My mum’s world traveller status is a recent acquisition, precipitated mainly by a desire to see her wayward son once in a while. However, this coincided with definite self-interest when she announced another visit- coincidentally whilst I was due to be on the amazing Galápagos archipelago! Therefore, I was back on tour guide duty, and at pretty short notice too- We worked out that flights during my August week off would be ruinously expensive however the June ones (2 weeks hence) were still pretty reasonable. Back on KLM then… With a decent service and an easy ‘hop’ to Amsterdam they make a lot of sense- In our case the flights were no more than Bristol than they would have been from LHR… Also avoiding a stop and a lost mum in some obscure hellhole en route!
Somewhat earlier than I’d expected, I was hot-footing it back to Baltra island in order to fly back to the mainland. This time with a charming local twist as I met no less than 3 of my students either working at, or travelling from, the airport. It’s nice to feel part of a community abroad.
Everything worked as it should, and I collected mum along with 2 huge suitcases (supplies mission!) from Quito airport for a whistle-stop couple of days in the Ecuadorean capital before flying back to the islands. Without anyone getting mugged or murdered, hopefully.
If you fly from Europe to the Galápagos Islands you generally need to prepare yourself for at least one night in Quito. Virtually all of the transatlantic and other incoming flights rock up after midday, and all of the direct island flights leave before 2pm. If you’re intending to stay a night in the airport then don’t- There’s a great looking Wyndham airport hotel which would be my preferred option. Whilst Mariscal Sucre International is a great airport, there’s sod all to see and do. I wouldn’t hang around there for over 5hrs unless I really had to.
Quito did us proud, with amazing weather for the duration of our stay, and some of the clearest views from the Teleferico over the city and up to Volcan Pichincha that I’ve seen during my visits. Combined with a car-free Sunday in the Ciudad Vieja it made for a pleasant 48hrs of light exploration and relaxing at the excellent Hotel La Coupoule in the Mariscal area, a fantastic period building and an establishment punching well over its weight in terms of price too.
Back to the airport, then, for our 10.40 flight back to Santa Cruz. Or not. 3 hour delay. I think actually Avianca just didn’t have many people on the flight and decided to combine it with the scheduled lunchtime one. However, with a free breakfast and $120 flight voucher in the bag I wasn’t complaining too vociferously. I’m hanging around here for a bit so some credit on Colombia’s national airline is pretty useful. It’ll at least buy me my next flight to Quito.
Mum’s here- What are we doing now then?
Many people’s first thoughts of Galápagos trips turn to a cruise. To be fair, this area is all about the sea. We thought we too would give it a go.
Thankfully as it turned out, our efforts to book onto a last minute trip were in vain, saving a huge amount of money and, with the benefit of hindsight, having a much better time.
Why? Well, firstly the cruises are extremely expensive. Even on a last minute deal and with my best Latin American haggling skills we were looking at dropping $2000 for both of us on a reasonable 5-day tour. Book them from abroad and the cost increases exponentially.
Secondly, when you interact with a lot of the cruise passengers, and I see them a LOT on this island, you quickly realise that, on the whole, they can be a bunch of complete arseholes. Generally European or American, of a certain age, with a sense of entitlement hilarious in its extremity. Even on the courtesy bus from the airport to the dock, with a lot of luggage on board, I helped to unload a few cases since I needed to extricate us and ours and, well, nobody else was doing it. One bizarre German man snatched his case from my hand immediately as I placed it off the bus, like I was actually trying to steal it, and not one of the other passengers whom I assisted bothered with a word of thanks. These were almost ALL destined for boats out of Santa Cruz.
So, we’d pay a metric fucktonne of money and be stuck with that lot. Definitely a happy mistake that we missed out on that one.
Instead, we stocked up on brave pills and bought tickets for the morning speedboat to Isla Isabella, departing at 7.30am. Generally there are morning and afternoon departures to both Isabela and San Cristobal, and the fare is $30 one way. Be warned, it’s a seriously choppy ride! The best seats are at the back by the engines- Up front the boat slams into the waves pretty frequently.
Arriving at Isabela’s dock is definitely a bit of a change from decent-sized Puerto Ayora. A rickety gangplank leads up to the landing, where you pass by a sniffer dog (drugs not food according to the cop holding him, but I wasn’t convinced by the interest he showed in my donut!)
Isabela is besieged by Sealions basking in the sun, the dock is a real hotspot for them, probably because of the odd tidbits from passing fishermen. A good spectator sport is watching tourists taking pictures (or even better, selfies!) and then leaping vertically when the sealion feels that they are a bit close and suddenly barks at them!
