Our Galápagos Experience

Our Experience Traveling to the Galápagos Aboard Our Own Sailboat


Blogger’s Note (May, 2014):  The information reported below is now out of date. Visiting the Galápagos has become even more difficult for cruisers than it was when we visited. Please refer to Noonsite for the most recent cruiser reports and changes in regulations.  

Most of the information that follows applies to people visiting the Galápagos by sailboat; however, some of it is relevant to the fly-in tourist as well. 

The Galápagos Model of Tourism

 

I had a hard time choosing an appropriate title for this post. Galápagos for the Rich? No Bienvenidos a Galápagos por Veleros? Logistics Nightmare in the Galápagos? Finally, I decided to leave opinion out of it, call it “Our Experience,” and let people draw their own conclusions. However, all of the previously considered titles have some bearing on the truth.

The Galápagos model of tourism is definitely set up for the fly-in tourist with lots of money to spend. This type of tourist arrives on Baltra by plane from mainland Ecuador, uses Santa Cruz island as their home base, stays in hotels, eats all their meals out, books tours to visit the other islands, and goes home loaded down with souvenirs. Ostensibly, this bias towards fly-in tourists is to protect the natural resources of the Word Heritage site that is Galápagos. The movements of these tourists within the Galápagos National Park are easily controlled because they are always in the presence of a guide.  From our experience, the guides do a good job of enforcing the rules to stay on trails and not to approach wildlife too closely or harass nesting or nursing wildlife. The movements of cruisers are harder to control, and the behavior of a few cruisers in the past (entering into restricted areas without permission) may have led to some of the attitudes and restrictions that cruisers face now. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the actions of a few affecting the outcome for everyone.  

However, this bias toward the fly-in tourist is also to promote the local economy and to make money, like everywhere else. There is a fee or charge for everything in the Galápagos; and while some things are a bargain (taxi or water taxi service, for example), prices are generally comparable to or higher than our home in the United States. Cruisers are, as a group, self-reliant do-it-your-selfers who get places under their own power (foot, bike, kayak, surf board, or dinghy) and are more likely to spend their dollars at the local farmer’s market or chandlery than in restaurants and souvenir shops. While many cruisers live “greener” or more environmentally sustainable lifestyles than their counterparts on land---and should be welcome as visitors to a region touting its principles of ecological conservation---this was not the case. Although tourism is the number one source of revenue in Galápagos, we felt that the cruising community was a nuisance to the islands, and that little was done to solicit our business or facilitate our experience. We were small change.



How the Agent and Autografo Process Worked Out For Us

Currently (and rules and regulations frequently change on these islands, so consult multiple sources and the most recent ones you can find), there are two ways to visit the Galápagos Islands on your own sailboat. You can choose one port of arrival (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal or Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz) and show up without advance notice. You will then be allowed to stay in your port of arrival for twenty days. If you want to visit any of the other islands during that time, it must be done by high speed ferry or on a tour boat. You will not be allowed to move your sailboat to another port. OR, you can apply for a special permit called an autografo and visit three ports (the two previously mentioned along with Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela) in your own sailboat. It is mandatory to hire an agent to check in for both methods of visiting the Galápagos; however, the agent fee is cheaper if you stay in your port of arrival. If you want to anchor your boat in any bays or anchorages other than the three covered by the autografo, you must hire a Galápagos National Park naturalist at the cost of $200 per person per day and carry him or her aboard your boat. You must also hire the naturalist to visit any restricted areas of the park that you are not otherwise visiting on a guided tour. (Tours include a naturalist guide.)

After much debate over the two methods---stay in a single port of arrival for twenty days or obtain an autografo to visit three ports---we chose to apply for an autografo. It was difficult for us to even make this basic decision because we could not get clear answers to our questions, such as:  What are the total fees (including port fees, agent fees, and National Park fees) we would have to pay with each method? What places are we allowed to visit on our own if we come under an autografo and what places must we visit with a guide? The application process for the autografo must be started a couple of months in advance of when you plan to arrive in the Galápagos, because the autografo originates in Quito, on mainland Ecuador. (However, we never received an original copy of our document and felt sure that all communication between Quito and our agent was done electronically, allowing for fairly rapid processing.)

