Santa Cruz is the most inhabited with 30,000 or more residents, whereas Isabela is only 3% inhabited, with just a few thousand residents.
Locals describe Isabela as “mucho tranquillo” and “the real Galapagos.”
However, Santa Cruz tends to be sunnier while Isabela experiences many grey days, and the two islands have different wildlife species, so we recommend both to experience the contrast.
We went during the cool, dry season (June through November). Walking around was very comfortable but the water was too cold to snorkel.
We later met a family who had gone in the warm, wet season (December through June), and they said it was too hot walking around, but snorkeling with the sea lions was an amazing experience.
Our flight from Quito to Baltra, the main airport of the Galapagos was only 5000 American Airlines miles plus $18 in taxes, per person. This is one of the best mileage redemption values around.
To use miles, you have to create an account on British Airways to search the mileage redemption inventory, then call AA to book.
The flight itself will take place on LATAM, America’s partner airline in the One World alliance (although this might change soon since Delta just bought a 20% stake in LATAM).
Avianca is United Airlines’ partner airline and also offers mileage redemptions (which you can search directly on United), but it’s 12,500 miles each way from Quito.
You might get a better mileage redemption by skipping Quito. For example, a flight from Boston to Baltra is only 20,000 miles each way.
Cash fares are also available for a few hundred dollars round-trip from Quito to Baltra, with many flights per day.
Day 1 – Travel Day
On the day of your flight, be aware that you’ll need to pay $20 in cash at Quito Airport for a special Galapagos customs fee, a $100 national park admission fee when you land at Baltra Airport, $5 for the shuttle bus to the ferry, and $1 for the ferry to Santa Cruz island.
Next you can either pay $25 for a taxi into town or $5 per person for the bus. Since we were 4 people we paid for the taxi.
These are the fees for foreigners. Ecuadorians only pay $6 for park admission.
Almost everything in the Galapagos is cash only, so either bring a lot of cash in small bills or make sure you have a fee free ATM card. There are a few ATMs on the islands.
You should budget $210 per person for the most basic requisite fees and transportation, $50 for the most basic activities, $50 a day for accommodations, and $10 a day for the cheapest food and water.
We brought some of our own granola from Quito, but fresh items can be restricted. There are bag checks each way.
We spent more than this but this would be the bare minimum, as everything on the Galapagos is about double what it would be on the Ecuadorian mainland.
Day 2 – Charles Darwin Research Center & Tortuga Bay
On Santa Cruz we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, where giant tortoises are bred and released into the wild to repopulate the tortoise populations in the Galapagos.
We were lucky to see them quite active, walking around and eating. The research center also had two small beaches where we saw the only iguanas in the world that can swim.
In the afternoon we walked to Tortuga Bay, a beautiful stretch of white sand beach with turquoise waters. The walk takes an hour but it’s a pleasant one along a nature trail. At the beach you may spot iguanas sunning themselves.
We also saw a sea lion sleeping in the shade of mangroves, and I spotted a blue footed booby (the first and only time!). They look like ordinary gray and white gulls until you see their feet, so pay close attention. So many people walked right past without noticing.
To get back to town we took the water taxi for $10 per person. It’s a scenic 40 minute ride along the coastline.
Day 3 – El Chato tortoise reserve
We took a day trip to the El Chato tortoise reserve in the highlands, stopping along the way to see twin sinkholes and walk (or crawl!) through a lava tunnel.
For 4 people, we got a taxi that agreed to take us for $40 round-trip and waited with us at each stop. They’ll ask $50 but you can bargain them down to $40.
Walking amongst the tortoises was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. They’re such amazing creatures, living to be over 100 years old and only eating vegetation.
Admission to the tortoise reserve is $5 per person.
The tortoises don’t like it if you get too close. They’ll hiss and suck their heads in.
For pictures we found it was best to approach the bigger ones from behind and stay back a little so as not to enter their field of vision. The older ones have shells large enough to essentially block you from view.
Definitely don’t touch the tortoises and tread quietly. We mostly whispered too.
The vegetation on the Galapagos is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, very prehistoric looking with moss hanging from trees and red ferns.
The lowlands are arid dry desert with cactus trees while the highlands enter the humid zone where rainforest takes over.
Day 4 – German Beach & Camino a las grietas
On our last day on Santa Cruz we took the public ferry to German Beach and Camino a las grietas, where you can snorkel for free, although the Galapagos isn’t really a snorkeling destination because it doesn’t have much coral.
We saw a pink salt lagoon and walked to a scenic viewpoint above the canyon gorge.
The human footprint on Santa Cruz is quite heavy, with tons of hotels, restaurants, jewelry shops, cats and dogs, and people!
We saw bits of plastic trash everywhere, sadly.
However, it does offer amenities like wash and fold laundry services for pretty cheap – $1 per kilo – which we happily used twice.
You can take boat tours to the uninhabited Galapagos Islands. There are only a few boats that operate these tours, but hundreds of travel agencies to connect you with them.
If you’re interested in snorkeling with sea lions, seeing penguins, or trekking up an uninhabited island like Bartolome, ask around at a few travel agencies to find the best rate.
They are all located in the center of town. A day trip should run about $180 per person but may be more for a nicer boat or during the high season.
Eating out on Santa Cruz
The street food on Santa Cruz is actually pretty good. At first we were eating in Westernized restaurants but quickly discovered that local Ecuadorian fare was tastier and cheaper.
You can get $1 empanadas every night at the city market, filled with fresh fish, chicken, shrimp, or cheese and topped with salsa and cabbage slaw.
There’s also a bakery near the city market which puts out amazing banana bread pudding every evening. A big slice is only $1.
