Isabela Island: a Land-Based trip to the The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are a must-see for any wildlife lover. Find out why we stayed on Isabela Island during our week long land-based trip to the Galapagos Islands. Don't miss Isabela Island when you backpack the Galapagos Islands!
The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are a must-see for any wildlife lover. Find out why we stayed on Isabela Island during our week long land-based trip to the Galapagos Islands. Don't miss Isabela Island when you backpack the Galapagos Islands!The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are a must-see for any wildlife lover. Find out why we stayed on Isabela Island during our week long land-based trip to the Galapagos Islands. Don't miss Isabela Island when you backpack the Galapagos Islands!

We spent a week exploring The Galapagos Islands – and it was by far the best part of our 4 month backpacking trip in South America! From the relaxed island vibes and cozy coastal towns, to the plethora of sea turtles, marine iguanas, and frigate birds at every turn, the Galapagos felt like the perfect place to take a break from our grungy backpacker lifestyle and have a real vacation. The whole week felt like a proper honeymoon – and at $800 each, it would have been a cheap trip by most honeymoon standards! For us, it felt like a fortune – one week in the Galapagos cost us nearly as much as a whole month in Colombia! But it was oh so worth it. We’ve already written a complete guide to the Galapagos by land, but we wanted to break down our incredible trip into two more detailed posts about each specific island: Santa Cruz and Isabela Island.

Before we dive into our experiences, a little bit   of context about Isabela Island: Isabela Island/Isla Isabela is the largest island in The Galapagos. However, much like Hawaii, it is not the main island. There isn’t much civilization on this seahorse shaped piece of land, but there are plenty of critters, as well as awesome geological phenomena…if you’re into that. But what kind of freakin’ nerd would be? (Me…absolutely me.) While Isabela Island by far the best island to see beautiful and unique Galapagos wildlife, it’s sorely lacking in good food and decently priced accommodations.

Good morning, Santa Cruz! This little cutie was there to greet us at the Puerto Ayora docks and entertained us while we waited for our ferry to Isabela Island. The best part of waking up early in the Galapagos Islands!
Good morning, Santa Cruz! This little cutie was there to greet us at the Puerto Ayora docks and entertained us while we waited for our ferry to Isabela Island. The best part of waking up early in the Galapagos Islands!

Getting to Isabela Island

We arrived at the dock in Puerto Ayora (the main town on Santa Cruz Island) bright and early for our 7am boat. More accurately, overcast and goodgodwhyareweawakeourcoffeeshopisn’tevenopenyet. Victor, our helpful friend from L/P Andy – the boat ticket kiosk on the docks in Puerto Ayora –  met us with his unique salesman-slash-dad warmth and enthusiasm and offered us some cheap (instant) coffee while we waited in a small crowd of bleary backpackers and families for our boat. We took a water taxi (50 cents each) out to our boat, Sierra Negra, and found a seat outside of the cramped cabin, in the fresh salty air.

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We were told to take Dramamine before leaving, which was great advice. These boats go crazy fast, and due to the unique wind patterns and scattered islands, the water is hella choppy. We got knocked around, sprayed, and knocked around some more for the entire two hour journey. Two people on the back of the boat with us looked like they were going to puke, but luckily no one did. Two hours of turbulent sea travel later, we grabbed another taxi ($1 each) to the dock in Puerto Villamil, and set foot on  Isabela Island for the first time.

Sipping a fresh coconut with a super chill iguana by the docks on Isabela Island in the Galapagos! We spent a week backpacking the Galapagos Islands.
Sipping a fresh coconut with a super chill iguana by the docks on Isabela Island in the Galapagos! This is pretty much what greets you when you arrive at Isabela Island (well, you have to buy the coconut. But still.)

Compared to driving into Santa Cruz, arriving at Isabela Island felt much more like stepping onto a tropical paradise. Spotted rays and tiny penguins swam lazily in the clear blue waters next to our boat. Across the clear blue water we were greeted by shimmering white sand, swaying palm trees, basking marine iguanas,  honking pelicans, and several adorable napping sea lions. The pavement by the dock is a nice warm spot for the sea lions, so you have to literally step over them – they won’t budge for you.

