Designing your own land based Galapagos Itinerary
Taking a Galapagos cruise is one of those things that sounds a lot better than it actually is. You picture yourself like Kate Winslet in the Titanic, wind blowing through your hair, glamorous. But the reality is there are a lot of things that can ruin your Galapagos cruise fantasy. Seasickness, storms, and the challenges of sharing a small space with strangers are just a few of the potential issues that can make your time at sea feel less Kate Winslet on the bow of the boat and more like Leonardo DiCaprio in the final scenes.
Fortunately one of the best kept travel secrets is that you don’t have to explore the Galapagos on a cruise. Moreover, you don’t need to book a pricey vacation through a tour agency. Rather it’s very possible to have a fantastic, and affordable, vacation by designing your own land based Galapagos itinerary. This option allows you to personalize your vacation, save money and have an incredible experience in the Galapagos without risking choppy seas and dramamine.
7 Day Land Based Galapagos Itinerary
Most people spend about a week in the Galapagos. While this isn’t enough time to see everything, with some efficency you can leave the islands feeling satisfied.
Day 1 San Cristobal. Getting settled in: After arriving in San Cristobal dive into your Galapagos adventure with a day at the beach! . Wander through the nature reserve to Playa Charola. Get acquainted with a few marine iguanas, do a little snorkeling and then walk into town for a bite to eat.
If you still have time, or energy, check out Playa Mann, a sandy beach that’s popular with locals. The snorkeling isn’t amazing but frequently you can spot sea lions swimming through the water. It’s also one of the easiest places to snorkel for beginners since it’s sandy and calm!
Day 2. Sea Lions San Cristobal is known for it’s robust sea lion population. La Loberia is a sea lion colony that also happens to be a gorgeous beach. win-win. It’s a quick five minute taxi ride to La Loberia. Should you have a hankering for a little exercise there is a short hike (less than 1.5 hours roundtrip) that starts at the far end of the beach. You’ll be scrambling over lava rocks as you make your way out to a viewpoint. Wear sturdy shoes and mosquito repellent!
Most people go to La Loberia to do their best impersonation of a sea lion sleeping on the beach but a few will attempt to surf the challenging break or go for a snorkel in the protected cove. We were pleasantly surprised by how fantastic the snorkeling was at La Loberia. We saw water snakes, turtles, tons of fish, and sea lions, of course!
Day 3. The Highlands. Having spent some time in town, you’ll be ready to check out a different part of the island. You can do a Highlands Tour, or you can create your own by arranging for a taxi driver to spend 1/2 a day taking you to the different highlights of this section of the island, namely El Junco, The Galapatera, and Puerto Chino. It’s about $60 for the taxi and you’ll spend about an hour at each spot. You might want to pay a little extra to give yourself additional time at Puerto Chino, it’s a breathtakingly beautiful white sand beach.
Tips for visiting the Highlands:
- Get to the Galapapguera before 11am. The tortoises are the most active during the morning.
- Bring mosquito repellent
- Bring snacks, water, and a light coat or rain jacket. It can be cooler in the Highlands than on the coast!
Get close with a giant tortoise in the Highlands of San Cristobal
Conversations with a sea lion at Puerto Chino beach
Day 4. Kicker Rock: Snorkeling or diving at Kicker Rock will either be the highlight of your entire vacation or a total disappointment. But it’s worth the gamble to have the opportunity to swim with the resident hammerhead sharks. Whether you actually see the sharks, or much of anything depends on the time of year and ocean conditions. We had an incredible day of snorkeling at Kicker Rock but we also talked to other travelers who complained of extremely poor water visibility.
Tips for Kicker Rock
- Wear a wetsuit. The water is a bit chilly and you’ll be more comfortable hanging out with the sharks if you aren’t shivering
- Shop around for a deal. If you arrive on San Cristobal and haven’t pre-booked your trip to Kicker Rock there are a lot of dive shops on the island. With some luck and some wandering you can snag a discounted trip. However, if it’s a busy time of year you run the risk of not being able to find anyone with availability!
