4 Day Galapagos Islands Trip
Howe to: book a Galapagos Islands trip last minute
I had been travelling in South America since March 2013 and in the July I was coming to the last couple of months of my trip. My friend from home wanted to come out and visit me, at which point I was in Ecuador.
I had always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands since I had become fascinated by David Attenborough at a very young age. I hadn’t really thought about how much it would cost and I must admit I did get a fright when I started researching into the prices. But I also thought, when will I next find myself in Ecuador? I knew I was going to be working in Colombia for my last 6 weeks so the money I would save there could go towards this Galapagos Islands trip.
Where to find the travel agencies
Mark and I set aside a Saturday afternoon to wander up and down Avenida Amazonias in Mariscal, Quito. This street is renowned for having numerous travel agencies for Galapagos Islands trips. The first office we went to could offer us a cruise for a few days time but was well over $1500 each.
The next couple of offices down, we found Travel Adventures Ecuador. I didn’t expect to book the third cruise we’d seen but this sounded like a great deal. We booked Archipello II for two days time at a discounted price of $1,200 each for 4 days. The original price was around $1,800 each. Due to there being a lot of space left, it seemed they were as desperate to sell us a cabin as much as we wanted to go.
The office I found in Quito was Travel Adventures Ecuador: N23- y, Av. Río Amazonas, Quito 170524, Ecuador
What is included in the total price
A flight from Quito – Guayaquil – Baltra and a return flight from Santa Cruz Island were included in the total price. It also included all of our meals, which were incredible, snorkelling equipment, guided tours on the islands and lots of information. We mainly visited the Southern Islands and the itinerary is similar to one I found on this website.
The price excluded the Galapagos National Park entrance fee, which was USD 100 per person and a Transit Control Card at USD 20 per person. These prices are from 2013, so they may have increased since.
If you are flexible and ready to fly out immediately or can hang around for a couple of days for a good deal, booking last minute could work out perfectly. I have found that you do get what you pay for so anything less than $1,000 I wouldn’t expect as good a quality.
What I learned from my Galapagos Islands trip
Day one (8th July 2013):
Waddling around the airport with a stash of cash stored in our bulging fanny packs, we soon realised that getting to the airport 3 hours early was highly unnecessary. You must take cash with you to the Galapagos Islands as ATMs are practically non-existent.
The Sunday afternoon prior to our flight was spent stressing about printing out our immigration form. We hadn’t managed to print it out and I sheepishly asked the immigration officer at the airport if this was a problem. Of course not, we were in Latin America, nothing is done in advance.
Stocking up on a hearty English muffin breakfast, which was more of a cheesy omelette between a stiff, stale muffin, we waited for our gate to be announced. I’m following the ways of Mark and not of my Dad. Dad would have had us hanging around the gate printed on our passes one hour before departure. Not even allowing us time to get a take out coffee just so he can be the first on the plane.
But why? Why do you want to sit and wait for all the incompetent people who can’t figure out where their seat number is or awkwardly stuff their bag in the overhead storage. Why not just casually sip on a cafe con leche while people squeeze on to the buses and sit in a stuffy plane you’re planned to be on for the near future.
Welcome to Galapagos Islands!
Arriving to Baltra Island, we found our guide, Giovanni and Jimmy, the panga boat driver. He advised us that some people had missed their flight, meaning there could only be 3 of us. Not ideal, as our other passenger was a grey haired outdoor adventurist from Alaska. He actually turned out to be very interesting and full of stories.
There was our Archipello II boat bobbing in the murky water, surrounded by grey clouds. But Dan the American assured us that because he had such good weather scuba diving here over the last few days, we must get some sun…
We greeted our crew and were told two others were coming, to make us a group of 5. Relief! Not sure how long exactly me and Mark could have been entertained by Dan.
Mark and I were placed in the ‘Penguin room’, which suited Mark well. Everyone in Quito now knows of Mark’s penguin riding a uni-cycle tattoo, after revealing it in a John Lennon themed bar. The two other girls arrived and were lovely. Jamie was very outgoing and got on with Dan really well. And Jackie was quite the opposite, very quiet and sweet. They created a lot of atmosphere on this large boat.
