Ok, I have a confession to make. Due to my complete ignorance, my impression of the Galápagos Islands was based on all of those David Attenborough documentaries I’d seen on television. Sixty one volcanic islands teeming with weird and wonderful wildlife, rugged, untouched geography and Darwinists with cameras and magnifying glasses studying whatever there is to see.
Let’s just say I was a little wrong. Yes there’s a lot of weird and wonderful wildlife, most of which isn’t scared of humans, but the Darwinists were more along the lines of 21st century naturalists.
The Galápagos is without a doubt Ecuador’s crown jewel – it’s utterly beautiful, turquoise coloured jewel. You barely need to walk a dozen metres before crossing paths with either sea lions, marine iguanas, some kind of bird or brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs.
But first things first. You need to fork out some US cash and have plenty on you because, well, almost everywhere you go you seem to be pulling out your wallet. Here’s a general rundown.
1. Guayaquil Airport departure – $20 tax prior to quarantine screening.
2. Arrival at Baltra Airport in the Galápagos – $100, then catch the free, yes free, shuttle bus to the ferry wharf.
3. $1 for the ferry.
4. $2 shuttle to get from the ferry to Puerto Ayora.
5. We were heading straight to Isla Isabela and just made the last boat leaving Puerto Ayora. The small ferry transfer boat costs $1. Then the actual ferry to Isabela costs $30 per person.
6. Arriving at Isla Isabela you pay $1 for the colectivo truck to drop you at your hotel. Or you could walk, if it isn’t too far.
7. Oh, and let’s not forget the AUD$550 we each paid for the return flights (LAN) from Guayaquil.
Note – Public ferries only run between Santa Cruz (Puerto Ayora) and Isabela (Puerto Villamil) or between Santa Cruz (Puerto Ayora) and San Cristóbal (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno). There are no public ferries between San Cristóbal (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno) and Isabela (Puerto Villamil). Each leg will cost about $30 per person.
Let’s take a look around the first island we spent two nights on.
The least developed of the three main islands is Isla Isabela, the largest in the archipelago. Its township of Puerto Villamil is as chilled as it gets.
Locals go about walking or riding bikes down its sandy streets, sitting beneath trees in the run-down central park, or lounging about at the beach bar with their mates.
There isn’t much to the two or three main streets in town – a bunch of tour operators can be found, convenience stores and restaurants. And don’t expect any ATMs here, so load up your wallet with cash.
It really is a sleepy little place, especially during the day when the sun’s blaring and everyone’s either out on a day trip or keeping cool somewhere shaded.
For an immediate introduction to some wildlife, I’d say walk down to the beach and concrete wharf and say hi to a few marine iguanas. These guys are constantly sunning themselves or leisurely strolling along the beach. Get too close, though, and they may shy away. Especially when you’re shoving a camera in their faces.
There are a few free activities around Puerto Villamil definitely worth checking out if your budget doesn’t stretch too far. Less than 10 minutes walk from the centre of town is the Flamingo Sanctuary, situated in the wetlands along a raised wooden walkway.
The first things you see are marine iguanas, many of which refuse to budge from their sunny positions on the walkway. Then as you walk you spot many small birds and then those bright pink flamingos in the lava rock pools.
The trail continues into mangroves and across lava outcrops, leading to another free site – the Tortoise Breeding Centre. Here you can see the Cerro Azul and Sierra Negra tortoises, some of which were rescued from when Sierra Negra Volcano last erupted.
At the centre you learn about the various stages of tortoise development – from eggs to hatchlings, juveniles and sub-adults. When they’re big enough they’re released back into the wild.
Over near the boat wharf where you arrive and depart the island is another, much shorter trail through the mangroves along a meandering wooden walkway. Once again it’s free, but rather than seeing flamingos and tortoises, you’re greeted with a stunning lagoon that’s popular for snorkelling.
It’s the perfect place to cool off and swim with many schools of fish, and sea stars. You may even see sea lions, sea turtles or penguins!
