For people who don’t want to read this entire novel on the Galapagos… here is a cheat sheet:
- Day 1 and 2 : Traveling to the first island, San Cristobal
- Day 3: San Cristobal 360 Tour
- Day 4: Terrestrial Taxi Tour (and some fun other options)
- Day 5: Traveling to Santa Cruz, Las Grietas and Charles Darwin Center
- Day 6: Pinzon Island
- Day 7: El Chato and the ferry back to San Cristobal
- Day 8: The journey home…
For people who want to fully dive into my brain… start the novel here:
I remember submerging myself in my Opa’s National Geographic collection when I was little. I was obsessed with photos of distant places, odd shaped creatures and people who didn’t look like me. In fact, I think the many years of flipping through those pages is what inspired me to do what I do… it created an insatiable desire to see and experience everything. I remember reading about Darwin and his tiny, drab looking finches, massive tortoises and birds with shockingly blue feet: The fairytale-like Galápagos Islands. Surely that’s a hard place to get to…. surely you have to be rich and rigid to visit there, right? Surely you HAVE to take a multi thousand dollar cruise to experience these exotic islands, right?
That’s actually completely wrong and this is a location that your average person can easily check off their bucket list.
So… let me teach you how. I do believe this is a place that everyone with a love for wildlife should visit. As cliché as it sounds, YES, the islands are magical. And they will probably give you experiences that you’ll never get anywhere else and make you get all the feels.
First things first: let’s cover some quick factoids that’ll make your trip smoother.
- The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago off the coast of Ecuador. I was slightly shocked by how many people had no idea where these were (but I do realize that I spend an awkward amount of time staring at globes and maps so I forgive you if you didn’t know).
- If you get motion sick, bring medication. You’ll constantly be on boats and a couple people were a tad miserable until their meds started kicking in. I have never gotten motion sick before, but on one of our ferry rides, I got pretty close (they are small and fast ferries that bounce all the way to the next island).
- Spanish is the language spoken on the islands and it would really help you to brush up on your terms before heading there.
- Surprisingly, Ecuador uses the US dollar as it’s currency… so if you’re coming from the states, you don’t have to exchange any money (whaaaaat????). BUT you’ll want to have cash on you, and in small bills, so you’ll still probably need a trip to the bank. There are a small amount of ATMs on the island, but it’s best to assume those won’t work and bring your own cash.
- If you thought the currency thing was great, know that if you’re coming from the states you ALSO don’t need any sort of power converter. Just bring your normal plugs and you’re golden (I did mention these islands were magical, didn’t I?)
- There are 18 main islands and a healthy handful of other smaller islands and islets. Of those islands you can easily visit and lodge on 3 of them; Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela (the order listed goes from most populated to least populated). You can take ferries between the islands, just keep in mind that there is no ferry that goes from Isabela to San Cristobal, so no matter what you’ll be stopping in Santa Cruz. Some of the other islands can be visited on day trips (which we will talk about later).
- Santa Cruz is the island with the ‘largest’ city and most touristy option throughout the islands… but if you go in the shoulder season you won’t be crowded at all and for the entire trip there were always a huge amount of locals and minimal tourists. We went at the end of May and into the beginning of June…. so if you want to avoid crowds I can recommend that time of year.
- The wildlife in this area can greatly be affected by El Niño and La Niña. Without getting into too much detail, El Niño is pretty devastating to the ocean wildlife here. I wouldn’t visit during El Niño… instead maybe donate to the conservation centers on the islands during this time.
- You’ll be so overwhelmed by the amount of wildlife present throughout the islands, and they will be overly underwhelmed by your presence and not care at all that you are there. That makes it pretty easy to take them for granted and perhaps get too close to the wildlife. DO NOT TOUCH THEM. There are strict rules (about literally everything) on these islands and if you start to disrespect the islands you can ruin them for everyone else and then I’ll hunt you down and hurt you.
Okay, now that we have all that out of the way, let’s jump into the plan. I am going to break down my itinerary (also what I like to refer to as my “blood, sweat and tears”) so you can easily head there and just do it.
