I arrived at Baltra Airport in the afternoon of the 21 February with nothing booked. My aspiration was to get on an 8-day liveaboard diving trip leaving the next day. But this wasn’t to be so I ended up with a fantastic 10-day island-hopping experience.
There were a few things that I hadn’t been aware of before arriving, money-related, which I will include here. There is a $20 USD fee to pay before you board your flight (cash only), then when you arrive, you go through the immigration desk and immediately pay a further $100 for the park fee. Note: these fees are for foreigners only, Ecuadorians pay something but not much.
Before you can collect your hold luggage it is all lined up ready for a dog to inspect it to check for fruits and vegetables. The working dog was very friendly with the tourists and kept being told off by the handler. It was funny to see it running all over the bags stumbling between them.
I jumped on a shuttle bus which took me for free to the ferry. The ferry costs $1 and I got my first up-close look at the phenomenal turquoise waters and sea birds. Then I climbed onto a bus to take me towards the main town on Santa Cruz Island, Puerto Ayora, which cost $2 for around 40km. The bus station seems like a very arbitrary location outside of town so everyone jumps out of the bus and straight into taxis, which cost $1.50 no matter where you go in the town and can hold 4 passengers for that price. I jumped in a taxi with a Canadian couple and we made our way to a hostel they had read about (but not booked). At this point in the afternoon I was more concerned with booking a dive boat than I was about finding accommodation so I left my bag in their hostel and headed to the dive shops. I went to the one next to Café Hernán, as recommended by Galapagos-based whale shark expert Jonathan Green, and it was a great recommendation as the staff are super helpful and have great English (though I preferred to push my Spanish).
Galapagos Travellers managed to get me a space on the liveaboard dive boat, Nortada, leaving Puerto Ayora on 2nd March. It’s an 8 day/7 night trip to the northern islands, Wolf and Darwin, in the heart of the marine reserve, receiving very few visitors and exhibiting unparalleled biodiversity.
The Nortada is a fairly fancy boat which holds 8 passengers in twin berth cabins. I’m not sure what the usual price is but I asked around and usually the last-minute price is $4,190 but I managed to secure it for $3,000. This includes food, drink and 20 dives. I’ve got to pay $200 for dive equipment rental on top. More on the trip later…
Payment, even for very expensive elements, is all in cash and I had some money dramas from the moment I arrived, so I’ll hopefully share some useful insight. It is possible to withdraw cash on the island, but only from ATMs, and they have daily limits.
Banco del Pacifico (branch on Av Baltras a few blocks from the harbour and an ATM next to the supermarket on the harbour) has a $1.50 transaction fee for both Visa and MasterCard and my banks set different daily limits (Starling/MasterCard had a £500 limit which is less than the $600 promised by the machine). 24effectivo (ATM outside the supermarket at the harbour) had zero transaction fees on my Visa (my UK bank applied fees anyway) and my MasterCard transaction fee was $2.
So Santa Cruz has a big town called Puerto Ayora, with plenty of people but that does not stop the wildlife from being ever-present and incredible. Down by the water you genuinely have to keep your eyes peeled so you don’t trip over an iguana. Or even a sea lion! On my first afternoon and second day I didn’t leave the main town as I was tied to sorting out finances (and a broken camera charger!) but I still saw lots of great creatures. I wandered to the shore and found sea lions, pelicans, crabs, iguanas (including my first swimming one), smaller lizards mockingbirds, finches, and frigatebirds. It was unbelievable quite how fearless everything is. Finches will just jump up and sit next to you if you sit down or you can put a camera lens right in their face and they are utterly unphased.
My next calamity was locking myself out of my hotel room at 10pm when I went to fill up my water bottle (can’t drink the tap water here so my hostel has a water dispenser downstairs). The reception isn’t 24 hours (most of them here aren’t) and the phone number they left was not actually straight to dial and was then engaged. I tried every single spare key I could find and then resorted to knocking on my neighbour’s door to ask them for help with the phone (most people staying when I first arrived were Ecuadorian). It happened to be two kids who called for their parents who arrived to help me. The owner arrived back at the hostel at 11:30pm and realised that my room was the only one without a spare key so they had to break in to my room and I managed to get to bed (utterly exhausted and slightly traumatised) at about 12:30am. The couple who helped me with the phone, Ximena and Carlos are great, and we are still spending time together.