The reality of the Galápagos is that most activities can cost a fair bit of money. Diving and snorkelling trips, a climb up the active Sierra Negra Volcano on Isla Isabela, deep sea fishing, Turtle Island, kayaking and more.
With our limited travellers budget, we kept these kinds of activities to an absolute minimum. We did, however, do one of the more popular day tours – a snorkelling and boat trip to Los Túneles. Depending on time of year and which operator you use, prices can vary. We were in the Galápagos in February, so the cost was a non-negotiable $125 per person. Yes, a little pricey for two snorkels, but we had to do it.
The half-day trip heads west along the coastline, circling the Rosa Unión volcanic cone to spot Nazca blue footed boobies and sea lions. The first snorkelling spot is in a sheltered volcanic rock bay, with many fish, some white tip sharks and sea turtles to be seen.
The second snorkelling spot is Los Túneles, where you explore rocky coves and underwater lava tunnels in beautifully clear water. After the swim there’s a quick lunch break on the boat, then you get your footwear on and walk around the lava crops and bridges. Here you’re bound to spot some boobies, some seals and sea turtles.
The choice of eateries in Puerto Villamil isn’t immense, but it is fairly varied. The bulk of them can be found along Antonio Gill, but walking around the backstreets does reveal many more. You just need to look.
Right by the main plaza is Fuente de Soda Sorbete, a minuscule cafe that does little more than juices, milkshakes, sugarcane juice and café de Galápagos – black filter coffee made with beans grown in the archipelago. There’s a limited breakfast and sandwich menu, as well.
Fuente de Soda El Sorbete, Antonio Gil
Opposite the plaza is a strip of restaurants that are very much about local food; maybe some pizza thrown in too. Our first pick was Los Delfines as the cocktails were decent and the 3-course set dinner menu was an affordable $7.
A vegetable soup starter, grilled octopus, fish, shrimp, beef or chicken to follow, and a small cup of jelly for dessert. Yes, jelly. They were pulling all the stops for that one.
Los Delfines, Antonio Gil
Somewhere a little more interesting is Shawerma Hot, a cabaña-style set-up that loves its thumping techno and quirky decorative touches.
Here you can chow on a variety of typical fare or on something along the lines of their shawerma mix (8). The plate is loaded with doner-style chicken, salad, falafel, fries and garlic sauce. It may not be the finest Middle Eastern food we’ve sampled, but for a local joint giving it a go, it’s ok.
Sharwerma Hot Restaurant, El Gaviotín
Breakfast in Puerto Villamil is fairly sparse, especially if you want a non-local meal to start your day with. El Velero is located next to Los Delfines and puts on breakfast choices for westerners as well as some local plates, all of which come with juice and coffee.
I sampled the Galápagos breakfast (8) which consists of a fried egg, a little cheese and a hefty bolón – a plantain ball laced with cheese.
El Velero, Antonio Gil
This is the most developed and commercialised island in the archipelago, and while we were in town, by far the busiest. Many hotels, some of them multi-story, a sunny paved waterfront promenade and many, many places to eat. There are even ATMs to withdraw cash.
You’re a bit spoiled for choice in Puerto Ayora, home for us for two nights.
Once again we seeked out the free activities that Puerto Ayora and Isla Santa Cruz offered, so here’s a couple we took advantage of.
Galápagos Beach and Tortuga Bay
Galápagos Beach is considered one of the most beautiful in the entire archipelago and can be found to the southwest of Puerto Ayora. There are no roads that lead to the beach, or Tortuga Bay, so visitors must be prepared for a one hour walk across lava outcrops and through coastal vegetation to get there.
The good thing is that the path is paved, making it easy to get from the registration office just outside of town to the start of the beach.
Parts of the beach are open for swimming, although swimmers must be aware of the rips (undertows) and stay between the flags.
A walk to the far end of Galápagos Beach reveals a great little tidal pool next to some mangroves; a pool filled with fish, harmless baby sharks and the usual marine iguanas. This was actually one of our favourite swimming spots during our stay in the Galápagos.
