Disclosure: Basic Travel Couple, LLC has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Basic Travel Couple, LLC and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.
You might remember our trip to the Galapagos Islands and how we flew there for only $379! One of our Basic Travel Readers, Sarah Abell, also had the pleasure to visit the Galapagos Islands. Our experiences were a little different, and we wanted to highlight some of the other activities you can do while on the islands. She was able to spend 10 days on the islands, and also had a different strategy for getting there.
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How to get there
Flights: Direct flight round trip from Toronto to Quito (40,000 Amex MR + $275 USD per person) on Aeroplan. This is not the best redemption but was better than paying $800 a person over Christmas time. The flight was being operated by Air Canada Rouge was a six-hour flight. Since we landed in Quito, we were able to visit the Priority pass lounges. This lounge is pretty nice (especially the International one).
Direct flight Quito to Baltra round trip ($258 per person): Flight hour: A little over two hours.
Where to Stay
- Semilla Verde Boutique Hotel (Santa Cruz Highlands)
- Isabela Beach House (Puerto Villamil, Isabela)
- Cucuve Suites (Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz)
Things to Do:
- Pinzon snorkeling tour -$150 per person
- Tour to Seymour Norte – $220-$260 per person
- El Chato Reserve
- Charles Darwin Breeding Center
- Station Beach
- Las Grietas
- Tortuga Bay
- Fish Market
- Los Tuneles tour ~$165 per person
- Las Tintoreras Kayak and Snorkel Tour $75 per person
- Walk to see the flamingos
- Snorkel Concha Perla
- Bike to Wall of Tears
Full Itinerary and Tips:
Day 1: Arrival in Santa Cruz and El Chato Reserve
We landed in Baltra mid-afternoon. From the airport, it’s a bit of an ordeal to get to Puerto Ayora. When crossing customs, you’ll need to pay $100 per person for entry to the Galapagos and have your bags checked. At customs, you’ll also need to buy your bus tickets. For $5 per person, you’ll take a bus from the Baltra airport to the channel. From the channel, it’s a $1 brief boat ride to the island of Santa Cruz. Here, you can take a bus or a taxi to your destination. Since we stayed outside of town, we grabbed a taxi for $25. On the way, the taxi driver asked if we wanted to see the giant tortoises at El Chato Reserve. For an extra $25, he took us there and waited for us while we wandered through the lava tubes and saw all the tortoises. Afterward, he took us to our hotel, Semilla Verde located in the highlands. There are giant tortoises roaming the property, which made for a very special stay.
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Day 2: Santa Cruz: Charles Darwin Breeding Center and snorkeling at Las Grietas:
After breakfast, we took a taxi into town and took a guided tour of the Charles Darwin Breeding Center. This is a good way to learn about the history and wildlife in the Galapagos. Almost every island in the Galapagos has its own species of tortoises. Over 100,000 tortoises were taken off the Galapagos, many for food on whaling ships. Others were brought to zoos. Because of this, some of the species have gone extinct. Some returned to the Galapagos to help in breeding efforts. One of them, Diego, brought from a zoo in San Diego, when there were no males of his species left to breed. Since Diego returned, he fathered over 800 offspring, saving his species.
Our naturalist guide was able to point out tortoises, Marine Iguanas, finches, lava lizards, and Sally Lightfoot crabs. I thought that the tour was a little long. I would much rather see the animals in the wild, it’s an important way to set the lay of the land for the Galapagos.
On our way back to town, we stopped at the Station Beach to watch the Marine Iguanas and Sally Lightfoot Crabs. Then we had lunch at Garrapata and headed over to Las Grietas.
Las Grietas is a swimming area in a crevice of volcanic rock. To get there, you take an 80 cent water taxi ride from the main port, walk past Playa de Los Alemanes, and down the trail to Las Grietas. Bring snorkel gear if you have it. The water is super clear and blue, and while there’s only a couple of fish, it’s pretty cool to see.
There are three pools in Las Grietas, so wear water shoes or sandals, so you can climb over the rocks between them. There’s a way to swim through a tunnel on one of them, but let’s be honest, I’m not that brave. Whichever route you take, definitely check out Las Grietas if you have some free time on Santa Cruz.
Day 3: Santa Cruz: Tortuga Bay
Sunday morning, we had a taxi drop us off at the entrance to Tortuga Bay. We were told it was a 40-minute walk to the beach, although I’m pretty sure it took us longer than that. This is not a walk you want to take during the heat of the day, but the destination is worth every step. On the way, we came upon a giant tortoise and a couple of lava lizards. We continued along the path until reaching a wavy and rough beach of beautiful white sand. This beach is gorgeous, but it’s not your destination! We continued along the beach finding a spot where dozens of Marine Iguanas rested. Finally, we reached a trail that led to the beautiful Tortuga Bay.
Tortuga Bay is a calm, protected beach, and as a result, a phenomenal swimming spot. After a bit of time playing in the water (at one point, a shark swam up to us), I decided to rent a kayak with an Ecuadorian woman I befriended on the beach. We were both traveling with our moms, who were content to stay tanning on the beach.
