many beaches, you just have to look
One's first impression of Santa Cruz is that it doesn't have any beaches but it just takes a little effort to get to them. As already mentioned, there is an incredible beach on the way to Turtle Bay and of course Turtle Bay itself has a very nice beach. But there are times when you just don't want to walk for an hour to get to one and Playa de Las Alemanes is another gem more readily accessible. This small semicircular cove is right in front of the upscale Finch Bay Hotel and hence the English name for the body of water, Finch Bay. It's protected seclusion makes for calm waters.
Galapagos Islands make for an amazing destination
Like all of our trips we researched things to see and places to stay on the web and by reading travel books. We then made all reservations ourselves on line. In doing we found that by arriving in Guayaquil and departing for home from Quito that we could make better connections on the international flights without impacting the cost of the first round trip ticket. For example all flights to the Galapagos first originate in Quito with a stopover in Guayaquil which means staying in Quito means catching your flight about 1 ½ hours earlier than you do if you arrive in Guayaquil. This can be important if you like us arrive well after midnight from Houston.
We arrived in Guayaquil Ecuador with reservations at the Hilton Colon Hotel. Only a 5 minutes taxi ride from the airport the hotel is an convenient and comfortable stop. The room we had was clean and quite large with a huge marble bathroom, satellite TV with several English language channels. The staff was very professional and most spoke some English.
One of the problems with traveling independently to the Galapagos Islands is the primary carrier to the islands is Ecuador’s official military owned TAME airlines only takes payment from within Ecuador. This means while their website will accept reservations and after a couple emails back and forth to explain your location in the states they will send a reassuring confirmation indicating you have confirmed reservations but have not yet paid for your tickets. As in the US this airline does sometimes overbook and until I had tickets and boarding passes in my hands I was not going be completely at ease. There are a few benefits to traveling (only a few) and this has to be one of them. The all inclusive packages will include this flight and the tickets will be bought by a in country travel agency.
All tours and most independent travelers fly into Baltra Island but some also enter the Galapagos by way of San Cristobal Island. The flight to Baltra Island leaves at 11:00 am so without our tickets in hand we felt the need to be at the airport as early as possible to make sure we had seats. As you enter the terminal you will only see the domestic check-in counters (I’ll talk about the international area later) for the 2 or 3 carriers flying within Ecuador. First go over to the far right side when each airline has a small glass booth. This is where you purchase tickets. The agent found our reservations just as we had been told and within minutes had our tickets and boarding passes.
From here proceed to the line for TAME airlines and go through a typical check-in. You will find that TAME is very serious about carry on and checked baggage weights carefully. They use these flights to transport food and other goods to the islands and weight limits are adhered to.
There are a 5 or 6 eateries just to the left of check-in where you can have a coffee, snacks, cinnamon bun, sandwich and even fried chicken courtesy of KFC. If you are hungry eat here because once you proceed through security into the gate area there is only a small snack stand and restrooms. All domestic flights leave through one of 3 or 4 glass doors opening directly onto the plane loading area. As boarding time nears a small sign is placed next to the door of the assigned gate confirming the departure gate. Be careful though because the occasional flights to San Cristabal leave from this same area and the sign will only read “Galapagos”. Check with the desk at the gate before you assume it’s the flight you want.
The planes used by TAME appeared to be new and the onboard service was very good. The 600 mile flight takes around 1 ½ hours. One the flight you have a very tasty lunch with complimentary drinks including wine and beer. You also see a nice video of attractions Ecuador has to offer including the Galapagos.
