We planned our trip to the Galápagos taking advantage of one of the tips I mentioned in the previous article about saving money and maximizing your time – we arranged to fly into the Seymour Airport on Isla Baltra, and back to the mainland from the airport on Isla San Cristobal.
Isla Baltra is a small, rocky, and desolate little island, separated from the larger and more verdant Isla Santa Cruz by the narrow Itabaca Channel. Not that there are not some things to see both on Isla Baltra and the even smaller islet to the north, Isla Seymour Norte. There are rock iguanas and finches everywhere (in fact, our bus had to stop so the driver could move a large iguana out of the road), and tour companies will circle both islands for you, but in general, there are better and more accessible places to see more wildlife.
Arriving at the airport (or the one on San Cristobal), it is first necessary to join the line to pay the Park Entrance Fee. As I said previously, this fee must be paid in cash, and is $100 per person, $50 for children under 12. If you have an Ecuadorian cedula, you pay only $6, further reduced to $3 if you are tercer edad (65 or older). It is worth noting that you will not be allowed to leave the terminal if you cannot pay this fee in cash!
Another thing to keep in mind as you plan your own trip is that although this fee has not changed in 20 years, there is currently discussion underway to double it to $200 per person, $100 for children under 12. Nothing is final yet, and there may end up to be a two-tier system, where you can get a discount if you spend a certain amount of time visiting the Ecuador mainland either before or after your island adventure. Regardless, the point here is to make sure you have double-checked this fee prior to your departure. A good resource online is the Galápagos Conservancy at http://www.galapagos.org . They reply to email inquires quickly; I’ve received answers from them the same day.
To leave the airport, you have your choice of two bus lines; one runs to the ocean-side dock for those who have booked cruises, the other to the smaller channel dock.
We purchased our bus ticket to the Channel ($5 each, 50% off for 65 or over), and watched while our luggage was placed in the compartments under the bus.
Just ten minutes later, we got our first look at the deep blue waters of the channel, and lined up for the ferry while the porters busied themselves in loading the luggage from the bus and storing it all on the roof of the ferry.
The ferry charge was $1 per person, again collected in cash by one of the crew. You can really score some points and a friendly smile by having the correct change. Loading did not take long, and after a brief boat ride we were on Isla Santa Cruz, waiting for our luggage to be unloaded.
There is a bus you can take into town, but we chose to splurge and take one of the many taxis waiting in the parking area for a $20 fee. Our driver was very pleasant and made small talk in a mix of Spanish and English during our 40-minute ride into town (which he managed to make in 30 minutes), and delivered us directly to our hotel, the Hostal Sueños Silvestres (Hostal of Wild Dreams – go figure).
This was a terrific hotel in a great location, but it was here that we encountered our first surprise in the Galápagos; the owner of our Hostal who checked us in, and indeed the entire staff, spoke almost no English at all. We had taken it for granted that in such a big tourist spot, there would be plenty of bi- or even tri-lingual speakers, but that was not the case.
Sure, at the higher priced hotels along the beach the desk staff generally spoke English; some tour operators, and waiters in the larger restaurants also spoke a little, but by and large, we had to depend on our own Spanish skills to get by.
This is probably a good place to point out the second surprise, or at least something you may not have considered. We knew when we booked our rooms that the hotels were going to require cash payment at check-in, but I think we were unprepared to find that credit/debit payments were rarely accepted anywhere. In fact, many restaurants had signs up indicating they only accept cash. This is good to know in advance, as many of the few ATMs around on the islands have $100 limits on daily withdrawals.
Our room at the Sueños Silvestres was wonderful – plenty of space, nice bath, and very comfortable bed. Three beds, actually. This hostal like most offered free wi-fi (although don’t get your hopes up – internet on the islands is predictably rather slow), and the deal also included breakfast. Since we paid just under $300 for four nights, including taxes and other fees, this was a real bargain.
We also found we were only a few blocks from a place that would do our laundry for just 25 cents/pound, a convenience store, and the downtown area.
Since it was late afternoon by the time we were checked in and unpacked, we decided to just take a walk to downtown Puerto Ayora to look around a bit, and have an early and leisurely dinner.
Almost immediately, our primary concern about choosing not to take any paid tours of the islands was laid to rest. We had hoped we would still be able to find some of the Galápagos’ most famous residents; tortoises, seals, rock iguanas, and blue-footed boobies. This turns out to be not especially difficult, particularly with the seals and iguanas. In fact, you have to be careful not to step on iguanas sunning themselves on the sidewalks, and the seals are lounging everywhere like they own the town.
We picked a nice looking restaurant at the Hotel Solymar, where we could get a table by the water. Before we could order we were able to check another “must see” off our list, as a blue-footed boobie decided to preen just a few feet from us.
You may notice there are at least four rock iguanas blending with the wall he is on, and there is another seal sitting on a stone dock in the background. We also watched red and black crabs climbing the sides of the rock wall.
We were also joined at our table by one of the most famous residents of the islands, one of the little guys that really got Darwin thinking – a finch!
For those of you into food porn, of course I have pictures of our first meals.
We lingered a few hours over dinner, helped along by the two for one mojito special, and just generally relaxed and enjoyed the pleasant weather and surroundings. We decided to take it easy for the rest of the evening, strolling around the rest of the town’s waterfront and picking up some bottled water for our backpacks on the way home. We wanted to get a good nights sleep so we could be be ready to spend most of the following day at our first free self-guided tour on Santa Cruz – the Darwin Research Center.
Up next – Galápagos Islands: Ruta de la Tortuga