On this specific itinerary, we will be doing a land-based trip focusing on the islands of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. You will need a minimum of 9 days (if you can make more happen, do it! There is so much to do!). Your trip, in total, should cost at MOST $3,500 (with airfare, lodging, tours, transportation, tips etc.). Depending on the time of year and how fluid your schedule can be, you can make it less than that.
* Most people will take an organized cruise to tour the islands, and actually a large handful of people didn’t even think planning an independent trip to the Galapagos was even possible. But, as explained to me by our hostel owner and a separate tour guide, these independent land-based trips are actually the type of trips that help the locals the most. We spend more time on the islands and therefore we pour more money into the actual local economy (some of the cruise companies aren’t even owned by locals so they get minimal money from those trips). I’m all about supporting local people and showing them how much we appreciate them sharing their spaces with us, and I encourage other people to travel with the same mindset.
Day 1 and 2 : Traveling to the first island, San Cristobal
There are two main airports that you can fly into to get to the islands. The first option is on San Cristobal island and the second is technically on Baltra island… but it’ll ferry you over to Santa Cruz. We started on San Cristobal island.
There are only two cities on mainland Ecuador that you can get a direct flight to the islands: Quito and Guayaquil. You HAVE to stop in one of those on the way. We took Spirit from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale and then down to Guayaquil… so this itinerary will take you through Guayaquil as well. My best advice is to search on Skyscanner for the cheapest options, and go with it. Chances are you’ll arrive late in the night and your flight to the islands won’t be until the next day. Grab a cheap hostel in Guayaquil to get a good night’s rest. I cannot recommend Hostel Nucapacha enough. They were overall fantastic, quickly responded to me on WhatsApp and got us hooked up with taxis to and from the airport. I wish we could have stayed with them longer.
We flew with Avianca, but there are a couple other airlines that head out there. You can do a simple search on Skyscanner to see what is available during the time you want to go.
Before going through security at the airport, you’ll have to get your Transit Control Card. The booth for this at the Guayaquil airport can be found amongst the check in counters at departures. The process is relatively quick… just make sure you have your passport, flight itinerary (proving you’ll leave the islands) and $20 per person ready to go. Once you have that neat little card you can go through security and wait for your flight. Our process didn’t take long, but if you go during the high season it might be a good idea to give yourself about 2.5 – 3 hours at the airport prior to your flight departing. If that line for the Transit Control Card is super long, I can see how that could really mess up your plans… and I am a strong believer in giving yourself plenty of time when it comes to flights.
Upon arriving in the islands you must purchase a park pass. Don’t worry, you don’t have to track down where to do this, they will immediately filter you off the plane and into the line to buy a pass. It is $100 per person (bring this in cash) and the money goes to preserving the islands. Once you get your pass they will scan your bag (again) and then just release you out onto the island. Just like that. In the case of our trip, we ran into so many issues with weather and our flights (huge storms in Florida delayed one girl’s flight so we had to get her totally rebooked and THEN we tried to land on San Cristobal TWICE and needed to go back to the mainland for MORE GAS to then attempt to land on the island again…) that by the time we finally got out of the airport I kept having to remind myself that we were actually THERE.
San Cristobal is pretty small, and very easy to just walk around. So we just walked from the airport to our hostel. You can take a taxi for $2 to get into town, but I kinda love walking about new places. If you’re wanting to walk, just exit the airport and just keep walking straight on the road that is connected to it and that’ll take you directly into town. It was about a 16 minute walk to get to our hostel.
We stayed at Hostal Gosen. The family that runs this place is amazing and extremely helpful. The beds were insanely comfortable. The cleanliness of this place was astounding. The location was perfect. The prices were fantastic. I cannot say enough good things about this place. Our favorite little area was the colorful front patio area with hammocks and swings. It was such a nice relaxing area to come home to.
Since our flight got in so late, we took the rest of this day to wander around town, find food, and finally realize that we were in the Galapagos.
This itinerary is jam packed, so the small moments of rest should be taken advantage of.