Dizzy from our boat ride and still sleepy, we grabbed a cab (even though “downtown” Puerto Villamil is a ten minute walk from the docks) and asked for Caleta Iguana hostel, which we saw recommended by one of our favorite blogs, Two Wandering Soles, as one of the best hostels in South America. Unfortunately, it was … not.

Casa Rosada hotel in Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador
On Isabela Island we stayed in Casa Rosada, the pink hotel on the left. It was the cheapest, most budget option, and left much to be desired … except for the view, which was absolutely stunning! There were volcanic rocks and marine iguanas covering the beach.

Where NOT to Stay on Isabela Island

Since the bloggers at Two Wandering Soles fell in love wit Caleta Iguana, it has changed ownership … and is totally different. The hostel is now called Casa Rosada. It cost $20 a night per person. For this budget price, you get … well, nothing. No meals, no use of the kitchen, weak WiFi, only 2 bathrooms for the whole building, a musty “private” room in which everything was slightly wet, uncomfortable bunk beds (yes, bunk beds in a private room), loud ass music all night at the bar directly outside of our window, and a desk employee who was gone half the time and locked the main house when she left.

The desk employee was incredible nice, but it wasn’t fair to have only 1 single employee for the entire hostel. The poor girl barely got a lunch break. One day, she asked us to watch the hostel for her while she went to get lunch. In exchange, she said we could use the kitchen while she was gone  (yeah, there is a kitchen. It’s just that guests can’t use it, and also nobody else is using it … so it’s just there, unused).  We had already eaten, so she asked us to leave instead. Yes, we got kicked out of our own hostel. Not ideal.

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The best thing about Casa Rosada, other than its bargain bin price, is it’s right on the beach (but tbh half of the town is on the beach so that’s not a huge draw) and it is crawling with marine iguanas. Literally – there are crowds of marine iguanas outside on the deck and porch! We found this adorable, but we love critters. There’s even a GIANT daddy iguana on the deck everyday, flomped out while the little ones play around.

However, since you can just walk to Casa Rosada and visit the beach and make marine iguana friends on your own for free, we don’t think the hostel is worth it just for the beach access. It’s the cheapest on the island, but if you can afford to stay elsewhere, do.

A pair of marine iguanas outside our hostel on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador.
A pair of marine iguanas outside our hostel on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador.

Booking Day Trips from Isabela Island

The hostel wasn’t ALL bad: one nice thing that they did for us was to book some day tours on our behalf. Booking tours in the Galapagos can be overwhelming with the amount of options there are. What I’ve learned while being in South America is most tours are booked through multiple agencies or outlets, but there are a smaller number of actual guides. What this means is it doesn’t matter a whole great deal who you book through, because you’ll likely join forces with another agency. Some agencies take a bigger profit, hence the price differences, but this is usually a max of $5 (at least I’ve found). Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and the hostel will book for you. I’ve heard from other blogs that a hostel who books a tour for you sometimes takes a cut, so it’s best to know prices in advance to avoid that fee.

Casa Rosada didn’t take a cut, which was awesome, and they called every tour operator on Isabela Island until they found some last minute openings for us. We signed up for Las Tintoreras that afternoon and Los Tuneles the next day.

With a few hours to kill before our afternoon tour, we stopped by the best rated coffee place on Isabela Island according to Google, which was across the street from our hostel. It’s run by the sweetest little abuela who was kind enough to chat with us while we choked down our food. But the food was so bad, and so, so overpriced. Turns out, this wasn’t the only incredibly overpriced food on Isabela Island. More on that later!

"Downtown" Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, with its sand streets and lazily swaying palm trees.
“Downtown” Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, with its sand streets, lazily swaying palm trees, and marine iguanas (who have the right-of-way at all times, of course).

Las Tintoreras Tour

When we returned from our disappointing lunch & coffee, our helpful hostel host was gone again. She told us that host that the tour would arrive at 11:14, which is an oddly specific time. So naturally, when the bus arrived at 11:00 and rushed us out while we were still packing our stuff for the tour, we were a little cranky.  Overpriced shitty coffee and being rushed is like an immediate recipe for crankiness for us, it turns out.

