Pre arrival paperwork. ~ We decided to obtain an Autografo for our stay so applied for a 3 month, 3 island permit. At this point we hadn’t totally researched it and did not understand that we were limited to the main port on our 3 islands, so in effect only 3 anchorages. This is a real shame as the islands have so much more to offer, but not to us cruising yachts and that is just the way the rules are. Yacht movements are very closely monitored and we believe that tour boats will report yachts that they see in unauthorised areas so best not try that. If you do not apply for an Autografo you “should” be given a 21 day permit to stay, this is for one anchorage only is not extendable and you must NOT have the Galapagos as your next port of call on your exit papers from the previous port, i.e. it should be shown that it was NOT your intention to come here but circumstances have made a stop necessary enroute. As we did not do the one island option we can not confirm the cost but believe it was around USD800 for our size (14 metres) plus exit zarpe of USD15. The cost for our autografo was USD1345, extra charges detailed below, keep on paying ~ it’s worth it. You must check in and out of each island, they are very strict and waiting for you! We used the services of agent Bolivar Pesantes in San Cristobal, he came recommended by other friends and is listed on Noonsite, his contact is firstname.lastname@example.org, we found him to be very professional and efficient but speaks limited English and translates via Google Translate so some emails are a little challenging to understand. Bolivar appeared to be the “go to man” for any hiccups and seemed to be very well connected and able to solve most problems. You should apply at least 6 weeks prior to arriving giving an approximate arrival date, your Autografo will be issued from this date so try and be as accurate as us sailors can be if you want your full 3 months there. We emailed him 2 months prior saying we would like to apply for an autografo and gave our names, boat name with length and weight and approximate arrival date. He then told us the fees and required PDF copies of our passports and ships papers and explained what else was required on arrival. If you are like me and have no idea how to get a PDF file of your passport download a free copy of CutePDF off the internet, take photos then hit print and Cute PDF comes up as a print option, hit it and it makes a PDF file which you can then send to him as an attachment. We emailed about 3 weeks later to make sure all was in hand and he emailed back a copy of our autografo, we also emailed him when we left Panama so he would be expecting us.
Passage from Panama City took 7 days and 23 hours, direct rhum line distance is 855 miles, distance we sailed was 1006 miles. This was mid June. This is NOT a downwind passage any time of the year. We had light conditions for the beginning with wind coming straight from the Galapagos so we tacked off towards Ecuador for a day to get a better angle. Conditions varied from dead calms to 25 knots in squalls, sea state from glassy to uncomfortable confused swell. The current was pushing us north the whole time so that made the angle even harder. We rounded the top of San Cristobal at dawn with a squadron of boobie birds resting on the pulpit, it was one of the most spectacular landfalls we have experienced and the sail in light winds down the west coast was one of the best sails ever in flat water & light winds with the water and skies oozing with wildlife, absolutely magical.
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (Wreck Bay), San Cristobal ~ 00 53.76S 089 36.79W 10metres Sand
CMap and Navionics charts were pretty accurate but there are a few reefs outside the entrance and some rather confusing markers. I would not recommend a night arrival and you really don’t want to miss that west coast scenery but night time is possible, always with extreme caution. There may or may not be several large tour boats at anchor and on moorings, some nights we had over 10, other nights none. Stay on the port side or centre of the anchorage if possible, there are some big yellow buoys yachts can use in all three anchorages and they are free, we anchored.
Checking In ~ Water Taxis will come to you on arrival, just tell them the name of the agent you have engaged and it seems they contact him/her and they turn up and the check in process will begin. As soon as we anchored skipper jumped overboard and checked our hull was still clean, it very important. We found it all very straightforward, lots of officials and a diver to check the bottom, loads of forms to complete, cold drinks and plenty of cookies distributed, a cursory look below and it was all done. Don’t know if we were lucky but it was all very easy and professional. No extra charges (bribes). We paid USD15 to Bolivar for our Exit Zarpe to go to Santa Cruz.
Getting Ashore ~ The anchorage was a little rolly when we were there but not at all bad. You can use your own dinghy but leaving it on the dock out of the way would be quite difficult and it would be overflowing with sea lions on your return. You can also land at the beach depending on the swell and whether you could fit your dinghy between the sea lions. We used water taxis, there are about 4 of them so you get to know them, its 1USD pp each way and we didn’t often go in more than once a day so economical and very convenient, they were careful of Balvenie but when the swell was up you needed to be quick and nimble, we normally managed to wave or whistle one or they do listen on VHF (channel forgotten) just say “Taxi para ~your boat name~ copia?” and you will get a “se” back or 4 taxis heading for you at speed! They don’t work too late after dark but there’s not much to keep you ashore at night. Rubbish Bins at dock
Money ~ Galapagos uses US Dollars, do not plan on using a credit card anywhere, if it is accepted there will be a fee of up it 20%, there is at least one bank with ATM one block back from waterfront but try and bring plenty USD with you. There are ATM’s on Santa Cruz but NOT Isabela. USD are NOT easily accepted or changed in Marquesas, Tuamotus or Gambier so don’t have too much left over.