Day 5. Fly to Isablea. Assuming you’re traveling from San Cristobal to Isabela, you should splurge on a flight. This is much easier than taking two ferries and spending your day popping dramamine. After arriving on Isabela drop off your stuff at your hotel and rent a bike. Pedal through town and along the dirt road that runs parallel to the beach. If you’re not too sun-baked and sweaty, continue on to the Wall of Tears. You can’t actually ride all the way to the wall, however from where you park your bike it’s only a short walk (less than ten minutes to the wall). Still feeling spry? Walk fifteen minutes past the wall and up the hill to the lookout.
After pedaling back into town end your day with a happy hour drink at one of the colorful beachside bars. Many of these laid-back watering holes have good deals on drinks during the early evening. Locals mix with tourists and there is no better place to watch the sunset.
Tips for Flying to Isablea
- Pack light. There are limitations to how much weight you can bring on the plane without paying hefty fees.
- Prepare for claustrophobia. You thought you had avoided being cramped in a small space by avoiding a Galapagos cruise and designing your own Galapagos land based itinerary, unfortunately the forty-five minute to Isablea is in a very, very small plane. Put on your ear protectors and get ready to rub shoulders.
Day 6 Hike An Active Volcano. Keep your expectations of a view low and you will enjoy the approximately ten-mile guided hike of Sierra Negra. The hike isn’t particularly strenuous, although there are a few sections of elevation change. What makes this hike unique, and one of the most popular hikes on the Galapagos, is the thrill of hiking through the mars-like lunar landscape of the lava flow. Scrambling over the lava rocks it truly feels like you’ve ben transported to another planet.
With a bit of luck you might also get a clear view of the crater. Frequently, covered in clouds, especially during the rainy season, views of the crater can be a bit elusive. Nonetheless, even if you don’t get a view of the crater, hiking Sierra Negra is good exercise and educational.
Tips for Hiking Sierra Negra
- Bring plenty of water. If it happens to be sunny the hike is very exposed and you’ll need to stay hydrated!
- Bring a rain coat. When we hiked Sierra Negra it was quite rainy and damp.
- Smart footwear choices. This is a ten mile hike. Please don’t think that sheepskin slippers are a good idea.*
*True story: we saw somebody hiking Sierra Negra in sheepskin slippers. Not surprisingly they were slipping in the mud and struggling. I also think that taking slippers on a volcano hike is very traumatic for a pair of shoes that’s accustomed to watching netflix on the couch.
Day 7 Snorkel Tunnels. By this point in your trip you are probably starting to grow gills from how much time you’ve spent snorkeling in the Galapagos. Despite thinking you’ve seen every fish and marine mammal I highly recommend booking a snorkel tour to Tunnels. Your first stop is about a forty minute boat ride from the Isabela pier. The murky, brackish water can be a bit off putting at first but this is a great spot for seeing juvenile sharks and massive sea turtles. It was incredible how many sharks we saw!
The second snorkel spot, Tunnels, is the real show stopper. In addition to the now familiar sea turtles and tropical fish, there are sea horses, and if you’re lucky you might spot a penguin. The lava rock creates natural arches and tunnels that snorkelers can swim through which is just one of the features that sets Tunnels apart from other snorkel adventures. Later you will take a short five minute walk through the unique lava landscape which affords a birds-eye view down into the natural ocean pools. Speaking of birds, keep an eye out for the blue footed booby!
Tips for Snorkeling Tunnels
- Bring a wetsuit.
- Don’t forget to wear sturdy sandals or sneakers for wandering around the lava arches at Tunnels.
- Consider doing an afternoon tour if the conditions are good. The bright afternoon sunlight adds more light to the murky waters at the first snorkel stop.
Day 8 Ferry to Santa Cruz/Return to Mainland Ecuador. Depending on your flights, you can take the early morning ferry to Santa Cruz and fly out of Baltra back to mainland Ecuador in the afternoon. Or another more leisurely option is to take your time getting back to the mainland. Spend the morning surfing or hanging out at the beach on Isabela then take the afternoon ferry to Santa Cruz. When you arrive in Santa Cruz treat yourself to a night at Semilla Verde. Enjoy a delicious dinner and a good night’s sleep at this beautiful boutique hotel.
*Optional Day 9*. If you spent the night on Santa Cruz you’ll need to give yourself ample time to get to the airport. It’s almost comical how many steps it takes to get to the Baltra airport. Plan on taking a taxi (30-45 minutes depending on where you are coming from on Santa Cruz), to the water taxi (5 minutes), to the bus(15-45 minutes depending on how long you have to wait for the bus to depart to the airport).
