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Looking for an alternative to Galapagos cruises? Land-based tours are cheaper and offer a more adventurous introduction to the islands

The Galapagos Islands are famous for their giant tortoises.

By Rob McFarland

“Just relax,” says Carlos, our snorkelling guide. Easier said than done when you’re about to be plunged into a cave full of sharks.

I take a deep breath and he guides me underwater into a murky, sand-bottomed hollow where I come face-to-fin with a dozen whitetip reef sharks. Most are lying motionless on the bottom (whitetips are one of the few sharks that don’t need to swim to breathe) but two are circling ominously. Thankfully, they’re harmless, unlike their more aggressive oceanic cousins.

After 10 seconds I motion to come back up and we both return, grinning, to the surface. He turns to the rest of the group. “OK, who’s next?”

We’re snorkelling in a shallow protected lagoon on the south coast of Isabela Island in the Galapagos Islands, 1000 kilometres west of mainland Ecuador. So far, we’ve seen two sea turtles perform a mesmerising underwater ballet, watched a Pacific seahorse skip daintily along the seabed and spotted colourful damselfish, sergeant majors and parrotfish.

Impressive as all these creatures are, none are on the Galapagos’ Big 15. Like Africa’s Big Five, this is a list of the 15 most iconic animals and birds you can see across the archipelago.

The Galapagos are home to wildlife found nowhere else in the world.

Few things fire up the competitive juices like a bucket list and it has already spawned some good-natured rivalry among our group. We’ve been told Isabela is home to 12 of the 15, so from now on it’s all eyes peeled. We clamber back into the boat and cruise along the coast to Los Tuneles, a labyrinthine network of lava tunnels and arches.

En route we have our first Big 15 encounter – two Galapagos fur seals basking on a rocky outcrop.

As Carlos threads the boat through the narrow channels, we pass a pair of noisy Galapagos sea lions (number two) and after clambering onto the maze of solidified lava, see two blue-footed boobies (number three). As their name suggests, these marine birds have striking baby-blue feet, which they show off during a comical foot-tapping mating dance.

By comparison, the grey feet of the Nazca booby are downright drab, but we don’t mind because a sighting on the way home brings our Big 15 tally to four. Not bad for a morning’s work.

Most visitors explore the Galapagos on an expedition-style cruise ship or sailing boat. However, restrictions on the number of vessels allowed in the region have made land-based programmes increasingly popular.

The Galapagos marine iguana.

They make a compelling alternative for those who need more flexibility in terms of timing and for anyone whose sea legs are a little shaky. You can find accommodation of varying standards on all four of the inhabited Galapagos Islands, which introduces the intriguing possibility of an island-hopping adventure.

We started our trip with a night at the award-winning Finch Bay hotel on Santa Cruz Island before a scenic 30-minute flight delivered us to Isabela and the stylish embrace of Scalesia Lodge.

Set on 16 hectares of verdant forest in the south of the island, Scalesia has spacious safari-style glamping tents with large outdoor decks and modern ensuite bathrooms. All meals are taken in the main lodge, a contemporary two-storey building with sweeping ocean views. For two days we use the lodge as a base for excursions to see the island’s extraordinary array of wildlife.

Isabela has more giant tortoises than anywhere else in the Galapagos and we have our fifth Big 15 encounter at the island’s Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre.

The operation has successfully re-introduced more than 2000 tortoises into the wild and we spend an enjoyable hour wandering between pens watching youngsters clambering over each other to feed, their long necks darting in and out of their shells like sock puppets.

A view over the vast Sierra Negra crater on Santa Isabela Island.

Back at the coast, we visit a wetland that’s a popular hangout for American flamingos (number six), flightless cormorants (seven) and marine iguanas (eight). These grizzled, prehistoric-looking reptiles spend the day basking on the boardwalks before heading back to the ocean to feed. Like most of the wildlife in the Galapagos, they are willfully oblivious to our presence and we frequently have to step over them to get past.

