Friday, May 3, 2013

Galapagos Islands Practical

Times are changing rapidly again in the Galapagos, and not for the best, especially for cruisers. Apparently a new law has been passed, augmenting the Galapagosian motto of “sustainable tourism = less tourists who pay more money”.  From 2014 every person visiting the islands by boat (possibly by land as well), will have to pay $300, meaning that a cruising couple has to put down $600 daily, for the privilege of being here! Based on that new law, few sailboats will visit the Galapagos, or even more will try to pull off the 72-hour emergency stop. This will also lead to agents losing their job, water taxis sitting idle and restaurants and other shore facilities receiving fewer customers. One can only imagine how this will affect the local economy. Yet another place where only the rich will be able to afford a visit… until the tide changes again in a few years. With that in mind, not many people will probably benefit from this blog post, but in case these are all just rumors, here we go! 

There are two ways (well, three if you count the 72-hour emergency stop) to legitimately visit the Galapagos islands by private boat. You can just show up in one of the three main ports (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno – San Cristobal, Puerto Ayora  - Santa Cruz, or Villamil - Isabela) , get hold of an agent via the local VHF channel (or they might offer their services coming directly to your boat) and stay for 20 days, in the one port. Cost: around $500 for boats under 40 feet. The second option is to contact an agent ahead of time through email and arrange for an autografo, which are limited. This piece of paper allows you to visit the three main ports and stay up to two months in the archipelago.  You still have to get in touch with your agent when you arrive in one of the ports and deal with an inspection and the necessary paperwork. Moving between the three ports also requires checking in and out of each harbor. The agents do their job, but nothing more. Our experience with Bolivar (San Cristobal) is that once he has his money (a lot!), you don’t see him around anymore and he becomes less responsive and responsible over email.

Some boats got in trouble in Isabela when their autografo expired. They had asked for extensions well ahead of time, but both Bolivar and his representative in Isabela, JC, had said they didn’t need one, to just “lay low” and hang out, and everything would be fine.  Not so much. One day, the port captain came by, realizing what was going on and kicked all the “illegal” boats out! A couple had twelve hours to prepare for the big voyage, another boat received one hour notice! Not really how you want to start a three to four week sail across the Pacific Ocean!

In regards to checking in fees and other harbor costs, I can only speak for our boat Irie, which is a mere 35 feet. We had to pay $400 as an agent fee and another $470 for port and other fees. $70 of that was an overtime fee, because we checked in on a Saturday. So, if possible, avoid weekends and holidays to check in or out of the (any) country. On top of that, we paid about $15 for a zarpe (paper to allow you to travel to another port) the times we left a harbor and $5 every time we arrived in a new port. So add about another $60 to the lot. We counted on about $1000 to visit the Galapagos, so I guess we succeeded. Truly the most expensive country Irie has visited. Of course, this doesn’t account for other expenses and tours!

Life on the islands is affordable. We stocked up in Panama, so we didn’t have to buy a lot of staples, other than fresh produce and some beer to make our stock last longer. Fruits and veggies cost about $1 a pound, big beers are about $2.50 with the returnable bottle costing 25 cents, a 2l bottle of coke costs $3 including a $1 deposit, 1l of UHT milk costs between $1.75 and $2. Souvenir T-shirts go for $13-$18. Most other things are imported or arrive from mainland Ecuador and are a bit expensive. Eating out in local restaurants is possible for $3-$5 a person, including a juice, soup and main dish (fish, pork, beef or chicken). Drinking out is pretty pricey, but, smuggling your own rum with you and mixing it with a purchased coke, makes this work as well on random occasions. J Isabela is more expensive than the two other islands we visited. Tours are very expensive everywhere.

Gasoline and diesel can be arranged through water taxi drivers, but caution is required, as this is the illegal (and cheapest) way to buy fuel. Word of mouth will help. You can purchase fuel through the agents, but you will pay $1-$2 a gallon more. If you manage to make it to a gas station on shore, you pay the tourist price, which is also around $4 a gallon for diesel or gasoline (locals pay $1 for diesel and $1.45 for gasoline). In Isabela (and maybe in the other towns as well?) you are required to obtain a fuel certificate, which allows you to buy some. In Isabela, this piece of paper costs an additional $15. The port captain can decide on a whim to put a halt to the sale of this certificate, which happened at one point. But then, once he wanted some boats out of the bay, he has the power to open gas stations (closed for lunch) and suddenly things work very quickly!

