Hello. This is a list of all the free or quite inexpensive things to on the islands should you be looking to backpack around the islands for a few weeks, give or take, without spending a lot of money as I attempted to do (I stayed for ten days). I left all my maps and items at a hostel in Quito for someone else to take and/or use, so I may have left out a few places for each island, though I hope this gets you started.
Playa Mann (free)
A great beach with few people and dozens and dozens of seals. Babies, females, dominant males, mothers breastfeeding their young. Free and a ten or fifteen minute walk from town depending on your pace. Great sunsets too. Many birds flying around at all times.
Centro de Interpretacion (free)
Also a short walk from town and highly informative, information in Spanish and/or English. A must see if you want to really understand the islands and their history.
Las Tijeretas (free)
This is behind the Interpretation Center, there are several paths leading to it where you can see much on land and in the water if you have snorkeling gear (rent it for the day, you can see sea turtles). The paths are nice to walk. There is also a good beach at Punto Carola. with more seals. Many bird species and masses of iguanas are visible too.
El Junco crater (free)
A lake in the crater of a now dormant volcano. You can take buses or taxis (very expensive) though I took a bike. I suggest renting a bike and allocating a day to get there, visit the site for a few hours and enjoy the downhill ride back. Its a few hours getting there, about 15km mostly uphill via the village El Progreso. Just hope the weather is good and that everything isn’t clouded over by mist and fog. Go to Planet Bike in town for a bicycle, see Luis, $10 for the day. Best price.
El Progreso (free)
A short bike ride or maybe 40 minute walk to this inland and very small town. See many species of Darwin’s Finches along the way as well as curious varieties of trees and very colourful plant and flower species. Nice to do, on your way to El Junco. Take a bike!
300 year old Ceibo tree and treehouse (El Progreso, free)
Ask for the house with the 300 year old Ceibo tree, which also houses a treehouse that you can stay in ($20 per night, sleeps up to three, had a double bed and one single, amazing little place). Owners have a large garden full of ducks and ducklings, geese and a few really cool dogs. They also run a restaurant. Call Maria Elena on 0994697733 for details or to book. The treehouse absolutely rocks. Apparently you can camo there for $5 so bring your tent! Don’t leave it at a friends in Quito as I did.
La Loberia (free)
Maybe 45 minute walk from town? A mostly rocky beach with some sand past the military base, with many seals and iguanas. Would have good sunsets too given its orientation.
Punto Chino (free)
A beach about 10km past El Junco if you have a bike and want to continue, or can afford the taxi. I did not get there so am sparse on details for this location.
Puerto Baquierzo Moreno (free)
The main town, its nice to explore, take photos, look at the plants and trees, see sunsets and sunrises, hang with the countless hilarious seals chilling out all over the main promenade and dock area. Talk to the locals. Get to know the island.
Playa de Oro (free)
Between town and Playa Mann, a smaller beach, with many people but also many seals too. A nice mix of life and a fun and close place to visit without having to go far at all.
El Cañon & Tongo Reef (free)
I did not get here but these are both free and accessible from behind the airport and military zones. El Cañon is meant to be a good surf spot.
Jacinta Gordillo Breeding Center for Giant Turtles (free)
Puerto Ayora (free)
This is the most touristic and developed island, you can walk around and explore the town for a while, it’s really tourist heavy though. The docks and wharfs are nice, and the town center is lively at night, and on the outskirts you can see many animals in human habitats. Of course, there are always many seals about the main wharf and promenade.
Media Luna (free)
Take a bike and ride there (about an hour to and via the town Bellavista) – once you get to the foot of the hill it is about a two-hour hike and will give you fantastic panoramic views of the mountain.
Charles Darwin Research Centre (free)
Fifteen to twenty-minute walk at most from town, just ask how to get there, it’s very close. Great place to wander around for a few hours, there is a giant tortoise breeding centre and iguana breeding centre, you will see countless iguanas on the way, and several of Darwin’s finches in the gardens and on the trails. There is also information on Lonesome George, finches in general, evolution and two small galleries/museums. I really liked the garden with many natural types of local fauna from the islands.