The tour bus took us to an office where we were fitted with short wetsuits, and then we were on our way to the pier. It was actually refreshingly quick: I guess all that hurrying had a point after all.

We actually don’t know who this tour was booked through – we booked last minute once we arrived on Isabela Island. I’m not sure we’d recommend that – it was a scramble to find a tour company able to accommodate us on such late notice (literally an hour in advance, oops). To avoid the headache, you can book a Tintoreras Tour with Nature Galapagos online in advance.

Our group consisted of an older couple who had just gone to Machu Picchu and the Olympic Games (#goals), a couple that pretty much kept to themselves, a solo photographer, a couple obsessed with getting GoPro footage of everything with a “f*** your shot, mine is more important” attitude, and a different GoPro couple who were the downright worst (more on why in a bit). It was like a couple’s dating show, except instead of competitively answering questions about our partners, we were all competing for GoPro footage.

Snorkelling with a sea turtle: just another day in the Galapagos Islands.
Snorkelling with a sea turtle: just another day in the Galapagos Islands.

We took a small water taxi to the nearby spot of Las Tintoreras, which is just barely further than swimming distance from the docks – still within eyeshot of the beach, though.  Las Tintoreras is a small group of rocky islands off the coast of Puerto Villamil. It’s a protected reserve, so you have to be with a tour, but it offers a lot of fun things to see.

Once everyone got their flippers on, the group followed our guide around the small perimeter. It took me awhile to get into the water, since the solo photographer had no idea what the hell to make of the flippers. He took a solid five minutes trying to slip them on, size them, and wade into the water. Once he had his flippers on, he tried walking (terrible idea), squatting (wut), and subsequently flailing before finally falling (called it) into the water.

Guys, here’s How to Snorkel 101: Put on flippers. Glide into water. Do not try to put your feet on the ground: they are no longer feet. They are flippers.

I follower Flailing Fred into the water. Within minutes, we were treated to all sorts of sea life. We saw starfish, eagle rays, sting rays, sea turtles, and more fish than we could shake a stick (or camera) at.

colorful starfish in los tintoreras in isla isabela galapagos
We saw a couple of these crazy looking starfish on the Los Tintoreras tour.

Rule #1 in the Galapagos: Respect the Animals, people!

So we’re all snorkeling around, pointing at fish and starfish, having a great time.  Suddenly, someone spots a turtle sleeping on the sea floor. Everyone gets hella excited – for many, including us, it was the first time snorkeling with a turtle! (First of many, as it turns out. This is like, a daily occurrence in the Galapagos.)

 Then, things got awkward. Remember the dude I said was the worst? Well, he decided that now was the optimal time to dive down to this peaceful sleeping turtle…  and take a picture of it with his GoPro setup, which includes 2 GIANT SPOTLIGHTS. Like, think stadium lights, but surrounding a tiny GoPro.  The sleeping turtle was rudely awakened from his nap to insanely bright lights – the kind of which never occur naturally underwater, and likely damaged his eyes. The poor turtle swam away in terror.

If you only want to take one piece of Galapagos advice to heart, it’s this: don’t be a f***ing dick to the animals. The Galapagos Islands are so sacred and beautiful because people realized that nature here is so much better than humans deserve, so they treat it that way. You guys, please don’t be one of the people who ruins this precious balance between humans and nature.

By obeying five incredibly simple rules, we can avoid ruining the Galapagos.

  1. Do not litter. Do we have to show you pictures of turtles strangled by plastic 6-packs or birds choking on plastic bags?  Because that’s what happens when you litter. If you so much as throw your cigarette butt on the ground, you might as well be murdering an innocent animal. Don’t do it!
  2. Do not venture to places where signs say not to. I don’t care about your sunset shots, there’s erosion and turtle nests.
  3. Do not feed the animals. It makes them dependent on humans because they realize they don’t have to hunt.
  4.  Do not go within two meters of an animal if you can help it. This sign is posted all over the Galapagos. I know sometimes it’s hard to follow. Sometimes a bird lands on you. Sometimes you have to step over sea lions. Sometimes animals approach you. It’s a rule of thumb in a lot of cases, but be mindful of your distance.
  5. NEVER use a flash on an animal! Ever! Not just in the Galapagos. Anywhere, ever.  Flashing a bright, unexpected light at an animal’s face scares them, and make them erratic. It could damage their eyes, which are often more refined and sensitive than a human eye. If there are too many flashes, it could find the area you’re in dangerous, which could lead to a migration issue (they could abandon their primary food source, for example). Your photography is not that important. Know your place as a guest in the animal’s territory. 

