GALÁPAGOS: five golden tips for affordable island hopping
The Galápagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean some 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador, can't be compared to any other place on earth. Because the islands have never been connected to the South American mainland, unique species have been able to evolve undisturbed. These animals are not only very special, but they are also not at all afraid of humans, so you can observe them up close. Add to this the fact that it's eternal spring on the islands, and you'll understand that Galápagos is a paradise for nature lovers. There is one snag under the island grass: a trip to Galápagos is expensive to expensive. Or isn't it?
On Galápagos you get to see hundreds of marine iguanas, the only iguanas in the world that swim and dive. From a few meters away you can watch the mating dance of albatrosses. You'll stand face to face with monstrously large giant turtles. You snorkel among sharks, sea turtles, stingrays and sea lions. You watch flamingos combing the lagoons, while on the beach crabs, Darwin finches and mockingbirds triple around your feet and just above your head frigate birds and blue-foot gannets skim past. It's a priceless experience, literally and figuratively. Although a visit to Galápagos doesn't have to be the exclusive privilege. Here are five tips for smart island hoppers!
1. Combine Galápagos with Ecuador
The Galápagos archipelago is Ecuadorian territory. There are no international flights landing; you are always required to pass through the airports of Quito or Guayaquil. So you must be crazy not to combine your trip to Galápagos with a tour of Ecuador. It's a compact, hospitable and fascinating South American country with an enormous variety. You can visit beautiful colonial cities (Quito and Cuenca) that are fabulously beautifully situated between the snowy volcanoes of the Andes. You can go on an adventure in the cloud forests around the groovy tourist town of Baños. You can immerse yourself in the culture of the highland Indians in and around Otavalo. And you can descend east of the Andes into the Amazon basin, where the rainforest is home to the sweltering rivers that meander through the planet's largest green lung. A great way to wait for an inexpensive last minute to Galápagos, right?
2. Wait for a last minute in low season
If you have plenty of time and want to experience the Galápagos archipelago with a multi-day cruise on a yacht or boat, wait for a last minute. If we may believe the leaflets distributed in hotels in Quito, we can do so from as little as $500 for a four-day cruise, including flight, in low season (autumn). Keep in mind that you will be on a rusty boat, that you will have to bring your own snorkeling equipment (indispensable!) and that you may have to share a cabin on the boat with someone you don't know. Last minutes are there to fill the holes in the airplanes and on the boats. You can wait for such an opportunity in Quito (there are many tour operators who can arrange Galápagos trips in the Mariscal tourist district) or on the islands themselves, for example in the very relaxed port village of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. If you are after your money, it is better to wait in Quito, because food, drinks and sleep are much cheaper than in Puerto Ayora and there is much more to see.
3. Fly military
Are you unable to catch a cheap last-minute flight to Galápagos? Then consider to look a little further than your nose is long. Most flights between the Ecuadorian mainland and Galápagos are operated by TAME and Aerogal, which have similar prices, but there are alternatives. Icaro flies three times a week from Guayaquil to San Cristóbal, but the cheapest flights are operated by... the Ecuadorian army. Every two weeks on Wednesdays a Hercules plane flies from Quito to Galápagos, and if there is room, tourists can join it for a price. Go to the Fuerza Aerea office on Avenida de la Prensa 3570, near the old Quito airport. If you think a ferry crossing is a cheaper solution, we must disappoint you: there are no ferries between the mainland and the islands. Having said this, of course, if you speak Spanish well, there is nothing stopping you from consulting with captains of cargo ships in the port of Guayaquil.
4. Consider a land trip
If you really can't afford a multi-day cruise between the islands, you can always consider a land-based trip. The more distant islands that you can only visit with a guide are off limits, but it is perfectly possible to stay on your own on the inhabited islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana, Isabela), drive around with public transport and take ferries between the different islands. Combine that with one or two day trips to unspoiled islands, and you have a perfectly acceptable Galápagos trip to choose from. Keep in mind that even with this formula you won't escape the $100 entrance fee to the Parque Nacional Galápagos, which every visitor has to pay in cash upon arrival.
5. Do not wait too long
Now is the right time to visit the Galápagos Islands. Don't wait too long, because it will only get harder and more expensive. The ever increasing number of visitors (already more than 100,000 per year) is beginning to weigh on the ecology of the archipelago. It is to be expected that the Ecuadorian government will soon impose stricter quotas to limit the number of tourists on Galápagos. When that happens, a meeting with the unique animal life on the far side of the world will become truly priceless.
10 practical Galápagos sites
Official site: www.galapagospark.org
last minutes: www.galapagos.tv
flights to Galapagos: www.tame.com.ec
online travelguide: www.discovergalapagos.com
Diving arragements: www.ecuaworld.com.ec
Galápagos Conservation Trust: www.gct.org