The Galapagos Islands – How to Travel Independently

As soon as you arrive on the Galapagos Islands you are surrounded by wildlife; walk to a local beach and dozens of sea lions will join you for a swim, take a seat on a bench by the road and a sea lion will more than likely be having a nap next to you. Lizards and Iguanas carry on about their business of digging sand or seeking shade, whilst you sit there – perhaps a few metres away, wondering how in god’s name such a place can be real – a place where wild, in some cases endangered animals, and humans live so comfortably side-by-side.

This really is the most unique place on the planet.

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We visited the Galapagos Islands as part of an organised tour with G Adventures. Worst mistake I ever made. For the price I paid for a 5-day tour, I could have stayed on the Islands for 2-weeks and travelled between them independently. Travelling to the Galapagos is no more expensive than travelling to a lot of places in Latin America.


Things to Know Before Booking Your Trip


Galapagos FACTS your travel agent won’t tell you

  • Flights to the Galapagos operate daily – there are no real restrictions on travel beyond the ordinary tourist visa you need when travelling to any country (1.e. 30 – 60 day stay) and flights selling out. It will probably be harder to get a flight in high season (June to September). When I went there were 3 or 4 flights operating daily from 2 companies.
  • Independent travel to the Galapagos is cheaper, and you will see MORE as you will be able to stay for longer.
  • Most activities on the Islands are free: The Charles Darwin Research Centre, seeing giant land tortoises and sea lions, Blue-footed Boobies, penguins and sharks. Snorkelling (if you have your own gear) is free or about $10 to hire, and all other breeding and information centres are free. The $100 tax you pay at the airport covers all of this.
  • There are hundreds of hostels and hotels across all of the islands, catering for all budgets.
  • There are shops, ATMs and plenty of restaurants/cafes/bars. You would be surprised at how built up these islands actually are.

BIG MYTH BUSTER

Animals are treated cruelly and man-handled by tourists and tour guides

Before travelling I was quite apprehensive about the tours. I’d heard a lot of horror stories about tourists and tour guides man-handling the animals. I didn’t come across any of that at all. The tour guides are naturalist guides and were very protective of the animals and wildlife, constantly warning tourists to keep at least 2 metres distance from the animals. There are also signs everywhere. I saw a few incidents of people getting too close to the sea lions. That was it. There are some very stupid people in the world but I would say, on the whole that the wildlife there is treated with respect. I was taking pictures of some Iguana in a car park when a security officer approached me, and asked if I could leave the area as there were too many Iguana, and there was a risk that I might upset them.

Now, I didn’t travel in high season so there were fewer people and so, I guess a lower concentration of stupid. I can say though that the guides do a sterling job.


When to Travel

Here is a good link I found that explains when is best to travel to the Galapagos: Best time to visit… I travelled in February – the weather was hot and mostly dry and there were fewer tourists.


How to Travel

I personally would travel independently by land. A lot of people take the cruise option – here are some cruise facts that might make you change your mind:

  • If you book a cruise in advance you’ll be paying top dollar. Never ask fellow passengers what they paid – chances are it’ll be less than half of what you paid. Every agency on every Island sells last minute spaces on all the cruise ships at rock bottom prices.
  • Cruises are unnecessarily expensive – as are land-based tours. What you pay for these tours you will be much better off organising your own accommodation and travel between Islands – you’ll save literally hundreds of dollars. We worked out that we would have saved at least $1000 each had we travelled independently.
  • You never know who you are going to share a boat with, and once you’re on that boat there’s no getting off.
  • I compared my land-based trip with someone who had done a cruise trip. They wondered where on earth I had come across some of the tropical looking beaches I had stayed on. I believe, and the person who did the cruise agreed, that you see less on a cruise. The money you save from not going on a cruise you can use to book a tour independently to the same areas.

Land-based independent travel means you can travel for longer, spend more time with the animals, have the freedom to stay in places you like for longer and do whatever tours you want to do, whenever you choose to do them.


