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Galapagos Islands: Notes on a visit early 2013

By Suzie and Robin Roots, S/Y True Blue 1 — last modified Mar 25, 2013 10:37 PM
We stayed almost 5 weeks in the Galapagos over the period Feb to March 2013 and loved it.

Published: 2013-03-25 00:00:00
Countries: Galapagos

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS; 2013. A CRUISERS COMMENTS

The Galapagos Island experience attracts a very mixed bag of comments from yachties. These notes firstly provide a factual overview of 2013 costs (as we found them) and then  include some personal comments about each island we visited in early 2013. We stayed almost 5 weeks in the Galapagos over the period Feb to March 2013 and loved it; those who spent lesser time or who only visited one island seemed to have less positive memories. But we never tired of the daily chance to swim with playful seal-lions, watch the frigate birds soaring ahead, or swim with giant turtles . Divers and snorkelers will be in their element, because although the water visibility is not always wonderful, the opportunity to observe huge fish at close quarters (hammerhead sharks, giant manta rays etc) justifies describing Galapagos diving as ‘world class’

For those trying to decide whether or not to visit the Galapagos, the following points may help the decision-making process.

(1)    A minimum fee for a one island stop for 2 persons on a yacht will be around $600; a 3 island stop will incur around $900 in fees (see below).

(2)    Unlike most cruising destinations, you are NOT permitted to anchor at any other locations other than the main harbor of your approved islands, In other words, the usual blue water style of meandering from one anchorage to another at whim is not an option in the Galapagos.

(3)    Whilst there are many opportunities for observing amazing wild live on your own, many of the best sights and sites are only available through a commercial trip; however, these always include a National Parks guide who will be very knowledgeable and enhance your understanding about the Galapagos  (again, see below). The cost of commercial trips is obviously variable but a half day trip cost around $60 per person in 2013, and a full day luxury day out around $135 per person. If this seems high, it is still a cheaper outing than say a day pass to Disneyland or Nara Seaworld!! Most trips involve either a 16 passenger boat or some form of land transportation (included in the price).All day trips always included lunch and drinks.

(4)    You can easily get a last minute place on a commercial tour boat doing a 3-5 day trip to places you cannot visit on a private yacht.. Costs and level of comfort vary widely, but a luxury berth cost friends $300 per person per day in 2013; the same first-class berths were said to be going for $200 per person at the very last moment! Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands are the places to source these commercial trips.

(5)    Expect the rules to change frequently and without notice. Suddenly, for example, on 21 March 2013 it became a legal option to buy diesel in Isla Isabella; previously it was a cloak and dagger operation under cover of darkness!

The 3 choices available to visiting yachts in 2013 are:

(1)    1 island visit (in which case pick your island carefully and see the comment below about trying to ‘drop in’ unofficially to Isla Isabella). Expect to pay around $600 for a 1 island visit for a yacht with 2 persons on board. Each additional person on board will incur an additional $100 National Parks permit fee. Note that contrary to popular rumour, it IS permitted to make Isla Isabella a one island stop, despite the fact that there is no immigration office there. The Port Captain will handle the formalities for you.

(2)    3-5 island visit; this requires an Autographo which only your agent can obtain. This will cost around $900 for a 2 person boat. Each additional person will cost $100 for the National Parks permit. Normally an Autographo is obtained via email well in advance of your arrival, but in March 2013 yachts were able to obtain one ‘on the spot’ via the agent Bolivar Pesantes on San Cristobal island. You will decide which islands you will be allowed to visit with your agent (normally only San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isla Isabella, and Floreana). Note that you may NOT be allowed to back-track; the rules about this seem to change weekly! So plan your itinerary carefully especially if you have crew or guests flying in or out of the Galapagos (San Cristobal or Santa Cruz airports).Note that fast ferry services operate between San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, and Isla Isabella and Santa Cruz. $30 per person one way; a day return is possible as the distance in both cases is around 40 nm.

(3)    Multiple island visit; this requires you to have  a National Parks guide on board your yacht for the whole time, at an additional cost of around $200 per day.

Important Note; possible changes in 2014 (check this out carefully  to see if it eventuates)

We have been advised by our agent and the Port Captain (March 2013) that in 2014 ALL boats wishing to remain in the Galapagos for more than 3 days MUST have an Autographo. Whilst this may incur some additional costs for yachts (see above) it hopefully will make the rules clearer and the fees more transparent. It will also mean that most yachts will visit at least the three main islands, which will provide a broader overview of what the Galapagos has to offer. Expect all anchorages to be crowded though!