Communications ~ Now is the time so stop surfing the net! Both data sim and wifi service are poor, it is still 2G. We bought a Movistar Chip from one of the little grocery stores (ask for chip NOT sim) USD20 plus bought 2 x USD10 prepay “Tarjeta Prepago” scratch cards, instructions on leaflet with sim on how to set up data package, all in Spanish, to activate and top up think call *333 option 3 then I think you call *100# , pressing 3 gets you 7days USD5, 4 is 15 days USD10 and 5 is 30 days USD20, it’s cheap but it was ever so slow but better than nothing and did just work in all three anchorages. The same sim can have money put on for voice too. The Icecream Parlour by the dock was reputed to have ok wifi but was closed for a refurb while we were there. We found a great cafe upstairs with sort of thatched overhanging roof and open terrace that the wifi was ok, sometimes good enough to skype if not busy, excellent cheap “menu del dia” lunches too and they would let us stay once they closed and leave wifi on for us.
Provisions/Fuel/Laundry ~ We organised with Bolivar to get fuel, you must pay the tourist price whether he gets it or you go yourself, and the gas station is a taxi ride away. We got 30 gallons of Diesel and 2 1/2 gallons of petrol for USD135 and 4 huge water bottles USD14. To get to the produce market turn right along the waterfront from the dock until the Tourist Office then head up inland about 6 small blocks, it’s on the corner when it levels out, plus more across road and other corner. Best on Saturday morning but we found it ok any day, reasonable selection of fruit and vege, some refrigerated items, prices never as cheap as Panama but ok. A couple of bakeries did variety of products, one was next block back and almost behind tourist office, the other right down the other end (past dock) on same street almost last corner before houses. A few small mini-markets around, ok selection with prices about double Panama but you shouldn’t need anything! A couple of laundries (not self service) cost USD7 for big bag, maybe $1.50 a kilo, they are under and by the cafe with the thatched roof. We also had a couple of meals at the open sided corner restaurant with long bar, also on the road one back from the port and from memory on the corner if you walk straight up from the dock, normally full with tour groups lunch time, they do a “menu del dia” at lunch and at night a special plate of the house also which I forget what it was called but it was on the menu in small print, we spent $24 for dinner for the 2 of us with a juice and beer.
Fun for Free ~ You can have hours of endless entertainment trying to keep the sea lions off your boat, jump overboard into the chilly waters and play with them, go ashore and avoid tripping over them – basically this is sea lion heaven and us mere mortals are simply passing through, THEY RULE! We bought a laminated wildlife card from a touristy shop so we could tick off and identify everything we saw, it was very helpful and fun. There are several hikes ashore you can do from the anchorage. The Tourist Office as some brochures in Spanish/English with activities one side and a map on the other. They have the brochures for all the islands, make sure you get the right ones as island name in small print! We split the visit to the Interpretation Centre into two visits, there is so much excellent information it was a bit much in one go. From there keep walking out to Punta Carola for the seabirds, marine iguanas and sea lions. At the back exit in the centre there is a proper path that goes to the look out points and down to the small cove with steps down for swimming, plenty of sea lions and sometimes sharks. We continued on the path after the top lookout to get to the distant beach but the path was very overgrown and we eventually turned back. On another day pack a picnic lunch and hike out to La Loberia Beach, it’s about 40 minutes along the roads with no shade but the temperature isn’t bad for hiking. When the road runs out at the water you head left, have a really good look at all those black rocks – they are littered with hundreds of iguanas! Not far to the beach, its sheltered by a rocky outcrop which forms a barrier to the ocean but there were strong rips in there and a couple got pulled along the beach through the rocks some distance before they could get safely ashore so be careful. Here is where you swim with more sea lions and giant turtles, when we say giant we mean giant, just great. Don’t turn around from here! Keep going to the end of the beach and there was a tiny sign indicating an ongoing hike, if you don’t find the sign carry on anyway, its not a proper paved path, but a trail across volcanic rock for about 30 minutes, don’t stand on the iguanas, then it climbs a little (odd sign or rock cairns making the way) up onto the cliff top, another 10 minutes, walk along through the cactus to the cliff edge, find a comfy rock and welcome to bird watching heaven, sit back and have your picnic lunch. This was outstanding plus we saw surfing giant turtles below in the waves.
