I was asked so many questions after posting pictures in my Instagram about my journey to Galapagos. Most of them asked about how to go to Galapagos, which island has the most native species, when is the best time to go to there, etc. Well, my best answer is: it depends. Depends on how much money you have, what kind of animal you want to see, or as simple as do you prefer snorkeling to strolling on the beach? Hence, I do recommend you to always do your homework. Do research (unless you are a millionaire with unlimited bank account or someone with no issue on leave days). I don’t think you can apply “let’s get lost” for this magical place. Remember, traveling to Galapagos is a lifetime experience, better prepared than sorry.
Galapagos 101: Galapagos is an archipelago of volcanic islands lies in equator of Pacific Ocean located nearly 900 km from land of Ecuador. There are 21 islands in this archipelago where only 5 islands are inhabitant: Batra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. The common way to visit Galapagos is flying from Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. There are two airports in Galapagos islands, San Cristobal airport and Baltra/Seymour airport.
The Ecuadorian government declared Galapagos as National Park in 1959 continued with UNESCO stated it as World Heritage Site in 1978 and Biosphere Reserves in 1985. Due to environmental threats (invasive species, tourism, and overfishing), UNESCO put Galapagos to list of World Heritage in danger. After seeing significant progress shown by Ecuadorian government (source: wikipedia), the committee decided to remove the status in 2010. The government commitment to protect Galapagos islands as the biggest living laboratory in the world, is not just a lip service. In Galapagos, the animals live like in their natural habitat. No boundary between human and animals. However, Ecuadorian government strictly applies 14 rules to protect Galapagos National Park such as no feeding the animal, no touching the animal, and maintain 2 meters distance with them. To set your travel experience in Galapagos, try to answer these questions:
- How rich are you?
Set this as base of everything. If you are someone with unlimited bank account and leave days, I strongly recommend you to take a Cruise when exploring Galapagos Islands. Galapagos is expensive. Can’t argue for this. In average, 5 days Cruise will cost you around 3000 USD. Within 5 days, you can visit 2 – 3 islands depends on the distance between islands. Tips: If you are lucky, you can have discount up to 50% for last-minute deal. Check with cruise operator. Usually they can give you last seats available one day before departing. Keep in mind that this will only works if you have time flexibility.
As I’m not that rich and have limited leave days, I decided to take land-based tour. I set Santa Cruz as base then travel back and forth to San Cristobal and Isabela islands. As the entire Galapagos islands declared as conservation area, you need to have licensed guide with you, it’s not allowed for self-guided. Andean Roots travel agency helped us arranging this trip and paid 665 USD/pax (price for group of 4 pax) for 5 days 4 nights (tour, transportation, hotel, meals)
- What do you want to see?
Every time I hear word “Galapagos”, giant tortoise and blue-footed booby always pop up in my mind. Those animals are in my top priority when doing research about which island I want to visit most. There are 21 islands in this archipelago and each island surely has its own unique. Once again, unless you have money and all time is this world, you can’t have it all. You have to choose what do you want to see. I chose Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela for my 3 days excursion. Those islands have everything I want to see. Beautiful white-sandy beach and it said to be perfect places to see giant tortoises, blue and red-footed boobies, sea lions and flamingos! In fact, if I spend a little bit further from Isabela island, I can see penguin! Unfortunately I missed it!
- What kind of activity do you want to do?
People said that diving or snorkeling are must to do activities while you are in Galapagos. But, what if I’m not into those water activities? Will I enjoy the islands? The answer is absolutely yes. I myself prefer mountain to beach/sea. After having a near to death experience while snorkeling in Flores sea, I’m not big fans of any kind of water sport activities. I really enjoyed my trip in Galapagos even though I did not do any swimming in the beach, snorkeling or even diving. I hiked on the top of the island to see red and blue footed boobies, strolled in the beach, entertained by sea lions and marine iguana along the beach, and visited tortoise conservation area.
Best time to go: Even you can see the animals all year around, the best time to visit Galapagos is during warm and wet season, December – June. The sea is also calmer, so traveling back and forth between the island will not be a nightmare. However, match your interest with the condition. Boobies mating season is different with sea turtles nesting season. Check with your travel agent.
As of June 2017, Ecuadorian government announced that each visitor should have return airline ticket and hotel/tour reservation. The round trip flight ticket will cost you 400 – 500 USD (remember, Galapagos is expensive).
My journey to Galapagos
As I decided to take land based tours from Puerto Ayora, I flew from Quito to Baltra airport with short transit at Guayaquil. Tips: book your flight ticket in advance, at least 6 months prior departure date to get best deal price. It’s also to secure your seat if you travel during peak season. For Indonesian passport holder, no visa required to visit Ecuador. But you might need to prepare USA visa as the cheapest way to reach Quito is via USA. I booked flight ticket from TAME, Ecuador national airline. Everything was ok when departing from Quito to Galapagos. But when we’re going to fly back to Quito, the officer said I need to pay more money, around 180 USD. They said there was a mistake in the system when I booked the ticket. It didn’t make any sense. Why did the officer at Quito airport not asking for additional fee? They insisted and forced me to pay otherwise I couldn’t check in. Let me tell you, TAME has the worst airline website in this universe. They are sucks.
Throughout the years, I thought Jordan – Israel border has the most strict security check point in the world, but turns out they have competitor: Galapagos Islands. After paying transit control card 20 USD, all your belonging will be checked to see whether you bring any seed, plant, food, fruit or even animal which can threat native and endemic species. Tips: If you don’t want to miss your flight, allow 3 – 4 hours before take off time to accommodate the security check procedure. Once the officer declares your baggage, you may check in the baggage at airline counter. See how cute the transit control card looks like.
