Friday, January 15, 2021

Ecuador 2019 part 4: Galápagos

*written Jan/Feb 2020*

Ever since I read about the unique biology and evolutionary history of the islands as a little kid, las Islas Galápagos, or the Galapagos Islands, have been high on my bucket list of places to visit. Despite the high expenses of cruises to the islands, I started researching the birds there a few years ago, figuring out which islands had which endemics, and therefore which islands were key to visit. More recently, I read up on some travellers doing the islands 'on a budget' using land-based tours, and thought it might actually be feasible to see most of the specialties without going on a crazy-expensive cruise. All this coalesced when Siobhan suggested that we go there, as it was also near the top of her list of most-wanted places to visit. We ended up planning for 10 days in the archipelago, with time spent on each island in proportion to how many specialty birds it had and what day trips were available to look for more. Our plan was one night on Santa Cruz, then three nights on each of Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, taking the inter-island ferries and staying in hostels. In hindsight I would have spent an extra day on Isabela at the expense of a day on Santa Cruz (or bit the bullet and paid for a trip to Floreana), as we didn't go on any day trips from the latter and it was pretty touristy. An adding-up of costs put us at about $1200 USD each (see cost breakdown at the end), including airfare from the mainland into Baltra and out of San Cristobal. Most cruises of this duration cost $3000-10,000 USD per person and may or may not include airfare! Costs for individual items are included in the report below. We ended up seeing 31 of the 32 possible specialties on our itinerary (of 41 total Galápagos specialties, including endemic subspecies and breeding endemics), in addition to two species which have potential to be split in the near future. Our only miss was the endemic Barn Owl subspecies, as I neglected to re-check exact locations for it, realizing later that we had been at a good site without knowing it - d'oh!

Pro tip: bring lots of sunscreen from your home country. Sunscreen in Ecuador is ridiculously expensive; the cheapest bottle we could find was $23, and the good stuff was $40-50 for a regular-sized bottle. Unfortunately our carry-on limitations meant we needed to re-stock and ended up buying two bottles of this liquid gold - the sun in Galápagos is intense and I got burned even with regular applications of the stuff (and I rarely burn back home, even without sunscreen). The weather in November is typically cloudy, with a bit of mist/rain, but we lucked out and had mostly sunny skies with only a few cloudy days and almost no rain.

Nov 16

We had a somewhat leisurely morning, enjoying a nice breakfast on the second floor patio at our hostel ( before catching an Uber (arranged by the friendly university student working the front desk) to the airport ($5). At the airport, we first had to wait in line to get our Tourist Transit Card ($20), the government's way of tracking who is coming and going from the strictly-controlled Galápagos. We had filled out the online form (search TTC or TCT form galapagos to find it) while still in Canada, so all we had to do was present our passports and flight info at the counter. Next up was biosecurity, where they scanned all of our belongings to make sure there was no foreign organic matter coming in. Then, once we'd passed these two steps we could check in for our flight and go through airport security. Despite the lineup, this whole process only took about 40 minutes and we had plenty of time before our 10:40 TAME flight to Baltra. As we passed over the first few islands, we could see the occasional outline of coast; most of the islands were obscured by clouds. Somehow, when we checked in, we got bumped to the first-class section (seats 2A and 2B!), and so we were the first people off the plane and through the tourist control area. Here we paid our $100 each park fee and got our passports stamped with the Islas Galápagos stamp. While waiting for our luggage, we looked back to see the huge lineup at the tourist control area - glad we got bumped up! Once the luggage arrived, it was all checked over by a police dog, and then we were allowed to go on our way. While waiting to get on the bus, we added our first specialties - Galapagos Dove (flybys - not the great looks some other people have here!) and both Small and Medium ground-finches, along with our only wild Land Iguana that we saw on the islands ( The bus prices have gone up recently; online I read reports that said it was free or $1... now it is $5 from the airport to the ferry, $1 for the ferry, and $5 from the ferry to Puerto Ayora. At the ferry dock I got my lifer Brown Noddies with a pair sitting only 1m from where everyone was walking - unfortunately we were rushing to catch the next bus or it would have made a fantastic photo-op! Blue-footed Boobies cruised the channel while a Lava (Striated) Heron sat on the shore ( Now this is how I pictured Galápagos! Once we got to Puerto Ayora, we walked from the bus stop to our hostel to check in and drop off our bags (Hostel El Pinzón, ~$30 for a private room - a nice, quiet spot on the edge of town but within walking distance to restaurants and the Charles Darwin centre). With that taken care of, we messaged our friend Rebecca, who had arrived the day before and would be joining us for most of our time in the Galápagos, to arrange a meeting time/place. Walking downtown to book our return ferry tickets to Isabela for the following day ($25 each way if you go to the docks instead of the tour companies, where they are $30), we checked out the waterfront, where sea lions and marine iguanas lounged on the sidewalks and Sally Lightfoot crabs were everywhere on the lava rocks. We also found a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nest (which had an egg the next day, and we checked on every day we were here), and saw a Lava Gull and a few Galapagos Shearwaters out in the harbour. Across from the grocery store, a little group of finches contained our first Common Cactus-Finch ( The birds were even easier to find than I'd expected!