We chose Ricardo Arenas of Sail’n Galápagos (Servi Galápagos) as our agent. He was one of two agents who came highly recommended on Noonsite and in other boat blogs. Arenas was based out of Santa Cruz, and when we selected our agent, we thought we would be first checking in at that island. The other agent was Bolivar Pesantes, based on San Cristóbal.

We were issued an autografo dated April 1 and received it from our agent electronically on April 2. The period the autografo was valid for went through May 15 (six weeks.) Given the schedule we originally gave our agent for leaving Mexico for the Galápagos (March 22-25), this was a reasonable time frame. However, due to a mechanical problem we didn’t end up leaving Mexico (from Puerto Vallarta) until April 9. With a normal length passage, that still would have given us enough time on our autografo. Shortly after getting underway for the Galápagos, it became evident that the passage was not going to be a normal length (winds under 10 knots or less), and we realized we might not have enough time left on our autografo to see all three islands when we arrived. We contacted our agent from sea two weeks in advance of our arrival via radio email to let him know that we would arrive late and to request an extension on our autografo. We did not receive a response---but that was typical for this agent, who required multiple contacts from us every step of the way, even to get the bank information in order to pay him!---and we assumed he was working on it. We probably should have followed up with multiple queries and reminders, as we had in the past, but the duties of the passage kept us occupied and fatigued.  

When we arrived at San Cristóbal, we met with our agent’s representative. She had not received word about an extension on our autografo and told us we would work it out with the agent when we got to the next island (where he was based.) Upon arrival at Santa Cruz, we again dealt with a representative of our agent when checking in. Our agent (also a tour operator) was on Baltra, no doubt meeting a larger and more lucrative tour group at the airport. The agent representative on Santa Cruz, Santiago, was the most professional of the three agent representatives we dealt with, including the agent himself. Santiago seemed to have some sense that we were paying for a service and was very helpful. Due to the communication gap, however, (Santiago spoke Spanish, and I am not fluent in Spanish) I knew I was only understanding about 80% of what the representative was telling us about the situation with getting an extension on our permit. We didn’t actually meet our agent in person (and probably never would have done so otherwise) until we deliberately paid a visit to him to clear up our understanding of the situation with extending our autografo.

Our agent informed us that he could not get us an extension on our autografo, because we needed to contact him in advance of our arrival to the Galápagos in order to receive one. I reminded him that we did contact him in advance of our arrival. He then said that he could get us an extension, but that we would need to stay in Puerto Ayora and not take our boat to Isla Isabela. Since the whole point in getting the autografo (and paying a $600 agent fee to do so) was to be able to visit three islands, we were not happy with that news. He said that to get an extension covering Isabela we would have needed to contact him before our arrival, because he had to get the extension from Quito. I again reminded him that we had contacted him for an extension two weeks before our arrival. He then conceded to this fact and told us we could go to Isabela and ask the port captain for an extension, but only if we arrived before our autografo ran out on May 15. He made a call to the port captain on Isabela, acknowledging that he had not filed the paperwork for our extension. This new plan cut our time on Santa Cruz short to less than a week, but we pulled up our anchors on May 14 and headed for Isabela.

Once on Isabela, the Port Captain granted us a brief extension, but told us we could only stay until May 20. He said the Galápagos has laws and regulations which must be followed. I was able to negotiate an extra day by arguing that even boats arriving without an autografo can stay in the Galápagos for twenty days. Since we arrived on May 1, twenty days would put our departure date on May 21. The Port Captain agreed to this.

I’m not sure why we received such strict treatment. We ran into other boats in the Galápagos who had managed to extend their stay for much longer periods of time than the week we were asking for, without much more advance notice. Perhaps it had something to do with our agent, or perhaps it had to do with the authorities bending the rules one too many times and then deciding to make an example of us.

