentially planning a trip to the Galápagos – now or sometime in the future;  if that’s not you, you might want to skip it.  It’s not exactly intriguing, and it’s not even funny, I’m afraid…  If you haven’t seen them, you might want to have a look at my posts about actually being in the Galápagos, instead:  one, two and three.  (If you haven’t read them yet, hopefully those posts might help you decide that yes, you do definitely want to plan a trip there, too.  Then you can come back and figure out how.)

So, if you are even vaguely interested in travelling to the Galápagos – even if you think it’s out of reach – then you might be titillated to discover that it’s possible on a more limited budget than you might expect.  It turns out that, while definitely awesome and impressive, the Galápagos doesn’t actually exist in a fairyland bubble of expensive perfection, and is just another destination much like many others.  One which can be travelled in all sorts of different ways, on all sorts of budgets.

To cruise, or not to cruise?

On the advice front, your biggest decision is whether to DIY like we did – staying in accommodation on the islands, in Puerto Ayora (on Santa Cruz), Puerto Villamil (on Isabela) and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (on San Cristóbal), and basing your activities from there, organising individual day trips and activities through agents and dive/snorkel shops on the islands – or to book yourself on a three-, five-, eight- or sixteen-day cruise.  (Or obviously you can also do some combination of the two, if you’ve got the time.)

Frigatebirds take to the air around a small cruise or day-trip boat at Isabela

Frigatebirds take to the air around a small cruise or day-trip boat at Isabela

The cruises are typically the more expensive way to do it, but not necessarily by a tonne, if you can get a good deal.  We ran into one guy who’d bought himself a spot on an upcoming eight-day cruise for $1300 – that was booked a few days in advance, while already in the Galápagos (so bear in mind that it didn’t include his flight costs).  Walking past travel agents in Puerto Ayora, we saw other signs promoting five-day cruises from as little as $550 (in the cheapest class, up to around $1100 for the luxury class).  Booking on the internet before getting here, or through a travel agent in your home country or in Quito, you could expect to pay twice those prices:  the last minute deals on the islands are definitely much cheaper.  That said, I’m told the best cruises all sell out months in advance, so the last minute option won’t actually be available for them anyway.  You can easily spend up to $5000 for good, luxury eight-day cruise booked well in advance before it sells out.  Expect the price tag for the good sixteen-day cruises to have five digits.

For the extra money you pay on a cruise, you get:

  • better food – from what I hear, the food on the cruise boats is generally fantastic
  • a guaranteed variety of sites and activities
  • someone else planning everything for you, with an itinerary that is bound to fit together neatly – no sitting around in Puerto Ayora all morning because your transfer from Isabela arrived at 8am but your follow-on to San Cristóbal doesn’t leave til 2pm
  • a guide for everything, even for those places where Park rules don’t specifically require that you have one
  • the ability to visit some places which just aren’t possible on a day trip:  for example, you can’t get to the island of Fernandina (off the west coast of Isabela) except as part of a cruise
A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Having said that, if you’re on a cruise and it’s not a dive cruise, then you won’t be able to decide that you’d like to go scuba diving tomorrow, please.  Nor will you be able to plan the last few days of your trip specifically to maximise your chances of seeing the things that you happen not to have encountered in the earlier part of your trip.  That sort of thing may or may not matter to you – we were quite glad, for example, that we could decide in the last few days to snorkel on Santa Cruz in areas where there were likely to be marine iguanas actually swimming in the water, since we hadn’t seen any of them leave the land yet by day ten.

A marine iguana crosses the beach at the far end of Tortuga Bay

A marine iguana crosses the beach at the far end of Tortuga Bay

Here were the things we would have liked to do while we were in the islands but didn’t – these are things that potentially doing organised cruises of one form or another might have helped us tick off:

  • see, and ideally snorkel with, penguins (we saw only one, on the rocks at Las Tintoreras) – we could probably have managed to get this one done on a day trip, though, if we’d been able to get one out to Bartolomé in the last few days of our trip (the only day trips out there from Puerto Ayora for those few days were full by the time we tried to book)
  • scuba dive at Darwin and Wolf – these are reputed to be two of the best dive sites in the world, especially for seeing big marine life, but they’re a fair way to the north, and only reachable on a liveaboard dive cruise
  • do a night dive – this would actually have been easily possible to organise, but unfortunately we’re not qualified for night diving, and I probably don’t have enough general experience that it’s a good idea to do without the qualification
  • visit Fernandina – apparently this is one of the iconic sights of the Galápagos, with marine iguanas, boobies and various other wildlife as far as the eye can see, but it’s only accessible on a cruise – and to be honest, we saw all the wildlife elsewhere anyway, just not necessarily all in one such iconic spot
A random seascape as we returned from Los Tuneles on Isabela

It’s a bit hard to find an appropriate photo to represent the things we didn’t see, so here’s a random seascape, taken as we returned from Los Tuneles on Isabela

But then, here are the things we wanted to do that we did:

  • scuba dive with hammerhead sharks, Galápagos sharks, eagle rays, sea lions, turtles and more
  • snorkel with sharks, turtles, sea lions, marine iguanas, crayfish, pufferfish, surgeon fish, etc.
  • swim through the underwater lava tunnels on the southwest of Isabela
  • see blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, pelicans, hawks, and other birds
  • see marine iguanas in the wild, including their nesting sites
  • play with crabs and marine iguanas up close and personal on the beach at Puerto Villamil
  • see giant tortoises “in the wild” on a reserve in the highlands of Santa Cruz, as well as seeing the breeding and research centres on Isabela and Santa Cruz
A giant tortoise in swampy water in Rancho Primicias, in the highlands of Santa Cruz

