Snorkeling in the Galápagos Islands – Ecuador

A Galápagos sea lion snorkeling with Szandra and Carlos
Snorkeling In The Galápagos Islands with sea lions. Photo: Szandra Lukacs

Visiting the Galápagos Islands is a dream for anyone interested in wildlife or the ocean. Its unique position and isolated terrain has created a diversity of plant and animal species, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Two scuba diving instructors and snorkeling enthusiasts, Szandra and Carlos, recently visited this amazing volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Here are their tips and experiences to help guide you on your Galápagos experience!

Aerial view of Santa Cruz
Arriving At Santa Cruz via airplane. Photo: Szandra Lukacs

HOW TO GET TO THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS?

The only way to get to Galápagos Islands is to fly. There are two islands you can fly to; Baltra/Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal.

First you have to make it to Ecuador and from there the cheapest flight tickets are from Guayaquil where the flight takes about 2 hours. There are 3 airlines operating this route at the moment: Avianca, Latam and Equair. Being local company, Equair is the cheapest – but the most difficult to reserve tickets for. The online payment doesn’t accept foreign cards, you have to make a cash deposit to their bank account. Booking the flight tickets you will also have to be super cautious with the rates, as the low price tickets are reserved for Ecuadorian nationals only.

Extra information to know, is that you will have to purchase a tourist transit card (20 USD) and pay the National Park fee (100 USD or 50 USD if you are from a country within Mercosur) when you arrive. There are also limitations on food items you can bring with you.

If you land on San Cristóbal you have an easy way getting to town, to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno- the capital of Galápagos Islands. You can either walk 20 minutes, or take a taxi.

On the other hand, landing in Baltra will require a little bit longer journey to reach Puerto Ayora, the main town of Santa Cruz. First, you will have to take a bus (5 USD), then a boat to cross the channel to Santa Cruz from Baltra (1 USD), then another bus (5 USD) or a taxi. In total it will take about 2 hours to get to town from the airport.

There are regular ferry service between the three large islands: Isla Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal – there is no direct boat between Isabela and San Cristóbal (30 USD).

Szandra Lukacs on the beach with the wildlife.
Enjoying the beach with some new friends. Photo: Szandra Lukacs

WHY ARE WE GOING TO THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS?

The Galápagos Islands are known to have the best dive sites in the world, with schooling hammerhead sharks, eagle rays, manta rays, mola mola, dolphins, whale sharks, marine iguanas, sea lions… everything you can wish for.

The most popular (and also the most expensive) way to enjoy the Galápagos Islands is to go on a liveaboard scuba diving boat trip. The liveaboard boats are able to reach dive sites which are a bit further out, and are considered to be the best of the best, like Darwin or Wolf Island for large pelagic fish.

If you are on a bit of a lower budget there is no reason to be sad as the 3 big main islands (Isla Isabela, Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal) are all offering amazing daily dives. The most popular dive sites are North Seymur, Kicker Rock, Gordon Rock, but there are so many more and really, there are no dive sites you can go wrong with on the islands. It is almost guaranteed that you will see turtles, rays and either black or white tip reef sharks, and these are the animals you will encounter if you are “unlucky.”

If you want to have a guaranteed spot on one of the bigger boats you will have to reserve your trip weeks in advance, if not earlier. However, if you are a bit flexible with your time and not picky on the company, you can grab a cheaper liveaboard trip by booking it from the islands, as they have many last minute sales.

If you are doing day diving you should reserve spots few days prior. Daily double tank dives start at 180 USD. It is important to note that many dive sites are for advanced divers only and the dive operator will ask for a proof of 100 logged dives (especially on liveaboards). This is all for safety reasons as there can be challenging water conditions, including very strong currents.

Read More: What should divers do for their own safety?

Generally speaking, the Galápagos doesn’t have the greatest visibility underwater. Depending on the season, it can range from 3-20 meters. Strong currents can change multiple times a day, but thanks for this nutrition rich water that an amazing biodiversity can be seen here.

Galápagos offers great diving all year around, but depending on what you want to see there are two main seasons: December to June when the water temperatures are warmer (20-25°C / 68-77°F) and visibility is better. This is the season to see manta rays and hammerhead sharks.

July to November the water is cooler (19-23°C / 66-73°F) and more choppy, but this is also the time to see migrating whale sharks.

A ray lurking on the sea bed in the Galapagos
There is an abundance of marine life in the Galápagos. Photo: Szandra Lukacs

THE BEST SNORKELING SPOTS IN THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

We tried our best to see as many sea and land animals as possible. We made a list of the best snorkeling spots available without joining any expensive tours. We visited the three large islands, Isla Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal and we spent 2 weeks discovering all the hidden spots not many people talk about.