As we completed our check in to Puerto Villamil, we were informed that we were lacking a document that our agent had failed to provide us with:  our travel plan. This document should have been filed when we checked out of Santa Cruz and entered into the computer system, but it was not. The junior port captain managed to obtain the document for us with several phone calls back to Santa Cruz; however, because our agent never sat down and had a conversation with us about it, our zarpe upon check-out read that our next port of call was to be Nuku Hiva. We had planned to check in to French Polynesia in Hiva Oa. We pointed this out to the junior port captain and were told that it could not be changed because it was in the computer system on Santa Cruz, and that there would be “no problem” with an incorrect destination on our zarpe when we checked in to French Polynesia. We were also unable to get our passports stamped when we checked out of Ecuador, because although both San Cristobal and Santa Cruz had immigration offices, Isabela did not. “No problem,” we were told again, by both the officials on Isabela and our agent (who we made a long distance call to in order to ask about the zarpe.)

Based on our previous experiences in the Galápagos, we didn’t completely trust the “no problem” response. So we emailed our agent in Tahiti to verify that there really wouldn’t be a problem when we checked in to French Polynesia. We were a day out of Isabela when we got her response, still able to turn around and go back to Santa Cruz (where we were not supposed to return in our sailboat, once checked out) if necessary. She didn’t answer the passport stamp question but did reassure us that we could still check in to Hiva Oa even though our zarpe read Nuku Hiva. Again, time was spent on logistics and sourcing out answers on our own due to poor service at the hands of the agent.
 
The Galápagos Runaround

The vague communication we got from our agent in responding to our questions about the autografo turned out to be symptomatic of communication in the Galápagos Islands, in general. It became difficult to make good decisions because we could not get good information on which to base those decisions. Either lack of communication, or lack of direct, honest communication led to the experience of what I began to call “the Galápagos Runaround.”

We experienced our first example of the Runaround on San Cristóbal. It took us parts of three days just to check into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, even with the help of the agent’s representative. Those were parts of three days, with only a week to spend on each island, that we were basically tied to the boat and unable to see anything. The representative there in 2012 is a friendly, agreeable person, and does her best to meet your needs. However, she is also slightly overextended, juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet. One morning, we were supposed to wait for the agent’s rep to meet us at the boat at 10:00 a.m. to go to the port captain’s office. 10:00 came and went, and the representative did not show. We waited two more hours at the boat. At noon, we water taxied into town and walked to the agent’s shop, where we found her tending the store. Her help did not show up that day and she was alone at the store; that’s why she didn’t show for our appointment. There was no word or communication sent to us. You would think that the agent would have provided his representative, who deals with boats on a routine basis, a hand-held radio, but it appeared not to be the case.

Checking out of San Cristóbal also required our constant monitoring in order to ensure that we got our zarpe on time:  that was time spent worrying about logistics that were supposedly being taken care of for us instead of seeing and enjoying the island.

Another example of the Runaround is when we booked a tour to Seymour Island. Our tour was supposed to include a stop at Las Bachas, a beach on Santa Cruz Island. Since I had read in another boat’s cruising guide that the Las Bachas stop included snorkeling, I asked the tour agent we booked the tour with about snorkeling. She conceded that there would be an opportunity to snorkel. I asked if I should bring my own gear or if snorkeling equipment was included in the tour fee. “Well,” she said, “you can bring your own gear if you have it, but if you don’t, you can rent it on the tour.” On the morning of the tour, I was still ambivalent about what to pack. The tour agent’s presentation didn’t make snorkeling sound like a key feature of the tour, and I didn’t want to be holding up the entire tour group if I was the only one snorkeling. On the other hand, I was not about to rent gear on a tour we’d already paid so much to take in the first place. In the end, I stashed my mask and snorkel in my backpack and left my fins (which I can do without) behind. Patrick opted not to bring any snorkeling gear.

When we boarded our tour boat, we were told that the first stop would be for snorkeling. The snorkel stop was not to be at Las Bachas beach but at another site near a point at the northeast end of Santa Cruz island. That’s when we began to realize that we were not alone in our experience of the Galápagos. First, we had been given a different itinerary than most of the other participants on the tour, but none of the participants had been given the itinerary that we actually followed. In short, we paid for a tour location that was not delivered. Patrick and I weren’t too upset about the specifics of the snorkeling location, because our main focus was to visit Seymour Island, and we did go there. However, a couple of the other participants were very upset about the change in plans.

