Which island are you flying to? That’s right – there is more than one airport in the Galápagos! In fact, there are three airports open to international travelers, though the Isla Isabela airport is only for inter-island flights and not mainland arrivals. You will be flying to either San Cristobal Island (SCY) airport or to Isla Santa Cruz via the airport on Baltra Island (GPS).
Baltra Island is located just north of Santa Cruz Island in the center of the archipelago. San Cristobal is the easternmost island at the edge of the archipelago, making it the closest island to the South American mainland. Map credit: Southwind Adventures
What to Expect Once You Land
Claiming luggage can take a bit longer than normal, as all bags are subject to a phytosanitary inspection. There is a slightly tense moment when all the bags for your plane are laid out in an open shared room in the terminal and airport-employed dogs will sniff and climb over all the bags looking for organic materials. All the passengers seemed to hold their breath and wait behind the line until the possible offending bags are pulled and passengers are asked to step aside for further inspection as needed. We didn’t have any food or organic goods, but they take the threat of invasive species very seriously and so should you while visiting! The entire baggage claim and ground transfer process can take some time, so don’t expect to be able to just hop on the bus and get right into town.
I would budget approximately 2 hours for luggage inspection and claim, queues for tickets and permits, bus, ferry and then bus/taxi transfer if flying into the Baltra airport. The San Cristobal airport is only 5 minutes from the city center, but still be sure to budget plenty of time for baggage checks and inspection after arrivals and prior to depatures.
Pro tip: Go ahead and pay your national park fee and buy your bus ticket at the appropriate windows before picking up your luggage to beat the queue
San Cristobal Arrivals and Transfers
If you fly into San Cristobal Airport (SCY), you will be staying in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.The airport is less than a 5 minute drive from the center of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and will cost less than $5 total (not per person)
We will be flying to San Cristobal first on this next trip, as we have found that the flights tend to be a bit less expensive (and less hassle) than flying into Santa Cruz via Baltra Island. We will be visiting Santa Cruz via ferry ($30 per person each way), which brings you right to the dock in downtown Puerto Ayora.
Baltra Island / Santa Cruz Island Arrivals and Transfers
If you fly into Baltra Island Airport (GPS), you will be staying in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island; Baltra Island, where you land, is actually a separate island located just north of Santa Cruz. Since the airport island and occupied island are separate for this arrival, there are several transfers required before you reach the comfort of your hotel room (or cruise berth).
Bus from Baltra Airport to the Baltra dock on the Itabaca Channel ($5, approximately 5-10 minutes once the bus is fully loaded).
This bus used to be free but appears to be a fixed $5 cost now for all passengers now. The tickets can be purchased at the Lobito bus counter right next to where you pay your $100 national park fee. These transfer buses are no frills and lack AC, so aim for a seat with a window that opens if you are prone to nausea or claustrophobia.
Some pre-booked cruises will have their own separate bus transport; check your reservation before paying for the public bus.
There are restrooms inside the airport terminal and there is a café outside of the terminal with counter service. They serve small plates as well as takeaway snacks.
Ferry from Baltra dock to the Itabaca Channel dock on Santa Cruz island ($1 per person, approximately 10-15 minutes)
Do not pack any breakables or valuables in your checked luggage. If valuables were packed in your checked bag for your international flights, make sure these are now on your person after you get off the bus. Even individuals taking luxury cruises have to take the same basic ferries to get to Santa Cruz and all of the suitcases are thrown (literally) onto the roof of the ferry for the passage.
If your money is collected on the pier instead of on the boat, make sure you are given the name of the boat you will be taking. We got lucky and arrived when there wasn’t a large queue at the dock and were able to just hop on the ferry without much wait and our fare was collected by the ship crew in exchange for our life jackets. I expect the wait would take much longer during high season.
There are bathrooms at the dock but there was a $0.50 charge for public bathroom access. Make sure you have small change if you think you might need the facilities.
There is a small café, though it was not serving hot food when we arrived. There are some packaged drinks and snacks and small baked goods for purchase.
Tip: Make sure to walk to the end of the patio deck or near the edge of the dock and have a look in the waters – we saw white-tipped sharks, fish and a small ray before we even left for Santa Cruz!
Tip: Avoid the very back of the boat if you are prone to seasickness from fumes coming from the outboard motors. I had a particularly bad experience with this even though I don’t get sea sick. Air pollution from gas fumes is a real problem, even in the eco-friendly refuge of the Galápagos and even more so in urban centers, such as Quito. Sometimes the water can be less choppy in the back, but you are closer to the outboard engines, so its really up to your preference.
Bus (<$5 per person) or taxi ($20-30 total) from the dock at Itabaca Channel into the city of Puerto Ayora (approximately 40 KM). The ride can take up to 30 minutes where hotels are located and cruises depart.
The bus is mostly frequented by locals and tends to be standing room only which can be hard with lots of luggage. If you have an arrival later in the day, taking the bus may be more difficult as they primarily run until early afternoon.
If you plan to take the bus when returning to the airport, you can take a taxi from Puerto Ayora to the bus station (~$2 total), the bus to the ferry ($5 per person), ferry ($1 per person) and bus ($5 per person). Note that buses seem to only run in the mornings, and budget extra time for all the transfers.
Note: If you are going straight to your cruise ship and aren’t staying on the island, you will also have to take a $1 water taxi from the dock in Puerto Ayora to the boat itself. All the cruise ships and inter-island ferries have drafts too deep for the dock at Puerto Ayora, so be prepared for a slightly awkward transfer from water taxi/panga to the boat itself. You will have to complete this short water taxi for any cruise, day trip or inter-island transfer.
All taxis on the Galápagos are small pick-up trucks, so unless you are just traveling as a couple or traveling exceptionally light, your bags will probably going into the bed of the truck for transfer. Bringing a rain cover or cheap poncho in case of inclement weather
We were able to arrange a taxi pickup through our AirBNB that arrived at the dock based upon our flight itinerary and brought us straight to where we were staying. I’m sure that hotels can also arrange this service for you if you request it. You may pay slightly more, but you also won’t feel the need to haggle with the slew of taxi drivers waiting for you once you disembark the ferry. We’ve also see reports online that pre-booking transfers with your hotel can cost up to $70 which is far more than the cost to complete the transfers yourself. Hundreds of people manage these transfers independently every day, and I’m sure you will be able to as well
It is worth it to take a taxi even if its just to stop and admire the wild Galápagos tortoises you will inevitably see roadside on the trip. Plus, traveling with 2 or more people will easily add up to the same total cost of splitting a taxi relatively quickly
Other Airports and a Final Note
As mentioned briefly above, Isla Isabela also has an airport, but it does not make connections with the mainland. Those who are averse to sea travel can actually travel via air (~$200 per one-way flight) instead of boat or ferry between Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal once arriving in either Santa Cruz (via Baltra) or San Cristobal.
In the end, hundreds of tourists successfully make these transfers every day without much planning and it is a fairly intuitive process. The biggest risk is that you will overpay for a leg of the journey or not be aware of the length of time it will take to arrive at your accommodations, especially after long flights. If you are trying to secure a deal on airfare, make sure to check both arrival airports as we have found that prices tend to vary based upon the island you choose to arrive on.