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The Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands offer volcanic landscapes of epic proportions; lava craters dripping in tropical plant growth, fresh water lagoons where giant tortoises wallow, black frozen lava covered with lime-green algae and frequented by rare and spectacular birds which hop out of the unique marine iguana’s path, as these beasts meander through sea and rock, prehistorically chomping with their antiquated jaws.

They also offer Bingo.

Follow the thumping base-line up the dirt roads and into the soccer grounds, converted for the occasion into a sound spectacular, and you will hear some of the most vulgar yet expressive Spanish slang that comprises the local dialect. Express the appropriate amount of passion at predictably losing the first and second games, and you will be invited to join a bunch of table-thumping local ladies, swigging Pilsner and eating unidentifiable meat on a stick.

These islands are a unique and inexplicable mix of nature and society, and the environment an unusual stew of savannah and jungle. They offer a variety of amusements: orange-picking in the highlands (it sounds like a picnic in the park but wait until you are teetering on the edge of a frighteningly flexible branch and being mocked by – it seems – every 11 year old in existence), surfing at the most obscure and wild Tonga Reef (you will slice your toes open while “paddling” – read scrambling – out), skin-diving off the harbour with seals and turtles, and scuba diving with hammerheads and killer whales off Leon Dormido. There are visits to the legendary Galapaguera (tortoise sanctuaries), horse-riding up the second largest volcano caldera in the world (do not say yes when the guide asks if you want to go faster – he will creep up behind you, slap your mount resoundingly and cry with laughter as you lose your hat and various skin layers from the scrub you will career through), and a thousand undiscovered wonders of both the natural and human stripe

The Galapagos Islands are unlike any other travel destination: their idea of community service is to hold a weekly party on Friday nights, and encourage everyone to participate. Witness a pasty Brit performing Radiohead’s “Creep” while the local boys obliviously wail at the appropriate moments, or a vivacious Spanish version of Punch and Judy, involving two gender-swapping individuals who hop and prance about the stage, yelping uproarious Spanish profanities. Galapaguenos have no idea how not to have a good time, and I can’t recommend another place where the local soccer team On Tour consumed more beer and prawn ceviche, and island-hopped in their own hired boat, extending their benevolence to the masses as they carted and ferried dirty and bankrupt backpackers between ports.

Galapagos Travel Info

It costs $100 dollars to enter these islands as a foreigner – that is on top of the plane ticket you will buy from TAME or AeroGAL (local airlines). These tickets can be confusing: you will leave from Guayaquil, and can fly into

1. San Cristobal

2. Santa Cruz

Once you have landed, you can fly from San Cristobal to Isabella and back, but not to Santa Cruz. You cannot fly from Santa Cruz to Isabella. Why? Who knows, it wouldn’t be Ecuadorian if it made any sense. Always check the details of who can fly where, because they are as flexible as the office of the presidency.

Once in, you can island-hop in government-sponsored boats (painfully slow but cheap at $25 a trip), or hop on a tour operated by local companies. It is better to support these local initiatives than buy into the tour company empire that stretches its tentacles over the mainland – and even better to do it yourself. Net-working is easy, because independent tour guides are everywhere, trying to pick up business. It is a rigorous 4 year program to become a qualified Galapagos tour guide, and illegal to do ANYTHING nature-y on the islands without one, so chat to people, ask the lady serving you lunch and you’ll be in the loop in no time.

The history of these islands is really interesting, so take time to listen to people’s stories. Murder intrigue on Fernandina, dramatic war stories and just who the descendants of the population really were are some of the weirdest tales told in Ecuador.

Getting Around the Galapagos Islands

San Cristobal is the island with the capital city, and one of the oldest. It is less densely populated than Santa Cruz, but busier than Isabella. There isn’t a whole lot going on here, but the surf is incredible. Bring your own equipment, because unless you hunt out the local lord of the wave, repairs and equipment hire is non-existent. A wetsuit is recommended if you’re fussy, but booties a big plus – those lava rocks are killer.

Hang out at the bars (Iguana Rock or Polo’s Bar), ask around and you will find someone willing to take you through the naval base on a 40 minute walk into nowhere. Here, you will find Tonga Reef. Don’t try this alone, you will get lost. The navy base requires identification from foreigners, so bring your driver’s license, or join the local surf club. You might need to buy a few beers, but it’s worth it.

Closer surf spots exist, but the wave can be cramped, and they don’t have nicknames like “Suicide Break” for nothing. A forty minute drive will get you to Porto Chino, the only sandy beach on the island. The waves are less impressive, but consistent, and it’s a good learning wave (and beach) to muck about at. Watch the current the further out you get.

Regarding surfing, its worth getting to know the local lads. It’s more polite when you’re surfing their waves to know their names, and they warm up to strangers very quickly. They will help you out with equipment repairs and introduce you to the best spots. In high surf season (December/January), the Brazilians descend like vultures on these waves, and have very few manners, so be polite and you’ll make some new friends in double time.

