The ultimate guide to surfing in the Galapagos Islands
Surfing in the Galapagos Islands is a well kept secret and for good reason. With a good variety of waves and world-famous wildlife, these surf rich, magical islands should be on every surfer’s bucket list.
The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago of 15 islands belonging to Ecuador, 1000 miles off the mainland. Surfing in the Galapagos is made possible from both it’s exposure to both long distance Pacific north and south swells, but also the hard volcanic rock boulders and reef that form its perfect surf. Expect to share waves with friendly locals, sea lions, turtles and the occasional shark. Surfing in The Galapagos is one of the most incredible trips you are sure to make in your lifetime. Expensive, hard to get to, but definitely worth it!
How to get to the Galapagos
There are two airports in the Galapagos Islands: on Santa Cruz (the busiest island and town), and on San Cristobal (where the best waves are). There are no direct International flights to The Galapagos Islands. Three airlines fly to the Galápagos Islands: Tame, Avianca and LATAM. There are q flights a day from Quito via Guayaquil in Ecuador. At time of writing (Jun 2019), a return flight was around $249 USD.
Visas, permits, money and ATMS
A 30-day visa is granted free of charge on entry into your first port of Ecuador – but best check the rules related to your nationality and passport.
The whole of the Galapagos is a National Park and access is highly controlled through a permitting service. Each person is required to pay to the Galapagos National Park Service a park entrance fee of $100 USD for every person older than 12 years and $50 USD for children under 12. For boats arriving from Panama for the first stop of their Pacific crossing (like we did!!), you will need to get an Autografo, either 7 days or 30 days (read more about this here). Read all about our 860-mile passage from Panama here.
Money, ATMs & budgeting:
Like mainland Ecuador and much of Central America, the currency of The Galapagos is the American dollar. They do not accept Panamanian US dollar coins so make sure you change these to US notes before you leave. The ATMs (available on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, not Isabella), will give you US Dollars. Expect to pay cash for most services or pay a hefty commission to use your card.
Don’t expect the Galapagos to be as cheap as mainland Central or South America. Most items are imported and their strict quarantine control makes some item not possible. Here is what you can expect to pay:
- Beer – $2 for a local beer, $3 for a Corona
- Empanada – $0.50 on a back street $2 on the waterfront
- Coconut – $4!
- Espresso coffee – $3.50
- Ceviche – $10
- Smoothie – $4
- Breakfast – $8
- A decent meal – $12 – $15
- Hostel $30 a night
- Hotel $60-80
- Scuba diving – $160 for 2x dives (eg Kicker Rock)
- Taxi one-way – $1.50 for the ride (not per person)
- Water taxi one-way – $0.80 or $1 for short rides across the harbor. $10 return to any ‘allowed’ nearby waves
- Paddleboarding – $50
- Bike rental – $15 for 4 hours
- 1GB data – $5 with Claro
Internet access and SIM cards
Prepare to yield your western ways and social media addiction as the WIFI in the Galapagos is awful… Everywhere! We heard that Santa Cruz and San Cristobal share an antenna which is faced towards San Cristobal in the AM and Santa Cruz in the PM. Plan your emails accordingly! While you can give up any idea of sitting in an internet café to Facetime your mum, you can get a local SIM card with good 3G access. The company Claro offers the best coverage. The SIM cost us $8 and 1GB was $5 and was available in only one kiosk in San Cristobal or the actual Claro shop in Santa Cruz. If you are coming from the Mainland, maybe stock up on credit as you are likely to get a better deal.
The climate and seasons
The Galapagos islands are on the equator but the weather is not tropical. Temperatures range from 69°-84°F / 21°-30°C. Seasons are split into cool and dry (June – November) and warm and wet (December – June), with the warmer season being the best time to visit Galápagos (calmer seas, good underwater visibility). Due to the meeting of three ocean currents (the Humboldt, Panama and the Cronwell current), which much of the abundant wildlife can be attributed to, the ocean is not as warm as you would expect, ranging from 71°F – 74 °F. Many locals surf in a spring suit as the wind can be chilly. Bring a good 1mm or 2mm top – see our recommendations on best surf suits with discount codes for Still Stoked readers.
The Galapagians surf really well, ‘what else do we do here in paradise?’ they would ask.
Travel Insurance (+ 5% discount code)
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The Galapagos Islands
Deciding which island to go to can be overwhelming but alas, the rules of the Galapagos do that for you. There are 15 islands, and only 4 are inhabited (Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana). The other islands and islets do not permit any over-night stays. Visits to these islands (if possible) are only accessible from 6 am to 6 pm.
In order of population size and number of services, the main tourist islands are:
Santa Cruz (Puerto Ayora) – Airport, access by ferry, largest selection of services
Review all accommodation options in Santa Cruz.
- Hostal El Paraiso – $20 a night. Top rated and cheap hostel. Right in the port of Puerto Ayora.
- Hostal Mirada del Solitario George – $40 a night. Air conditioning, free WIFI. Close to the Charles Darwin Station.