A few minutes past the tidal pool is Playa Mansa, a shorter beach that’s more sheltered. Due to it being surrounded by mangroves, the sand beneath the water can be a little boggy in places, which we both found slightly unappealing. Still, it’s a beautiful place to spend some time.
Another free activity is to take a dip in one of the most unique swimming holes in the Galápagos. Getting there does require a very short taxi boat from Puerto Ayora to Finch Bay Hotel (cost $1), plus a 20-30 minute walk over lava rock, past salt lagoons and through giant cacti forest.
Along the way is Playa de los Alemanes, a lovely sand beach that’s popular with locals and families. You could even cool off here along the way.
Once at Las Grietas you quickly learn why it’s been named as such. It translates to The Cracks. During the cooling of the lava a series of crevices was formed, which allows fresh water from the highlands to filter into the crevices, along with nearby seawater.
Wooden steps lead down into the swimming area, with a wooden platform and steps leading into the cool water. Definitely worth trekking to!
As I mentioned earlier, Puerto Ayora has a very decent choice of eateries – a mixture of local food and international. And you needn’t walk too far to find something due to the compact layout of the town.
Here’s a bunch of places that grabbed our attention.
Anyone that’s into their frappes or freak shakes can drop into this contemporary set-up on the main drag. Not only do they give you these sugary hits, but they specialise in cakes, cupcakes and for someone like me – good old espresso.
De Sal y Dulce, Avenida Charles Darwin
Afternoon happy hour can be found at several restaurants along Charles Darwin Avenue, so it pays to check out the right drinks deals for you.
Up around Pelican Bay is Volcano Bar Restaurant, a basic and friendly set-up with a smattering of tables set upon crushed volcanic gravel. Plenty of spots to choose from inside, but if you want some people-watching action and a view to the tiny fish market across the road, grab a stool by the pavement.
Food-wise it’s very much about the local offerings, and it’s well priced, too. Drinks are nice and cold, and we can definitely vouch for the caipirinhas.
Volcano Bar Restaurant, Avenida Charles Darwin
Located on the main drag, The Rock is within walking distance of the main hotels in the centre of town. There’s plenty of atmosphere in this beachy restaurant and bar, with great music and an international menu that’s plated with flair.
The drinks list is extensive, from coffee to frozen juices to happy hour cocktails in the afternoons. It really is the perfect place to chill.
The Rock, Corner Avenida Charles Darwin & Islas Plaza
Muelle de los Pescadores (Fish Market)
One of the most popular areas to head for a feed in Puerto Ayora is Calle de Los Kioskos along Charles Binford. The road is lined with small restaurants and kiosks where, during the lunch hours, several of them open and put on some kind of almuerzo. This involves two courses, and depending which one you choose and their generosity, a drink.
For $5 we sampled the almuerzo at Sol y Lunas – a deal that offered sopa marinera; a rich octopus, shrimp, fish and plantain soup to start and fried fish or cazuela mixta as a main. Cazuela is a typical dish at many of the eateries along the strip, and is a mixture of seafood cooked in a sauce based on plantain and peanut, served with rice.
Other common almuerzos you can expect to see is grilled meats or slow cooked chicken or goat, all served with rice and menestres (lentil stew)
Cazuela set up for dinner trade
Come the early evening, Calle de Los Kioskos is closed off to traffic and all the eateries set up tables in the middle of the road. The street transforms into an open-air food market, of sorts, with plenty of fresh seafood on display and many touts trying to get you into their door.
We returned for dinner another night, taking a seat at Sazón Manabita to try their grilled octopus and grilled whole fish. Their way of grilling involves wrapping the fish in foil with a capsicum and oregano concoction; served with patacónes (fried and smashed plantain), rice and salad.
A block from Calle de Los Kioskos is the very popular Galápagos Deli. This is where you head if you need a rest from the usual desayuno (breakfast) or almuerzo (set lunch) offerings, and can instead plough through gringo-style breakfast, sandwiches, thin-crust pizza and salads.