Day 3: San Cristobal 360 Tour
I booked us the San Cristobal 360 all day tour with Galapagos Eco Fishing. This company was all around fantastic and a 3 minute walk from our hostel. Make sure to book in advance to guarantee your spot, I booked with them over WhatsApp. They can only fit 10 people on each boat, so we broke up into two teams.
This tour, as the name suggests, takes you out on a boat and you go around the entire island. Along the way you’ll stop and snorkel three times, do a small hike across lava stones, see the changing landscape of the entire island, and eat lots of yummy snacks along the way. This was one of my favorite things we did on the islands (although basically everything was my favorite thing…).
Highlights of this tour:
- We saw all three species of boobies: red-footed, Nazca and OF COURSE the quirky and delightful blue-footed booby.
- We saw a super pod of bottlenose dolphins, numbering in the hundreds.
- We swam with countless gorgeous fish, my favorite being the large and colorful parrot fish.
- So. Many. Sea turtles. We snorkeled with so so many of them.
- So. Many. Sharks. We snorkeled with a huge school of white tipped reef sharks (at one point our guide said, “Hey! Swim down here and stick your head in this cave full of sharks!” and he was not kidding. It was a cave full of about 15 sharks), we saw a handful of black tip reef sharks and a couple Galapagos sharks.
- We visited Punta Pitt… the northern most tip of the island and a HUGE bird spectacle. It was gorgeous scenery and we started getting followed by a couple red-footed boobies that ended up playing with our boat for a while.
- There are two shallow snorkeling spots and the one DEEP water spot… Kicker Rock. This was the deepest water I had ever been in before (one time in Thailand is a close second when I wasn’t as confident about my ocean skillz and got yeeted off a boat into the deep dark ocean…. but that’s another story for another day…). Despite a pure OBSESSION with sharks since I was a tiny child (Jaws was my favorite movie as a kid and I’ve been watching Shark Week since 1992), I had never swam with any before and I was excited about it, but also a little nervous about seeing them in super deep water. My mind is also a bigger enemy than my body though, and the minute the boat stopped at Kicker Rock, our guide jumped out of the boat, looked in the water and screamed “SHARKS!” and before my brain could process it my body had already responded by jumping immediately into the water. I think I actually pushed someone out of the way, and if that was you I am sorry. I got in there so quickly and started swimming alongside the sharks and then by the time the rest of the boat got in there the sharks had disappeared into the distance. During the swim I would see them periodically fade in and out of the depths… which was what I thought would freak me out but I oddly felt comforted by them being there.
- Also while snorkeling at Kicker Rock there was one moment when I could count 6 sea turtles in my line of view. Overall, Kicker Rock was my favorite part of this tour.
This tour with Galapagos Eco Fishing started at 7 am, and we were out there until a little after 4 pm. They provided all the snorkeling gear and wetsuits (although we all brought our own snorkels), you can also give them an SD card and they will put all of their GoPro footage from that day on there for you (although I had a blast taking my own footage with my GoPro Hero 9).
Make sure to constantly reapply reef safe sunscreen. A few of us were sitting on the back of the boat and within 25 minutes lines were already showing up on our legs. The sun is SERIOUS here, even when its cloudy.
After we arrived back on land, we waddled back to the store front and handed over all our gear and wandered back to our hostel.
It was a great first full day on the islands.
Day 4: Terrestrial Taxi Tour (and some fun other options)
If you talk to your hostel host, they can easily order you a taxi to take you inland. This is a normal route that they are ready to take anyone on, and it costs about $60 for the whole trip (but don’t forget to tip!). I scheduled this with our hostel host the day before, and he had three taxis show up at 9 am. Our three stops were going to be El Junco, La Galapaguera and Puerto Chino.
El Junco is a freshwater lake in the middle of an inactive volcanic crater. It’s supposed to be gorgeous. We, however, cannot confirm because it was so rainy by the time we got up there that the visibility was zero… so we decided to skip this and head straight to La Galapaguera.
