Cruising the Galápagos: A practicalities primer
For many cruisers, the decision to go to the Galápagos is not a straightforward one. Although the Encantadas ranks as one of the fabled destinations in the world, it is also one of the more expensive. Many cruisers wrestle with whether paying big dollars will yield an experience worth the price tag. We think it does.
Costs, controls, and controversy
Strict procedures are mandated for cruising boats who visit the Galápagos, and plenty of controversy surrounds the regulations. There tend to be two camps among the boats we’ve met. Camp Conservation empathizes with the uphill battle the Ecuadoran government faces in preserving the islands’ unique ecosystems and is happy to jump through hoops. Camp Conspiracy assumes that the fees and hurdles are schemes to make money on the backs of yachties. We’re somewhere in the middle, but our leaning is definitely toward the former.
Among the expectations are that hulls be free of barnacles, that waste be dealt with properly, and that fruits and vegetables not be imported. Stiff rules about barnacles exist, presumably because the ambitious little hitchhikers are not endemic to the islands, and the Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS) is trying desperately to prevent the introduction of new creatures. The consequences of a barnacled hull include instruction to depart the harbor, to sail 40+ nautical miles offshore, and to scrape clean the boat’s undercarriage; and possibly a fine. We appreciate the GNPS’s effort. At the same time, given that all currents flowing in proximity to the Galápagos converge on the archipelago, it seems the tenacious little buggars might be swept directly toward the islands anyway.
Recyclables, organic material, and garbage are expected to be separated, which we found refreshing after living in mainland Central America, where such infrastructure is almost nonexistent. There is a fee charged for the collection and transport of waste, which we heard some mariners criticize, but that we found practical. The Galápagos are, after all, hundreds of miles from the mainland and allowing one of the most pristine archipelagos on earth to degrade into a trash dump would be a shame, to put it mildly. There are also restrictions on importation of fruits and vegetables, and given that human-driven pests (e.g., some cockroach species) and seed dispersion (e.g., red quinine tree) have threatened endemic species, it makes sense that rangers are not keen on such items being introduced. In our minds, the restrictions were generally reasonable. The shemozzle one boat endured over expired canned foods, on the other hand, was absurd! Should we not be allowed to eat an expired tin green beans in peace?!
Anyway, you’ll have to decide for yourself which camp aligns with your views and ideals and, regardless of your personal opinions, whether you are willing to pay the price and comply with the rules for exploring the Encantadas aboard your own boat.
Agents and fees
Working with an agent to obtain an autographo—the special documentation required for vessel entry—is more or less a requisite for visiting the Galápagos these days. We opted to work with Bolivar Pesantes (Bolivar.email@example.com), a well-known agent about whom we were unable to find a single scathing review (something that cannot be said for the other agents we considered). Bolivar received word of our arrival and within 90 minutes of setting our anchor, a throng of officials crowded aboard The Red Thread. As always, I managed our paperwork binder, passing around documents as requested, while the Captain of our ship, sat ready to pen his signature on a dozen forms. A thumbs-up from the woman who dove our hull confirmed that we would not be sent out to sea to scrape barnacles; our recently painted hull was in excellent shape. Hallelujah.
The one order of business we had been unable to complete prior to our arrival was securing a proof-of-fumigation form. We tried to have the boat fumigated before departing Costa Rica, but our only option was to wire $200 to an attorney 100 miles away in exchange for a form indicating falsely that we’d been fumigated. That felt sleazy to us, though we later learned this is often the only option for boats departing from Panama. With advanced notice, Bolivar arranged a visit from a man who carried a rocket launcher on his shoulder and identified himself as Rambo de Fumigato. He informed us we’d need to leave the vessel for at least two hours. A bit disgusted by the thought that our home was about to be assaulted by pesticides (and simultaneously relieved as we’d found three cucarachas since recommissioning the boat…a bit embarrassing to admit that), Neil, Lori, and I climbed aboard the large panga with the officials. Rambo de Fumigato let off a smoke bomb in the cabin, before careening up the companionway like a soldier exiting a building under siege and leaping aboard with us. Fumigation: check.Bolivar’s fees were straightforward and consistent with those on noonsite.com. We were not expected to pay anything prior to our arrival and were only required to email color copies of our passports and USCG boat documentation to secure our autographo, which we received upon clearing into the Galápagos. Our autographo permitted us to remain in the islands for up to 60 days (we stayed for 23). We were charged a total of $1595 USD. Economically, it made a major difference for us to have a third crew member aboard who happily split the cost for an experience of a lifetime! Specific fees are outlined below:
|Fees paid on Isla San Cristóbal||Cost in USD|
|Reception and arrival – according to tonnage; we are 14 tons||160|
|Inspection and quarantine service||100|
|Galápagos National Park fee – $100/crew||300|
|Governing council of Galápagos – $20/crew||60|
|Copy and transport authorities||30|
|Collection and transport of waste||30|
|Inspection of National Park – $50/crew||150|
|National zarpe to sail for Isla Santa Cruz**||15|
|Fees paid on Isla Santa Cruz||Cost in USD|
|National arrival from Galápagos port***||15|
|Fees paid on Isla Isabela||Cost in USD|
|National arrival from Galápagos port****||30|
|International departure zarpe||15|
|Use of Isabela Island municipal pier – $5/crew*****||10|
|*Most boats arrive with a fumigation certificate from Panama, so this fee is atypical.
