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Why Do You Need to Visit the Galapagos and Create a Galapagos Itinerary?

Why all the fuss about the Galapagos and the pressing need to find the cheapest way to travel to the Galapagos? Well, besides the fact that this unique and incredibly diverse ecosystem is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site there is an exciting array of animal species here that can be found nowhere else on Earth. I mean, we’re talking Iguanas that actually spit salt at you! Crazy right? Yeah, i didn’t believe it until it happened to me. That’s when I knew that the animals here were no joke. But even if you’re not into exploring wildlife, then the diverse landscape, quiet beaches, and crystal clear waters of this beautiful archipelago will entice you (If it doesn’t, I don’t think you’re human. You must be a bot on my site. Lol. Plus they have some wicked Galapagos adventure tours available).

However, the Galapagos National Park holds a special place in my heart since I always wanted to visit this island chain. See, I was one of those weird kids who traded in her cartoons for National Geographic documentaries. So that’s why I always wanted to visit this amazing place, that and move to Madagascar to study lemurs. And while the second dream has changed slightly, I still have a thirst for travel and a intrinsic need to explore the world around me.

Well, I finally fulfilled my wish in June of 2013. I was twenty-six years old (a total baby) and enough savings for a two week journey (FYI the Galapagos ain’t cheap my friends, no matter how you slice it). And I knew, that this was my moment. So I flew into Quito, Ecuador to meet up with a friend of mine. And while Quito is amazing and filled with an essence of old world charm that is not to be missed, the Galapagos was the main purpose of my voyage to South America.

The journey was arduous enough that I felt like a real explorer, traveling to the edge of the world and laying eyes on a totally foreign and incredibly diverse set of creatures (some of the animals here are crazy cool and feel almost other world). Plus, the animals here are so removed from human contact that they don’t even bother to run away from you. They just kind of look at you and seem to shrug, like they just can’t be bothered to engage with you (Okay, this isn’t true for all the animals but for the Blue footed Boobies it is. You can go right up to them and they just sit there with their super cool, blue feet).

***Before you go, make sure you check out the only Galapagos packing list that you will ever need so that you don’t forget anything super important.

How to get to the Galapagos Islands (and start your Galapagos Expeditions)

Getting to the Galapagos is not an easy feat. First, you have to book a flight there (unless you take a cruise, which I don’t suggest since they are super expensive), which is generally not direct.  I took a flight from Quito, through Guayaquil, and onto the Galapagos. Once on the island, your flight will arrive at either the Seymour Airport on Isla Baltra or the San Cristóbal Airport on Isla San Cristibal (Most flights come into Seymour Airport).

***Book your flight to the Galapagos WAY in advance because this area is a well-known tourist destination and flights fill up fast.

Once I arrived at Isla Baltra, I had to pay a Galapagos National Park Fee of a hundred dollars before I left the airport ($50 for kids). This fee is already in dollars because Ecuador ties its currency to the U.S. dollar. There is also a ten-dollar transit control fee that must be paid. Yeah, I know it feels like they’re asking for money left and right. I mean after all the tours and flights and hotel expenses, you are kind of like, “Really? What else are you gonna charge me for? Air?” But I try to remember that most of the fees go to the conservation of the Galapagos Islands, and that makes the money loss hurt a little less.

From Isla Baltra, I began the arduous journey to Puerto Ayora, the biggest town on Isla Santa Cruz (It’s the most hopping town in the Galapagos and is a great home base for anyone who does a Galapagos Islands vacation by land). To get to Puerto Ayora from the airport, I took a free, ten minute public bus ride that was closely followed by an $0.80, ten minute ferry ride across a channel that separates Island Baltra from Santa Cruz (I know, so many islands with so many names. But you can do it and give yourself ice cream later as a reward. See, aren’t you glad you read this article?). I then took another, forty five minute bus ride into Puerto Ayora for $1.80.

