If you have the Galapagos/Ecuador on your Bucket List like my friend Marjorie and I did – you’re going to want to see this. Because we, my friends, nailed the PERFECT trip to paradise.
Let me start by saying planning a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos – especially the epically perfect trip Marjorie and I achieved – is not for people who hate planning. This took a lot of time and research and that is exactly why I am making this blog post. Because we absolutely, positively nailed it. Some of it was because of our extensive research, and some was plain dumb luck, but l wanted to put it all on the table so someone else can benefit.
First off: Luck. Our weather was absolutely perfect every day. We had one afternoon of rain in Mindo and that was it. If that weren’t the case, some of this would likely not have been as pleasant but hey – that is luck for you. I will say some of it was also good planning though; we went in early April. A time that is known for having “calmer” seas. So keep that in mind.
Itinerary – April 2019
One of the biggest decisions you have to make when you are planning a trip to the Galapagos is – land or sea? It is, however, in a lot of ways, a false decision. Unless you only plan on visiting one island (which would just be silly) you will have to do the sea. And that is why I recommend, 100%, to just suck it up, budget for the expense, and find yourself a cruise. I recommend you do ours, because ours was awesome, but don’t try to do all of the Galapagos without a cruise. I can say that with absolute certainty because Marjorie and I – we did both!
Here is our itinerary:
Day 1: Arrived in Baltra, night in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
Day 2: Ferry to Isla Isabela, explored Isabela with NO guide (aka – free!)
Day 3: Full day Isla Isabela – day trip to Volcan Sierra Negra
Day 4: Morning ferry back to Isla Santa Cruz, explored with NO guide
Day 5: Boarded our cruise, afternoon on North Seymour
Day 6: Genovesa – hiking and snorkeling, kayaking, and beach time
Day 7: Bartolome and Santiago for hiking, with snorkeling in between
Day 8: End of cruise, flight to Quito, night in Quito
Day 9: All day exploring Quito Old Town
Day 10: Morning bus to Mindo, night in Mindo
Day 11: Mid-day bus to Quito, afternoon and night in La Floresta neighborhood, part of New Town Quito
Day 12: Airport home
I would recommend the above plan to just about everyone. If you can add days – DO it – but at the same time Marjorie and I were very ready to stop the schlepping and come home. In all honesty, our trip was so perfect; I think we both figured we were pushing our luck to continue to get perfect after 12 days of travel.
Day 1: Arrival and exploring Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
When you arrive in Ecuador, you need to get a visa to go to the Galapagos.
Perk number 1 of having a cruise lined up: we were given directions from our guide (We used Jonathan at Happy Gringo. He was very helpful and responsive – highly recommend!) so we knew exactly how we had to stand in line to get our Galapagos visa when we arrived in Guayaquil. To be honest, it was not readily apparent and I think if someone only did vague research, it could have been missed. They don’t check it to get into the Galapagos but they definitely checked for it leaving. I assume massive fines if you don’t have it.
When we arrived in Baltra airport, that’s the airport in the Galapagos, it was all quite easy, to be honest. There’s really only one way to get out of the airport and that is the bus to the harbor. And when you get there, it’s just the one option of the short 5 minute ferry to the other side. From there, unless you have a hired driver, you pretty much have to take a taxi. Taxis on Santa Cruz are all white pick-up trucks which at first to me seemed weird, and later just seemed adorable. You’re looking at $25 to get to Puerto Ayora with the taxi and we didn’t get anyone heckling us for more money.
In fact – everyone in Ecuador, and especially the Galapagos, is incredibly kind. Seriously – great humans, the lot of them.
We stayed both of our nights in Puerto Ayora at Hostal White House. I give them all the stars I can give. It was cute, it was clean, it had powerful air conditioning and hammocks (essential living for me). Everyone we encountered was nice and helpful and it was in a very convenient location. I would recommend it in a heartbeat.