After I got those issues out of the way I was able to start exploring the area a bit more, and I have a full week before my dive boat, with plenty to do and see until then…
On Friday I walked to Tortuga Bay with Ximena and we swam in the sheltered lagoon. It is actually quite far to walk – you have to sign in at a desk when you arrive at the entrance and then you walk for about 45 minutes down the path to the beach. But boy, it is worth it! I saw marine iguanas swimming in the shallows and then I went around to the right and I went for a swim from a beautiful sandy beach.
It is shallow for miles and there was lots of wildlife in the sea including two baby black tip reef sharks. There were some super friendly finches and mockingbirds around when I got out for lunch and I had to fend them off my granola!
I had a bit more of an explore in the town before having a plantain burger (with fried plantain as the bun!) for dinner, filled with chicken, beef and salad. I will definitely try to get another later in the week! The place is called Bone Cafe and it is on Av Baltra, the main street, not far from the dock. Their main specialities are desserts, but the burger was delicious and great value too at under $10.
On Friday night I went out to Bongo Bar with Ximena and Carlos. It’s a few blocks from the centre and it’s $5 entry with happy hour drinks on 2 for $10. They place was packed as they had live salsa music and there was a nice atmosphere.
On Saturday I hopped a boat taxi ride to a hotel across from the port called the Angermeyer and from there I walked to a snorkelling spot called Last Grietas. Moises at the dive shop lent me his snorkel mask so that I didn’t have to pay to rent. The walk wasn’t anywhere near as far as Tortuga Bay but it was a very different type of trip. It was busy with locals on a Saturday and the kids were dive bombing into the water which is guess isn’t great for the wildlife, as fearless as the creatures tend to be… But nonetheless I saw some parrotfish and a few other fish while I was swimming around the waterhole.
I walked back to the beach called Playa Alemanes and went for a paddle and a snorkel there. I didn’t see much really as the water is so shallow in the lagoon that the ride was kicking up sand. But it was still a nice way to spend the afternoon.
For dinner I tried out the road full of street food stalls a few blocks from the harbour. I had fantastic prawn ceviche with plenty of sauce to pour over the rice and plantain side dish. It only cost $10 so again, not a bad price at all.
On Sunday I took a day trip to Floreana, an island to the South of Santa Cruz, 1.5hours away by boat. The weather was horrendous so the group I was in bonded pretty well to battle the adverse conditions! As we boarded the boat there was a flock(?) of golden cowrays swimming around at the dock and then all along the journey there was wildlife everywhere!
We saw lots of turtles coming up for air when we were quite close to land. The four of us on the top deck got absolutely drenched in the rain and the guys downstairs couldn’t believe it as they had been sat in a warm dry cabin (but had missed all the wildlife…)
When we finally arrived (the skipper definitely got lost because he was chatting to a girl and lost sight of land before setting up the compass…..), we jumped into an open-sided truck for the drive up to see the giant tortoises. We walked for a few minutes and came across some huge ones and they were totally un-phased by our presence. It was a great experience to see them up close.
Then we walked up a bit higher to see the ruins from the first inhabitants of the island. This island was settled first because fresh water was discovered where rain was filtered through the volcanic rock and would collect in a pool below. There was also a great set of stone labyrinths, mainly a natural formation but turned into animal pens by the inhabitants by creating holes and grooves to insert wooden poles. We also saw the cave where they lived and the little adaptions they made to create shelves and a chimney.
Then we had a set single course lunch of tuna with rice and in the afternoon we went snorkeling with green sea turtles! At the first beach we had to walk across sharp black volcanic rock to get to the white sand at the water’s edge and the rain had made visibility quite poor but it was still great to see turtles up close, though they were mostly resting on the bottom. The second snorkel though, wow!!! Turtles everywhere. And we saw a stingray too. The turtles were super tame and were just swimming around munching on seaweed. One surprised me by swimming underneath me from behind and trying to come up for air right in front of my face, pushing me out of the way!! We had to do some negotiation about who was going where! The beach at this second spot was gorgeous black volcanic sand and there were a few marine iguana nests in the sand so we had to be careful where we stepped.