I emerged from this final bus ride a little travel worn and weary, but I felt like I had accomplished something. I felt like a real explorer who had earned her right to explore  the edges of the globe. Yes, I was glad that my trek was over but I was also happy that this place wasn’t easy to get to. It made it feel more remote and like I was really traveling somewhere that no one had been before. Obviously people have been there because lots of people live there, but still, that romantic feeling of solitude was there (as you can imagine, the trip back was not so romantic and just a big old pain in the ass but this is basically the only option, besides taking an insanely expensive taxi).

Travel in the Galapagos By Land, Not Sea

Now, once you start doing your research and looking at a bunch of different Galapagos travel packages, you’ll realize that you have one very major decision to make; do you want to do Galapagos land tours or do you want to do a Galapagos cruise that visits the best Galapagos Islands?

Many people choose to see the Galapagos through a boat tour (and there are some great Galapagos budget cruises out there), and this option did appeal to me before I did my research. The whole boat notion seemed so quaint and romantic and very Darwin-esq. I mean, how cool would it be to see the islands in the same way that Darwin did? Right? Talk about  freakin’ awesome!

Yeah well, that feeling lasted about 10 minutes until I looked at the price of some of these boat tours and nearly choked as my bank account cried out to me in total hysterics. But then I thought well maybe there are some awesome sites on the boat tour that you just can’t see on the land tours, but not really. So for me, I kind of realized that there was no major benefit to taking a cruise, only the ever-present danger of getting completely and totally sea sick (Sea sickness is the worst and sealed my fate as a land lubber through and through. A fate that I do not regret embracing).

***I swear, I’m not lying about the cruise ship option. I saw most of the Galapagos cruises at the same locations as me, so clearly I wasn’t missing out, just saving money by forgoing an insanely expensive tour.  

Galapagos Day Trips – Puerto Ayora

After getting to Galapagos, you’ll quickly realize that this is the biggest and baddest city in the Galapagos and is totally worth checking out. Okay, it’s really not that big or bad since you can explore most of this town in a day. So if you’re looking for a hopping good time in a high-rise metropolis, you’ve come to the wrong city. However this place is important since it contains a central port that is the point of departure for any ferry that is heading to any other islands (and be prepared, these ferry rides are like a couple of hours, even though it felt like days). .

But Puerto Ayora, is an attraction in its own right, and doesn’t just have to be a mere stop over on your way to another island on your Galapagos islands vacation. Take some time to explore the town itself, which has several neat souvenir shops and restaurants that are worth a look. Somehow, there is a quaint charm here, you walk down a tiny main street that is dotted with  never-ending sea of blue-footed booby bags that are for sale (this is a cool ass bird with blue feet. I want cool blue feet, but that would mean that I had hypothermia and that would be bad).

But even more than the tacky souvenirs, you see the people who call this place home. You encounter a community that lives outdoors, in the center of town. You witness soccer matches that occur amidst pelicans catching their lunch and ferry horns that signal departures to neighboring islands.



Tortuga Bay (Puerto Ayora)

While in Puerto Ayora, you can walk and even kayak along the pristine beaches of Tortuga Bay. Totally worth at least a half day visit since the beaches are clean and devoid of any people (Three cheers for no people! Hip hip hooray). Now, the beach is pretty easy to walk to since there is a lot of signage and the town is quite manageable by foot. To get to the beach, just walk through the town and along a long boardwalk, into the tree and sand-filled abyss of nature.

Once you reach the park entrance itself, you will not have to pay, but you will have to sign in so that officials can keep track of who is in the Turtle Bay park itself (you saucy minx you). I guess its to keep people from getting lost but it is basically just a little hut with an old school, bound notebook that you sign your name into (Not very comforting if people are actually looking for you while your getting nibbled on by a sharks. And yes, there are a ton of sharks). From here, the walk to Tortuga Bay is about a half an hour trek through some very isolated and insanely beautiful terrain that includes sand dunes that are littered with volcanic, jet black, lava rocks that can definitely hurt your toes if you walk on them.