Bending the rules, 2013

In 2013, 2 yachts tried to visit Isla Isabella as a second island stop without having first obtained an Autographo; they were given short shrift and ‘moved on’ quickly by the Port Captain. So if you have any interest in savoring the variety of attractions the Galapagos Islands has to offer, come early in the season (before the crowds arrive) and pre-arrange an Autographo! OR, make a one island visit to Isla Isabella. You may, in the future, have no choice anyway!!

National Parks regulations

It is compulsory for any commercial trip to include a National Parks guide. The numbers do not vary from island to island; 16 persons are the maximum allowed for any one guide. Hence the small tripper boats almost all have a capacity of 17 persons (16 pax plus guide). It is also compulsory to have a guide on some walks in National Parks areas (see the volcano walk in Isla Isabella). Visits to the various Tortoise Sanctuaries and Island Information Centers may be visited without a guide, and these places are all free.

The National Parks guides we met all spoke good English and were very well informed about all the islands; they rotate around the various trips so that they may cover a volcano walk one day and a snorkeling trip the next day. Sometimes we had a slightly less communicative guide but a little gentle questioning and the information flow started; guides seemed universally committed to the Galapagos Islands and to environmental conservation.

SAN CRISTOBAL ISLAND

  • OK anchorage which is at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, also known as Wreck Bay
  • Many places to visit without taking an official tour (see below)
  • Commercial diving trip to Kicker Rock rated very highly; strong snorkelers can also enjoy this trip
  • Excellent fresh produce market on Saturdays; many internet places and good laundry ($1/lb wash and dry, a bargain)
  • ATM available
  • Diesel can be purchased but ONLY through your agent. 2013 price was $6 a gallon.
  • Pleasant small town with friendly locals. Not yet overly commercial

 

San Cristobal agents and arrival procedures

Bolivar Pesantes (naugala@hotmail.com) and Johnny Romero (nautigal@interactive.net.ec) are the two agents everyone seemed to use this season in San Cristobal. Both have representatives in Santa Cruz but only Bolivar has a representative in Isla Isabella (J.C. Soto).  Mixed reports have been heard of both Senor Pesantes and Senor Romero, but we were happy with Bolivar Pesantes. A thing to be aware of is that you may have to wait up to 2 days for ‘your man’ to come out to your boat after you arrive. Frustrating after a passage from the mainland to be stuck on board but delays are common in San Cristobal (including delays for diesel delivery).

When your agent arrives he will probably be accompanied by various officials. Expect to be asked if you have black and grey water tanks and a suggestion is to have holding tanks closed in case of an inspection. If the National Parks representative tells you that you do not, (even if you have an Autographo), have the right to enter a Parks area in any other island, just smile and acquiesce. Your agent will sort out what has clearly become a dispute in 2013 between agents and Parks officials. We were quickly given the ‘shush’ signal by our agent when we started to protest (but see footnote about changes afoot for 2014). And the reality was we were not given any problems by Parks when we arrived in other islands.

Anchoring: When you anchor try and get in the middle, and inside the larger tour boats which can have minimal chain and sometimes drag! Also, on the starboard side (as you look at the shore) the large ships come to deliver fuel, and anyone in their way literally gets pushed to one side!! No finesses there! The anchorage was calm for the 12 days we spent in San Cristobal, but later on in the season other yachts reported some swell.

San Cristobal, general comments

When we were there, no-one had their dinghies in the water as sea-lions take up residence; the smell and mess they make is pretty awful. We made sea-lion defences for our sugar scoop; they are very agile and we heard them snuffling at night to try and climb over the fenders!!

It costs $1 per person to the shore by water-taxi; call ‘Taxi Aquatico’ on Channel 14. The guys are careful and usually come quickly. Don’t trip over the numerous sea-lions ashore at the taxi dock (which is NOT for dinghies!).

The Tourist Information place is a couple of blocks back from the front and near the church; they have free booklets and DVDs about the islands with excellent maps and picture of the various sites. Worth seeking out after you arrive. Then a bit further up the little hill you can find the Mercado; brilliant on Saturdays  when there is an extra organic market; we bought well priced and very fresh avocados, tomatoes, paw paw, plums, pineapple, green apples, iceberg lettuce, papaya, etc . Almost everything you want is there. The hard stores are not great but probably you are already stocked up to last through to at least Papeete. Meat is a bit iffy, but we found fresh fish from the fisherman great value.