This was our first encounter with Galapagos Tortoises. *DISCLAIMER: I love tortoises. I love everything about tortoises. My favorite animal at my work is a 430lbs Galapagos tortoise, so seeing these guys was a BIG DEALLLLL for me. This center is a breeding center, so they have tiny babies and also large adults that roam the property. It’s a nice little hike through the park and I kind of felt like we were in Jurassic Park… just wandering with the chances of seeing ancient creatures slowly crashing through the habitat. We were lucky enough to be there right after feeding time, so these giants were stomping their way out of the overgrowth and into areas that we could easily see them. Each and everyone of them were perfect and I loved them all.
This is a gorgeous beach that we got to explore… the hike down to the beach is really nice and once you see the beach itself, its rather awe inspiring. You could swim here if you wanted to, but we hiked up a little rocky area off to the side to get a nice overview of the beach instead. They leave you here for about an hour, but I’m sure you can ask for longer than that if you want to.
The tour itself only takes about 4 – 5 hours, so you have plenty of time when you get back to go exploring.
Whether you do both of these tonight, or do one on the first night you get in (since you most likely won’t be delayed like we were), and the other this day, there are two things that I’m going to insist that you do:
1.) Head to La Loberias beach. This beach is a little bit past the airport, so easily a 25 – 35 minute walk from town depending on where your lodging is. We plugged it into google maps and just followed the prompts, and there were times where we felt as if we were going the wrong way, but it ultimately gets you there.
Once we got to the beach the tide started getting frisky, so it was unsafe to swim. However, I chatted with people as they left and they snorkeled there earlier and got some awesome encounters with sea lions in the water and also marine iguanas, so snorkeling here is a great idea if the water allows you to. We got out there maybe about 3 hours before sunset, and had the entire place to ourselves once all the swimmers hiked out.
If you want to get up close and personal with some BEEFY marine iguanas, I’m about to tell you how….
Once you get to La Loberias you’ll walk up to a big gorgeous rocky beach, take some photos and keep walking to your left (if you’re staring at the ocean), after a little walk you’ll get to the actual swimming beach. You’ll be sharing the sand and water with a BUNCH of sea lions. They are so so fun to watch… but IF YOU SEE A MALE, get out of the way. They can get real angry real quick and they are real BIG. We saw some very stupid people interacting with a very angry male and I waited patiently for human blood to spill, but alas it didn’t happen. But it easily could have.
Once you’ve had your fill at the beach, glance over to your left (again…. your left if you’re staring at the ocean). See the large gathering of lava rocks along the water? See a tiny orange stick poking up in the distance (this one may be hard to see just yet)? Go trek over those rocks and head towards that orange stick. That little stick is a trail marker and you’ll follow them through a fun trail of lava stones, where we saw about maybe 30-ish big beefy marine iguanas… the impressive ones that look exactly like a small Godzilla. Now, we saw marine iguanas kind of everywhere, but this trail and Pinzon island were the only places were we saw the beefy ones.
2.) Grab your snorkel gear and head to Cerro Tijeretas. The only way to get to the hiking trail to Tijeretas is to go through the interpretation center, which is totally fun to go through if you want to learn more about the history of the islands. Once you’ve navigated your way through the interpretation center there is a long paved trail that will take you to a fork, head right to Cerro Tijeretas. You’ll come across a trail on your left hand side, and that will take you to the snorkeling area. If you continue straight you’ll head up the hill and get a nice overview of the bay area, and have a chance to see nesting frigate birds depending on the season that you’re there.
This is your last night on San Cristobal before bopping over to the next island, so find your favorite place to eat, party it up at Neptunus or The Island (two local dance clubs) then snuggle into your bed for an early start tomorrow.
Day 5: Traveling to Santa Cruz, Las Grietas and Charles Darwin Center
You should have already booked your ferry transport to the island. I booked ours way in advance with Galapagos Transfers. They were super fast and easy to book with. They work with all the ferry lines, so I assume they just put you in with whoever has room. We ended up on going with the Gaviota ferry line. Here is a link to the ferry schedules, basically there is a early boat and a later boat leaving each island every day. It’ll cost you around $30 for a ticket.