As the turtle retreated in fear, our guide took the opportunity to firmly, but politely chew the dude out for being such a douche. He had violated 2 rules that she’d clearly laid out for us before the beginning of the Tintoreras tour. Rather than apologizing, Steve Steadicam tried to claim that he didn’t use a flash – because the light didn’t go on and then off again-  and therefore didn’t break the rules. No, chief, you used two bright AF spotlights, like you were on a drug bust. He then switched gears and said he was trying to take pictures to remember the trip (oh, just you? okay then) and finally he turned the stupid spotlight off. With an eye roll and a whispered Spanish expletive, the tour guide continued on. Don’t be like Steve, y’all!

We finished snorkeling – only about an hour was spent in the water. It wasn’t ideal. Although we saw a lot of critters, we were in too big of a group and everyone was fighting for a view of the animals. Future tours would realize “Oh we can all just make a circle around the turtle on the surface and take turns diving down and be fine,” but this tour was all about playing Battle of the GoPros, thus ruining everyone else’s picture too.

A marine iguana basking in the sun in the Galapagos Islands. You'll see plenty of these big guys when you visit the Galapagos Islands by land!
See this dude side-eyeing you? Don’t piss him off. Put the flash camera away. Photo Credit: “Galapagos” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by pantxorama

Steve Steadicam Strikes Again

After about an hour of snorkeling we had a cookie (yus!) and headed to a nature hike on one of the islands. We got a science lesson on Marine Iguanas, saw a cove FILLED with white tip sharks, and saw the cutest baby sea lion trying to cross the island on land.

Unfortunately, Steve Steadicam thought this would be the right moment to get his camera RIGHT up in the sea lion’s face. You know that part in Beyonce’s “Partition” video, where the paparazzi is right up on the window and Bey is looking hella annoyed? That was this guy and the baby sea lion.

What NOT to do in the Galapagos. Respect the animals!
Here’s Steve Steadicam demonstrating what NOT to do in the Galapagos: 2 giant spotlights (NO) and within a foot of a wild animal (NO!!!!). Do not be this guy. Respect the animals. PLEASE.

Our tour guide, fully done with his shit, angrily explained the 2 meter rule yet again. Why do humans need to stay 2 meters away from a wild animal? Because if you touch that animal, even on accident, the oil on your hands can transfer to them. This alters their scent, and animals survive on scents. In the case of the baby – she points to Steve Steadicam –  if someone were to touch it, its scent would change and its mom wouldn’t recognize it. By simply touching a baby sea lion, you could make it an orphan who will surely die soon. Steve Steadicam was gambling with the life of this baby sea lion.

How heartbreaking is that?! Apparently not very, because that dude DID NOT care and didn’t get the hint. I hope everyone on his Facebook page fully appreciates the ½ inch of not giving a shit between his camera and the baby sea lion.

Let me reiterate again: The Galapagos Islands are an animal sanctuary. While you are in the presence of wild animals on the Galapagos, FOLLOW THE RULES and RESPECT THE ANIMALS.

Grilled octopus in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
Fresh fish (or octopus) is always a safe bet in the Galapagos Islands.

Where to Eat in Puerto Villamil

When we got back from the Tintoreras Tour, we were famished. Shitty canned fish soup and the free Turbo Cookie (love them) from the tour did not last.  You know that hunger you get after swimming for a while? We had snorkel hunger.

After a quick TripAdvisor search, we learned what our eyes and instincts had already told us: all of the restaurants on the island are on the same block, and they all serve pretty much the same thing. We settled for Encanto de la Pepa, because they had a set dinner (you pick the entree) for $7. It was actually pretty decent – a lot better than canned fish soup, that’s for sure. It came with the usual fixed price stuff: soup, juice, rice, salad, plantain, dessert. Plus you could choose from a bunch of proteins that changed daily.

