1 – YOU REALLY HAVE TO WANT TO GET HERE TO GET HERE – It’s not just the matter of your flight from your home country. Once you get to Quito or Guayaquil, you still have a two-hour flight to Baltra island, where the airport is located. From Baltra you must now take a bus to a ferry which will then take you on a 5-minute ride across a canal to the island of Santa Cruz where you will then have to take another bus for a 45-minute to 1-hour ride across the mountain, through three different ecosystems, into town. And you may still have to take a taxi to your hotel, depending on its location. And by the way, this is not the end of the road. Santa Cruz is just a stop – a transfer port, if you will – to Cristobal, Isabel and other isalnds in the archipelago.
2 – CHARGE ME ANOTHER FEE, WON’T YOU? – Even before you leave the airport in Quito or Guayaquil, the fees to visit Galapagos start coming. The immigration office asks basic questions – what is the nature of your visit, how many days you plan to stay, and if you are bringing in any plants or organic materials – then the officer says that’ll be $10. The questions are essentially the same questions asked by the customs officer once you arrive on the island. Then you slide over to another officer, this one said to be from the national parks department, and without even looking up, he barks $100. One hundred and ten dollars and you haven’t yet seen so much as a turtle. And so what was that $10 for again?
Then if you intend to visit other island, and you do, there are “exit” fees, such as the $5 you pay to leave the island of Isabela. There’s a guy at the dock just standing there, who surprises you with the command $5 please, as you make your way to the boat ramp. So now the fee count is up to $115, with just two islands visited. And I haven’t included transportation costs, such as the minimum $25 to go from one island to another, $50 round trip, and a bunch of other expensive excursions you “must” take to see points of interests on the islands, such as $60 per person to snorkel the famed tunnels; $30 to rent a horse for a couple of hours; $15 daily for a bicycle. It all adds up!
3 – BOUNCE BOUNCE BOUNCE, THUMP! – Santa Cruz is just one of several islands. To get the full Galapagos experience, you must visit other islands. But that requires a ride on a lancha, a small speed boat that ferries passengers between islands. The only trouble with these boats is they provide an incredibly bumpy ride across the ocean. You don’t glide across the ocean in these boats. You bounce across.
From Isabela to Santa Cruz, that’s two hours of your head being snapped in every direction and you trying to hold on to your hat and lunch. If you get sea sick, don’t even think about getting on any of these boats. And if you think you might get sea sick, pop a pill. If you fear these rough ocean crossings, you might as well forget about coming to Galapagos. You’ll just be wasting time and money. In Galapagos, much of the fun is being in and out on the water.
4 – YOU TALK FUNNY – People in Galapagos have a funny way of referring to other people. If they say your name to another person, they add the equivalent of THE before the person’s name.
Example: “I saw the Michael yesterday and he was walking with the James. They were going to the home of the Brenda. She was planning a party for the Julio.”
So in Spanish, with the male and feminine, it’s EL for male and LA for female. So el Michael; la Michelle; el Daniel. La Maria. La Angela. El Pete. El Jose. La Jane. In English, it would be the Michael; the Michelle; the Daniel; the Maria, etc. Get it? Strange, huh?
5 – YOUR CREDIT IS NO GOOD – Most places in Galapagos, including hotels and restaurants – do not accept credit cards, so bring stacks of cash. And it would be a mistake to try to wait until you get to the islands to try to extract cash from the few ATMs around. They often don’t work. And if you think walking into the very few banks – there are no banks or ATMs on some of the islands – to get a cash advance on your credit card is wise, think again. The lines are long and slow and you will spend a good part of your day there probably only to learn that the teller can’t help you for one reason or another. Bring plenty of cash from the mainland and save yourself some huge headaches.
6 – POWER FAILURE – This is Ecuador and just as in other parts of the country, power outages are common. It happens in developing countries. So if you need to shave or charge your phone or do anything that requires electricity, do it while the power is on. Don’t put it off. In Galapagos, the power outages seem to happen mostly in the mornings for at least a couple of hours. So no coffee for you, either!
7 – SHARK MEAT – These islands are right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and there are very strong currents. You get to a beach and it looks beautiful and inviting but pay attention to posted signs and heed the warnings not to swim, no matter how good a swimmer you think you are. You will be dragged out to sea, plain and simple. If you are a strong swimmer, you may be able to fight your way back to shore, but why take that risk? There are no lifeguards on duty anywhere. You swim at your own risk. There are beautiful spots where there are no undercurrents and where the ocean is heavenly crystal blue and you don’ unnecessarily risk your life.
Locals have tales of how many people have been swept out and drowned. It’s amazing how many people ignore the posted warnings or the warnings from locals. You see people swimming where they are not supposed to, don’t be a fool and follow suit.
8- DO SCIENTIST EVEN DANCE? – There’s very little nightlife, but you didn’t come here to party, did you? You came to do marine research J. On Santa Cruz there are a couple of dance clubs and several bars and restaurants with bars, but they pale in comparison to big city clubs. They also close earlier than most big city spots. If you want to party you will have to round up a few friends and make your own good time. Consequently, nightlife means going home early, wandering the streets, or sitting some place quietly having a beer.
9 – CAN WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE? – Everybody talks about the same thing! Sit in any bar or restaurant and at every table the discussion is about scuba diving, snorkeling, tours, and how the day was spent. But there are also a lot of marine scientists and researchers here and their discussions are at once interesting and boring. So overhearing a discussion from a bunch of researchers about turtle population can be interesting to a point then suddenly lose appeal. Does anybody on these islands talk about sex?
10 – I’LL GIVE YOU A GUIDED TOUR!– The whole system in place is set up to take your money! You can’t go here, you can’t do this, you can’t do that alone – you need a guide. Hogwash! If you get connected with the right people you can see a good amount of nature and the wildlife without paying insane amounts of money for a guided tour. For $15, I rented a mountain bike and saw an incredible amount of stuff on Isabela island. Did the same on horseback. Be resourceful. Try hitching a ride on a boat and offer to pay them something – perhaps in exchange cook a meal.
Of course, there are some spots that require local knowledge, but even then you can ask around an strike a deal with a local person. I saw a man walking on the beach and we chatted for a bit and he said he was going diving for octopus. I asked where and he said just up the beach. I asked if I could tag along. We ended up in this incredible spot full of all sorts of marine life, in the water and on land. Cost? $0. And I made a friend.