How to travel the Galapagos without breaking the bank

How to travel the Galapagos without breaking the bank

When my mother-in-law told us she wanted us to accompany her on a trip for her 60th birthday, we all began planning on where to go and what to do. Top of our list was Vietnam and Cambodia but after some extensive research by my MIL, she wasn’t comfortable with making that trip. When crunch time came, B said “if you could go anywhere, regardless of cost, where would it be?” – Her response… “The Galapagos”.

To get to the Galapagos alone can be costly. There are no flights to the islands outside of Ecuador so you must first make your way to Quito or Guayaquil. From there, most people tour the islands via an organized cruise. Average cost of these run you at least $2,100 per person for the most budget-conscious package. Since B and I are neither cruise people nor did we want to drop that kind of dough on a 6 day trip, we proposed another alternative – stay in local hotels and limit our adventure to two key islands. We’d use the taxi boats to get from point A to point B, and eat at local restaurants.

IMG_0623

After a brief two day stop over in Quito, we boarded our plane to Baltra. The flight takes just over 2 hours, and as you approach the Galapagos Islands, you’re played an instructional video on what to do and not do while visiting the islands. This includes appropriate distances between you and the animals, disposing of garbage, and how to minimize your footprint while exploring. When you land in Baltra, there’s a fee to enter ($100 USD) and from there, a bus takes you to the ferry which transports everyone from the airport island to the main island of Santa Cruz.

The main town of Puerto Ayora is an hour away from the airport and buses run based on flights in and out. If you miss the bus, like we did, you can expect a LONG wait before another one arrives. If you’re lucky, you’ll already have arranged transport, which we didn’t, otherwise you can arrange to have someone come in from town. After waiting in the hot, unsheltered sun, we opted to call in a ride.

IMG_0671

Puerto Ayora is a very walkable town, situated along the water and packed with restaurants, cafes, gift shops, and tour operators. Within walking distance of the town is the Charles Darwin Research Station, where people from all over the world come to study and promote environmental education. We spent a few hours exploring the centre and could have spent more time if our day had permitted but with the heat and it being lunch, it was time to head back into town. Another popular destination just outside of town is Tortuga Bay. It’s quite a trek between the town and the beach so bring plenty of water, but in the end, it’s worth it. The beach is vast and beautiful. On one side, there’s plenty of waves, but as you walk along, you come to a secluded little piece of paradise. Here the water is more calm and is not only popular with the locals, but with iguanas too.

IMG_0805After a few days relaxing in PA, we set sail to our next destination: Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabella. Home to the Galapagos Penguin, Blue Footed Boobies, and Sally-Lightfoot crabs just to name a few, Isla Isabella is an animal lovers paradise. Much more undeveloped compared to neighbouring Santa Cruz, but with still plenty to do. Here we spent much of our time snorkeling with sea lions, relaxing by the beach, and exploring the little town of PV.

IMG_0859.jpg

Outside of PV is the Wall of Tears. After WW2, Ecuadorian prisoners were shipped to Isabella and the island served as a sort of prison. In the beating heat, these exiles were instructed to do useless tasks, one of which was to build this wall… a wall which served no purpose other than to torture those who built it. It’s only a 5 km hike or bike, but there are a lot of things to distract you along the way. If you take a bike, be prepared for a hilly ride and bring lots of water. If you choose to stop along the way, there are bike racks. The best part of PV is the unspoiledness of the surroundings. Sure, there are people, and there is clearly life there, but it’s much quieter and underdeveloped than the main island – which means you really do see more animals out in the wild.

IMG_0884.jpg

To get between islands, you have a few choices. There are the ferries, which are small boats that carry more power than you’d expect. They’re rough… and I do mean rough. As a girl who grew up on the water, and in boats, I even had a hard time sitting in my seat as we bounced around for the duration of our transport. If you’re not a fan of boats, or have a hard time keeping down your cookies, there are small planes that travel between the islands. Since B is more of a flyer than I am (I hate flying), he and his mom took the plane back to Santa Cruz while I stuck to the boat. Either way, you’re in for an adventure.

IMG_0989.jpg

In the end, our trip to the Galapagos didn’t break the bank. Our hotels ran us about $130 per night (we stayed for 6 nights), our meals ran us anywhere between $7 – $15, beer on the islands was about $3, transportation (all in) cost under $200. In the end, it was much more economical, adventurous, and well worth the effort to see penguins in the wild.

IMG_0946.jpg

Advertisements

Middle of the Earth in Quito, Ecuador

Middle of the Earth in Quito, Ecuador

All I knew about Quito before visiting was that it’s home to the equator, it has a very high altitude, and there are a lot of pick pockets. Despite my best efforts to learn more, there was very little information about the city outside of these three subjects. Oh, and potatoes.

