You can get to Galapagos from the US on a long weekend (see part 1), but what can you see, and will you regret it?
Each of the Galapagos Islands has its own flora and fauna, so what inspired Darwin is the hardest part of a trip of any length: deciding which islands to visit. Multi-day cruises are the only way to reach outlying islands, and picking a cruise is major challenge as there are raves and horror stories at all price levels.
Day trips are available to many islands, the major downsides are dull boat rides of around two hours each way, large group size, and limited time at the islands.
The key rules of Galapagos day trips:
- Shop around. The agents typically consolidate tourists into the same boat or two, so you will end up with the same thing whoever you deal with. Push on price. There are no luxury offerings for day trips as most of the day trip market is domestic tourists, with a few backpackers for dreadlocked, tattooed spice. Keep those domestic tourists in mind when you dream of adventurous outings because the day trips are set up to cater for the grandparents and grandchildren in tow.
- Agencies typically rotate islands by day of week, putting together the various agencies there are around 2-4 choices per day. Isabela and Floreana typically have daily tours but the rest depend on your luck.
- Get everything in writing (as with any tour, anywhere).
- Time of departure, be the first to board the boat to get a dry spot in the shade. The sun seems fun for the first half hour, then is awful.
- Keep in a good mood when the snorkeling spot turns out to be the dock next to the port (as in Isabela). Focus on appreciating the flora and fauna.
Here’s how to pack it all in, assuming flying to the main airport on Baltra (GPS).
On midday arrival at Baltra, take the free airline shuttle bus to the ferry, cross to the main island, Santa Cruz, and take either a bus or taxi into town, Pueto Ayora. From airplane to town, budget 1-2 hours.
In town, find a guesthouse to drop your things, then start scouting the agencies to arrange a car for a half-day tour of Santa Cruz in the afternoon and a boat tour for the next day. Some may be closed for lunch, go for the ones that work and eat. Get the next day’s tour settled before heading out in case the agencies close early in the evening.
A half-day tour of Santa Cruz is best to hire a car and driver/guide since much of the island is a protected zone that requires a licensed guide. There are various ranches to see the tortoises, and natural attractions such as lava tubes. Back in town, the prime options are the Charles Darwin Research Station to the east and Tortuga Beach to the west. Both are about a 20-minute walk from town, and the beach is a further 15-minute walk from the park entrance. The Rapid Traveler saw all these in an afternoon, though only reached the beach in time for the rangers to chase him away for the evening close.
For the islands, The Rapid Traveler only had one day and choose Isabela because it was reported to have the most variety of fauna of the day trip choices. It was so-so, the tortoises were in a ranch and most of the time was spent on middling sights in town. But then a trip to Iguana Beach cast away all frustrations and he was enthralled with the moonscape.
Floreana is the other common day tour and that is purported to be stronger in flora.
Sante Fe is the most common dive tour.
Yes, the boat tours feel tame and are a bit frustrating, but in a go/no go decision, The Rapid Traveler is happy with his decision to visit. He saw a great range of the Galapagos’ flora and fauna. He did not really want to dedicate several days to a boat tour and did not have the time to spare anyway. And he saw Quito on the return which is a stunning Andean city to which he would happily return.