Touring San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

In continuing with our Galapagos Island themed posts, we recently spent a glorious 2.5 weeks doing land-based travels in the Galapagos which has been one of the biggest highlights of our 14 month trip around the world so far. We’ve covered touring the “main island” of Santa Cruz, as well as the largest and most rugged of the inhabited islands, Isla Isabela, so now that leaves us with beautiful San Cristobal.

Puerto Bazquerizo Moreno is the town on San Cristobal island and has a population of about 6,600 people which makes it a nice mix between the city-like feel of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, and the sleepy fishing village on Isabela. The island features a small airport, naval base, university, the Galapagos Interpretation Centre and a natural history museum. It is also sea lion central so you will have no shortage of opportunities to get up close and personal with these hilarious animals.

Sharing the beach with sea lions
Sea Lions are on pretty much every beach on San Cristobal

Getting to San Cristobal

There is a small airport on San Cristobal that is served by both small inter-island aircraft, as well as larger flights from Ecuador’s mainland cities of Guyaquil or Quito operated by TAME, South American Airlines, and Avianca. You can walk to airport from town in only 15 minutes. In our case, we flew to Santa Cruz (aka Balta airport) from Quito, took a ferry to San Cristobal, and then flew from San Cristobal back to Quito. If we were really thinking, we would have flown from San Cristobal to Guyaquil since it is much closer to what was our next stop on the itinerary, Cuenca in southern Ecuador. Instead, we had to endure a torturous 10 hour bus ride from Quito. Don’t do this if Cuenca, Esmeralda, or Vilacambamba etc. is your next stop. Fly to Guyaquil and enjoy a much shorter bus ride!

San Cristobal is also accessible by ferry from Santa Cruz Island. Ferry tickets can be purchased from any number of sellers in Puerto Ayora for about $25-40usd per person one way. The difference in prices is mainly whether or not you get a snack on the boat and whether or not the boat is covered for example. Paying more could also mean more horsepower, but it could also mean nothing. Just ask a lot of questions before you chose an operator. Ferries generally leave twice a day, with the morning ferry leaving for San Cristobal around 7:00am but most companies will ask that you be at the docks at least 30 minutes ahead of time. The trip takes around 2.5 hours to make the crossing which can be quite rough. That said, people have been lucky enough to see whales when crossing and we had the chance to spot a waved albatross near the boat.

You will also need to pay 0.50usd when leaving Santa Cruz to the water taxi to the lancha and 0.50usd again to get from the lancha to San Cristobal.

Things to do on San Cristobal Galapagos

Hiking and Beaches on San Cristobal

There are a number of great hiking destinations on San Cristobal, most of which lead to a new beach to swim and snorkel in, and best of all, they’re free!

Interpretation Center Hike

The Interpretation Center is an awesome place to go on your first day in San Cristobal. It can be reached via a 30 minute walk from the town centre. It’s free to visit and includes tons of information about the archipelago’s fascinating human and natural history, as well as an interesting discussion about sustainable tourism and conservation and development. Plan to spend about an hour there and then enjoy the trails leading from it.

Darwin’s Cove

From behind the Interpretation Centre, you can walk uphill to two lookouts providing amazing views of the island and its bays. One features a canon and the other a statue of Charles Darwin. From the statue, you can walk down to Darwin’s Cove where you can swim and snorkel. You will be sure to see sea lions and possibly green sea turtles among other interesting creatures.

Cruise Boat Docked off Darwin's Cove
Cruise Boat Docked off Darwin’s Cove

Frigatebird Hill (Cerro Tijeretas)

Also starting from behind the Interpretation Center, continue walking uphill past the Darwin statue to a beautiful lookout atop Frigatebird Hill which is aptly named because many magnificent frigatebirds roost and nest there. You may even be lucky enough to see a male with his fancy red breeding pouch inflated to attract a lady friend. From the top, you can also look out onto the beautiful Darwin’s Cove and even spot Kicker Rock (Leon dormido) in the distance. It should take about an hour to reach the top from town. It is a great place to watch the sunset, and don’t worry about needing to get back through the Interpetation Center to walk back to town as there is another route which will take you to Punta Carola beach. This beach is an equally nice place to watch the sunset alongside some furry friends.