Shark viewing at ship ports during the night (free)
I did not hang around long enough to see any but the sharks are attracted to light so go down with a spliff and hang there for a while! Bring your camera for some night photography if its your thing.
Bahia Torguga (free)
Large expanse of beach for surfing, currents are dangerous so be weary. It is a short walk from town to the entry where you walk along a path for about 30-40 minutes – you will see countless species of finches, iguanas, insects, I did this twice as it was excellent and swimming after is nice and refreshing. When you get to the surf beach go right for another 15-20 minutes and you will get to the bay, which is very still and tranquil as it is closed off from the ocean by rocks. You can see turtles, iguanas, flamingoes, blue footed boobies, finches, even, if you are lucky, harmless varieties of sharks in the bay. One of my favourite sports. You can spend a day between the beaches and walking back and forth from town.
El Chato Tortoise Reserve ($3, or free?)
The women let us in for free. Continue past and to the right of Bellavista on your bike when you get to the main road of the small town for about 40 minutes or an hour? Can’t remember. It is a bit of an uphill slug but makes the ride back nice and cruisy. You will see an abundance of turtles, possibly mating. There are many bird species too. From here you can also visit the lava tunnels.
Lava Tuneles ($3 or free?)
Covered with the price of the turtle reserve the tunnels are located on the same area of land, there are two or three that you can explore – bring a light, the lights went off when we were down there and you will be in complete darkness if this happens making it super difficult to get out. There are nice flower species along the way to the reserves, as well as very old trees and interesting scrub growing alongside and on them.
Garrapatero Beach (free)
An excellent beach for swimming, that you can also camp at if you ask for permission. Follow the signs from Bellavista, though head right when you get to the main road of the town. There are poison apple trees, many birds, mangroves. Might take around three hours on a bike and make sure you allocate time to get back in the evening, otherwise you may find yourself stuck in the dark with a difficult ride ahead… on loose dirt and gravel roads.
Pan de Chocolate (50c)
This is a must try. When you get to the main fork in the road at Bellavista, go right, a few stores ahead on your right (of the street) will be a small bakery.Try the chocolate bread, i is divine!
Puerto Villamil (free)
Soon, this town is going to change from a dirt road, underdeveloped quiet town into a busy and more expensive tourist hotspot. If you get there soon, walk around and explore the whole town on foot. It has such a quiet peaceful ambience about it. There is an amazing Panaderia somewhere in the centre that has the best cheese empanadas I tried in South America with sugar on the bread – look for a newly built shop, totally decked out in nice wooden panelling and detail, you will know it when you see it. Take the hammocks, chill with the locals, soak in the beach and the palm trees on this big but remote and somewhat isolated island. It’s very different to Santa Cruz.
Just off the main part of town are huge huge expanses of white sand, palm and coco tree-lined beaches, you will most likely have a big stretch all to yourself. Enjoy.
Laguna Salinas and surrounding Pozos (free)
Flamingoes, iguanas, ducks and more everywhere, and the ponds are really beautiful especially in the light of the sun both during the day and at sunset!
El Muro de las Lagrimas (free)
A wall built by prisoners who first settled and worked on the islands Isabela.
Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre (free)
Just outside of town near the pozos. I skipped this but head there if you are not sick of giant turtles already!
Volcan Sierra Negra (free, if you ride there)
I was not able to get there as I had injured my knee and was not spending $20-30 on a tour obviously, but if you get there and hike you get mad views of the island.
Volcan Chico (free, with bike)
As above. An active volcano that last erupted in the 1970s!
Concha de Perla (free)
About a twenty-five minute walk from town, or, if you are at the wharf, about five minutes or even less. One of the most beautiful bays, closed off from the ocean but still connected. Amazing for swimming. Jump in and don’t stop for 80m until you get to the rock edge! You can also snorkel here, there are many seals and varieties of fish.
Can’t miss it, its situated on the main beach, a good spot for sunset and photography, and to look at countless iguanas loafing about on rocks and moving around lazily.
Oddly, the only islands with hammocks (what?!), take to one and relax, catch some sun, read or whatever. You will feel amazing. It was like being back on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. ;)