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Even though the dinner came with dessert, the dessert was jello, so screw that. We wanted some legit dessert (this is why we are barely losing weight on this trip). We hopped around the corner to El Cafetal and got tiramisu and flambeed bananas a la mode.  Expensive, but it hit the spot.

Here’s what we learned about food in Puerto Villamil: there’s not very much variety, and it’s all sub-par and overpriced (so the exact opposite of Puerto Ayora, where the food is plentiful and delicious). Bring groceries from Puerto Ayora if you can, or just be prepared to overspend and be disappointed.

A blue footed booby and his babies on the Los Tuneles tour from Isabela Island in the Galapagos! Read the complete guide to backpacking the Galapagos Islands by land.
A blue footed booby and his babies on the Los Tuneles tour from Isabela Island in the Galapagos!

Los Tuneles Tour

After an expensive breakfast at Encanto de la Pepa the next morning, we hung around lazily at the hostel watching marine iguanas until our hostess locked us out. Sigh.

Stranded outside, we waited for our tour, which was an hour late. So, the opposite of yesterday’s tour, I guess? The tour operators were super apologetic about the delay. Hey, as long as we get to see some animals (respectfully and from a distance), it’s all good!

After the usual wetsuit hustle (for some reason wetsuit rental agencies always try to give me an XXXL when I really only need one XL. Thanks a lot, guys!), we were outfitted and on our way. We had about ten people in tow – much smaller than yesterday’s group, which we deeply appreciated.

Our guide, Gabriel, was awesome. The company we went through is called Pahoehoe Tours, and they were fantastic. We definitely recommend them! But keep in mind – we booked last minute once we arrived on the island, and we may have gotten lucky. If you prefer, you can book a Los Tuneles Tour online in advance with Nature Galapagos to put your mind at ease.

A female blue footed booby on the Los Tuneles tour, from Isla Isabela, in the Galapagos Islands!
A female blue footed booby on the Los Tuneles tour in the Galapagos Islands!

I can’t talk up Los Tuneles enough. This was hands down the best day tour of the Galapagos Islands that we took. We saw all sorts of wildlife, and at $90 each, it was the best bang for our buck as far as tours are concerned.

The Los Tuneles tour starts with a 45 minute boat ride, that is interrupted by a quick stop at a rock. The rock is home to Galapagos penguins, one of four species of penguins to live in the tropics. We saw one lone, solitary penguin waiting for its mate to return (which is apparently unusual. Maybe they were in a fight). Aside from the penguins, this rock also has awesome wave patterns bouncing off of it.

A lone penguin waiting for its mate on the Los Tuneles tour off of Isla Isabela in the Galapagos Islands.
A lone penguin waiting for its mate on the Los Tuneles tour off of Isla Isabela in the Galapagos Islands.

Snorkeling on the Los Tuneles Tour

We continued onward to our first real destination: the snorkeling area.

This was the longest we went snorkeling on a tour the entire week. All told, we were in the water for two whole hours! I’ll hit you with the highlights.

The area we were swimming in is a collection of four or five rings of rocky islands. In this area, we saw more water critters then we did anywhere else. In addition to the usual boatload of fish and rays, we saw roughly ten giant sea turtles! No one pissed them off this time, so I was lucky enough to swim in between two of them, side by side, which was freaking magical. They’re so chill and used to humans (so long as those humans are being respectful).

You'll see plenty of rays, like this one, when snorkeling in the Galapagos! Don't worry, they're friendly.
You’ll see plenty of rays, like this one, when snorkeling in the Galapagos! Don’t worry, they’re friendly. Original photo credit: “P2155802” (CC BY 2.0) by Lucy Rickards

We also saw 2 sea horses. They’re tricky to spot because they wrap their tails on the mangrove roots and tend to be a similar color. Mangroves bring a lot of sea life, so the dirt on the ocean floor gets kicked up easily.

We also saw also plenty of white tip sharks! These are harmless to humans, and thank god because we swam into a shark nest where NINE of these guys were asleep. YIKES!