 

Sunset on San Cristobal Island
Sunset on San Cristobal Island

Baquerizo Beach

From Frigatebird Hill, you can continue on walking another hour via a mostly boot-beaten path to a secluded beach. You will be sure to see marine iguanas and lava lizards along the way. The trail becomes very faint at some points during the walk, so just follow the coast until it appears again. Eventually you will reach a quiet, secluded beach where you can swim and snorkel if you like. The water was very murky when we went, so I preferred to stay on land and enjoy watching over 5 sea turtles poke their heads out of the water, as well as spying some sea lions and their antics. These clumsy-looking animals on land turn into veritable acrobats in the water and you can often see them doing flips and tricks on the surface, especially if they’re in hot pursuit of a playmate.

If we’re being perfectly honest, the hike to the beach is kind of long, hot, boring and we didn’t really think the beach was worth it once we finally got there. The seas were rough and the visibility was terrible. At one point, I could see from the shore that a sea turtle was surfacing right beside Mr. Zen but he never saw it despite it being right in front of him. There are nice beaches closer to town where you can see plenty of silly sea lions and I think the best swims with good visibility will need to be reached via a paid tour.

La Loberia

The hike to the La Loberia lookout was one of our favourite things that we did on San Cristobal. The beach and lookout can be reached via a thirty minute walk from town or short taxi ride to La Loberia. From there, you can walk to a number of beaches where you may snorkel and swim but do be careful as the waves can be very strong. If you continue walking past the beaches, you can climb along lava rock to a viewpoint overlooking some spectacularly rough swells. We marvelled at the awesome power of the waves crashing against the rocks, sending mist all the way up to where we were standing. There you can also see swallow-tailed gulls, tropicbirds, frigatebirds, and blue-footed boobies. There will also be marine iguanas, lava lizards, and sally lightfoot crabs dotting the path along the way.

San Cristobal DIY Hike - Waves Splashing
Waves crashing on the cliffs at La Loberia

Guided Tours on San Cristobal

Kicker Rock

This is probably San Cristobal’s signature trip with good reason. Kicker Rock, or Leon Dormido (sleeping lion in Spanish) is a stunning rock formation that juts formidably out of what seems like the middle of the open ocean. It can be reached via a 45 minute boat ride from the port. Tours going to the rock involve snorkelling at the rock, a boat ride around it to see all facets of it, and a stop at a beach for more snorkelling or lounging. Tours generally include a hot lunch aboard the boat too, or at the very least some snacks. Prices generally range from $75usd per person if the operator is looking to sell off some last minute seats to $125 or more. Lucky people can see hammerhead sharks here, as well as black-tipped sharks, Galapagos sharks, and plenty of sea turtles. Blue footed boobies and pelicans also nest on the rock, and there is one lonely marine iguana inhabitant who somehow made it all the way out there.

We didn’t do this tour because we went diving here instead. (more on that later)

Espanola Island

This small, uninhabited island can be visited via a tour from San Cristobal. Here people may see the massive waved albatrosses and if visited during the months of  June to August, the island will covered with cute fluffy chicks. You can also see blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, espanola iguanas and possibly sea lion pups. The tour also includes a swim and snorkel in Gardner Bay where you can splash alongside sea lions and sea turtles. Tours include lunch and snacks and costs about $150-$200.

Also, some dive operators offer a morning dive with a visit to Espanola in the afternoon which is something we really wanted to do. We weren’t able to find an operator that could go on the days that worked for us and the other days were full.

Baby Frigate Bird on Galapagos Islands
Baby Frigate Bird!