A note about the ferries: I had my concerns after seeing the seemingly small boat in the distance and seeing the giant line of people that needed to be boated out to the ferry. I didn’t know how we would all fit in there. This one time in Guatemala we took a ferry to our hostel in Lake Atitlan and it was a TINY boat and they shoved a whole bunch of people below deck and it was questionable… I knew these Galapagos ferries took about 2 – 2.5 hours to get to each island and I just imagined all of us jammed in there like little sardines for that length of time and was like, “welp, here we go…” BUT the inside of these ferries look almost like an airplane. Upright chairs that recline and are actually VERY comfy. It did get a little stuffy in there, and it could easily make someone motion sick because the water is so rough… but pop some dramamine and pass out for two hours and then awaken to a brand new island! My friend, Amanda, and I were lucky enough to be rushed up to the top area for our first ferry ride (I think they over booked the boat and there wasn’t any room for us on the normal level). The seats up top were not very comfortable but we did get the chance to see a couple manta rays jumping out of the water while up there, and that was super majestic.
We took the 7:00 am ferry, and they want you there about 30-45 minutes before boarding to check in. You just show up to the Hammerhead Dock and look around for a sign that says Gaviota (or the ferry line you have booked). They’ll get you a boarding pass and scan your bags. Once you’re ready to board the ferry you actually have to take a water taxi OUT to the ferry, and that will typically cost anywhere from 25 cents to 75 cents per person (I have read people getting charged different prices on each taxi, but we routinely paid about 25 – 50 cents per person for the water taxis).
We arrived at Santa Cruz maybe a little after 9:00 am. SO MUCH TIME FOR ACTIVITIES! I love early mornings, because I love accomplishing 100 things each day. Once we arrived on the island we could immediately tell that it was totally different from San Cristobal. Santa Cruz has a much bigger town, much more tourist-centered… whereas San Cristobal definitely felt more local and less touristy. That being said, bring money to Santa Cruz, there is a lot of shopping to do and food to eat.
We walked to our next lodging, Lonesome George Ecolodge… one of my favorite places I have ever stayed (don’t worry, Aaron, we will be back!). The entire place is so quirky and fun. Each room was unique and the common areas were so relaxing. If you are on Santa Cruz, STAY HERE. you won’t regret it. We did get there a little too early to check in, but they held onto our big bags for us and we wandered into town in search of coffee and food.
*This would also be a good place to squeeze in a trip to the Charles Darwin Research Station. It is within walking distance of the downtown area, and an awesome experience. You do not want to miss it. Pay for the $10 tour, you’ll see a bunch of tortoises, get a fantastic guide AND see Lonesome George. If you can’t seem to squeeze this in today, try to fit it in somewhere else while you’re on Santa Cruz. Depending on how much time you’ll need at the gift shop (I gave them all my money) factor in about 2 hours for this.
Once we could check into our ecolodge we changed into our bathing suits, grabbed our snorkel gear and headed to Las Grietas.
This is a gorgeous crack in the middle of the earth that you can swim in. The water was brackish, so you’ll have some sort of buoyancy, but not like you do in the ocean. There is quite the trek to get here, so by the time you see the water you’ll be drooling to get in.
How to get here: take the water taxi to the other side of the dock area that you arrived at. Just tell them you’re going to Las Grietas (the link will take you to the google maps) and they will drop you off on the other side (this will cost less than $1 per person). Once you’re on the other side, just keep following the road. There are signs along the way, and a cute beach. If at any point you get lost, don’t worry. There are always a handful of people around that’ll point you in the right direction.
As you’re doing your planning you may see that people used to go here whenever they wanted… but it is now regulated. You’ll pay $10 per person for a guide to take you out there, and then you have about an hour to swim. They do this to keep the number of people in the crack small, and our guide was fantastic! This was a very common occurrence at many places we visited. When I planned the trip, many of these places were totally accessible and recently they have placed naturalists at the beginning of the treks to take you in. I actually think it is a good change, because we learned so much from all of our guides. And the $10 for a guide was a lot cheaper than hiring an outside tour group to take us in. These guides also work for tips, so please make it rain money on them, because they are fantastic.
