Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean approximately 1000 km from the continent of South America. As a result, cruise ships are a popular way to explore the 19 islands and scores of tiny islets in the Galápagos archipelago. But what if you don’t want to or can’t spend your vacation on a boat because of motion sickness or other concerns. Fortunately, it’s possible to experience the Galápagos on your own. This do-it-yourself (DIY) luxury land-based Galapagos Islands guide will help you plan your adventure in one of the most incredible places on earth.
Getting to Galápagos Islands
Most visitors fly to the Galápagos Islands from either Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland of Ecuador. From these cities, there are daily flights to the Galápagos Islands. The two primary airports in the Galápagos are San Cristobal Airport (SCY) on San Cristobal Island and Seymour Airport (GPS) on Baltra Island. Travellers to Santa Cruz Island land at the Seymour Airport on Baltra Island and ride a passenger ferry to Santa Cruz.
Galápagos Transit Control Card
Visitors to Galápagos require a Transit Control Card, so allow sufficient time to purchase the card (USD 20 cash per person) at Quito or Guayaquil Airport. The line-ups can be long. Therefore, plan to arrive at the airport three hours before your flight to Galápagos.
Galápagos National Park Entrance Fee
Visitors must purchase a Galápagos National Park Entrance Fee after landing on San Cristobal or Baltra Island. The fee depends on your age and nationality. Most tourists over the age of 12 pay USD 100 cash and children pay USD 50 cash.
Visit San Cristobal Island
From mainland Ecuador, fly to San Cristobal Island from either Quito or Guayaquil. We flew from Quito to San Cristobal on LATAM airlines. Additional airlines serving this route include Avianca and TAME.
San Cristobal is the fifth largest island in the Galápagos and has the second highest population. The town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal is the capital of the Galápagos Islands.
Where to Stay on San Cristobal Island
On San Cristobal Island, we stayed at the Golden Bay Hotel and Spa. This waterfront hotel has 21 guest rooms, a small outdoor pool, and onsite restaurant, Muyu, specializing in farm, forest, & sea to table cuisine. The hotel’s location is excellent. A colony of Galápagos sea lions provide non-stop entertainment – pups splash in tide pools, mothers rest on the beach, and intrepid sea lions shuffle along the boardwalk.
What to Do on San Cristobal Island
Many interesting places on San Cristobal Island are accessible via a short taxi ride or scenic walk from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
Las Tijeretas Lookout and Cove
Walk to scenic Las Tijeretas from the Golden Bay Hotel and Spa or elsewhere in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The walk takes 45 minutes to an hour. You will pass Playa Mann, a small sandy beach, on the way to Las Tijeretas.
A stone path leads to Tijeretas Hill, also known as Frigate Bird Hill, where you will find a lookout point. From here continue downhill to Las Tijeretas Bay, a small cove where you can swim and snorkel from a platform on the rocky shore.
Located less than 3 km from the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, La Loberia is a fantastic place to see iguanas, sea lions, crabs, and other creatures.
Follow a trail from the road to an expansive sandy beach. After exploring the beach, continue along the coastal path and look for iguanas amongst the black rocks.
Wear sunscreen and pack snacks and water because there aren’t any services at La Loberia.
Eating and Drinking on San Cristobal Island
There are numerous places to eat and drink in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. We dined at Muyu at the Golden Bay Hotel or overlooking the water at one of the cafes on Darwin Ave. If you enjoy beer, try the local Endemica Galápagos blond ale.
Visit Santa Cruz Island
Air travelers from the mainland to Santa Cruz Island arrive at Seymour Airport on Baltra Island. You can fly on either LATAM, Avianca, or TAME Airlines. It’s a short boat ride across Itabaca Channel to get from Baltra Airport to Santa Cruz, the most inhabited island in the Galápagos.
We flew to Santa Cruz Island from San Cristobal Island on Emetebe Airlines. This Galápagos-based airline is the only carrier providing direct service between the islands.
After clearing customs and paying the Galápagos Park entrance fee at the airport, travellers board shuttle buses for a short ride to the dock on Itabaca channel. From here, a small ferry transports passengers and their luggage to Santa Cruz Island. On the other side of Itabaca Channel, buses and taxis transport travellers to Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galápagos. The transfer process takes one hour or less.