Also, since we had all booked our tour through different tour agents, we were all told different things. The majority of the participants arrived without any snorkel gear at all, since they hadn’t been informed there would be a snorkeling stop on the tour at all. They were enraged at having to rent snorkel gear (or not snorkel) when they had gear they could have brought with them. Finally, there was not adequate snorkel gear (in quantity or quality) on the boat for all the participants to rent! The most petite among us, a French woman, set off wearing a child-sized mask and fins. “This is the first time I’ve been snorkeling as a child” was her wry comment. Patrick missed the snorkeling activity entirely, although I did offer to take turns using my gear. In the end, we all made such a stink about our dissatisfaction that the tour boat did, at least, refund the rental money to the people who had rented gear.

On Isabela, we met a French couple who’d had a similar snorkeling tour experience at Los Túneles. They were not allowed to snorkel in the calm, clear waters created by the lava tunnels as advertised. The snorkel stop on the tour was somewhere else entirely with much poorer visibility.       

Other Pertinent Information for Travelers

We had heard that you are not allowed to leave your dinghy anywhere in the Galápagos and have to take water taxis from your boat to shore. This turned out not to be entirely true. Again, cruisers cannot take their dinghies to any restricted areas of the park. Thus, one of the common vehicles for exploration utilized by cruisers is eliminated. Within the three ports, the situation for using dinghies varies. In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, you can tie up your dinghy at the water taxi dock for a limited period of time (30 min.) or haul it up on a neighboring beach. But you wouldn’t want to, because it would immediately be occupied by one or several of the hundreds of Galápagos sea lions who hang out along the waterfront there, making rousting the offending pinniped(s) out of your dinghy upon your return an intimidating proposition. In Santa Cruz, there are not many good spots to land a dinghy due to the lava reefs along the coast. It is more convenient to take the water taxis, and the price is right:  50 centavos per person during the day and $1 per person at night. On Isabela, there is a dinghy dock you can tie up to. However, be aware that you must pay a one time municipal tax of $5 per person on arrival at the dock on the way to town. (This is one of the many things we discovered after the fact. The sign about the port tax is posted on the main tourist dock but not on the dinghy dock, so unless you arrive by ferry or water taxi, you’re not likely to see it.)

There are certain places you can visit on your own on each island. Due to their proximity to population centers, some these areas have been degraded (graffiti on rocks, litter, low diversity), but there are still some relatively unspoiled places with unique wildlife to be seen. I found San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz to be more accessible in terms of what you can see and do locally than Isabela. On both of these islands, there are a variety of places you can visit on foot. On San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz, you can also cut down on expenses by taking a taxi tour or paying a water taxi driver to take you to some sites. Even on Isabela, you could probably take a taxi to Volcan Sierra Negra; however, most of the tour sites on Isabela are spread farther apart (it is a much larger island) and are only accessible by boat.

In terms of logistics, it is important to be aware that there is no way for foreigners to get cash on Isla Isabella. Although the maps show two banks, there are no ATMS, and they won’t help foreigners get cash using their debit cards at the bank windows. Since we were about to embark on a 3,000 mile passage and needed to reprovision our fresh stores, among other things, we had to make a separate trip back to Santa Cruz by high speed ferry to get cash. (You are not allowed to return in your own boat once you check out of an island; besides, we would have lost two full days by sailing there and back.) Again, we felt that the lack of ATMs/bank service on Isabela was something a helpful agent might have informed his clients of. We had read some cruising guides by other cruisers which also didn’t mention the lack of accessibility to funds on Isabela.