For lunch, many restaurants serve a $5 set lunch called “almuerzo” that comes with soup, juice, and a plate of fish or meat with rice, potatoes, plantains, salad, and beans. The menu changes every day.
Our favorite place to go was Servi Sabroson, which occupies both sides of the street. The waitresses were always friendly, and they make their juice with bottled water.
They even made us vegetarian plates whenever we asked. We tried other places but always came back to this one.
At night, the entire street that Servi Sabroson is on turns into a raucous outdoor food fest with grilled seafood platters.
If you want to see sea lions, they seem to be the most active early in the morning. During the day they’re always sleeping, but in the morning you can catch them climbing up onto the pier or eyeing the fish market.
Day 5 – Travel Day to Isabela Island
To get to Isabela, we had to take a 2 hour boat ride on the open ocean which was extremely bumpy. We took the early morning one because the waters are even choppier in the afternoon, but it was still pretty rough.
The only other option is a 6-seater plane that flies between the two islands for $170 each way. I’m not a huge fan of tiny planes, so we opted for the boat.
Take dramamine the night before the boat ride and don’t eat breakfast.
There are nicer boats and crappy ones. We rode the Blue Fantasy on our way to Isabela, which was over capacity with everyone simply sitting on two benches. This boat apparently has a bad reputation so avoid it!
On our way back we booked the GLADEL, which had cushioned front facing seats and even a bathroom. It’s also a bigger boat that goes faster. It will still be bumpy but we recommend asking for this boat in particular.
Our first boat ride cost $25, and our second one cost $30, but it was well worth the extra $5.
Upon arriving in Isabela we paid another $10 park fee, but were immediately greeted by sea lions so it was worth it.
Our nicest accommodations in the Galapagos were on Isabela, where we stayed at a brand new hotel run by a really lovely lady. We had king size beds and everything was super clean. There was a well stocked communal kitchen and unlimited drinking water.
The restaurants on Isabela are not as good as on Santa Cruz but the produce is so much better because it’s grown on Isabela. We bought a lot of $1 papayas.
There were many farm stands and grocery stores right outside our door. We really enjoyed cooking with local ingredients like pumpkin and plantains.
On Isabela we saw the Galapagos “rosy” flamingo, watched sea lions swimming and playing at the dock, walked past more iguanas on the boardwalk at Concha de Perla, biked to the Wall of Tears, hiked the active Sierra Negra volcano, and walked in the lava fields of Volcan Chico.
Day 6 – Concha de Perla & Wall of Tears
In the morning we walked to Concha de Perla, where you can see sea lions playing on the dock and swimming amongst the mangroves, as well as many of the vibrant red crabs ubiquitous on Isabela.
In the afternoon we biked to the Wall of Tears. The trail is a wonderful 5 miles of secluded sand and dirt road. We passed several giant tortoises on the path.
At the end of the path there is a hike up the Wall of Tears to a viewing platform where you can see the ocean and all of the uninhabited land of Isabela, as well as its 6 volcanos.
The only mishap that happened was that Aaron got a flat tire, so we had to walk all the way home. Other people have also said the rental bikes are crap. Mine was fine, but it’s just luck of the draw. We only paid for the hour of actual use we got out of it, and not the 2 hours it took us to walk the bikes back.
Day 7 – Rest Day
Because the Galapagos is on the equator, the sun can be strong and exhausting, even on cloudy days! We really recommend building in a free day to rest and recover from the sun.
Day 8 – Sierra Negra Volcano
The coolest thing we did on Isabela was hike Volcan Sierra Negra with a naturalist guide. It’s an active volcano that last erupted in 2018.
You can’t access the volcano without a guide, but we all thought it was well worth the $30 per person for a 7 hour day. All the guides have taken a certification course and speak excellent English.
Your guide will take you on a 10 mile hike to the rim of Sierra Negra and into the lava fields of Volcan Chico, which looks like a moonscape.
We even got a boxed lunch (although if you ask for a vegetarian lunch, expect a tuna sandwich or specify no meat or fish beforehand with the tour agency!)
Make sure you wear enough sun protection because even if it’s foggy and cloudy, the UV rays at 1000 meters of altitude at the equator are extremely strong.
I recommend long sleeves, pants, and a hat that protects your neck. Our guide was completely covered from head to toe and still applied SPF 70.
Day 9 – Travel Day back to Santa Cruz Island
The only thing we would have done differently would be to go to the third inhabited island, San Cristóbal, and fly out of the airport there instead of going back to Santa Cruz to fly out.
Aside from that, we were glad we gave ourselves 10 days to take in two islands. It was just the right amount of time.
Day 10 – Flying out
We flew from Santa Cruz back to Quito then on to Lima. If you have Priority Pass, the lounge at Baltra airport is basic but good enough. They even serve coffee from 1835 Coffee Lab.
Galapagos coffee is actually some of the best in the world, so make sure to try it before you leave.
The Galapagos was amazing and concerning at the same time. As an animal lover, every day was filled with exciting wildlife sightings, including small sharks called tintoreras, rays, sea lions, bright red crabs, flamingos, finches, a blue-footed booby, pelicans, iguanas, giant tortoises, a barn owl, a horse, and even the endangered Galapagos sea turtle.
However, there seems to be overfishing of lobsters, too many domestic animals (tortoises now share the highlands with cows), noise pollution from construction, dogs, and roosters, and of course overpopulation, especially on Santa Cruz.
I saw Darwin’s finches eating pieces of bread and potato chips that had been littered on the ground.
Parts of the Galapagos also seem pretty poor, which came as a surprise considering how much money tourism brings in.
All in all it was both a magical 10 days and a rude awakening that everything was probably better before humans arrived.
Don’t expect the Galapagos to be pristine, but all the same follow a leave no trace ethic as best you can.