A giant tortoise in swampy water in Rancho Primicias, in the highlands of Santa Cruz

  • see the volcanos, and the volcanic wasteland, of Isabela
  • enjoy the beautiful beaches near Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil
  • see the sea lions all over Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
  • see the flamingos at the flamingo lake near Puerto Villamil
  • explore a few mangrove sites
  • see a reasonable variety of different islands (albeit that we were only on the big three populated ones)

So, y’know, I feel like we achieved a bit during our visit.  It felt worthwhile – especially for what we spent…

A hammerhead shark and a sea turtle (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A hammerhead shark and a sea turtle (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

For what it’s worth, if (when) I go back to the Galápagos, I think I’ll do a cruise – but largely that’s because it makes sense to do something different the second time around.  If I were doing it all over again for the first time, I’d probably do exactly the same again:  island-hopping and day trips.  So my advice for you if you haven’t been yet:  island-hop, like we did.

What we spent

All costs in $US, per person (I was travelling with Chris, so we were two people – maybe budget a little more on accommodation if you’re going solo, since a single room will probably be more than half a twin, and you might not be able to find hostel dorms all the time)

I didn’t keep exact track of what I spent on food and drinks, because, well, that seemed like a lot of boring effort for not a whole lot of return.  Also I was busy eating and ordering more tasty tasty food, not writing stuff down in a notebook.  But I know the price we paid for everything else, so…

  • grand total, excluding food and drinks:  $1420.60
  • grand total, including food and drinks:  somewhere between $1800 and $2000.
A gecko on the screen of an ATM on Santa Cruz

A gecko on the screen of an ATM on Santa Cruz

And the breakdown…

Getting there – total $560

  • return flight from Guayaquil to Baltra, $450  (note:  we bought our flights as part of a Lima-Galápagos-Costa Rica-Lima round trip, for about £400 each, but the Guayaquil-Galápagos round trip is pretty consistently priced from $450 to $500, so that’s what I’m counting)
  • mandatory tourist card (paid at Guayaquil airport, before checkin), $10
  • Galápagos National Park entry fee (paid on arrival to the Galápagos), $100

Accommodation – total $275

  • night one:  Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Best Home Stay (dorm bed in a hostel), $20
  • nights two to five:  Isabela, Rincón de George ($50/night for a twin room), $25/night, $100 total
  • nights six to eight:  San Cristóbal, Hostal Casa de Laura ($40/night for a twin room), $20/night, $75 total
  • nights nine to twelve:  Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Best Home Stay (dorm bed in a hostel), $20/night, $80 total

Transport – total $142.60

  • day one:  ferry (60c),  bus ($1.80) and taxi ($1) from the airport (on Baltra) to our hostel in Puerto Ayora, $3.40 total
  • day one:  transfer from Santa Cruz to Isabela, $30, plus 50c water taxi at Puerto Ayora and another $1 water taxi at Puerto Villamil, $31.50 total
  • day six:  transfer from Isabela to Santa Cruz ($30) and on to San Cristóbal ($30 – although I think it’s actually possible to get this for $25), with a water taxi at Puerto Villamil ($1) and two more at Puerto Ayora (50c each), $62 total
  • day nine:  transfer from San Cristóbal to Santa Cruz ($25), plus water taxi at Puerto Ayora (50c), $25.50 total
  • day nine:  water taxi to Finch Bay to walk to Las Grietas, by Puerto Ayora, 60c
  • day eleven:  taxi to Rancho Primicias to see tortoises and lava tunnels, $30 shared between two, so $15
  • day twelve:  water taxi to Finch Bay to snorkel there and walk to Las Grietas, by Puerto Ayora, 60c
  • day thirteen:  taxi ($1), bus ($1.90) and ferry (60c) from Puerto Ayora to the airport, $3.50 total
A sight from one of our day trips:  a fern manages to prosper in the volcanic dirt and rock of Volcán Chico, on Isabela

A sight from one of our day trips: a fern manages to prosper in the volcanic dirt and rock of Volcán Chico, on Isabela

Day tours and activities – total $443

  • day four:  morning tour to Sierra Negra Volcano and Volcano Chico (on Isabela), $35
  • day four:  afternoon tour and snorkelling at Las Tintoreras (Isabela), $30
  • day five:  full day snorkelling at Los Túneles (Isabela), $65
  • day eight:  scuba diving at Kicker Rock (off San Cristóbal) with Planet Ocean, $140
  • day ten:  scuba diving at Gordon Rocks (off Santa Cruz) with Eagleray Dives, $140
  • day eleven:  entry to Rancho Primicias, $3

While I decided against the monetary equivalent of calorie counting, I can tell you roughly what prices we encountered…

Mmmm, food.  A giant tortoise attacks lunch.

Mmmm, food. A giant tortoise attacks lunch.

Example food costs:

  • you can get a cheap eggs, toast and coffee breakfast at a number of places for $5-8
  • you can get a decent menú del día (set course menu of the day) lunch for $8-12
  • if you eat where the locals eat, you can easily get dinner for $10-15
  • eating out at a really nice restaurant like the fantastic La Garrapata in Puerto Ayora, you can easily spend $20-30 on an appetiser, main and drinks (hey, in Latin America that’s pretty damned expensive!) – but you’ll get a pretty decent amount of very good food for that
  • a large beer is $2.50-3 from a store – although when you buy it, it’ll be more, and they’ll give you some back when you bring back the empty bottles
  • a large beer is generally closer to $3 in a pub or restaurant

Based on how much cash I brought with me, how much I took out from the ATMs in the Galápagos, and how much I had left when I flew out, my best guess is that I spent around $500 on food and drinks over the twelve/thirteen days on the islands, so around $45 per day.  But I eat a lot (most times we went for breakfast, I’d order two of them, for example), and we certainly weren’t being careful to eat cheaply.  Most people (ie normal people) would spend a lot less than that, and it’s certainly easily possible to eat for $20 a day or less if you want to – especially if you cook for yourselves, obviously (our rooms on Puerto Ayora and on San Cristóbal both had cooking facilities that we were too lazy to bother using).