North Seymour Island
After all the normal initiation meetings, our first excursion began. We were snorkelling off North Seymour island. It took some courage to get into the water as Luigi had already seen a shark when he got in. Somehow the idea of jumping into water where you know a shark is lurking, was not appealing.
However, I made it into the water, first seeing a beautiful floating sea turtle. It was the first one I’d ever seen that close up. Dan got excited that he’d spotted a small sting ray (rayo del sarten), but in the back of my head I was waiting for this shark to reappear.
I swam within schools of fish, feeling them glide against my leg. Mark got the fright of his life when a sea lion sped past him, shouting ‘shit’ through his mask! I was thrilled to be this close, the sea lion was rapid and making circles round me, sometimes slowing down to take in what he was seeing.
In the afternoon, near to sunset we went for a walk around the island. Just chilling on the lava rocks, being splashed by the waves, lay a few black marine iguanas. They were a lot smaller than I had imagined. The males have longer spikes along their spine compared to the females. With the marine iguanas there is only one species but 7 races. These change colour depending on the type of seaweed they eat, which changes on each island. They also vary in size. The type we saw on North Seymour was a lot smaller than the ones compared to Western Isabela.
We also saw laying in the middle of the path was a long orange land iguana, a bigger species to the marine one. These are more endangered and kept in research stations to be introduced to Baltra on Santa Cruz island.
Bird life on North Seymour
North Seymour was an island where blue footed boobies nest. We saw a flat piece of land where they were many of these birds. Some were with their new chicks, and some bachelors were still trying their best to woo a lady one. To attract a lady bird, they have a dry whistle sound and they always lift their blue padded feet and spread out their wings. The ladies respond with a deep ‘waaa’ – like those annoyingly whiny Hornbills in Africa.
The male boobies have smaller pupils than the females and usually darker feet, but this is not always the case.
Friggits were another type of bird that are common to the Galápagos Islands. Giovanni told us that there are 2 types of this bird, which you can distinguish by the colour of their feathers behind their head. Ones with a green tint, white face and brown chest are called Minor friggit birds. The Magnificent friggit boasts a purple tint, white face and chest. These birds don’t dive to catch fish as they don’t have the oils in their feathers for the salt water. They climb to 2,000 metres in the clouds to clean their feathers with the water vapour. They swoop down and elegantly scoop the fish in their beaks.
Beware of the Sea Lions
Our last animal to see on our walk obstructed our path, something these creatures are seen doing throughout the island. Sea lions can be seen everywhere here. These are different to seals, which I continuously mistook them for. Firstly sea lions have ears which seals do not. Also sea lions have two front flippers which enable them to waddle around the town and climb up to the piers.
The alpha male makes the most noise, where as the pups will ‘bah’ likes lambs. Other male sea lions will attempt to fight the alpha to take control of their area. The fallen hide in coves to recuperate and wait for the alpha male to weaken so they can fight once more and take control.
Back on board, taking a shower on a rocky boat was very difficult. Luckily they provided us with rails to cling on to! If you suffer from sea sickness, a small catamaran is probably not the best idea. For someone who didn’t even know they suffered from this, I’m sure anyone would suffer nausea when eating prawns and being jolted around. 8pm came along and all we could do was go to bed.
Day two (9th July 2013):
25 million years ago the old Galapagos got pushed down under water when the Nasca tectonic plate submerged. This formed volcanoes to rise and create islands; the new Galapagos. On Bartolomme you can see the lava tunnels that have collapsed and the old lava flows. One had been crushed by tourists when there hadn’t been any set paths. These trails are really good for preserving the surface and you can see all the untouched animal trails.
The new Galapagos is only 5 million years old, San Cristobal being the oldest one. The islands became part of Ecuador in 1832 and Darwin arrived in 1835, staying for only 21 days. He discovered all different kinds of species. The Galapagos now as a national park is only 54 years. Before then there was much more of a civilisation. Now there are only 25,000 people who live on the islands, helping together to conserve this magical and extraordinary place.
