A few months ago, before my salsa stint in Quito, I was lucky enough to join my family on a seven day cruise of Ecuador’s famous Galapagos Islands. I’d heard countless tales of this place, especially back in 2011 during my first trip to South America, and was eager to see if they lived up to the hype.
A Galapagos itinerary is pretty straightforward. You fly to Quito (or Guayaquil), jump on a plane to the islands, and then head out to the ship and island hop for a few days. Every day you wake up early, eat breakfast, and spend most of the day exploring one of the islands. After that it’s back to the boat and to bed for another early wake-up the following day.
As for the islands themselves, they’re definitely special (a well known UNESCO heritage site), but it’s hard not to notice they’ve been tainted slightly by the immense growth in tourism over the years. Today, as soon as you touch down at the airport you get slapped with a $100 “tourist tax” before you can even exit the building. Perhaps it’s merited, but to me it just stinks of opportunism (at 150,000 visitors per year, that’s some nice pocket change).
The larger islands have been heavily “touristified”, lined with internet cafes, tourism offices and cheeseburger restaurants. Ships are limited to 100 passengers each, but you still may find that among the amazing wildlife, you’ll need to try hard to frame your photos so they aren’t full of shorts and sandals.
Of course, this is all to be expected, and I completely understand that every popular tourist destination will eventually end up this way. But that doesn’t change the fact that your journey through these “pure and untouched islands” probably won’t be as pure and untouched as you had hoped.
But that’s enough of the downer stuff. Galapagos still remains one-of-a-kind, a place unlike any other on earth. It is one of the most protected places in existence, and you will see things here that you cannot see anywhere else in the world, If you’re a wildlife lover, you’ll need to come here at least once in your life. And of course, it’s only going to become more and more commercialised (and expensive) as the years go on, so if you’re thinking of going, now would be the time.
So, what can you expect to see during your trip here? Let’s take a look.
This guy is a little hard to find, and you probably won’t see him all that often. If you do catch him standing around on a rock, snap a photo asap! It took me a good few minutes out in rocky water to try and get the one above, but it was worth it.
You’ll see this guy a lot. They’re on almost every island and like to hang around on the rocks (and in the water). Can get quite big too.
Galapagos Sea Lion
These guys are very easy to find and quite playful. The only problem is they smell like shit and will also bite if you get too close. You’ll find them everywhere, and not just out in the wilderness – they sit around on the docks, on empty boats, and just in random spots around town. If you’ve been on safari, they’re kind of like the equivalent of a zebra – everywhere.
Galapagos Fur Seal
One of the few mammals endemic to the islands. They are harder to find than the sea lions, as they tend to take shade in the rockier pools and out of the tourist eye. I still find it hard to tell the difference between the two.
The Galapagos Hawk is quite rare and we were lucky to see it and get some good photo opportunities with it. Or guide mentioned it’s not uncommon to go entire weeks without seeing them, especially while we were there (September). Apparently it was common for them to attack livestock which led to them being hunted relentlessly by farmers in the past, and they’re now heavily endangered.
Blue Footed Booby
The booby is a funny, goofy looking bird that tends to make a lot of noise. It’s easily recognisable by its bright blue feet, which it uses to tap-dance in slow motion in order to attract a mate. You will probably catch at least a few of them on most islands, and see the little mating ritual too if you’re lucky. There’s also a red-footed one, but i didn’t manage to get a decent photo of it.
One of the more impressive birds you’ll see around here, the frigatebird is huge and the male has quite a neat party trick. Just like the booby does the moonwalk with his bright blue feet to attract a mate, the frigatebird does the same with his bright red neck. When the pretty girl frigatebird is in sight, he puffs it up, inflating it to a ridiculous size. What do you ladies think? Team Frigatebird or Team Booby?
A tiny little bird endemic to the islands, you’ll probably see it quite often jumping around on the beach or in the trees. Moves quick so can be hard to snap photos of.
Probably the most famous thing on the islands, which might explain why the islands are named what they are (galapago means tortoise in Spanish). About the size of an 8 year old child, these guys can live over 150 years, and are one of the most impressive things you’re going to see while you’re out here. As they are slow and meaty, they were almost hunted to extinction by humans, and are now very heavily protected in breeding grounds and conservatories. And just so you know, don’t show up like I did expecting to see Lonesome George. He died in 2012.
