Travel to the Galapagos

(continuer en français) – Last updated: October 9, 2020

Galápagos means tortoise in Spanish; both giant tortoises and giant turtles that can be found there, more generally the proximity with the animals are the main reasons to visit the Galápagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, about a thousand kilometres west of the South American coast. A trip to the Galapagos Islands therefore begins at the airport of Quito or Guayaquil, respectively the political and economic capitals of Ecuador, which took control of the Galapagos in 1832, two years after its independence. From Quito, most flights make a stopover in Guayaquil. A ‘direct’ flight is one where passengers are allowed to stay on the plane during the stopover.

Travellers to the Galapagos Islands enjoy preferential treatment. Not only do they have to queue for check-in, but they have to do it twice. Between the two, they are sent to buy an access card to the islands. In 2015 it cost 20 USD, cash only, a few months earlier it was 10 USD. Then the luggage has to go through a special scanner, before finally getting the boarding pass. It is better to plan a little extra time.

Note: there is no more national currency in Ecuador, the US dollar has taken over since 2000. However, change is also given in centavos.

The archipelago is composed of about a hundred emerged lands, about twenty islands reach a significant size. Only four are inhabited, three have an airport. If the official capital is on the island San Cristóbal, most of the activity is concentrated on the island Santa Cruz and in the city of Puerto Ayora.

Most tourist flights land on Baltra Island. Upon arrival, a new line forms at the entrance of the terminal, this is to pay the entrance fee to the national park, another tax, 100 dollars, cash only of course. In exchange, the passport receives a stamp drawing a giant tortoise.

Baltra Island served as a US air base during the Second World War. It participated in the advanced protection of the Panama Canal, among other missions. There are still some traces of structures from this period. There are no dwellings on this island, apart from the airport, there are only two piers, one for cruise yachts which embark and disembark their clients directly here, the other allows to reach Santa Cruz Island with a short ferry ride.

From the terminal, a shuttle bus transports passengers to the pier about 3 kilometres away. This shuttle is now subject to a fee for individual travellers, USD 5, while those travelling with an organized tour have this cost paid for them. To cross the two hundred meters of the Itabaca Canal, several small ferries regularly make the round trip, leaving as soon as they are full, USD 1 per person.

Once arrived on Santa Cruz Island, there is still to cross the entire island, over a distance of 40 kilometers. There are shuttles, but their operation remains very theoretical, they always seem to wait for the landing of the next flight. This is not innocent, as taxi drivers take advantage of the opportunity to poach passengers for about twenty dollars a ride, the price can be shared by up to four people.

Hotel or cruise?

Traditionally a trip to the Galapagos was conceived as a cruise, which could last a two-week period to have time to visit all the islands. For these cruises, do not imagine liners of several hundred passengers, the restrictive conditions of visit do not allow it. These are large yachts with at most a few dozen passengers. In addition to the cost, the restrictive format of the formula in terms of duration, promiscuity and organisation, corresponds less and less to the modern standards of individualism which is fuelling the growth of international tourism.

The offer is diversifying with cruises of a few days concentrating on only some of the islands. This can be combined with a land-based stay. It is also becoming more and more common to be satisfied with hotels in the three main inhabited islands and to arrange day trips to nearby islands. Connections between the inhabited islands are made twice a day by speedboats, taking between 2 and 3 hours, and cost USD 35 per crossing.

For example, day trips from Puerto Ayora allow to visit the islands of Santa Fe, Floreana, Plaza Sur, Seymour Norte or Bartolomé. This can only be done in the context of organized visits with an official guide, a permit issued by the National Park being necessary for each land access. Usually a snorkeling stop is provided during the day. The cost is between 100 and 150 USD depending on the distance to the destination.

Given the diversity of accommodation, it is often more advantageous to opt for a land-based stay. It also allows to enjoy local life, such as shops and restaurants. However, this does not mean that nature is far away, as it is surprisingly present even in the towns.

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