We hear the whistles of blue-footed boobies as we tiptoe to the island. It’s not a mellifluous sound – in fact, it’s a shrill shriek. The ‘realness’ of the show reminds me we’re in the Galapagos Islands…
The first thing I noticed about The Galapagos Islands is that they are not preened in any way, shape, or form. This archipelago, just off the coast of mainland Ecuador, isn’t Hawaii or the Caribbean – it’s rugged, it’s handsome, and it’s hard work. Beach idyll it is not. Every year millions of curious travellers like us come here to see rare wildlife, birds, flora, and fauna, and a unique ecosystem where humans and animals coexist. Sea lions playfully beg fishmongers for fish, lackadaisical iguanas relax on pavements, rare birds stare right out of trees, and blue-footed boobies dive into the ocean as if they’ve practiced this show all their lives. Except this is no show. This is THEIR world!
Most people opt for exploring Galapagos on a cruise ship that hops to a new island everyday. Having just come back from a Norwegian cruise, we opted for the less popular (but no less fun!) option – a land-based holiday in the Galapagos Islands. To add to that, the Galapagos Islands were the last leg of our 2 month long trip to South America and after the hectic but amazing month in Peru and a scintillating few weeks in Bolivia, we wanted to have a relaxed end to the holiday. Our trip to the Galapagos islands required a fair bit of planning, so we have tried to outline the best way to get there, where to stay, and what to do while you are there 🙂
Getting to The Galapagos Islands
You need to first fly to either Quito or Guayaquil in mainland Ecuador in order to get to the Galapagos Islands. Both cities are well connected through frequent flights from Europe and USA. We were very excited when KLM asked us to test their Ecuador-London route because it’s one of the very few airlines that offers a convenient flight that connect Ecuador and London, with a short stopover in KLM’s hub in Amsterdam.
The flight was comfortable and our favourite part of the flight would have to be the amazing entertainment system. The super-responsive touch screen functionality made it the best we’ve used in the past few years. Consequently I ended up watching one too many movies (instead of working, as I originally intended!!) – La Vie en Rose and The Great Gatsby followed by Modern Family reruns. Return fare from London to Guayaquil starts at £535.
We suggest staying in Guayaquil/Quito for 1-2 nights before catching an onward flight to The Galapagos Islands. We booked our onward flight with Avianca and return fare was £250 per person. Make sure you reach the airport with at least 3 hours to spare – the Galapagos Islands are protected territory and every passenger’s luggage is thoroughly scanned before being checked in (you will have to pay USD 20 per person for this special screening – Errrrr!). In addition to this, every passenger has to pay a surcharge of USD 100 for entering the Galapagos Islands.
A short flight later, you’ll find yourselves in one of the most remote and unique areas of the world -The Galapagos Islands – huzzah!
- Accommodation in Guayaquil: Hotel Oro Verde
Oro Verde is the most popular choice with visitors spending a night or two in Guayaquil before departing on Galapagos cruises or land-based holidays in Galapagos. The name kept popping up on a lot of TripAdvisor forums, so we booked Hotel Oro Verde for 2 nights. The hotel offers complimentary pick-up from the airport, which made us feel better especially because we had read Guayaquil is not the safest city on earth 😉
We were upgraded to a suite on the fifth floor, which was well-equipped and spacious. I loved the oversized shower cubicle and the pillow menu. But the pièce de résistance at Hotel Oro Verde is the delectable spread at breakfast – most reviews you’ll read of the hotel mention breakfast and it’s not without reason. We spent over 2 months in South America but we had the tastiest breakfast of the entire trip at Oro Verde. Everything from bite-sized servings of Ecuadorian delights like empanadas and corn to individual servings of ceviche and white rice and meat/fish in coconut curry is on offer. If you prefer a strictly Continental breakfast there is a large variety of fresh fruits, bread rolls, cold cuts, gourmet cheeses, and cereals on offer. Unlike most breakfast buffets, every dish at Oro Verde is exceptionally tasty.
The cherry on the top of the cake? We met a Bruised Passports reader at Hotel Oro Verde – yep that’s an experience we’ll never forget 🙂 Other than relaxing at the hotel, we didn’t do much in Guayaquil – we were not impressed by the city at all and just treated as a base to relax after the hectic trip in Bolivia and get ready for a week in Galapagos!
We compared prices and booked our hotel room at Oro Verde here
- Accommodation on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is the busiest island of The Galapagos Islands. Most flights to the archipelago land at Baltra Airport, a short ride away from Santa Cruz Island. Consequently Santa Cruz must feature on your land-based tour of Galapagos Islands.
If you’re on a budget or you’re staying in Santa Cruz for a long period of time, Dona K Leta is a great option. Accommodation is basic but it allows you an opportunity to sample life in an Ecuadorian household. We ended up there for a few days on the recommendation of a fellow traveller and enjoyed the homestay experience – both Yogo and his mom are great hosts and rustle up calorie-busting Ecuadorian breakfasts everyday. Each room at the guest house has a private kitchen – this was handy for us because we’d spent nearly 2 months eating restaurant food 🙂
- Secluded, luxury accommodation in The Galapagos Islands: Finch Bay Hotel
It’s only natural to crave a bit of peace and quiet after a skirmish with crowded Santa Cruz Island. Finch Bay Hotel is ideally located just a ferry ride away from the main pier. The 4 star hotel offers a respite from the madness of Santa Cruz. The hotel is eco-friendly but doesn’t compromise on quality – rooms are clean, stocked with L’occitane toiletries, and spacious verandahs boast of hammocks and garden/ocean views. Finch Bay’s bar, located right next to the pool, looks over the glistening blue Pacific Ocean and provides the ideal location for a sundowner.