**We paid Bolivar a flat $1,500 USD in a single bulk payment; he delivered our zarpe the day we departed and no additional fees were requested at that time.
***This fee was paid to Migracíon.
****We arrived on a weekend, so this fee was double; it is typically $15.
*****Lori departed before we reached Isla Isabela, so we were again a crew of two.
Ports and anchorages
We obtained an autographo to visit the three ports where cruising boats are permitted. Our understanding is that you can choose to visit one port only, but given the uniqueness of life on each island, seeing just one would have dramatically restricted our ability to learn about the archipelago. Besides, our impression is that the expense to visit three was not much more than the cost to see just one. The three ports cruising vessels are currently allowed to visit are:
- Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Isla San Cristóbal
- Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz
- Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela
One advantage in working with Bolivar is that he has agents on each island. When we dropped anchor in a new port, the agent accompanied officials to our boat. We simply had to provide them the manila envelope Bolivar had given us on Isla San Cristóbal, which contained copies of necessary documents. This expedited our check-ins and gave us one less thing to think about, which was useful as we were rather preoccupied by watching baby sharks circle our boat, sea lions attempt to make our swim step their bedroom, or giant manta rays soar above the water between islands. The Galápagos really are that special.
Excursions and tour operators
More on these to come in upcoming blogs, but we enjoyed a few fantastic excursions and tours that are worth jotting down, if you are Galápagos bound. The places below are only those that we visited. Opportunities to visit other sites abound, and if time and money were no object there are several more places we would have loved to see!
Isla San Cristóbal
- Visitor Interpretation Centre (free; walkable)
- La Loberia (pink shell beach; free; $2 taxi from town)
- La Galápaguera (giant tortoise sanctuary + breeding center; free; taxi required*)
- Puerto Chino (white sand beach; free; taxi required*)
*Taxi across the island for half-a-day included stops at La Galapaguera and Puerto Chino ($50 split among 3 people).
Isla Santa Cruz
- Scuba Iguana ($155/2 dives with your own gear; full-day excursions, with excellent lunch included; dove 2 days at North Seymour, Mosquera, and Floreana Islands)
- Charles Darwin Research Center (free; walkable)
- Playa Brava (immense, amazing beach; free; walkable…but not in the heat of the day)
- La Grieta (stunning brackish lagoon in a ravine; free; walkable)
- Los Gemelos (enormous collapsed craters; free; taxi required*)
- Rancho Primicias + lava tunnel (delightful coffee plantation where you wander among wild giant tortoises and explore ¼ -mile long underground lava tube; $5/person; taxi required*)
*We hired Ramiro, who drives a white taxi truck with a sticker of a bull on it; we paid $60 for 5 hours (split 4 ways). There are dozens of white taxi trucks, but Ramiro was so knowledgeable and fun that it is worth looking for him! Speaking decent Spanish is essential though.
- Los Tunneles with Rose Delco (snorkeling + exploring; my favorite tour; $80/person)
Please note that as much as we enjoyed working with Bolivar, we did not find him helpful in organizing tours, though he generously offered to do so. When he and a comrade arrived to retrieve us for a morning scuba dive at Leon Dormido, the open-top panga was conspicuously missing a dive guide, boarding ladder, and scuba tanks. The panguero was going to allow us to dive tankless and unsupervised in hammerhead-riddled waters with swift currents and upwellings, where visibility is highly variable? Mind you that all of the above are nonsensical, if not outright prohibited. Bolivar is brilliant at managing the bureaucratic aspects of entry into and between the Galápagos Islands, but tour organization is best left to the pros.
