As I strolled along the waterfront in Puerto Ayora, enjoying the warm sun on my face, I was stopped in my tracks by a huge sea lion. Feeling uncomfortable in its glare, I tried to tiptoe around it, only to be greeted by a row of marine iguanas, quiet and still as statues.
I started to backtrack, but found the pathway now blocked by a group of sea lions in varying sizes.
Welcome to the wildlife paradise, the Galapagos Islands.
This Ecuadorian archipelago of 13 main islands and six smaller islets, situated some 1,000km from the South American continent, and the surrounding marine reserve, are known as a unique “living museum and showcase of evolution”.
Located at the confluence of three ocean currents, the Galapagos — a Unesco World Heritage Site — are a melting pot of marine species and helped naturalist Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Because of their remote location, they are expensive to visit, especially for a budget traveller like me. But since I was already in this part of the world, I couldn’t miss the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see one of the natural wonders of the world. And once you’re there, you can see the Galapagos at a reasonable cost.
With a bit of research and shrewd planning, my stay there turned out to be a lot cheaper than expected.
I flew to Baltra Island, then spent the first few days on the most populated island, Santa Cruz, checking out various travel agencies before scoring a last-minute deal for a five-day and five-night cruise to the northern islands, set to depart a week later.
In the meantime, I explored a few islands on my own.
You do not need to venture far to spot wildlife. Stroll along the waterfront in Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz, and you will see plenty of sea lions and marine iguanas — the world’s only marine lizards found only in the Galapagos — basking in the sun.
Seagulls, pelicans and other birds fly around, while bright red crabs cling onto the jetty pillars. At night, dozens of baby sharks swim around the jetties, attracted by the bright lights.
The Charles Darwin Research Station (free entry) offers a close encounter with gigantic Galapagos tortoises, land iguanas and other animals found in the region. There are also many free beaches you can visit.
Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz boasts long stretches of white sand and turquoise waters. Along the 3km walk there from Puerto Ayora, you will pass by a small salt flat where cacti, finches and lava lizards abound.
At the beach, marine iguanas of all sizes sun themselves on the sand. If you get lucky like I did, you will see sea lions frolicking in the waters, just a few metres away.
You can hire snorkelling gear in town for US$5 to US$10 per day (S$6.50 to S$13) and explore the small lake on the other side of the beach.
There are many lagoons around Santa Cruz, where you can swim or snorkel for free. My favourite was the spectacular Las Grietas Lagoon, an inland body of emerald-green water surrounded by high lava walls.
On the other main islands, San Cristobal and Isabela, there are also many beaches, lagoons and other free attractions.
You can go on short hikes without having to engage a naturalist guide, rent a bicycle and explore on your own, or go kayaking or surfing.
If you love sea lions, make San Cristobal your base because there are more of them there than people. Prices for hotel accommodations and food are also slightly lower there.
For those who can afford it, a day trip to an uninhabited island is an option. Sailing on a yacht usually costs US$90 to US$160 and includes snorkelling or diving, snacks and boat transfer.
I visited Bartolomé, a barren northern island with a volcanic cone that is easy to climb and offers great views of the surrounding islands. In the crystal-clear waters, you can spot marine life without having to go underwater. We got lucky and saw some Galapagos penguins, the only species that lives north of the equator in the wild.
The cruise took me to Isabela and a few northern islands like Santiago and North Seymour.
I got to observe all types of wildlife on land, in the sky and in the sea from the boat. I also snorkelled and enjoyed taking in the sights of the flora and fauna on the shore.
I saw the funny-looking blue footed boobies doing a mating dance, flightless cormorants drying their sparse wings in the sun, great frigate birds inflating their bright red gular sac like a balloon to attract the opposite sex and Galapagos fur seals lazing on the rocks.
I also swam with turtles, penguins, sea lions, white tip reef sharks, octopus and other varieties of marine creatures.