As I walked to the beach, I kind of expected like 10,000 other people since this idea isn’t very original. But to my total surprise,  this sandy beach and sea of crystal blue water was completely empty. All you could hear were the chirping of finches (more melodic than annoying) in the distance. It felt like you had an entire beach to yourself (truth be told people came as it got later but it wasn’t crowded at all).

As you dip your toes in the water, the fins of white-tipped reef sharks rise above the surface and then disappear as quickly as they came. Marine iguanas emerge from the water, like Godzilla’s much smaller, distant cousins (thank God I didn’t run into any of Mothra’s cousins. Gross). I would advise not getting too close to these creatures because they drink salt water, and extract the salt that they don’t need. Then they use this salt to defend themselves by hissing and actually spitting this salt out at you, so be prepared.

Turtle Bay!! Notice the complete lack of people.

At the beach itself, there are no food or drinks, so bring your own backpack of goodies. But, you can rent a kayak or snorkel gear and explore the waters of the beach more closely. Just keep in mind that there are sharks in the water, but they will probably not hurt you.

Another good thing to note is that the water is cold. I know, it’s a total bummer because I expected it to be tropical and warm. But its cold enough for most people to wear a wet suit when snorkeling for any length of time.

***If you’re not a water sport pro, I would rent a wetsuit rather than buy one so that you stay warm and actually enjoy the water on your islas Galapagos tour, as opposed to becoming a glorified icicle.

The Charles Darwin Research Station

My hotel was literally right down the street from this attraction, so this was the first site I explored when I arrived. And my not so inner science nerd loved it (be sure to make it here when traveling to Galapagos. The primary purpose of the research station is to continue island conservation efforts to protect local plant and animal species alike. Plus, it’s free and (who doesn’t like free) and is open daily from 6 am – 6pm.

The station itself is a series of buildings that are connected by a peaceful walk through the indigenous brush and shrubbery that proliferate throughout the island. And while there are a fair bit of tourists here, you still feel as though you have escaped from modern civilization and into an archaic world of giant tortoises. These giant tortoises are everywhere because the science station is home to a Giant Tortoise breeding area. Tortoises that live here are bred and hatched in captivity, in an effort to increase overall population sizes. These animals are the pride of the islands because they are the some of the oldest animals in the planet ( no joke, some of these guys are older than Betty White, at well over 200 years old. The turtles, not my girl Betty). Just be prepared because these turtles do put the ass in massive. Kidding but they are insanely large. Like think, small horse large.

As you walk along the facility, you will encounter a series of boardwalks and wooden buildings that house permanent museum exhibits and short documentaries about Darwin’s exploration of the islands and how he eventually developed his theory of evolution and natural selection. You will also find a multitude of resting spots, a café, and even a souvenir shop that sells official, Darwin Research Station apparel. All in all just a great, half-day excursion that has plenty of shade (for pastry white freaks of nature like me) and beautiful views of the island that call to your camera longingly (a great addition to any Galapagos family vacation itinerary).

 Book an excursion and explore what to see on the Galapagos Islands

Puerto Ayora is the port of call for any boats traveling to or from any of the other islands in this archipelago. So take advantage of this port and explore islands like San Cristobal, Baltra ( a rocky crag that is great for bird watching), Santa Cruz, Isabella, Floreana, Bartolome, etc.  CAUTION: The boat ride from Puerto Ayora to the other Galapagos Islands can take several hours each way. Therefore, if you get sea sick, make sure you take something before you leave dry land.

Los Tuneles (Isabella Island)

This rock formation is around a 30- to 40-minute boat ride from Puerto Villamil, the main port on the island. Once you arrive at
the port you will see a multitude of animal species that are interspersed within the lava formations that stand between the mangroves and the open ocean.

