Earlier this month, a friend asked me to summarize my recent Galápagos experience and I discovered that I couldn’t. It’s not that the place failed to impress. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Galápagos made such an impact that I was unable to find the appropriate words when the moment arrived. For someone who likes to write, this is a conundrum.

So, I gushed. The Galápagos islands are the ultimate adventure. They’re in a class of travel all their own. The visit changed me. Yada yada. Nothing I told him was inaccurate. It was merely insufficient. And now that I’ve had a couple more weeks to reflect, I remain lacking. Stubbornly so.

Do you want the truth? Here it is, in all its cynical glory. If you can see past the Columbia safari fashion, and the ridiculously kitted-out hikers, and the ostentatious telephoto lenses, and the cheesy overpriced Gilligan’s Island-style restaurants, and the very vocal come-ons from an endless supply of last-minute cruise operators – if you can see past it all, then prepare to be amazed. Prepare to be humbled. Prepare to be transformed.

Baltra

Chantal and I, and our constant globetrotting companions Chris and Filiep, flew to Baltra Island on Sunday 24 November. Baltra is a former WWII US Army Air Force base, now Seymour Airport, a 100% ecological concession that boasts USGBC LEED Gold and ACI Level 4 (carbon neutral) certifications. To step onto the tarmac is to be instantly transported onto some primordial plain, made more vivid by ancient cactus and Palo Santo, teeming aquamarine waters, and lifeless volcanic atolls.

Our luggage, which had been checked twice in Guayaquil for invasive species and then fumigated, was quickly transported to the terminal, where it received a final going-over by a trained detection dog. I have no idea what he and his handler were hoping to find. The dog was getting on in years, that much I can say.

We paid our park entrance fees ($6 each for me and Chantal, because we’re residents; $100 each for Chris and Filiep, because they aren’t), collected our packs, and caught a bus to the public ferry to Isla Santa Cruz. Which sounds very institutional. It’s a concrete slab where you board a shaky-looking water taxi that transports you across the Itabaca Channel, ten minutes. They throw your suitcases onto the roof. One buck buys your passage.

Seymour Airport

Santa Cruz

Isla Santa Cruz is where the action is, if you fly first to Baltra. At 12,000 residents, it’s the most populated of the five inhabited islands.

The archipelago town of Puerto Ayora reminds me of Key West without the Gadsden flags. It is wholly dedicated to the proposition of separating tourists from their money. There are bars. There are restaurants. There are resorts and hostels and B&Bs. There are jewelry stores and art galleries and high-end clothing retailers and tchotchke vendors. There’s one preposterously overpriced grocery store. And, of course, there are the tour operators, last minute and otherwise.

If your idea of Galápagos adventure excludes an overstuffed Gregory Tetrad with ActiveShield compartment (check out these pro tips for packing!) or an eight-day, no-luxury-spared cruise of the islands, then one walkabout of Puerto Ayora will quickly sort the tourist traps from the seasoned traveller’s affordable excursions.

We arrived without an itinerary, and we packed light for seven days on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. I brought my Burton Multipath carry-on backpack with minimal clothing and toiletries. When you travel between islands, the port authorities search your luggage for single-use plastics and other contraband. My inspection, when we ferried to San Cristóbal later that week, took a little under two minutes. The overachiever behind me was still furiously repacking long after our water taxi had left port.

Puerto Ayora Sunset

Food and Shelter

We stayed at Hospedaje Germania, an unexceptional hostal close to the centre of town. We weren’t looking for mod cons, just a clean place to flop. As is usual for Ecuador, our stay included a lively 2 a.m. Rooster Experience, no extra charge. Fortunately, I brought ear plugs. Chantal snores like a chainsaw.

We tried a couple touristy restaurants near the quay and quickly discovered that the more money you spend, the less interesting the food becomes. We opted instead to take our meals at Calle de los Kioskos.

Los Kioskos was the first of our many revelations about Puerto Ayora. It’s where you eat when you want to eat well, and on a budget.

You can grab an inexpensive desayuno (breakfast) or almuerzo (lunch) at any of the small cabañas along Los Kioskos during the day. But the street comes truly alive at night, when the vendors bring out their tables and chairs and transform it into a raucous, smoky, wildly lit, half-kilometre-long outdoor dining hall for seven hundred. Then it’s fresh seafood on the cheap, unless you choose grilled lobster or brujo (scorpion fish). We tried brujo one night and found it to be overpriced and uninteresting. Otherwise, we opted for the basics: soup course, followed by shrimp or white fish or octopus and rice with patacones and ensalada: seven to 10 bucks per, non-alcoholic beverage included.