Ruddy Turnstone

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Common  Cactus-Finch

With our errands complete, we walked over to the Charles Darwin Centre (free entry), meeting up with Rebecca at a cafe along the way. Here, we explored the interpretive trails around the tortoise breeding centre and the two small beaches for the rest of the afternoon, getting great looks at four finch species, Galapagos Mockingbirds, Galapagos Flycatchers, more Lava Gulls and the endemic Yellow Warbler subspecies, while our first Elliot's Storm-Petrels zipped about out in the bay ( Marine Iguanas were everywhere on the paths, and it was neat to see the different giant tortoises and a Land Iguana up close at the breeding centre. After our explorations, we grabbed dinner at a cheap place one street up from the main drag then went back to our hostel to relax.
Rebecca and Siobhan with the Santa Cruz sign

The beach near the Charles Darwin centre

Marine Iguanas were everywhere!

Galapagos Mockingbird

Running trip total: 547
Galápagos: 21

Nov 17

We awoke to pretty heavy rain, and so took it easy and had breakfast while we waited for it to pass. Once it stopped, we ditched our bags at the front desk of the hostel and spent the morning wandering the Puerto Ayora waterfront, checking out the various shops so Siobhan could scope out some souveniers and gifts, and seeing what else the town had to offer ( Afterward we made our way back to the Charles Darwin centre to try for more/better photos of the birds and other wildlife we'd seen the day before and have a swim at the beach. Large Tree-Finch was a lifer while Great Blue Heron was a trip tick.
Striated (Lava) Heron

Marine Iguana

Ecuadorian Hermit Crab

All in all it was quite a relaxing morning, not something I typically get to do on trips! On our way back into town to pick up our bags and get lunch, we saw a fledgling Small Ground-Finch on the sidewalk; mom was nearby trying to entice it towards a shrubby yard. The only problem was that the yard was across the main street! Once it hopped into the road, I ended up stopping traffic and shooing it across to where the mom was intent on bringing it. One of the park workers came up to me after seeing what was happening and insisted he should take it away to be housed at the breeding centre until it could fly! I argued with him until another park staff came up and agreed with me that it was best to leave the fledgling in the shrubs with its mom. (Note to readers: don't kidnap baby animals! If the parents are nearby, they are waiting for you to leave so they can tend to their young).
Fledgling Small Ground-Finch on the sidewalk
Galapagos Sea Lions snuggling on a park bench

Galapagos Mockingbird looking for a ride

With my first Galapagos finch on the 'touched' list, we went to have lunch and catch our 14:00 ferry to Isabela. The inter-island ferries are modified speedboats (with 600-800 hp worth of engines on the back), and due to spray they are mostly covered. We lucked out and managed to get seats at the back of the boat on every trip - meaning an open view of the ocean behind the boat, less boat movement (the seas are choppy in November!) and a bit of a breeze; maximizing birding opportunities while minimizing the likelihood of losing our lunch. Although the views to either side of the boat were a bit limited, and there was no possibility of looking forward, we managed to see quite a few birds on each crossing; a dedicated pelagic in these islands would be pretty incredible. Coming out of the harbour, a Red-billed Tropicbird flying high was new for me, and on the crossing we got decent looks at the three common Storm-Petrel species, both Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Noddies, hundreds of phalaropes, and an estimated 1000 Galapagos Shearwaters with some coming close to the boat ( The big highlight though was when an adult Waved Albatross came in and cruised alongside us for several minutes; even the other tourists on the boat were impressed!
Waved Albatross!
As we got to the ferry landing on Isabela, two shorebirds on the rocks caught my eye - a Wandering Tattler and a Surfbird, the latter quite uncommon in Galápagos ( After paying our tourist fee ($10), we met up with Alex (one of the hostel workers), who had organized a truck to bring us and a few other guests back to the hostel (free). Although the town isn't a long walk from the ferry dock, it seemed to be common practice here to drive hotel guests to and from the dock. A short ride later, we pulled up to Hotel San Vicente, and Alex said we would be getting out. A bit confused (we had booked at Hostal Villamil, $150 for a triple room for three nights), he explained they were giving us an upgrade, putting us in an equivalent room at this hotel, as the same guy owned both places. We figured they were short-staffed and it would be easier to have all the guests at one hotel, and this place looked quite a bit nicer than where we'd booked, so we didn't argue. They also threw in the $5 per person buffet breakfast for free! We later discovered this was the deal of the trip for us; Hostal Villamil was $250 for our selected dates on every website except Airbnb, where we booked it for $150. They honoured that price, and the room we were upgraded to was selling for $600 for three nights on several websites!!! Needless to say, the owner Antonio and his employee Alex were extremely nice people and I would definitely recommend staying there if you can afford it. We ended up in a triple room on the second floor, with a big wraparound balcony. After dropping our stuff off, we took advantage of the last half-hour or so of light and walked to a salt lagoon nearby, adding American Flamingo to the trip and a few shorebirds to our Galápagos lists ( A short stop on the beach to watch the sun set followed (, and then we got dinner at one of the merienda restaurants ($7) near the park on Antonio Gil, where an Eastern Wood-Pewee (heard) was a huge surprise - a species apparently unrecorded in Galápagos. We tried each of the three restaurants in this row during our three nights - all were quite good. Just before dinner, we stopped in at the tour agency across the street a few minutes before it closed, and booked a day trip up to Volcan Sierra Negra for the next morning ($30 each).
Our first sunset on Isabela
Running trip total: 559
Galápagos: 42