Fact vs. fiction
The Galápagos are expensive: FACT
This is make-your-jaw-drop true! We have not been anywhere that basic items were so pricey, which made us glad that we provisioned well before leaving the mainland. National beers cost $4 in a restaurant and $2.25 in a grocery store (basically $13.50 for a 6-pack of Ecuador’s Budweiser)! There were nice, inexpensive meals to be found along side streets off the water, however, where the plato de dia (usually a soup, entrée of fish/chicken/beef and rice, and drink) could be purchased for $4-5. Enjoy a meal at Lo y Lo in Puerto Ayora for free WIFI and extremely tasty ball-shaped things (their proper name escapes me) covered in red sauce. So tasty!
You can’t go anywhere by yourself – you have to use a tour operator to see anything: FICTION
While there are restrictions in some areas, there are plenty of places to see independently, as you read above. One challenge, however, is that you may need to take a taxi because the sites are spread across the islands. We never felt like we were on a leash and were happy with the opportunities for self-guided exploration.You can’t scuba dive from your boat, even if you have your own gear: FACT
Camp Conservation and Camp Conspiracy could probably debate this topic for an hour or two. While it would have been interesting and far less expensive to dive off our own boat, the dive sites of greatest interest to us were on islands where we were not permitted to cruise anyway. Each dive site is allowed to be visited by a restricted number of vessels on any given day/week to avoid inundating the sites with ogling tourists. Thus, dive operators and liveaboard boats have strict schedules. In addition, the Galápagos is known for having impressive currents, which we experienced when diving with Scuba Iguana, and the risk of losing a scuba-yachtie to the equatorial counter current would probably not bode well for publicity. Costs are comparable [and pricey] across dive operators, with small discounts if you have your own BCD and regulator.
The Galápagos is a tightly clustered archipelago: FICTION
Well, I guess that depends on how you define “tightly clustered.” We expected to bounce between the islands like we would the San Juans. The three islands you can visit are all between 40 and 50 nautical miles apart! If you sail directly from Isla San Cristóbal to Isla Isabela, you’re looking at an overnight passage.
You cannot use your own dinghy: FACT + FICTION
In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and Puerto Ayora, you are prohibited from using your own dinghy to ferry to shore and for good reason! Dinghies left tied to a dock would quickly become squats for the hundreds of sea lions who inhabit the shores of those bays. Imagine a heap of delightfully amusing, moderately territorial, growling and defecating beasts mucking up your little boat or, worse yet, sinking it with their massive blubbery bodies! Water taxis were easily hailed on VHF channel 14 or by a whistle as they passed by. Little-by-little, the fees added up, with daytime fares at $1 and $0.80 in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and Puerto Ayora, respectively. After dark, fees jumped to $2 and $1 per person. In Isla Isabela, however, the sea lions fewer and dinghies are perfectly acceptable.
Puerto Ayora is a tourist hovel and hardly worth visiting: FICTION
While it is true that Puerto Ayora is the most populated and heavily touristed of Galápagos’ towns, it is an interesting and worthy stop, with many excellent excursions nearby. A distaste for visiting tourist towns should not dissuade you from visiting Isla Santa Cruz, particularly its highlands where giant tortoises roam free, and beaches, where marine iguanas are plentiful.
You are required to take a mooring at Isla Isabela: FICTION
Simply not true.
- Fuel: Fuel can be obtained on any of the islands, but we found the best price on Isla Santa Cruz. It is most complicated to obtain fuel on Isabela. Because most Ecuadorans live below or near the poverty line, fuel is subsidized for citizens and there is a higher price for tourists. It will behoove you to be aware of that price before purchasing to ensure your price is consistent with the tourist rate and no higher. Bolivar or his agents can assist in that process.
- Arrival date: We were eager to reach the Galápagos early in the cruising season to beat the rush of boats whose rate of arrival goes from a trickle to a fire hose in March. Unfortunately, we did not realize that our landfall was to coincide with the World Arc Rally, a fleet of 32 vessels on an 18-month circumnavigation. Nothing against mariners in that rally (in fact, we made a couple new friends!), but the presence of so many boats did overload the anchorages and spoil our hopes of being one of a handful of sailors in port. It’s worth taking a gander at such things if relative solitude interests you (“relative” because there are still loads of tourist vessels about).