Paid Activities ~ There are mountain bikes for hire and the main road out of town has an separate excellent cycle path, best way would be hire a taxi to take you up then cycle all the way back down. We didn’t do this but would have if we had stayed longer. We hired a taxi for an day, it’s USD60 flat rate and they are pickup trucks so could fit a few in but there was just the 2 of us, they do a standard Island Tour run and was very flexible. We visited the oldest tree, which was better than it sounds!, then onto the highlands were we hiked up to the top of El Junco a volcanic peak and round the lake in the crater, next drove down to the Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Centre (free entry) where we saw several giant tortoises lumbering around in their natural habitat and had our picnic lunch, then out to the lovely white sand beach of Puerto Chino, good bird spotting wetlands area on the walk there from the taxi. We are not divers so did not go to Kicker Rock, those that did said it was exceptional.
Puerto Ayora (Academy Bay), Santa Cruz ~ 00 44.93S 090 18.53W 7metres Sand
Anchorage ~ When you look on the chart you can’t imagine why this is the main port, there appears to be very little (if any) wave/swell protection and limited wind cover. That unfortunately is precisely how the anchorage is and we waited for a 1 – 2 metre swell forecast, down from 3 metres. If you can fit into the tiny harbour area, with a stern anchor, it might be ok but even then there is so much local traffic buzzing around just the wave action from them alone is tiring. We tucked out of the wind and managed to get just behind the tiny rocky natural breakwater but the swell and sea state was hideous plus we had a huge tour boat anchor just metres in front of us, their tender hitting our ancor chain when they swung. Bolivar had arranged for the agent and port captain to come at 5pm and they arrived promptly and were gone in minutes, cost to agent normally USD15 but it was Sunday so extra USD15! Water taxis are 60 cents pp here but not nearly as careful on approaching the boat and the swell does not help. Got a couple of locked Wifi signals onboard and data sim worked slowly. We really did not like this anchorage and therefore stayed only 2 nights. Rubbish Bins on dock
Ashore ~ This is the hub of the Galapagos and most of the organised tours depart from here. It is a bustling little town and had a touristy South American feel to it, nice place. Good supermarket opposite wharf with excellent bakery area, sold Galapagos shopping bags for USD2, great for gifts or lugging back the groceries. We visited the excellent Charles Darwin Centre (free), hiked on a couple of the paths, walked to the fresh produce market which was poorly stocked when we were there but should be good apparently. The fish market is great, mainly for the photos but bought fish and it was good too. We then met our agent Irene as agreed and went by taxi with her to Immigration to check out, cost to agent normally USD15 but it was public holiday in Ecuador for Popes visit so extra USD15!!!, plus USD15 to Immigration. There is no Immigration on Isabela so that needs to be done here. There is much to see and do from here (several free options) but life onboard Balvenie was very uncomfortable and we did not feel it safe to leave her. Iit was a hard bash south to clear the coast before you can bear away to Isabela.