Land-based tourism on Isabela is relatively new compared with neighbouring Santa Cruz and this is reflected in the laidback vibe of its main town Puerto Villamil. Fronting a glorious arc of sandy beach, it’s a relaxed hamlet with a smattering of backpackers, restaurants and tour operators.

While we’re all admiring the sunset, Sandra, our eagle-eyed guide, spots a pair of frigatebirds soaring high above us. Tick. Nine down, six to go.

After each excursion, we return to the lodge where we’re greeted with cold towels, freshly squeezed juice and platters of homemade empanadas.

Most guests stay with full board and the food is an unexpected highlight. Breakfasts include traditional Ecuadorian dishes such as fried plantain with bacon and cheese while lunches and dinners are feasts of ceviche, swordfish and lobster.

On our last day, Sandra informs us that the most elusive of the Big 15 is the Galapagos hawk. Only a few have been spotted in Sierra Negra, the shield volcano 15 kilometres east of the lodge, so we start the 1200-metre trek to its summit with low expectations.

Five of Isabela’s six volcanoes are active but Sierra Negra is by far the friskiest. The last major eruption was in June 2018 when lava poured into the ocean from five separate fissures, creating 1.3 kilometres of new land.

It’s only when we reach the edge of the caldera that we understand why sightings are so rare. Not only is the volcano almost permanently cloaked in swirling mist, but the caldera is the world’s second largest, a whopping 10 kilometres in circumference.

Needless to say, we don’t spot any hawks but we’re consoled by dramatic views into the volcano’s black, lava-filled interior.

Purists may claim the Galapagos’ Big 15 is just another example of tick-a-box tourism, but it’s a fun concept and a great way to engage younger travellers. In two days, we spot a respectable nine, which means we have at least six reasons to come back.
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Credit: Stuff, www.stuff.co.nz

7 thoughts on “Looking for an alternative to Galapagos cruises? Land-based tours are cheaper and offer a more adventurous introduction to the islands

  1. My Galapagos adventure travel experience earlier in June was NOT highly competitive as yours was, apparently. Seeking the Big 15 or whatever you call it, is ridiculously competitive when the quiet, human-free environment is what the Galapagos experience is all about , IMO. If you relish competition and noise, maybe visit NYC — Our young crew and young travelers did not. All of our group traveling independently was seeking peace and quiet conversation in this lovely, pristine ocean wilderness area. We did indeed enjoy the heck out of our motor sailing vessel, the BEAGLE and I recommend spending the money and NOT seeing the BIG 15 but relaxing, watching the boobies, swimming with green turtles, hiking on land, diving , kayaking and lying on the deck of this wonderful old vessel named after Darwin’s original the HMS BEAGLE. THis is my take on a happy sailing adventure!

  2. I grew up on the Galapagos ….I agree with the comment below entirely. The only way to experience Galapagos close up and personal is by getting away from the highly built up areas…and by the way the photo you use at the top of the article is NOT Galapagos….
    Johanna Angermeyer

    1. Johanna – I have heard your family name in the history of the islands. What an interesting legacy! I am connected to islands through family off the coast of U.S. state Massachusetts, both Martha’s VIneyard as an adult and many childhood summers spent on Nantucket Island. Now sadly, these islands are less wild places — both are chic, costly resorts. My maternal grandparents were born on Nantucket and they inherited storytelling, sailing and a whaling legacy to share with their grandkids! It gave me a feeling as a kid of what islands and island people are — freer somehow … these days, we need our wild places on this planet more than ever.
      Ecuador and the world, is a different matter entirely in 2019. The wild South Pacific Galápagos experience under sail is rare. I so appreciated the ocean wilderness experience that I had in early June this year, especially the diving and the kayaking. It was spiritually life-changing as well as life-recharging. I am here in the past 9 years living as a foreign resident fulltime and your islands, the warmth and kindness of so many Ecuadorians stands out to me. Considering the tourism load on the islands, from what I saw Ecuador govt reglas reinforced good conservation practices on the islands . It was all remarkable. Thank you, Ecuador — especially the kind, funny crew of Ecuadorians, including the fine services of guide Diego Iglesias on the BEAGLE. Susan Schloth