Drinking water is a bit trickier. In San Cristobal, you basically have to buy the 5 gallon jugs on shore and haul them to the boat, empty the water in the tank and bring back the bottles for which you paid a high deposit. We lucked out with some rain there.  In Santa Cruz, you can do the same or contact one of the water taxi drivers with your water request. He will fill up a massive container and come to your boat, where you “tank” the desalinated water into your boat and extra jugs. Very easy and efficient! We paid $25 for 70 gallons and he threw in a few extra for free. In Isabela, JC can arrange the guy who desalinates water on his property. He will arrive with a massive tank in his pick-up truck and you meet him at the dock with your (and your neighbors) jugs to bring the required water back to your boat in as few trips as possible. It worked OK for us, since we have a small tank. Two dinghy trips and $21 did the trick to obtain 70 gallons.

Laundry can be dropped off ashore in any of the three villages. You can have them do the whole service (wash-dry-fold) or just do the washing and let the sun do the drying. In San Cristobal, we paid 50 cents a pound for a full service treatment, in Isabela, the price was 50 cents a pound for just washing. Do-it-yourself laundromats are non-existent.

Propane bottles can be filled in all three villages, using the gravity procedure. The gas is relatively expensive, compared to other countries. We paid $30 for a 20 pound tank. If you do it yourself, having the correct fittings, it is much cheaper. You pay a deposit for the local tank, pay a little bit for the gas (about $10),deal with the long procedure onboard and swap the bottle back for your deposit.

Little grocery stores abound, but don’t expect anything like Panama City or other western places. Santa Cruz is the best place to stock up on things, since the supermarket on the waterfront is fully stocked and easily accessible. All three villages have a few good bakeries with daily fresh bread. In Isabela everything is closed between 12pm and 3pm!

There are many! All things considered, there are few places you are allowed to venture yourself. With the big boat, you can only stop at the one or three ports allocated to you. With the dinghy, you can only drive the shortest distance between your boat and the dock. No sightseeing! For many sights, you need the presence of a paid National Park guide. You are allowed to swim around your boat, but don’t stray too far… Most of these rules, we knew ahead and we gladly agree with. The Galapagos are a unique area and we all want to keep it that way. Where we have a problem is when the “hypocrisy” comes into play. Having massive wakes created by speeding tour boats and local fishing boats in the bay where wildlife and people frequent the water. (Why is there no speed limit? Why do the boats LOVE to drive as close as possible to anchored sailboats?)  Seeing park rangers smoke in a hidden corner while smoking is prohibited. Watching the guy feeding the giant tortoises at one of the institutes ignore the juvenile turtles on the ground and stepping on top of them. Spotting many scars on turtles and sea lions, and noticing a penguin with a hurt wing, realizing it is probably due to inconsiderate drivers. Being annoyed with water taxis and other local boaters not keeping an eye on the wildlife, just being their macho self. 

I know most people in the Galapagos are very involved and concerned with wildlife preservation and conservation, but, unfortunately, there are always “the others” for whom time is money and money means the world…

It is hard not to do a tour, even though you already paid a lot of money for being here.  From volcano hikes, to snorkel tours, island visits and boat trips, much is possible and the whole archipelago is reachable by day trips or multiple day cruises. For a price. Divers can take their pick from many possibilities offered.  You can use tour agencies or your harbor agent for an easy arrangement or you can try to skip the middle man and find better prices. It all depends on your budget and time frame.

People who decide to visit the Galapagos by private boat will not be disappointed, whether they stay for three weeks or two months. The autografo allowed us to take it easy and do the sights at our own pace, for a friend to be able to come and visit, for boat maintenance and chores to be combined with sightseeing and wildlife watching, mostly from Irie itself.  Getting an autografo costs about $200 more, mainly agent fees, than staying in the one single port. We are happy we did it the way we did it to give ourselves all the amazing opportunities we ran into and to have plenty of time. If we were to pick only one port, however, we would probably choose for Isabela. San Cristobal really pleased us as well (because of the giant amount of sea lions and the freedom to visit places ourselves) but the island of Isabela has interesting highlights and tours and you can meet all the animal species from the other places here as well, which makes it stand out. Plus, the laid-back atmosphere – very different from the two other ports and towns - and amazing beach are attractions in themself!


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