The sun had peeked out slightly as we were snorkeling and I had decided not to wear my t-shirt, so I had a bikini-shaped sunburn on my back which lasted for a few days.
We caught the boat back to Puerto Ayora and as we were motoring along we could see so much wildlife, the sea was just boiling! For the return journey I was sat at the back of the boat exposed to the elements but it was definitely worth it, I was so close to the wildlife. I saw eagle rays and a golden cowray jump clean out if the water so I could see their whole bodies, we saw tuna jumping out as they chased fish to the surface in a shoal, this brought lots of lovely birdlife too and we could see the birds diving in to the mix. We had some really playful dolphins which swam along with us for a while and the Captain steered the boat around so they kept coming close. Then we arrived in Puerto Ayora. I went back to the ceviche place for dinner and it was delicious again. I bumped into some of the guys from the day trip and also saw Ximena and her mother to say goodbye as I was leaving the next afternoon for another island.
On Monday morning I had an early start to be at the dive shop for 6am for my first dive in the Galapagos!!! Super exciting. I had bought breakfast the evening before but there was bread and coffee at the dive shop. Once we had all assembled we were bundled into taxis and driven to the other port on the Northern side of the island near the Baltra Airport. The driver was beeping his horn the whole way to clear the birds off the road! Crazy fearless creatures.
Our group of ten divers boarded the Ballet Azul and we were off, heading to Gordon Rocks, an old partial volcanic crater rising out of the seabed about 5 kilometres from the East coast of Santa Cruz. As we left the harbour I was sat on the roof of the dive boat chatting to an English/American called Matt who is with the World Arc rally (a round the world sailing trip with about 30 boats) working on one of the boats with an American family. Then we cruised into a raincloud and got absolutely drenched and had to signal to the driver to slow down so we could get off the roof!
We arrived at Gordon Rocks and divided into two groups, one with the instructor Simon and the other with Hancock. We had a dive brief, got changed into wetsuits (3mm full suits with booties) and rolled in. Hancock’s group went first and his face-first dive off the boat fully kitted up made me laugh out loud.
Both dives were at the same site, but on different sides of the crater. The dive site has fairly strong currents so it is great for sharks, and the relative shelter of the rocky pinnacles allows fish to set up cleaning stations for the sharks, a mutually beneficial alliance between many species.
This was my first dive with sharks and I saw four species!! There was one or two black tip reef sharks, lots of white tip reef sharks, some Galapagos sharks (which look rather menacing I think) and hammerheads! It was so exciting to see the Hammerheads in particular and I managed to flood my mask by smiling.
Underwater photos by Matt Sharp
There were also green turtles and a sea lion plus plenty of great tropical fish and pencil sea urchins which I haven’t seen before. It was actually great not to recognise all the fish (because I am a total fish nerd so it’s nice to see some new species!) so I had to look at the marine species card back on the boat. The currents include strong thermoclines where warm water suddenly gives way to freezing cold flows, and you can see them coming as the water looks different, a bit like the swirls you get in vodka lemonade. One of the cold patches lasted for over a minute as we were anchored down to a rock watching the sharks swimming in the current. The current wasn’t too strong but it was certainly strong enough for you to want to hold on to the rocks so you could look around easily at the creatures without moving around yourself. We had two decent length dives and then the boat took us back to the port and we were taken to a restaurant for a lunch of rice and tuna. On the sail back I sat on the roof to sunbathe and dry off and was watching the seabirds, turtles and the fish jumping out of the water, when we were joined by two large cetaceans. We thought they were whales at first but then we thought maybe they were a huge species of dolphin but using the photos I took, an online cetacean chart and some help from Jonathan Green, I could confirm that they were Cuvier’s Beaked Whales. I hadn’t ever seen beaked whales before so I am quite excited. They were really curious and stayed with us for quite a while before diving.