"The Royal Palm Hotel"
After studying all available information related to places to stay on Santa Cruz our hotel of choice was the Royal Palm Hotel. If you choose to stay here you will be very pleased with your first contact (and with everyone there after as well) with their staff. As you disembark the plane you walk a short distance to the designated path leading to the terminal. Just as the line is beginning to slow as most line up to enter the building amd clear immigration you’ll see Daniel holding up a small sign with your name on it. Daniel will escort you through a private entrance and a quick baggage check point to a VIP lounge where you are welcomed with a selection of cool drinks and comfortable couches, clean bathrooms and an overall great place to relax. Daniel will take your baggage claim tickets and have your luggage collected. He will also collect the mandatory $100 per person Galapagos entry fee which all visitors must pay for entry and is used to support the preservation of the environment that awaits you. If you like you can also have him get your passport stamped with a unique Galapagos stamp.
After 15-20 minutes Daniel escorts you to your waiting van just outside where your luggage has already been loaded. As you are whisked away you can see on the right the hoards of people who just arrived with you lined up waiting with the luggage for the chance to climb aboard one of the many busses to take them away. (No taxis here)
During the short ride Daniel will describe the island layout, expected weather for your stay and answer any questions you may have. I’m not sure of his nationality but English is his first language and is a welcomed extra. After 10 minutes or so you begin to descend back down to the water on the windy road. As the first glimpse of the bay come in view the driver will beep the horn signaling your private boat across the 300 yard wide canal of your pending arrival at the approaching dock. Quickly Daniel has your luggage loaded and escorts you directly to the by now awaiting water taxi. Within a couple minutes you are saying goodbye to Daniel who returns to the airport and are motoring across the canal to Santa Cruz Island and your waiting van which will carry you to the oasis which is the Royal Palm Hotel. Even as we were driving away we still had not seen the first bus load making there way from the airport down the hill.
Aside from the typical speed limit there is an additional and interesting requirement for those driving in the park. It is here that you begin to realize how far the park is going to attempt to protect the animals within is boundary. The driver is required by law to slow slightly when birds are seen ahead in or near the edge of the payment. In addition they must blow the horn to warn them of their approach. Pretty amazing after a lifetime of thinking little about the birds along the roads back home unless you happen to take one in the windshield.
Along the way the surrounding fauna chances to lush but still rough terrain covered in cactus, shrubs and small trees. You will also notice the temperature dropping some 5-10 degrees (F) which makes your stay much more comfortable. After about 20 minutes you reach the approximate midpoint on the road to the main town on the island which is Puerto Ayora and will turn left into the gated entrance. To the left is a guard house where all those passing must be recognized or get approval before proceeding. The driveway is a very bumpy, uneven and windy road ½ mile or so until you reach the true driveway which is a cobblestone welcome mat. Just a little further to the wonderful tree covered entrance of the resort that makes a wonderful place from which to base your vacation.
"Royal Palm Hotel part 2"
At the front desk you will finally meet Andrea Escobar with whom you will almost certainly have exchanged emails while making reservations. She welcomes you with fluent English, a welcome refreshment and a pleasant atmosphere. The VIP treatment you received at the airport is only the beginning as the entire staff truly wants your stay to be the most memorable part of your trip. The amenities found here are not found anywhere else in the islands and the price charged for rooms are the reason they are able to provide them. Very pricey yes, but once here it you feel very good about the decision to splurge.
Room choices include small verandas, isolated and private bungalows scattered across the hillside and 3 suites also offering a private setting. Most have air conditioning, satellite tv with around 20 channels and a phone. With only a handful of the verandas guest are often upgraded to bungalows or even suites to provide more of the lower cost accommodations in the verandas. Typically this is done based with the earliest confirmed reservations first. Traveling with a group lessons the chance of getting the upgrade as some in the group would not be happy to see others moved to a bungalow. See their website at www.royalpalmgalapagos.com
After a warm welcome it was the Presidential Suite that we found ourselves for the price of a veranda. It is a large open style bungalow with dining area, couch, king size bed, desk, minibar, large bathroom with a huge walk-in shower and a most enjoyable outdoor heated whirlpool in a natural privacy fenced area deck out back. Several free bottles of water are found in the room and you will be advised against using the water from the faucet for drinking or even brushing your teeth. It is brought in on trucks for the desalination plant and is clean but not suitable for drinking. If you plan to use the whirlpool at the end of a day trip let the front desk know and they will have it going and heated when you return
The grounds are constantly being groomed and are as nice as any of the finest resorts you have ever seen. You’ll find a beautiful swimming pool with two waterfalls. One brings the water into the pool from the recirculation system and the lower one taking the overflow away to the same system. In a picturesque setting the pool is surrounded by palm trees, lawn chairs and covered tables perfectly suited for a relaxing it is just below the outdoor restaurants outdoor dining area.