Flamingos can be found in various countries, but the Greater Flamingo is resident to Galapagos. Easily distinguished by its bright pink feathers and stick figure legs, you’ll find these mulling around and feeding in shallow pools on several of the islands.
This is the largest of the Galapagos birds (the one in the photo is a baby). It is a unique species of albatross, and breeds exclusively in the Galapagos. You’ll find them on several of the islands.
I guess you can think of them as the estranged cousins of the marine iguanas. They’re a different colour, bigger, and prefer to live in a drier habitat, but they seem to be built the same and as far as wildlife watching goes, they pretty much do exactly the same thing – sit there motionless and stare at you.
Some other really cool things we saw were schools of dolphins (I’m talking like 30 or 40 at least) swimming behind the cruise ship doing flips and dives, an enormous sea turtle about an arm’s length from my face while snorkelling, and a whale which we chased for about a half hour but didn’t get all that close to. All in all, there was a lot of cool stuff to see.
So, what’s the verdict?
As a budget traveller, my thoughts on Galapagos are mixed. I feel like it’s probably one of those places you need to go at least once, but there are also so many other amazing places on the continent that are better value for money. There’s some great, unique wildlife there, but in all honesty, unless you’re an avid wildlife or photography enthusiast I’m not sure it’s the best place to spend your cash.
I was on a package holiday with my family, and the cruise I was on runs around $4,000 for 7 nights. It was a nice big ship (100 passengers), the rooms were nice and the food was great (buffet breakfast and lunch, 3 course dinner) so if you have that kind of cash to burn, go for it. However, from a value for money perspective I would 100% not recommend it. In South America, that amount of money will easily last you 3 to 4 months elsewhere, at least.
So how do I visit Galapagos on the cheap?
Out of curiosity, I quizzed many people on their Galapagos tours during the odd month i spent in my hostel in Quito. I met many people there who had taken advantage of last minute cruise prices on smaller ships. Most managed to do a 7 day cruise for around $1,000-$1,500 a person, and you can book these from Quito. These were either single specials, or 2-for-1 specials which many travelling couples took advantage of. Cruises leave every day, and many have vacant rooms, so if you simply ask at the right time and have some negotiating skills you should be able to land a nice deal. Here’s a few pointers:
- There are many companies, and by far the best way to choose one is from word of mouth recommendations. Ask other travellers who they went with, what they paid, and what it was like. This’ll give you an idea, as well as some ballpark figures to negotiate with. Your hostel is also a good source of information for this.
- Try booking direct with the boats rather than through tour agencies. It’ll be cheaper.
- One group of travellers I met spent 3 days on the island of Santa Cruz and simply did day tours each day. Apparently, this is popular. From what I remember they cost anywhere between $80-$150 per person, including lunch and a guide. This option is great because it’s extremely cheap, and you only see the islands you want to see.
And lastly, know that you do not need to see every island. Some are more interesting than others, and some don’t have much to offer at all. The ones that stood out for me were:
The tortoise centres are here, so it’s one you can’t miss. It’s also the main inhabited island, so it’s nice to see how people here live.
Is a little out of the way, but is a great place to see the albatrosses and easily has the most stunning white sand beach of the lot (my photo above doesn’t do it justice at all).
The island has some beautiful lagoons, bright blue water, and is also a good place to spot fur seals and the Galapagos Penguin.
For something more comprehensive, Globotreks has a great guide about visiting the Galapagos on the cheap.
I’m definitely glad I visited, but there are many, many places around the world I would visit a second time, and Galapagos isn’t one of them. It’s just too remote, touristy, and expensive, and in my opinion it’s just not on the same level as something like The Gorilla Trek, which I would do again in a heartbeat. Now knowing what I know, I think I would’ve been completely satisfied if I’d just visited the tortoise reserve on Santa Cruz, plus maybe one day trip out to an island and nothing more (which wouldn’t cost much at all). If you’re a wildlife enthusiast then that’s a different story, but if you’re simply doing it to tick it off the list, your money might be better spent elsewhere. In the end, the only way to find out is to go and see it for yourself.