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The Galapagos, a volcanic archipelago, is located about 1,000 km off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. It is known for its diverse plant and animal species, many of which are endemic to the area. Although incredibly beautiful, the Galapagos is not your typical island vacation destination. The landscapes are like no other and the terrain resembles that of another planet. Some areas are completely void of vegetation, with the exception of a few cacti growing amongst the dark volcanic rock.
On the Galapagos, wildlife has a special relationship with humankind. People respect the animals and the animals don’t view humans as a threat. Consequently, you can expect some truly amazing and up-close animal encounters. A visit to the islands will likely inspire you to think differently about the world and leave with a newfound appreciation for Mother Nature. Many people who visit the Galapagos opt to take a cruise with a fixed itinerary and overnights on a boat. I prefer to have a bit more freedom when traveling, though. A cruise has its perks but there are some fascinating things to see on land as well.
Exploring the Galapagos independently is fairly easy to do and can be much more affordable. The Galapagos has four inhabited islands that have lodging available to visitors and an inter-island ferry providing transfers between three of these islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, and Isabela. The following is the perfect 10-day Galapagos land-based itinerary:
Day 1: San Cristobal
There are two airports to choose from when flying into the Galapagos. One is located on the island of Santa Cruz and the other on San Cristobal. When booking your flights, you will want to take into consideration the ferry schedules and which airport will be the most time and cost-effective. I chose an early morning flight into San Cristobal. If you are a snorkeler/diver, San Cristobal is a must-do. If not, I would recommend flying into Santa Cruz instead and spending more time on the island of Isabela. There are a handful of things to do in San Cristobal, but if you don’t plan on being in the water, then your time can be better spent elsewhere.
La Lobería Beach
La Loberia Beach is located on the southwest coast of San Cristobal and is a short cab ride from town. It’s named after the many sea lions that call it home. The beach itself is beautiful and sea lions can be found resting upon the sand and rocks. You’ll find some marine iguanas here as well. Bring a snorkel mask, as this is a great place to swim with the sea lions and possibly some sea turtles.
Day 2: San Cristobal
Kicker Rock, or Leon Dormido, as it’s also called, was my main motivation for visiting the island of San Cristobal. It’s one of the top snorkeling locations in the Galapagos and if you snorkel or dive, it is an absolute must-do on your Galapagos land-based itinerary. Kicker Rock stands at 150 meters above sea level and is actually composed of compacted volcanic ash, not rock, despite its name.
Many different bird species can be found in the area, but the amount of underwater wildlife is what really makes Kicker Rock incredible. It is more of a deep-sea snorkeling experience and you will most likely be on the boat with divers. You can expect to see lots of beautiful fish, sea turtles, Galapagos sharks, White and Black-tip reef sharks, possibly some rays, and if you’re lucky Hammerhead sharks. I had an incredible day and was able to see all the above. It was definitely the best snorkeling experience I have had to date.
An entire day should be set aside for Kicker Rock. The trip consists of an hour boat ride each way and the tour will most likely include a stop at one of the nearby beaches. My tour stopped at the gorgeous white sand beach of Cerro Brujo, where I was able to see sea lions and a lot of birdlife, including the blue-footed booby. Tours leave early in the morning and return around 3 pm. Make sure you book your tour the day before at one of the many agencies around town. I booked with Eco-Challenger Galapagos and had a great time. Our guide was a naturalist and was able to share a lot of great information on the different species in the area. Tour cost is $125 USD.
Day 3: Santa Cruz/ Isabela
Most of this day will be spent traveling between islands on the ferry. There isn’t a direct ferry that goes to Isabela, so you will need to take the 7 am ferry to Santa Cruz and then the 2 pm ferry to Isabela. Make sure to arrive thirty minutes prior to departure for a bag inspection. There will be about a four-hour gap between the two ferries, so I recommend grabbing lunch and visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station while in Santa Cruz. Ferry schedules can change, so please check here prior to making arrangements. Ferry cost is $30 USD each way.
Charles Darwin Research Station
The Charles Darwin Research Station was set up as a biological research station in 1964. Today, it is also a tortoise breeding center, where the animals are protected and eventually released into the wild. At the station, you’ll find tortoises at different stages of life, with the oldest being over 100 years old. You’ll also learn more about all the amazing conservation efforts taking place in the Galapagos.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is a short taxi ride from the pier and luggage can be left at the information desk that is located along the dirt drive. Guided tours are offered for a small fee, otherwise, entrance is free (donations are accepted.) You can expect to spend an hour or two here, depending on how quickly you walk the trail.