The Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO world-heritage site, and one of the best places in the world to see wildlife. Located about 1000km off continental Ecuador, they also take some time to get to. And there are also a few extra inspections you need to go through and fees you need to pay to get there. Here's our experience and the steps we followed to get to the Galapagos.
To get to the Galapagos Islands, you first need to get to Ecuador. Specifically, you need to first get to Quito, Ecuador or Guayaquil, Ecuador. We were flying in from Panama City, so we used COPA Airlines to fly us into Guayaquil. We flew in from Panama to Guayaquil the day before our flight to the Galapagos and spent the night at the Holiday Inn Airport Hotel, which offered a free shuttle that we arranged by emailing the hotel reception desk directly the day before.
Once you get to Quito or Guayaquil, you can then fly to the Galapagos Islands. You have the option of flying into one of the two main airports on the Galapagos Islands: Seymour Airport if you want to go to Santa Cruz Island, or San Cristobal Airport if you want to go to San Cristobal Island.
And you can use one of two airlines, LATAM Airlines or Avianca.
For our route, we chose to fly from Guayaquil to Santa Cruz on LATAM Airlines.
We arrived at the Guayaquil airport 2 hours before our flight. The first thing we did at the departure terminal was head to the Transit Control booth to get our TCT cards, based on the online form I had filled out the day before. The cards cost us $20 per person and they only accepted cash in US dollars., as Ecuador uses the US dollar as their currency.
The next step was to put our checked bag through an x-ray machine to make sure it didn't contain any prohibited items to the Galapagos. Once the bag was x-rayed, a zip tie was put on it so the bag couldn't be opened.
With that done, we checked our bags through with the airline, just like normal.
Once on the flight, the next steps in getting to the Galapagos started.
First, the plane was sprayed with a non-toxic chemical approved by the World Health Organization to make sure we weren't bringing in anything that can harm the Galapagos ecosystem.
Then, after about 2 hours of flying, the plane landed at Seymour Airport on Baltra Island. Baltra Island really only holds the airport - everything else is on the nearby island of Santa Cruz.
After getting off the plane, we stood in line to pay the Galapagos Entry Fee. The fee was $100 per person and they only accepted cash. I'm told there is a single ATM at the airport and it doesn't always work, so make sure you bring enough cash. I'm not sure what would happen if you couldn't pay the entry fee!
After paying the fee, our carry on baggage went through an xray machine just like our checked bag did back in Guayaquil.
Then, we could go to the luggage carousel to pick up our checked bag.
Next it was time for buses, boats, and taxis to get from the tiny Baltra Island, to town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island.
First, we boarded a bus for $5 per person. Again, cash only.
After a 10 minute bus ride, we got onto a ferry. That's another $1 per person, and yes, it's cash only.
A 5 minute ferry ride later, and we were on Santa Cruz Island! Now we needed to traverse the length of the island to get to the town of Puerto Ayora. There were plenty of taxis waiting to take us on this 45 minute drive. There was also an option to take a bus to Puerto Ayora for $5/person, then take a taxi or walk to our final destination, but we chose to have a taxi drive us the full distance for $25 (cash-only).
And after all that, we finally made it to our home for the next month! If you're wondering how much cash we needed to make the trip, here's the breakdown:
There is so much marine life to see here in the Galapagos. We've been snorkeling with sharks, turtles, sea lions, rays, marine iguanas, and lots and lots of tropical fish as we take boats out to Pinzon Island, Santa Fe Island, and the boat-access only beaches of Santa Cruz Island here in the Galapagos.
Here are our attempts at a selfie in the water:
If you're going snorkeling on a day tour, here are a few tips:
We went on a 4 day, 3 night adventure on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, with lots of snorkeling, a boat trip to the famous Los Tuneles lava tunnels, a hike up to a volcano and a walk through the lava fields, and a bike ride past the massive Galapagos land tortoises to get to the Wall of Tears.
Chris and I are long-term travelers and we rented an apartment on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos for a month. Our days are usually pretty normal but we broke out of our regular routine to go on a 4 day, 3 night adventure to Isabela Island.
Our adventure started by catching the 7am boat that took us from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island to Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island. We booked the ferry a few days prior for $30 per person. This didn't include the $1 water taxi rides or the $10 port fee.
We arrived on Isabela at 10:15 in the morning, but the hotel let us check in early. The room was pretty simple but it had these amazing views of the ocean.
We didn't book any tours on the first day, so we spent the time exploring on our own.
Our first stop was La Concha de Perla for some snorkeling. The sea lions liked it there too - there were so many of them! The snorkeling was excellent and we spotted some turtles, swimming marine iguanas, and tropical fish.