It was this fateful evening that we discovered our coconut ice cream shop. We visiting this place, I am not kidding you, at least 5 times. It was cute, it was simple, it was guava and coconut mixed and it was everything we wanted in life. It’s on Avenue Baltra (the main street down to the water) between roads 18 de Febrero and Charles Binford. You’re not going to find an address, but seek it out and pay the man $1.25 to full up your little cup. You won’t regret it.
Day 2: Isla Isabela
Marjorie and I were adamant about one thing regarding the Galapagos. We didn’t want to feel trapped. The concept of a long cruise really bugged us out. What if we didn’t like the guide? The food? The boat or our shipmates? We all know how one sour thing like that can really ruin an experience. Because of this, we hedged our bets. The first 4 days on the Galapagos were us on our own. We would do what we could guide-less with the least amount of commitments – and that took us to Isabela.
Isla Isabela is famous for a few things – 1) being awesome 2) being large 3) being young 4) being sparsely inhabited
It is all of these things. The town – the only town – is Puerto Villamil and has a population of 2,000. Especially compared to Puerto Ayora at 12,000 people (and what felt to be, really, rather bustling) this was a sleepy island getaway.
We stayed at Hostal Jenniffer which was, again, great. Our room and the lobby were both really quite large but sparsely furnished which is the best constructive criticism I can find. Otherwise it was clean, comfortable, with a full kitchen and – you guessed it – hammocks. Happy as a clam.
Your tour books will advertise a specific “free” beach with snorkeling available. We explored the island and felt this, honestly, to be a little silly. The beach the tour books reference is literally right next to the dock. It was a pleasant place to swim, but felt strange to try to snorkel there. There was supposedly another inlet somewhere but we couldn’t seem to find it (though, admittedly, we didn’t look that hard). What we found to be the most interesting though was that, honestly, all the beaches were free. There is another gorgeous one at a pier right as the main street opens up and then another one down the road near where a magical walkway to the Tortoise Breeding Center is – it’s all free, it’s all beautiful. Maybe that’s the only one that can be advertised as free but if you want to swim – just walk along the beaches and jump in. You won’t be the only one. Others are wider, clearer, and just nicer.
Okay – but let me back up. How did we get to Isla Isabela? Really the only way you can (other than some kind of mysterious hired plane) which that is the ferry. “Ferries” in the Galapagos are really just speed boats that seat about 20 people. They leave just two times a day and we opted for the morning. If you have any kind of qualms with waves, we highly recommend the morning rides. It apparently gets much more chaotic on the water in the afternoon and our rides were not exactly calm.
We bought our tickets in advance right from our hostel, but there were tickets available at multiple tour offices and I think you can buy it right on the dock the morning of. Everyone is going to charge the same rate, we never found differences. The boats aren’t huge though so I’d definitely recommend buying it the night before so you ensure you get a seat. Ours was full both ferry rides.
The ferry is a true two hours and for the most part was calm. But there’s a good 45 minutes when you are far enough away from both coasts that you are truly out in the sea and “calm” just isn’t a thing. Take your nausea medicine and be prepared to get splashed and jolted, depending on your spot on the boat. To be honest, it just wasn’t pleasant and was rather uncomfortable with all the people, but it wasn’t awful either. It’s the Galapagos equivalent of a public bus.
When we got to Isabela we checked in (our room was ready early, soooo happy) and then just plopped down at one of the restaurants mentioned in the guide books, Valero (right on the main drag, you can’t miss it). Here we got an Ecuadorian staple called a Bolon that we literally ate every chance we got- fried plantains with a mild white cheese and a fried egg. Ecuadorian coffee and fresh squeezed juice. Can’t go wrong. Overall this ended up being the least tasty of all the bolons we consumed but it was good. I can’t say I was encouraged by what the rest of the menu would be though, but the location was cute which made it worth it.
We then walked down the main – practically the only – road and veered off on a wooden walkway to the right where marine iguanas lounged all over each other and you crossed lagoons populated with flamingos. It was reminiscent of, of all things, the faerie glens in Scotland and was really a fun little walk. The walk ended in the Isabela Tortoise Breeding ground where we spotted all kinds of different tortoises of varying ages. It was cute and picture worthy.