San Cristobal, things to do and see

There is lots you can do on San Cristobal without taking commercial  tours. Open taxis take 8 people, 4 inside and 4 in the tray. Take one for the day for $70 all-up, and ask to go first to the El Junco Lookout, and  walk around the lagoon there. About a 1 hour gentle stroll looking at the views and birds. Go on to the Galapaguera Cerro Colorado (tortoise breeding centre, free) and then stop to book lunch (the taxi driver will know where) and then on to Puerto Chino beach. Pleasant spot with OK snorkelling and booby birds on the rocks (watch for their courting dances). After the beach visit you will go for lunch and probably by then by ready to go home! A good day out. We started at 0800am and got back at 1530 and were quite tired by then, but it was a hot day!

You can walk to the Centro de Interpretacion (Galapagos Information  Centre, free) by turning left as you face the waterfront. En route at the top of the hill is a great little cafe which has delicious home-made blackberry milk shakes and blackberry icecream. The Info centre (free) provides a quick overview of the islands. From there it is a good walk to Las Tijeretas; like all walks take LOTS of fluids, and maybe some Gatorade as people get de-hydrated without realizing it. In the same direction can be found several beaches, including Punta Carola; plenty of sea lions but so-so  snorkeling.

A ‘do not miss it’ beach you can walk to from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is La Loberia. There are many giant turtles that come in to graze on the sandy bottom at low water Also dozens of sea-lion families live there; the mothers can be aggressive if you get too close to the pups though. There are usually several youngsters who will swim with you and on the port hand side of the bay as you look out to sea we found schools of larger fish to swim with. Visibility is often not very good though. If you are tired of carrying your gear, when it is time to go home flag a taxi and pile in; $1 per person per ride. La Loberia is probably the best beach we went to within walking distance of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno .

A good dive shop can be found on the water-front ; Sharsky is known as the yachties friends and he is a SSCA rep. He will take you to Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock),  which is on a good visibility day is excellent; you will see hammerheads, other sharks and various fish. If you only want to snorkel it is $60 instead of the $120 for a 2 tank dive trip (if you have your own equipment). You stop by Isla Lobos en route and see the marine iguanas and sea lions there.

Sadly, the recommended trip to Punta Pitt is no longer permitted; apparently the bird sanctuary there was suffering from tourist over-kill.

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND

  • Anchorage of Puerto Ayora (known as Academy Bay) can be very swelly and crowded
  • Very good provisioning . Many internet places plus laundry.
  • Day trips are excellent;  for us, North Seymour island visited provided one of the top Galapagos wild-life experiences
  • ATMs available (BUT machine in main square has been scamming, go to bank along water-front instead, take your passport and obtain cash via the teller)
  • Walking access to a number of beaches but these are not rated as highly as those on San Cristobal

 

SANTA CRUZ; general comments

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz provides a bit of a culture shock after the leisurely pace of San Cristobal. Puerto Ayora is a full-on tourist town, with numerous restaurants, day trippers from cruise ships, etc.  But after a while the buzz is part of the fun, and a few hours can be pleasantly whiled away just people-watching. If you walk along the water front you will arrive at the jetty where the fisherman land their catch; each afternoon resident sea-lions delicately eat the fish entrails as the fisherman prepare the catch for market . A very efficient way of dealing with garbage. You can pick out your preferred fish and have it cooked in front of you at the little barbeque stand from late afternoon onwards;  your tasty $9 platter will include some salad and plantain.

  • A ‘do not miss it’ trip you can take it from Santa Cruz is to North Seymour Island. The day trip will start with an early pick-up from the agency you booked with, and 45 minute ride across the island to the north where you will board you boat. Then you will be taken to North Seymour Island and have a guided tour to see the nesting frigate birds (we were amazed at the sheer numbers of males sitting on bushes with their brilliant red pouches puffed out), fluffy frigate chicks still in their nests trying to make their first air-borne flight, blue footed boobies strutting their courting dance, large land iguanas, and various plants endemic to the Galapagos. Your will also be taken on two snorkeling stops; both were good and at the last stop we walked a short way along a beautiful sandy beach to see turtle nests and flamingoes feeding in the shallow lagoon behind the sand dunes.

You can book a North Seymour excursion at several agencies but we were tipped to go on the boat Altamar. This is an almost new motor launch and the service and comfort was excellent. The cost was $135 per person (maximum 16 people) and it was worth every penny.

