Let’s Go Exploring! Galapagos: Sea Lion Shenanigans and Swimming with Sharks

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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It took us 19 hours of flying, 8 hours of layover, 4 flights, and a Hell of a lot of turbulence to get to the Galapagos. So when I stepped off that plane, exhausted and cranky, I thought “this better be worth it”.

Half an hour later, after dropping off all our stuff, we took a short walk from our AirBnb on San Cristobal to the beach. The second our feet hit the soft, golden sand, Wanderer pointed excitedly towards the rocks near the water. “Whoa, I think I see a sea lion hiding behind that rock!”

I laughed, took him by the shoulders and spun him around to face the other side of the beach.

The entire area was carpeted with sea lions.

Some were sleeping, others waddling around, one very annoying dude was posing obnoxiously and barking at everyone.

Rocks make the best pillows. ZZZZZ.

 

“Out of my way, children and old people!”

I got really excited when one sea lion (whom I later named “Favourite”) winked at me.

All the hassels of flying and expenses of getting here immediately evaporated on that beach, and amongst a gaggle of sea lions, I felt very at home.

Little did I know, that was just the tip of iceberg in terms of our animal encounters in the Galapagos.

Before we came to Galapagos, one of the biggest draws (according to the guide books and others who came before) is that Galapagos is so remote and hard to get to the animals on the island have never really experienced predators. As a result, they never developed an evolutionary fear of people. This means they’ll come right up to you and interact with you in ways you don’t expected.

Like with the sea lions, for example. The Ecuadorians call them “sea dogs” for a reason. I could be sitting on a bench, enjoying a tuna sandwich, and one will playfully waddle up next to me, and bark at me to give him my sandwich.

Another thing I discovered about sea lions is that even though they are slow and clumsy on land, in the water, they’re torpedoes. And if you go snorkling with them? They have a tendency to sense your nervousness, dive under, flip around, dart right up to your face and then scream. And while you’re putting your heart back into your chest, they’re already far away, having a good laugh at your expense.

But by far, our best interaction with sea lions happened on a remote beach, which took a harrowing one-hour hike to get to.

I say, harrowing, because on this hike, I scratched up my thigh, slid down a mountain path, scraped up my hand,  bruised my hip, and then got lost and walked into a cactus forest, where I nearly fell on a cactus. Good times!

the view from the mountain, before the “harrowing hike” began

And then when we got to the beach, one of them tried to steal our shit. Wanderer captured the entire encounter on camera.

Thanks, Sea Lions! You’re very cute, but you don’t need shoes. You’re sea lions.

So after that whole interaction, I decided I wanted to get to know even more Galapagos sea animals, and signed up for a dive at kicker rock, one of the popular spots to see sharks!

Kicker Rock

The water was freezing, and we had to wear 3-5 inch thick wetsuits, but it was one of the most memorable dives because we got to see a sea turtle, stingray, seal lion (who playfully pulled the wetsuit of one of the other divers to get him to play with it), several sharks, and tons of fish.

Before going in the water, I let our Dive Master know I had a massive gash on my thigh (from the harrowing hike) and asked whether it’s okay to go in the water with sharks. He smiled and say “yeah, no problem!” And it turns out, he was right, because not only was the shark not interested in feasting on my blood, it actually swam across an entire school of fish, without eating a single one. When I asked the captain about this, he said because of the strict fishing and preservation laws in the Galapagos, the sharks are well fed and don’t need to eat fish all the time. “Wow,” I thought. “The shark understands the concept of ‘enough’. Even their sharks are FI!”

After the diving with sharks, the next day we walked to “La loberia” beach, where we found more sea lions and big, fat, lazy lizards sun tanning on the rocks.

 

And so that’s how I spent the rest of the day, lying lazily on the rocks and learning from Galapagoan lizards the best chillaxing pose for retirement.

With the extra costs of flying to the islands from Quito ($200 USD each person each way—buy it on the Ecuadorian website to avoid the currency conversion costs), the park conservation fee to get in ($100 USD each + $20 USD for visitor’s card), just getting to Galapagos proved to be pretty expensive. But since we didn’t do an overpriced cruise (which is how most tourists experience the Galapagos), we ended up doing it for half or a third of the normal cost. The good news is, if you decide to explore Galapagos on your own, there are lots of deals to be had by staying in AirBnbs ($50USD – $70USD/night) and eating at the food court in the Mercado Municipal ($4 USD a meal that includes main, soup and drink).