The reason this site is so popular is that it is an outstanding spot for snorkeling. The convoluted lava formations create a shallow pool that is both sheltered from and open to the ocean. As a result,  white-tipped sharks, manta rays, eagle rays, sea lions, turtles and sea horses can be found hiding within the calm waters of the shallows. Tour operators in Puerto Villamil run daily five-hour trips here for around $75.

Volcan Sierra Negra (Isabella Island)

This volcano last erupted in late 2005 and is Northwest of the Tomás de Berlanga village. There is an 8km trail here that meanders around the east side of the volcano. And while it is possible to walk  to the edge of the volcano, the trail does dissipate into nothingness so I would advise against it.

Frigate Bird puffing up his red chest to attract a mate.

Galápagos hawks, short-eared owls, finches and flycatchers are among the birds commonly seen along this hike. The summit is often foggy (especially from June to December), so be careful because it is easy to get totally lost.

There are also spectacular views from nearby Volcán Chico, a sub-crater where you can see the actual crater while on the summit (FYI is smells like ass because it emits sulfuric gas). Several tour operators in town offer all-day tours ($35 per person). These options include transport up to the volcano, lunch, and an 11km hike through the island. Bring a rain jacket, water and snacks (a sack lunch is provided> You can tell that Galapagos Islands tourism is alive and well).

Isla Bartolome

The Panoramic views and penguins that inhabit this tiny island, make Isla Bartolome a common excursion destination. A path from a dry landing area leads up to the blustery summit of the island, which has exceptional views that make it an ideal spot for a selfie du jour. This trail leads then through an other-worldly, lava landscape, where the only sign of human civilization is the wooden boardwalk, and stairs, that have been built in an effort to aid visitors and to protect the trail from erosion.
The other boat landing site is a small, sandy beach in a cove, from which you can strap on your flippers and secure your snorkels as you take a swim with the local penguins.

Rancho Primicias (Isla Santacruz)

Rancho Primicias is owned by the Devine family. This facility houses dozens of giant tortoises, and you can wander around at will. If you’re lucky, you can even catch a glimpse of some baby turtles hatching from their eggs (these eggs are insanely large and remind me of Ostrich eggs). This turtle farm also does a great job of explaining the conservation efforts and breeding programs that have been developed to increase Giant Tortoise populations in the area. The ranch is open from 8:00 am – 5:00pm and has an admission fee of $3.

To find the entrance,  travel beyond Santa Rosa and off the main road. It can be rather confusing but locals are super helpful so you can always ask them for directions. In addition to the turtle farm, there is also a cafe on-site that sells cold drinks and hot tea, that you might need if the brisk ocean breeze has left you chilled to the bone.

Why I fell in Love With the Galapagos

Yes,the majority of the islands are made up of craggy, former lava flows that have long since cooled and have become jagged out crops of rock that have been known to sprain an ankle or two. So what’s the appeal? Well, its hard to use a word to describe why this archipelago enchants me so much. The beauty of these islands can be illusive. And its more than just a word, it’s the feeling that you get when you become a part of this secret place. You know it, see it, and feel it, but like the wind, this beauty can appear to vanish in an instant, as you almost step upon a marine iguana that is hissing and spitting salt water at you.

The beauty and magnitude of this place comes from its separateness from the outside world. It is a world unto itself that consists of penguins, flamingos (not indigenous), marine iguanas, frigate birds, blue footed boobies, etc. This world remains largely untouched by man and goes on, completely ignorant of all the wars and politics that shape the rest of the planet. Although it is not completely untouched by humans, parts of the islands still feel like they are.d.

You are reminded of the greatness of the natural world and of evolution itself; it is this greatness that reminds you of how insignificant you are. This world exists with or without people, and just carries on because that is all these islands know. And to me, that type of endurance is beautiful. No, it is not the artificial beauty of a five-star resort. It is not a comfortable beauty. It’s a jagged, imperfect beauty that is carved from the lava flows themselves.

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