One of the coolest experiences came as we were following a turtle. We looked below and freaked out as we saw THOUSANDS of small black fish darting together. Our guide said he’s never seen a school that big there. When your tour guide is getting giddy, you know you stumbled on a good find.

Sea turtle swimming underwater in the Galapagos Islands.
Sea turtles and large schools of fish are a frequent sight underwater in the Galapagos Islands. Original photo credit: “P2115226” (CC BY 2.0) by Lucy Rickards

The Lava Tunnels

Back in the boat, we all had a lot to talk about over our lunch before we headed to the titular stop on the tour: the lava tunnels!

Los Tuneles is a geological miracle. Isabela Island has a few major volcanoes. Long ago, these volcanoes erupted, spewing lava into the ocean. As the lava cooled over water, water got trapped underneath, forming tunnels that were totally closed off to the world.

Over the centuries tectonic shifts occur, which shatter these tunnels. What remains is a series of natural rock bridges bursting with wildlife.

Naturally formed lava tunnels on Isabela Island in the Galapagos are home to a huge variety of wildlife, including blue footed boobies!
Naturally formed lava tunnels on Isabela Island are home to a huge variety of wildlife, including blue footed boobies!

As we traversed carefully via boat through these land masses, we were able to spot penguins, blue herons, turtles, and finally…the animal I have been waiting years to see…BLUE FOOTED BOOBIES! These are the derpiest, most adorable birds ever. We tied the boat up and climbed to our new bird friends.

Gabriel told us the reason for their trademark blue feet is their diet is pretty much exclusively silver fish. The older the bird, the bluer the feet, so you can tell age relatively easy. (Also, the baby boobies are awkwardly covered in weird fluff, which is so incredibly cute).

You can identify the gender  of a blue footed booby by the noises they make and the size of their pupils. Males have small pupils.

Our favorite boobies were a dad bird and his daughter. She kept bugging him for food, but there wasn’t any. Fed up with her poking, he decided to show her how little food he has to give. Luckily for you, we got it on video…

Blue footed boobies were the highlight of the Los Tuneles tour, which was in turn the highlight of the Galapagos. We returned to Puerto Villamil enthralled and happy, for our last night on Isabela Island.

Self-Guided Snorkeling at Conche de Perla

Our last morning on Isabela Island was bittersweet. We really enjoyed our time on Isabela Island, despite the first day’s shitty canned soup and Steve Steadicam.

We had until 2 PM – when our ferry back to Santa Cruz would depart – so after breakfast Lia and I rented wetsuits and snorkels from Pahoehoe and headed to the dock. We had heard Conche de Perla had good snorkeling, but we didn’t exactly know where it was. All we knew was it was around the dock.

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So we went to the dock and walked into the ocean. True to form, we spent an hour snorkeling in the wrong spot. We didn’t see anything in the water, except this one stalker pelican we named Alfredo who followed us around while eating sticks. What kind of vegetarian-ass pelican eats sticks? Like, I researched it, and there is no reason for a pelican to be chewing and swallowing sticks. Something was terribly wrong with Alfredo. He followed us around for a good hour, and kept closing in on our 2-meter gap until he backed us up all the way onto the beach (turns out that pelicans are FREAKING ENORMOUS close up).

I miss that little idiot.

Pelican at the Puerto Ayora fish market in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
Alfredo wasn’t the only pelican friend we made in the Galapagos. We met this guy at the Puerto Ayora fish market!

We had nearly given up on snorkeling for the day when we noticed a sign for Conche de Perla about 50 meters from the shore. Well, shit.

We walked along the boardwalk, stepping over sea lions and marine iguanas along the way, and reached a peaceful little alcove between breakers and mangrove trees. The actual Conche de Perla was amazing. Honestly, it’s a great alternative to Los Tintoreras if you want to save money and avoid crowds. The best part of snorkleing at Conche de Perla is that you can do it on your own, and we actually saw more wildlife there than on the Tintoreras tour.

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We snorkeled around the cove for an hour and saw two turtles, an eagle ray, a bunch of coral, several large puffer fish, a SWIMMING marine iguana (a first), and a HUGE manta ray.