Then we headed off to spot the Galapagos Flamingos. The lagoon right here in town had a few and the lagoon about 20 minutes up the road had even more!
Day 2 of our Isabela Island Adventure started off with a tour of Los Tuneles. We were able to walk across the lava tunnels, watch the blue footed boobies do their mating dance, look down into the crystal clear blue waters, and snorkel with seahorses, sharks, tropical fish, and lots of sea turtles.
On day 3 of our adventure, we took a tour to the Chico Volcano. The 16km (10 mile) hike took us to the top of the massive volcano crater, then down through the lava fields. The terrain was really cool and I loved the cacti growing out the landscape.
On our last day, we didn't have to catch the ferry back to Santa Cruz until 3pm, so we had time to do a 15km (9 mile) round trip bike ride to the wall of tears. The ride itself was pretty cool. We went past these cool little beaches and there were plenty of the Galapagos Giant Tortoises hanging out on the side of the bike path. And the views at the end were amazing!
The Galapagos Islands are filled with amazing life both on land and in the sea. There are so many things to do here from snorkeling with sea turtles, sharks, rays, and tropical fish to hiking up to view points and through lava fields. But the Galapagos are also very expensive, have lots of regulations, and take a long time to get to. So was all the wildlife and scenery worth the time and expense?
And as full-time travelers, we like to live somewhere for a month and really get to know the area. So we rented an apartment in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. The apartment was clean and modern, but small and sparse. And for that we paid almost $2000 for the month, when our usual budget in other parts of the world is a max of about $1500. So we already broke our rental budget.
Getting here was also a big expense and required several flights.
Now let's talk about being on the Galapagos Islands themselves. There is a lot of wildlife to see here! Without even leaving the town of Puerto Ayora you can see tons of sea lions and marine iguanas sitting by the water. And by walking on to the pier you can see sharks, rays, and sea turtles. Tortuga Bay, which is one of the best beaches we've ever been to and walkable from Puerto Ayora, has hundreds of marine iguanas, which exist only in the Galapagos, and plenty of birds too. And on a short drive to the Santa Cruz highlands you'll see the very cool Galapagos Giant Tortoises, some of which are over 100 years old.
If you go snorkeling, you'll be able to see all the sea lions, sharks, rays, and sea turtles I previously mentioned up close, along with lots of beautiful and brightly coloured tropical fish. There was one snorkel spot we went to that had sea turtles everywhere we looked.
By going on hikes, you'll also see plenty of birds including the famous blue footed boobie and beautiful pink flamingos, depending on the island.
So now that you're dreaming about all the amazing wildlife and scenery you'll see, here's one important thing to know: Much of it is in restricted areas and you can only see it if you're on a tour. Yes, you can definitely see some of it on your own, but to really experience the Galapagos, you must go with a guide. So how can you save a bit of money? Book in-person, not online. Online booking platforms can make the cost 4 times higher than it needs to be. For example, a volcano hike on Isabela should run about $40 per person. But some online platforms will charge over $180 for the same tour. Check out our video above for more money saving tips and the best ways to book a tour.
Another thing to know about the tours and Galapagos island life is that safety is not to the same standards you might expect if you were in the US for example. These are a few things we noticed:
Moving on, let's talk about the sun. The Galapagos Islands are right on the equator and the UV radiation is extreme here. Keeping up with putting on sun screen to prevent a burn can be challenging, especially if you're in the water. So the best thing to do is to cover up, way more than you think is necessary. I started out just wearing a rash guard and bikini bottom when snorkeling. I put on and reapplied sun screen to my legs but it wasn't enough and I learned my lesson the hard way and got a burn on my bum. After my first snorkeling trip I either wore a full wet suit or went snorkeling in my yoga pants and rash guard. And if you look at the guides, you'll see that they also know this and wear lots of sun protective clothing in the water. So cover up - the sun on the equator is no joke.
Because you're on an island, goods are difficult to come by. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not always available, sun screen is very expensive and the choice is limited, and even your favourite beverage might not be available.
The Galapagos are expensive, most places need to be explored with a guide, safety requirements are low, and goods are difficult to find. So is it worth coming? The marine life, land animals and scenery are spectacular. And it's the birthplace of Darwin's theory of evolution, which is pretty cool. I'm very glad we came and I think it's worth visiting once in your life, if you have the time and money for it. We would recommend a shorter stay and focusing your money spent in the Galapagos on tours, instead of on accommodations and food, so you really get to experience what the Galapagos have to offer.
Overall, the Galapagos offer a unique experience, with animals you won't find anywhere else in the world and some amazing opportunities for snorkeling and pristine beaches, but we recommend keeping your visit short, and watching your budget!