Miscellaneous other advice

A crab on volcanic rock on the shore, on Isabela somewhere

Miscellaneous other photo: a crab on volcanic rock on the shore, on Isabela somewhere

  • There are ATMs in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  Beware, though, that they don’t always work well for international cards, often telling you that there’s insufficient balance available or that you’ve exceeded your daily limit.  After trying five or more different machines, I eventually managed to get my UK-based Visa debit card to give me cash out of one of the ATMs in Puerto Ayora (the rightmost one by the supermarket down by the port, for what it’s worth) – but that same machine had spurned me earlier.  Chris had an easier time with his Mastercard debit card, but he didn’t have a perfect track record either.  My advice is to bring a bit more cash than you expect to need, on the assumption that you may have difficulty getting money out.  Don’t expect to use credit cards much, either – most places won’t accept them.
  • If you think you might be susceptible to seasickness, be aware that the boat transfers from island to island can be a little bouncy.  We saw a few people emptying their stomachs into plastic bags or over the side, and while it was funny for us, they didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience quite so much.  If you think you might have a problem:  don’t eat before getting on the boat, that’s just stupid;  sit up the back, where the boat doesn’t bounce so much;  watch the horizon;  probably get hold of some seasickness tablets.  This public service announcement brought to you by Captain Obvious.
  • Tap water on the islands is not drinkable.  In other places around the world where that’s the case, I’ll generally brush my teeth with it regardless, but drink bottled water.  WikiVoyage suggests that the water is too iffy even for that in Puerto Ayora.  (Galápagos Best Home Stay – where we stayed in Puerto Ayora – provides free drinking water in the rooms, for what it’s worth.)
  • A lot of the cheaper accommodation on the islands isn’t listed online on Hostelworld or HostelBookers.  Often, you can just roll up and book.  But we did see a goodly handful of people being turned away by our accommodation on San Cristóbal, and the despondent looks on their faces tended to indicate that it wasn’t the first place they’d tried.  It turned out we’d booked the last available room in the hotel/hostel when we’d rung the night before, via a very dodgy Skype connection from our accommodation on the previous island.  Even if you’re organising things last minute, calling the night before to organise stuff is probably not a bad move.
  • Don’t expect good internet access.  Even in the paid internet cafés, net access anywhere on the islands is excruciatingly slow and frustratingly unreliable.
A giant tortoise couple, err, ‘participating’ in the breeding program on Isabela

And let’s finish on a positive note – here’s how we can be confident that the Galápagos Islands will still have a giant tortoise population for many generations to come. Good work, boys and girls, good work.

Any questions?  Ask me in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to give you a useful answer!

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Galápagos Islands, part three: Santa Cruz

This is part three of a series of posts about our time in the Galápagos Islands.  If you haven’t seen them yet, here are the posts describing our time on Isabela and San Cristóbal.

If San Cristóbal was about sea lions, then Santa Cruz was about tortoises.

A giant tortoise strikes a pose, at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

A giant tortoise strikes a pose, at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

Turning up to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, to experience our final island in our twelve-day Galápagos adventure, the place actually felt fairly familiar.  Although the first two posts in this series were about Isabela and San Cristóbal, that’s because I’m slightly cheating for greater blogging convenience:  by now we’d actually spent a bit of time in Puerto Ayora already.  Our first day and a half was spent there after we flew in, and we’d used some of that to visit the tortoises in the Charles Darwin Research Centre, even though I’m only getting around to telling you about that below.  And adding to the familiarity, we’d had a good few hours layover in Puerto Ayora (spent in cafés, of course) while getting from Isabela to San Cristóbal, since there aren’t any direct boat transfers.

So it felt pretty much like coming back to our Galápagos home – almost literally, gladly staying again at the aptly-named, very friendly and comfortable Galápagos Best Home Stay.  And we arrived with more than a little relief, given that our transfer from San Cristóbal had been a tad more eventful than would have been ideal:  our original boat died about twenty minutes into the theoretically two-hour journey, and we’d had to limp back to port at San Cristóbal and switch over to another, slower and less comfortable, boat.  (But one which was taking on less water…)

Still, we got there, and this time, no one was even seasick – in contrast to our previous two early morning boat transfers, each of which had concluded, for at least a couple of other passengers, that eating breakfast just before a boat trip is not the best idea.  (Thankfully seasickness is not a problem for me or Chris.  I spent the whole trip with my head down staring at my phone, watching DVD rips of a BBC Galápagos documentary that my parents had given me for Christmas.)

And the fact that we had been here before meant that we already knew exactly where to go for a late breakfast – the excellent Il Giardino.  Off to a good start.

But speaking of starts, I said Santa Cruz was about tortoises, and really, instead of rambling about transfers and breakfasts, I should actually begin with the first point of interest in Puerto Ayora, which, as I say, we’d actually been through on day two:  the Charles Darwin Research Centre, and more specifically its giant tortoise sanctuary and breeding program…

Baby tortoises in the breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

Baby tortoises in the breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora. I can only assume that the numbers painted onto the shell of each baby tortoise are in order to facility juvenile tortoise-racing. Go number 58, go!

