In the winter of 2012, a friend and I returned from a trip to Washington DC, and decided that we were thirsty for more adventure. “Let’s go to the Galapagos!” My friend suggested. Of course, as a budding ecologist, the idea of going to the Galapagos felt like a dream. A place of near mythic historical importance, and home to innumerable species found nowhere else in the world. All that being said, my initial reaction to such a suggestion was, “We can’t go there.”
We’re too young. Too poor. Too inexperienced… my list of excuses went on. My friend and I let the idea drop for a while. Then, in a few stolen moments in my office, I discovered a blog about seeing the Galapagos while on a budget. Suddenly, I realized that it wasn’t impossible to visit this place. There were those who had gone before, set on exploring on their own. I found myself feeling determined to make it there. I sent the blog entry to my friend, and planning began.
We bought our plane tickets in February, and our trip was in early May. For most of the time inbetween, we settled for reserving our hotels and doing a little background research on the islands themselves. In retrospect, I believe that our trip would have gone much smoother had we done more research and planning in that interim period. Our trip to the Galapagos was wonderful, the place is so utterly unique that I felt like I was on a different planet at times, and the people there are more kind and welcoming than I could have imagined. All that being said, I have never been on a more stressful and nerve-wracking trip in all my life.
For one, we discovered mere weeks before we left that Guayaquil, a city in Ecuador where we had an over night layover on the way to the Galapagos, and a eight hours layover on the way out, was one of the most dangerous cities in the country. There have been efforts to improve things in recent years, but people (especially white tourists who are believed to be rich) still get kidnapped, robbed and beaten if they get into the wrong taxi there. Being out at night in most parts of the city is also a serious risk for visitors, and both of our layovers where in the evening. Unfortunately, despite our research, we were not able to figure out a safe way to see any of the city on either of our layovers. We did learn, however, that many hotels in the airport area offer shuttles for those visitors who are worried about taxi travel. We took shuttles both times we were in Guayaquil, and both of the places that we stayed were very accommodating and felt very safe.
Furthermore, many of the things that we were hoping to do while in the Galapagos had very little easily accessible information on the internet. We were uncertain about interisland travel, about where and when we could get our boat tickets. We began reaching out whenever we could, but by then, there just wasn’t enough time for us to get comfortable with what we were about to do.
However, the time came, and we both boarded our respective planes to meet in Miami, and from there, leave for Ecuador together. We spent one night in Miami, and one night in Quayaquil before we reached the Galapagos. As previously mentioned, travelers planning on passing through Guayaquil should do some background reading on the city in order to keep safe, and be able to plan possible excursions during longer layovers.
There are two primary airports in the Galapagos, one on Baltra (a small island to the north of Santa Cruz) and one on San Cristobal. It is possible to fly into one airport and out of another, which I believe would have been a good option for us, had our trip been longer. Planes fly out of both Quito and Guayaquil for the Galapagos.
I don’t know the specifics of the Quito airport, since I didn’t experience it, but I’m sure there are key similarities between the process of flying out of Guayaquil and Quito. First, flights to the Galapagos are considered national flights, since the Galapagos is a part of Ecuador. Once in the national terminal of the Guayaquil airport, look for a yellow sign indicating Galapagos inspection and customs (unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what the sign said). Here you will have your bags inspected for the first time, and then you will pay $10 per person for transit papers for the Galapagos. Do not try to check in before doing this, as the airlines will not let you do so until your paper work is in order, and you risk having to wait in multiple lines if they are forced to turn you away.
Once checked in, security is no big deal, and the national gate area is comfortably small. Be aware that as of May 2013, there were no comprehensive information boards about flights, and gates were announced shortly before planes arrived. Many announcements were in Spanish only, and one needs to pay attention in order not to miss the flight out.
If landing in Baltra, the following description will be helpful. The Baltra airport is small, but the Galapagos has its own customs that travelers must pass through. Here, you must present your passport, transit papers, and a $100 CASH entrance fee. After paying, you will be given the stub of your transit papers, and this should be saved for passage off of the islands. Your bags will be inspected one more time before you leave the airport building.
Once outside, you will be ushered into a bus (which is free) and this will take you across the island to a ferry crossing. Then, with the crowd of people from your flight, you will move from the bus to a ferry boat. They WILL collect a fee for this ferry. I believe it was $0.80-$1.00. Being prepared for this makes the journey a little smoother. Once you are on Santa Cruz, you will find yourself in a large parking lot filled with white pick up trucks and buses. The white pick ups are Galapagos taxis which will cost about $18 to take to town, and the buses cost $1.80. In either case, the ride from the ferry into Puerto Ayora takes about 45 minutes to an hour depending on your mode of travel. Of course, a taxi can take you right to your accommodations, but if you don’t speak a lot of Spanish it is prudent to have the address of where you want to go prepared to show to your driver. For the bus, there will be several stops made in the city, but you will most likely want to wait to get off until it gets into the main square of Puerto Ayora. This is right along the coast, overlooks a volleyball court, and is conveniently surrounded by taxis and places that sell boat passage to Isabela and San Cristobol.
From here, you will most likely want to take a taxi to your place of stay. We had no problems getting around on foot once we knew the lay of the town, but getting to your accommodations for the first time will be near impossible on your own as most of the streets lack street signs, and thorough maps of Puerto Ayora are hard to come by outside of the Galapagos. Taxi rides in town are $1.
For those who plan on taking boat trips to the other islands, buying tickets a day in advance is highly recommended, because the speed boats are pretty small and they do fill up. These tickets can be bought from establishments in the main square, and some accommodations will help you buy tickets if you are uncertain. The ones we purchased were $30 each way, but some places appear to charge $35 as well. There is a set schedule for the boats leaving the islands, and those travelling should arrive 30 minutes prior to departure. You will need to check in with the company taking you across, and your bags will be inspected once again before you can leave. Also, you will board the speed boats via water taxis which charge $0.60, so once again, be prepared to pay.
Finally, be aware that there is a $30.00 tax to leave Ecuador, and this will need to be paid before you check in for your flight out of the country.