In the 1500’s pirates found the islands and anchored here after they had stolen gold from Peru, probably from the Incas. They introduced species from the mainland such as rats, cows and goats. To feed, the pirates hunted the cows and goats. The rats were easily exterminated but the new species caused a disturbance to the endemic ones: such as the penguins. For example there were 14 endemic species, but now there are only 10. One of which we saw today, the smallest; Galápagos penguin.
On the island we saw a red faced lizard, a small snake curled up under the stairs and sea lion poo, which Dan walked in after being warned a million times. We reached the top of the trail, offering us a stunning view of the pinnacle and Santiago island. We also saw a collapsed volcano which was a round circle of dark rocks in the ocean.
Coming back down, you could imagine the lava pushing its way down the island, destroying and fossilising anything in its path. Only leaving a dull and rusty collapsed crater, making way for new species to create a home.
Snorkelling in the Galapagos Islands
After a satisfying breakfast, bread and lurpack butter being a luxury, we were ready to be thrown back into the water. Luigi, the owner of both Archipells assured us we would see sharks. I felt excited but not too overly keen to be sharing their waters. I was once again the last one to jump in, but for other reasons than the water being cold. It’s the jumping into the unknown, the deep darkness where anything can be waiting for you.
We were in the water for maybe 15 minutes when Luigi shouted SHARK. I was anxious to find it and when I did it was fast approaching me. It stared at me with its googly eyes and slithered its way towards me. I’m saying “shit shit shit” but I know any sharp movements and I was brunch. I froze and it just glided away, unbothered by our presence and vanished That was definitely the highlight of today’s snorkelling. We also saw schools of fish and an abundance of multicoloured starfish. Once we were out of the water we could see a sea lion playing with a boobie but it was the stalking hawk that Giovanni wanted to follow.
Foolishly none of us put on our flip flops to avoid the burning sand and we whimpered like little girls, skurtling up the sand banks. We had come to a sea turtle nesting ground, freshly stocked with eggs. We could see some remains of broken egg shells where the awaiting hawk lingered for more to appear.
My attention was more on the 10-15 tintoneras – black tipped sharks who were surfing in the ankle deep water. A dead fish floated beside them but they weren’t interested. Their fins broke the waves revealing how many there were. I edged a little closer towards them until one suddenly sped up near me, shaking my confidence. I could have watched them all day, I was almost tempted to grab a snorkel and join them.
Our next excursion was to Isla Santiago where we followed the story of a lava flow. From what I understood/remember, the lava came from a broken tunnel of the volcano and erupted, spilling tonnes of lava 2 metres deep. There were no ash remains on top of the lava as it did not come from a main eruption. The lava has formed over the older island, destroying any vegetation. The lava did not reach everywhere on the island and around the edge is what used to be there thousands of years ago, such as broken oxygenated lava rocks, sediment and ash from the previous eruption.
The most recent eruption here on the island was 1890, so the surface of this island is still very new and no vegetation has yet grown. Except for the lava cactus, which grows on top of a previous one. The lava has cracked due to the pressure from underneath. Under lies flowing lava and on top of that are older layers of solidified lava, too heavy to be supported by each layer. This causes pressure which makes them crack and separate.
Snorkelling with an abundance of marine life
Once the lava stopped we came to a beach, where we had an amazing snorkelling experience. With a nippy wind and freshly cold sea water, we were a little reluctant to go snorkelling. Once Mark had spotted a penguin swimming around we were definitely going in. At the start it was just me and him searching for marine life when the others joined to watch a very curious sea lion.
We had been with this sea lion for a while. He stared at us intently, we feared he might attack but in reality he was just as curious as we were. With the last few shots of my disposable camera, I captured the moment of us floating around with a grazing sea turtle and an energetic sea lion.
We then spotted the penguin as he caught air and we were off to follow it. One last shot on the camera, this one was for Mark. We hung around while he dipped and dived, catching the occasional fish. A clingy Parotfish chased the penguin to catch any failures he might make. He sped off in the distance, with the cling-on fish as his shadow in the depth.
