My thoughts regarding the volcanic Galapagos archipelago have continued to evolve, but on this trip, I needed to adapt to my environment 🙂
Rather than cruising around, we chose to fly to the islands and stay for a week. Flights from steamy Guayaquil are less than two hours and while the online temperature suggested 24-26 degrees Celsius (around 80 F), the reality was far, far hotter.
*It is worth noting, it is very common to cruise to the islands on small ships. Sandards varying from 2-5 stars, and all are quite pricey.
The waters can be perfect and calm, or rough to the point of illness!
Straddling the Equator, the sun sits right overhead. The arid Galapagos environment offered little shade and 50+ sunscreen barely did the job.
Of course, the iguanas were thrilled with the heat. Virtually upon arrival to Baltra airport, we saw land iguanas, lizards, frigate birds and then red crabs when crossing the narrow Ithaca Straight to Santa Cruz Island.
By that afternoon, we had walked to Tortuga Beach, past Galapagos cactus trees, noisy mockingbirds and a variety of Darwin’s Finches.
Many sea iguanas were relaxing on the beach. Small reef sharks swam close and we could see several rays in the shallow waters. The warm ocean was a remarkable turquoise.
All of the islands are volcanic, with generally low shrub and cacti. Apparently, there is a point 1700 meters high, but the islands feel very low, dry and HOT. Evening temperatures are tropical/perfect.
Our home for the week was in Puerto Ayora – the largest community on Galapagos. Santa Cruz Island is more or less in the middle of the archipelago and is classically round.
Obviously, the entire lifeblood of the economy is tourism and many sites can be reached on foot, or by bike, providing you can tolerate the scolding sun.
Locals are enjoyably friendly – as friendly as mainland Ecuadorians – a pleasant surprise in a place that receives planeloads of visitors each day.
During our time on the islands, we stayed mostly on Santa Cruz but did make a trip over to Santa Isabela – the largest of the islands. The boat ride was about two hours and the water beautiful and calm – it can get quite rough!
Among the many highlights of our stay was swimming (twice!) with giant sea tortoises and have a magnificent land turtle simply walk out in front of us on our way back the hotel one day.
The sea lions are indisputably the most entertaining creatures on the islands. They take little notice of us evolved apes and lounge about on whatever bench they choose. In the water, they put our swimming skills to shame!
We loved swimming in Las Grietas – deep earthquake formed fissures filled with cool, crystal-clear water and home to dozens of large fish (we even saw an eel). The third pool was quietest and most fun!
There is a lot to talk about on Galapagos, but aside from the scientific importance and thrill of seeing such endemic species, I do have some comments about the travel experience.
Travel and Costs
We flew TAME Airlines (an Ecuadorian company). I chose it simply based on price and despite a delay leaving, I have always found the airline fine. Return flights cost about $400 – this was a good deal.
We were very glad to have arrived at Guayaquil airport two hours before the fight (domestic requirements in Ecuador are less than 1 hour), as we stood in line for over an hour in order to pay $20 for a pre-clearance document and luggage check (the islands are quarantined).
This $20 was a surprise, as we pay a $100 park fee upon arrival ($50 for children under 12).
From the airport on tiny Baltra Island and after a short (free) bus ride, we had to pay $1 pp to cross the channel to Santa Cruz where the 40-min bus into town is $2 ($25 in a taxi).
You may gradually be sensing a theme here. We began to joke about a breathing-tax on the islands. Galapagos is understandably expensive, but it does feel slightly excessive.
On our trip over to Isabela, the ferry (small boats) cost $30 each way. A full day tour $150, but then you pay $.50 for the tender to the ferry, $1 on the other end and a $10 port fee on the new island.
The least expensive tour we did was around the bay of Puerto Ayora. $30 was fair, particularly as we swam with sea turtles! Tours do include snorkeling equipment, but we were so glad to have brought our own. This made life easier and rental rates appear over $20 / day.
The towns are perfectly walkable, but in the heat, hiking and biking is hard. Taxis are abundant (they all seem to be four-door trucks) and a taxi in town is a reasonable $1.5. I spoke to people who paid up to $50 to see other sites on Santa Cruz.
Eating on the islands
Food is predictably expensive, but often very good. All across Ecuador alcohol is surprisingly expensive and distinctly so on the islands. I certainly was happy to pay for cold local beer but avoided anything else. As a note to my British friends, a bottle of imported Gin in the grocery store was over $100.
A typical meal is $10-$20 and the seafood is delicious. Our favorite places to eat were the Galapagos Deli (lunch) and La Garrapata (excellent dinner).
The town is fine (as was little Puerto Villamil on Islabela), but rather ramshackle. I totally support all the quarantine efforts on the islands, but was shocked by the amount of trash lying around the urban environment (the park areas were very clean).
It was a shock to see domestic animals. I understand there are many rules, but dogs were off-leash around houses and I did see cats walking around. I live by a national park and we have to strictly manage pets. On Galapagos I see no reason or value in introducing such animals into the ecosystem.
There are residency requirements on the islands – much like Banff’s ‘need to reside clause.’ This is fair. Locals seem to earn acceptable wages and tourism will not end, but growth needs to be managed.
Not long ago, I was asked whether I thought it was ethical to travel to Galapagos and my answer is an emphatic YES. At the Darwin research/conservation centre, there is an economic disscussion regarding conservation. The ‘eco-tourism’ value of a single shark can be valued up to $50,000, whereas the same shark is perhaps worth $200 for making soup.
We see the same cost structure in our Canadian wilderness. Seeing a bear, or a wolf is a highlight and reason to visit. Once dead and stuffed on someone’s wall, those animals are no longer valuable.
Conservation can and should be measured economically. Indeed, this is the great failing of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an economic tool. GDP should factor ‘cost-of-goods-sold.’ Once a resource is removed, classic accounting should subtract the absent resource from the economic ledger. This is why putting a price on carbon makes sense.
I know many people of faith and I respect their belief in God or a higher power. Nevertheless, there is a certain incongruity to see well-dressed Jehovah Witnesses promoting their beliefs on these particular islands.
Darwin’s work on Galapagos changed everything. Evolution is so self-evident now, it has revolutionised science, medicine and academia. Before his remarkably detailed work back in the 1830s we (as a species) were really wandering blindly.
Evolultion in adaptation. It is a scientific fact and more than any other reason, witnessing natural selection is why one pays the money and survives the heat to see these magical islands.