Punta Pitt

We almost did this tour but it doesn’t go every day and couldn’t find a day that had both availability and worked for us. So if this is something that you’re interested in, look into dates as soon as possible and book it before it fills up. This tour involves a long boat ride to the easternmost point of San Cristobal island. Following a 2 hour hike, you can reach scenic lava outlooks and the nesting grounds of blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, and Nazca boobies. It’s the only place on the island where you can see all three types of boobies. Some tour operators also offer the opportunity to go fishing in the afternoon. As is the norm, it includes a boxed lunch and will set you back about $140.

360 Tour

This full-day tour is a great option if you’re looking for a unique and exhilarating experience that packs a lot in one day. As the name implies, the boats on these tours circumnavigate the whole island, stopping at secluded beaches along the way and reaching sites like Kicker Rock before the rest of the tourist boats arrive. That said, only a small number of operators have the appropriate permits so the boats that they use may not be as comfortable as the other tourist boats. Most will take you to snorkel at Kicker Rock, see the red footed boobies of Punta Pitt (from the boat, you don’t disembark like on the day tour), and then to places that are off limits to other tourists boats and cruise ships for swimming and landing on secluded beaches. You may also have the opportunity to fish for your supper. All that said, it is important to remember that since you are packing so many activities into one day, your time at each place will be limited. So if an in depth experience snorkelling at iconic Kicker Rock is what you’re after, it will likely make more sense to book the specific tour.

It should cost about $150.

SCUBA Diving in San Cristobal

The diving off of San Cristobal Island is simply superb and quite possibly the best that we encountered in all of the Galapagos Islands. Keep in mind that we missed the famous Gordon Rocks and the far flung sites at the islands of Wolf and Darwin, which are definitely on our hit list.

When we dove at Kicker Rock where we had two immersions at the rock itself, a scenic ride around the rock, and a stopover at a secluded beach where a naturalist guide took us on a walk to see some marine iguanas who were surprisingly absent. That part wasn’t a total bust though, when one of the other travellers we were with suggested that sea lions were lazy, the guide launched into a passionate defense of the creatures and explained the many incredible feats that they are capable of accomplishing. I was impressed by both the guide’s in depth knowledge, and by the sea lions themselves.

The diving at Kicker Rock was nothing short of amazing. We went with Wreck Bay Diving Center and our dive master Franklin (I believe) was one of the best we’ve ever had. He was excellent at guiding us to the animals and putting us in a position to observe the animals without them fleeing. During our two immersions we saw among others, schools of hammerhead sharks as large as 10-15, Galapagos sharks, large black-tipped sharks, yellow-fin tuna, rays, and massive schools of fish. During the surface interval, the boat drove us around Kicker Rock so we could see it from all angles. After our dives, we made our way to a secluded beach to eat lunch and enjoy some RnR in the sun. Some people opted to chill on the beach, while Mr. Zen and I went snorkelling. We didn’t see anything that compared to the dives that we just did, but it was nice to motor around in the water a bit. Afterward, a naturalist guide took us on a walk around the beach where he explained some of the landscape features eventually admitted that out of all the animals on the island, they were his very favourite. Dives to Kicker Rock cost about 180usd per person.

Kicker Rock San Cristobal
Kicker Rock, just off San Cristobal Island

Our second day of diving was with Scuba Eden and again our dive master was excellent. He was a very young guy, only 21 or so but clearly very passionate about diving and this helped make the experience as wonderful as it was. We stayed closer to bay this time which meant we got to sleep in a little and finish in time for a nice lunch in town. First we dove close to Frigatebird Hill but much farther out from the shore. There we saw octopi, small rays, lots of sea lions who like to swim right up to you before darting off at the last second, nudibranches, green sea turtles, and lots of different kinds of fish. One sea lion seemed to develop a crush on me and kept swimming back to check up on me as we made our way through the dive. While we ate our snacks during the surface interval, a sea lion jumped onto the front of the boat to try to steal a meal. We laughed as the captain had to shove the heavy beast back into the water. Sea lions never cease to entertain and I miss being able to see them every day.