Nov 18

We had organized the night before to have a slightly early breakfast, in order to make our pickup time of 07:00. The buffet was amazing, and I packed in several plates' worth of food and a few glasses of juice/coffee each morning; enough that I didn't really need to eat lunch (just snacks) during our time on Isabela. Right on time, our tour van pulled up and we met our guide for the day, Simon Cook, a Brit who had married a Galapagueña before the new laws came into effect and was now a resident of the island. After picking up the rest of the people on our tour, it was about a 25-minute drive to the trailhead at Sierra Negra. The next six hours were spent hiking and looking at the views; it's a ~16 km round-trip hike, although most of it is on wide, fairly flat trails and it is not particularly difficult. Along the way, Simon was pretty good about pointing out the endemic, native and introduced plants along with some of the wildlife and providing information on the natural and volcanic history of the area. Thick fog enshrouded us on the walk up to the rim, but later in the morning it cleared revealing the massive caldera and lava flows.
Foggy forest on the hike up Sierra Negra

The caldera once the fog cleared

Past the summit, we hiked down into the lunar landscape of Volcan Chico; several recent lava flows there have wiped out most of the plant life. At the end of the trail, we were treated to a stunning vista to the north and east, where we could see most of Isabela and Fernandina, and could just make out the edge of Santa Cruz. Of course, one of our main reasons for doing this hike was the birds ( This is one of the best spots to see Galapagos Martin and the soon-to-be-split endemic subspecies of Vermilion Flycatcher, and we had luck with both on the hike. No fewer than eight species of finches provided great views and comparisons of beak shape and size along the trail as well; most of them in a large mixed flock about 1/3 of the way up the trail, and most of the rest hanging around the picnic area at the top. A quick flyby of a Dark-billed Cuckoo was a new trip bird; the list was rounded out by some curious Galapagos Mockingbirds and a few more widespread species. We also managed to see a Western Galapagos Racer (Pseudalsophis occidentalis) sunning on the trail! Lunch was at the picnic area up top - it was included in the price but was a bit on the slim side; luckily the buffet breakfast held up well.
Hiking Volcan Chico

Siobhan with one of the lava flows

Galapagos Lava Lizard enjoying the view over Isabela

Candelabra Cactus in the volcanic wasteland

Vermilion Flycatcher
After the hike, we got dropped off at our hotel, changed, and went to Concha de Perla to spend the afternoon snorkelling ( We found a dive outfitter along the way, where a snorkel rental cost $5 for the day. Since it was mid-afternoon at this point, they let us bring them back the next day for no extra charge (honestly, the people on Isabela are some of the nicest I've met, and it was definitely our favourite island for the scenery, people, and laid-back, quiet atmosphere). Concha de Perla ended up being one of our favourite spots on the islands; a little cove that offered something different every time we went, and where the local sea lions guarded our belongings while we swam. Over our three visits here we swam with sea lions, sea turtles, black-tipped reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, stingrays, many types of fishes and a few marine iguanas. On this visit, we also swam with a Galapagos Penguin, although neither Rebecca nor I really saw it! Siobhan yelled that something bigger had popped up in front of me when I came up for a breath; unfortunately my mask was filled with water and I was busy fixing that, so all I saw was a dark blob as it dove. Rebecca had her head down looking at some fish in the other direction, but the photo Siobhan took clearly shows a penguin within a few metres of (and in between) the two of us! Argh! The other unfortunate incident was that our waterproof camera was not properly sealed when I jumped in the water, and it insta-fried, leaving us with only Rebecca's GoPro to take fish photos for the rest of our trip...bummer. Despite these two mishaps, we thoroughly enjoyed our time, and kept swimming until we all felt a bit chilled (the water was warm by Canadian standards, but still not exactly bathtub-temperatures like in the Caribbean; usually 17-20C). After a bit of a rest back at the hostel, we returned to the merienda strip for dinner before calling it a night.
No photo description available.
Rebecca, myself, and a Galapagos Penguin

