Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you). This helps support and run my blog. I only recommend products I personally use and love. Thank you for your support.
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 the 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 that aren’t included on cruise itineraries. Plus, I wanted to see what island life is like. 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 on 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 bird-life, 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 on 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 on 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.
Day 4: Isabela
Sierra Negra Volcano
Sierra Negra is a large volcano located at the southwestern end of Isabela. It is the second-largest crater in the world and is one of the most active volcanoes on the Galapagos. It last erupted in June 2018. Guided tours depart from Puerto Villamil and will take you on a hike to the edge of the crater’s caldera and through lava fields. You’ll get to experience some amazing views and learn a lot about the island’s history. Tours leave early in the morning and last about six hours. You will definitely want to arrange this one the day before due to the early departure time. Tour cost is around $90 USD.
Day 5: Isabela
Los Tuneles is an uninhabited area of Isabela, made up of lava formations. Over time, the formations have collapsed, creating a beautiful maze of tunnels through the water. Los Tuneles is about a 40-minute scenic boat ride from town. Upon reaching the area, the boat will navigate through the formations and you will likely see lots of sea turtles swimming around. In addition to snorkeling, the tour also includes a brief land excursion. The boat will dock and you’ll be able to step onto the rocks. This area definitely had the most blue-footed boobies that I saw while on the islands. There was a large group of them and we were able to get fairly close.
The snorkeling portion of the tour will take you for a swim through the shallow waters, surrounded by mangroves. The incredibly biodiverse area is home to a large number of species. In addition to sea turtles, I saw many different fish, seahorses, and even a group of small, white-tip reef sharks. A tour to Los Tuneles is another must-do on your Galapagos land-based itinerary and should be arranged the day prior. Departure times are often early, between 8 and 11 am. The duration of the tour is roughly five hours and you can expect to pay about $90 USD.
Day 6: Isabela
Concha Perla is a natural pool, located directly next to the pier and just a short walk from Puerto Villamil on Isabela. It’s best visited during low tide and is one of the few places you can explore without a guide. Concha Perla is a great place to snorkel because of its shallow and clear waters. It’s also a favorite sea lion hangout. If you are hoping to swim with these fun creatures, this is the place. I had a couple of sea lions follow me into the water and swim for a bit. It was such a fun experience!
The pool is fairly easy to find. Look for the coffee stand and you’ll see a pathway marked with a sign. Simply follow the wooden walkway through the mangroves until you reach the stairs at the end. Take care not to startle the sleeping sea lions sprawled out all over the place. Masks are available for rent, but if you plan on going in the early morning, I recommend bringing your own, as they might not be open yet.
Kayak Tour of Las Tintoreras
Las Tintoreras is a group of islets, located just minutes from Puerto Villamil. They are so close that you can actually see them from shore. There are two ways to explore Las Tintoreras, either by boat or kayak. Both tours include time for snorkeling. I chose the kayak tour since I had already been on so many boats at this point and wanted something a bit more active. The kayak tours leave from the beach located directly across from Concha Perla, so these activities can easily be done together.
Tours leave throughout the day, but going at low-tide is best. Little red crabs and marine iguanas can be seen all over the black rocks. You can also expect to see a few sea turtles. I went with hopes of seeing Galapagos Penguins. They can’t always be found year-round, but I was told that Las Tintoreras would be my best chance in early October. I got lucky and saw one small group hanging out on the rocks.
Day 7: Isabela
Take a Self-Guided Bike Tour
Biking around Isabela can be a lot of fun and is a great break from all the boat outings. Mountain bikes can be found at the many tour operators around town and can be rented for about $3 USD/hour. There are a few stops just outside of town that are easy to explore on bike.
Wall of Tears
The Wall of Tears can be found at the end of a beachside path. The path, itself, is beautiful, but The Wall of Tears has a sad history. The wall was built over the course of fourteen years, during the 1940s and 50s, by prisoners that were sent to Isabela. The island, being nearly impossible to escape from, was the perfect place to establish a penal colony. The wall served absolutely no purpose, other than to punish the prisoners, many of who died during its construction. The beach path consists of both sand and gravel and can be difficult to bike through at some points, but has some pretty stops and lookout points along the way. You will eventually reach an entry point at the bottom of a hill, where you will continue to the Wall of Tears. This portion will take about an hour to bike each way. I would plan on doing this ride early in the morning; it can get quite hot in the afternoon. If you do start in the afternoon, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get back before it gets dark. The entire ride roundtrip in about 16 km, or nearly 10 miles.