Isla Isabela Snorkeling

Just right next to the main pier of Puerto Villamil is a small bay called Concha Perla. It is a protected bay which opens up from the mangrove. Because of the mangrove the water is nutrition rich where you can find thousands of transparent shrimp feeding between the roots. If you are lucky there are also seahorses to be found clinging to the plants. The water is surprisingly clear at low tide and only has a little bit of a greenish color. However, when high tide comes in the visibility gets a little lower, but this is the best time to see penguins (though you must be super super lucky for it). We encountered hawksbill and green turtles, sea lions and giant stingrays in the bay, and also swam with some marine iguanas at the surface.

Tours to consider for snorkeling: Los Tuneles is the most popular boat tour, which takes you to underwater lava tunnels where you are almost guaranteed to see seahorses and white tip reef sharks, and even eagle rays. Tours start from 120 USD. The cheaper version of the Tuneles tour is Las Tintoreras. This is a 3 hours boat tour (40 USD) where you visit the small islands opposite to Concha Perla. Here you will take a walk to see the large colony of sea lions and stop for snorkeling in the lava tunnels where there can be many white tip reef sharks, turtles, sea lions and occasionally penguins too as they are residents of Tintoreras islands.

Santa Cruz Snorkeling

In April the waters around Santa Cruz were already choppy, so we didn’t manage to find amazing snorkeling sites. Because of the position of the town, most of the shore that you can reach on foot was facing the swell. But in a more calm months Playa Estacion and La Ratonera could be a good spot to see marine iguanas underwater as they feed there at low tide. (The beaches are within the Charles Darwin Research Station.)

The only calm bay we found was opening from the end of Tourtuga Bay, Playa Mansa- 1 hour walk away from Puerto Ayora- which is surrounded by mangrove. The water was very greenish here, but you still can spot small rays or turtles. If you swim further out you can be lucky to see reef sharks too, but you should carry a Surface Marker Buoy (SMB) with you as there can be boat traffic.

You can also snorkel at Las Grietas (10 USD entrance fee). There are 3 small lagoons formed in between the lava tunnels where there are few fishes trapped here, but it is more interesting for the underwater rock formations. We didn’t find it a must to go place though. From Santa Cruz there are many day tours including land and snorkeling. Tours start from 90 USD for half a day and usually one of the stops is where you have a chance to snorkel with sea lions and turtles.

San Cristóbal Snorkeling

This is our favorite island for snorkeling! Tijeretas Bay is where you will find all the “young and wild” curious sea lions. It is about 45 mins walk away from town center, but you can catch a taxi half way. Don’t attempt to go into the water if the conditions are not good, it can get very choppy some days and there are many large rock sin the water which makes it almost impossible to exit.

We visited this bay five days in a row and four of those days the water was beautiful. From all the places we visited, this had the best visibility, 20 meters + (compared to previous ~10m). There were huge turtles everywhere and sea lions were playing all around. We enjoyed watching the young ones chasing each other and playing. They were not bothered by us at all and they came very close, some of them even involved us in the game. They swam up to us at a very fast speed then in the last moment before they would bump into us, took a turn. It was super fun. Some of the sea lions were even harassing sea turtles underwater! We stayed in the water with them as long as it was physically possible – until we were not freezing cold.

There were water birds hunting here for small fishes which were in large schools in the bay, and sometimes we could see the blue footed boobies diving for them while we were snorkeling. It is incredible how deep they can go to catch a fish. Other than turtles and sea lions there can be octopus and various rays, reef sharks and lots of starfish to be found. To be honest we didn’t see much fish at all, but also there are no corals here. (There were only a few in Concha Perla).

Colorful starfish in the Galapagos
Nutrient dense water has created a bio-diverse ecosystem in the Galápagos. Photo: Szandra Lukacs

There is another bay called Baquerizo about 45 minutes walk away on lava rocks. This bay was a bit choppy when we got here, but it was lunchtime for the marine iguanas and they were all heading into the water. I decided to go in as well and check the underwater conditions. The visibility was about 4 meters and the bottom was very rocky, the water was only reaching up to chest so it was a bit hard to control my position with the waves. I also got scared by a sea lion and a turtle swimming up to me in low visibility. As I was thinking on to head back to the beach I spotted the first marine iguana holding onto the rocks and munching on algae. I then found about five of them so it was definitely worth entering the water.

There are also a couple of beaches on the island with sea lions where you can snorkel with them if the water conditions are right: Punta Carola and Playa Menn (Playa de Oro can also be an option, near to the pier).