Isabela traffic jam on the way to Concha de Perla

Running trip total: 566
Galápagos: 50

Nov 19

This was a lazy day of exploring for us. We began with another fantastic buffet breakfast, then meandered back to Concha de Perla for another snorkel session, where the sea lions were in the water and very curious as to what the GoPro was ( After drying off, we headed to the west side of town, where a trail leads up to the tortoise breeding centre (each of the main islands has one, to aid in the recovery of these species). A quick stop at the salt lagoon along the way ( had similar species as our previous visit. Walking the trail, it first went through a series of small salt lagoons, then into some shrubby forest before emerging at the tortoise centre, providing a nice variety of habitats and species ( Killdeer (a rare visitor here apparently) and Spotted Sandpiper were new for our Galapagos list, and we had a good time sorting through the various finches while some tame Galapagos Flycatchers foraged around us and a few flamingos provided great looks. The giant tortoises were also interesting, with various ages and populations represented, and an interpretive centre provided more information on their life history. After getting our fill of large testudines, we spent some time walking the beach, hoping to spot a Galapagos Penguin on the rocks ( No luck there, but we did find a rare Hudsonian Godwit and a Semipalmated Plover with colour bands (which turned out to have been banded near Cordova, Alaska earlier in the year!), along with a multitude of Marine Iguanas of various ages.
Semipalmated Plover - bands from Alaska!

Hudsonian Godwit, a rarity in Ecuador

The beachfront on Isabela
After a quick snack break and a bit of a rest, we went back to Concha de Perla for more snorkelling, as we figured we may as well get the most out of our snorkel rentals. This time we had Spotted Eagle Rays and Black-tipped Reef Sharks doing laps of the cove, but no penguins ( When the chill of the water finally got to us, we dropped off our snorkels, dried off, and hit the third merienda restaurant for dinner.

Note: quite a few of the other people we talked to recommended the Los Tuneles day tour here, which runs about $110 per person. It sounded pretty great; snorkelling with sharks, rays, seahorses and penguins among the lava tubes plus a visit to a small Blue-footed Booby colony. We decided to save our $$ for a different tour (more later) though, and managed to see most of these species at Concha de Perla (free). If you have the money though, it would probably be worth it!

Running trip total: 567
Galápagos: 54

Nov 20

An early morning wakeup, and we had to organize our own breakfast (we had bought some pastries and yogurt the night before) as we were off at 05:15 to catch the 06:00 ferry. Once again, we managed to get seats at the back, and were treated to quite the show on the crossing ( A Galapagos Petrel arced high not long after we left the harbour, and then a few massive feeding frenzies contained hundreds of frigatebirds, boobies and shearwaters along with several Waved Albatrosses (we ended up with 12 on the crossing). Once again, the three storm-petrel species were seen, in better numbers than before, and a couple of Red-billed Tropicbirds were also nice. On arrival in Puerto Ayora, we went to check in at our hostel for the next few days (Galapagos Best Hostel, $121 for a triple room for three nights; a nice hostel with included breakfast and an in-room kitchen but quite far from the downtown). Most of the rest of our day was spent out at Playa Tortuga Bay (, a huge white-sand beach that is quite a walk from the hostel in the hot sun (but free to access). We picked up some snorkel rentals ($4) on the way; they turned out to be not as good as the ones on Isabela though, and my breathing tube kept leaking water... The water here was a bit murky as well, but we had up-close views of a cluster of young (~1.5 m) White-tipped Reef Sharks, and snorkelled in a sandy-bottomed tide pool with marine iguanas and a lot of fish. Some Lava Gulls provided great photo-ops on the beach, and the trail in and out held plenty of finches, mockingbirds and flycatchers. At the trail entrance, a Galapagos Dove made a few passes, and I actually heard it calling at one point; this usually-silent species still has no recordings on eBird or xeno-canto. Back in town we picked up ice cream cones and some groceries, then went back to our hostel to make dinner and relax.
Playa Tortuga Bay

Lava Gull

Whimbrel with some Marine Iguanas!