Unfortunately we were about eight months too late for the Centre’s most famous attraction:  Lonesome George, last of his particular species, had died in June 2012.  (There are many different species of Galápagos giant tortoises – pretty much one per island.  This is why they were – in fact, are – so important to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection:  the tortoises on each island have evolved noticeably differently in response to the unique environment of their respective particular homelands.)

Instead we had Super Diego – the tortoise equivalent of Hugh Hefner, sans prophylactics, named for the San Diego zoo from which he was repatriated in order to assist – heroically, as it turns out – in the repopulation of his species.  For slow-moving, apparently lazy animals, giant tortoises sure do seem to get about a lot.  Super Diego himself has literally over a thousand children.  This despite his apparent confusion as to how the process of acquiring said children works:  as we passed the area in which he and his veritable harem live, he was doing his very darndest to impregnate completely the wrong end of one of his unfortunate companions.

He wasn’t the only randy reptile, though:  the tortoise sanctuary we visited on Isabela featured similarly, err, active examples – although at least those ones were proceeding in a manner more amenable to actual procreative success.

Super Diego unsuccessfully attempts to add to his impressive count of children

Super Diego: A+ for effort, I suppose. It’s not particularly obvious in this photo, but his partner in crime is facing away from the photographer. I.e. not in a position which allows Super Diego to achieve his stated goals.

The Charles Darwin Research Centre isn’t entirely about tortoises, it has to be said.  There are also land iguanas – and this was actually the only place we saw them, despite seeing their marine cousins pretty much covering the ground in many other a location.

One of the Charles Darwin Research Centre’s less celebrated occupants:  land iguanas

One of the Charles Darwin Research Centre’s less celebrated occupants: land iguanas

But when it comes to it, land iguanas are much less cool than giant tortoises.  So really, let’s move on.

Actually, our “moving on” didn’t involve giant tortoises either – nor any other form of local wildlife, except the human kind.  When we got back to Santa Cruz after the two other islands, we had a spare afternoon to kill, and so lazily headed out to Las Grietas, a sort of canyon thing filled half full with water (it’s apparently connected to the sea, although despite our best efforts it wasn’t really possible to follow it right out to shore – too much fallen rock in the way).  It’s where the local kids like to go dick about cliff-jumping and just swimming around to escape the heat of the midday sun.

Chris prepares for a graceful swandive at Las Grietas

Chris prepares for a graceful swandive at Las Grietas

So we had a nice relaxing afternoon swimming about in some nice clear calm water, seeing what there was to see.  (Which was not much, but hey – it was nice.)

Anyway, what else was there to do, now that we were back on our final island…

Having missed out on seeing any hammerhead sharks on our dives at Kicker Rock near San Cristóbal, we figured that, well, we might as well try again.  Especially since the dives were not too expensive.  So we headed out to what the consensus seemed to rate as the best dive trip available from Santa Cruz:  Gordon Rocks.

And this time, we got hammerheads.

A hammerhead shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A hammerhead shark (The photos taken during our dives were generously taken and given to us by our dive guides from Eagleray Dives – thanks, guys!)

In fact, we saw a whole school of them – somewhere between twenty and thirty, we think.  All of ten to fifteen metres away.  And we hardly even had to look:  they swam past shortly after we got into the water for our first dive!

Also there were sea turtles and other sharks …

A sea turtle and a white-tipped Galápagos shark cross paths (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A sea turtle and a white-tipped Galápagos shark cross paths (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more hammerheads, some off by themselves …

Another hammerhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Another hammerhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and rays …

A sting ray, up close and personal (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A sting ray, up close and personal (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and playful sea lions – even moreso than they had been at Kicker Rock, since these ones actually hung around and played with each other and with us as we were diving …

Chris says hi to a sea lion (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Chris says hi to a sea lion (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more rays …

An eagle ray (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

An eagle ray (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… including a whole school of them swimming about in formation …

A school of eagle rays “fly” overhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A school of eagle rays “fly” overhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more sharks …

A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and stonefish …

A stonefish (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A stonefish (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and even eels …

A garden eel – Chris and I didn’t actually see one of these, because we were snorkelling along chasing hammerheads instead of doing the third dive.  But hey, this is the sort of shit you can see… (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A garden eel – Chris and I didn’t actually see one of these, because we were snorkelling along chasing hammerheads instead of doing the third dive. But hey, this is the sort of shit you can see… (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Put all that together and the dives were amazing – far and away the best diving I’ve ever done, certainly!

We didn’t even do all three dives:  we only paid for two, while the rest of the party did three.  The marginal extra cost for the third dive didn’t seem worth it to us, so we just grabbed our masks and snorkels and swam around while the rest of the group did the third dive.

And to be honest, I think we made the right call.  While the dive group had a good dive and saw a few cool things – more stonefish, and a garden eel – we spent our time chasing after the school of hammerheads.  And found them!  More than once, in fact.  So we were able to see them again, gracefully swimming past (them, not us – we weren’t graceful at all, we were trying desperately to keep up!) – this time from above.

Without wanting to sound all wilty-at-the-knees, it was a pretty magical day in the water.

Riding a tortoise (shell) at Rancho Primicias.  Apparently sitting on a shell is hard work, because I appear to be covered in sweat.  Ewww.

Riding a tortoise (shell) at Rancho Primicias. Apparently sitting on a shell is hard work, because I appear to be covered in sweat. Ewww.