Before you travel – restrictions and costs

You are prohibited from taking certain items onto the Islands, such as alcohol and the usual – food products, shells, living things etc. etc. If you are staying in Quito before you fly, many hostels allow you to leave luggage with them in lock-up facilities.

Currency

US $

Based on 2015 prices:

Flights

Around $400 return from Quito airport

Entry Costs

  • You will be charged $25 for a visa which you pay for at the airport before boarding your flight
  • You will be charged $100 for entry (paid at the Galapagos airport)

Concessions do apply for students and pensioners, so take your student ID with you!

Ask for your passport to be stamped when you land, as it looks great!

Accommodation, travel and food budget for the Islands

  • Taxi travel: Around $5 for 10 minute transfer. Kind of standard prices – you’ll only need to take a taxi to and from the airport if you have heavy luggage with you and on Santa Cruz Island you may want to split a taxi fare and visit the land tortoises who wander around about 15 minutes inland. Everything else is walking distance. In San Cristobal the town is only a few minutes drive away from the airport.
  • Boat transfers between Islands: $30 one way pp. average 2 hour journey time, 2 departures daily – am and pm.
  • Water taxis from boat transfers and to various locations: $1
  • Accommodation based on 2 sharing at a hostel $25 a night.
  • Food budget per day: $60 pp if you eat out for breakfast and dinner with alcohol.
  • I took 2 big tours totalling $180 – everything else I did was for free.

Travelling the Galapagos Islands


San Cristobal Island


HIGHLIGHTS

  • Sea lions
  • Hammerhead sharks and marine life
  • Stunning beaches.

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Things to See and Do on San Cristobal Island – FOR FREE


Every Island has a Visitor Information Centre. Make sure you stop here first and get a map of the Island and the town. You’ll find lots of information on what you can do – including all the free activities. Here are some of my favourites:

The Interpretation Center

Stop by the Interpretation Center – containing an exhibition space explaining the Galapagos Islands’ history.

Frigate bird Hill and Darwin Bay / Cerro Tijeretas

From the Interpretation Center make your way along a 2-mile lava trail to Frigate bird Hill and Darwin Bay – the area with its trails is known as Cerro Tijeratas. From here you will see Frigate birds and views of the port and the north-western part of San Cristobal, including Kicker Rock.

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Take a stroll down Cerro Tijeretas to what locals refer to as Darwin Bay, where a statue of Charles Darwin’s stands, commemorating his arrival to the Galapagos on board the HMS Beagle in 1835. For those who don’t know the history, the islands are most famous for their vast number of endemic species which were studied by Charles Darwin during his voyage. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

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Spend time with the Sea Lions

Just a 5-minute walk across from Darwin Bay is Playa Mann, a lovely spot for swimming. Dozens of sea lions choose this spot for swimming too.

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Be careful of the sun – nearly every beach on the Galapagos is a bit of a sun trap. Take a sun hat, umbrella, anything you can use for shade if you plan on spending much time here.

The sea lions are everywhere – on park benches, beaches, rocks, piers – everywhere!

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Wander around by the pier at night and watch the sea lions getting ready for bed – it really is a wonderful spectacle.

Check Trip Advisor for more ideas


San Cristobal Must Do Tours – $$$


Kicker Rock / Leon Dormido

This is one excursion you don’t want to miss. Read Trip Advisor reviews here.

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What is it?

Kicker Rock or “León Dormido” in Spanish, is a lava formation just off the coast of San Cristobal that over the years has split in two. Boat companies take groups of visitors every day to snorkel/dive between the split rock, where hundreds of Hammerhead Sharks as well as other sea creatures congregate.

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Usually on this day tour you will moor up on 2 beautiful and protected beach areas and you will pass “Isla Lobos” (sea lion island) which is also a nesting site for Blue-footed Boobies.

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Cost (February 2015): $100 – $150

In 2014 and even just a week before we arrived the price of this tour was between $50-$80. The prices really did escalate as the cheapest we could find was $100. Ask around the various agencies in town before you commit as tours and prices can differ. Also, speak to other tourists who have done the tour and ask which agency they used. A good guide makes a world of difference. The cheapest we found was $100 but they were fully booked so we took a tour for $110.