Our second dive was at the wreck  just in front of the port. The wreck featured lots of coral, nudibranches again, and many kinds of fish. It’s also a cool place where you can really feel the thermocline, practice swim-throughs, and of course tour an old ship. You can still see the anchor as well as its massive chain and the engine room. It was our first wreck dive and we were pleased with it. I’m not sure if it’s a regular occurrence, but we when we saw the dive master later in the day, he told us that the visibility was really bad at those sites in the afternoon, so morning dives there might be the best.

Another reason why we loved Scuba Eden was although most dive masters in the Galapagos take an underwater camera with them, not all are particularly adept at using it. To be fair, the deep, dark waters of the Galapagos and the fact that the larger animals are over 5m away, don’t exactly make the task an easy one.  In this case, our dive master took some incredible footage that he shared with us afterwards for which we are grateful. These dives cost $140usd per person.

 

 Where to Stay

We stayed at Hostal Gosen which was a nice enough place. It had a large and fully stocked kitchen to prepare your own meals, just be careful of fridge thieves. We had our leftovers STOLEN by some miscreant who will burn in fiery hell for this evil deed. We responded to this horrendous crime by posting a note on the fridge advising them exactly what we thought of them knowing full well that food would never be unstolen, but writing the note and drawing a stick figure on fire did make us feel good for a brief moment. Upon seeing our artwork, the owners decided to canvass the whole place to see if the food thief would fess up which of course they didn’t but we appreciated the efforts nonetheless. At any rate, put your food in a bag that’s tied closed and clearly labeled so that it’s not so easy for losers to take it.

The place is otherwise a good option, with cheery murals in the rooms and not freezing water for the showers. The main floor rooms are cheaper but they are louder, especially when the owners invite their whole family over for a party that begins at 6am. The courtyard out front is nice too. The best rooms are on the second floor but they cost more. I’m not sure we would stay there again unless we were ok with paying extra for the second floor. If you’re looking for more budget-friendly options, there are a lot of businesses that offer basic rooms but don’t advertise online. You can simply ask around once you get there, but do keep in mind that the only people we saw doing this were still looking after dark. No word on when they started looking though.

Another thing to consider is that while it may seem ideal to be close to the beach, the waterfront is positively crawling with sea lions that can be very noisy. You will never forget the first time you hear that bizarre, deep-bellied belching sound that they make. We recommend staying a few blocks back from the beach.

If you do decide to book online, use this link to get a $25 credit for your first booking on Booking.com.

Where to Eat and Drink on San Cristobal Galapagos

Breakfast

As we’ve mentioned before, if you’re eating on a budget, bakeries are your friends in the Galapagos. One of the best bakeries we have visited in South America so far is Cuenca Taste. Here you can get just about any treat you desire, including donuts, cheesecake, croissants, muffins, rolls, buns, cookies, etc. We were sad on the days it was closed.

Like on Isabela, the coffee generally super sucks on the island and most places will charge you way too much for putrid Nescafe. We bring your own and use a mesh filter to make easy and delicious pour over coffee with boiled water. The $1.50 we spent on a mesh filter recently has been one of our most favourite purchases on the road so far.

We did love our breakfast that we had at  Creperia el Puerte, it had a reasonably-priced crepe and good coffee combo. If you’re walking to the airport for a morning flight, this place makes a good stop along the way.

Lunch

Almuerzos on San Cristobal cost closer to what you would pay elsewhere in Ecuador. Just like almuerzos on the mainland, you will be fed a positively stupid amount of food so stock up and eat something small for dinner. For those who may not know, almuerzos are the “daily menu” that are usually advertised on a white erase board and generally feature soup to start, a main dish that typically includes rice with some kind of protein, and a fresh-made juice of some sort.