But as exciting as all that diving stuff was, I did say before that Santa Cruz was all about tortoises.  So I feel obliged to revisit that aspect.  The day after our dive, we headed on up inland, to Rancho Primicias, an in-the-wild tortoise sanctuary, where we could wander about amongst the trees and streams and grasses in search of tortoises.  (Not that the searching was difficult:  they leave huge trails of flattened grass and undergrowth behind as they move around.  This is how pirates used to find them a hundred or so odd years ago, when they were searching out tortoises as a source of meat that could be kept alive in their holds – despite not being fed or watered – on long sea journeys.)

A truly giant giant tortoise at Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz

A truly giant giant tortoise at Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz. This guy weighs in 270kg and is 180 years old. He likes piña coladas and walks in the rain. His passions include eating and farting. No, seriously, he absolutely dropped his guts as we were standing around taking photographs. Like, thunderously. If we’d been less mature about it, we would have absolutely pissed ourselves laughing. We totally didn’t though. It was really inappropriate of him, and quite frankly I think we can all agree that he should know better. Dirty old bastard. No manners. Not funny at all.

So, after we’d seen the tortoises, what else was there left to do?

Well, for starters, there was Tortuga Bay.  It doesn’t have tortoises (well, not that we saw), but at least it’s named after them, so I can feel good about keeping my overall theme going here.  (How about that, mister middle-school English teacher?!)

What it does have, though, is an absolutely beautiful beach.

An iguana on the rocks on the beautiful beach at Tortuga Bay

An iguana on the rocks on the beautiful beach at Tortuga Bay

And, we were told, some quite reasonable snorkelling in nearby Finch Bay.  That sounded great to us, because one of the few remaining things on our to-do list was to try to find a marine iguana actually in the water, swimming around.  So we grabbed our snorkelling gear and headed off in search of one.

And, wouldn’t you know it:  success!

A marine iguana swimming towards the mangroves, in Finch Bay

Finally, a marine iguana (bottom right) actually being all marine and swimming in the water!

So we quickly ticked that off our list.  (Actually, not so quickly:  we had a great time swimming around, chasing iguanas and finding sting rays in the bay – it was a beautiful day, again, and damned if we were going to waste it just because we’d found our objective early on in the piece!)  And then we proceeded along the beach, around Tortuga Bay – where we discovered that just beyond the end of the beach, there’s another, more protected inlet, with yet another stunning beach.  Fantastic.

On the beach in the little inlet just beyond Tortuga Bay

On the beach in the little inlet just beyond Tortuga Bay

It would be a lie to say we were running out of things to do with our time in the Galápagos.  Had we had three times our twelve days, we would easily have found plenty to keep us occupied, and probably still wanted more time before leaving.  But at the end of our time in Puerto Ayora, once we’d finally managed to find those marine iguanas actually in the water, we were nonetheless satisfied and, I suppose, as ready as we were going to be to leave.

We’d been lucky enough to see pretty much everything we’d ever hoped to, and we’d had a stunning, amazing time while we did it.  Everything else can wait until next time.

Galápagos Islands, part two: San Cristóbal

This is part two of a series of posts about our time in the Galápagos Islands.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s part one.

Basically, San Cristóbal is about sea lions.

Sea lions happily occupying the park benches in the rotunda next to the pier

Sea lions happily occupying the park benches in the rotunda next to the pier. Silly humans, you thought these were for you, didn’t you!

It has some other notable features:  it’s home to one of the Galápagos’s two airports;  it’s where Charles Darwin first set foot on the islands;  and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, its town, is the capital of the Galápagos Province of Ecuador.

But when you arrive at the port in the afternoon on a boat transfer from Puerto Ayora, it’s the sea lions that you’ll notice.  Everywhere.

Sea lions lined up sleeping on the steps at the pier

Sea lions lined up sleeping on the steps at the pier

One of the more amusing scenes from our time in every botanist’s favourite archipelago was just after we arrived in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  As we took a short wander around the port and harbour area, looking over the fishing and tourist boats, I spotted a sea lion swim up to and flop over the gunwale of a currently crewless small fishing charter, plonk itself about through the boat a little poking its nose here and there (presumably looking for fish), and then give up and abandon ship.  Then it popped up on the boat next door to repeat the process, and then again, before giving up for good and flitting off out of the harbour entirely.

Clearly the sea lions are not particularly intimidated by the presence of humans and their various effects.

Sea lions playing and resting at the pier

Sea lions playing and resting at the pier

Of course, there’s other wildlife on San Cristóbal, too.  A hike out past La Lobería (a sea lion colony) will take you to a point where you’ll find a reasonable inhabitation of all kinds of birds – especially frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies and red-footed <something not as funny as ‘boobies’>.

A soaring frigatebird against a featureful sky

A soaring frigatebird against a featureful sky

I can only presume that they were able to edge out the sea lions because their stretch of shoreline is a nice sheer cliff.

Pretty coastline on San Cristóbal, hiking out past La Lobería

Pretty coastline on San Cristóbal, hiking out past La Lobería

In the process, the hike out to the birds will of course take you past a small colony of sea lions.  Hence the name ‘La Lobería’:  sea lions are ‘lobos marinos’ in Español.  It will also get you absolutely drenched, if you pick a nice rainy afternoon like we did.  Oh well.  What else were we going to do?  Stay inside?!

A frigatebird flies above the coastline of San Cristóbal

A frigatebird flies above the coastline of San Cristóbal

But that birdwatching expedition was really the only other wildlife-spotting we did from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, in truth.  And actually, the sameness of all the various different locations in which to see sea lions made San Cristóbal probably a little less exciting than the other two islands we visited, at least in my eyes.  (Of course, my saying that is kind of like asking someone who grew up in the sixties who’s their least favourite Beatle – all of the islands were great.)