I know what you’re thinking. Los Kioskos, for almost every meal? That seems monotonous.

To which I say, whatever dude. Order the profoundly distressing $35 medium pizza with its $11 extra toppings, served everywhere else, and then tell me how tedious Los Kioskos sounds. There’s also a fancy bistro near Charles Darwin Research Station that serves lobster tail. (No price. If you must ask, you can’t afford it.) The rest is chain-restaurant pasta and happy hour mojitos.

Land Tours

Little known fact: You can hire a taxi for $40 to take you and your travelling companions to the same land-based stops on Santa Cruz as a tour operator, who charges up to twice that price per person. In fact, the cabbie who transports you and your luggage from Santa Cruz Ferry Terminal into Puerto Ayora will pitch you on the idea, several times during your one-hour ride. Which is great, if you speak Spanish. If you don’t, nod your head and indicate a pickup time with your fingers. He knows where you’re staying.

A typical Santa Cruz day tour takes you to Los Gemelos and the Santa Cruz Highlands. Los Gemelos (the Twins) is a nature trail that curls around two impressively deep and stirringly scenic volcanic craters. It’s a great hike.

Tour operators market the Highlands’ El Chato and lava tunnels as separate attractions. In fact, these are on the same tortoise reserve and your entry fee covers both. For me, it was the lava tunnels. They were the most fun I’ve had in a while.

The Santa Cruz Highlands are a rain forest, which means they’re wet, chilly, and very foggy. Bring a rain cape or umbrella. Expect mud. Your El Chato ticket includes rubber boots. Some of the more fashion-forward individuals decline this perk and then find themselves ankle deep in turtle poop. I recommend the boots.

There’s a restaurant at El Chato that serves traditional Ecuadorian cuisine. I have no idea how good it is. I was too scandalized by the prices to order anything. I mean, $12 for ceviche? That’s practically criminal.

El Chato Speedway

Darwin Station

Don’t let the Google description throw you off. (“Research facility housing an extensive collection of preserved specimens of Galápagos plant life.”) Charles Darwin Research Station is a fascinating visit. Especially if you take the “45-minute” guided tour, in English, which lasts about two hours and ends in an environmentally controlled showroom with one extremely taxidermied Lonesome George.

The good people at Darwin Station work to conserve the Galápagos islands’ unique environment and biodiversity. This includes rehabilitation of on-the-brink tortoise populations. They pioneer techniques that are being duplicated around the world to revive critically endangered species. If you don’t think that’s cool, then perhaps you should stick to appetizers at The Rock while Elsa prepares your Celebrity Flora balcony suite.

Darwin Station is a very easy walk from downtown Puerto Ayora along – where else? – Avenida Charles Darwin. On your way, stop by the Ceramic Mosaic Art Garden.

Me and My Main Man Chuck

Beaches

Santa Cruz is home to two of the world’s most strikingly exotic beaches: Tortuga Bay and El Garrapatero. If you’re looking to be gobsmacked by both flora and fauna, spend a morning at Tortuga Bay. If you want extreme scenery without the German tourists, it’s El Garrapatero.

A water taxi can carry you ‘round the archipelago to Tortuga Bay, but that would be lazy and ridiculous. There’s a walking trail. It’s 45 minutes, cobbled, and wends its way through some remarkably barbaric landscape where you’ll meet more than your fair share of lava lizards. Oh yeah, some of the trees are poisonous. No touchy!

You’ll find the trail head to the west of Calle de los Kioskos, at the very end of Charles Binford. (Don’t worry. There are plenty of signs.) The walk itself can be staggeringly hot in direct sunlight. But when you near the end of the trail, and you can hear but not see the roaring surf, and then the path opens onto one of the most jaw-dropping beaches you will ever encounter – well, what can I say? It’s worth the effort.

El Garrapatero is similarly endowed but requires a taxi to reach. Return fare is $20 and your cabby will agree to whatever pickup time you decide. Which is a bit unnerving because there’s no cell coverage in that neck of the woods. Or paved roads. Or people. Trust me: he’ll be there ten minutes early.

El Garrapatero is a much smaller beach, and it’s isolated. The water is vivid blue but murky when inbound tides stir up the powdery white sand. There’s a fabulous picnic area with tables and fire pits and shade inside a labyrinthine tree tunnel. The local birds will follow you in and hang about waiting for the occasional dropped crumb. Or they’ll eat off your hand, if there are potato chips on the menu.

Yeah, I know. Don’t feed the park animals. It’s not like I was offering beer to a marine iguana. Besides, the park rangers were all on their phones. I guess they have wi-fi.

Next Up: Our interisland ferry adventure. Want more photos?