Is Galapagos Worth It ?

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What to expect when visiting Galapagos especially if you are sailing there on your private yacht? What are some of the fees, regulations, restrictions and options? What are some of the animals you will see and which are the best places to visit? And ultimately, is it worth it going there at all?

  • Overview
  • The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of some 130 volcanic rocks, islets and islands over 500 nautical miles west of continental Ecuador, of which they are a part. 97% of the land area of the Galápagos Islands have been designated a national park since 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only 3% of the total area – Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana and Isabela islands – is inhabited by over 25,000 permanent residents, with Spanish the official language, and these are the only islands cruisers can visit.

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  • Darwin’s Evolution
  • Isolated far from the South American continent, the islands have sprung a population of unique endemic species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. In 1835, during the voyage of the survey ship the Beagle, the young naturalist Charles Darwin collected and studied specimens of wildlife which led to his theory of evolution by natural selection, noting that the finches and the giant land tortoises have developed and adapted differently to the different islands and habitats.

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  • Popular Destination
  • Thanks to their extraordinary fauna and history the Galapagos Islands they have earned a status of a precious and fragile Natural Heritage for Humanity protected by the Park Service. The abundance of wildlife and its unique character has also transformed the area into a popular and very attractive tourist destination with ever-growing number of visitors in recent years, as well as ever-growing permanent population due to the booming economy and influx of tourist dollars.

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  • World’s Most Expensive Sailing Destination
  • This increasing popularity is endangering the local ecosystem and is leading to incessant national and international conservation efforts. Consequently, the Ecuadorian government has imposed a multitude of restrictions and fees to be observed and paid by those visiting and living in Galapagos, making it one of the world’s most expensive and at the same time most restricted places. As a result, the Galapagos Islands have become a privileged somewhat overrated tourist destination, affordable only for the rich, mostly elderly first-world tourists. Backpackers and budget travelers, as well as cruisers with limited means are not so welcome.

    We considered not going to Galapagos because of the high fees and the difficult and long process for obtaining permission, but we were fortunate. Thanks to the help of a few generous individuals who supported us, we managed to raise funds and cover part of the fees.

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  • A Strategic Stopover
  • Galapagos lies directly on the path of sailing boats between Panama and the Marquesas, which for sailors is the longest open-water passage in the world. It is a strategic point- the last land before the ocean- ideal for dropping anchor, getting fuel, provisions and water, and resting for a couple of days after 5-600NM of sailing from Panama or Ecuador (which in the doldrums can take over a week), before the long non-stop passage west. But unfortunately, there is no legal option to land in Galapagos even for a day without being charged amazing entry fees. We have heard from a few different sources, that the Ecuadorian and the Galapagos governments are NOT trying to attract and accommodate cruiser; on the contrary- they “don’t need us” on their territory. Which is a shame considering that the islands are far from mainland and should naturally act as welcoming refuge for boaters. Maybe this has been the case years ago, but today the situation has changes and is getting worse and worse. Most fellow cruisers we spoke to are similarly disappointed from this situation.

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  • Fees, Procedures, Options
  • There are a two option when sailing to Galapagos:
    1. Emergency Stopover – you can visit only one port with your boat for 72 hours up to 21 days for which you don’t need an official permission (Autografo). In this case, you cannot visit Isabela Island (which is the most beautiful one) because it is not an official port of entry. You can only arrive and remain in San Cristobal or Sanata Cruz.
    2. Multiple islands– You can sail to 2-4 different islands (lately is only 3- San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela), but you have to apply for Autografo with an agent 6-8 weeks before arrival.

    The following information is from www.noonsite.com where you can find more details about Galapagos procedures and fees:

    Various fees need to be paid and do vary from port to port and agent to agent. The most expensive port appears to be Santa Cruz. All official expenses have to be paid in “cash” on the islands, paying with a Credit Card is not an option.