Running trip total: 569
Galápagos: 56

Nov 21

After making breakfast and some hearty sandwiches to take with us, we caught a cab up to the Media Luna trailhead ($15). The trail started out going through some pastureland (with nice views back over the town) before getting up into the Miconia forest, the habitat of our main target here. Loads of finches distracted us along the way, and we even got to watch a Woodpecker Finch using a small twig as a tool (super cool).
Miconia forest overlooking Santa Cruz

Green Warbler-Finch

Vegetarian Finch

Once in the good habitat, it didn't take us very long (about 15-20 minutes) to turn up our quarry - a Galapagos Rail! We ended up hearing two, and one of them came in extremely close to us (at times too close to focus, so less than 1.5 m), seemingly unconcerned with our presence as it walked through the ferny undergrowth beside the path, at one point running across the trail within a few metres of us (
Galapagos Rail

Galapagos Flycatcher
Satisfied with our looks, we were off toward our next stop. Walking down the road toward Bellavista, we stopped when I saw a Dark-billed Cuckoo fly across the road (this was the third one I had seen, but Rebecca hadn't managed to get on the other two, so this was a lifer for her - While watching the cuckoo, I noticed an owl shape in a banana tree down the road. Lifting the bins, it turned out to be a Short-eared Owl! This saved us some time as we wouldn't have to go to Los Gemelos (some sinkholes along the main road to the airport) to look for them.
Short-eared Owl (Galapagos subspecies)

In Bellavista, we waited for a bit and caught the bus out to Santa Rosa ($1 each), then walked the ~3 km to Rancho Las Primicias ($6 entry fee). This is one of the tortoise reserves where they roam freely; not quite wild but not really confined, either. The ranch also has a long lava tube on it; the one at nearby El Chato is apparently a lot smaller and the birds and tortoises are the same at both places. This was also the spot where we missed an easy tick; had I bothered to double-check the map for Barn Owl I would have seen that they roost near the lava tube entrance and exit. Unfortunately, we likely walked right past them, completely oblivious to their presence as we didn't even think to look there (I had seen photos of the birds in buildings on a private ranch).
Heading down into the lava tubes, oblivious to the prospect of Barn Owls

Our other target here was Paint-billed Crake; after hearing a few I finally had looks at one on our walk out later in the afternoon ( Swarms of finches were also present on the ranch, as we sweltered in the afternoon sun and checked out the tortoise shells that you can climb into.
Pretending to be a Giant Tortoise

Not relishing the thought of an uphill walk in the heat (and we were almost out of water), we asked around at the waiting taxis to see if any might be willing to run us up to Santa Rosa while they waited for their fares to walk around the ranch. One guy said yes, but it would be $15! We thought that was a bit ridiculous for the short drive, so we sucked it up and set off on foot, catching the bus ($1) back to Puerto Ayora after a bit of a wait. Once in town, we walked down to the waterfront to try our luck at the fish market (it had been closed the day before), buying a big slab of Yellowfin Tuna for $9. Fried up and served with a mixture of rice, lentils, avocado and some chimichurri this ended up being our dinner for two nights, and was quite delicious. We also stopped in at a few of the tour agencies to inquire about day trips to Floreana, hoping we might have a shot at the endemic Floreana Mockingbird and Medium Tree-Finch. One guy offered us a deal of $100 for a trip there (the prices are usually ~$130), but we couldn't find a tour that went to Isla Campion (mockingbird spot), although a few visited Asilo de la Paz (the best finch spot). We also asked about tours to Española from San Cristobal, as a few agencies advertised this service, eventually finding one that said there was availability on the 24th. We had previously tried booking online through two different agencies without success, so we decided to go for it. Since the Española tour was $220 and had more potential new birds/wildlife, we decided that would be our 'splurge' of our time in the islands, and abandoned the plan to go to Floreana the following day.

Running trip total: 572
Galápagos: 59

Nov 22

I awoke to some WhatsApp messages from the booking agency, saying they had tried to book our spots on the trip to Española but the tour company they were booking with (which had originally told him there were spaces) was now saying they were full! After a bit of confusion it turned out there were spaces available on the 25th (they had mixed up the dates), so we asked him to book those and said we'd be at the office in a bit to discuss. At the office, he assured us that everything was settled now and we had tickets for the 25th, but after several "yes we have space", "kidding we don't have space" experiences with the companies we were a bit hesitant to believe him. Anyway, with that (probably) sorted out, we caught the $0.80 water taxi over to the Camino a Las Grietas, where we spent the morning swimming in the scenic water-filled slot canyons and had lunch at the small beach (Playa los Alemanes
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Las Grietas

The rest of the afternoon was spent shopping, meandering around town and relaxing at the hostel; I bought a nice Galapagos t-shirt as a souvenir while Siobhan bought some gifts for her family, and we booked our ferry tickets to San Cristobal for the following morning ($25 each).