There are a few lagoons right outside of town where you can find flamingos. The best place for viewing is located near the entrance to the beach path. Take a right after the Iguana Crossing Hotel and you will see a pathway, almost immediately, on your right. It’s easy to ride past, so make sure not to go too far. Park your bike and you’ll find a wooden boardwalk that takes you out along the water. The best time to see the flamingos is either early in the morning or dusk. You’ll see a couple of fun beach bars with hammocks as you’re are leaving town. I suggest stopping by, for what will probably be a much-needed break, on your way back.
Day 8: Santa Cruz
You will want to catch the morning ferry to Santa Cruz. The ferry leaves Isabela at 6 am and once again, you will need to arrive 30-minutes prior to departure for a bag inspection. The ride is about 2 1/2 hours long and was one of the rougher ferry rides I experienced while on the islands. If you get seasick, I would definitely come prepared with some Dramamine.
Tortuga Bay is located on the island of Santa Cruz and is another of the few places you can go without a guide. There are two ways to get to the beautiful Tortuga Bay. You can take a 20-minute water taxi from the main dock or you can choose to take the walking path, which is about 2.5 km each way. I recommend taking the walking path. The path is open from 6 am to 6 pm and a taxi to the trailhead costs just $2 USD from town. It’s a fairly easy, 30-minute walk that goes through an area of cacti before reaching the beach. The first beach you’ll arrive at is Playa Brava, where swimming is not permitted. You’ll want to continue down the beach to your right. You’ll find lots of marine iguanas sunning themselves on the sand and at the end of the path, you’ll see the bay, which has some great snorkeling. Just make sure to bring a mask.
Day 9: Bartolome
Day Trip to Bartolome
One of the advantages of taking a cruise is that you are able to visit some of the farther away, uninhabited islands. This isn’t impossible to do, though, if you are on a Galapagos land-based itinerary. There are a handful of uninhabited islands that you can take a day trip to. One of these is the island of Bartolome. You’ll have to go with an organized tour, as there is no ferry and tourists must be accompanied by a guide. The tour leaves from Santa Cruz very early in the morning and should be organized in advance. It takes a little over three hours to reach the island from Puerto Ayora and tours start at around $180 USD.
Day 10: Santa Cruz
El Chato Tortoise Reserve
El Chato is a giant tortoise reserve, located in the highlands of Santa Cruz. It’s a great place to see tortoises roaming freely in their natural habitat. For $3 USD, you can walk around the area and see the many turtles up close. There are also lava tubes around the property that you can explore.
Los Gemelos, or The Twins, are a pair of volcanic sinkholes. Many people refer to them as craters, but they aren’t actually the result of a volcanic eruption. They were created when the land beneath the volcanic roof collapsed due to tectonic shifts and erosion over time. They are located close to the main road, although you would never know that they are there due to the dense vegetation.
El Chato Tortoise Reserve and Los Gemelos are located close to one another and should be visited together. El Chato is about a 40-minute drive from town and Los Gemelos is another 15 minutes. It can be an expensive cab ride. I suggest planning this excursion for the day of your departure. Book your flight in the afternoon from Baltra and you’ll have plenty of time to stop on the way to the airport. I would leave about four hours before your scheduled flight. A cab to the two stops and the airport should cost about $60 USD.
As mentioned before, the Galapagos are not your typical island vacation. They are rugged and you can expect an adventure. Luxury Hotels are hard to come by and the ones that do exist are quite expensive. I recommend staying at one of the many great budget hotels or family-owned hostels.
Hotel Starfish is a small hotel on the island of Isabela. It’s just a few blocks from town and you can bike or walk to most of Isabela’s top sights. The hotel has a welcoming and helpful staff that can assist in booking tours.
La Fortaleza De Haro
La Fortaleza De Haro is a great option on Santa Cruz. The small castle-like hotel is conveniently located close to town but tucked away on a quiet street. The couple that owns it is very sweet and can help arrange activities and airport transfers.
Eco Hotel Katarma
Eco Hotel Katarma is an environmentally-friendly hotel on the island of San Cristobal. The rooms are simple but clean and the property has a pool and plenty of places to relax. It’s located in town and is just down the road from the airport.
All the above activities are more than doable in ten days, and could even be condensed into eight days, depending on how you like to travel. Have more time to spend in the Galapagos? Great! I suggest adding Elizabeth Bay or a day trip to the island of North Seymour to your Galapagos land-based itinerary.
Have you been to the Galapagos? I’d love to hear about your experience. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Want to find out how to make a trip to the Galapagos more affordable? Continue to my post, “How to Travel the Galapagos on a Budget.”