On our way back to our ecolodge, we stopped and snorkeled at Playa de los Alemanes, which is the small sandy beach you’ll pass through on your way out to Las Grietas. The water was a little murky, but any chance I have to snorkel, I will.
Now go back home, change and get some food in you. Tomorrow will be a full day.
Day 6: Pinzon Island
This day was set aside for a full-day tour. I was chatting with our hostel owner before the trip and asked him what is the BEST day tour to do from Santa Cruz and he said we should go to Pinzon Island. I’m not actually sure what tour group we even went with, because I booked it with Aaron at our ecolodge, Lonesome George. And since I am telling you to lodge there, just book it with Aaron (you can easily find his email when you book your room on Hostelworld. He will most likely give you his Whatsapp also).
There are also a handful of other options for day tours, Bartolome island and Sullivan bay (this would take you to the actual spot of the iconic landscape photo of the islands that you’ve probably seen before), North Seymour, South Plazas, and Santa Fe are just a couple of the most common day trips people take from Santa Cruz. Pinzon Island was the tour I was excited about because it is an island that only recently became open for visitors, so the wildlife is extremely plentiful and you get to experience something a little new and different.
Our experience on this day trip was pretty awesome. They weren’t as coordinated as the 360 tour we did on San Cristobal… that tour has been running for so long it is a well oiled machine. But the wildlife encounters we had on the Pinzon tour was like no where else. We swam with huge schools of white tip reef sharks, watched about a dozen marine iguanas feeding underwater, swam with baby black tip sharks, and a baby sea lion danced with us as we snorkeled. It was definitely a trip to remember.
Overall, I don’t think a BAD tour can exist in the Galapagos. So whatever trip you decide to do on this day, have a blast.
If you didn’t make it to the Charles Darwin Research Station yesterday, you can head there right after you get back to the mainland. You do not want to miss it. Pay for the $10 tour, you’ll see a bunch of tortoises, get a fantastic guide AND see Lonesome George.
Day 7: El Chato and the ferry back to San Cristobal
This is another one of those days that you can have your hostel owner’s schedule a taxi for you. Let them know the day before that you want to go to El Chato in the morning, and they will set it all up for you. You’ll want to allow yourself about 3-4 hours for this morning activity, and be prepared to fall in love with some tortoises.
Looking back on the trip, this was one of the things that I think stood out to me the most. Again, working in the zoo field and loving tortoises as insanely as I do, seeing huge wild Galapagos tortoises literally in the street and out in cow fields hanging out with livestock was pretty awesome. El Chato is a reserve for the tortoises, and basically they come and go as they want to. The environment at the reserve is pretty perfect for them, so sometimes they don’t leave. But when they have to go lay eggs or accomplish other important tortoise missions, they just wander away. So these were actual wild tortoises.
Upon arriving at El Chato you’ll get paired up with a guide for $5 per person. Tip these guys hefty because they are awesome. Your guide will walk you through the park, stopping a bunch and telling you all about tortoises. You’ll also go down into a series of lava tubes.
You’ll have already booked your afternoon ferry back to San Cristobal using Galapagos Transfers. It should leave the island around 3 pm, so you’ll want to get to the dock around 2-ish. You’ll go to the exact same dock you arrived on, and be water taxied out to your ferry.
If you arrive back on San Cristobal on the weekend, you might get lucky and there might be a street fair going on. We had a blast just wandering around eating street food, and drinking at different bars. Santa Cruz is cute, but San Cristobal has a charm that can’t be beat. We stayed one last night at Hostal Gosen, and then flew out early the next morning.
Day 8: The journey home…
Our flight left the island early, and gave us a 12 hour layover in Guayaquil. We all tested negative for covid (which you currently do not have to do anymore to get back into the states) and stored our bags at the lockers at the airport. These are easy to find (its a small airport) and cheap to use. Then we headed out to the Malecon 2000 via taxis (cost about $5 per taxi). This is a cute area right along the water with some shops, a fair and a fun cable car system called Aerovia that you can take around the city.
And then we took a very late flight home and got home the next day.
And that is what we did.
And what you can do.