Let me start off by saying, we LOVED the Galapagos! It was awesome and we can’t wait to go back. We spent ten days across three islands – San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz. A lot of tourists do cruises, but that was a few thousand out of our budget and we also wanted some freedom to surf and get to know the islands. We flew into San Cristobal, stayed for 4 nights (our tips here), then passed four days on Isla Isabela and two on Santa Cruz (our tips here), before flying out of Baltra (on the north end of Santa Cruz).
Isabela’s got a beachy atmosphere, sand roads, tons of snorkeling. We stayed at the cheapest option at $40 a night (the Galapagos is more expensive than anywhere else we’ve been in South America), which was clean (only one cockroach crept up into our bed) and had tons of hammocks. All the hostels are aligned with travel agents, so it’s super easy to get set up with an activity for the next day.
Our first outing was to Los Tunneles, which was a trip highlight. We snorkeled in two different spots, about 45 minutes away by boat, and then walked along a lava field thousands of years old with cactuses hundreds of years old. We spotted golden eagle rays, sea turtles, sea horses, a spotted eagle ray, tons of fish. Another day we did a quick three hour morning trip to Las Tintoreras which is an island three minutes off the main dock on Isabela. We dug this because it’s an area of water protected all around by lava rock, so the water is calm and clear and our guide just let us go off on our own for an hour. Afterwards we took a walk on land to learn about marine iguanas and check out a cove where white tips have a private moment with their cleaner fish.
The Wall of Tears was at the top of online recs for Isabela. We rented bikes at our hostel ($2.50 per hour) and pedaled our way there. Get ready to sweat if you’re on rusty bikes like we were. If you have limited time, stick to snorkeling, but if you have an extra day…go for a ride, it was a nice journey and there are different places to stop along the way like a lookout point, a marine iguana breading ground, and yet another spectacular white sand beach.
All the trips run every day, they scoop you up at your hostel on time, slap snorkel gear on you, shuttle you onto the boat and you’re off (they are clearly pros and do this on the daily). Most of the guides spoke great English. The guides are all locals that have further studied the local environment, so they are super knowledgeable. You’re not expected to tip, but we gave about $5 to the great guides. There are tons of tour operators that are probably all pretty similar and all of them seem locally run. Just do a quick search on TripAdvisor to see their ratings if you’re concerned. To live on the Galapagos you have to marry in, which seems to have kept most of the businesses locally run.
We also spent a few mornings surfing at El Faro with boards rented from Bike + Surf. We did manage to find a surf shop on each island, but rentals were super pricey, especially Isabela where it was $25 per day! So, had we been coming from home we would have brought boards (see our surf Galapagos surf guide). Still, on beat up rentals we had such a good time on 3-5 ft clear waves, with turtles and seals around us and blue footed boobies and flamingos flying over us. Next time, we’ll stay longer and bring our own boards.
At a glance…
- Do go to Los Tunneles and Las Tintoreras. We saw so much marine life at both.
Bring a rashguard because it gets chilly in the water.
- Don’t touch the animals! This seems common sense, but amidst the respectful birders and naturalists, there are some flat out clueless tourists.
- Don’t forget to take cash out in Santa Cruz, there’s no ATM on Isabela. Half day snorkel tours are around $35 and full day scuba tours around $160.
- Sleep at Posada Caminante if you want the cheapest available and are okay with basic accommodations and no AC ($40 for a private room) or else we recommend Caleta Iguana right on the beach with a fun beach bar, Casa Rosada. There were plenty of cool looking places to stay along the beach, but prices are up there.
- Sip cocktails (yummy mojito) at the Casa Rosada at sunset, while tanned travelers slackline, a bonfire gets set up, and coool music starts to pump.
- Shop for bread and baked sweats at the panaderia a 5 minute walk away from the main square (no idea what it was called, ask around).
- Eat at Coco Surf (the $8 burritos hit the spot), falafel sandwiches at Falafeleria and oreo milkshakes at the little sandwich store to the right of Coco Surf.
- Surf at El Faro. We surfed here two days and the waves were in the 2-5 ft range. Head out at sunrise and you’ll have no wind and no crowd (we found that the crowd gets in around 3:30/4 presumably after work). Mid or high tide are best. Say hi when you’re in the water, the locals are nice. You can wave down a taxi (the white pickups) and get a ride for $3 or hoof it for 30 minutes along a sandy road. Rent boards and bikes at Bike & Surf, run by a nice couple. Bikes seemed affordable, but boards were a pricey $25 to rent for the day.
- Tips – the ferry from Santa Cruz is $30 and about 1.5 hours. It’ll be the same price from any of the agencies with no real difference. Sit in the back where you can get some air, as the boats get hot and bumpy. They fill the boats so book at least the day before during tourist season. There are bodegas on the island with all the basics, but minimal fruits and veggies.