- Hotel Fiesta – $120+ a night. Stunning pool, free Wi-Fi and breakfast. All rooms have private bathrooms, air conditioning, and balconies with views. Room service is provided. Breakfast is included.
Make sure you go to Los Grietas. It’s a $0.80 ferry ride across the bay, then a 20 min walk. No cost to access and a beautiful dark freshwater gorge, in the shade offering some welcome respite from the heat.
San Cristobal (Puerto Baquerizo) – Airport, access by ferry, bohemian chill vibe. Has everything you need.
Review all accommodation options in San Cristobal.
- Le Point Hostal – $30 a night per person with breakfast, double or triple rooms. Right in town, great café and vibes. Nicholas the owner is a legend. Highly recommend staying here if you are on a budget and want a cool, laidback surfy vibe.
- Eco Hotel Katarma – Katarma is a beautifully decorated and environmentally oriented hotel located in San Cristobal that offers an indoor swimming pool and adjacent restaurant and bar, a tour desk and free WiFi access.
- Hotel Casa Blanca – Casa Blanc is right on the waterfront and features a nice terrace. Among the facilities of this property are a restaurant, a tour desk and luggage storage space, along with free WiFi.
Isabella (Puerto Villamil)– Access by ferry, largest island, least inhabited. Very chill.
Review all accommodation options in Isabella.
- Drake Inn – Right on the beach and top rated. It doesn’t get better than this! A 3 minutes’ walk from Puerto Villamil town center. This beach-front property features stunning sea views from the terrace and the nature area is just in the back. $100 a night. Breakfast included.
- The Wooden House Hotel – 2 minutes from the beach and 10 minutes from the pier. this family-run beach resort in Galapagos Island features an outdoor swimming pool and rooms with views of the garden. Wi-Fi is free and breakfast is included. From $90USD a night.
Bike & surfboard rental from Bike + Surf. Speak to Junior (absolute legend of a human and very good surfer). You can also book tours with Bike + Surf. We did the paddleboard tour to see the penguins and blue-footed boobies in the anchorage ($40 each, 4 hours). We also recommend the Los tunnels tour to swim with the penguins as the picture below!
Review all accommodation options in Florena.
We didn’t go to Floreana so sadly I can’t write too much about what to do there!
Transport between, and on the islands
There is a ferry service between the islands. As the Galapagos is a highly pristine environment, transport is highly regulated. You can not rent scooters or a car and do your own thing. Services to tourists are sold as organized tours of which a permit is sold to the operating business. These tours are not cheap! On the bigger islands of Santa Cruz or San Cristobal, there are many taxis available, mostly Toyota Hilux pickup trucks. Use your Spanish to negotiate a ride to where you want to go (if it is not a controlled area), or make friends with a local and ask them to take you.
Now onto the surfing in the Galapagos!….
When is the best time to go surfing in the Galapagos?
There are two distinct swell seasons in the Galapagos: The north swell season (Dec to April) and the South Swell season (April to November). During North swell season they can get two swells (north and south), making the waves inconsistent and weak. The most consistent surf is during the south swell season that aligns perfectly with Central America when surf spots like El Salvador and Nicaragua start to pump (read our surf guides on both locations). When The North Shore of Hawaii pumps (read ourNorth Shore surf guide), the same swell hits the northern limits of the Galapagos about 4 or 5 days later. The best month for big waves for the North Swell is end of December to mid-January. The big waves hit the south coast in June and July when the winds are not so strong and the water is not so cold.
The highly controlled environment of The Galapagos Islands
We never thought we’d visit a country with more rules than Australia! The Galapagos, rightly so, with all its unique flora, fauna and animals is a highly protected archipelago of islands. This means that where you can go, even where locals can go, is highly controlled, although locals obviously have more freedom. The impact these rules will have on your surfing options is significant. We had our own boat in The Galapagos, yet we were not able to go anywhere. See a sick point break pumping in the distance? Nope, you can’t go there either. Not with a water taxi, not with a fishing boat, not even with your own boat. Nothing. But maybe with a local fisherman, it is possible… if you are sneaky. Many surf spots are also not very accessible from land with no roads or paths and rock outcrops that occasionally turn to beaches. What is for sure though is The Galapagos is littered with waves all over the Archipelago, many of them likely to have only been surfed by Sea Lions. Given a method of access, it is a surfer’s dream destination!
Thou shall not pass – Illegal waves!
It is illegal for tourist to surf waves that are only accessed by boat. The locals even need to get a permit to surf these waves, 24 hours in advance. The illegalities come from the National Park as they have not yet regulated surfing in the Galapagos as an activity. So if you want to surf some of the breaks that are not accessible from town, you need to make your own arrangements through the locals and take a private boat there. If you are planning something more official like a film shoot, or want to guarantee that you can go surf where you want, I’d recommend going through the Ecuador tourism board and the National Park to get permission (see Nicholas’ contact details at the bottom of this article – he may be able to help with logistics and gaining permission through the official channels).