In the beautiful restaurant a made to order breakfast is included or a small but tasty buffet can be chosen. An excellent variety of Chile (and other) wine is available which you will find to be very good. Every meal is a treat and may consist of anything from a steak size yellow fin tuna to chicken fricassee. All meals can also be ordered for room service at no additional cost. Jorge, Angel and Jose will do their best to make sure you dining experience an extremely pleasant one. An eloquent dinner complete with appetizer, desert and a quality bottle of wine will run $70-80. Leave off the wine and it’ll be less than $50. The dinner menu is different each night and is derived from a selection of items purchased each day in the market at Puerto Ayora. Maybe it’s not something you want to do every night but this is supposed to be a vacation so splurge is the rule here. If you prefer to end your day over a different kind of dinner you’ll have to take a short taxi to Puerto Ayora.
The outdoor tables under a clear roof offer an unforgettable dinner each evening with a perfect orange glowing sunset almost certain. Just after sunset keep your eyes peeled for the owl that visits each night and always makes his entrance on the back of one of the wrought iron chairs at the table just beyond the covered deck. He will allow you to approach for a picture if you are very quiet, very slow and make no sudden movements.
"Day Trip to North Seymour Island"
Long before arriving Andrea had arranged day trips we had selected after her sending us information on the best trips available and associated schedules which allowed us to set the pace of our vacation. They prefer to use “Nortada Tours” for day trips and for good reason. Their trips fill up early and offer the most fulfilling experience. You Naturalist (hopefully it’ll be Koto) will speak near perfect English and does an excellent job of keeping your interest as he explains the behaviors of the animals you see. The whole experience will be unforgettable.
During our trips the boat had 15-16 tourists. With 2 Naturalists on board it usually means 6 to 8 of us in a group once ashore. Buy or rent your own snorkel gear in town if you plan to enjoy the amazing snorkeling opportunities you have as non is available onboard on these day trips.
The night before our trip the front desk calls to remind you of the time you need to be in the lobby the next morning for your day trip. We were in the hotel front desk area at 8:15 am where the staff was waiting to drive us the main gate on the road which crosses the island. Within a few minutes of pulling up the tour shuttle pulls up on its way from Puerto Ayora and the Finch Bay Hotel with the rest of the group making the 8 hour day trip to North Seymour. The driver from the hotel hands Koto a bag with our towels and a couple bottles of water compliments of the Royal Palm. After introductions we were off and within 20 minutes were back at the same marina at which we first set foot on Santa Cruz. From here a dingy took us out into the bay where we boarded a very comfortable yacht 40’ in length.
All visitors nearby islands are required to be escorted and all times by a Naturalist who provides a in depth explanation of mating rituals, feeding habits and other interesting information about each species you’ll see. You are also required to stay on a clearly marked trail to assure nesting birds are allowed to remain relatively undisturbed.
After a ride of about 1½ hour you be welcomed at your dry landing by sea lions laying on the steps. We found blue footed boobies nesting within arms reach of the trails which further highlights the need for a guide to keep us pesky tourists from changing the instincts which for centuries have told the animals here they have nothing to fear from other creatures inhabiting the Galapagos. Frigate birds were paired up in the bushes along the trial with the brightly colored red sack under the chin of some males in full show mode. Sea and land iguanas are also plentiful. This is a great tour for up close pictures of the animals of Galapagos.