Here’s how much we spent on San Cristobal island, in the Galapagos:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $40 USD/night $50 CAD/night If you're not on a cruise and just staying on the islands, accommodations are surprisingly affordable! This was a 1 bedroom apartment we got to have to ourselves just 5 mins to the pier.
Food: $14 USD/day $17 CAD/day ($6/day for eating out, $11/day for groceries) Eating out and groceries were also surprisingly cheap. You could find a full meal with soup and drink for only 4 USD. Plus, I got to practice my mal Espanol, which the locals actually understood!
Transportation: $153 USD/day $191 CAD/day This was by far the biggest expense in getting to the Galapagos. Because there are limited flights per day and only 3 companies that run them, you have limited options. We flew with Avianca and it costs us $764.375 CAD for 2 for round trip from Quito to San Cristobal. To save on an extra ferry cost, we flew into San Cristobal and flew out of Santa Cruz so we could visit multiple islands.
Fees: $60 USD/day $75 CAD/day Galapagos charges $100 USD + $20 USD per person for entry and visitor's card. This is to ensure preservation of the area
Entertainment: $80 USD/day $100 CAD/day There's a ton of free entertainment in Galapagos on account of all the amazing beaches and animals. We decided to blow $160 each for 2 dives because hell, we're in the Galapagos, how can we not go diving? You can also find cheaper snorkling tours around the island if you're not a scuba diver. Or just go snorkling on the island on your own and rent snorkels for only $3 USD per person per day.
Total: $346 USD/couple/day $433 CAD/couple/day As you can see, Galapagos is one of the most expensive places we've been to. That being said, most of the costs are big one time costs you have to pay at the beginning, and if you stay longer it gets smoothed out over time. Since we only stayed on San Cristobal for 4 days, the costs ended up being very high per day. However, if you were to go on a cruise, it would be even more, since the park fees and flight to the islands aren't included. We also decided to splurg on scuba diving, which is optional for most people. So if you were to only consider costs of staying on the island, you're only looking at $54 USD /day for room and food.

Despite it being one of the most expensive places we visited, I fell in love with Galapagos. It’s not a place you’d move to, but a once-in-a-life-time experience. Plus, there’s also this crazy thing that happened when a reader recognized me in in the middle of ocean at 6 in the morning, but that’s for another post.

For the new readers joining us, this post is part of a series called “Let’s Go Exploring!” where I write about our adventures travelling the world and living nomadically on $40K/year. You can read the rest of the series here.



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44 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Galapagos: Sea Lion Shenanigans and Swimming with Sharks”

    1. Highly recommended! You could probably travel hack the flight to Quito. And once the park fees are paid for, the activities are pretty much free!

    1. I had crazy high expectations going in…and somehow it exceeded all of them 🙂 Plus, the best part is that it wasn’t crowded. I think the remoteness and high cost keeps people away. Hope you get to go some day!

  1. That sounds like quite an adventure FireCracker! (albeit an expensive one)

    A ‘outdoors’ destination like this sounds like our kind of travel, but those fees and high travel costs really make for a very expensive trip.

    It’s true though, this seems like a great once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip. Few places in the world are as untouched by humanity.

    1. Oh it’s definitely expensive, but SO worth it. The kiddos would love it. One upside of it being so remote and expensive is that it keeps the crowds away, which, I think adds to the magic of the Galapagos.

  2. That looks like an awesome trip! I’d love to visit someday. I didn’t know it was such an expensive trip. Whoa, I’d be scared if the sea lions crowded up on me like that. Are they dangerous to human? Great photos.

    1. I asked the conservationist guides and they said it’s very unlikely for sea lions to hurt humans. They’re mostly playful. The one that swiped at me on the beach wasn’t actually that scary. He just didn’t like sudden movements. The Narra deer of Japan were WAY scarier.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I laughed (and applauded) about the shark: “The shark understands the concept of ‘enough’. Even their sharks are FI!”

    We’ve had plenty of local conversations about “enough” lately. Nice to see it catching on 🙂

    1. I actually heard it echoed on a tv show too..not in a FIRE way…but in a general humanity way… you only look in your neighbor’s bowl to make sure they have enough. It was a Dad trying to teach a kid not to be complaining about not having what another had. 🙂

  4. Still a destination I plan on making it to! Are there any restaurants/food vendors you’d recommend?

    The video of the sea lions appropriating your gear was hilarious. Thanks for sharing!

    1. You would LOVE it 🙂

      Our favourite place to eat was the food court at the Mercado Municipal (where the locals eat). That’s where we bought all our groceries too. As long as you know a few words of Spanish, it’s pretty easy to get good local deals.

      We didn’t try the more touristy looking places by the beach. Looked overpriced and not very appetizing. I prefer local mom and pop places.

    1. Well, he did try to bite me and Wanderer does that too. So that’s something they both have in common 😉

  5. OMG, I am actually in the midst of planning a trip to Ecuador, so I have so many questions lol! Did you do anything on the mainland? Did you find the water to be cold everywhere when you were snorkeling?