Everything in San Cristobal that you might require on a daily basis is within walking distance. For day trips, or a visit to Loberia (another beach chockablock with fur seals and sea lions), or if you are really lazy, jump in a taxi. These white 4×4 trucks cruise the streets and are easily recognisable – a trip within the ten minute range will cost at the most, $3. Take a stroll around the paths constructed around the hills by the two main beaches, Playa Mann and Punto Corolla – you will come upon Tiaretas (place where Darwin first landed) – an amazing snorkel spot.

The night life on San Cristobal centres around two bars: Iguana Rock and Polo’s Bar. Beer comes in quarts and pool is the local currency here. If you are good you may don “The Glove” (a skanky glove the local boys pass among themselves) and try your hand at beating the island’s best. The streets are as safe as they come, and you can walk around alone at any time, with no worries at all. The local lads love foreign ladies, so if you’re female, expect to be courted and salsa’d up to the max.

There is quite a strong international presence on this island, as the university is located here, and exchange students abound, so conversation is varied and always interesting. But beware The Rumour: this is a small island, and everybody knows everybody and their business.

For great tours from San Cristobal, contact Tim and Karla on galakiwi@yahoo.com.au

Isabella is the least populated island, sporting one main road – of sand. For a volcanic island, it has an impressive sandy beach that stretches three kilometres, and some very tropical palm tree foliage. There are lots of touristy things to do here, but the pace of life is slooooowww so don’t expect things to be hopping and jumping. As always, the bar is where you will find tour guides and can negotiate prices.

It is worth doing things your own way here: hire a bike and drive off down the road to the tortoise sanctuary, the wetlands, and the various little secrets the coastal road holds. It is 8 kilometres to the Wall of Tears – a random stone wall towering up in the middle of nowhere – testament to prisoners who were brought to the Galapagos and given meaningless tasks to pass the time of their sentence. This silent structure is quite creepy and worth the calories burnt by the ride.

If you’re at the bar at the right time, you might see Gringo Juan, an old hippie who moved out here years ago and just hasn’t left. He plays and sings his guitar in a very unique style, and is worth a listen. You might be treated to a lecture on communism or the fall of the USA as a moral economy, but he usually just sparks the debate and lets other people rant away.

One last thing: don’t be fooled by what the map says – Isabella does NOT Have a bank. Bring money with you!

Santa Cruz is the most modern and developed island. The architecture has its own voice and the vibe is upbeat and organized. This is also the most expensive island, with prices almost double that of the other two, less busy ports – but the only place on the Galapagos Islands you can buy swimwear, and contact lens solution.

A few kilometres’ walk will take you to Tortuga Bay – a vast and impressive beach with good waves and amazing coastal scenery. Chill out on the Malecon (sea front) and watch teams battle it out in Galapagos’s favourite sport – volleyball, or hire a bike and cycle to the Charles Darwin Research Station – it’s impressive no matter how cynical you are, and Lonesome George (last tortoise of his kind after marauding sailors ate up all his mates) is very poignant as an example of extinction.

Santa Cruz is the most buzzing island, and has nightlife to match. Try and pin your visit on the local music festival, or the Queen of the Galapagos Beauty Contest – drama at its height! Local discos are pumping and you might be asked to pay entrance (if you are male). It is still a pretty safe town at night, but avoid dark alleys as per normal common sense. Pavement watching is the best way to get the feel of the pace: buy a box of wine and wait for people to gather around you. Galapagueños love to chat and will chill out with anyone willing to reciprocate.

All the other islands in the archipelago are, for the most part, uninhabited, and offer the opportunity only for day trips, scuba diving and rare bird nesting. Impressive scenery, penguins and wild, untamed reef and rocky shore atmosphere is what you will find. These island trips are geared towards the richer variety of visitor, and are thus quite pricey ($60 upwards for a day trip to surrounding islands). Scuba diving will also knock your budget by upwards of $60 a pop.

These islands offer lots of undercover fun, excitement and opportunities to try something weird. The problem is, people just hop on and hop off after their 7-day cruise tour, and don’t get to grips with the people, their way of life and the underground influences and politics that make the islands so unique. Give them your time and you are bound to meet someone a little odd, do something a little strange and see things that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

Robyn Leslie

I am a South African, which means I like sunshine and sticky-tape coins together so no-one knows I have money in my pocket. An environmental scientist by qualification, I studied at the University of Cape Town. My years there taught me about the grand narratives of communism, neo-liberalism and post-modernism, and how shitty people can be when they can't find a spot to park their car. After that I needed a break and went off to South America, where I lived and worked for a year. Now I am freelancing as a writer and holding out for a job that combines a morally specific mission with valuable, practical development goals. With a salary. Hmmm. By the way, I was just being snarky before. South Africa is totally safe. Really. Come and visit.