Suffering another batch of sea sickness, we took some Dramamine, supplied by Jackie and our drowsiness took over and 8.15pm was one of our latest nights.
Day three (10th July 2013):
Another brutal wake up call at 05.45. I was so tempted to keep curled up in my bed, but we both slowly got up to get ready for our morning walk. We got into the panga to get to Isla Tintoreras (meaning white tipped shark). We were greeted by a sleepy sea lion, who didn’t budge when we landed.
Here we saw a lot of coral pieces on the ground. These were washed up after they died when the sea water temperature rose to almost 30C a hundred years ago. They break down and erode into pieces of sediment, which make up the sand and therefore beaches.
Volcanic beaches are made up of broken up lava rocks and coral pieces. You can see the start of a beach on the east side of the island where a heap of marine iguanas were chilling and sliming on top of one another. There are still whole coral pieces, which look like mini bones and you can see where they have started to erode and become tiny sand granules.
A few grumpy sea lions lay in the way of our trail. Being the protected Galápagos Islands, we could only stick to the designated paths as to not disturb any habitats or possible nesting grounds. In this case it was safer to go around the sea lions rather than try and get too close. One gnarled and showed its teeth….he wasn’t smiling.
On this island there was a sheltered cove and a channel where resting tintoneras hid. A playful sea lion bit one of the sharks tails but got no response. I’d like to have seen the response if one of us were to get in! This area was also a kindergarten for baby marine iguanas, where an eager stalk waited for one to slip.
Snorkelling with giant sea turtles
Round by Isabela, the ocean is a tranquil turquoise, inviting us in to swim with the animals that enjoy this clear water. After breakfast we slid in to some shallow waters hidden in another cove. I was slightly apprehensive to go in when a little puckerfish started to attack my ankles. I suddenly felt unwelcome. The little bugger left a couple of marks on my legs. Nevertheless I went in alone, always on the look out for sharks. I followed a prehistoric looking Iguana, slithering along the water like a mini crocodile. Although they only eat seaweed, I still felt threatened.
Giovanni was in search for some resting sea turtles. This cove is where the sea turtles come to rest. I’m not sure how much rest they get as tourists come splashing by disturbing them. In this spot lay around 12 turtles, some were ginormous. The male sea turtles have long thick tails, which look like a third leg. The females don’t have this. Following them up and down, catching a breath as they brought their head up to the surface was a magical moment. As well as floating a long side them as they rested. Mark spotted one whose behind had risen before its head with the current, lifting his back end in the air.
This water was one of the coldest so we didn’t stay in for much longer. The current that flows in the Galapagos in July is the Humboldt current. Bringing over the cold water and with it more marine life, including sharks. On the west side of Isabela there is the Cromwell current, supplying the perfect conditions for whales.
In the afternoon we went to see the Giant tortoises. In the past there used to be 14 species on the islands but after constant hunting there now only remains 10. Lonesome George was the last of his kind, a unique species on Pinta island, and was found by rangers. In 1972 he was taken to the Charles Darwin research station.
He was put in a pen with 2 females from Wolf volcano but the eggs were wrong and didn’t hatch as the hybrid breed couldn’t survive. He was the last of his kind and died in 2012 aged around 150 years old.
Preserving the Giant Tortoise species
Out of the 10 species the biggest type is the ‘Dome’ tortoise which are found in the highlands of Santa Cruz. Then there are ‘Intermediate’ in San Cristobal who can be found roaming wild.
The ‘Saddlebacks’ are the smallest of the tortoises. This translates from “galapago“, which is an old Spanish term for horse saddle. It is a term that came from a Spanish bishop who was sailing from Panama to Peru. He got lost and found the Galapagos. From the ship, he only saw the saddleback tortoises who were grazing in the lowlands. The term ‘galapago‘ gives the name to the archipelago of islands.
