Sea Lions, Iguanas, And Boobies, Oh My! How To Plan A Trip To The Galapagos Islands

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As I rewrite this post it has been just over six years since I went to the Galapagos Islands.  SIX WHOLE YEARS.  Where has the time gone?  Well, I realized my old posts were of no help at all and I wanted to change that, so I’m updating this to maybe actually help you find some things to do in the Galapagos Islands.  You’ll learn some of the best things to do on Santa Cruz Island, some of the best things to do on Isabela Island, some of the best islands to visit in the Galapagos, how to get to the Galapagos, and how to get around the Galapagos without a cruise.

I have linked to a bunch of tours if you like to plan ahead, but you can probably find a lot of these in town once you arrive and they may be cheaper.

Also, how perfect are these pictures below?  I had them loaded in Lightroom and they just happened to be next to each other and lined up like this!  I would like to say I did that on purpose, but I wouldn’t have noticed it if they weren’t together.

 

What to do on Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz is probably the main island in the Galapagos.  This is where you’ll find Puerto Ayora and the Charles Darwin Research Center.  This is also the island all ferries leave from to get to the other islands.

See the Twin Craters

The Twin Craters, or Los Gemelos on Santa Cruz, aren’t actually craters.  They were lava domes where the lava hardened on the outside but continued to flow inside.  Eventually, they collapsed and created the Twin Craters.  You can find these in the highlands surrounded by lush green forest.  There is a trail to walk around them, but I’m not 100% sure if it goes all the way around both.  Wherever it goes, it takes about an hour and a half.  If you know where the trail goes, let me know and I’ll update this.  These are great to stop at on your way to/from Baltra where the main airport is.

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Hike in lava tubes

The lava tubes on Santa Cruz were formed when molten lava solidified, but the liquid magma inside kept flowing.  This left behind the empty tubes that you can now walk through, usually more than a kilometer in length.  They are easy to visit and you might even see barn owls here.

Visit the Charles Darwin Research Center

This is a great place to learn about the history and wildlife of the Galapagos Islands.  There are quite a few educational displays and a path to walk around outside and see some wildlife, like tortoises of varying sizes from hatchlings to full grown and land iguanas.  This is very easy to visit from Puerto Ayora, just a short walk out to the center.

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Go to Tortuga Bay

Visit the perfect white-sand beach of Tortuga Bay, where black sea turtles lay their eggs.  This is also a great place to try snorkeling and kayaking.  This is a great place to spend a relaxing day in Puerto Ayora.  It’s easy to walk to from town and takes about an hour, maybe a little more.  You may be able to see white-tip sharks, marine iguanas, Galapagos green turtles, and flamingos in the lagoon behind the mangroves.

Other awesome things to do on Santa Cruz

  • Go diving at Gordon’s Rock to see hammerhead sharks.  You need a minimum of advanced open water certification to dive here with experience in currents and surges.  30 previous dives are recommended.
  • Go snorkeling at Eden Islet.  This is a great place to look for wildlife like reef sharks, endemic salemas, Nazca and blue-footed boobies.
  • Hike on Dragon Hill to see a land iguana nesting spot, Galapagos flamingos, common stilts, a cacti forest, and palo santo trees.
  • Go birdwatching at Cerro Mesa, 490 meters above sea level, with impressive views of the archipelago.
  • Relax on Bachas Beach and go for a swim at one of the only places with remnants of the US WWII presence with a floating pier that can be seen here.  Keep an eye out for flamingos, Sally Lightfoot crabs, hermit crabs, and whimbrels.
  • Visit Green Beach in Whale Bay.  The beach is green because of the high amount of olivine crystals.
  • Try snorkeling at Garrapatero Beach on the northern side of Santa Cruz.  It’s a nice sandy beach surrounded by mangroves.  There is a freshwater lake behind the beach that is home to flamingos, herons, stilts, and other shorebirds.
  • Go snorkeling in Las Grietas.  There are three pools you can swim/climb to.
  • Stop by the fish market to see it in action.

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What to do on Isabela Island

Isabela Island is the biggest island in the Galapagos and happens to be seahorse-shaped.  You’ll find the charming little island-vibe town of Puerto Villamil here along with some of the best wildlife spotting opportunities.  You can visit Isabela on your own overnight or you can do a day trip with a tour or on your own.

Las Tintoreras

There are snorkeling tours that will take you here.  I saw some giant rays snorkeling at Las Tintoreras.  There is also a lava field trail that is an easy walk and great for spotting iguanas.  When we went we also saw white-tip reef sharks and a giant sea turtle.  You can do snorkeling/hiking tours or kayaking tours.  If you want to be in the water more, kayaking would be better.

 

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Los Tuneles

This is a great place for snorkeling.  You can see tropical fish, eagle rays, lobster, sea lions, sea turtles, and maybe even seahorses.  You can also see lava tubes here.  Pahoehoe is a highly recommended tour operator for this.

Flamingo Lake

This is where you’ll find the highest concentration of flamingos in the Galapagos Islands.  I’m having a hard time finding out anything specific about this.  I want to say this is where we went to see the flamingos, but I’m not 100% sure because it was a last minute stop, I do remember that.  I’m sure if you ask in Puerto Villamil you can get directions.

 

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Wall of Tears

This is one of the most famous hikes on Isabela Island and takes about three hours.  It’s one of the only places to see flamingos without a guide and you could also see land tortoises, sea lions, and marine iguanas.  You can also bike to the wall, which is the only remnant of a prison that was being built by the prisoners in the 1950s.