The Best Places to Stay and Eat in the Galapagos
One of the best things about creating your own land-based Galapagos itinerary is having more freedom to pick where you want to sleep and eat. And the local hospitality won’t disappoint! Below is a list of my favorite hotels and restaurants on the islands.
Where to Stay on San Cristobal, Galapagos
This small, family run hotel has the perfect location for your stay on San Cristobal, and the incredibly friendly hosts will do everything they can to make your Galapagos vacation perfect. Casa Playa Mann is only a one minute walk to popular Playa Mann beach, a five minute walk to the edge of the nature reserve, and a ten minute walk to the downtown area. After exploring San Cristobal return to your spacious ocean view room and relax with a book on your private balcony. With the wonderful hospitality, delicious breakfasts and sunset views, Casa Playa Mann was our favorite place that we stayed at on our trip to the Galapagos!
Where to Eat on San Cristobal, Galapagos
Quite possibly one of our best meals of our entire trip, Midori serves up innovative and fresh sushi. There are also non-sushi options on the menu for those seeking other options. The vibe is hip, the food is devine, and the prices are similar to what you’d find at a restaurant in California. Nonetheless is you want to dress up a little, or not, after all you’re in laid-back San Cristobal, and treat yourself to a higher end dining experience, this is the place to go.
When you reach the point in your trip that you can’t eat another meal of tuna and white rice, give your tastebuds a reprieve at Giuseppe’s. It’s probably not going to be the best Italian food you’ve ever had but big pizzas and piles of steaming pasta will hit the spot after a day of hiking or diving.
El Descanso Marinero
El Descanso Marinerois a minimalists worst nightmare. Every surface, including the ceiling, is covered with memorobilia. But somehow this anti- Marie Kondo approach to decor works for the space. While the ecclectic ambiance is exceptional, the food is pretty typical, although the portions are a bit heftier than normal.
Patio de Comidas
Cheap and local Patio de Comidas occupies a small corner of Playa Mann beach.. Eating at this little local joint gives you a real taste of the Galapagos. We had the plate of the day which for $5 includes a drink, soup, and an entree.
This place screams “tourist trap” with it’s very American seeming menu and prices. Nonetheless I was able to order a tasty grilled chicken salad and the kiddos were excited to have a big burger for lunch.
Where to Stay on Isabela, Galapagos
Wooden House Lodge is exactly what it sounds like, a charming lodge built of wood. Reasonably priced and family friendly this quaint lodge has been a popular mainstay for travelers for years. The lodge exudes tropical charm and even has a very small dipping pool for cooling off before plopping yourself down at the bar for an afternoon cocktail. The owners are happy to help you arrange a tour and have on-site snorkel equipment rental, which is perfect since great snorkeling is only a five minute walk down the road.
Tip: Request one of the rooms on the second floor. You’ll have to climb the stairs to get to your room but the rooms have a cool treehouse ambiance.
This is the place you stay when you want to splurge. Honestly it feels a little too glam for laid-back Isabela but it’s right across from the beach, close to the reserve, and walking distance to the tortoise breeding center.
Where to Eat on Isabela, Galapagos
Hot Sharwma is the place to go when you want a cheap lunch. This was one of the best $5 lunches we had during our time in the Galapagos.
The prices are a bit high, but if you only spent $5 on lunch you might have some money leftover in your daily travel budget for a more upscale dinner. The menu is a mixture of regional cuisine with a few other random additions such as yummy pasta dishes. If you are branching out from the usual seafood dishes I highly recommend the vegetarian lasagna!
The Booby Trap
Set in an ugly concrete building and with a menu that isn’t anything special this restaurant doesn’t exactly lure you in with its charm and ambiance. Nonetheless on the second floor there is a great view of the sunset and the beach. They also have a decent happy hour priced menu if you’re looking to grab an early dinner with a sunset view.
The Wooden House Lodge serves up a pretty delicious dinner to guests and non-guests. Just make sure you put in your order ahead of time, they require advance notice to ensure they have the ingredients for your meal.
The Bottom Line: Staying on the islands and creating your own land based Galapagos itinerary is a great way to have more interaction with the locals and customize your experience to be exactly what you want it to be!