Any new hatches are under inspection by birds who prey on them. Many eggs are brought to the centre and kept there for 2-4 years. The Dome tortoises are usually kept in captivity. They are released in the lowlands, where they were originally collected from when they were around 5 years old. Once released they start walking upwards to the highlands to live there and breed when they are 25 years old.
Day four (10th July 2013):
We said our goodbyes to the crew with a friendly picture of the gang in the morning and headed over to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to see more tortoises.
Santa Cruz Island
500 years ago pirates and sailors killed over 200,000 tortoises for meat and oil. The males weighed 250kg and females 150kg so they collected more females and young ones as they couldn’t carry the heavier ones. Rats ate any eggs left in the nests, diminishing the population.
Now in the centre they collect the eggs and keep them at 29.5C, which is the temperature for females. The perfect temperature for males is at 28C. 90% of eggs are females to breed with Diego and the other males of the research station. In the adaptation pen 1,300 young tortoises are mixed together. The different species are kept together but they are released when they are 5 years old before they try to breed later in life. The rings on their shells keep growing which expands the shell. When they are older it no longer needs to grow and the shell is then smooth.
This was the last stop on our tour, saying our goodbyes to Giovanni we were now to make it on our own.
Galapagos Islands trip solo
Our original hostal, Los Amigos was full, so we resorted to the next cheapest looking one we could find: Hostal Elizabeth. First impressions were bleak, but for the price of $20 we had separate rooms with a double bed each, a private bathroom and I had the luxury of a TV. The appearance of the hostal didn’t bode well but for something cheap it did the trick. N.B cheap being less than $50 for a b&b.
We visited every single souvenir shop of the first block in search of family gifts. Everything seemed to cost around the same. T-shirts being $15 and playing cards being $5. When skimping on the accommodation, it meant we could splash on last minute gifts I hadn’t managed to do in the last 4 months.
As we had the afternoon free, we decided to do an activity of our own. We had been told that the beach we wanted to explore was un-swimmable and 2 km away from the town. But Tortuga Bay turned out to be a hidden paradise, a lagoon tucked behind deadly currents and vicious waves. We lay down our new towels from the boat and found this guy next to us…
We had adopted an American/Puerto Rican guy who was coincidently staying at our hostel and he accompanied us to the beach from the entrance to the trail. He took out a kayak in search of what had become a novelty for us…the marine iguana. He was a very excitable guy on his own adventure around Peru and Ecuador, collecting fellow travellers on his way and enjoying recounting each others stories.
We left him at the beach and we treked back home as we had missed our usual three course lunch and were feeling peckish. I found some chocolate milk and a breaded plantain stuffed with fish. After rebooting, we took to the shops once more. We did all of them. Starting from the end of the main avenue, we checked in each store that sold the exact same thing, only varying in colour and size availability. It took us a while to be successful, but after trailing around I treat myself, Mum and Dad. Elliott, my brother, was the problem. Was he too old to be wearing ‘I love boobies’ t-shirt? I didn’t think Dad was…
Trying the local seafood
At 7pm it was time for happy hour at The Rock bar, where we reunited with our new pal Adrian. For very well respected personal reasons, he let us have our Cuba libres as he had a coke. The place we were at was a little touristy and not what we should have been experiencing on the Galapagos. Thankfully Adrian pushed us to try elsewhere, a little more fresh and local.
Throughout the day we had spotted a local fish market; the locals included a handful of pelicans and 2 hungry sea lions…
By the time we got there, it looked like all the fish had been taken so we asked a few local women where we could try some local cuisine. A lady pointed us in the direction of the Main Street leading to Bahia Tortuga. The road was closed to cars and instead full of tables and smoking grills. We picked one which served it all, and to our taste.
On the right hand side of the road, we found a grilled named Galapagos. With a friendly picture of lonesome George, we were able to pick what we wanted, how we wanted it and what sauce we could have it cooked in. To feed my pulpo addiction, I requested grilled pulpo cooked in a garlic sauce. For only $10, it was perfect.
It was our latest night of our Galapagos Islands trip and we packed up for our flight back to Quito in the morning.
If you have any questions or want to share your experiences, please feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below.