Sea lions on the beach in the early morning

Sea lions on the beach in the early morning

But that said, San Cristóbal was also the first time we went diving in the Galápagos, so really I’m cheating by not yet having mentioned the off-island underwater stuff we got up to.

We hadn’t actually really expected to do any diving in the Galápagos.  Yes, the islands are famous for having some of the world’s most awesome scuba destinations.  But the best ones – Darwin and Wolf – are way off in the north of the archipelago, and only accessible on a week-long dive cruise.  So we’d kind of assumed that we’d just be snorkelling around when we wanted to check out what the sea might have to offer.

Wandering around town comparing prices of various day trip options, though, we found that there were plenty of dive shops offering trips which you could either snorkel or dive – and the diving was not much pricier ($140 for a two-dive trip versus $70 for snorkelling).  Combine that with reports that in recent days, divers had been consistently spotting hammerhead sharks at a couple of the sites (snorkelers too, to be sure, but if you’re going to see them, wouldn’t it be so much better to be down there with them?!), and we ended up pulling out our PADI licences and dive logs after all, for a trip out to Kicker Rock.

Kicker Rock (aka León Dormido)

Kicker Rock (aka León Dormido)

And we were glad we did!

In fairness, the day started off with some great snorkelling, not diving:  they take you first to Isla Lobos to do a pre-dive “equipment and buoyancy check” (in quotes because I’m sure as much as anything they’re checking that you can complete a very basic dive as much as that your buoyancy is right and that your equipment functions to spec).  That done, and weight belt and BCD unceremoniously dumped back on the boat, we kept the mask and snorkel on and paddled about for a while.  Pretty much straight off the bat we came across a sting ray which we proceeded to stalk around the area for a while (at a safe distance, obviously – just because I’m Australian doesn’t mean I’m looking to Steve Irwin myself).  But that wasn’t the entertaining bit:  the entertaining bit was the very thing I was claiming to be bored of above – the sea lions.

They may be a little lacklustre and tedious on the shore, having a nap.  But in the water, they’re something else:  the most playful – and agile – creatures you could imagine.  Snorkelling with them is somehow inspiring, as they zip around you, swimming in circles, doing loop the loops, alternately playing with you and with their own friends.  Twisting and turning, swimming upside down, playing chicken as they dart at your face and then flick off elsewhere and then return.

A sea lion underwater

A sea lion underwater. (Photo is actually from one of our dives, and is courtesy of Planet Ocean dive shop. Thanks to the dive guides for taking photos and giving them to us – but please direct all complaints re the photo being out of focus elsewhere!)

And that was all before the diving started.

We didn’t actually spot any hammerheads, in the end.  (Although our dive guide claims that there was one on our first dive that none of us saw because we didn’t follow him closely enough so weren’t around when it turned up.  So stay closer next time, OK?)  Still, there were black-tipped Galápagos sharks on both dives, as well as white-tipped ones on our second dive, so weren’t entirely sharkless.  And there were plenty of fish, some in large schools which we could swim right through without much disturbing – loads of fun.

And, on the second dive, another sea lion.  One which absolutely flew past only a couple of metres away as we were swimmingly calmly along about 20m underwater, casting its beady eye over us but apparently not giving us a second thought.

The channel between the rocks of Kicker Rock

The channel between the rocks of Kicker Rock

After the second dive, we said goodbye to Kicker Rock, and it was back to a nice sandy beach on San Cristóbal for some more snorkelling and general dicking about.  Which, given how much fun it was, for Chris and me meant playing with more sea lions.  This time there were some young ’uns to frolick with (cautiously, obviously, making sure not to agitate their nearby parents any, since an underwater fight with an over-protective mummy sea lion is not one I’m likely to come out on the winning side of).  So we spent our time mimicking the pups, discovering that if you twist and turn and barrel-roll underwater like they do, they respond in kind and become even more fun to be around.

All up, the day certainly had us appreciating the little guys’ inquisitive manner.  And even if it was the only thing of note we did on San Cristóbal, it was still definitely enough to be glad we went.

Boats out of the water on the sand in the early morning

Boats out of the water on the sand in the early morning

Galápagos Islands, part one: Isabela

An iguana on the beach on Isabela

An iguana on the beach on Isabela

The Galápagos Islands have been the single best part of my trip so far.  They were spectacular, as I hope the ridiculously photo-heavy next three posts will demonstrate.

Of all the awesome places we’ve been over the last year so far, the Galápagos is the place I most look forward to going back to.  And it’s the place I recommend to people – to everyone – the most.  Even to those who have never heard of it.  Perhaps especially to those who have never heard of it.

It’s cheaper to visit than you might expect, too, given its reputation as one of those far-off exotic places that you only see when the BBC or National Geographic wants to win some more cinematography awards for one of their spectacular nature documentaries.  Thank god once we’d got to South America and were planning our next few months, we figured out (in large part thanks to a few useful posts I found on the interwebs – thanks, helpful internet posters!) that it was actually much more accessible than we might have guessed.

But more about the costs and tedious details in a few posts’ time…  (I’ve got an upcoming post with all the boring day-to-day nuts and bolts of exactly what we did and exactly what it cost us.  So if you’re interested in going – hopefully you will be by the time you’re done reading – and want to know how, or how much, that post’s for you.  Check back shortly.)

In the meantime, we had twelve incredible days in the Galápagos, spending a few days on each of the three inhabited islands (Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal).

