The GalÃ¡pagos Islands, which straddle the equator and the tracks of sailboats heading westward into the South Pacific, are receiving mixed grades as a voyaging destination. Among the reports: the authorities ban freeboot island roaming and charge exorbitant fees; supplies such as food, fuel and marine hardware are hard to find. Here is the unadorned truth we discovered recently after more than two months of sailing the archipelago.
Casual yacht arrivals with fewer than 10 people aboard may stay up to 20 days in only one of the following ports: Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (Wreck Bay) on San CristÃ³bal, Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela and Velasco Ibarra on Fernandina. Most boats stop in Puerto Ayora and alternate taking sightseeing trips on the local boats, and shopping for food, refueling and conducting maintenance.
The harbor, a bay open to the prevailing swell, is tolerable if you put out a stern anchor, as the locals do, to keep the bow on the swell. A protected shallow inner basin lacks room and security to use your own tender, but plentiful water taxis charge little for their services. There is a good farmer’s market, an adequate supermarket with its stock renewed by the weekly ship from the mainland, 600 miles away. The Bodega Blanca offers an excellent stock of modern marine and other hardware. And the Mecanica Gallardo fills all propane bottles and has a machine shop as well as lube oils, V-belts and a lot more.
Small boats buy fuel by jerry jug and have it brought to the dinghy dock by taxi. Need hundreds of gallons? Up to a few hundred can be delivered in Puerto Ayora. For even bigger quantities you’ll go to Baltra fuel wharf near the airport. In either case, you’ll need an agent to help with paperwork (more about agents later). In town, fast connections with the outside world, both by phone and email, come at the best prices anywhere in the world. There are many good restaurants to please the palate without emptying your pockets.
Considering the limited time allowance, short-term cruisers visit only a few of the natural wonders of the area. Charter-boat day trips cost from $30 to $75 per person, depending on the distance traveled. You can go for three to four days for $200, and the large, fancy boats charge $1,500 and up per week. Scuba diving trips are widely available. Finding services is easy – all businesses catering to tourists headquarter in Puerto Ayora, the economic hub of the islands.
On San CristÃ³bal in the excellent harbor of Baquerizo Moreno, the quiet administrative capital of GalÃ¡pagos, voyagers will find much less in the way of supplies and services. Even so, the island offers several nature sites locally and on the nearby islands of EspaÃ±ola and Santa Fï¿½Â©. In Villamil on Isabela, visitors can go on horse-back day trips to the giant Sierra Negra caldera. The sea trips to the remote and spectacular sites on Isabela, the grand island of the group, will take time to organize.
Newcomers to the GalÃ¡pagos often ask: “Do we really have to see all of it?ï¿½VbCrLf Most definitely yes! The rushing flood of human growth is fast deleting the natural aspects of the earth into a basket of oblivion. If you take the trouble to sail thousands of miles to new experiences, you can’t afford to give up the best of “the last placesï¿½VbCrLf because of a few obstacles easily solved by throwing some money at them. How much depends on the depth of your pockets.
A good approach is to obtain a cruising permit, called an autografo, from the Ministry of Defense in Quito, capital of Ecuador, on the mainland. Sounds like a mountain to scale? Quite right. So you hire an agency like Naugala in Puerto Ayora and leave the work to Johnny Romero, its manager. The initial charge for his services varies with the size of the boat. During your visit, Romero will charge a weekly rate for taking care of all the boat business, clearing in, clearing out, organizing fuel, shipping complicated repairs to the mainland and back, and flying parts in from the States. Romero is a rep for FedEx and other couriers, including the U.S. Postal Service, as well as a customs broker.
The autografo, good for three months in our case, allowed us to visit all four of the harbors as much as we wanted, but not the National Park territory, which covers 97 percent of the archipelago. It can get expensive at this point. Some very large yachts cough up the $200/day needed for a top-of-the-line naturalist guide/dive master who must live aboard while the yacht is in park waters.
And there’s more! Next they pay the park $200 a day per person, including the yacht’s crew who sometimes do not even step ashore. However, no park charges apply when the boat spends a whole day and night in an official harbor. This policy makes it possible for the less affluent autografo holders to anchor their boats for days in the approved official harbors and board one of the dozens of local boats in order to cruise the islands at reasonable tourist rates.
The absolute must-see places vary with each visitor’s main interests. Scuba divers should head for Wolf and Darwin to get wet among whale sharks and schools of hammerheads. Giant mantas feed near Cabo Marshall, on the eastern side of Isla Isabela. Memories of diving and voyaging the west shores of Isabela with a visit at Fernandina will last a lifetime. The high-fired lava fields of Bartolomï¿½Â© and Santiago islands take you back to this planet’s origins. On the bird island of Genovesa, a half-open caldera, you can stand 10 inches from a red-footed booby and feel invisible as the bird pays attention only to what’s flying overhead. Sit on a beach on Santa Fï¿½Â© and a sea-lion pup may snuggle up for a nap. Sea lions, marine iguanas in vivid colors, hawks, and blue-footed and Nazca boobies, the majority of the archipelago’s most visible animals, crowd Punta SuÃ¡rez on EspaÃ±ola. Towering over the other birds, waved albatrosses come here to breed. To see them perform their complex bonding rituals, you should land sometime between April and December.
Even though the equator slices through the archipelago, the weather is ruled by the flow of the cold Humboldt Current from the south. The juxtaposition of cold water and hot land allows both flamingoes and a species of penguins to thrive here. Before the days of GPS, the strong, swirling currents confused navigators already handicapped by the persistently overcast sky. They called the islands Islas Encantadas – bewitched.
The water is always colder – a full-wet-suit 68ï¿½ to 69ï¿½ F – in Estrecho de Bolivar on the west side of Isabela and around Wolf and Darwin farther north. Cold current brings food, and the sea life explodes – whales, dolphins and even sunfish are common there. Divers off the southern and eastern islands can enjoy balmy 73ï¿½ to 75ï¿½ seas. As a rule, the anchorages off the park sites are open during the rough months of July and August and sometimes into September, and in October the landings are swept by surges.
The calmest weather begins in January and can continue through May – the best months for avid scuba divers. During our visit from the end of October into January, the winds kept up at an average 12 knots from between southeast and southwest. We had no problem making beach landings from a semirigid inflatable. n
Tom Zydler is a freelance writer, photographer and an experienced charter captain.