    As a summary:-
    For a 1 Island visit – Expect to pay around $600 to $700 for a yacht with 2 persons on board. Each additional person on board will incur an additional $100 National Parks permit fee.[Will be increased to $200 in 2017]
    For a 2-5 island visit – this requires an Autographo which only your agent can obtain. Total cost, including agent fees, should be approx. $1,200-$1,500 for a 2 person boat (excluding zarpe fees). Each additional person will cost $100 for the National Parks permit. Normally an Autographo is obtained via e-mail well in advance of your arrival.
    In addition, there is a fee of $30 per boat (‘migration fee’) for moving between ports. This does not apply to a 1 island visit.
    Break down of Clearance Fees
    These are approximate, they do tend to vary a little depending on which agent you use:
    Port Captain Fee: US$12.50 per gross tonnage
    Clearance in and out: is US$25.00 each way [every time you leave one port to go another]
    Galapagos Migratory Cards: US$20 per person
    Quarantine/Introduce Species (ABG) inspection: US$100
    Diver for hull inspection: US$100
    Copies and transport for authorities: $50.
    Garbage disposal: $30.
    Immigration Fees
    A personal immigration card per person costs $15 and there are no costs for clearing out.
    Agent Fees
    The choice of which agent you use is entirely yours to make. The fees for the agent are not fixed.
    For a one-port stop (including port captain and Immigration, taxis and copies of passports), US$200-250 is the normal asking price for an average size yacht.
    Agent fees for an autographo are between $450 – $650.
    It is not uncommon to get fees reduced if you negotiate. If the fees asked for are unacceptable you may ask for another agent. Ask for a clear breakdown of which fees your agent is including in his total cost.
    National Park Fees
    There is an admission fee to the Galapagos National Park area of $100 per person ($50 per child under 12) and must be paid by anyone visiting the Park area. Ensure that your agent obtains your park pass and gives it to you to keep on board. [ This $100 fee per person is expected to double even triple in 2017]
    National Park Cruising Fees
    This is $200 per person, per day. You will hear this high dollar figure quoted occasionally. This daily fee DOES NOT apply to the average cruiser who is moving from island to island, anchoring in the major ports. It only applies to (typically) larger luxury yachts who want to actually cruise the park areas outside the major ports.
    These boats are also required to take on a licensed guide who will cost $350 or more per day for this service.
    Fumigation
    A fumigation fee of $70 may be charged on boats that stay longer than 72 hours. If yachts arrive without a fumigation certificate, the fee to obtain one in the Galapagos is $4 per metre of the yacht’s length.
    Other Fees
    Overtime must be paid if checking in outside office hours, 08:00-17:00 Monday to Friday. The overtime fees are almost double the normal fee. Request that your agent complete clearing DURING office hours.
    There are also municipal fees occasionally collected in the main ports and always collected from incoming passengers at one of the two airports.
    All fees quoted here are in US$ and are subject to change by the Ecuadorian government without notice.
    Last updated December 2015. (From http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Galapagos )

    It doesn’t end with these fees. Even though there are many places on the islands you can visit for free, the most beautiful ones are usually off limits unless you join an expensive guided tour (or if you are on a special scientific expedition). For us, as for many other people, visiting Galapagos has been a dream-come-true. But it also was a bit of a disappointment due to all these fees, formalities, restrictions as well as the whole tourist aspect of it.

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  • A Difficult Choice
  • Unfortunately, many cruisers are faced with a tough choice to make when sailing west of Panama and Ecuador. On one hand, you have a rather large amount of cash in entry fees; on the other- the possibility to visit (maybe only once in your lifetime) this unique archipelago teaming with wildlife. Which one would you sacrifice?

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  • Galapagos Animals
  • The marine iguanas are so famously homely, even Charles Darwin piled on, describing them as “hideous-looking” and “most disgusting, clumsy lizards.” It’s true, they’re not pretty, with their wide-set eyes, smashed-in faces, spiky dorsal scales, and knotty, salt-encrusted heads. But what these unusual creatures lack in looks they make up for with their amazing and unique ecological adaptations. Scientists figure that land-dwelling iguanas from South America must have drifted out to sea millions of years ago on logs or other debris, eventually landing on the Galápagos. From that species emerged marine iguanas, which spread to nearly all the islands of the archipelago. Each island hosts marine iguanas of unique size, shape and color.
    They look fierce, but are actually gentle herbivores, surviving exclusively on underwater algae and seaweed. Their short, blunt snouts and small, razor-sharp teeth help them scrape the algae off rocks, and their laterally flattened tails let them move crocodile-like through the water. Their claws are long and sharp for clinging to rocks on shore or underwater in heavy currents. They have dark gray coloring to better absorb sunlight after their forays into the frigid Galápagos waters. And they even have special glands that clean their blood of extra salt, which they ingest while feeding.
    Their population is not well known, but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands. They are under constant pressure from non-native predators like rats, feral cats, and dogs, who feed on their eggs and young. They are protected throughout the archipelago and are considered vulnerable to extinction. (from www.nationalgeographic.com)