Tips: If you are a person who is sensitive to turbulence when flying, you may take motion sickness pill before take off. The airport is surrounded by mountain and located in the valley. It’s definitely a challenge to any pilot during take off or landing.
Day 1: Meet the Giant Tortoise
After flying for 2 hours, I was safely landed at Baltra airport. No passport check point in this airport. However, you need to pay Galapagos National Park entrance fee 100 USD to support efforts in protecting this conservation area. There is only one conveyor belt in this airport but you can’t get your luggage right away once they arrived. K-9 dogs will check it first. The dogs will ensure no one brings things that can harm native or endemic species in Galapagos. I have never seen this before anywhere in the world but in Galapagos. Two thumbs!
From Baltra airport, we will be transferred to Santa Cruz island. If you willing to spend more money and take cruise trip, they will pick you up at the airport and lead you to the ship afterward. Since I decided to take land-based tour, I need a little extra effort to get to the hotel. In brief, ride a bus for 15 mins, take a boat for 30 mins, then drive for 45 mins. There is free shuttle bus from airport to port. It’s a first come first served bus. After 15 mins ride an old and non air conditioner bus, you will change to small boat. Your luggage will be put on top of the boat. Please ensure your luggage is strong enough. You need to pay 1 USD as mandatory donation for this boat. After 30 mins, you will arrive at Santa Cruz port. It took 45 mins drive from the port to Puerto Ayora, the most populous city in this island.
The highlight for today was visiting private ranch called El Chato where you can see giant tortoise in their natural habitat. And this afternoon surely was one of the happiest days of my life. Never been this close to wildlife.
Day 2: Hop on to San Cristobal
When I joined Andean roots, I thought it will be a private or small group tour with dedicated tour guide. Well, it was a small group tour, me and my other 3 friends joined with Spanish man (he is a PhD btw, a scientist). But there is no dedicated tour guide who accompanied us. The man who picked us up was different with the one who guided us around the island. Little bit confusing at the beginning but we’re getting used to.
A young man picked us up at the hotel and led us to the port. He will ensure that we take the right boat to San Cristobal. Before depart from the port, each visitor should pass security check. The officer from Galapagos National Park will check your belonging to ensure you don’t bring anything that can harm the environment and animal in the next island. Even they will clean up your snorkel mask or fin! They are this serious in protecting this national park. After waiting for 30 minutes, you need to take small boat to the port and ride for 10 minutes to bigger boat. Don’t forget to prepare 1 USD for mandatory donation anytime you ride this small boat. The journey from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal will take 2.5 hours. It was long journey. When we arrived at San Cristobal port, a man picked us up with his truck with destination to La Loberia, a beautiful bay where you can see sea lions and marine iguana.
If you are willing to hike to top of the hill, you will meet red-footed boobies! It took me 1 hour to reach the top hill and I think it was the most challenging hiking I’ve ever had. I did not bring my trekking pole and the path is built by rock, giant rock. There is a part where I need to jump or climb. And the heat…I almost faint! But the view along the hike: A.M.A.Z.I.N.G
After lunch, we went to interpretation center and Playa Mann before heading back to Santa Cruz. Yes, another 2.5 hours to go.
Day 3: Journey to Isabela island
The journey to Isabela island will take around 2.5 hours. Today’s highlight: Arnaldo Tupiza Breeding center to meet Isabela’s giant tortoise which quite different from we saw in Santa Cruz Island, snorkeling in Concha Perla Lagoon, and this is what makes my day: we are going to see Flamingo!!!
Day 4: Explore Santa Cruz
My main reason to visit Galapagos is to see blue-footed boobies. Two days before leaving this magical place, I haven’t met any of them yet. When tour guide picked us up for Tortuga bay to see marine iguana, I was not interested that much. I have seen lots of marine iguanas since Day-1. However, when we arrived at Tortuga bay, I was awe of its flawless white sand beach!
Suddenly, the guide said that if we’re lucky, we can meet the blue-footed boobies on the top of hill. That surely an encouraging statement. Energy boosted. The guide was right. They’re there, standing gracefully while enjoying the sun, the loved ones, blue-footed boobies. That day, I felt so lucky.
In the afternoon, the guide took us to Charles Darwin Research Station. It’s like open-air museum. I was quite skeptical at first, but I was wrong. This is the most comprehensive open-air museum I’ve ever visit. You will learn a lot from this museum. On the way out of the museum, don’t forget to stamp your passport with research station logo.
The saddest part of course when you meet the famous Lonesome George. I was crying at that time.
Story about George: George is the last known survivor for Pinta tortoise. The population of Pinta tortoise was over-exploited by whalers or fur sealers in 1800’s. They became more extinct in 20th century when fisherman left 3 goats in Pinta island around 1959. The goats population devastated the vegetation and reduce the habitat of tortoise. George was found in 1972 and being brought to breeding center in Santa Cruz for protection. The scientist kept looking for female Pinta tortoise, but they never found it. They tried to put 2 females tortoise from Isabela island to be George’s breeding partner. But it was unsuccessful. Then they replaced it with 2 females tortoise from Espanola island but George produced no offsprings. Lonesome George died in June 2012.
As stated on information panel outside the enclosure of Lonesome George in Charles Darwin Research Station – Galapagos National Park:
“Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”
Like it or not, it’s an absolute truth. We, human, are responsible for everything in this planet. We are not the only creature living on Earth. Everything we have now, we borrow it from our grandchildren. We owe them. Let’s not take this planet for granted. Let’s preserve the four spheres of our beloved earth: Geosphere, Hydrosphere, Biosphere, and Atmosphere.
People said pictures tell everything, see my journey on Flickr: Galapagos, The Land of Evolution