It was an expensive cruise for a poor backpacker, but well worth my money.
Tips on visiting the Galapagos
CRUISE OR LAND TOUR?
There are two ways to tour the Galapagos — on boat cruises and land-based tours.
Cruises, which leave from the larger populated islands of San Cristobal or Santa Cruz, are usually a live-aboard experience of four to 12 days. There are four types for different budgets.
On a land-based tour, one stays in a hotel on a larger populated island and take day trips to nearby uninhabited islands.
While this option can be more economical, the range of islands that can be visited is limited by distance (the southernmost island, Española, is 220km away from the northernmost island, Darwin). The variety of animal species that can be seen is also fewer than if you opt for a cruise.
WHEN TO GO
Being located on the Equator makes the Galapagos an ideal destination to visit anytime.
From December to May, the water and air temperatures are slightly warmer and the seas tend to be calmer, making it suitable for snorkelling and diving.
This is also a good time to observe birds mating or sea turtles nesting on the beaches.
From June to November, the colder and nutrient-rich waters attract fish and sea birds, and therefore, experienced divers. This is also the mating season for blue-footed boobies.
Peak seasons, when prices shoot up, are from mid-June to early September and mid-December to mid-January.
TRAVELLING ON THE CHEAP
• Air ticket: Be flexible with your dates and monitor the prices for discounts. I got my round-trip ticket from Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador to Baltra island for US$362 after tracking prices for two weeks. In general, a round-trip ticket to the islands costs US$380 to US$550. It is usually cheaper to fly into and out of San Cristobal. For travel during the high season, book months in advance to secure a lower price. Don’t buy a ticket meant for locals and residents, who get discounts of up to 50 per cent of what foreigners pay. You could be fined and made to pay the difference, or be stopped from boarding
• Accommodation: Don’t book online. Instead, walk around to check for availability after arrival. Rooms are usually available except during the high season or if you want to stay in a popular hotel. If you plan to stay for more than three days, ask for a discount.
I snared a twin room with a private bathroom and air conditioning for US$30 (priced online for US$40) in a guesthouse. This was discounted to US$25 a night for a one-week stay. A bed in a dormitory normally costs US$20 online and a private single room at least US$30, but it can be as low as US$15 if you walk in.
• Getting around: Fast boats connect the main islands. A one-way ticket costs US$25 to US$30. However, all boats originate from Santa Cruz; there are no boats running between the other islands.
• Cruises and tours: If possible, book only when you get to the islands. There are many last-minute walk-in deals. The agencies located away from the waterfront offer better deals. A six-day cruise on a Tourist Superior Class yacht can be advertised online for US$1,800 to US$2,200, but you can get last-minute deals for US$1,800 or less, if you are good at bargaining. I managed to book a five-day and five-night cruise to the northern islands for US$1,200. A traveller, who booked online six months earlier paid US$2,200. Visit www.galapagoscruiselinks.com for information on cruise dates, routes and prices.
• Eating and shopping: Most goods are imported from the mainland, so buy things like sunblock and swimsuits before you arrive. If you dine out, avoid the eateries at the waterfront. The further inland you go, the lower the prices.
There are no direct flights from Singapore to Ecuador. KLM and United Airlines offer non-direct flights to Quito, Ecuador’s capital.
Flights to the Galapagos are offered by three airlines (TAME, LAN-Ecuador and Avianca). They depart from Guayaquil or Quito and fly to Baltra Island (next to Santa Cruz) or San Cristobal.
At the airport on mainland Ecuador, you have to obtain a US$20 tourist transit card before checking in. Upon arrival, you have to pay an entrance fee in cash for the Galapagos National Park (US$100 for non-Ecuadorian adults and US$50 for non-Ecuadorian children).
Philip Lee finds a cheap way to get around when he hops on the buses that go to interesting places on the island
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Soak in the arts scene, gear up for adventure and savour yummy delights in just one weekend