  • Pleasant but long board walk to Tortuga Bay worthwhile.  This is a beautiful white sandy beach with huge numbers of marina iguanas. There is shaded lagoon behind the furthest section of beach. You will pass by the Information Centre en route.
  • Reserva El Chato (giant tortoise reserve). We did not visit but good if you have not been to one of the  tortoise reserves in another island
  • Visit the Darwin Centre for tortoises and other information
  • Playa Punta Estrada. Pleasant beach you can reach by taking a water taxi from your boat to the Finch Bay hotel
  • Isla Bartolome. We did not visit but this is also a recommended commercial day trip

 

ISLA  ISABELLA

  • Good anchorage (Puerto Villamil) but tuck in as far as you can to be out of the swell. Reef is hidden at high water (2 metre range) and you will have to take the ‘long route’ round to reach the dinghy dock at low water.
  • Internet places, potable water available; we bought rain water treated with ultra violet light from a farmer who delivered to the dock for us to jerry-jug to the boat.
  • The only agent on the island J.C. Soto (jcdesoto@hotmail.com) is truly a yachties friend; an endless source of advice, help and information. His open fronted beach house is a pleasant place to check internet, have a beer and generally chill-out. ‘J.C.’  is reached by Ch 67 on arrival. He works with Bolivar on San Cristobal, but NOT Johnny Romero. If Johnny is your agent, you can go directly to the Port Captain yourself.
  • In 2013 you CAN enter Isla Isabella without an Autographo PROVIDING you have not previously entered any other island. This is despite the fact that there is no immigration office in Isla Isabella. You must then contact J.C. to do the paperwork or go and see the Port Captain yourselves.
  • Come to Isla Isabella with cash!!! There is NO ATM and no bank which will exchange money. The only option is to take a day return ferry to Santa Cruz ($60 return) to try the ATM/bank there (take your passport).
  • Isla Isabella is a delightful, laid-back kind of place, with plentiful wild life swimming around your boat (sea-lions, small hammerhead shark, penguins, various birds etc.) However, there are perhaps fewer things to do on Isla Isabella on your own ; commercial trips are necessary even for the snorkeling area Las Tintoreras clearly visible from the anchorage. This is a popular and pleasant trip though ($25 per person).

 

Things to do, Isla Isabella

  • Share an open truck taxi to the Wall Of Tears, ($10 in total for 8 pax) and enjoy the various sights as you walk back to Puerto Villamil. These include scenic viewpoints, beaches with iguanas and sea-lions, several lagoons with flamingoes and a Centro de Crianza Arnaldo Tupiza (Tortoise Breeding Centre). Wild tortoises meander across the  sandy track which leads to the Wall of Tears. Take plenty of water with you; it will be hot by mid-morning.
  • Share a truck ($4 per person) to visit a local farm; J.C. will arrange this. The farmer will cut whatever fruit and veggies are in season. Green pineapples, bananas and tomatoes can be chosen for later ripening; we also bought various herbs, papaya, passion fruit, melon, watermelon, peppers, capsicum, onions, etc. Delicious!
  • Take a $35 trip (includes tranport, packed lunch a National Parks guide) to the two volcanoes of Sierro Negro and Volcan Chico. Leave at 0730 and pass through the lush farming area en route to the start of the hike. This is 16 km round trip on paths which are often muddy, excepting at the top where sharp lava shale can be slippery. The views are spectacular and it is well worth the effort to do the walk. Negro is the second largest active volcano in the world. Note that it used to be possible to hire horses for part of the walk; this is no longer approved. You can though hire horses to take a scenic ride through the agricultural band of land which separates the lowlands of Isla Isabella  from the highlands. Ask J.C. to liaise with a local farmer.
  • Take a $50 half day trip to Los Tunneles; this involves an exciting fast ride through the surf to the sheltered waters within. Good snorkeling, fantastic lava  ‘bridges’ and a stop en route at  Rocas Union make this a worthwhile excursion. You will also stop at a sandy bay to swim with giant tortoise who feed there.
  • Get together to organize an individual  trip with Paco, (tel  0980 491311) a local guide who is a font of information about the best places to see large hammerhead shark, whales, giant turtles etc etc. We took a $120 day trip with Paco to the West Coast of Isla Isabella. En route we caught a large yellow-fin tuna so it was ceviche for lunch, (delicious, prepared in front of us); we then saw penguins, flightless cormorants and swam in a bay literally teeming with rays, fish  and giant turtles. On the way home we saw whales, giant manta rays, and more penguins. Paco uses a local boat for these trips which can be tailor made; 8 pax is the maximum.

 

Summary

Remember that things change often in the Galapagos, so no apologies if what you find varies from the above. If you come with an open mind and some time to savour the various wild life delights of the Galapagos, you will thoroughly enjoy your stay. If, though, you want a low cost and quick ‘David Attenborough experience’  then you may be disappointed.

 

Suzie and Robin, S/Y True Blue 1

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