They even have 16 flavours of gelato to choose from.
Expect to pay around $7 for a cooked breakfast, which includes eggs, housemade bread, juice, coffee and jam. Or, for one of the best fish & chips (10.75) we’ve had for a very long time, drop by at dinner time. Absolute perfection.
Galápagos Deli, Thomas de Berlanga
Right next door to Galápagos Deli is Lo & Lo, a contemporary cafe that has local food at its heart, and where green plantain is the universal ingredient throughout its menu.
Cool down with an iced coffee, juice or serving of ceviche and fork into seco de pollo (9) – braised chicken stew with yellow rice and patacónes. If they have it, go for seco de chivo (goat stew).
Bollo de pescado (10) kept my tastebuds jumping – plantain dough with tuna, peanut sauce, onion, peppers and garlic wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Insanely delicious.
Lo & Lo, Thomas de Berlanga
Our final three nights in the Galápagos were spent on Isla San Cristóbal, the easternmost island in the archipelago. The port town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is home to the second largest community, after Puerto Ayora, and while it may seem like a big place, it’s actually very quiet.
Malecón Charles Darwin runs along the waterfront, where you can find hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores. It’s an easy place to hang out, explore and find somewhere to book a day trip.
Like much of the Galapágos, you don’t need to go far to spot wildlife. It’s difficult to miss the sea lions lounging about the foreshore, wharf and the small beach 200 metres from the main wharf; especially at night when dozens of them noisily gather to sleep. Plenty of other critters, too, including birdlife and Sally Lightfoot crabs clinging to the rocks.
One thing you can do on the island is rent a bike and snorkelling gear for the day and get exploring outside Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. We paid about $6 for half a day for snorkel gear, and the bikes were free from where we stayed.
About 10 to 15 minutes north of town is Centro de Interpretacion, an interesting museum which gives insight to local geology, conservation, history and climate of the Galápagos. Great if you want to brush up on any of those topics.
Ride a little further and you can take a dip at Playa Punta Carola, a small beach near the lighthouse. You are required to park your bike and walk a couple hundred metres along a trail through the scrub, but it is worth it.
Alternatively, leave your bike where you parked it and take the walking trail from Playa Punta Carola and explore the pathways that lead to Cerro Tijeretas and Tijeretas Cove. It’s pretty hot during the day, but you can cool off in the crystal clear turquoise water when you get there. Lots of fish, some coral and an underwater cave that’s popular with sea lions.
There’s a lookout at the top of the hill which offers the view you can see in the pic above, and you can continue along the trail to Baquerizo Beach. We didn’t go that far, though.
Another beach worth swimming at is La Loberia. This beach is south of town and can be reached by riding past the airport and beyond – 20 mins to half an hour from town. Once again you park your bike and walk to the beach, where you’re pretty much guaranteed to swim with sea turtles. And lots of them! Definitely one of our highlights. A cab to the beach costs $2-$3. Check the map for location.
If you’re going to pay for a day trip whilst in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, then this is the one to do. The boat trip cost us $125 each and had one stop at Kicker Rock where you see many birds on the cliffs, some seal lions and plenty of life in the water. And yes, you snorkel in the water around Kicker Rock – no beach, just a rocky drop-off into the deep, dark blue. You’ll see sea lions, plenty of fish, sharks, and if you’re lucky like us – hammerhead sharks. A light lunch is provided.
The second stop was an isolated beach where you can swim and snorkel in the shallow water. This is where we swam with loads of sea lions, a few of them coming right up to us and playfully circling us in the water.
Food choices in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno don’t match those in Puerto Ayora, and neither does the diversity, but there is enough to keep you eating at a different place for quite some time.
Here are our picks of the bunch.
For breakfast and lunch on two separate visits, the ever-popular Patágonia down on Charles Darwin kept us busy for a little while.
