Travel with AdventureSmith Specialist Nick Mitchell on the Galapagos Island Hopper as he stays at hotels on three different islands: San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz. From scenic flights to flexibility during downtime, learn about his favorite features of traveling by land.

Galapagos traveler bending down in a grassy area with a land tortoise walking in front of him.

Why I Chose to Island Hop: The Benefits of Terra Firma

When going to the Galapagos Islands, a large archipelago of 19 islands, why would I not logically cruise aboard a small ship? Well, for some people with a preference for stability, being on a ship for a week does not sound that appealing. Then there’s the person who just doesn’t want to be confined to a ship for a week. When you are on a ship, you get to go on shore excursions each day, but every morning, evening and night (and at lunch) you’re on the boat. Every moment on a land-based trip is a shore excursion, except of course when you are kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, stand-up paddleboarding, surfing or flying over the islands.

There is no doubt that staying on land gives you much more freedom and flexibility to enjoy the islands during any downtime.

While a small ship Galapagos cruise offers many advantages, there is no doubt that staying on land gives you much more freedom and flexibility to enjoy the islands during any downtime. If you are sensitive to motion sickness or simply prefer to lodge on land, AdventureSmith’s Galapagos Island Hopper gives you the opportunity to explore three different islands in a small group with a guide, staying at premium hotels in incredible locations, with your feet planted firmly on solid ground—for most of the time. Just because you are staying on land doesn’t mean you will bypass water transport; this is island hopping after all. On this itinerary, I traveled to a different lodge every two days via boat or airplane, and we also used day boats to reach Galapagos National Park sites only accessible by water.

Here is a closer look at where we went and what we did:

San Cristobal Island & the Golden Bay Hotel

Our week of adventure started on San Cristobal Island. Our welcoming guide met us at the airport and we checked into the brand-new Golden Bay Hotel & Spa. The hotel is modern, clean and very comfortable, and is located right on the sea lion-covered beach of the main harbor. Sea lions blocked pathways and hogged public benches. Animals have the right of way in the Galapagos, and we encountered wildlife wherever we went, from start to finish.

View from above of a sandy/rocky beach with a walking bridge with buildings, piers and several small boats anchored on San Cristobal Island.

We walked back along a golden beach being careful not to disturb the sea lions that were bedding down for the night. We all felt that we had arrived in nature’s paradise.

After a light lunch we hiked up to the top of Frigate Hill. We looked down over Darwin Bay, where Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos, surrounded by hovering frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies. Our guide was enthusiastic and engaging, pointing out camouflaged iguanas here and carpenter bees there. As the sun set, we walked back along a golden beach being careful not to disturb the sea lions that were bedding down for the night. We all felt that we had arrived in nature’s paradise. Sushi for dinner at a local restaurant rounded off our first day very nicely. Eating out at various local restaurants with our guide was a real treat as we were able to take advantage of fresh local seafood all week. 

Large rock formation sticking out in the ocean.

Snorkeling at the iconic Kicker Rock and a kayak excursion were the activities for our second day. We saw sharks, turtles, vibrant fish and Nazca boobies and much more. We enjoyed sunset sippers when we got back to the hotel.

Group of travelers kayaking in the ocean.

Isabela Island & Iguana Crossing

We spent two nights on each island during this trip. After breakfast on day three, it was time to jet off to Isabela, which was my favorite island. We flew in a small six-seater plane, where everyone had a window seat. The short 40-minute flight gave us a unique perspective of the archipelago, including the opportunity to see the vast lava plains of Isabela as we descended to land.

View from a plane of the ocean and crescent shaped islands in the Galapagos.

The 40-minute flight gave us a unique perspective of the islands, including the opportunity to see the vast lava plains of Isabela as we descended to land.

Most of the roads on Isabela Island are dirt or sand and the town has a relaxed tropical island vibe. The thing I liked most was the two miles of golden sand beach that stretched from the center of town to the west. Our hotel for the next two nights was the Iguana Crossing, which was at the very end of Puerto Villamil and certainly the nicest place to stay on Isabela. After checking in we were told when to meet in the lobby for a bike ride along the coast. Instead of hanging out and waiting for the appointed hour to come ‘round, as you would on a boat, most of us went for a swim in the sea or short hike to the lagoons behind the hotel to see flamingoes. There was a steady stream of marine iguanas crossing the road (hence the hotel’s name) that also provided much amusement.

Our bike ride took us along the beach, past lagoons, lava beds and tunnels and up to a lookout point over the course of 2.5 hours. We were joined by a Galapagos National Park guide and we stopped frequently to learn about plants and the ever-present wildlife. The highlight was seeing giant tortoises resting in the shade of the dry forest.