After a rest day when we arrived (exhausted from an inconvenient but cheap flight combination that had us overnighting in the terminal at Quito airport), and a day two which was largely spent transferring between islands and finding ourselves accommodation, our Galápagos experience didn’t really get into gear until day three on Isabela…

Ghost crabs on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Ghost crabs on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Isabela is the most picturesque of the islands.  It also has, right next to Puerto Villamil (the one and only town), the best beach we visited in the whole of South America.

Throughout our time in South America, we got a lot of people (locals and other travellers) telling us how great various beaches were.  Largely, you end up responding that, well, thanks for the advice, but we’re Australian.  It takes a pretty damn good beach to beat the ones that we’re used to from back home.  Puerto Villamil, though, has an Australian-quality beach.  Long and wide, with beautiful fine yellow and white sand.

But that aside, there was another, perhaps more important reason it was the best beach we visited:  it has an expansive inhabitation of ghost crabs, all busily scurrying away into their hidey-holes when you approach them.  And I had a brand spanking new camera.  We spent maybe an hour chasing crabs and taking photos.  Seriously, if you ever need any photos of ghost crabs, let me know.  I have a good thirty or forty of them.  And those are the ones I haven’t deleted yet.

You can imagine that it was a spectacular experience.  The sun was shining.  The sea was blue.  The fine white sand was blowing gently between my toes.  The crabs were jumping in and out of their homes like some sort of environmentally-friendly (clubless) version of whack-a-mole.  It was fantastic, and I spent the whole afternoon with a stupid grin plastered all over my face.

Another ghost crab on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Another ghost crab on the beach near Puerto Villamil

(Hot nature photography tip:  if you have two of you, you can get a good close-up on a crab by having the both of you walk up to it, so it retreats into its hole, then having the other heavily stomp away.  It’ll take the vibrations as meaning that you’ve both wandered off.  If you perch near its hole and stay vewy vewy quiet, you can get some great photos when it pokes its head back into the world.  Their vision and/or threat assessment seems to be highly motion-based, so if you don’t move, it’ll happily go about its business with you there peering at it or snapping away at your shutter button.)

Our purpose in walking along the beach had been to hike out to the Wall of Tears (El Muro de las Lágrimas) once we reached the sand’s end.  It turns out the path out there was closed, so we had to make do with the large colony of nesting marine iguanas at El Espero – the black volcanic rock outcropping at which the beach terminates.

So we traded running around taking photos of ghost crabs on the sand for running around taking photos of marine iguanas and various other crabs on the rocks.

An inquisitive marine iguana surveys the area near its latest underground foray in the nesting around at the end of the beach at Puerto Villamil

An inquisitive marine iguana surveys the area near its latest underground foray in the nesting around at the end of the beach at Puerto Villamil

Taking photos of the iguanas wasn’t hard, either.  We were running around giddily, sure, but there was no actual chasing involved here:  the iguanas are just everywhere.  In fact, being a similar colour to the grey-black rock, they’re often there when you don’t even realise it.  A couple of times I spotted Chris focussing his attention on how best to get the right angle for a photo of an iguana or crab he found interesting say five metres off, and I had to point out that by the way, was he aware that there was a massive iguana sitting nonchalantly right next to him, maybe an arm’s length away?

A marine iguana (right) contemplates the foaming sea from its perch on the rocks near its nesting ground

A marine iguana (right) contemplates the foaming sea from its perch on the rocks near its nesting ground

After a leisurely stroll back in to town along the beach, we grabbed some snorkelling gear and headed to the port area for an afternoon dip at an area called Concha de Perla (‘Pearl Shell’).  It was a fairly indicative introduction to swimming in the Galápagos:  on the boardwalk through the mangroves, we had to walk around a sea lion which had chosen the walkway as an excellent spot to relax for the afternoon, and within minutes of getting in the water we swam pretty much right over the top of a large manta ray gliding majestically past not five metres out of reach.

A sea lion having a quiet nap on the boardwalk to Concha de Perla

A sea lion having a quiet nap on the boardwalk to Concha de Perla

Most of our snorkelling was in and around the mangroves, and we were fascinated to observe the crabs which were sitting around on the exposed roots of the trees, even out in a sort-of mangrove island out off the shore.  This was the Galápagos we’d hoped for:  nearly everywhere we looked, it seemed there was some beautiful product of evolution looking blithely straight back at us.  (For those who don’t know, the Galápagos Islands are famous not just because they’re beautiful and because their wildlife is so carefree in its attitude to humans, but also because they were Charles Darwin’s inspiration for his theory of natural selection.)

Crabs on the mangrove roots off shore

Crabs on the mangrove roots off shore

Day four was two organised tours with Carlos, the owner of our hotel.  I say organised tours, but the tour group was just Chris, myself, and a Canadian couple who’d flown in the previous night.  So still a fairly private experience surrounded by nature and not by a busload of noisy natterers with a forest of flashing DSLRs.

The caldera of Volcano Sierra Negra

The caldera of Volcano Sierra Negra

Our morning trip was up to two of Isabela’s five volcanos:  Volcano Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico (the latter is a parasite volcano on the side of the former).  Sierra Negra is one of the largest calderas in the world.  (I’m sure Carlos told us it was the largest, but I’m quite certain Yellowstone is bigger, and we spent a while debating amongst ourselves whether Santorini looked bigger as well, so who knows by what criterion anyone’s making that claim.)  Regardless, the volcano is still active – it last erupted in 1995, and there’s a lot of solidified lava flow around from that eruption, which is cool.  And the walk up to and partially around its rim was quite pleasant.  Carlos spent that time busily pointing out plenty of stultifying flora that I’m sure I would have found much more interesting if I were a botanist.  But I also recall musing that if I were a botanist, I would probably be even less interesting myself.  I guess there’s a trade-off.  I was happy to make do admiring the volcanic landscape and enjoying the stroll.