- Internet: You can find WIFI on every island, but the cost and speed varies dramatically. At the tourist office in Santa Cruz (across from the wharf), we paid $2.50 per hour for WIFI (ouch!). On Isla Isabela, Bolivar’s agent, James Hinckle, runs the Booby Trap café with his wife, where WIFI is free and beer is very, very cold. The take-home message is that you will be able to pull down weather in preparation for your next big passage to Rapa Nui or the Marquesas!
- The Galapágos: A natural history (by Henry Nicholls): This is an interesting, easy-to-read and incredibly informative history on the archipelago. It discusses everything from the formation of the islands to the bizarre creatures that exist there to the role humans have played in damaging and preserving the islands. Such histories are often dull and cumbersome, but this text was a pleasure to read, if not amusing. Even the dedication is good for a chuckle, “To the memory of Lonesome George, for what he tortoise.” You must know at least a bit about the Galápagos to get that wisecrack.
- Ecuador cruising guide (by various cruisers): This is a free cruising guide that can be downloaded from s/v Soggy Paws. This guide is wonderful because it provides information from several cruisers, thereby giving more data points to help you decide how to spend your time in the Galápagos. The only drawback is that some entries are now quite old and information may be outdated, especially given how much policies for visiting the archipelago have changed in recent years.
- Wildlife of the Galápagos (by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, & David Hosking): If you are interested in understanding more about the flora and fauna across the archipelago, this is a useful resource. It has lovely color photos and maps of the main islands that illustrate where some species can be observed. Its limitation is the glaring absence of fish, though marine mammals (i.e., whales, sea lions) are included.
- A naturalist’s guide to the Galápagos Islands (by Steve Rosenberg): This book provides a summary of each island, including describing sites for excursions. It also provides some history of the islands, though the writing is far less interesting than Henry Nicholls’ book.
Had we been unaware of the steep fees to call on the Galápagos, we would have felt very sore about price tag. But we weren’t. We expected the Galápagos to be the costliest landfall of our South Pacific voyage, and the price we were charged was consistent with the quote we’d been given. We had nothing to complain about! If we had it to do all over again, we’d hand over every single penny with toothy grins and eyes full of wonder, raring again to immerse ourselves in the magic of an archipelago that “has inspired more fundamental changes in Man’s perspective of himself and his environment” (Bowman, 1984) than anywhere else on earth.Bowman, R. (1984). Contribution to Science from the Galápagos. In R. Perry (Ed.), Key environments: Galápagos (pp. 277-311). Oxford: Pergamon Press.
7 thoughts on “Cruising the Galápagos: A practicalities primer”
I was waiting with baited breath to see if you would do a post like this! Hurray! Bookmarked for our own Galapagos adventure. There is so much helpful information in this post. How far in advance did you need to apply for your autographo? I had thought it was best to go through an agent in Ecuador, but perhaps that is doing it old school now. Frankly, we don’t care if it’s expensive. I’ve wanted to go there since I was in highschool. So we will just pay it, and 60 days is more than I thought we would get! I wish we could leave tomorrow!
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Hi there! Good question – I’ve updated the post. We started writing him about 3 months before we expected to arrive. We used Google translate to get our emails into Spanish. Using an agent who was in the islands was a good choice for us. When we had questions, he was always available and in close proximity. ~Jessie
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Unbelievably helpful and detailed post Jessie! Thank you so much for taking the time to give us all the information from your experience! The Galapagos are still on the bucket list and now on the “cruise to” list!
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You are very welcome 🙂 I hope a few people find it helpful! ~Jessie
Super thorough post! We in fact just spent two months (July/August 2016) in the Galapgos with Bolivar as our agent. Highly second your recommendation for him as other cruisers we met who used a different agent were not so fortunate with the simplicity and smoothness at which Bolivar offers. The one thing I’d like to mention about your post is your prices are a little bit off (oh how quickly things change!). To update: since the shattering earthquake that hit mainland in mid April, prices have taken an increase for relief aid, somewhere in the order or 12% or so. just a heads up…
Despite the steep prices, we as well fell in love with the arichipelago and in fact are planning to return this coming Feb!
WOW – ouch. Thanks for sharing the info of the price hikes. That will be good for others to know. It is a pricey place to be, though I think every penny is worth it, especially if you can stay for a good chunk of time. When the costs are distributed across a few weeks (at least), they feel less painful. ~Jessie