Running trip total: 572
Galápagos: 59

Nov 23

Up early, we said a temporary good-bye to Rebecca, who would be staying on Santa Cruz for a few more days to do a dive at Gordon Rocks, and caught a cab to the ferry dock for our 07:00 departure. Once again, we managed to snag seats at the back of the boat, and had another bumpy but active mini-pelagic as a result (, highlighted by 13 Waved Albatrosses and ~50 Galapagos Petrels! We were greeted at the dock in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno by a young Blue-footed Booby sitting on the pier, and our first San Cristobal Mockingbird flew by about 30 seconds after we landed ( We found a nice crepe restaurant a few blocks away that had wifi, and tried to get in touch with our tour company with no success. After picking a random street to walk up, we found the tour company, but the guy working turned us away when we said we were going to Española, as the trip wasn't until Monday (today was Saturday), saying to 'come back tomorrow'. At least we knew where the agency was now! With that, we walked up to our Airbnb that we had reserved (hosted by Niu; shows up on the map as Hostel Liss, $120 for a triple room for three nights). Originally, Rebecca had planned on being there the full three nights with us, but the dive she was hoping to go on was only running on the 24th, so she had to stay on Santa Cruz an extra two nights. The place was a bit of a walk from the main town, but was quiet and comfortable, with a small kitchen available (we made full use of it, and only ate two meals at restaurants on the island) and a hammock and couch set up for relaxing right outside our room. Walking back through town, we made our way to Playa Mann, where we'd read there was a good restaurant on the beach. With $5 almuerzos on offer (substantial ones at that), we couldn't refuse and had a great-tasting meal on the beach. About half an hour later we regretted this decision, as Siobhan was sick for the rest of the day, and I fell victim to this meal for the next several days until I took some antibiotics (and no, I didn't eat the salad). This was the only place we got sick in all of Ecuador, and although it was nowhere near as horrible as other instances of food-related illness I've had, it still wasn't exactly pleasant. Maybe think twice about those $5 beach almuerzos if you visit.
Galapagos Sea Lion taking a seat at the bar - maybe it had also indulged in the $5 almuerzos

Despite the stomach problems, we spent the afternoon on the trails at Cerro Tijeretas and Punta Carola, taking in the incredible views, having a swim in Bahia Tijeretas and doing a bit of seawatching ( At the overlook at the end of the trail, six pairs of Swallow-tailed Gulls were busy building nests in cliff crevices, flying back and forth from good pebble-gathering spots to their nest sites. This was top of my list of most-wanted birds for Galapagos, so I was extremely pleased with the close views of these birds in full breeding attire! I was also surprised at how large they were, like Herring Gull-sized Sabine's. Another major highlight was watching massive numbers of Galapagos Petrels just offshore, arcing above the waves. I estimated at least 100 off the Tijeretas overlook, and another 250+ off Punta Carola - and that was just what I could see with binoculars! It felt pretty incredible to watch these graceful birds from shore without a scope - my previous seawatching experience with Pterodroma petrels was limited to two distant, unidentifiable-to-species-at-60x specks on the Nova Scotian islands. We also had good looks at San Cristobal Mockingbird, which seemed to be a little more furtive (at least for us) than its cousins on the other islands.
Bahia Tijeretas

Galapagos Petrel (from shore with a 300mm lens!)

Full-framer of a Swallow-tailed Gull

Marine Iguana

San Cristobal Mockingbird - the only one we saw that was cooperative

Walking back through town, we watched the sun set over the harbour before getting groceries. This proved to be quite the task, as each shop seemed to only have a few of the things we wanted, and we ended up visiting five or six different shops before we had everything!

Running trip total: 574
Galápagos: 62

Nov 24

A bit of a lazy morning, we slept in as we were both still not feeling well from lunch the day before. After a more extravagant than normal breakfast, we eventually mustered up the energy to leave and wandered along the waterfront for a while ( Here we added Greater Yellowlegs to our Galapagos list, and took our time photographing Sally Lightfoot crabs, Blue-footed Boobies and a Wandering Tattler before making our way back to Punta Carola ( Seawatching here proved fruitful, as some of the Galapagos Petrels from the evening before were still milling about. A few came into the harbour at times, and two flew inland and then came right over the beach on their way out into the harbour. One of them even decided to chase a Whimbrel that had the bad luck of choosing that moment to relocate to another rock - quite an odd combination of birds to have in the binoculars! It was quite entertaining to watch their antics. A couple of distant Waved Albatrosses and the resident San Cristobal Mockingbirds were the other highlights here, but it was nice to just sit and enjoy the local avifauna.
The Galapagos classics - Blue-footed Booby and Marine Iguana