When I got back to the town I realised that the last boat to San Cristobal left at 2pm not 5pm so I missed it and had to find somewhere else to stay for the night and booked a ticket for the 7am boat. I moved to a place recommended by my Danish snorkeling and diving buddy Jacob, the Sir Francis Drake Hostel and my $25 room turned out to be pretty crappy, damp and full of ants but it was only for one night so not the end of the world. I went back to the dive shop to get the information about the dive and also the GoPro photos and afterwards I went for dinner with Jacob who had also waited around for the info. We went to a restaurant in the street food street where they had snail on the menu in so many different dishes that we were curious enough to try. I had grilled octopus with salad, rice and chips, with a bit of snail on the side. It was actually nice. But I am glad I didn’t go for snail ceviche as my first encounter…
I left my backpack in Jacob’s room while I visited San Cristóbal which saved my knees (both are starting to hurt most days at the moment).
On Tuesday I got the 2 hour boat crossing to San Cristobal at 7am, costing $25. It was a nice journey really, I was inside the cabin so it wasn’t windy or wet (for a change…) and I had a very short nap as I was very comfortable. I arrived at the port with no hold luggage so I was able to walk straight from the water taxi into the town. I was very keen to get on a 360 tour of the island and wasn’t surprised to find out that they all depart at 7am as it’s a full day tour.
Instead I found a map at tourist information, though the staff were rubbish and fairly reluctant to offer any advice and then I walked to one of the hostels I spotted and checked out a room. It was much nicer than the room in Sir Francis Drake on Santa Cruz so I paid $25 for a decent sized room with Aircon. Then I walked downstairs, hired snorkelling gear and walked to a frigatebird viewpoint and then to a bay to go snorkeling.
I spent the morning snorkeling with turtles, sea lions and pelicans. I also saw some blue footed boobies, they are awesome creatures and it was great to watch then flying around and putting their crazy blue legs out when they come in to land. So bizarre. I met a Canadian couple, Erin and Mason, and we snorkelled together and chatted for a while then walked back to the town for lunch. I went to a cafe and sat with Mark and Josh who I met on my first day at Santa Cruz, a father and son sailing around the world as part of the World Arc rally. Josh has hurt his back very badly and they had taken a day trip so he could get a CT scan which has confirmed a fractured vertebra and two other fractures. Poor thing.
In the afternoon it rained for a while and I took the opportunity to find a tour for Wednesday morning before my ferry back to Santa Cruz. I am disappointed to say that the ferries between islands don’t align well with the activities so if you want to do the “360 tour” of San Cristobal, you need to arrive the day before and leave the day after (which I didn’t have the luxury of doing). I managed to get a space on a snorkelling tour of Kicker Rock (León Dormido, sleeping lion rock in Spanish) leaving at 08:30 and returning at 14:30 in time for my ferry to Santa Cruz at 15:00! I paid $110 which is peak price (you can often pay $100) but it includes lunch and is supposed to be a great spot for wildlife. Then I enjoyed a walk along the coast and stopped for a coffee at a cool cafe overlooking a rocky area with hundreds of sea lions including hilarious little pups.
The noises coming from that colony were fantastic. The other wildlife there was great too, I had a striated heron for company along with the Sally Lightfoot Crabs and marine iguanas.
Eventually I was joined by another human who commented on my camera and when we got talking it turns out he is on the same liveaboard dive boat leaving on Friday. Sam is from Israel and has been travelling for a few months so far from Ushuaia up to Ecuador. We had a beer and then went our separate ways for now. I had a mooch around the shops and managed to walk away with 4 t-shirts and vest tops.
For dinner I tried out a burger joint that I had heard a few people mention and it was really nice. It’s called Cri’s Burgers and is on a street corner one block back from the waterfront with outdoor seating and a menu chock-full of great burgers. I went for the Pepe which had cheese, bacon and sweet corn with BBQ sauce and it was delicious and great value at $8.50. The food on San Cristóbal is cheaper than on Santa Cruz. Another burger on the menu made me laugh – it’s called A Morir Lejos – which means to die slowly 😂 and the ingredients look no more unhealthy than the other burgers, plus it’s got guacamole which is at least made from avocado!