Try and book a few days in advance. Even in low season when I travelled the tour sold out quickly.

My Experience

I had a stunning time! Our tour guide first took us to one beautiful isolated beach where we snorkelled for a while. I can’t remember the name of the beach but it was beautiful.

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We then ventured out to Kicker Rock and snorkelled above Hammerhead sharks, sea turtles and manta rays. Now unfortunately for us the waters were particularly rough that day and so we didn’t see as much as we would have liked to. Just the day before people saw hundreds of sharks, sea turtles, and even a whale. It’s nature, so you just can’t predict it. However, it was amazing and still well worth the money! I’d go again in a heart beat.

After Kicker Rock we moored up near another beach and had some lunch. The beach itself – breathtaking. The whitest sand I have ever seen in my life – like flour. The sea was brilliant blue and sea lions were playing. Definitely the most beautiful beach I have ever seen in my life.

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You’ll be very happy if you come to the Galapagos and this is the only tour you do – although there is one tour from Isabela Island I would recommend as well – Los Tuneles (see below under Isabella Island).

Other tours from San Cristobal

Kicker Rock is by far the most popular tour and so the agencies have started offering other tours. BUT if you haven’t got money to burn, then seriously – Kicker Rock, with lunch and the 2 beaches is all you should be thinking about. It’s the most popular tour for a reason.

Don’t buy into the islands’ 360 tour. Don’t believe an agency if they tell you all the tours for Kicker Rock are sold out – they’re just trying to sell you more expensive packages, such as the 360 tour. We know people who went and were utterly disappointed. They were told that Kicker Rock had completely sold out and yet we managed to find some last minute spots. They spent a lot of money on the 360 and although the scenery was nice the snorkeling was poor and they hardly saw a thing. Kicker Rock is by far the best tour – one you will remember for life.


Santa Cruz Island


HIGHLIGHTS

  • Giant land tortoises in the wild
  • Charles Darwin Research Centre
  • Beautiful swimming spots
  • Fish market

Things to See and Do On Santa Cruz Island – FOR FREE


Las Grietas

  • $2 pp water taxi return
  • $5 snorkel hire

Well, it’s almost free – you don’t have to go as part of a tour, that’s for sure! Las Grietas is a landscape created by old lava fissures that have formed two huge walls, in between which is a large pool of water – GREAT for swimming. It’s very deep (like a cenote) and is very transparent. It’s just beautiful. The trek to this area is lovely as well – takes about 20 minutes to walk.

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Walk about town and visit the local morning fish market

Probably one of the funniest things I have ever seen – the fish market lies en route to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. All I will say is – take a camera!

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Charles Darwin Research Centre

Interesting enough – not somewhere you would need to spend all day. We just took an hour.

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Visit Reserva El Chato and See Giant Land Tortoises in the Wild

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$30 taxi ride

This is technically a free activity but it will cost you to take transport there. However, it’s utterly worth it for an afternoon/morning activity. Try and split the taxi fare with a few people. I’m not entirely sure if this is the same place I visited, as my group camped in this region as part of an organised tour but it’s in the same area. You really don’t need to stay the night though – it’s very close to town.

Ask at the local visitor information centre for more information. Tours are not necessary, there are paths you can follow once there, and the tortoises wander in and out amongst the tall grass right by the path.


Tortuga Bay

I didn’t visit so can’t comment but I heard the beach was very nice at sunset. Take plenty of sun protection, as with all the beaches on the Galapagos – it’s a bit of a sun trap.