Galapagos Petrel over the beach

Siobhan with a booby (and her booby hat)
Up at Cerro Tijeretas, we spent some time watching from the lookouts, finally getting good looks at Great Frigatebird as some were roosting and flying around the highest lookout ( Our original plan for the day had been to try to get up into the highlands in the centre of the island to look for Gray Warbler-Finch, but neither of us really had the energy due to our sickness and the highlands were fogged in and rainy anyway, so we took it easy.
Magnificent Frigatebird

Back in town, we went to our tour agency office as instructed (we had to get fitted for snorkelling equipment), where we found it to be closed. No problem, we thought - most places in Galapagos seem to close in the afternoon, when most tourists are out on day trips, reopening around 16:00. We walked back down to where we had seen the tattler in the morning, and spent more time photographing anything we could find. Offshore, a big movement of Galapagos Petrels and Shearwaters was under way heading toward a large feeding frenzy off Punta Carola - too bad we weren't over there still (!
Sally Lightfoot Crab

Wandering Tattler
Figuring we'd waited long enough, we went back to the tour agency only to find it still closed. We asked at a nearby shop, who said that agency is usually closed on Sundays. What?!?! Hopeful that we were still a go for the morning, we inquired about a GoPro rental at a nearby place and reserved one for the following day ($20). When the ice cream shop finally opened (we had also been checking it), we got some cones and a few more groceries then went back to the hostel to relax and make dinner. While sitting in the hammock, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron came striding by, and caught some bugs under the street light in front of the hostel. Around 19:30, a truck pulled up and a guy leaned out the window and asked "Are you David?". Turned out it was a guy from the tour agency, coming to get our sizing info for the next day as there had been some confusion in the instructions we were given on where/when to meet. Guess we were good to go!

Running trip total: 574
Galápagos: 63

Nov 25

We were up early to get ready for our day trip to Española; neither of us were feeling great (still from those lunches) so we took some preventative measures, popping Pepto and Gravol. Picking up our reserved GoPro was straightforward, and we met at the dock on time for our 07:30 departure (which ended up leaving at 07:50). The ride over was very choppy, with one guy on our boat getting sick and a few other people looking a bit queasy ( With trade winds (and therefore swell) from the southeast, we were heading straight into the waves until we got into the lee of the island. The ride was pretty interesting though, with decent looks at some storm-petrels, Waved Albatross and Galapagos Petrels, and a Bryde's Whale that breached three times, the first right beside the boat!
Bryde's Whale breaching
Despite our late departure, we got to the island ahead of schedule and ended up with an extra 15 minutes on land (beyond our scheduled two hours) at Punta Suarez ( Here, we did a loop of the well-worn trail through the Nazca Booby, Swallow-tailed Gull and Waved Albatross colony, where a few Blue-footed Boobies were mixed in and some Red-billed Tropicbirds were nesting in the cliffs.
Nazca Booby on the guano-covered rocks at the colony

Nazca Boobies having a disagreement

Swallow-tailed Gull

Nazca Booby
Española Mockingbirds and Española Ground-Finches were everywhere along the trail, and we managed to see a few Gray Warbler-Finches as well, making up for our lack of energy the day before. At one point, a Galapagos Hawk hopped up on a somewhat distant rock wall, but by the time the group got close enough for decent looks it had hopped down behind the wall and didn't reappear until we were well past it. A Galapagos Flycatcher landed on my shoulder at one point. The wildlife here was much tamer than on the main islands, likely due to a relative lack of disturbance (visits here are strictly controlled and have a limited number of participants); the marine iguanas (red and turquoise variety) wouldn't even move when you walked past! One of the sea lion pups came up and sniffed me while I was taking full-frame photos of the mockingbirds with my phone, the birds occasionally bumping into my hand as they jockeyed for position around a sea lion placenta. What a place.
Española Marine Iguana

Española Mockingbird (taken with cell phone)
The seabird colony wasn't as active as it could have been, as the boobies were still in the nest-building phase and the albatrosses were pretty much done for the year; only a few scraggly-looking youngsters remained unfledged. It was still neat to see the adults up close though. At the end of the trail was a nice lookout where the tropicbirds were nesting, and the waves created a blowhole in the rocks.
The blowhole at the end of the trail

Waved Albatross

Española Mockingbird

Red-billed Tropicbird
On our walk back to the boat, a few Galapagos Doves provided great looks (finally!) and we got some better looks at the Galapagos Hawk, once again hunkered down behind the rock wall. Overall, the tour felt a bit rushed as there was a lot to see in a short time and the guide was trying to point out something for everyone, meaning we stopped about every 25 m along the path. We were glad that we'd done most of our time in the islands at our own pace and without a group!
Galapagos Dove