After about an hour on North Seymour we again boarded the ship where the crew had prepared an excellent lunch. No cold sandwiches here. Instead we had excellent seasoned chicken, rice, sweetened (and surprising tasty) cooked bananas and a salad. Bottled water is free, beer is $2 and cokes are $1.50.
After lunch the boat returns to Santa Cruz but far down the coastline from the marina. Pulling into Bacchus Beach for a snorkeling stopover we found clear water and a few fish. Along the beach Koto points out the trails left by female green sea turtles beaching themselves to make their ritualistic migration from sea to the beach of their birth to dig multiple nests only to lay their precious eggs in only one. The rest are decoys meant to discourage would be raiders. From one we could see the tiny footprints left by the hatchlings the night before as they scurried to the safety of the water. The rocks on the left have hundreds of brightly colored crabs. Over the sand dune is a pond with a pair of wading pink flamingos.
A couple of hours here and then its back to the boat and the hour long ride back to the marina. Another 20 minute shuttle ride and we were back at the hotels gated entrance the tour bus drops us off where the guard calls the hotel and within minutes a van pulls up and takes us back to the hotel.
A 2 hour boat ride is needed to get to Bartolome. As you approach the island the best place to be on the boat is the up front on the bow. From here you have an extraordinary view of famous Pinnacle Rock as you approach your anchor point.
It is a dry landing and only 300-400 yards from the bas of Pinnacle Rock. The first 75 yards of the trail is a very dusty loose volcanic rock sand. To you right in the surf is the remains of a volcanic caldera’s rim visible just below water. Soon you find a wooden boardwalk which makes for much easier walking. Very steep in places several overlooks are timed to let those with egos appear to be taking in the views rather than having to stop for a breather. The desert like island is a bare with only tiny plants which have adapted to the very dry conditions. At the top is a unforgettable view with the famous Pinnacle Rock and it’s beautiful protected cove below. Just in front lies our boat and a couple others that brought other groups for the same experience. The trip down is easier but is actually harder on your legs as you apply the ‘brakes’ all the way down.
Back on board our boat we moved only a few hundred yards to the beach at the foot of Pinnacle Rock. Here we again took the dingy to shore. On the way a pair of tropical penguins are seen on the rocks to the left. Snorkeling here is outstanding but if you are not into water activities to the right you’ll find sea lions resting in the shade of the cliff that love to pose for pictures.
For the best snorkeling work your way out around Pinnacle Rock and you see an incredible number of colorful fish. White tip sharks linger below and after rounding the point ahead on the left are a family of penguins numbering around a dozen. Playful baby sea lions chase one another and you like playing kittens. This the most unforgettable snorkeling experience you are likely to have in the islands. The dingy will follow your group around the point and pick up anyone who needs a rest.
On the trip back to Santa Cruz we slow to a crawl along the side of Daphne Major where dozens of sea lions rest of tiny outcroppings, blue footed and masked boobies are also nesting.
"North and South Plaza Islands"
Some information you will have read states that no snorkeling is allowed in the Plazas but don’t be fooled. A very good area with plentiful fish is along the bluffs of North Plaza. The boat stops here for a short dingy ride to South Plaza.
Literally dozens of female and young sea lions line the rocky dry landing site. So many that the Naturalist will have to clap their hands to move them away to allow us to land. Large males patrol nonstop the 50 yards of the shore they have claimed along with the females that inhabit it. Up and down the rocky shore more males patrol their claims.
Their nonstop “argh argh argh” is a warning to other males of his claim to his 50 yards. Sadly this patrol is conducted for approximately a week until he is nearly starved and exhausted from lack of sleep at which point he must retire to the other side of the South Plaza to rest and regain his strength before returning to claim another section of shoreline.