The high speed ferry ride back to Santa Cruz was not only an inconvenience and an additional expense, it was highly uncomfortable. On the trip over, we were tightly packed into our seats, those arriving first being forced to sit towards the bow and not being allowed to choose a seat near the stern (fresh air). People who arrived late received the best seating on the stern. The boat had little ventilation, and the gasoline fumes from the huge outboard motors collected near the bow. Shortly after we got underway, all conversation ceased and most of the participants turned pale. People focused their concentration on trying to escape the ride through sleep or on simply keeping their breakfast down. Once we arrived in Santa Cruz, the high speed ferry wasn’t allowed access to the dock. So on top of our ferry fare, we ended up having to pay a water taxi fare to go ashore. Again, no one mentioned this in advance, and we were lucky we had change with us.

The trip back in the afternoon started out more auspiciously. The boat had more ventilation; we were handed a bottle of water when we got onboard; and somehow, the water taxi fare was taken care of for us. However, we were now headed into the wind and seas, and the result was a spine-jarring ride that had us taking air and then slamming back into our seats again. I could feel my cervical vertebrae snapping. We should have been handed out whiplash collars instead of bottled water when we got onboard! Again, motion sickness took its toll---this time with one casualty. An elderly man tossed his cookies---first in a barf bag the ship’s crew handed him (the fact that they had an entire cardboard box of these onboard tells you something!), and then, in the ship’s trash can. We all felt sorry for the old man’s suffering and the fact that he had to be exposed like this, in front of strangers. The ferry did not slow down one jot for him, and the people in his immediate vicinity turned white and reached for Dramamine. The high speed ferry ride is not one I would recommend unless you have no other option.    

As mentioned previously, there is no immigration office on Isla Isabela.

Diesel is available on all three islands but is handled differently among the three islands. Fuel is subsidized by the Ecuadoran government for citizens; they pay just over $1.00 per gallon for diesel. Foreign visitors pay the nationally set price of $5.50 per gallon (2012 price). On two of the three islands, a ticket from the port captain stating the amount of diesel needed is necessary in order to purchase diesel, and the purchase must be accomplished through your agent. It was clear that citizens selling diesel to foreigners at a reduced rate could incur serious penalties. Although it was possible to get someone to buy you diesel for about $3.00 per gallon, we did not want to be responsible for getting anyone in trouble and did not attempt this. On another island, it was generally acknowledged (even by the officials) that they wouldn’t sell diesel to foreigners, but that you could “probably find someone” to buy you diesel.

Water is available on both San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz for a fee + delivery charge.

Decent provisioning is available in both Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and Puerto Ayora. On San Cristóbal, the area around the Mercado Municipal (Municipal Market) is the best place to provision, and the Saturday market has a better selection of produce than during the weekdays. The earlier you go, the better the selection. There is also some meat available in the Mercado Municipal. On the blocks surrounding the Mercado Municipal are multiple tiendas with bulk dry goods, more produce, meat, pork, chicken, and fish. About two blocks south of the Municipal Market there is also a fairly well stocked supermarket.

The Mercado Municipal on Puerto Ayora is smaller; however, on Saturdays, there is a much larger Feria Libre (an open-air type farmers’ market) nearby. (Ask any taxi driver and he will take you.) The supermarket near the water taxi dock is well stocked with canned goods and specialty items. It has a good selection of cheese and produce if the supply ship has been in recently, but the only meats we found were lunch meats and frozen chicken. There are fresh fish markets both on the waterfront downtown and elsewhere locally, as well as a couple of small butcher shops in the Mercado Municipal and on the block adjoining it.

Isabela was less equipped for provisioning while we were there, partly because the municipal market was closed while the construction of a brand new Mercado Municipal was underway. We found eggs and milk in quantity, but a limited selection of produce. A local tercería, Don Toro’s, came highly recommended as a place to buy fresh meat, fish, and pork; however, it was closed when we attempted to shop there. We had visited the store a few days’ in advance of our departure to check out their selection. We had planned to depart on a Monday and were going to return to buy our fresh meat on Saturday. (We had assumed the shop would be closed on Sunday.) The shopkeeper, hearing our plans to go to sea, told us specifically that while the store was closed on Sundays during the morning and afternoon, it would be open from 4:00-7:00 in the evening. The store was closed when we showed up at 5:00 p.m.; therefore, we left on passage with two packages of frozen chicken we had purchased on Santa Cruz and nothing more in the way of fresh meat or fish. Luckily, we still had a good supply of canned seafood and pouch meats from Mexico, as well as a good supply of the fresh meat I home-canned in our pressure cooker.  