For $10 a person, I absolutely recommend doing this. We didn’t see any more sharks, but there’s definitely a reason the beach is called Tortuga Bay. There were sea turtles everywhere! We found 4 sea turtles all hanging out on top of the water, two of which were quite possibly mating. When we continued on, we saw several more sea turtles popping out of the water. After kayaking, I wanted my mom to see them, so we snorkeled out there. The visibility in the water was nonexistent. The snorkels and flippers made the swim a pretty easy one.
Since it was the heat of the day and we were getting hungry, we opted to bypass the walk and take a boat ride back to town. Taking a boat back is pretty informal. People walk down the beach and ask if you want to take their boat back and tell you what time it’s leaving. It’s about a 25-minute ride back to town, and cost $10 a person. Aft we got back, we had lunch and relaxed for the rest of the day.
Day 4: Santa Cruz:
Day trip to Pinzon
On the morning of the tour, we got picked up by a taxi and taken to a shop to get our wetsuits and then to the boat. If you only have time or money for one tour from Santa Cruz, this is the one to do. It’ll cost roughly $150 per person. Due to conservation projects and National Park rules, people can’t set foot on Pinzon. You are only allowed to be in the water, so if you can’t swim or don’t like to snorkel, skip this one. Otherwise, this is the tour to do!
The first snorkel spot was off of Santa Cruz, and we saw three white-tipped sharks, some rays, and sea turtles. We even had a sea lion swim with us. He was so much fun and he even swam with a sea turtle. When we got to Pinzon, we snorkeled some more and saw a Vermilion Flycatcher. This is a bird native to the Galapagos that is starting to go extinct on a few of the islands. We also saw alpha male sea lions fighting each other. There were lots of sea lions on the rocks of the island.
Lunch was served after snorkeling and then we headed back to Santa Cruz. In Santa Cruz, we enjoyed a beautiful waterfront dinner at Bahia Mar.
Day 5: Transfer to Isabela and see flamingos
Although most people take the ferry, we flew to Isabela. My mom gets seasick and we heard a lot of horror stories about the ferry to Isabela. It was definitely not cheap, but it made my mom happy, and the views were awesome. Plus, how often do you get to fly on a 9 seater airplane? The main disadvantage of flying is that it doesn’t save too much time. You have to travel all the way back to the airport on Baltra from Santa Cruz. This takes about an hour and costs $25 for the taxi plus $1 for the boat and $5 for the bus per person. It’s so loud you’ll wear ear protection the whole time, so fly for the views, not the conversation!
Upon arrival to Isabella, we checked in at the Isabela Beach House. The room that steps out onto the beach and there were iguanas everywhere. We drank our welcome juice and got tips from the hotel manager on what to do. Then we walked to the tortoise breeding center and saw flamingos.
We spent hours at Puerto Villamil watching sea lions, blue-footed boobies, and iguanas. Wildlife in the Galapagos is everywhere, and although you should keep your distance, they are not phased by humans.
Day 6: Isabela: Los Tuneles and Concha Perla
We got picked up for the Los Tuneles tour after 7 a.m. First, we were fitted with wetsuits. The boat ride to the first destination was approximately one-hour. We saw plenty of wildlife along our ride. A penguin swimming in the water, manta rays (some even flew out of the water), blue-footed and Nazca boobies.
Our first stop was Los Tuneles, which means formations of lava rock. This is where the blue-footed boobies set up their nests. After our walk, it was time for snorkeling. While snorkeling, we saw sea turtles, caves full of white-tipped sharks, a seahorse, and rays. We were back in Puerto Villamil by 1-ish and rested on the beach at our hotel for a bit.
If you only take one tour in the Galapagos this is the one to do. We booked with Paddle with the Penguins, and it cost $165 a person.
After a short rest, we went snorkeling in Concha Perla. This is a free snorkel spot in Puerto Villamil, right by the docks.
At first, I was underwhelmed by the snorkeling in Concha Perla. There were pretty fish and some sea urchins, but it was nothing compared to the morning’s marine life. But, towards the end of our snorkeling, we found a white-tipped shark and a minute later, a humongous ray. When we got out of the water, one of the sea lions decided he wanted to take a swim, so we watched him roll into the water. For a free place to snorkel and a chance at seeing some good marine life, Concha Perla is definitely worth a visit.
Day 7: Isabela: Las Tintoreras and Wall of Tears
We had pre-booked for $75 a kayak and snorkel tour to Las Tintoreras with Paddle with the Penguins. I was torn between hiking the volcano (Sierra Negra) and the snorkel/kayak tour. We had heard the volcano hike was taxing and that we would see penguins if we went to Las Tintoreras. Wanting to see the penguins, we chose to book with Paddle to the Penguins.
Paddle to the Penguins is a good tour if you have a couple of hours to kill and love kayaking and snorkeling. We saw plenty of wildlife including penguins, golden rays, turtles, eel, and starfish. We also saw plenty of iguanas and even a baby sea lion and a mother swimming around. I’m not sure how long we kayaked exactly, but we were gone for less than 3 hours in total. The trip included kayaking, snorkeling, having tea, and snacks.