Volcanic rock and cacti

Volcanic rock and cacti

Once we got to Volcán Chico, that landscape suddenly became substantially more fascinating.  Bleak and barren but for handfuls of cacti.  A few holes in the volcanic rock, often filled with ferns.  A nice view from the volcano’s sides out over the flatter areas of Isabela, too, and all the way out to Fernandina (one of the islands we unfortunately couldn’t get to – it’s only accessible on a week-long cruise).  But really, as great a view as we had from the volcano, the dirt and rocks of the Mars-like landscape were not what we were in the Galápagos to see.

Colourful craters on Volcán Chico

Colourful craters on Volcán Chico

Back more towards the purpose of our visit, our afternoon activity was snorkelling at Las Tintoreras, a smallish group of tiny volcanic island outcrops near the port.

Before actually getting wet, we took a walk around the islets, which are home to a huge nesting colony of marine iguanas – literally thousands of them.

Literally a pile of marine iguanas

Literally a pile of marine iguanas

They’re home to just as many colourful crabs, too, as well as to a good handful or so of sea lions.  There was a lot to photograph in a short period of time!

A colourful crab on Las Tintoreras

A colourful crab on Las Tintoreras

Sea lions and marine iguanas

Sea lions and marine iguanas

A marine iguana who perhaps stuffed himself a little full at the buffet.  (Actually, they spit to get rid of excess salt.  It’s as charming as it sounds.)

A marine iguana who perhaps stuffed himself a little full at the buffet. (Actually, they spit to get rid of excess salt. It’s as charming as it sounds.)

And all that was before we got in the water.

Once we had our flippers on, there was even more to see – even if I don’t have photographs.  (Next time I’m in the Galápagos, I’ll definitely be investing in an underwater camera housing!)  First up there were the sea turtles.  Plural.  There were quite a number of them, in various different areas around the islets.  All of them fairly large and all entirely uncaring at our presence.  They happily swam around us, without a worry in the world.  In the way that you do, I suppose, when your life expectancy is over 150 years, you have few natural predators, and your plan for the next century or so is mostly to flit about elegantly under the waves, occasionally pecking at some of the more delicious-looking patches of algae, interspersed with the occasional spot of steamy turtle love-making while floating up on the surface.  (We were evidently there at breeding time, because we saw a fair bit of that going on as well.)

There were fish aplenty, too, some colourful, some not – in the latter category we saw plenty of pufferfish, though, so they were interesting even if not radiant.  Then there were the two sting rays.  I only saw one of them, but made up for missing the other by being chased by the one I did see for a bit, until I backed up enough to convince it that I wasn’t a threat.

I didn’t see the white-tipped Galápagos shark that others did, either, unfortunately.  Not to worry, there’d be other snorkelling opportunities over the next week or so!

On the way back from Las Tintoreras as the sun starts to go down.  Although you can’t really see it, that’s a penguin in the middle.

On the way back from Las Tintoreras as the sun starts to go down. Although you can’t really see it, that’s a penguin in the middle.

Flamingo Lake, by Puerto Villamil, at sunset that evening

Flamingo Lake, by Puerto Villamil, at sunset that evening

Opportunities like the very next morning, for example – day five now – at Los Tuneles (‘The Tunnels’).

The tunnels are lava bridges formed when volcanic eruptions met the sea, creating under- and over-water swimthroughs near the shore.  The result is a series of interconnected lagoons which are home to a wide variety of marine wildlife, amidst some of the clearest, calmest sea water you’ve ever seen.

Beautifully clear water at Los Tuneles

Beautifully clear water at Los Tuneles

Initially our tour guide was wary of letting us go exploring – when he wasn’t literally towing the Italian woman who couldn’t swim (it was a bit weird – she kept accidentally rolling over, face up, snorkel down, which is not the ideal water-viewing and, y’know, air-breathing position), he seemed to be spending quite a lot of his time telling us to come back to the rest of the group.  Much to our chagrin, since swimming with the rest of the group is a great way to see a whole lot of murky water full of kicked-up sand and seaweed, and not much non-human life.  But eventually he realised that we were fine off on our own, and stopped objecting when we routinely adventured over yonder in the distance.

Los Tuneles

Los Tuneles

And so we saw a lot more.  We spent our time chasing sharks – Galápagos white-tipped and black-tipped sharks both – and swimming alongside sea turtles, as well as spotting a couple more rays, each about 50cm across, each nicely decorated in black with white polka dots, and each swimming happily around the various lagoons, largely oblivious to our presence.  We found a quiet area with some tiny transparent shrimp, and at the second swim site of the day, Chris managed to find a bright red crayfish.  Plus we were surrounded by the obligatory colourful parrot fish, a pufferfish or so, etc.  You know, standard sort of stuff.

A small Galápagos white-tipped shark

A small Galápagos white-tipped shark

A sea turtle at Los Tuneles

A sea turtle at Los Tuneles

There wasn’t really much more to it than that, I have to admit.  Not that there needed to be!

I managed a nice impressive (read bloody) cut on my heel when my overly-floaty flippers pulled my underly-in-the-right-place foot up into the ceiling of an underwater swimthrough, but I was bitterly disappointed to observe that the blood-letting wasn’t particularly effective in attracting more sharks for our viewing pleasure.

So after our swim, we (well, I) spent much of our time on the boat trip back making juvenile jokes about boobies.  And that was our stay on Isabela pretty much complete.

Blue-footed boobies.  Best-named bird ever.

Blue-footed boobies. Best-named bird ever.