Technically we could have walked back and then continued on to the Wall of Tears which is a big attraction on Isabela but we were very tired at that point. Instead we walked back, stopping for some fresh coconut water at Marani Surf Shop. It’s, of course, along the main road and is part house, part art gallery, and part restaurant – but it’s all awesome.
Then we took a break, did some beach swimming, signed up for our day tour the following day, and then went and grabbed dinner at The Booby Trap. Excellent food with a fantastic view and instagram worthy name. Win/win/win – though bring your bug spray, you’re close to the lagoons so mosquitoes are friendly there.
Day 3 – Hiking the Volcano – Sierra Negra
There are a lot of options for day tours on Isabela and we only had one day to play with. Los Tuneles is a highly coveted area but we knew we were going to have a lot of cruise spots so we decided to stay on dry land and headed up Sierra Negra. If you have an extra day, the Tuneles are supposedly worth it and I have no reason to doubt it.
However, if you have only one day, do the volcano. Even thinking back now on all the incredible things we did, this volcano hike was truly one of the highlights of the whole trip. We highly recommend our tour. We bought the tour from IsaTourEx and our guide was Sebastian. He has, apparently, been doing it for 15 years and clearly has his own, incredible, route. A ton of tours started at the same time but everyone else went on a different, lower route. It was hot and I got so sunburned, but it was honestly one of the most unique experiences of my life – and it was only our 3rd day into our trip.
We came back hot, tired, sore, and only really had the energy to sit, get some ice cream, sit on a beach, and then go to a restaurant that pulled the grill out to the sidewalk and fired up some meat. So YEAH we were going to eat there. It was called Maestro De Casa and I will say one thing – the Ecuadorians do a good grill. Anywhere we went whether it was beef or fish or whatever, if it was grilled, it was prepared excellent. So when in doubt…. Stop at this place with a grill for SURE.
Day 4 – Isla Santa Cruz
We took a VERY early ferry to get another bumpy ride back to Santa Cruz. We got a brunch of (you guessed it) plantain balls and fried eggs before working out our itinerary for our day in Santa Cruz.
Despite the heat, we ended up heading to Tortuga Bay. We highly recommend making your way here if you are on Santa Cruz. No guides needed, though there is a fee for entry. The walkway is hot and long but beautiful and then you end up on the most pristine, white sand beach you’ll ever see. Paradise. Circle your way around and there is an equally incredible beach where you are allowed to swim – pop your towel under a short tree and lay around in the water. It was heavenly and you could easily spend an entire afternoon. Pro Tip: There’s even a water taxi where you can pay to get taken back to Puerto Ayora (which we did – we were too burned to want to tackle the walk back).
That night we ate on restaurant row (Charles Binford road – it looks normal by day but impossible to miss around supper time). No idea what the restaurant was called but they all serve the same thing. We picked out our fish and shrimp and they grilled it up for us. The meat was good, the sides were fine. Nothing wrong with our selection but I’m sure you could go to any of them and get something as good – we stopped at the first restaurant on your right when you approach from Baltra Street.
Day 5 – Board the Cruise and Explore North Seymour
Cruise day! It was tedious travel for us to get back up to the airport (taxi, to mini-ferry, to bus) to be picked up but we found our guide easily and made our way onto the Archipel I. It’s hard for me to explain how excited we were about this
We had just spent the last 4 days on our own, we were tired and sunburned, and we walk into this gorgeous boat with the air conditioner blasting and we KNEW we had made an excellent decision.
We were so ready to put the planning into the hands of our (though we didn’t know it then) very capable crew. Our boat wasn’t deemed “luxury” but the cabin was way nicer and spacious than I expected – the beds were truly comfortable and the bathroom space really accommodating.
One thing to note – NO WIFI! At first I was a little worried but honestly, it was great to be 100% off the grid for 4 days. Still – we didn’t know about the lack of wifi in advance and didn’t really prepare our families. Whoops.
Honestly, I can’t say enough about our crew. They were so nice, friendly, capable, and accommodating.
Marjorie has a gluten allergy and not only were there lots of options in general, they were always careful to make her aware of what was gluten free and always provided her a special meal if needed.