The real highlight was the few penguins we saw on the way back. They’re very small, supposedly bigger than the little blues in Australia (but they look smaller to me). Most of the penguins were off fishing, so the few we saw were all standing alone on the lava rock.
Wall of Tears
After lunch, we rented bikes from our hotel and headed towards the Wall of Tears. On the way, we stopped at El Esterro, and wandered down the path to where there was an elephant seal, lost from Antarctica. She was humongous, the size of at least two sea lions, napping on the beach. It was weird to imagine how far she had come accidentally, and sad to consider the likely outcome for her. Sometimes animals like her do find their way into a current that can sweep them back to Antarctica. Other times, they don’t survive.
The Wall of Tears was nothing like I could have imagined. It’s 25 meters tall. I was picturing one of those rock walls you see around people’s houses. It was built by prisoners in a penal colony on Isabela between 1945 and 1959. That was the other part that shocked me. This wasn’t something built hundreds of years ago. This was happening during the lifetimes of my parents. It was happening on an island that adventurous tourists were starting to visit. Yet, it was so far back on the island that it was outside of their purview.
After our ride, we cleaned up and got dinner. The next day, we’d be heading back to Santa Cruz.
Day 8: Return to Santa Cruz
If I were to do it again, I would probably fly to San Cristobal after Isabela. So many people mentioned that it was worth a visit. Instead, we headed back to Santa Cruz. We booked 2 nights at the Cucuve Suites. It was a nice boutique hotel with breakfast included in a good location. We did a lot of this trip without points, but I used 34,857 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book this.
We spent a good chunk of the day at the fish market. It was entertaining to watch the sea lions, iguanas, frigate birds, and pelicans fight over scraps.
I went off to the station beach for a bit for a swim, and we did a little bit of last-minute shopping for gifts. I highly recommend the Pacari Chocolate Just don’t fall for the $7 price tag at the Baltra airport. You can find it in grocery stores on Santa Cruz for $3.50 a bar. If they don’t have your favorite flavor – mine is sea salt and cocoa nibs, they are $4.50 a bar in the duty-free at the Quito airport.
We had pizza for dinner at the Galapagos Deli. It was delicious, and there are lots of vegetarian options for pizza, sandwiches, and more. For dessert, I had Guanabana ice cream. I can not explain at all what it is, but I’m a big fan and went back on the last night for more.
Day 9: Santa Cruz: Day trip to North Seymour Island
When I first was planning this trip, I was determined to visit an uninhabited island. The problem with that is visiting uninhabited islands in the Galapagos is extremely expensive. Tour boats have to pay fees to land on the islands. The trip to Seymour Norte cost us $260 a person, although some people on our tour got it for $220 at the last minute. Instead of leaving on a boat from Puerto Ayora, you get picked up in Puerto Ayora. Then it’s a 45-minute bus ride to the same channel you cross to reach the airport. After that, you take the little canal boat to catch the boat for the excursion.
Afterward, we did a little bit of snorkeling and had lunch of rice, fish, vegetables, and flan for dessert. It was actually really good! Our last stop was Bachas Beach, named for the remnants of barges there from World War II. It’s a beautiful beach, and we walked through the white sand to a lagoon where we spotted one last flamingo. The last exotic bird of our trip.
Day 10: Depart the Galapagos
After nearly three weeks in Ecuador, it was sad to leave. Mom humored me and went with me to the Playa de Los Alemanes for an hour before we had to leave. We enjoyed one last bit of sun before we returned to Buffalo’s beautiful 35-degree weather. To get to Playa de Los Alemanes, you take the water taxi from the port and walk part of the way to Las Grietas. It’s a decent beach to spend some time, but nothing too special.
We repeated the journey to Baltra airport for the final time. Then we hung out in the Priority Pass lounge for a bit. I was shocked to discover there even was one in an airport with 3 open gates! They mostly had basic free stuff – coca-cola, bread, cheese, and fruit – but it was still a nice little area to hang out in. Plus, there was free wifi.
Heading to Quito
Flying back to Quito, we stopped at the next Priority Pass Lounge to have some pop, tea, and snacks. Catching the shuttle to the Wyndham Quito Airport, only a few minutes away. I used 12,470 Chase points for a night. We had dinner at the hotel, and then collapsed into bed, too tired to take advantage of the hot tub and sauna. The next morning, we left for the airport at 6, visited the Priority Pass Lounge, and headed home.
From the Amazon to Quito and its neighboring areas to the Galapagos, it was an unreal trip. I doubt I’ll ever see so much wildlife in one place again. Especially not wildlife that’s pretty unphased by proximity to humans. While there’s a couple of things I’d recommend skipping or changing about the trip, definitely go. There is nothing quite like the Galapagos Islands. Experiencing the unique culture and wildlife was incredible. Having a sea lion swimming beside you might have been one of my favorite things. Pictures and videos can only do it so much justice, so start planning now!
Other Galapagos Articles
- How we flew to the Galapagos Islands for $379
- Galpaguera Tour in San Cristobal
- Land-Based Itinerary of Galapagos Islands
- Travel Insurance
- How I broke my Leg in Galapagos Islands
Disclosure: Basic Travel Couple, LLC has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Basic Travel Couple, LLC and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.