The manta ray scared the shit out of us. There we were, following a turtle, when all of a sudden this mass of black maybe six feet wide swam right up behind us. This thing looked like death could swim. It glided with great speed and grace across the ocean floor and terrified us every second we could see it. I honestly felt like it was going to get annoyed by us, turn around, swallow us whole, and all of existence would implode around us like a black hole.

After an incredible hour of snorkeling, we dragged ourselves from the water and sadly made our way back from Isabela to Santa Cruz.

Cuddling sea lions on a bench in Isabela Island in the Galapagos.
Right by the docks at Isabela Island are these benches inscribed with “Isabela was created for you” in Spanish. The benches are ALWAYS covered in napping sea lions. So it’s like the benches were built for sea lions, and inscribed for them too. This is their island – we’re just visiting!

Where to Stay in Puerto Ayora

After another bumpy, turbulent 2-hour boat ride, Victor met us on the boardwalk at Puerto Ayora. It was nice to see a familiar face. He did, however, have some bad news: the San Cristobal day tour  to Kicker Rock we booked with him was a no-go. The tour guides were in San Cristobal, so there was no way we could pull it off without staying the night in San Cristobal, which was impossible because our flight time. Instead, he offered to change our tour to Sante Fe, which was a cheaper tour anyway. We were bummed we wouldn’t get to see San Cristobal, but booked the Santa Fe tour anyway. Might as well do something on our last day in the Galapagos.

Victor also gave us a great recommendation for a hostel: Galapagos Native. He said it was $40 for a private, and to say he sent us there. Making local friends is the best!

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When we got to Galapagos Native, it was pretty clear that $40 wasn’t the price. Call it my natural ability to read people (or my natural ability to read well displayed room rate signs), but when we said “Victor said it’s 40 a night here,” the receptionist wasn’t giving much agreement. Instead, he gave a slight smile, shrug, and a “Sure. We can do that.” And you know what? It was a really nice place to stay. Victor with the hookups! 

We went back to Sol y Mar on the Avenue of Kiosks for dinner, because it’s so goddamn good. After a few days of canned fish soup and overpriced tiramisu, it felt great to be able to order a whole fresh fish for $10 again.

A marine iguana ever so slowly making his way into the water outside of our hostel on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador.
A marine iguana ever so slowly making his way into the water outside of our hostel on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.

Santa Fe Island Tour

On our last full day in the Galapagos, we had one final all-day day tour. Instead of Kicker Rock, where you can swim with sea lions and hammerhead sharks, it ended up being the Santa Fe Island Tour. Let me preface this section with my overall opinion of the Sante Fe tour: meh. It’s not bad. In fact, if it was my first tour, I’d probably think it was great. But at the tail end of a critter filled week of adventure, it felt anticlimactic. I think we would have preferred Kicker Rock, but I guess we’ll never know.

To start, there are a BUNCH of Santa Fe tours. All of the boats say they leave at 8, but they kind of leave in waves. Due to lack of instruction or help, we didn’t even find our tour group until 8:30, and we weren’t on the boat until nearly 9. This group was all people our age or younger, backpackers and a couple of lucky souls who had gotten English teaching gigs on the island for the past few months. Our guide was actually the student of one of the guests! Turns out that there is a huge demand for English teachers here because all of the guides want to speak English to interact with the tourists, and it’s a great way to live on the Galapagos Islands for a while.

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The tour starts with a brief boat ride to an uninhabited part of Santa Cruz Islands. Here, we got off the boat with nothing in our hands (we were told we didn’t need anything), and our wetsuits on. Our guide talked to us about marine iguanas, which were plentiful, and sea turtles, which were absent. We took a treacherous footpath – barefoot, over pointy black lava rock – to Playa Principal, a beautiful small shoreline. Cool. A beach, and we had nothing to make this beach fun. Back to the boat right? Nope. The guide told us we had an hour or an hour and a half to kill before we could go to Sante Fe.

No problem. We had snorkeling equipment. But the guide said there isn’t anything in the water to see – no point trying to snorkel. So we just sat around…for over an hour. Lia managed to entertain herself by making a baller sandcastle. There were multiple moats, and an entire section made out of oh my god Lia stop  telling me what to write nobody wants to read about your sandcastle. (Lia says: it was an incredibly badass sandcastle ok)

building a sandcastle on Santa Cruz in the Galapagos
Lia building her masterpiece. She’s actually forming the community sculpture garden on the west wing, or something. We were REALLY bored, guys.