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    The Galápagos penguin is endemic to the Galápagos Islands. It is the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild thanks to the cool temperatures of the Humboldt Current and cool waters from great depths brought up by the Cromwell Current. They average 49 cm long and 2.5 kg in weight. It is the second smallest species of penguin after the little penguin. The Galápagos penguin is found primarily on Fernandina Island and the west coast of Isabela Island, but small populations are scattered on other islands in the Galápagos archipelago. The northern tip of Isabela crosses the equator, meaning that some Galápagos penguins live in the northern hemisphere.
    They eat small schooling fish, mainly mullet, sardines, and sometimes crustaceans, searching for food only during the day and normally within a few kilometers of their breeding site. They depend on the cold nutrient-rich currents to bring them food. It is endangered and the rarest of the penguin species. Because of the Galápagos penguin’s smaller size, it has many predators. On land, the penguins are preyed upon by crabs, snakes, rice rats, cats, hawks, and owls. While in the water they are preyed upon by sharks, fur seals, and sea lions. They face many hazards due to humans, as well as the hazards of unreliable food resources and volcanic activity. Illegal fishermen may interrupt the penguins’ nesting, and they are often caught in fishing nets by mistake. (from www.wikipedia.com)

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    Giant tortoises are the longest-lived of all vertebrates, averaging over 100 years. The oldest on record lived to be 152. They are also the world’s largest tortoises, with some specimens exceeding 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and reaching 550 pounds (250 kilograms). There are now only 11 types of giant tortoises left in the Galápagos, down from 15 when Darwin arrived. Hunted as food by pirates, whalers, and merchantmen during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, more than 100,000 tortoises are estimated to have been killed off. Nonnative species such as feral pigs, dogs, cats, rats, goats, and cattle are a continuing threat to their food supply and eggs. Today, only about 15,000 remain.
    The tortoises are now listed as endangered and have been strictly protected by the Ecuadorian government since 1970. Captive breeding efforts by the Charles Darwin Research Station are also having positive effects.
    Galápagos tortoises lead an uncomplicated life, grazing on grass, leaves, and cactus, basking in the sun, and napping nearly 16 hours per day. A slow metabolism and large internal stores of water mean they can survive up to a year without eating or drinking. Spanish sailors who discovered the archipelago in 1535 actually named it after the abundant tortoises; the Spanish word for tortoise is galápago. (from www.nationalgeographic.com)

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    Darwin’s finches are a group of about fourteen species of passerine birds. They were first collected by Charles Darwin on the Galápagos Islands during the second voyage of the Beagle. The birds vary in size from 10 to 20 cm and weigh between 8 and 38 grams. The smallest are the warbler-finches and the largest is the vegetarian finch. The most important differences between species are in the size and shape of their beaks, and the beaks are highly adapted to different food sources- a fact that played an important part in the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
    The males of most species of finches are jet black; and the females (with perhaps one or two exceptions) are brown. With these beaks, males are able to feed differently on their favorite cactus, the prickly pear Opuntia. Those with long beaks are able to punch holes in the cactus fruit and eat the fleshy aril pulp, which surrounds the seeds, whereas those with shorter beaks tear apart the cactus base and eat the pulp and any insect larvae and pupae. ( from www.wikipedia.com)

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    The Galápagos lava lizard is a species of lava lizard endemic to the Galápagos Islands, where it occurs on several islands in the western archipelago. Adult Galápagos lava lizards range from around 50 to 100 mm long. Males are on average larger than females, being twice to three times as heavy. In addition to size, there are significant color and morphological differences between sexes, although color varies across islands. Galápagos lava lizards feed on insects, spiders, and other arthropods. Around human settlements they will also consume bread crumbs, meat scraps and other litter.
    Galápagos lava lizards are active during the day, emerging around sunrise, withdrawing during the heat of midday, and resuming activity in the afternoon. At night they burrow under soil or leaf-litter, submerged up to 12 mm (1.5 inches), often returning to the same resting area each night. Males are territorial, with home ranges averaging around 22 meters in diameter, and defend their ranges against other males with threat displays and fighting. Females have smaller home ranges of around 13 meters diameter, and a single male’s home range may overlap with the ranges of several females. (from www.wikipedia.com)