  3. To each his own. I’ll leave it to all the lorenzo’s to tell you the “right” way to do things, but for me, I decided to see the Galapagos on the cheap. I got a sale priced ticket on Lan (see how long ago it was?) and paid $111 for a round trip flight from Guayaquil to Santa Cruz. I spent 5 nights at Hotel España for $30 per night, ate like a king most nights at los Kioskos, including an enormous 3 lb lobster. I ate many great meals at il Giordino, and enjoyed many hours talking with the wonderful Argentinian man that owns it and who runs it for love of food and people, and not love of money. I rented a bicycle and enjoyed the heck out of Puerto Ayora, including the Charles Darwin Center, took a trip to a private estate to talk with the giant tortoises, went to see the flamingos, got personal with all the iguanas (land and sea) that roam freely in Puerto Ayora, went to a place where the sea lions insisted they were the owners of all the small boats anchored there as they sunned themselves on the decks of those boats.

    I took one day trip via a speed boat powered by 3 300 HP outboard engines (a kick in itself) to San Cristóbal where the peace and tranquility was refreshing. Cost: $80 There I saw all the sharks, iguanas and boobies I cared to, but couldn’t find many tourists.

    I did the whole thing for less than $500. You can do your Galapagos thing any way that tickles your fancy and you can also tune out anyone that tells you that your way wasn’t the right way.

    1. To do it for $500, you definitely have to limit it to Santa Cruz. Next time you come, you should take a couple days and head over the Isabela (the speedboat is $30 each way). Whenever I have visitors, I always take them to Isabela. If you haven’t been to the tunnels, you really haven’t seen Galapagos.

  4. If you want to visit on the cheap, there are a lot of land-based options. However, if you’re staying at the Finch Bay and Scalesia Lodge, you might as well pay for a boat. Those places are at the very high end of the lodging spectrum. Land-based visits are going to limit you to Santa Cruz (the main arrival point for most), San Cristobal (quieter but not much to see) and Isabela (a must-see destination regardless of how you visit). The adventurous will squeeze in Floreana, but more than a couple days there and you’ve seen it all (though it is perfect if you just want to get away from people … and internet).

    However, the only way you can really get out and see all the stuff David Attenborough showed you is by taking a multi-day boat tour. There are 4, 5 and 7-day tours from small 16-passenger boats all the way up to 96 passenger luxury ships. The ships take you to places where nobody lives, places that are only accessible by boat. The second photo from the top shown above is from the top of Bartolome Island. It’s the photo you see in all the travel brochures and it’s only accessible by boat, either one you live on for the week or a costly day trip from the Itabaca Canal. The first photo, I have no idea but I’d guess some beach in Hawaii with a giant tortoise photoshopped on?

    I wrote a pretty detailed post awhile back on another article about the Galapagos detailing how to do a land-based tour on the cheap, where to stay, what not to miss, etc., but I have no idea where it is (maybe the editor can provide a link). One thing I will reiterate is if you’re coming for only a short time and want to get the most bang for your buck, just head over to Isabela, rent a bike and ride out to the wall of tears. You’ll see a lot of the Big 15 just doing that. However, if you really want to see the wild Galapagos you’ve seen on TV, it’s worth it to save up and take an expedition on a boat. There really is no comparison.

    Full disclosure, I’m the ship’s doctor on the National Geographic Endeavour II (presently anchored at Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal Island). I’ve seen more of Galapagos than most people who were born here because the places we go are strictly regulated by the National Park and not freely accessible. I will say that the vast range in prices for boats mostly comes down to the accommodations onboard, the food, the service and the experience of the guides (some are better than others but I’ve never seen a bad one). There are boats for every price range (and a lot of last minute deals sold in town for unsold spaces; much cheaper than booking online or through an agency on the mainland). Regardless of which boat you travel on, the visitor sites are the same for everyone. Obviously I’m partial to my boat because it’s awesome, but there are many options available depending on how much time you have and how much you’re willing to spend. Your mind will be blown no matter which boat you choose.

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