Not only was this my first trip to South America, but it was also my first time traveling with my Mother-in-Law, who wanted to take us on a trip for her 60th birthday. After narrowing down a few destinations, it all came down to one place – the Galapagos. For years, she had wanted to go and see the Blue Footed Boobies but never wanted to spend the outrageous costs to go… that’s where we came in. As thrifty travelers, we devised a plan that consisted of a visit to Quito, followed by a flight that would take us to Isla Baltra. We would stay at a local hotel in Puerto Ayora for a few days before taking a local ferry to Isla Isabella. After a few days exploring the island, we’d backtrack, making our way back to the mainland and spending a few nights in Mindo. To start the adventure of a lifetime, we would first visit Quito, and of course, the Middle of the Earth.

It was late in the day when we arrived in Quito, and my Mother-in-Law had already arranged for an airport pick-up. After a quick Hola to our ride, we’re led through the masses of people, almost losing the driver multiple times before exiting the terminal. We all pile into the driver’s tiny SUV, with one of his helper boys (perhaps his son) in the trunk, we make our way through the streets of Quito. The city’s narrow streets sometimes make it difficult for two cars to pass each other safely, and the steep inclines must do a number on the clutches of the vehicles… but somehow, the drivers breeze through it all like it’s second nature.

Quito hotel view

Our hotel is situated in the Old Town, right next to the Plaza de San Francisco. It’s a small inn with a lush courtyard in the centre. Our host greets us with news that our separate rooms are not ready for the night, and ask if it’s okay that we share a room – one night is no big deal so we oblige. After settling in, we head towards La Ronda to grab a bite to eat. Something I learned very quickly in Ecuador is that everything starts with soup. No matter how hot it is in the Galapagos or how chilly it is in the Andes, meals start with soup. La Ronda is a pedestrian only area filled with restaurants, bars, and tour operators. Since there are a lot of tourists that pass by on a daily basis, there’s a heavy police presence. It’s best to leave your purse at home, like I did, and carry only cash in a secure pocket because there’s also a lot of petty crime in the area.

The Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the Earth) is just 26 km from the centre of Quito. While there’s a huge monument here, and a lot of people pay a visit to see this landmark, it is not the true equator as the calculation is slightly off. The local bus is easy to catch to take you there, but if you have a few people (like we did), it makes more sense to hire a driver for the day (which we did). We arranged with our hotel to have someone take us to the equator the next day and it happened to be the sister of our airport driver. When she arrived the next morning, she had brought her two sons along (one of which was one of boys who met us at the airport!), but only the youngest accompanied us on our adventure.

Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve

Cecila and Exile were great tour guides. Cecila’s English was minimal, but she tried her best and was very helpful. Exile was entertaining. At four years old, he became my shadow most of the day and taught me a game which I like to call “Donde esta la bufanda” – “Where is the scarf”. For a good fifteen minutes, he would hide his scarf in the trunk where he was sitting and encourage me to find it. After playing for about twenty minutes, I then only found out that bufanda meant scarf… languages are not my strong suit.

They spent the day taking us to four different landmarks. The first was a pit stop to the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve – Ecuador’s first national park overlooking the Pululahua crater that surrounds the Pululahua volcano. It’s conveniently located near the Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Cristobal Ortega Maila, Museum of the Sun Painter, which was our second stop of the day. After spending some time wandering around the property, Cecila was able to set us up on an English tour. It was a slow day at the museum but the guide walked us through the temple, highlighting its history and the art of the painter, Ortega Maila. The centre of the temple is situated on the equator so the tour guide led us in the test of balancing the egg on a nail – I failed at this task… here anyway. In addition to this, we were taken through an incense ceremony before indulging in some Coca Tea – which quickly eased B’s altitude sickness.

Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Cristobal Ortega Maila

Next visit was Mitad del Mundo, located just around the corner from Ciudad Mitad del Mundo. The tour we jumped onto here was engaging and educational, consisting of several tests to demonstrate the powers of the equator including the egg balancing trick (this time, I succeeded in balancing the egg!), and the water swirling test (clockwise vs counter clockwise in each respective hemisphere). With far fewer people than the neighbouring landmark, you have the option to stamp your passport with a special equator stamp as you exit, which I did.

Egg on nail at the equator

While we had spent the day seeing most of the sights in this area, we had one last stop to make: Ciutada Mitad del Mundo. After spending the day witnessing much of the same, the excitement of visiting had faded and I was ready to go back. If it had been up to me, I would have skipped this last stop as it’s overpriced, touristy, and littered with junky gift shops for a monument that was built on faulty GPS coordinates.

Ciutada Mitad del Mundo

It was a long day – even Exile thought so. We spent the drive back to the hotel reading the Spanish-English dictionary that we had brought along, pointing at images and Exile teaching me how to pronounce the word in Spanish. By the time we arrived back in the Old Town, I was tired, hungry, and had my fill of equator-related stunts, but it was worth it to actually succeed in balancing that egg on a nail.