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    The Galápagos sea lion is a species of sea lion that exclusively breeds on the Galápagos Islands. Being fairly social, and one of the most numerous species in the Galápagos archipelago, they are often spotted sun-bathing on sandy shores or rock groups or gliding gracefully through the surf. Their loud bark, playful nature, and graceful agility in water make them the “welcoming party” of the islands.
    Galápagos sea lions range from 150 to 250 cm (59 to 98 in) in length and weigh between 50 to 250 kg (110 to 550 lb), with the males averaging larger than females. Both male and female sea lions have a pointy, whiskered nose and somewhat long, narrow muzzle. The young pups are almost dog-like in profile. Another characteristic that defines the sea lion are their external ear-like pinnae flaps which distinguish them from their close relative with which they are often confused, the seal.
    Feeding mostly on sardines, Galápagos sea lions sometimes travel 10 to 15 kilometers from the coast over the span of days to hunt for their prey. This is when they come into contact with their biggest predators: sharks and killer whales. Injuries and scars from attacks are often visible. To avoid overheating during the day, sea lions will take refuge from the sun under vegetation, rocks, and cliffs.
    On land, sea lions form colonies at their hauling-out areas. Not only are sea lions social, they are also quite vocal. Adult males often bark in long, loud and distinctive repeated sequences. Females and juveniles do not produce this repetitive bark, but both sexes the younger pups will growl. From birth, a mother sea lion recognizes her pup’s distinct bark and can pinpoint it from a crowd of 30 or more barking sea lions.

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  • Places of Interest
  • La Loberia Beach on San Cristobal is a long 40-50 min hike from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on a paved road under the heat of the sun, so bring water and snacks. This is one of the best spot to see colonies of marine iguanas sunbathing on the black volcanic rocks near the shore. You can swim and snorkel here and it is possible to avoid the tourist crowds and visit the place without a guide and for free.

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    The Interpretation Station on San Cristobal is also within a walking distance from the town and port. It is a museum explaining the significant natural, human and geological events of San Cristóbal Island and the surrounding archipelago. The hike is pleasant on rocky paths and boardwalks among lava flows and arid vegetation and the museum itself is most informative and interesting. Free of charge.

    La Galapaguera on San Cristobal is a breeding center for giant tortoises located in the northeast part of San Cristobal Island, about one hour by car from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Here in a protected area, giant tortoises live and breed in captivity. The admission is free but to get there is tricky. Most tourists join a tour or hire a 60-dollar taxi but there is a much cheaper option- once a week a bus goes to Galapaguera and back for about $5 per person (Ask a local which day, what time and where the bus stops. Ask another local the same questions, as you might get two very different answers). And if you want to check out the near-by white sand beach Puerto Chino (too crowded for our taste), you might miss the bus on the way back, but you can hitch a ride, as we did.

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    Kicker Rock is considered the local highlight, off the coast of San Cristobal, where you can dive and maybe see hammerhead sharks as well as many other species of sharks and marine creatures. But you can only snorkel or dive there on an organized diving tour in the company of a guide and a group of tourists. The tour costs over $200 per person, the water is extremely cold because of the Humboldt Current, the visibility is not always good and there are no guarantees that you will see hammerheads. If you do, they might be specks in the distance. Don’t think that what you see in the brochures will be what you see on the tour. We skipped it.

    The Lava Tunnels on Santa Cruz were once again within a walking distance from the anchorage and free of charge. As the outer layer of molten lava solidified, the liquid magma inside continued flowing, leaving behind these mysterious dark caves and the best part is- you can walk inside!

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    Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz is a beautiful white sand beach at the end of a 2.5 km walking path surrounded by great cactus trees. The entrance is about 20-minute walk from the main dock in Puerto Ayora. It is open for visitors from six in the morning to six in the evening. Visitors must sign in and out at the start of the path with the Galapagos Park Service office. Admission is free.

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    The Wall of Tears on Isabela is another access-free must-see place in Galapagos 5 kilometers from Puerto Amistad. On the way there we met free-ranging giant Galapagos tortoises. You can hire bikes or walk for an hour until you reach a massive wall built with heavy volcanic rocks. Between 1946 and 1952 there was a penal colony on this spot and the inmates were forced to build this wall under the burning equatorial sun. The only purpose of the Wall of Tears was to reform the prisoners and keep them occupied. A punishment for the strong, a death sentence for the weak.