From Isabela’s dock it’s easiest to get a taxi into Puerto Villamil itself. It’s definitely walkable but with big bags I’d recommend taking a cab. Price inflation comes to the fore here- Since Isabela’s virtually exclusively for tourists the cabs cost $1 per person rather than per cab!
Top tip, as with many other places around the world the cabbies are in cahoots with local hotel owners therefore if they take you to a place you’ll end up paying a commission in your room rate. We ditched the cab fairly early on and found a twin room at the Casa De Los Delfines right on the beach, pretty pleasant with the usual flakey/non-existent hot water that you tend to find around here. $60 a night for a sea view room. We’d have paid more for the cabbie-suggested inland place! There seemed to be loads of hotels around, broadly I think you pay your money and take your choice since the offering is all pretty similar (Other than the seriously upmarket ones for $200ish a night which I couldn’t really see the point of). Ours was clean, well maintained and with reasonably helpful/friendly staff, you don’t come to Isabela to hang around in the room anyway!
Later that day we headed out for La Concha de la Perla, right by the ferry dock. You don’t need a tour to see this, just walk to the dock and you’re 100m away. This is a peaceful lagoon reached by a long boardwalk rather over-populated by sealions…
You do have to pick your times to get past them, some of the parents got a bit stroppy when we passed close by the pups but overall they’re pretty chilled out. Naturally the marine iguanas are not bothered remotely by human presence, just keep on basking…
At the end of the boardwalk there is a pontoon from where you can dive in… From everything I read on TripAdvisor and from my own observations over a couple of days it’s really hit and miss here with regards to seeing wildlife. I saw very little on my two snorkelling forays other than some small fish, but dependent on tide and day you can spot most of Galapagos’ big draws such as turtles and reef sharks.
If you’ve got a wetsuit I would recommend bringing it. The water here isn’t the warmest at the best of times, and this lagoon has a strong current which keeps the temperature down. The current draws quite strongly towards the docks so if you get caught it’s not a problem- you won’t end up out at sea!
The other nuisance to note is some incredibly voracious horseflies around the pontoon, once you’re wet and out of the water they go into full bite mode so get your snorkelling done, get dry and get back to the dock!
For when you’re not doing activities or anything more special, Isabela is all about the beaches and the laid back island ambience. All of the roads are sand, nobody’s really going anywhere in a hurry or doing anything, and there’s no pressure to have FUN all of the time. Just lay back, go with the flow, have a wander and enjoy the archetypal desert island experience.
When the sun goes down, there are plenty of restaurants around the Main Street. We ate at most of them during the 3 nights we stayed on Isabela. All of the main ones have great Menu del Dia lunch deals, generally at a price premium from my favourites on Santa Cruz but with more imaginative menus, often consisting of a soup, main course such as shrimps or fish in a sauce with rice salad and chips, and some sort of dessert for around $6-$7. A la carte menus come in at a much higher price.
In the evenings too there are a few good deals. Breakfast tends to be slightly disappointing standard fare, although there at El Velero (The Sailboat) restaurant we enjoyed some local twists such as patacones (plantain cakes) with the standard “egg. Bread. Coffee”. El Velero is also home to the lovely Carlos. By far the campest man I’ve met on Galápagos, and an extremely nice, genuinely engaging guy which, in a customer service black hole such as Ecuador, stands out even more than normal. I firmly entered his affections and was rewarded with free coffee when I helped to deflect a situation involving an obnoxious American tourist who was becoming abusive over the fact Carlos couldn’t change a 20. At 9am on a Sunday morning, on a small desert island, with nowhere else open!
We also ate at Coco Surf restaurant, amongst the top 3 on TripAdvisor and very close to the main square. Great service and amazing food. Probably my most memorable dish being the huge chunk of incredibly fresh white fish with a rich butter and garlic sauce and Parmesan risotto…
Coco Surf is not cheap by island standards, around $65 for both of us including a cocktail each and dessert, but it is very good, and worthy of at least one visit during your stay. The owner is very helpful, even with gringos who’d overlooked the lack of ATM on the island and who desperately needed to pay on card… And you can’t put a price on a happy mum!
The next day we decided on a walk. The truth of Isabela, and for the most part Santa Cruz, is that you simply do not need to go on excursions! A budget trip to Galápagos is well within reach provided you just do a bit of research. The trails are all well waymarked and you’re not going to get too far lost anyway. Most of the cruises pad out their itineraries with days of island ‘activities’ which are a complete con, you can just as easily do these on your own!