On shore a trail to the right leads off through a group of both land and sea iguanas. This is also the only known are where a land-sea iguana hybrid can occasionally be seen. Continuing along the trial you climb to the tops of the cliffs at the ‘rear’ of South Plaza offering incredible views.
The dingy brought us back to the boat for another excellent lunch with tuna, vegetables, cooked bananas and salad. After eating your fill you can take a break or enjoy wonderful snorkeling from along the cliffs of North Plaza. Here you’ll see many fish and some playful sea lions cubs.
Only 20 minutes and $7 by taxi Puerto Ayora is the only sizable town in the islands. Cobblestone streets, open air restaurants and tiny shops give the little coastal town character and offer most amenities you will need.
The Charles Darwin center is a main attraction in town and is worth the visit. The taxi will bring you down the one land drive to the office but when you visit is over you’ll want to walk the short distance into to town to shop and catch lunch.
Without a guide you can explore the large but somewhat confusion layout at your own pace. Use the map found on the large wooden sign on the left to get oriented. The main attractions are the huge tortoises found in the pins made to look as natural and comfy as possible for the creatures. You are encouraged to get up close and personnel with most of these guys by entering the pins through the gated entrances (be sure to close the gate behind you) but do not touch or crowd these guys. One pin contains a half dozen 400+ pound males. These massive creatures look too large to be able to move under the own power but if you visit early in the day while they are still active you’ll likely see them feeding and moving around with some effort. Otherwise you see them bunched up in a group escaping the sun under the shade of the trees. Other displays have 8 to 10 females, various aged juveniles and large iguanas. Birds of various species call the grounds home.
Along the short walk to town are many shops in which you will find t-shirts, local crafts and in a few beautiful carvings of animals found in the Galapagos.
As you enter the main part of town several restaurants are found on the right. A good choice for lunch is the Italian restaurant named La Dolce Italia which is owned by a family of Italians who run a nice place with a good menu. Oh yeah, they also have air conditioning which is not found in many places here. Another is the open air styled Hernan Café found across the main circle at the harbor. Here you’ll find a selection from burgers to pizzas to pasta.
Around the corner and across the street you will find a ‘phone café’ from which you can make inexpensive calls home. Just go inside tell the person at the desk that you wish to make a call and they’ll point to one of the phone booths. Close the door behind you if it’s not too hot and simply dial. A little readout on the wall tells you real time the cost of the call as you talk. The calls go our over the internet and make the connection a little noisy but not bad given the location. The rate to the US is very reasonable at 25 cents per minute. Much better than using a calling card from home will be over $4 for the same minute. When you done pay the amount shown to the clerk.
Another popular hotel used by some who want to spend a little less is the Finch Bay hotel. Although somewhat inconvenient to get this nice little hotel sits on the coast and offers nice rooms, pool, use of water equipment such as canoes but no television. To get there take a water taxi from the harbor to the other side of the port about 200 yards away. From there a walk of about 75 yards will get to the office. The hotel has it’s own water shuttle which will take you back and forth as you want.
"Time to leave"
Eventually no matter how bad you want your stay at the Royal Palm to end the time will come. When it does the hotel will verify the departure time of you flight and any flights on the rest of your trip as well. After breakfast on the morning of you departure call the front destk and they’ll take your luggage to a waiting van while you say goodbye to Andrea and others at the front desk.
You trip to the airport will be the exact reverse of your arrival. Daniel will meet you at the far side of the canal on Baltra Island in the van. At the airport it looked like there were enough people checking in to fill up 3 planes. The long lines were not a problem though for those of us who stayed at the Royal Palm. Now the Royal Palm passed the ultimate test of a special hotel experience. (You know the hotel takes service serious when you are treated with same level of special service at departure as you are upon arrival.) As we climbed from the van Daniel informed us that he would have our baggage checked and obtain our boarding passes for us while we hit the shops in front of the terminal.