Once we were up and moving and I had managed to drag Lia away from her architectural masterpiece, Santa Fe took us about an hour to get to. Our guide gave us strict instructions: once in the water, swim like hell towards shore – there’s an incredibly strong current.

He wasn’t kidding: the current was vicious. This is not the easy swimming  and gliding we’d been doing all week long. Thankfully, the water is fucking freezing, so swimming for your life was a nice way to warm up.

I wish I could say there were memorable sights, but aside from a baby sea lion on the land, all we saw were fish. I mean, some of them were pretty big, and a lot of them were pretty. But we’d seen all of them all week long already, so it was a little anti-climactic.

Snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
A typical underwater scene while snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Original photo credit: “Underwater, Galápagos” (CC BY 2.0) by p.j.k.

After 45 minutes struggling in the freezing cold water against the strong current, we returned to the boat.

Our next stop: a sea lion cove. This part was by far my favorite, because this is where you’re able to swim with sea lions! I’m obsessed with sea lions – I grew up with sea lions in my coastal hometown of Morro Bay, California. But I’ve never swam with them.  It was amazing to see how graceful they are in the water! Especially considering how goofy they are on land. We swam with a playful baby sea lion who was super curious about us, and a few far more cautious adults.

Our guides let us swim for a while, then we all took a break for a fresh fish lunch. After lunch, we had the option of swimming again, which nobody took advantage of – instead, we all relaxed in the warm sunshine on the boat.

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Then, weirdly, the boat spent about half an hour trying to catch fish, slowly gliding up and down outside of where we were swimming with lines out. I guess that’s where our fresh fish lunch came from. Anyway, after a full day of touring, we returned to Puerto Ayora in the setting sun.

For our very last Galapagos dinner, we of course returned to the Avenue of Kiosks and each ordered a whole fried fish from The Blue Footed Booby Restaurant. It was amazing.

We got to swim with sea lions on the Santa Fe Island day tour from Puerto Ayora on the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador!
We got to swim with sea lions on the Santa Fe Island day tour from Puerto Ayora on the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador! Original photo credit: “Sea Lions swimming, Galápagos” (CC BY 2.0) by p.j.k.

Goodbye, Galapagos!

The next morning, we dragged our feet getting out of bed. I mean, that’s normal for us, but this time it was because we were sad to leave.  We grabbed a $1 pickup truck taxi to the bus terminal, paid the $2 bus fare, took the five minute ferry, rode the free airport bus, and walked into the airport.

As we sat sadly gazing out the window in the airport waiting to be allowed to go through security (that’s how small the airport is, there are only 2 gates), some Darwin finches twittered overhead, soaring in and out of the open air windows. They were the last Galapagos critters we would say goodbye to. Our amazing week had come to an end.

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Every time we leave a place, we do so with some sadness, but also excitement for what lies ahead. It was different this time. There was no “Time for a new adventure!” attitude. We were just sad. The Galapagos Islands were the most memorable part of our journey. There is something so magical and surreal about this tropical paradise in the middle of an endless sea off the coast of a country a lot of people give little thought to. It is a group of islands many people say “one day, maybe” to. It is sacred and awe-inspiring. Every day we were there was full of wonder, laughter, smiles, and sunshine. It might be expensive and difficult to pull off, but to say it was worth it would be a gross understatement.

We love you, Galapagos. I promise we’ll be back soon.

Hey, are you considering a trip to the Galapagos Islands? Please ask us all of your questions about planning a land-based Galapagos Islands trip in the comments section below!


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The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are a must-see for any wildlife lover. Find out why we stayed on Isabela Island during our week long land-based trip to the Galapagos Islands. Don't miss Isabela Island when you backpack the Galapagos Islands!

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  1. […] details, read about our week in the Galapagos here: Part 1: Santa Cruz Island and Puerto Ayora and Part 2: Isla Isabela and Santa Fe. We’ve also included tips for the tours we did to help ensure that you have as amazing of an […]

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