Other awesome things to do on Isabela Island

  • Visit the tortoise breeding center and see the giant tortoises in all stages of life.
  • Go snorkeling in Concha Perlas, a lagoon near the Puerto Villamil docks.  You can snorkel and swim here without a guide.
  • Hike the Sierra Negra volcano, the second largest caldera in the world (right after Yellowstone.)
  • Take a dinghy to Elizabeth Bay and do some kayaking.  There is a large colony of Galapagos penguins nearby and you can also see marine iguanas, white-tip sharks, green sea turtles, and a variety of rays.
  • Visit the wetlands to see mangroves, swamps, lagoons, and shorebirds.  It’s close to Puerto Villamil and is great for bird watchers.

Floreana Island

So, it’s been a few years since I actually went on this trip to the Galapagos and all of the information I have about my trip is pretty vague.  I have our itinerary, but it doesn’t list specific places we went for these things on Floreana.  I know we went up into the highlands and saw the tortoises, had lunch in the little town, went snorkeling somewhere, and hung out on a beach, but I can’t figure out anything more specific than that.  So, I’ll just share those pictures and the one fact I remember about Floreana: only about 200 people live on the island.  There are tours available that will take you to Floreana for the day.

 

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Some of the other best places to go in the Galapagos Islands

San Cristobal Island

This island is the home of the other airport.  You won’t be able to do a tour from Santa Cruz on San Cristobal and go back to Santa Cruz in the same day, you have to spend the night on San Cristobal because of the tour and ferry schedules.  You can go snorkeling or diving at Kicker Rock, one of the best spots for snorkeling in the Galapagos.  Visit the sea lion breeding ground at La Loberia Beach.  Punta Carola and Playa Cabo de Horno are two other pristine beaches worth visiting.

Espanola Island

Espanola is the driest island in the Galapagos but is great for anyone looking to hike and see a lot of wildlife.  Relax on the beach in Gardner Bay or do a little kayaking.  Visit Punta Suarez if you want to do some birdwatching.

Sante Fe Island

At over 4 million years old, Sante Fe is the oldest island in the Galapagos.  There are two trails you can hike on the island.  One is short and stays near the beach where you can see land iguanas, Galapagos hawks, and Opuntia Cacti.  The other is more strenuous and includes a steep climb where you’ll be rewarded with wonderful views of the island.

North Seymour Island

North Seymour is just 1.9 square kilometers but has a 2-kilometer walking trail taking you from one end of the island to the other.  The island is covered in thick vegetation but you can still see tons of wildlife including marine and land iguanas, sea lions, frigates, blue-footed boobies, white-tip reef sharks, eagle rays, and tons more.

Bartolome

On Bartolome, you can hike up to Pinnacle Rock for one of the best, most popular views in the Galapagos Islands.  You can find a colony of Galapagos penguins, sea lions, and other marine birds at the base of the rock.  You can relax on the beach or do some snorkeling through lava formations.

 

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How to get to the Galapagos Islands

There are two airports in the Galapagos Islands.  One on Baltra and one on San Cristobal.  It may be easier to fly in one and out of the other if you definitely want to see San Cristobal.  If you don’t need to see it, in and out of Baltra is fine.

There are flights to the Galapagos from Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador.  Flights from Guayaquil are usually direct while flights from Quito usually make a stop in Guayaquil on the way there and sometimes on the way back.

How to get around the Galapagos Islands without a cruise

On Santa Cruz, you can get around with land and water taxis depending on where you want to go.  In Puerto Ayora, it’s easy enough to get around on foot.  It’s not a huge town so you should be fine.  You can usually rent bikes, take buses, and taxis as well.

There are ferries that will take you between the islands.  You can find the routes, ticket locations, and full schedule on here.  The ferries are $25 to $35 per person, per ride depending on where you’re going.  There are also day tours that are available to go between islands.

 

Tips for visiting the Galapagos Islands:

  • If you don’t want to visit on your own, there are tons of tours to choose from ranging in length of the trip.
  • Respect the animals!  Don’t use flash photography.  Stay two meters away if you can.  Don’t touch them.  Don’t feed them.  Just admire them and take pictures from a good distance with a nice zoom lens.
  • Wear sunscreen.  I mean it.  Everyone in our group got really sunburnt here, so put sunscreen on, then put it on again a few hours later.  Make sure to get reef safe sunscreen, too.
  • If you’re on a budget, there are a few hostels in the Galapagos Islands.  Most are in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, but San Cristobal and Isabela each have at least one.
  • Bring cash.  There aren’t a ton of ATMs and they definitely aren’t on all of the islands.
  • Bring good water shoes.  I think Chacos would be perfect because they’re made for water (they were actually made for rafting) and are still comfy and great for hiking.
  • This is a really great guide to help you plan a trip to the Galapagos Islands without a cruise.
  • If you’re going to be taking ferries between islands and get seasick, definitely bring Dramamine.  Chances are pretty good you’ll be needing it.
  • There is a grocery store in Puerto Ayora where you can buy food and snacks if you need any.
  • There is a national park entrance fee ($100) and a transit control fee ($20) that you pay at the airport when you arrive.  These fees may change.
  • Some places you need a naturalist guide, so check on that before going.
  • The currency used in Ecuador and the Galapagos is US dollars.
  • The plugs in the Galapagos are the same as the US.

Have you been to Santa Cruz in the Galapagos?  What did you think of it?  Would you go back?

 

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