When he was done he found us in the crowds and escorted through the still waiting hoards of people, through a private security screening area back to the VIP lounge for a relaxing wait for boarding time. We sat sipped cool drinks and reminisced about our unforgettable stay. Just outside the lounge we could see the plane land and pull over to unload. In due time Daniel informed us it time to board. We said our goodbyes and fulfilled our urge to tip him nicely for his tremendous service.
Leaving from the VIP lounge as an added benefit. Not only do you have a wonderfully relaxing place to spend you final hour in the islands but you are also the first to board the plane which caps off a relaxing end to your stay
I can't say enough about the positive experience we had at the Royal Palm. What a wonderful place to stay!
We are planning to go to the Galapagos next year, and the more I look at cruises, the more I get confused. I tend to get quite seasick, so unfortunately, we will most likely have to book on the the bigger ships for about 100 people. I have considered a land tour with daily excursions, but you are limited to what you see. I would like to hear from those VT'ers who have done the cruise on big boats and small. Were you very seasick? What were your experiences? any advice out there? Thanks so much.
RE: Galapagos Cruises
i spent two months in galapagos last year, it´s fantastic!
the best advice i can give re. cruises is to get an itinerary which goes to the western islands - isabela and fernandina. they´re the most amazing! along with española. one of the big boats goes there, can´t remember which one, but should be easy to find out. depends when you go, but the sea can be pretty rough, we were ok, but some people on the catamaran we were on got quite ill. but it´s so worth it!
RE: RE: Galapagos Cruises
Hi Bex, thanks for your reply; You are very lucky! 2 months in the Galapagos!! After much thought we are going to stick with a land based tour, as this will be a very special trip plus lots of $$$$ and I don't want to risk being seasick for the entire week. The package deal we are going to get at the Finch Bay Hotel sounds quite good, plus mountain biking. Thanks for the info :o)
RE: RE: Galapagos Cruises
The Finch Bay Hotel is absolutely gorgeous, and there´s tons to do on Santa Cruz so you´ll have a fantastic time I´m sure!
good 4 day cruises
My fiance and I are considering a honeymoon in the galapagos. He gets sea sick so we are planning a primarily land based trip. However, after looking around, I've realized that if we don't get on a cruise at some point we'll miss a lot. So, does anyone know of any good trips that are three nights (we'd really like to get to Espanola) and are very active (lots of on island time)?
RE: good 4 day cruises
We're taking the same approach--a 4 day cruise followed by 3 nights at the Royal Palm Hotel. I also wanted to see Espanola, and found that the M/V Santa Cruz offers an excellent 4-day trip, including Espanola, Fernandina and Isabella. Also, while I see the many benefits of a small yacht excursion, I chose this larger vessel due to sea sickness concerns. When will you be going?
RE: RE: good 4 day cruises
Thanks for the info. Did you book your hotel/cruise seperately or as a package-- and if you did it as a package (it seems that that makes arranging the flights a lot easier) who did you go with?
We won't be travelling until the end of October 07.
We're both really excited about the idea-- I think the only thing holding us back is the concern over seasickness-- I would hate to have my fiance have a miserable honeymoon!
When do you go?
RE: RE: good 4 day cruises
We are going next April. We made our arrangements ourselves. We booked the Santa Cruz through Metropolitan Tours in Quito (firstname.lastname@example.org). Carolina was extremely helpful. She will also take care of reserving flights into the Galapagos for us. We also booked the Royal Palm directly with the hotel. Where do you plan to stay for your land visit? I understand the Finch Bay Hotel offers some nice package deals, and I believe Metropolitan Touring can reserve them as well.
RE: RE: good 4 day cruises
If we go, I think we'll try to stay in the Red Mangrove Inn. It looks so unique and beautiful and is very nicely situated to walk to town.
Thanks for the travel agency info. One person I emailed with, seemed to feel that many of the cruises didn't have their itineraries worked out yet for 07. But, it sounds like I just have to talk with a travel agency.