Summary and Recommendations

Patrick and I left the Galápagos with slightly differing opinions of our experience. As a biologist by education and training, I had dreamed of visiting the Galápagos my entire adult life. For me, the experience of seeing the unique wildlife was worth the hassle and inconvenience; although knowing what I now know about the islands, I would certainly do things differently given the chance to go back. Patrick (who loves observing wildlife but doesn’t share the same interest in biology as me) says he honestly can’t recommend the Galápagos to other cruisers as a destination. He feels it is a fine stop if you are heading west from the Panama canal anyway, but to go out of your way (as we did) to sail there, is an experience he would not recommend.

If you have the money, in many ways, it is probably a lot easier to visit the Galápagos by air. Some of our best experiences in the Galápagos were on the guided tours; and overall, a visitor’s experience of the islands would probably feel much differently than ours did if the entire thing was mediated by agents and guides. (However, as some of the examples above indicate, that is not always the case.)  

If you decide to sail to the islands, it is probably cheaper to get the autografo than to keep your boat in your port of arrival and take tour boats to visit the other islands. However, if you have the means, it might be less hassle and more fun to experience the islands the other way. If you do obtain an autografo, keep an eye on the expiration date of your permit, apply well in advance if you need an extension, and check up on the status of your application frequently until you have the extension in hand.

Finally, both Patrick and I agree that were we to do the trip over (with an autografo), we would change our itinerary. We would check in at San Cristóbal, then visit Isla Isabela (with an ample supply of cash brought from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno), and finally check out of Puerto Ayora. This itinerary would require more sailing because you would have to backtrack to Santa Cruz from Isabela, then pass Isabela again on your way to the Marquesas. However, Santa Cruz is ultimately the easier and more logical location to re-provision and check out from. 

Links to Blog Posts Made While in the  Galápagos:

Galápagos Sea Lions of San Cristobal
http://www.svsilhouette.com/2012/05/galapagos-sea-lions-of-san-cristobal.html

Touring San Cristobal
 http://www.svsilhouette.com/2012/05/touring-san-cristobal.html

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island
http://www.svsilhouette.com/2012/05/puerto-ayora-santa-cruz-island.html

Visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station
http://www.svsilhouette.com/2012/05/visit-to-charles-darwin-research.html

Tour of Seymour Island
http://www.svsilhouette.com/2012/05/tour-of-seymour-island.html

Isla Isabela:  Another Rolly Anchorage, A Former Penal Colony, and an Epic Adventure 
http://www.svsilhouette.com/2012/05/isla-isabela-another-rolly-anchorage.html

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write down the specific details. Reviewing this trip in writing must have been nearly as painful as the experience. I know we have viewed a trip there much as you described as a life long dream, it is a disappointment to see how hard you tried to arrange a smooth visit and it was unsuccessful.

    Clearly it appears that if anyone's sailing itinerary is disturbed by mechanical or whims of the oceans their visit may well be much as you described.

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  2. Many many thanks for this useful info. We shall be going thru to Galapagos in Feb 2013 and your info is invaluable. Thank you for sharing it with the sailing community. Robin and Suzie True Blue 1

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  3. Thanks for the post guys, we'll also be passing through from Panama in Feb 2013 and at least we won't be surprised by the hassle.

    Aaron & Nicole
    www.svbellastar.com

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  4. We really appreciate this posting. We will be going to the Galapagos this winter, 2013, and are currently determining what agent to use. We are experiencing the Galapagos runaround as we try to determine costs.

    Susan
    s/v Erie Spirit

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    Replies
    1. We had the same problem attempting to get accurate cost estimates before we arrived. You get different information from everyone you ask. Overall, the various miscellaneous port fees don't add up to much, but you will have to pay the $100 per person National Park entrance fee and an agent fee. The agent fee is less if you don't get the autografo. (Our agent quoted us $600 with autografo and $120 without.)

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