I went to bed at a fairly reasonable time as I had decided to get up for sunrise and wanted to head up to El Junco, a lake in the volcanic crater. My room was clean and comfortable for the $25 and I appreciated the Aircon until it went off in the night and I woke up sweating at about 4am and couldn’t turn it back on!
On Wednesday, I rolled out of bed at 5am and packed up my stuff (I only had a daysack with me for the overnight stay) and then went out in search of a taxi. Absolutely no luck, not a single car on the streets. There were some people walking along the waterfront looking at the sea lions and when I asked they said they were doing a survey. So I just kind of followed them along and stopped to take photos of the animals and the bay at dawn.
At 6am I found the first taxi and by then it was a little late to take the 20 minute drive to the crater (late for both sunrise and because I needed to be back for my boat trip at 08:20). For the record though, the driver offered to take me there and back and wait for an hour for $50, which is too much – it should cost you around $30 and if you want to do a 3-4 hour tour of the four main sites on the island then this should cost you $60 (you can take up to four people in a taxi and it’s the same price).
I walked right around the bay towards the lighthouse and enjoyed the sunrise (behind the island not out over the sea) then I walked back and stopped at Patagonia Café for breakfast across the road from the water. I had a Galapagos special which included coffee and juice along with eggs, pieces of steak and a ball of mashed and fried plantain (I believe) stuffed with cheese, the ball was called a balón de verde.
Then I collected my snorkeling gear and waited on the pier for my group. There were 12 of us plus a naturalist guide, Ariana on a boat called Scuba Edén (name of a dive shop in town) . I didn’t realise you could snorkel or scuba dive on the same trip so that’s worth bearing in mind as an option. We visited a nice beach at Puerto Grande first so that the divers could have a practice (as some of them were scarily/dangerously inexperienced for this dive). The snorkeling was rubbish and Ariana made me laugh by saying it was a chance for a practice snorkel 😁 I didn’t see anything noteworthy except a swarm of pufferfish which were SUPER curious and were swimming all around me and right up to my face!
I got bitten again by a horsefly despite having the last of my strong DEET repellent on. Four bites, it’s not even funny anymore, my legs are a mess!
Then we took the boat back to Kicker Rock for the real snorkeling. It was choppy!! I think it probably is a better dive site than a snorkelling site on anything except the calmest of days. But it was still great to snorkel with turtles along the steep walls of Kicker Rock. We swam down the main channel between the rocks and also into a tiny channel in the side of the main rock where, once we emerged from a pitch black section, we could see baby reef sharks swimming underneath us. I was the only be that went back in for a second snorkel with Ariana and we saw a huge shoal of fish that was so dense it looked like rock, punctuated with a huge sleeping sea turtle with an enormous limpit on his back. We had lunch back on the boat; there was rice, salad and delicious fish steaks, and we made our way back to the harbour with minutes to spare before my ferry back to Santa Cruz. I got my own little water taxi directly to the ferry and then had a nice snooze curled up in a chair on the way back.
I arrived in Puerto Ayora and as I walked up the pier I saw a nice baby black tip reef shark and then a huge eagle ray! But then I saw something very sad. A marine iguana had died after becoming entangled in a piece of stray cargo net. I could have cried, it was such a sad sight. But I took a photo to publicise the issue.
This just shouldn’t happen. One day I hope there is accountability for netting (cargo and fishing) lost at sea as it is the cause of so much suffering.
When I arrived in town I had a beer at Café Hernan before checking into my new room at the Sir Francis Drake Hostel. This room was much better but it turned out to be $20 extra, but I only found out after I had unpacked my stuff after collecting it from Jacob’s room. I returned to Bone Café for dinner and had another Mega Patacón Burger with chicken and beef. So tasty and it felt like a fairly balanced light meal for $11 including a bottle of water. I bumped into Carlos and Ximena and Carlos managed to book me a spot on the afternoon Isabela tunnels tour, which was a huge relief! I went back to pack up ready to take all my things to Isabela island in the morning.
