Santa Cruz Island
03.06.2017 - 04.06.2017 77 °F
After a great time in Quito, I hopped a plane to the Galapagos. Pro tip number one. You have to pay a $20 cash fee before you board a flight to the Galapagos at a booth in one corner of the Quito airport. Also, my ticket agent insisted that I have a lock for my bag before she would check me in. I was able to find one at the gift shop in the airport for about $!0. I have no idea whether this is an airline requirement or what; of course, in the US you can lock your bag but only with a TSA approved lock; that is, one they can unlock. In Ecuador, apparently any lock is OK.
My flight had a stopover in Guayaquil. Pro tip number two!. I thought the flight attendants announced that you could get off the plane while waiting in Guayaquil. I was wrong! I wandered off and because the only passage that would allow me back on was blocked, I had to leave the secured area of the airport. One nice thing was that I got to view this beautiful wall of orchids and plants in the airport:
It took some charm and patience, but I was able to talk my way back through security and reboard. Whew!
We landed at the Galapagos airport on Baltra Island, the main airport in the islands. I was excited to be in the Galapagos, as I am a great admirer of Charles Darwin and of course it is a legendary 'bucket list' place for many, myself included. What I was not prepared for was my emotional reaction. As we left the plane via a set of stairs, we proceeded down a breezeway. Looking up and to my left I saw two birds; Darwin finches. One was relatively light-colored with a slender bill, the other was darker with a heavier bill.
I was very moved by the mere sight of these two birds. Of course, they were the first wildlife I saw, but more than that, their differences in coloration and beak size perfectly illustrated the traits that led Darwin to intensively examine the birds of the Galapagos. Years of study later, he realized that while he thought he was studying a wide variety of birds; robins, meadowlarks, etc. he determined that they were all evolved finches! These observations formed a significant part of the foundation of his thinking on evolution and natural selection. This is one of those rare scientific insights that is immediately apparent to the non-specialist, and at the same time one that profoundly influenced science. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at my reaction.
Back to pro tips. You need to be ready to pay $100 cash per person to enter the Galapagos at the airport, so be prepared; there is an ATM available, but I wouldn't count on that myself. The airport itself has been recently rebuilt using many energy and resource conservation principles. The airport improvements are part of a multi-decade program to restore the environment and the wildlife of the Galapagos, funded at least in part by this fee. I understand that about half the fee goes to island parks and restoration, about 25% to the towns of Galapagos, and the remainder to a variety of Ecuadorian organizations like the Navy.
Speaking of money, I will repeat from an earlier post. You will have a lot of trouble making purchases in Ecuador and the Galapagos unless you have LOTS of small bills with you. Finding someone who will take a cash machine $20 or even a $10 is a real challenge and credit cards are rarely accepted. I would recommend a couple hundred dollars in singles for a reasonable length stay. ATM's are abundant on Santa Cruz, by the way.
More practicalities. You get your luggage after a pretty entertaining time where you watch a sniffer dog climbing all over everyone's bags. The dog found something from our plane; that bag got hustled off. You then board a quite crowded bus for a 10 minute ride to a channel separating Baltra Island from the main island of Santa Cruz. The airport is probably on this island at least in part because during WWII the US and Ecuadorians build an air base on the island. Unfortunately, the development of the base led to the extinction on the island of a unique iguana species. Luckily, a reserve colony existed and is being used to repopulate the island, which is being restored to its natural state to the extent possible. As you travel on the bus, you will see the foundations of many buildings that were part of the air base.
The airport bus takes you to a dock where you board a passenger ferry for a 10 minute ride across the channel from Baltra Island to Santa Cruz (you will need one of your dollars right here). There is usually a bus and several taxis waiting to take you onward. If your destination is the main town of Puerto Ayora, the bus will get you there for about $3. The taxi costs about $25 - as usual, ask first. Both get you there at about the same time, so take your choice.
Puerto Ayora is the main town on the south end of the island, about a 45 minute bus ride from the airport/channel. It's a small town but does have plenty of amenities, including a supermarket and many hotels, apartments and hostels. This is the main 'tourist street' along the water and one of its attractions, a small fish market with multispecies attendance.
I had an AirBNB booking for a small apartment ($65/day). Good hotels run about $100, and hostels are in the $15-$20 range. My place was several blocks from the waterfront which was no problem, and was clean and comfortable. All agree that drinking tap water anywhere in the Galapagos is inadvisable. I continued my modestly reckless policy of avoiding using tap water to drink/brush my teeth, but still eating salads and accepting ice cubes in my occasional adult beverage. I survived with no ill effects, but YMMV!
There are dozens of shops selling day tours and longer excursions. I frequently saw signs out front offering 'last minute' trips of up to 8 days, often leaving the next day. I did not shop these tours, but it does suggest that if you want to take a chance you could find a room for the night in Puerto Ayora and spend the next day shopping for a bargain tour if that is your preference. I'm guessing it would be a good plan to research whether tours tend to leave on particular days (I saw several leaving on a Friday) and get there one day ahead?
My interest was in day snorkeling trips, so I carefully selected one of the tour agencies by the process of wandering past a bunch of them until I got bored. Actually, I picked mine because their walls were covered with pictures signed by happy and satisfied clients and it had 'Evolution' in the name. It was called Galapagos Evolution Dreams . (Their web page is completely content-free, but I have linked to it in case additional info is forthcoming). I went in and said 'sign me up for 3 tours over the next 5 days' and they made recommendations and did so. As it happens, all of the tours were very good and took me to a variety of sites around the Islands. The full day tours typically start between 7:30 and 9:00 in the morning and return by 3:00 or 4:00. Each tour has two or three snorkeling opportunities and one other stroll or something. The guides are all certified (I saw about 100 guides in training one day) and I thought they all worked hard to make the trips enjoyable. Water and a lunch are provided (ask if unsure) and they usually provide snorkel, mask, fins and a wetsuit at no extra charge. I brought my own gear as I have a prescription mask. You could snorkel without a spring-weight wetsuit, but the water is perhaps just a bit too cool for full comfort without it.
So, with my plans in place, I hit the supermarket for some breakfast goodies and got ready to get a look at the wild side of the Galapagos. Wet and wild critters here I come!