The best almuerzo we had on this island was at Restaurante Laurita’s. Here we got to try sopa de queso (cheese soup) finally which is as good as it sounds. The portion was so massive that I could barely touch my equally enormous main which was a good-tasting rice dish made with meat and vegetables and sauce mixed in. It was so good in fact, that we decided that we would split the rest of Philip’s almuerzo and keep mine to have for dinner as leftovers. The portions are so huge at Laurita’s that it was enough for both of us to have a decent portion. Sadly some asshat stole it out of the hostel fridge so we had to go without. We tried to go back after diving one day, but she had already closed by 2 by being out of food. This made us sad because Laurita’s cooking is excellent, some of the best we had in Ecuador.

Cri’s Burgers

We stopped here twice for lunch and were pleased both times. The burgers are huge and made fresh and they also have a 3 for $11 deal for the Endemica Blonde beers.

Endemica Beer, brewed on San Cristobal Island
Endemica Beer, brewed on San Cristobal Island

Kioskos at Punta Carolina

Some days from about 10:00am to 4:00pm, the kioskos at the Playa Mann open and they sell everything from sandwiches to catch of the day seafood to delicious fresh fruit smoothies. We opted for one of these and it was divine for about $3usd.

Dinner

We took advantage of our well-stocked kitchen in our hostel to make some meals at home, but we did enjoy the following places for dinner.

Guiseppe’s Restaurant
Good pizza, pasta, and wine at Guiseppe’s. The tables in front offer dining al fresco.

Midori Sushi
Just like on Santa Cruz, this place has awesome sushi that’s reasonably priced.

Snacks

There are some street stalls that pop up after dark along the road that leads to the Interpretation Center. The pinchos (meat skewers) are tasty enough but the empanadas are ABOMINATIONS after the ones we had on Santa Cruz. I meant when I said we feel like that place ruined them for us. Also they charge $2usd for these lukewarm, limp, barely stuffed, flavourless literal sad sacks of flour and they don’t even offer a sauce to put on them.

Loads of places offer fresh fruit smoothies as the perfect in between meals snack and they can be beefed up by adding milk or yoghurt. We had a partcillarly good one at Lucky’s. She even pointed out the coconut trees where Mr. Zen’s fruit had been picked from that day, now that’s fresh! We didn’t get the chance, but this place looked like it would be great for lunch or dinner too.

Laundry

Here laundry is refreshingly $1 a kilogram like everywhere else in Ecuador.

Money

Like we’ve said before, we recommend getting money out either on the mainland or Santa Cruz beforehand. Use the Banco Pichincha ATM on Santa Cruz pictured below because you can take out $600usd at a time rather than only $200 like other ATMs in Galapagos.

Banco Pichincha
Banco Pichincha on Santa Cruz – the highest withdrawal amount we found on the Galapagos Islands

Another thing to consider, is that a Galapagos-wide straw, plastic bag, and non-reusable bottle ban is in the process of being implemented this summer. When we were there in June, businesses had already phased out plastic straws and single use utensils. We recommend bringing a reusable water bottle, either with filter or without, some reusable cloth bags, and some stainless steel straws if you prefer drinking with one. We’ve provided some links to products that we travel with and love. The reusable bags are also great for storing your food in the hostel fridge to prevent thievery we have learned.

Of all the inhabited Galapagos islands, San Cristobal strikes a nice balance between opportunities for rugged exploration and modern amenities. It sheds the still-being-in-the-city feel of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, but provides a slightly more modern experience than the little fishing town on Isabela. The beaches, hills, and dive sites offer expansive vistas and once in a lifetime wildlife viewing opportunities. We won’t soon forget our time on San Cristobal and miss watching sunsets alongside silly sea lions.

This post concludes our tour of our 2.5 week land-based trip to the Galapagos.

Sunset on San Cristobal
Sunset on San Cristobal

We loved our time there so much we are already planning to go back at some point, but first the rest of the world calls!

 

 

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