Few places loom as large in the naturalist’s mind as the Galápagos. To me, they had reached near mythical status as the volcanic islands that Darwin had visited, teeming with endemic species that had no fear of humans. Every year I was in Ecuador on fieldwork I toyed with the idea of heading out to see them, but I didn’t have enough money to go on one of the boat trips; and I didn’t want to feel like I was trapped on the inhabited islands while other people were off seeing wondrous things. In the end, my PhD got handed in last June, and I still hadn’t made it to the fabled islands. I didn’t want to waste my last opportunity – so, as soon as the field course I was teaching on finished, I headed off to the islands with a friend, a guidebook I’d found a the research station, and some uncertain expectations. Very quickly I realised that my misgivings about staying on land were completely misfounded- they were everything I imagined and more.
We had an amazing time travelling around the three inhabited islands you can get to on the public ferries, and ended up with a sightings list that which would look respectable next to anyone who had travelled by boat. We swum with marine iguanas, black tip reef sharks and green turtles, chilled on a beach with a 50:50 sea lion to people ratio, walked among the famous finches, and swung in a hammock on paradise beaches as pelicans cruised by, skimming the aquamarine sea. We took the islands at our own pace, and had the opportunity to linger anywhere we wanted to. What’s more, most of the things we got up to were absolutely free – in the whole of the 8 days we spent there, we only paid for three trips out from the main islands. I’ve put up some general tips and how-to’s for visiting the Galápagos without a cruise at the bottom of this post- but decided to split up our time into three mini guides for each of the islands (which are here, here and here). I have, however, also reserved this first post to dedicate to what is possibly the most iconic species on the archipelago (they seem to be on the most t-shirts anyway)- the Galápagos tortoise.
Although you can theoretically see giant tortoises on several of the islands, most people see them in the highlands of Santa Cruz. We decided to kill two birds with one stone, and build a trip in to see them while making our way over to Puerto Ayora from the airport, which is out on the tiny island of Baltra. We paid around $40 for a taxi to take us from the small ferry terminal on Santa Cruz to take us to Puerto Ayora via the lava tunnels and Rancho Primicias, which had an entrance fee of $4. As its name suggests, Rancho Primicias is, well, a ranch, so you won’t get those picture postcard views of the tortoises wondering round a mist-shrouded caldera. The tortoises are, however, still completely wild, and wonder in and out of the ranch to wallow in its mud pools, graze on its grass, and generally go about the business of being the astounding creatures that they are. My two most immediate impressions were (1) these guys are big – like, half-a-ton big, (2) they are really messy eaters – no finesse whatsoever- and (3) they all look remarkably like grumpy grannies.
You’re encouraged to walk a loop around the ranch which supposedly takes 20 minutes, but we spent well over an hour admiring the tortoises plodding around. My favourites were the ones in the mud wallows, which would occasionally raise their heads à la creature from the black lagoon and cast a glinting eye over the scene. They look so much like something you’d sooner associate with a picture in a dinosaur book than something you could see in real life that I was continually taken aback when one would confirm it was alive by hoisting itself onto its legs and setting off on a slow trundle.
Something of an unexpected bonus to the place were its finches, which, as we’d just arrived, we were seeing for the first time and got very excited about. One of the most perpetrated myths about the Galápagos was that it was the finches that first and foremost got Darwin’s mind racing about the possibility of evolution by natural selection. In fact, he only realised they were separate species years after the Voyage of the Beagle, and had hardly labelled any of them properly anyway- its the islands’ mockingbirds that should really have a lot of the credit. Finches are, however, the subject of an amazing long term project in the Galápagos by Peter and Rosemary Grant, which is the subject of The Beak of the Finch- one of the best books on evolution out there. Either way, watching these miniature science celebrities hopping around and foraging in the grass was definitely one of the ‘I can’t believe I’m actually here moments’.
GALAPAGOS WITHOUT A CRUISE 101
1. There are four inhabited islands on the Galapagos that you can visit and stay on independently- Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristóbal, and Floreana. If you want to go anywhere else, you have to go on a day trip with a guide, or go on a cruise. You can get between inhabited islands using the ferries, which cost around $30 each way (though you might be able to get a discount for a return journey). They can be booked from any of the tour operators on the islands.
2. Getting to the Galápagos involves a lot of taxes. You have to pay $20 when you get to the airport in Quito/Guayaquil, and the $100 park entrance fee once you arrive on the islands. Make sure you have it in cash before you head out. On the bright side, you can also get a Galápagos stamp in your passport if you ask the person at immigration nicely. It has a hammerhead shark on it 🙂
3. There are two airports– Baltra (GPS), which serves Santa Cruz, and San Cristóbal (SCY). If you’re not on the islands for a long time, I’d recommend flying into one airport and flying out of the other, to save time spent on ferries. Getting to and from Baltra airport is a bit of a pain, involving buses and a ferry across the Canal de Itabaca from Santa Cruz. San Cristóbal airport is a 10 min taxi ride away from Baquerizo Moreno, the main town.
4. There’s loads of free things to do on the inhabited islands. We loved that we were able to take things at our own pace and linger over whatever we wanted to, and often the wildlife was just as good as that which you’d see on a tour (in fact, many of the first stops on the cruise ships are things you can see for free if you’re staying on the islands). However, bear in mind that it’s way harder to get to the more remote islands, and, on day trips, you inevitably waste more time getting to and from wherever you’re heading.
5. Plan your day trips a couple of days in advance. Having spent most of my time in Ecuador in the laid back Oriente, where it’s pretty easy to rock up and arrange accommodation and trips for the next day, we got caught out a couple of times on the Galápagos. Day trips and ferries between the islands do fill up, so maybe take a less laid-back approach to your planning than we did.
6. Bring your own snorkel. This is presumably provided for you if you do a cruise and is included in most day tours, but if you’re DIYing like us there will be a few places where you’ll want to avoid the faff of having to find a hire shop, or avoid the worry of whether you’ll find one that’ll fit. I got mine from Decathlon for a grand total of £10, and it was one of the two most useful things I bought for the trip.
7. Bring a set of dive booties/ reef shoes. There’s a lot of cool places to swim and snorkel on the Galapagos, but, unsurprisingly for a set of young, volcanic islands, there’s lava rocks everywhere, and they are sharp. We were never without our reef shoes when we went out exploring, and it was a breeze to slip them on and stop having to worry about cutting our feet while swimming. Again, Decathlon is your friend here. It’s easy to get a good pair for under £10.
8. Bring a light scarf. Invaluable for keeping warm on the windy ferry crossings and keeping yourself covered after you’ve been snorkelling and all the sun cream’s come off.