 Isabela Island


Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, home to 6 volcanoes, 5 of which are still active. It’s home to 95% of the Galapagos Penguin population and harbours 5 species of giant tortoise. It has some of the best snorkelling and diving spots of any of the Islands and although it is the largest of the Islands it is the least built up, giving it more of a beach town vibe. There are plenty of hostels, hotels, bars and restaurants dotted around so it’s worth stopping off on this Island for a while.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Iguana and tortoises
  • Blue-footed Boobies
  • Penguins
  • Sharks
  • Giant Sea Horses
  • Beaches
  • Volcanoes

Things to See and Do On Isabela Island – FOR FREE


Try this in an afternoon:

Centro de Crianza “Arnaldo Tupiza” – Tortoise Breeding Centre

Isabela Island is the one place in the world which holds 5 different species of giant tortoise. Learn about the process of breeding and how the population of these endangered reptiles is being recovered.

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Los Humedales – The Wetlands

As you walk down towards the beach (Playa Grande) from the Centro de Crianza breeding centre, you will notice the landscape begin to change. There’s a nice path which takes you down to the beach via flamingo filled lagoons. It’s a good 25 minute leg stretch. Best timed with sunset.

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The wetlands do extend for many miles toward a place called the Wall of Tears. Cycling through this area makes for a good day trip – but again, beware of the sun. Take a hat and a long-sleeved light shirt and wear sun block. The sun can be unforgiving.

Sunset on Playa Grande

This is a lovely stretch of beach with a fantastic sunset! Enjoy a 2-for-1 cocktail at the bar at the end of the beach -can’t for the life of me remember the name but there’s a volleyball net outside, a tight rope and generally a small crowd and music. It’s a fun spot and you can take your drinks away a little further down the beach if it gets a little over crowded.

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A great day out with the Iguanas

Find a shady spot with some palm trees on a beach just by the town Malecon. You’ll see hundreds of Iguana pottering about – digging sand pits and swimming in the sea. There are a few bars and cafes scattered about so this makes for a perfect day out!

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Explore Volcanoes – Hike to Sierra Negra

I didn’t do this as I didn’t have much time and preferred to see the wildlife – but if rocks are your thing then I heard it’s very good!


Isabela Must Do Tours – $$$


Los Tuneles

There are 2 tours you should definitely invest in whilst visiting The Galapagos. One I’ve covered in San Cristobal – Kicker Rock. Los Tuneles, off the coast of Isabela Island is another.

What is it?

Los Tuneles is a series of rock formations including bridges and tunnels formed off the coast of Isabela when the hot magma from the volcanoes reached the island’s edge and flowed into the pacific waters.

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What makes it so special?

The site is known as one of the best spots to snorkel in the Galapagos, owing to its aquarium like waters. It’s simply stunning! You snorkel with penguins, sea turtles, giant manta rays and sea horses and get within touching distance of sleeping white tip reef sharks.

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You also get very close to the Blue-footed Boobies

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The tour cost a total of $80. Again – book this at least a few days in advance, especially if you’re travelling in peak season. Not to be missed!


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


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21 thoughts on “The Galapagos Islands – How to Travel Independently

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  2. What useful and thorough information on independent travel to Galapagos. I’m seriously considering doing it that way after reading this. Thanks-Sue

    • That’s great, Sue! I’m so glad to hear it. It is a magnificent place and travelling independently is so easy. All I can say is GO GO GO! 🙂

  3. Do you recommend spending at least an overnight on these 3 islands – Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabella? Or should we just base ourselves in Santa Cruz and take a boatride to the other 2 islands? How about Floreana, is it worthwhile to go there? Thank you.

    • If I were to do the trip again I would spend a few nights at least on each Island. Each Island is unique with its own atmosphere with a lot to see and do. You won’t want to rush.
      Some tours start very early on in the day and if you were on another Island, the boat transfer may not get you in on time for that tour.
      You also might not be able to take a boat transfer to one Island and go back in the same day and do a tour, making a night stayover unavoidable.
      The boat transfers between Islands are long. From memory 2-3 hours between Islands and they operate just twice a day, something like 8am and 3pm (this was the case when I visited).
      So if you want to visit an Island, definitely plan to stay there.
      I never visited Floreana. I was committed to a group tour which I’d booked so I didn’t have the flexibility or time that I wanted.
      Have an amazing time but do give yourself time to enjoy the Islands!

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