That first day we took a short and delightful trip after our lunch to do an afternoon on North Seymour. It was the perfect starting off point with a (hot) hike that let us see lots of Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate birds. It was, already, a totally new and unique experience from what we did on our own.
We were able to do some snorkeling, equipment provided or you can use your own, and we were rewarded with snacks upon our return. Then free time, dinner, and hanging out or bed.
I’ll admit, for both Marjorie and I, sleeping on a moving boat was challenging. We seemed to be the only ones who had trouble though. They purposefully wait to travel until people are headed to bed, I assume for sea-sickness purposes.
Day 6: Isla Genovesa
We awoke the next morning in the giant circular bay of Genovesa. It was gorgeous and calm and provided a full day of various activities. We started off the day with a hike on Prince Phillip’s steps. This gave us even more bird sightings – including the red and Nasca boobies, as well a lot more frigates, iguanas, and the rest. It was also just beautiful scenery and our guide, Fabian, was fantastic. He clearly has such a love and passion for what he does and can really talk about the same birds over and over again with new information.
April was a good time to go because we were able to witness a lot of the mating rituals. Not that I’m really into a peep show but it was definitely interesting to see and talk about.
After the hike – which was, again HOT but not otherwise challenging – we were able to spend time snorkeling. Snorkeling is pretty much the best thing ever in my book and I could have stayed there all day.
When we got back to the boat it was lunch and then we had the opportunity to go kayaking – which we did. That was fun and different and another way to get moving. We were able to hug the coast of the bay and saw more birds as well as sea lions. The water was so calm it was easy and refreshing.
More down time and then we went for a hike on another part of the island, the beach part, and we were able to experience a lot of the same birds but a different landscape and a lot of sea lions as well. Then we ended our day with beach relaxation. I really found the cruise to be a good mixture of activity and down time both on and off the boat.
That night we experienced one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Day 7: Isla Bartolome and Isla Santiago
After another long night of boat rocking (it was about 8 hours to get to and from Genovesa) we awoke at Isla Bartolome, which had been our “must” destination for the cruise.
Bartolome is has a very dynamic landscape and you can see all the lava rock. You climb 130-some steps to get to the top for some really incredible views. Other than it being a lot of stairs, it wasn’t an otherwise strenuous hike and the view is one of the most notable in the Galapagos.
It was one of those places where, when you got to the top, it really hits you how special this is. It’s landscape is truly like no other and we were so fortunate to be able to experience it.
We were then able to snorkel around the huge jagged rock famous in Galapagos pictures before heading back on the boat and cruising over the lunch time to Isla Santiago for more hiking. Santiago is cool and different as it is entirely a lava wasteland – you could easily be in a science fiction movie. This hike was less about animals and more about the craziness that is nature and the epically cool experience of walking on all the intricate lava flows.
After the short, but unique, hike, there was more beach time with snorkeling as well. We did manage to spot just one Galapagos penguin which checked off all the musts on our particular bucket list. April isn’t really ideal penguin season so we were pleasantly surprised and lucky.
That night the boat took us back to Puerto Ayora and I spent the majority of the evening on the top deck. For me the rockiness of the water, due to some storms nearby that never got to us, was too much for me to be below deck. Looking back, I’m glad I was uncomfortable below, because I will remember that night for a long time.
Never in my life have I seen stars as bright as I have in Galapagos night. That peace, paired with the sea breeze, made for an emotional and unforgettable experience.
I was able to sit and chat with a couple members of the staff who were so kind and compassionate, wanting to ensure I was okay since I was out so late. I eventually went in, but I seriously considered staying out there the whole night.
Day 8: End of the Cruise and Quito
We woke to a beautiful sunrise and got off the boat early. We had a quick tour of the Charles Darwin Breeding Center and were able to see more of the giant tortoises – it wasn’t as impressive as the one on Isla Isabela but totally worth it if it don’t find yourself at Isabela.