Puerto Villamil, Isabela ~ 00 57.91S 090 57.77W 4metres Yellow Mooring
Anchorage ~ 50 mile run across in brisk trades, we seriously doubted that it would be safe enough to enter with the following seas we had, but as we closed on the outer bay things did settle and we had an uneventful arrival. The charts are NOT ACCURATE, (there is quite an offset) the port (red right returning) and starboard marks are out from charted positions, it was clear enough on visual daylight but this anchorage is NOT recommended for a night arrival. Some tour boats anchor outside the protected area, there is some coverage from the swell probably better than Santa Cruz but inside the rocky sheltered area it was pretty comfortable although at high tide some waves come over. We picked up the free yellow mooring buoy, the one furthest to the south but moved to anchor when the wind dropped and we started banging the buoy. Anchorage depths best south of buoys but this does put you on entry/exit route (not too busy). This is a delightful picturesque anchorage, full of sea and bird life, a magical place. Yachtie movements within the anchorage are restricted, (must be on tour with guide) we managed getting close to the penguins and around a little more before we were turned back, snorkelling is a possibility but will be turned back too if they see you. Passage to dingy dock across bay unobstructed at high tide but shoals at low tide so need to do a big loop to the south and around, watch the local boats. There are few water taxis here, we used our dinghy and there is a floating dinghy dock that was being rebuilt while we were there, it is in behind the main wharf area. Rubbish Bins at end of path from dinghy dock
Ashore ~ This is the Galapagos we came to find, sleepy little place, roads are sand, a few tourist shops, tour operators and restaurants and not much else. The road into town was being paved so good if you have bikes, otherwise about a 15 minute walk. Tour operator Rosedelco is on the left at the first fork, there is a bike hire just up on the right fork but bikes a bit iffy, sometimes they sold fruit outside. Stay on left fork for town, 2 laundrys on left, we used the first USD13 for big bag, think 2nd was cheaper. About 4 open air well presented restaurants (didn’t try) in a row then keep walking west on this main road, you will smell the bakery, didn’t seem to open until mid afternoon but had some yummy products, a little further a “quaint” open air cafe painted blue (name maybe Sol y Mer) has not bad wifi good very cheap “menu del dia” and tacos at lunch and great batidos (fruit drinks). Keep going, mountain bike hire next USD3 an hour per bike, good bikes and have a good look inside store for random items of fresh produce (avocados on floor behind counter!) We left our laptops here while out cycling twice with no problems. Keep going to end of buildings, Pink Flamingo on beach front has happy hour with very loud music and opposite is the Booby Trap Cafe with American Jim the Agent here in Isabela. USD30 total for arrival, departure and port tax, no one came to the boat, he can also organise diesel and petrol, we only needed petrol it was USD4 a gallon. The Booby Trap was the cruisers hangout for wifi (slow) and more western meals. Heading back into town, turn left at end of plaza, good open air big restaurant on first corner up this side road, good set menus with choices for dinner around USD10 pp, went twice with big groups and very good (book if there is a group of you). Further up here intersects with produce market on corner, hit and miss selection, Saturday morning should be best but look every time you are ashore. For final produce provisioning there is Silvio Troya, he sometimes comes to the saturday market but doesn’t bring much (why??) go by taxi to “Finca Silvio Troya” about USD10 each way and taxi will come back for you, you need a couple of hours as go around choosing and picking to order, we spent just USD25 and got lots, however it did not keep as well as I had hoped. We were told (after) that there is a German owned restaurant up here in the highlands near him and good to combine lunch then walk to him.
Fun for Free ~ Walk through the wetlands just past the Booby Trap to the Centro de Crianza Breeding Centre (free) and see baby giant tortoises just a couple of inches long to giant grandpas. Carry on up the road a little way further to the big pond for pink flamingo spotting. Hire bikes (not free but need mountain bikes not little folding ones), about 3 different days as lots to do. The cycle trail out to the Wall of Tears runs parallel to the beach, we actually cycled on the hard sand on the beach which was great . Do this trail on at least 2 days as there are so many nooks and crannies to discover and its good to do one of the beach/mangrove side trips (El Estero) late in the day when the birds are feeding, awesome. Tortoises are in the wild out here, the look out is great and the Wall of Tears and surrounding area excellent, and stand where Sir David Attenborough showed the difference in 30 years of land movement at Tunel del Estero . We tried to get a taxi to take us and the bikes up to the highlands so we could cycle back but had no luck, there are not many taxis here. There is a wetlands trail just by the dinghy dock path that takes you to a swim platform were you can snorkel within the inner harbour area, visibility was poor and water cold but this is where the penguins live.
Paid Activities ~ We booked the Cabo Rosa & Tuneles de Lava Tour with Rosedelco Tours USD85pp, full day tour including very good lunch and they collected/dropped us at Balvenie. This tour was excellent and their operation very professional, we snorkelled with enormous giant turtles, saw seahorses and sleeping white sharks, visited the lava tunnels, stopped to swim offshore with giant manta rays, it was superb and they could not have done more to exceed everyone's expectations, their boat handling skills were exceptional through some very large surf! Sierra Negra Hike USD30 pp, full day guided hike including lunch, booked with another company as Rosedelco closed when we wanted to book. Collected from wharf, drove to Highlands with English speaking guide, about 14 in our group and there were a few groups. Sadly cloud cover over crater but clear other side, great views north, very muddy though and felt our guide was constantly rushing us, however excellent hike not difficult and had the weather been better the views would have been sensational, great value for money.
Overview ~ Worth every cent of the Autografo, 3 weeks would have felt very rushed and then you could not chose your onward weather window as well. This is an exceptional, unique, remote environment where tourism is heavily controlled. We are extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to visit these incredible islands . For our blog updates from the Galapagos with photos follow this link www.yachtbalvenie.blogspot.com/search/label/Galapagos