You can compare prices online and book here.
Things to do on a land-based tour of The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos are some of the most remote islands in the world. But stunning beaches aren’t the primary draw here. The islands are teaming with life – rare animals, endangered birds, and humans exist in harmony with each other. There are rare sights everywhere we look.
Take for instance the blue-footed boobies that will greet you at the main pier. They hover over water in a synchronised group. Every few minutes, they dive headlong into the water to fish for food. It’s hard not to feel fortunate to witness such rare rituals in the wild! Here are some of the things you can’t miss on your land-based trip of The Galapagos Islands:
I) A Day Trip to North Seymour Island
Of all the day trips we pencilled in on our itinerary, this was our favourite. We opted for the North Seymour day trip with Metropolitan Touring before we left for Ecuador. On getting to The Galapagos, every local we met would keep praising the luxury boat Sea Lion. So we were very stoked to find out that Sea Lion is, in fact, Metropolitan Touring’s boat.
Our day trip to North Seymour Island was memorable, to say the least. The boat is luxurious and spacious. North Seymour Island is also home to one of rarest birds in the world. The male frigate bird is extraordinary. It has a red gular pouch, which inflates like a balloon only when it wants to mate. We saw hundreds of frigate birds with bright red pouches that day. The most incredible part? This isn’t a show or a simulation – this is their world and we humans are privy to the birds’ most intimate rituals here in Galapagos.
II) A day trip to Bartolomé Island
The other day trip we really enjoyed was the one where we explored Bartolomé Island. Bartolomé Island is tiny, just 1.2 km². It was created as a result of volcanic explosions and the evidence of volcanic activity is everywhere to be seen. The entire island is made of volcanic ash, cacti, lava tubes, volcanic ash cones, and lava rocks in so many colours (green, orange, metallic black, and purple!).
Towards the afternoon we hiked 300 steps to the summit of the island. We were greeted by playful sea lions and saw glistening volcanic rocks as we made our way to the top. The mile-long hike to the top of the island is probably one of the most unique ones we’ve experienced. Besides, the view at the top left us gobsmacked – take a look:
We booked this day trip with Galapagos Alternative – they provide customised land-based tours for Galapagos islands and were an obvious choice for our land-based holiday. We were on a boat called Altamara, which is more affordable and smaller than Sea Lion. Food is not served buffet style – instead it is plated. We loved munching on breakfast at the back of the boat and coming back to buttery popcorn and chilled iced tea on board after a long hot afternoon at the beach.
Altamara also stops at a tiny island, surrounded by sparkling multi-hued waters, for a spot of snorkelling. If you’re lucky, you could swim alongside penguins and sea-turtles at this spot 🙂 More details on other land-based trip options can be found here.
Such a day trip will set you back by £150 but it’s totally worth it!!!
III) Water Sports
Most day trips of the islands include a spot of snorkelling or swimming. But make sure to keep aside a day or 2 for kayaking, para-sailing, or diving if you’re a water sports aficionado.
IV) Explore Santa Cruz Island
It’s easy to forget that Santa Cruz Island itself has a lot to explore. The high-street is a labyrinth of overpriced restaurants and travel agencies, but the island has a lot to offer to the curious traveller. We started at the crowded, yet charming, port of Puerta Ayora.
Try to visit the fish market at Puerta Ayora in the evening to witness one of the most adorable things you’ll ever see – sea-lions begging fish-mongers for scrapings of fish. Head to the famed Charles Darwin Research Station to see rare species of tortoises. The sight of giant tortoises crawling around in their natural habitat is truly unparalleled.
If you’re in the mood to see a beach like no other, head to Tortuga Bay. Tortuga Bay is a pleasant 20 minute walk from the main port. Swimming is forbidden at this gorgeous beach but you can spend the entire day relaxing under the Ecuadorian sun. After all, where else can you unwind at the beach with marine iguanas for company?
Once you’re done exploring the island, head to the pier where you can mingle with locals who gather there for concerts, volleyball matches, and other such. The atmosphere is almost festive. For dinner, head to “kiosk street” – a normal street by day, it transforms into a giant open-air dining hall with dozens of vendors vying for people’s attention. We sampled a few stalls over the course of our stay but William’s shack has to be our favourite 🙂
If you want to venture further afield, you can hike to the twin craters at Los Gemelos for a hike. Combine this hike in the highlands with a visit to The El Trapiche coffee plantation. We had this on our itinerary but were unable to do it because Vid was unwell for 3 whole days while we were in The Galapagos 🙁
Know before you go
- The Galapagos Islands are the source of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and home to some of the most unique landscapes, animals, and marine life in the world. You will witness nature’s wonders by the dozen.
- Ongoing seismic and volcanic activity ensures that the archipelago is constantly evolving.
- The Galapagos Islands are heavily protected and extremely remote. As a result, they can be expensive. Everything from a supermarket shop to accommodation and day tours cost a lot of money. But if you’re a nature nut or wildlife enthusiast, then it’s all worth it. You will see things here that you wouldn’t see anywhere else in the world – land iguanas, giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, and finches to name a few. The entire archipelago is like a living breathing museum.
- Stock up on basics like sunscreens, deodorants, and mosquito repellents before you board the flight. It can be prohibitively expensive to purchase them once you’re in the Galapagos.
- Make sure you pack hiking shoes, comfortable trousers, and full-sleeved tank tops while packing for The Galapagos Islands.
That’s it- everything you need to know about planning a land-based holiday in The Galapagos Islands. If you have any more questions, just leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you asap 🙂
Planning a trip to South America? We have loads of articles from our recent trip to this amazingly scenic continent
Are the Galapagos Islands on your bucket-list? If you have already been there, did you opt for a cruise or land-based trip? 😀