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    The Giant Tortoises Breeding Centre on Isabela (on the edge of the town; free admission) is full with miniature giant tortoises as well as with giant giant tortoises- all sizes giant tortoises- lots of fun to watch. There is a boardwalk starting from the breeding center passing along couple of swamps- home of pink flamingoes. A short excursion which we really enjoyed.

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    Sierra Negra on Isabela is an active volcano rising at 1100 m above the sea. It has last erupted in 2005. The crater is enormous, filled with black solidified lava. Restricted to organized guided tours only. Cost $30.00 per person. We joined a group of about 20 tourists, some out of shape and unfit to hike. At the very beginning of the trail more groups showed up and merged into a human traffic jam up and down the trail. Not worth it.

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    Los Tuneles on Isabela is probably the most beautiful place in Galapagos accessible for tourists– an area of calm water behind the ocean breakers where broken lava tubes form natural bridges and underwater stone tunnels- home of thousands of sea birds and ocean creatures. In April, was the blue footed boobies mating period and we could watch the birds from up close dancing and singing in pairs. In the underwater caves, we snorkeled with sharks, sea turtles and penguins. The place is strictly off limits, unless you join an 80-dollar per person guided tour. Unfortunately, the rest of the tourist who joined the same tour were 90-years-old Europeans who didn’t understand the guide’s instructions, disturbed the sand and ruined the visibility of the water, could not keep up with the group and we had to wait for them constantly losing our time. They managed to appear in the background and foreground in almost all of our photos and videos. The experience was so utterly spoiled, we promised to ourselves never to join any guided tours anymore.

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  • So Is It Worth It?
  • If you are passionate about Nature and Wildlife, especially- marine and underwater animals (who isn’t?) – then you should probably visit Galapagos, just to check it off your list, even though you will still feel the pain when it comes to paying the exaggerated entry fees and tour prices and you might still ask yourself at the end: Was it worth it?

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    Let’s say money is not an issue for you and you don’t care about the prices. But if you imagine roaming alone on secluded beaches and frozen lava flows taking pictures of unique animals, or diving in coral gardens and underwater tunnels teaming with life, you might still be disappointed. Yes, you can take a walk on the beach or visit a volcano, but in most cases you will have to join an expensive tour and a bunch of elderly tourists will be all around you all day long. The most beautiful places on the four islands which you are allowed to visit are off limits unless you pay for a tour. Yes, you will take some pictures of unique animals, but in most frames there will be pink human legs in the background. Yes, you can dive in coral gardens and underwater tunnels, but ONLY if you join a guided tour and yes, the cold water will be teaming with life- mostly other tourists.

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    We were excited to meet the marine iguanas- “hideous-looking” yet gentle vegetarians, sitting in groups on the rocky shores motionless, spitting saltwater through their noses. We observed with amazement the giant land tortoises – ancient creatures slowly dragging their thick shells with the most serious expressions on their wrinkled faces. We were fascinated by the incredible agility of the little Galapagos penguins gracefully flying underwater, the enormous sea turtles, the many different species of reef fish and sharks. We fell forever in love with the adorable lazy and stinky sea lions and it was heartbreaking when the time came to sail away and leave them behind. But besides the animals, there were the humans with their greed and rules and this spoiled the entire experience to the point of almost regretting stopping in Galapagos. There are many other places on the planet where you can enjoy nature’s beauty and abundance of wildlife much cheaper, without the crowds, without the guides and the hustle, where cruisers are welcome. We kept sailing west. In the Polynesian atolls of the Tuamotus we went diving with hundreds of sharks, manta rays, sea turtles and the most beautiful tropical fishes abundant in the warm waters of the Pacific- we didn’t need permissions or guides and we could snorkel and dive in the clearest warm waters as many times as we liked free of charge. In New Zealand we met once again sea lions and penguins, boobies and many other animals and birds which were not surrounded by tourists with photo cameras.

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    It’s hard to say if Galapagos is definitely worth it or not. It is definitely overrated. We enjoyed much of our time on the islands and we are glad we did go, but we left if with mixed feelings, and somewhat disappointed- a place which is now off our list of Return Destinations.

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