A $30 ferry ticket, a 2 hour boat ride, and 1 seasickness pill later, and we had arrived at the port of Isla San Cristobal in Ecuador’s Galapagos. After spending 6 days on a ship, cruising through the western loop, I was skeptical about our land-based excursion. We had already witnessed mountains of endemic Marine Iguanas, swam with some of the islands’ most exciting inhabitants (sea lions, sea turtles, and white tipped reef sharks, to name a few), and beheld the archipelago’s wonderfully strange, volcanic landscapes. I couldn’t imagine what else San Cristobal could have to offer, and was reluctant to dig deeper into my wallet to fund the 3-day extension.
Fast-forward to the end of our trip, and we’re still talking about our self-guided tour of San Cristobal, which also happened to be the cheapest leg of our 9-day Galapagos adventure! Here are the 5 activities that pushed San Cristobal to the top of our favorites list without annihilating our bank accounts.
First Things First
Whether you plan to spend 1 day or 1 week on San Cristobal, there are two things you’ll need in order to make the most of your time: sunblock and snorkeling gear.
Keep in mind that sunblock, while available on the main islands, is outlandishly expensive. To avoid the post-purchase guilt (or the no-purchase sunburn) you may want to stock up while you’re on the mainland. Remember, the Galapagos islands are situated right along the Equator, where the sun is extra sunny and the burns are a special shade of pain, so don’t make the mistake of ignoring every blog that’s warned you.
Snorkeling gear, on the other hand, can be rented from any of the local tour offices (you can find several of them on Calle Espanola, right across from the main port) for as little as $5 a day! The gear is cleaned after every use, and will include a facemask, snorkel, fins, and a cute, little mesh backpack in which to carry it all.
To reach Playa Loberia you have two options: walk for about an hour outside of town in the sweltering Pacific heat or pay $2 for a surprisingly friendly taxi driver to take you there. The choice is yours.
I recommend arriving before 11am, when the beach is virtually empty and you can have the crystalline waters all to yourself. The shallow reef is filled with colorful fish, lounging sea lions, and some of the largest sea turtles we encountered on any of the islands, so don’t forget your snorkeling toys!
Entry Fee? Nope.
Cerro Tijeretas & Darwin Bay
On the other side of town is Cerro Tijeretas, or Frigatebird Hill. The short hike through the protected area is pleasant, and if you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of the namesake birds. However, once you’ve worked up a sweat you’ll want to head down to the real gem of the area: the gorgeous Darwin Bay.
Surrounded by mammoth boulders and a high-rising cliff, the c-shaped inlet might at first look off limits. But don’t be deterred! A small, wooden dock has been carefully erected for your jumping pleasure, and if you have the courage to slide into the chilly blue waters, you’ll be blown away by the amount of sea life right below the surface. After snorkeling on several different islands, I can say with certainty that Darwin Bay had the most impeccable visibility of all! And, of course, no expensive tours or fancy guides are needed for this treat, folks.
How much? Zero.
Playa Punta Carola
Within Cerro Tijeretas is another small beach called Punta Carola. The snorkeling visibility isn’t as impressive as Darwin Bay or Playa Loberia, but it’s the perfect place to post up for a magnificent sunset. With the soft, golden sand and classic red and white lighthouse in the distance, it doesn’t get any better.
Cuanto cuesto? Nada.
Sea Lion Heaven (aka The Pier)
Interestingly, during our 6-day cruise we had only experienced sea lions in relatively small colonies or swimming around solo. So when we saw the insane quantity of these sea pups just chilling on the San Cristobal pier, we were absolutely floored. For a seriously extraordinary sight, head to the pier after nightfall and watch as the massive gathering of sleepy sea lions makes the weirdest, loudest, and arguably grossest sounds you’ve ever heard.
Leon Dormido/Kicker Rock
If you aren’t snorkeled out yet (is that even possible?), you can take all that money you’ve saved so far and put it toward a truly special day trip. Leon Dormido –also known as Kicker Rock- is known for being one of the most bountiful diving sites in the archipelago.
Jutting out from the middle of the ocean, this mega rock formation is a wonderland of marine life, and is often occupied by schools of hammerhead sharks, which, for most people, is a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. That being said, nature has no guarantees, so even if you’re not graced with the presence of those peaceful giants, here are a few other creatures you can expect to share the water with: sea lions, sea turtles, small black-tipped sharks, countless colorful fish, crabs, eagle rays, and octopus.
At $120, the price tag might be a bit hefty for some. But, hey, when’s the next time a boat will dump you off in the middle of the open ocean to swim with sharks, right?
Like every other blog has already preached, the Galapagos is a place unlike any other. Although there’s nothing like waking up on a boat and being fed 10 times a day, you don’t HAVE to spend a fortune on a cruise to enjoy everything the islands have to offer. For anyone on a budget or simply looking for some independent thrills, Isla San Cristobal is the place to be.