Another popular beach is La Loberia. Here the water is shallow and protected by a natural rocky barrier and sea lions usually hang out here. Tours to consider for snorkeling: Kicker Rock is the most popular, because hammerhead sharks often can be seen here. The 360 tour also takes you to this spot, but also stops at other points. Tours starting at 150 USD.

WHAT SHOULD I WEAR FOR SNORKELING?

A 5mm wetsuit for diving is recommended all year around (with a hood).

For snorkeling it will depend on the season; in the warmer months a skin suit or short wetsuit could be enough. But depending on how long you want to stay in the water, or how easily you get cold a long wetsuit might be needed. You can actually rent wetsuit for 5 USD a day.

In the colder months it is definitely a good idea to have a 5mm long wetsuit, preferably a hood too. In April the water was about to get colder and we didn’t carry our wetsuit with us to the islands so we were freezing cold many times. I was wearing a skin suit, then layered it up with my other skin suit, and had a thermal jacket on top, after 45 mins in the water I was uncontrollably shaking.

WHAT ARE THE CONDITIONS?

There are not many shallow water spots for snorkeling around the islands which means you have to be comfortable in deep water (5-10m). You should never snorkel alone and it is highly recommended to carry a surface marker buoy with you. I had both of my calves cramp up from the cold water, so a partner was definitely handy for safety reasons.

TIPS FOR SAVING MONEY IN THE GALÁPAGOS

  • Booking day tours on the islands are at least 20% cheaper than online.
  • Accomodation which are a bit further (about 15-20mins) walk away from the beach are significantly cheaper in price too.
  • This is also true for restaurants; we had delicious meals with soup, a main and a drink for 4.50 USD.
  • The bakeries are awesome too, four fresh croissants for 1 USD.
  • If you have your own snorkeling gear you can try to negotiate with the snorkeling tours as they may drop 5-10 USD from the price.
  • Instead of using taxis on Santa Cruz, use the local bus where a trip to Santa Rosa is 1 USD.

COSTS OF SCUBA DIVING

As much as we tried to “negotiate” with the prices for diving, we could not get a discount for being dive professionals. The lowest price we were offered was 180 USD for a double tank.

WHAT TYPE OF ACCOMMODATION IS AVAILABLE?

The good news for budget travellers is that other than very expensive fancy hotels, there are also Airbnbs, and guesthouses which start from 20 USD a night. These guesthouses have shared kitchens and private bathrooms with hot water. Of course if you can afford it there are up-scale hotels on each island.

ACTIVITIES ON-LAND

Even that we didn’t manage to dive here with our backpacker budget, we absolutely loved our DIY tours and snorkeling days. We managed to see lots of wildlife in and out of the water. A childhood dream came true.

There are plenty of great places for wildlife spotting on Galapagos. After all, it is one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth with many endemic species. There are tons of day tours on offer, from volcano hiking to bird watching, to seeing the giant tortoise… Here are our recommendations on what to do if you are not joining any tour, but you want to encounter as much wildlife as possible!

Marine iguanas soaking up the sun.
Marine iguanas soaking up the sun. Photo: Szandra Lukacs

Isabela

Walk in the afternoon around 4-5pm through the lagoons to see flamingos (the walk is about 1 hour each way) and other birds. Walk or ride a bicycle to the Wall of Tears (all prison remains), and start in the early morning when there is a high chance to see giant tortoise (we saw three). At the end of the path there will be two viewpoints. On the way you can go into a lava tunnel and visit some lagoon or relax on the beaches with marine iguanas.

Santa Cruz

Visit the fish market early morning when the fisherman are cleaning the fish – there will be lots of pelicans and sea lions waiting to grab a snack. Walk to the main pier in the afternoon where there are lots of baby sharks, turtles, rays and sea lions which can be seen from the surface. Go to El Chato Ranch where you can see a GIANT tortoise (5 USD) on the land, but you can already see many of them on the way walking there.

San Cristóbal

Walk 45 mins on the beach from La Loberia to the cliff viewpoint where you can find blue footed boobies and other sea birds from up close. Marine iganas can be seen on every island, everywhere. Sunsets on Isabela and San Cristobal are beautiful and there are sandy beaches to relax on each island, and Santa Cruz has a very long white sandy beach.

I'm a master scuba diver trainer, currently traveling in Latin America with a backpack (and scuba gear 😁). In the last 15 months my boyfriend and I have explored nine countries and dived as many of them as was possible. We love the outdoors, and when not in the water we are probably hiking to volcanos or exploring jungles. I love underwater macro, but also get super excited by manta rays, sharks and whale sharks. The ultimate dream is to swim with humpback whales one day.