So, from Puerto Villamil, head up the coast. As you pass this sign (With an Iguana frequently ‘on guard’!) you can turn right onto boardwalk leading to the Centro de Crianza, tortoise breeding centre, or go straight on parallel to the beach for a walk I’ll cover later in this blog.
The first day we headed to the Centro de Crianza. To get there, you either pile into a bus with the rest of your grumpy cruise mates, or you take the mile of Boardwalk over the infinitely more interesting lake on the way up. All sorts of marine birdlife can be spotted here:
As you continue along, you get further into the volcanic interior of the island, with fascinating trees and plants that you simply don’t see elsewhere. It’s incredible to consider the violent birth of these islands and how nature has just colonised since.
And then you reach the tortoise breeding centre. My mum was somewhat ambivalent about the benefits of these places. Neither the tortoises here nor in the Santa Cruz breeding centre looked particularly happy when compared with their wild counterparts, and the shells looked in worse condition too, although I’ll concede that this was probably due to the dusty pens they lived in. Nonetheless the centres fulfil an important function in bolstering wild numbers, maintaining the diversity of species here and also rescuing giant tortoises in peril- One pen at the centre contains a rare breed of tortoise saved in its entirety from a volcanic eruption.
Back to Puerto Villamil for the evening, with the added interest of a bird feeding frenzy just off the patch of beach with our hotel on. Hundreds of Boobies, Frigates and Pelicans diving into the water simultaneously catching fish. With a small brace of gringos in the shallows desperately thing to capture the action. And, in my case, failing. Despite cut feet due to an altercation with underwater rocks all I’ve got to show from it is a bit of grainy footage of un-identifiable black bird shaped blobs.
During our time on Isabela I did concede to taking one tour at least… The half day going out to las Tintoreras, some small islands just off the coast by the dock. It’s $40 per person and is about 4 hours long. It felt like pretty decent value at the end…
We picked a good day for it. The boat heads out into the bay, past swimming/basking penguins and sealions quite literally everywhere. Once at the islands you get to see some of the Galápagos ‘big ticket’ wildlife such as the much-sought Blue-footed Booby. Sadly not dancing or mating- You can’t have everything. Probably one of the highlights of the trip though was the snorkelling. You swim through narrow channels in the lava. Just at the point when I was getting severely pissed off with my fins (Still haven’t got the hang of them!) and also through half-drowning thanks to poor snorkel technique, I realised that I was getting dive-bombed by sea lions. And more than that, there was a whole school of reef sharks under us in the channel! Slightly discomfiting but nonetheless amazing to see.
Definitely one of the most incredible moments of my time here so far, and it didn’t end even once we reached open water. The same family of sealions clowning around and swimming full-bore at heads before turning… a great laugh. To round it off, we saw a school of rays gracefully gliding past us. And a sea turtle nonchalantly feeding… It almost felt staged! Finally hooked some stills off my video… Not bad for a £20 EBay underwater GoPro ‘tribute’.
A good day. The next day we decided to head out along the coast walk from Puerto Villamil before our 3pm boat back to Santa Cruz. Far farther than we had expected to, but well worth it. The path takes you past a number of really interesting sites along the way, and you end up at the top of Cerro Orchilla for a panoramic view of the island.
After a LOT of walking, and some amazing, rugged coastline, the path heads inland, and gently upward. Before long you stumble across the incredible sight of truly wild giant tortoises. Mum took the ‘no touching’ rule in her stride, I was somewhat more upset by the whole affair. Animals just aren’t fun if you can’t pick them up!
They are largely unfazed by humans, although retreat into their shells if you get more than a couple of metres from them. They seem a happy lot on the whole, wandering around and grazing. No cars nor other pests to trouble them up here…
By this stage we were seriously flagging, although the end was in sight… Cerro Orchilla, the highest point around here. A steep staircase up and you’re done. Phew. Just the 10k back to town, more or less! The path does go on further, and I’d imagine it hits the coast at some point. If we had bikes it would definitely have been an option. Still a great day out, and well worth doing. There’s absolutely no point doing a ‘trip’ here, it’s a blindingly obvious waymarked path with big signs pointing out all of the interesting stuff.
So then, that was our time on Isabela over. Time to get back on the boat to Santa Cruz, since I had to work the next day. We lucked out on the crossing back, getting a bigger boat. Look out for it, it’s called Splendor, and is a longer design than the normal speedboats. A bit slower, but 100% worth it for a smooth crossing.
Stay tuned for my next blog… Santa Cruz from a local’s eye view.