On Thursday I began my last island visit before the dive trip. The ferry leaves at 7am so it was another early start but the dawn light was beautiful again shining against puffy clouds in the sky. While I was waiting for my ferry I was watching a sea lion get comfy. It’s got to be one of the most entertaining things. All the little things that have to be just right, then an itch here and a scratch there and then it realises it’s not comfy so it’s got to roll onto its flipper then find a new place for its head. Just hours of fun to watch. But I want to take a moment to mention something pretty terrible that I saw. A German tourist wanted a photo and she actually went right up to this cute little sleeping monster and touched him. I told her off as she did it but then so did the sea lion. He was so ruffled. And she actually came over to me to ask me why she shouldn’t touch him. I was so angry to think that she thought there was nothing wrong with it but she epitomises mass tourism. All money, no brain. She’s lucky I didn’t try to bite her like the sea lion!
My boat was Lancha Albany, and it wasn’t my favourite for two reasons – the cabin layout means you are packed onto bench seats like sardines, and the staff weren’t very nice.
I didn’t mention before but the interisland crossings can be ROUGH! Not so much rolling and pitching as bone-jarring. I recommend bringing something to keep you distracted for when you are being thrown into the air from your seat. Also, sit closer to the back, this bit tends to be thrown out of the water less! I recommend listening to some music that makes you feel like an intrepid explorer to keep you smiling for the two hours, for me it’s got to be anything from the Walter Mitty soundtrack, particularly Step Out by José Gonzalez, which never fails to bring a smile to my face.
We arrived safely at Puerto Villamil, the town on Isabela and then I walked into the town. I suppose I would recommend sharing a taxi though it certainly isn’t too far to walk. Bug repellent is essential on Isabela so make sure you are wearing it when you arrive, there are lots of biting and annoying insects.
I walked straight to see Gaby at Sea Lion Tours, who Carlos booked my tunnels tour with, it is easy to find and it seems that the town is just on one main road really. I asked for a recommendation for a place to stay and she walked me over the road to a place called Mother Fanny. Hilarious name, I love it. The room is $25 with Aircon and plenty of space. I went for a wander before my boat trip and found the beach covered in marine iguanas. One area is roped off as it is full of nests and the little buggers are really fiesty at the moment. One shot out of his borrow as I was tiptoeing over some rocks and scared the life out of me!
I sat in a beach bar close to the town opposite the iguanas and spent a while watching them playing on the beach then I had some time to explore before heading to the tour agency for my trip.
The Tuneles trip takes you to some amazing lava formations where the sea is very shallow so the boats have to be surfed into the lagoon over the lava!
The formations are fantastic and you can walk over the lava bridges and explore between the cactuses. We saw a blue-footed boobie nesting under the shade of a bush.
The tour was excellent! After the walking section we got back on the boat and found a cool place to snorkel around the lava. I saw some really good stuff too! Turtles, seahorse, white tip reef shark, tiger snake eel and lots of other cool fish.
After the tour I went back to the town and relaxed watching the sunset at the Casa Rosada beach bar in the company of iguanas.
The next morning I got up early and hired a bicycle to visit the wall of tears, which is 5km from the town. I rode past huge tortoises and cool birds on the way, including a chicken that reminded me of the film Moana!
There is a lot to see on the route so it’s best to leave a few hours but if you only have 1.5 hours then you can still see the Wall of Tears, which was a pointless wall built by prisoners when the island was a penal colony and this futile work cost the lives of many prisoners.
I had to return to the town to go on an excursion to the area called Tintoreras (the local name for white tip sharks).
This was another great half-day trip where we got to explore on foot, had a little boat exploration and also got to snorkel. I highly recommend this trip.
You can see the white tip sharks (which hunt at night) resting in a shallow channel during the day. The iguanas nest amongst the volcanic rocks so you have to watch not to trip over them!
And in the boat we floated past blue-footed boobies!
The trip ended at 1, I had just enough time to check out the flamingoes and then have a quick lunch before heading to the dock for my ferry to Puerto Ayora ready to catch my dive boat.
And so ended my 10-day island-hopping Galapagos extravaganza! Next stop, scuba diving on my first liveaboard trip!!