Do you go on a cruise, or do you stay in a hotel and find your own way around? Do you need a bag of money, or is the Galápagos a destination for low-budget travelers as well? Let’s take a look what the islands have to offer, and to whom.
“Look there’s one. And there’s another!”
Words from the seat behind me made me sit up straight and look out of the window. All I saw were grazing cows. What were they talking about?
“And another one!”
I spotted something resembling a big turtle shell but I couldn’t be sure. Even though the bus was driving at a snail’s pace over the narrow, unpaved road, we had passed it too fast. And besides, giant tortoises grazing among cattle? That couldn’t be true, could it?
I considered Disney Land. Had somebody put a number of empty shells in the fields to give naïve tourists the impression of tortoises living here? In view of the big tourist business of the Galápagos Islands, the thought wasn’t all that awkward.
My skepticism disappeared only after I noticed a shell actually moving. Plus I saw legs and a head. It must be a living creature after all! I sat up even straighter and nudged Coen next to me. “You have to look to the right. That’s where they are!”
The bus stopped because a tortoise was crossing the path. We all hang out of our windows with cameras, clicking away.
It’s true what visitors will tell you after their visit: on the Galápagos, animals don’t care whether you are there or not. We saw this everywhere during our one-week stay in these fabulous islands. The herbivorous land reptile was totally undisturbed by our presence and the oohs and aahs we cried. It simply continued what it was doing before it had an audience: crossing the unpaved road.
We had flown from Quito, Ecuador’s capital on the mainland, to the island of Santa Cruz, one of the few islands inhabited by tortoises. In the harbor we boarded our cruise ship, but first the bus stopped at a reserve for these animals. It was a fantastic introduction to the sole reason for visiting the Galápagos Islands: watching wildlife.
How to Visit the Galápagos Islands
There are various ways to visit the Galápagos and there isn’t one perfect way. It all has to do with your preferences for traveling and your budget. Fortunately, the islands are no longer a place only the rich can afford to go to.
Over the past five years, tourism on the Galápagos Islands has undergone a major shift. Five years ago, the Galápagos listed some 1000-1200 beds on cruise ships and 300 hotel beds on the islands. While the number on cruise ships has leveled off, the number of hotel beds has increased ten-fold and many hotels are no longer for the luxurious travelers at that. It is quite possible to spend no more than $25 for a hotel room and you can eat in simple restaurants or at street stalls, for as little as $5.
Reasons to go on a cruise
- You don’t have to organize anything yourself once you have booked your trip.
- The trip is efficient in the sense that much of the sailing is done either while you sleep or while you eat. This leaves maximum time for activities. Good for people with limited time.
- You’re part of a multiple-day package and you receive a lot of information in manageable portions over the course of those days. You leave with a pretty complete idea of what the Galápagos are and what they are about.
Reasons to go land-based (meaning staying in one or more hotels and organizing day trips from there)
- You don’t have the money to go on a cruise (note that you can easily book day trips on boats from the inhabited islands).
- You’re prone to being seasick.
- You dictate your own agenda, which may leave more space for lingering at a pool or on a beach – a good idea when traveling with kids.
- You’re not constantly surrounded by other people, which gives you more individual space.
Which Way is Best?
We did both, and either way we saw a lot of wildlife. To give you an impression: We spotted marine iguanas, numerous birds among which those funny looking blue-footed and red-footed boobies, sea lions, land iguanas, colorful lizards and lightfooted sally crabs.
During the cruise we snorkeled on several occasions, spotting sharks, stingrays, thousands of colorful fish, and were accompanied by sea lions (we regretted not having an underwater camera).
Before we went, I had doubted whether we should visit the Galápagos, afraid of ending up paying big time for a Disney Land experience. It wasn’t like that at all. Although I preferred the independent part of the trip, encountering wildlife during hikes on Santa Cruz Island, I did see the advantage of our cruise as well. It took us to islands that you can’t visit on day trips and although some animals abound on many of the islands, other spots are unique to certain species.
My advice: if you can afford it, do both.
This article first appeared on Solitary Wanderer.