Where to Stay on Santa Cruz Island
For the ultimate eco-luxury experience, stay at Pikaia Lodge on Santa Cruz Island. Guests at Pikaia Lodge enjoy guided land-based tours and access to a fleet of yachts for day-trips to other Galápagos Islands. Read more about the exclusive Pikaia Lodge experience here.
Ikala Galápagos Hotel is a new property located near the harbour in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galápagos Islands. After five days at Pikaia Lodge, we spent three days at Ikala Galápagos Hotel. We enjoyed the additional time on Santa Cruz Island and the attentive service at Ikala Galápagos Hotel.
What to Do on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island offers many options for sightseeing on a DIY land-based Galápagos vacation.
Las Salinas and Las Grietas
From the public dock in Puerto Ayora, hop in a water taxi for a short trip across the bay. From here, follow the path and boardwalk to the Finch Bay Hotel where you can stop for a drink and snack at the hotel restaurant and bar.
Continue along the path to Las Salinas (salt marshes) where salt is harvested and sold along with cold drinks and snacks at a nearby concession stand. This salt is used to prepare the dry-salted fish often served in the Galápagos.
Next stop is Las Grietas where you can swim and snorkel in a stunning water-filled crack in the volcanic rock. Even if you don’t want to swim, it’s a beautiful spot.
Laguna de las Ninfas
The tranquil Las Ninfas lagoon is surrounded by mangroves and is a short walk from the Puerto Ayora harbour. At Laguna de las Ninfas, you can look for fish from the boardwalk suspended over the water.
One of the benefits of staying at Ikala Hotel in Puerto Ayora is the proximity to spots like Laguna de las Ninfas – we visited the lagoon a few times.
Charles Darwin Research Station
Learn about the Galápagos tortoise breeding initiative, scientific programs, and conservation efforts at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Puerto Ayora Harbor
Stroll along the Puerto Ayora harbour and watch the pelicans, chat with Miguicho, a fellow who has dedicated his life to eliminating cigarette butts and tobacco from the environment, and soak up the local vibe in the largest town in the Galápagos.
Spectacular Tortuga Bay is accessible via boat or 2.5 km trail from Puerto Ayora. At Tortuga Bay you can walk amongst the ancient cacti growing on the rocks, watch iguanas race along the sand, and snorkel near the mangrove forest. There are two parts to Tortuga Bay and only one is suitable for swimming and snorkeling.
Los Gemelos Sinkholes
The two Los Gemelos sinkholes look like large volcanic craters. There is a sinkhole on each side of the road surrounded by trees and shrubs including the Galápagos pepper plant.
El Chato Tortoise Reserve
Wander amongst the giant Galápagos tortoise at El Chato Tortoise Reserve. An exhibit provides information on the Galápagos tortoise and you can try on a tortoise shell to get a sense of their enormous size.
If you visit El Chato Tortoise Reserve, you can venture inside the nearby lava tunnels.
Where to Eat and Drink on Santa Cruz Island
Restaurants are plentiful in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. In addition, you can purchase snacks and drinks at a supermarket across from the boat pier.
Travel Tips – DIY Land-Based Galápagos Islands Vacation
- If you have the option, spend a few days in Quito before flying to Galápagos. Stay in Quito’s walkable Old Town because it’s considered to be the best-preserved historic centre in Latin America. You can read more about what to do and where to stay in Quito here.
- Carry enough cash to purchase the Transit Control Card and pay the Galápagos National Park Entrance Fee.
- A private guide is required to access to some of the recommended sights on Santa Cruz Island in this DIY land-based Galápagos Islands guide. Guests at Pikaia Lodge have a personal guide for the duration of their stay at the eco-resort. If you stay at Ikala Hotel, front desk staff will help you organize a guide or tour.
- We spent ten days on our land-based Galápagos Islands vacation. We could have stayed longer. The Galápagos Islands are a fascinating destination.
Before you depart on your Galápagos Islands vacation, you may appreciate reading about how to deal with airport security like a pro. Furthermore, if you are flying to Galápagos Islands with children, these tips on flying with kids will help you get there with a smile on your face.