It was quick, though, as we then had the bus back to the harbor, water taxi across, another bus to the airport, and then we were there. We had worked with our tour guide to ensure we had a direct flight to Quito which, looking back, probably wasn’t the best use of our time. Instead of taking the 10am flight, our direct flight was at 1pm. For us this was great because it was theoretically less time “traveling” and time in the air – but then, of course, we got delayed. We didn’t get into the air until close to 4pm. So we spent the majority of the day just sitting at the Baltra airport where there is – you guessed it – no wifi.
So, we lost almost a day of travel but made it safely and then took a bus then a taxi to our Airbnb in Old Town Quito (very cute, by the way, and recommended!). Our Airbnb host was very kind and helpful and even gave us a ride down to the Calle de la Ronda which is well known in Quito and had lots of restaurants. We opted to eat on our own so we could get some rest. We ended up at Leña Quiteña where we got some food samplers and I tried the Quito famous Canelazo – it’s a warm alcoholic drink made with their bluebird liquor, orange juice, and spaces. I, personally, was not a fan as it’s WAY too strong for me, but always worth trying!
Day 9: Quito Old Town
Our next day was all about exploring Quito Old Town. We tried our hardest to finds some of the recommended restaurants in our guide book but struck out, repeatedly, during the day. I won’t even mention where we had breakfast- it was more or less a diner and it served its purpose. Overall, while Old Town seemed easy to navigate, we had a hard time finding specific addresses.
We hooked our tour train up then to a free guided tour which, like every free walking tour I’ve ever experienced, was incredible. I always recommend this is the first thing you do when you get to a new city as they show you almost everything you need. I highly recommend Strawberry Tours (free!). We walked through Old Town, saw some great churches and squares, learned a little, and got plenty of tips on where to go next. In particular I think is the one of the best walking tours I’ve been on because we had LOTS of free samples. We literally stopped and had free coffee and tea at a cute restaurant (where we returned for dinner, more on that later) as well as had free candy samples and then even got a mini chocolate tour. We went back to ALL the places later and made purchases, so it was a win for everyone.
After our tour walked to the Basilica. Now, let me tell you, Quito is all about the views. Pretty much every activity boasts that you can get up high and see the world. So that’s what we did in the Basilica. There were some walkways that felt a little sketch and both of us almost had a panic attack when we saw the steps we had to climb to get to the top of the spire, but we both YOLO’d it and got some great images and memories. It was fun, but not essential.
Our lunch was ice cream (of course). We desperately tried to find a famous ice cream place that didn’t seem to exist. So instead we went to the candy shop we had stopped at on our tour (just off Independence Plaza) and grabbed ice cream at the stand next to his and sat in a cute, beautiful ivy-covered courtyard to each our lunch/snack.
From there we wandered the Old Town a little more, just going up and down the streets and really enjoyed the view. We truly felt we had seen and experience Old Town so we grabbed a taxi and it took us all the way up the mountain to see the Virgen of Quito statue. We took our pictures but didn’t feel like hanging out for an hour for sunset so we took another taxi back down to the Ronda where we went to have dinner at Masaya, where we had stopped on our tour. It was adorable, delicious, and also is a hostel so take a look at that as a possible accommodation. Service was lacking but we really enjoyed the experience overall and it was a fun, tucked away part of the Ronda.
Then, of course, we finished off our day with ice cream at probably the best ice cream place we had found on the mainland- Dulce Placer. It was definitely artisanal with really unique flavors and had one cute little table where you could look over the street. It’s very tucked away but so worth finding.
Despite all the warnings, we walked home that night and had no issues at all. I’m sure it’s very important to be diligent after dark but it was still early and it was actually beautiful walking through Old Town at night. There were lots of folks out, too so we felt very secure.
Day 10: Mindo
The next morning we checked out and got a morning bus to Mindo, the cloud forest. The bus was easy, if a bit long, and the comfort of the bus is probably what you would expect of South America. Air conditioning and wifi are not to be expected. The road was a little close to the edge at times but otherwise I felt secure enough to sleep without worries. When we arrived, we went straight to the office to buy our return trip. Apparently the bus can get full so decide on your plans and buy those tickets right away.
