Make Darwin proud and go wild
The other Galápagos: Darwin's island on the cheap (with photos)
The Galápagos. Darwin’s Islands. The birthplace of the theory of evolution. Where iguanas rule the ocean, and giant tortoises rule the land.
It has the air of a place much too distant, reserved exclusively for scientists - or just tourists with some serious spare change.
The majority of visitors explore the islands by prearranged cruise, but it is possible to see many of the major sites more independently - often, with a hefty pricetag.
But watching marine iguanas bask on pristine beaches, observing sea lions frolic in deep blue waters, and even indulging in good dinners during blazing sunsets does not have to break the bank.
Contrary to popular belief, the Galápagos, the world’s greatest natural history destination, can be visited affordably.
I'll give you a taste of the Galápagos on a budget.
Get ready for the ride of your life
If you're willing to forego taking a cruise ship, it's possible to save quite a bit of money, take more time on each island, and get off the beaten path. This doesn't mean leaky roofs, eating canned food, or watching other people snorkel.
By taking a bit more time, it's possible to find bargain day trips, use public transportation, and do as the locals do - like getting wet on a four-hour open boat taxi to a nearby island.
But first things first.
Do you need a quick Spanish lesson? The question, “¿Porque se apago el motor del bote? (Why did the boat’s engine cut off?)" will come in incredibly handy as you make your way to the islands.
Yes, maybe one of the engines on your bargain boat will die, but it won't blow a gasket. Besides, el capitan is used to it, and will fix it in no time.
If not (as was in my case), the spare engine will get you there. It'll just take double the time.
The longish ferry crossings were never boring, however, as I constantly had to brace myself in the rough seas. There was also plenty of wildlife to see, although some of you landlubbers might want to take flights between the major islands of Isabela, Santa Cruz, and San Cristóbal.
I think we're alone now
Aside from the occasional boating adventure, budget travel will also take you to places most visitors are not aware of.
Traffic is quite sparse on most of the islands. In fact, signs of life were so patchy on Puerto Chino Beach (a small cove on the eastern coast of San Cristóbal Island) that I was able to find white sandy beaches on which I was the first and last to carve the footprints of the day.
I enjoyed several hours on my own private beach, with only a few of the famous finches hopping about in search of a snack.
Cooling my sun-soaked body in the clear water, loggerhead sea turtles approached me without trepidation, pelicans flapped heavily, and blue-footed boobies kamikaze-d out of the sky.
Give your thumb a workout
With enough patience and smarts, hitchhiking is a decent option for getting around the islands after you've tired of your private oceanfront view, and a great way to meet locals.
But it's not an option for everyone. You're always taking a risk when you're hitchhiking, and it can be dangerous.
If you decide to do it, always listen to your gut instincts. Make sure you're in a safe area before you jump into a vehicle, and ask whether it will be a free ride.
And don't go it alone - it's always better if you are traveling with a buddy.
On San Cristóbal, it's possible to hitch rides along the main road to a crater lake called El Junco, where frigatebirds - black avians with red, balloon-like pouches - swoop down to bathe in the fresh water.
Like where you came from, the chances of seeing another visitor are slim. I relaxed, breathed in the cool, crisp air, and meditated. Engulfed by vast greenery, birds gliding silently past, solitude, and endless possibility of wildlife, it’s a far cry from the bustle of the docks and main beaches.
Be a tourist without being a tourist
On Santa Cruz Island, the unofficial capital of the Galápagos and main entry point for the majority of visitors, a network of good roads and plenty of taxis allow easy access to beaches and highlands.
After arriving at the small airport on Baltra Island, I skipped the taxis and caught the bus, which took me into the main town, Puerto Ayora.
I walked around the small town in search of a hostel, and found several in the $10 nightly range. I settled on the clean and well-located (not to mention a steal of a bargain) Los Amigos. None of the economical options had more than a bed or cold shower, like, Los Amigos. But I appreciated the cold shower anyway, since the days were hot.
One tortoise, please
But you still want to see giant turtles, don't you? Most people coming off cruise ships hoof it to the Charles Darwin Research Station to get great views of the 100-year-old behemoths.
While I do recommend going there, I suggest tracking down wild tortoises in the Santa Cruz Highlands simply by taking the path less traveled.
Just make sure you read up on the dos and don’t's about interacting with wild tortoises. I don’t want you riding them and feeding them Cheetos.
Perfect your Spanish
For transportation on Santa Cruz, you have the option of riding the bus, catching a white pickup taxi, or simply hitchhiking. Budget aficionados, you can jump into a semi-full taxi, which costs anywhere from $1 to $5.
A warning, though: The taxi driver will want to be your guide or will tell you that most places are off-limits to independent travelers. Take it from me — he is just trying to squeeze more bills out of you.
Another quick Spanish lesson? Just smile and say, “¡No, gracias!”
The Big Island
The largest island in the Galápagos, Isabela, is the most tranquil. There are no taxis, the roads are gravel, the beaches are white sand, and you can walk nearly everywhere.
If you're gung-ho for long hikes, you can go to the Wall of Tears, a barrier erected by prisoners when the area was as a penal colony, or you can do a guided hike up to Sierra Negra, the second largest crater in the world.
Just don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen. You don’t want to run around looking like a lobster.
She was a day tripper
While staying on one of the larger islands, you can take day trips to nearby beaches or snorkeling hotspots.
On San Cristóbal, don't miss Kicker Rock, locally known as El León Dormido, where volcanic prongs jut several hundred feet out of the ocean. A 20-foot-wide channel cutting through the cliffs, washed white by sun and bird guano allows for some spectacular, if choppy, snorkeling.
Below the waves, a psychedelic world of sponges, chitons, sea fans, and coral cling to an array of fish, and black-tipped sharks swim among the myriad of smaller ones. If you're lucky, you may even spot a hammerhead among stingrays, loggerhead sea turtles, and puffer fish.
Suffice it to say, the array of underwater colors will surely make your sister's punk hair seem lifeless.
Wild animals, wild humans
Another great day trip leaves from Puerto Ayora and heads toward Floreana Island, about two hours away. The island offers a bit of everything, from snorkeling with sea lions, giant tortoises taking mudbaths, to Galápagos Penguins squatting in rocky coves.
The island’s past is just as fascinating as its wildlife, including an 18th-century German baroness, multiple lovers, and a possible murder. Your guide will fill you in on all the details.
For more wildlife, catch a trip to Bartolomé and North Seymour Islands to see booby and frigatebird colonies, sharks, and amazing volcanic landscapes.
Just remember: Before every trip, ask for your gear in advance, or else you will be battling a 10-year-old for his snorkel.
A little more conversation, a little more chicken
After a long day on the water, you will welcome a good dinner. Turn away from the beachfront, and head down some of the side streets. A restaurant there will serve cheaper dinners — usually a soup followed by a main dish of rice and chicken.
In Puerto Ayora, two streets down from the waterfront, locals head to stands serving everyting from chicken to delicious fish. You may have to share a table, but the meals will be filling, and the conversation good.
The famed isles on the cheap? It can happen.
You can easily frolic on the white sandy beaches with the finches, snorkel with your furry sea lion friends, comb the sands of the white beaches, chase giant tortoises, and lounge with iguanas, all while on a shoestring budget while still seeing an insane amount of native animals.
You can do all of this independently, and you don’t have to spend your whole inheritence. So why not?
Just do it. I dare you!