The menu has pretty much everything you’ve either already seen or tasted in the Galápagos – the usual local offerings of burgers and sandwiches, or some kind of protein with rice and plantain or good old lunchtime almuerzo. All of which are well priced.
Breakfast at Patágonia has your standard choices. Things like the Americano (5) – toast, jam, juice, coffee & fruit. Or then there’s something more local like desayuno Galapagueño (6), a simple set-up of bolón de verde, carne, egg, juice and coffee. I adored this one. The carne is a goulash-style stew that kind of blew me away, a perfect pairing with the plantain and cheese bolón and oozing fried egg.
Can’t say much about the Galápagos coffee, though. But it isn’t just here. Everywhere that serves it it’s the same – weak filter coffee.
Patágonia, Corner of Calle Teodoro & Charles Darwin
Some may stay at La Zayapa Hotel on the Malecón, but if you’re not, you can always hang out at their little cafe out front. These guys put on breakfast, sandwiches, hotdogs and cakes, plus there are juices, espresso and ices coffee. If you’re going for the latter, ask for a quadruple shot, as they’re incredibly weak here.
Zayapa Cafe, Avenida Charles Darwin
Finding decent espresso in the Galápagos is a bit of a task, and when it comes to fusspots like me, you’re bound to go back to the mainland unsatisfied. The espresso I had anywhere was a slightly stronger version of Galápagos filter coffee. It just doesn’t cut it.
However, if you’re ok with that, then head to Mockingbird as this was the better one out of the few places we tried. It also may be worth checking out the breakfast, lunch or dinner menu for typical local fare.
Mockingbird, Corner Española & Ignacio Hernandez
Facing the wharf down on the main drag is the very popular Urban Food. Here you can chill on the terrace and cool down with any drink of choice and tuck into gringo-friendly breakfasts, burgers, ribs and more.
At night when the overhead string lights are switched on, the music cranks up a bit and it gets right into things. If you’re after a lively atmosphere, this is the place to head.
Urban Food, Corner Avenida Charles Darwin & Hernan Melville
Those that want to give the meat and rice a rest can do so at Cri’s Burgers where, for $6-$8 you can tuck into some pretty fine looking specimens.
We kept saying we’d return for food, but somehow we managed to only get as far as happy hour drinks before moving on to somewhere else. It’s the perfect corner position for people watching in this quiet town, especially with a very decent caipirinha and Endémica craft beer. Let us know about the burgers, if you go!
Cri’s Burgers, Corner Española & Ignacio Hernandez
Heading away from the centre of town does reveal small local eateries that only the locals go to. You just need to find them!
One such place happened to be one of my favourites; a buzzing little restaurant and takeaway that does fab fried chicken & yuca chips with salad for a measly $4. It’s kind of excellent, actually.
Other dishes include salchipapa (sausage & potato) or arroz con menestra (lentil stew with rice), although all the locals and even the policemen only come for that fab chicken.
Comidas Rapidas Joshelyn, Avenida Quito
Little more than an awning off someone’s house, El Rincon de Sabas has five plastic tables with chairs set in gravel by the street. Not the most glamorous set-up, but you don’t come here to enjoy the decor.
Excellent fried chicken or cheese empanadas made fresh and a choice of grilled tuna, chicken, pork or beef with salad, rice and beans. It’s deliciously simple local fare that won’t break the bank. Two mains and an enormous empanada set us back $15. Loved the basil mayo in the squeeze bottle!
El Rincon de Sebas, Corner Alsacio Northia & Española
For even more local fare, head on over to The Crazy Crab, grab an outside table and watch the world go by. OK, there isn’t much that goes by in this sleepy town, but the food is very decent.
Fish, octopus, crab, shrimp, ceviche, rice dishes – get the idea?
I can definitely vouch for the pescado ajillo (garlic tuna, 13) served with rice, salad and sweet patacónes. Another winner is the pescado apanado (crumbed fish, 13). Really friendly guy that runs the joint, too.
The Crazy Crab, Avenida Española