Back on the boat, we had a fantastic lunch (included), with more than enough food for everyone, then motored over to Gardner Bay. Here we got in the water and snorkelled for about 45 minutes; there were some interesting fish, a few sharks and some cool seastars, but only two quick passes by sea lions (this is one of the better places to swim with them usually). The boat ride back to San Cristobal was a bit less bumpy than the morning's ride, so I tried my luck and sat up on the top of the boat, hoping for better photos of a few species ( The birds were pretty much the same as the morning's trip, with better looks at the storm-petrels and more phalaropes. Since we wanted to make the most of our GoPro rental, we made a beeline for Bahia Tijeretas after getting off the boat, and spent the evening swimming there and at Punta Carola beach ( Dropping off the GoPro, we picked up a few of the San Cristobal-brewed Endémica beers (I recommend the coffee stout) and headed back to the hostel where we met up with Rebecca, to swap tales of baby albatrosses and hammerhead sharks.

Running trip total: 578
Galápagos: 68

Nov 26

After a bit of a sleep-in (we were still feeling sick) and breakfast, we went back to Cerro Tijeretas, where the girls went for a swim while I did a seawatch, hoping for my last possible lifer on the island (Red-footed Booby - No luck there but I enjoyed watching the Swallow-tailed Gulls and Galapagos Petrels again (can't get enough of those Pterodroma petrels).

Swallow-tailed Gull
Back at the hostel, we packed up and made the ~5 minute walk to the airport, where a bit of a disaster was unfolding in the line. A couple of huge groups of people, travelling together, had managed to scatter themselves throughout the lineup, and needed to fill out a bunch of paperwork for some reason. Of course, the few people in front of us were part of that group and soon it seemed that the entire line was in front of us, filling in paperwork! The poor people at the counter looked quite overwhelmed with all this. Eventually they cleared out, and we breezed through (no paperwork required), into the secured area. While waiting, our plane didn't show up, and neither did the others scheduled for that day... They announced several delays, eventually giving out water and snacks to everyone waiting. Our 12:30 flight ended up departing at 15:00. It would have been nice to know that ahead of time; we would have stayed longer at Bahia Tijeretas!

Running trip total: 578
Galápagos: 68

Overall, our time in the Galápagos was quite relaxing, and very different from a typical birding trip. The birding was fairly easy and laid-back, as the wildlife is more or less unafraid of people. Yes, it's still expensive as far as budget-minded trips go, but well worth it for a chance to see this unique ecosystem. Cutting out Española and the extra day required would have brought the cost down about $250, but we would have missed the three additional species plus the uniqueness of the island (it's the oldest in the archipelago). If you're really on a tight budget but still want to get a taste of the islands, I would recommend a few nights on each of Santa Cruz and Isabela - they are the most diverse islands, and a short trip could be done for ~$700-800 (assuming you're already in Ecuador).

Cost breakdown (USD) per person
Airfare (Guayaquil to Baltra and San Cristobal to Guayaquil): $352

National Park fee: $100
Tourist card: $20
Isabela tourist fee: $10

Española day trip: $220
Sierra Negra day trip: $30
Inter-island ferries: $75 ($25 each trip)

Hostels: $30/2, $150/3, $121/3, $120/3 = ~145 each (158.66 total because of splitting the San Cristobal room two ways for the first two nights instead of three though)
Food: ~$15/day = ~$150; we usually had groceries for breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner so this estimate is likely a bit high. Panaderias (bakeries) were by far the cheapest food option, and a good breakfast could be had for ~$0.50. Almuerzos (set lunches) and meriendas (set dinners) were usually $4-7. Alcohol was relatively expensive; we didn't drink much as a result (add another ~$15-20 each for alcohol). Ice cream and other treats were a near-daily occurrence; there's a good soft ice cream place in Puerto Ayora with $1 cones!
Water: $0 - bottled water is expensive in the islands and the tap water is undrinkable everywhere; we managed to find hostels with purified water jugs included and filled our reusable bottles from there every day - otherwise this can be a fairly large expense!

Taxi to Media Luna: $15 split three ways = $5
Bus to/from Santa Rosa: $2 round-trip
In-town taxis: $1.50 per ride in Pto Ayora, $2 per ride in Pto Baquerizo Moreno - we usually walked so I think this totalled to $8 split between the three of us
Airport bus/ferry to Pto Ayora: $11

Sunscreen: $47 for two bottles (one spray, one cream), split two- and three ways for $19.50 each
Snorkel rentals Isabela and Santa Cruz: $9
Las Primicias entry fee: $6
Water taxi to Las Grietas: $1.60 return
Water taxis to/from inter-island ferries: $0.50-$1 per trip = $3.50
GoPro rental (one day): $20 split between two of us = $10

Total per person: ~$1195 (does not include souvenirs and tips for day trips, but food and beverage estimates were probably a little high, so round to 1200 including these things)

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