The Galapagos Islands are famous worldwide for having some of the most incredible and diverse nature and wildlife in the world. A two-hour flight away from mainland Ecuador, they’re also known as being very expensive to visit. With flight costs, a $100 national park fee (which you pay at the airport), and then either a multi-day cruise costing thousands of dollars for a few days or staying on the islands and doing day trips, this can all add up. This can put people off if they’re travelling on a budget.
But in fact, if you choose to stay on the islands themselves then there’s loads to do, and tons of wildlife that can be seen, right there without needing to do any day trips at all. And best of all, most of it is completely free! Read on for things to do and the best places to visit on each of the Galapagos Islands*.
*There are only four inhabited islands and only three of these, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela, are easily accessible with public ferries.
San Cristobal island – Best things to do
The best island for snorkelling with sea lions and turtles.
- La Loberia – This beach is a 40-minute walk from the main town and is home to loads of sea lions. You’ll see them just lazing on the beach but get in the water and you can also snorkel with them and spot turtles.
- San Cristobal Interpretation Center – This is the most informative free museum in all of the Galapagos. A short walk from the centre of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, here you can read all about the history of the islands, the development of the national park, current threats to the wildlife and the conservation efforts being undertaken to protect them.
- Cerro Tijeretas – This lookout is a short walk from the San Cristobal Interpretive Centre. Visit the lookout point and the statue there, then walk down the stairs to the snorkelling spot to look for turtles.
- Playa Baquerizo – From Cerro Tijeretas continue on to Playa Baquerizo. The walk takes about an hour and is over lots of lava rocks so make sure to wear proper shoes. Along the way you’ll spot loads of marine iguanas, and once you reach the beach you’ll be greeted with white sand and turquoise-blue waters. Get in and snorkel with sea lions and plenty of turtles.
- Punta Carola – A short walk from town past Playa Mann and into the National Park area, you’ll find the beach of Punta Carola. Here you’ll find lots of sea lions that you can sit or snorkel with.
- Playa Mann – This is the most popular spot on San Cristobal as it’s not only a great beach and super close to town, it also has the largest number of resident sea lions. Spend the day here and you’ll literally be sunbathing amongst them, and might even have to get out of the way as the larger males amble about taking zero notice of any humans in their way. This is also the best place on the island to watch the sunset.
Santa Cruz island – Best things to do
On the main island of the Galapagos there are lots of day trips and diving tours available (should you prefer). However, there’s still plenty to do independently, including beautiful beaches and lots of giant tortoises.
- Tortuga Bay – Hike 45 minutes to this gorgeous white sand beach, regarded as being one of the most beautiful in the world. With strong waves you won’t be able to snorkel here, but there are plenty of marine iguanas hanging out on the sand.
- Las Grietas – From the main pier take an $0.80 water taxi across the bay and then walk to Las Grietas. You’ll need to pay a guide $10 to enter and snorkel here, and although there isn’t much wildlife to be seen these lava caves are regarded as one of the most unique snorkelling sites on the islands. After Las Grietas spend some time on the beach of Playa Los Alemanes before taking the water taxi back.
- El Mirador de Los Tuneles – This lava tunnel isn’t particularly amazing, but the main reason to head here is to try and spot wild giant tortoises on the route. Although the walk is along the main road, there is a cycle and walking lane and lots of giant tortoises sleeping in the bushes, feeding, and even crossing the road. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for these tranquil creatures.
- Darwin Centre – If you haven’t managed to spot wild tortoises then head here and visit the tortoise breeding centre and sanctuary. The entrance cost is $10 for a guide to walk you through and you can see the different species of tortoises found on the Galapagos here. If you choose not to pay for the guide to see the tortoises, you can still visit the Darwin Center for free (although 20 minutes here is enough to see it all) and then enjoy some beach time at the nearby Playa de la Estacion.
Isabela island – Best things to do
The quietest and least touristy island. The “town” consists of just a few streets but there’s still plenty to keep you occupied whilst staying here.
- Wall of Tears – One grisly aspect of the Galapagos Islands’ past is the prison that used to be housed on Isabela Island. A sad aspect of history, a large number of prisoners died before the prison was eventually demolished, with only the Wall of Tears being left behind in remembrance of the suffering. To get here, walk all the way to the end of the beach and then start the trail where you’ll pass lagoons, beaches and lots of marine iguanas. There are also a couple of great viewpoints to visit, one just before the Wall and one a bit further on, for views of the island. On the way back stop at Playa del Amor or La Playita for some chill time before continuing back to town.
- Isabela Beach – Unlike the other islands, the centre of Isabela is right behind a long sandy beach. Spend the day sunbathing here before watching a beautiful sunset over the sea.
- Concha de Perla – The best snorkelling spot on Isabela, you can spot turtles, rays and maybe even penguins here. Visit early in the morning for the best chance of spotting wildlife.
- Lagunas Salinas – A short walk from town you’ll find a number of Lagunas where you can spot pink flamingos. Near the end of the trail is the Centro de Crianza Arnaldo Tupiza, another tortoise breeding centre, that costs $10 to visit.
There is so much that can be seen and done on the Galapagos Islands independently, all you need is a mask and snorkel and a willingness to walk! Sea lions, turtles, marine iguanas, flamingos, rays, giant tortoises and more can all be spotted independently and what’s better, completely for free. So don’t let the cost of travelling to the Galapagos Islands put you off visiting. Yes they’re expensive to get to and enter, but once you’re here an abundance of wildlife and nature awaits unlike anywhere else in the world. Of course if you prefer then you can still choose tours, including shorter and cheaper options too to pad out your trip.
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