    1. Yes, we went for a walk in downtown Quito (beware of pick pockets) and went to a hot springs place a few hours drive up in the mountains. Gorgeous.

      The water didn’t feel that cold to me. Only time it felt cold was when we went scuba diving in deep water. But by the beach, it’s fine. You could always rent a wetsuit from a dive shop if that helps.

  6. I’m so glad you guys enjoyed it!!! It’s a very unique experience.

    We love those Marine Iguanas! They’re awesome. And the sea lions, and the turtles, You didn’t even talk about the turtles they are famous for!!!!

    Glad you loved it, and I’m hoping to make it back there someday. Just reading this brought a smile to my face.

    1. I have your guys to thank for the awesome advice! Good thing we didn’t go with a overpriced cruise (I didn’t even know you could skip it until I talked to you guys!).

      As for the turtles, that’s coming up in part 2 when I talk about Santa Cruz island 🙂

      Hope you get to go back! It really is incredible–exactly as you guys described.

  7. 3-5 mil wet suits means its cold? Around here we dive in 7!!

    And you found Harry, my lizard friend! Aren’t those guys so cool? Loved your videos, they totally made me go watch ours again. Good times, good times!

    1. We’re wimps since we got our PADI in warm Thailand waters 🙂 You guys are hardcore with your 7mil wetsuits!

      Ha ha, yeah, harry ‘s awesome. Showed me the proper way to be lazy.

      Thanks again for your awesome advice! I didn’t even know we could explore the islands without a cruise before talking to you guys. So glad we went!

  8. This was one of your best travel posts – thank you so much for sharing your travel adventures on this website. They inspire me to do more to reach FIRE as soon as I possibly can!

  9. Sounds like a great place to stay for a week! I highly disrecommend falling on a cactus though. Then you get to pick out needles for a while.

    1. Yes, falling on a cactus is definitely not recommended. I’m going to bubble-wrap myself the next time I make a trek like that.

  10. It took us 19 hours of flying, 8 hours of layover, 4 flights, and a Hell of a lot of turbulence to get to the Galapagos. So when I stepped off that plane, exhausted and cranky, I thought “this better be worth it”.

    >>Love that! That’s kind of my approach these days… it was so much easier when I was young (read: 20s)… the experience itself was always worth it…but now with adult/FIRE budgets and limited PTO… i have been staycationing pretty hardcore 🙂

    1. The good news is I’ve never regretted going to a place–no matter how annoying it was to get there 🙂

      Glad you are enjoying your staycations 🙂

    1. Nice! That sounds like a kickass class to attend. My university classes were all about code, code and more code. *snooze fest*

    1. Oh so worth the cost. I couldn’t believe we got our shoes back either. I was not looking forward to doing that treacherous walk barefoot.

  11. Great write-up! I was there in the Galapagos Islands at the same time as you guys, but decided to go for a cruise. I paid $2023 USD ($2513 CAD) for a 7 night, 8 day cruise onboard a ship called the Galaven, which was a first class vessel and very nice.

    Everything was included: buffet breakfast, fruit snacks all the time, amazing dinners every night, bartender / certified park guide / captain / deckhands / chef / sous-chefs onboard, snorkelling equipment for snorkelling everyday, etc

    In hindsight, the cruise option was expensive, but worth it in my opinion because it was a one-in-a-life-time type trip, and only these types of cruises take you to the far western islands of Isabela and Fernandina to see the unique flora and fauna. The normal retail price for these cruises can be $4-5K USD but if you just show up during low season, talk to the local tour operators, you can get a last minute-deals for ships that depart the next day or two for 40-50% off, which was the deal I got!

  12. What a great post, Fire Cracker! Love the video of the sea lions with your stuff. We were just in San Diego and got lots of close ups of sea lions on the beach at La Jolla.

    My wife has wanted to go to the Galapagos for a long time, but I’ve always struggled with the logistics and felt that the only way to see the islands were via a cruise (and we don’t do well on boats). But you proved otherwise and now I am motivated to make the Galapagos happen sooner rather than later.

    What time of year were you there?

    1. I do get sea sick every now and then, so other than the cost, that was something I wanted to avoid by skipping the cruises too. However, do be aware that the ferry between islands are a bit nauseating (though it’s just for 2.5 hours, not for days like a cruise).

      Hope you guys get to go! We were there in Oct.

  13. Wow, so jealous. Glad you guys had such an amazing time. Also, sea lions might not wear shoes but maybe they do wear “flip” flops…?

  14. I love boobies!!…the blue footed variety from the Galapagos:) I fell in love with travel after Inca Trail/Galapagos trip 15 years ago. Great post, I want to go back

    1. They had a lot of those “I love boobies” shirts in the Galapagos 😉 Hope you get to go back!

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