A mountain bike on a sandy beach with waves in the ocean on a sunny day.

After lunch and a rest back at Iguana Crossing (unless of course you fancied a bit more swimming or exploring), we took a day boat to Las Tintoreras within the national park to see Galapagos penguins and hordes of marine iguanas, and to snorkel with turtles and sea lions. Once again, we were all happily tired and enjoyed some fresh tuna at a local restaurant that evening.

Time was flying by, and day four saw us hike up the Sierra Negra Volcano, which stands over Puerto Villamil. The views over the caldera, which is the largest of all the Galapagos volcanoes, were breathtaking. We continued over to the north side where we crossed recently-formed lava flows, at times passing vents where you could feel the heat of the volcano.

A group of hikers in the Galapagos walking along a trail on a land tour.
2 hikers walking a trail along a ridge top in the Galapagos.

The hike was about 11 miles, but you don’t have to go all the way to the north side if you were content with seeing the caldera. That was the only activity of the day and we were left to our own devices for the afternoon. You could go for a bike ride again, stand-up paddleboard, kayak, surf or just relax on the beach if you wanted.

Sea lions and eagle rays came close, boobies and pelicans flew by; surfing was definitely a highlight of the trip.

I chose to go surfing. Our guide came with me to show me the best place to go and get me started before leaving me to it. As always, there was wildlife around me while I was in the water. Sea lions and eagle rays came close, boobies and pelicans flew by; surfing was definitely a highlight of the trip. I caught waves (or at least tried to) until the sun went down and walked back to the hotel under a pink sky. I’m pretty sure you don’t get to do that on a cruise!

Yellow and orange sunset from a lodge with a pool and lounge chairs.

Santa Cruz Island & Angermeyer Waterfront Inn

We set off for Santa Cruz, our final island, by speedboat after breakfast the next morning. The crossing took about two hours and we saw manta rays jumping and a Bryde’s whale. We were taken directly to the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn, which is right on the shore in Puerto Ayora and only accessible by water taxi. I really liked the waterfront dining deck, set atop low volcanic cliffs. So far, all the hotels had been in such great locations and the Angermeyer was no different. Santa Cruz is the most populated island and it was nice to be slightly removed from the busy streets of Puerto Ayora.

View of Santa Cruz Island with several boats anchored off the coast and a peninsula with several buildings.
Galapagos sea bird perched on a branch of a bush with the ocean in the background.

Being a group that couldn’t sit still, we checked in and immediately walked to the nearest beach, about two minutes away, for a quick swim before heading off to the Highlands for lunch and to see the giant tortoises. We were treated to a brief tropical downpour, which I welcomed after five days of equatorial sun.

The tortoises were, well, giant and ubiquitous. The different shell shapes of each species illustrate evolution at work.

The tortoises were, well, giant and ubiquitous. Once we got back to town, a visit to the Charles Darwin Center really illustrated how the different habitats on each island shaped the evolution of the tortoises. The center breeds the still-existing species of giant tortoises and releases them back to the wild once they are big enough to fend off rats, which decimated tortoise populations and eradicated some species (alongside hungry pirates). The different shell shapes of each species illustrate evolution at work.

Head of a land Galapagos tortoise eating green leaves.

For our final day we hiked from town through an opuntia forest (Galapagos prickly pear) to Tortuga Bay where another stunning beach awaited us. I rented a surfboard in town and spent most of the time surfing. We had lunch at a local restaurant and a short break before another kayak outing around Academy Bay, where we saw more seabirds and explored some remarkable volcanic channels.

Tip of a yellow kayak floating in the Galapagos water in front of a tall rock formation

I loved the freedom and flexibility of being on land, and I definitely made the most of it, as did everyone else in my active group of five who chose to run, hike and swim during downtimes. Be sure to tell your AdventureSmith Specialist if there’s any specific activity you would like to include, such as scuba diving, and it can be arranged. I also think families with children might really enjoy the benefits of being on a land-based trip.

Although we may not have ventured as far afield as you would on a boat, we still saw tons of wildlife.

Our guide, Alfredo, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic and always willing to accommodate requests. Please remember, you don’t have to do active things between activities, you do have the option to relax too! Although we may not have ventured as far afield as you would on a boat, we still saw tons of wildlife. I had a fantastic time and I would highly recommend the Galapagos Island Hopper to anyone who is looking for an active Galapagos experience.

For more photos from this trip, including blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas, view my Facebook album on AdventureSmith Explorations’ Facebook page.

This Galapagos trip review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all Trip Reviews for more trip reports, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about these small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.