Mindo was everything it was advertised to be. Small and sleepy with a few streets for the town. We grabbed a taxi to our resort, Las Terrazas de Dana, which was 100% perfect. Ana was there and she took truly exceptional care of us. We were able to check in early, get breakfast, get advice, and soak in the raw beauty of Mindo. It was my first time in the rain forest/cloud forest and staying with Ana really made us feel like I was experiencing it in luxury. HIGHLY recommend.
We started off our day in Mindo by visiting the waterfalls. Ana helped us call a taxi who drove us to the top of the mountain where we immediately encountered a cable car. If you haven’t noticed by now in this blog, Marjorie and I are major chickens and it took some psyching up but we did the cable car with white knuckles (looking back, it really wasn’t that bad). On the other side we took a true cloud forest hike with beautiful canopies, mossy trees with huge leaves, and glimpses of incredible views. We opted to take the longer hike to the bigger waterfall, Reina. It was delightful and at times a little challenging, but totally walkable. We opted to hike back to where we started instead of taking the cable car back so we could see more waterfalls and also avoid hanging in the air with nothing to catch us. About 20 minutes away from our destination we really experienced the cloud forest as it rained on us. Though soggy, it was actually a cool experience.
We also had asked our taxi driver to come back for us so we were able to hop right in, go to our bungalow to change, and then we opted to check out Mindo proper. We stopped at the Hummingbird Farm which was cool but small and don’t expect to get any pictures of those little devils unless you have a truly legit camera.
We opted out of our chocolate tour since we had such a great experience in Quito on the free tour and instead popped into a few shops, bought chocolate, did some wandering and then went to The Food Studio for dinner. It was delicious and a fun gastro experience in what felt like a strange setting, but highly recommend for truly great food.
Day 11: Mindo and Quito (La Floresta)
We had opted for a midday bus which gave us time to explore a little more before leaving Mindo. We got up and hiked to the butterfly garden which had an impressive amount of butterfly as well as orchids and other cool flowers in the gardens. Worth it, especially if you are staying where we were since you could walk there. We were able to enjoy our breakfast (seriously, so good) and then took the bus back to Quito.
The taxi from the bus depot to the Airbnb in La Floresta neighborhood was a long one but, thankfully, taxis aren’t expensive in Quito. We had a gorgeous afternoon and evening in a part of Quito that was night and day different from Old Town. I seriously couldn’t even recognize it as the same place and I am so glad we decided to try out a different part of town. I feel like, even though it was only one afternoon, I really understood that Quito is a vibrant, beautiful city and not just the busy and congested areas of Old Town.
La Floresta was a breath of fresh air with incredible street art and modern buildings.
We literally just walked up and down the neighborhood. It was Sunday so most of it was closed but it was still delightful. We also stumbled upon an incredible museum I highly recommend. The Casa Cultural Truge Sojka was a starkly moving experience. The life of Trude was both horrible and fascinating – she was a holocaust survivor and a truly gifted artist. We had the privilege of receiving the tour from her granddaughter. It was spontaneous and memorable. We just walked up and knocked, but, if you would like to go, it’s better to call ahead and make an appointment.
Ultimately, we visited a very strange ice cream place, GelatoMix, which we both said was an experience but perhaps not one we wanted to revisit. They put cream and cheese on top of all their ice cream at this shop. It was very busy though so it must be quite the hit for the Quito pallet.
Our final supper in Ecuador was at La Macaria and delicious with no strange cheese additions. It was literally less than a block away from our excellent Airbnb and had absurdly small baskets of chips on the table (at least, small for us hungry Americans) and I shamelessly asked for multiple refills. The food was excellent and well worth the over eating. From there we went up to enjoy our final Quito views and head home.
Day 12: Home
All in all, with 10 full days on Ecuador land and sea, Marjorie and I were able to wrangle together an incredible adventure. I highly recommend anyone who is coming here for their bucket list to put in a lot of thought and creativity. We saw SO much by being open to both rigid tour and flexible planning. The “must-dos” are often, yes, MUST dos. But there are so many wonderful side items that you can find and I encourage you to take the time to do so!