Surfing in the Galapagos: Vibe in the water
On several occasions I was told ‘ there is no localism in The Galapagos’ and from the three weeks I spent surfing there, the vibe was always friendly, encouraging and fun. Of course, you get the occasional ‘wave cockroach’ (that was actually one of the local’s surfer’s appropriate nickname), but if you show utmost respect, they do too. After surfing sharing their waves over several sessions, we were invited to drinks, dinner, kayaking, asados, fiestas… you name it. As a girl surfing alone, it is worth noting that you will be quite an attraction.
The Latinos love blondes – Manage this as you wish but anticipate the sexy sweet-talk, comments and invitations. I personally had a lot of fun! They surf really well, ‘what else do we do here in paradise?’ they would ask.
San Cristobal Surf spots – all rock bottom
San Cristobal has a population of around 6,000 and roughly 100 surfers of all ages. The waves here are world class and of all the islands, most importantly, they are all accessible from the town – no need to risk a run in with the fun police! San Cristobal is probably the best island to base yourself on, if you are wanting to go surfing in The Galapagos.
North Swell waves
Punta Carola – Fast right-hander, 2 sections.
A cargo ship crashed on the reef here and permanently damaged the ocean floor but it actually made the wave better. Now on the right swell, the two sections can connect which they didn’t before. An iconic wave with a picturesque lighthouse. Will get ‘crowded’ when the surf is good with both locals from San Cristobal and other neighboring islands.
Canon Point – Left point, possible for a right. Can hold a big swell.
Valero – Left point and a possible, shorter right
If the north swell is too small for Canon and Punta Carola to break, it’s worth a walk to Valero at the SE tip of the island, past Tongo Reef. Or get a $10 water taxi from the pier.
South Swell waves
El Tongo – 3x left-hand peaks (El Pico, El Medio, El Bajito – aka baby point
Tongo is a consistent, fun and fast wave which can connect on the right swell to offer long rides. The takeoff sucks up from a reef and it can get really shallow on low tide, making the takeoff critical. For those learning to surf, stick to El Bajito in the bay.
You can not see this wave from town. To access by foot, bring your ID and walk through the army base (no access without Identification documents). The walk is about 45 minutes and you will have to scramble over the rocks to enter the water. Take refreshments, reef safe sunscreen (see our detailed reviews and recommendations here), and everything you need for a day in the sun. At time of writing, there was a little shack shelter from the sun. Alternatively, pay $10 and get a water taxi to drop you on the peak. Danny was our absolute favourite water taxi driver in The Black Pearl.
Tongo Reef – Outer reef, lefts and rights
If you see this is breaking from town, then there will be waves at Tongo. It needs a big groundswell to form any real ride-able shape. A bit of a novelty wave that gets the locals excited. It can hold size but rarely gets the conditions to work. On most days it looks like a washing machine.
Loberia – left and rights, swell magnet. Can hold a big swell.
If you like slabs, this is the wave for you! Breaking on to a rock shelf, this is a wave for confident advanced surfers only. The right is the safer option as the exit is towards a deeper channel and not closer to the boulder shelf. On land, there aren’t any landmarks to align your position against for a consistent takeoff zone however, there are three submerged reefs or rocks. You will see these ripple up when a set comes through. Align yourself to the left of those ripples.
Waves that are not accessible from town and that will require a boat are:
Manglecito – North swell, point.
Crateres – North swell, left point.
Santa Cruz – 1 wave accessible from town
No North Swell waves on Santa Cruz
Tourtuga Bay – Sand bottom, beach break
A long 45 minute to an hour walk from town through a beautiful stone walkway through many cacti. This beautiful white sandy beach lies within the National Park so you will need to sign in when you get to the gate. Bring water, snacks and shade as there are no services on the beach. You can buy a cold drink at the sign-in hut on the National Park gate.
Mangliceto – Right point on the west side of Tortuga bay. Needs a big swell.
Need a boat to access:
Chicken Hill – Slow fat left, accessible by boat only. Bit of a swell magnet.
No boat operators in town will take you here. You need to find a way with a local that has a friend with a boat or has a boat.
Punta Negra – S/W side of the island. Left
Isabella – One wave accessible from town, maybe two if you want to walk 2 hours through the bush!
El Faro – Sand bottom beach break, about 1 km walk from town
What a beautiful vibe Isabella has. Expect sandy roads, a slow pace and tranquility. This is the biggest island, yet they only have a population of 3,000 living here. The locals are super friendly and hang out at the shady shack in front of the wave. It is not uncommon that several of them will take a wave at the same time and try to race each other down the face or air over each other. Just laugh and get involved in the shenanigans even if ‘dropping-in’ isn’t the done thing where you are from. Busy at sunrise and sunset when the locals are off work.
Another right-hand point break
There are a few right-hand point breaks you can see in the distance up the beach from EL Faro. It’s a long walk through the bush to access them. Look at satellite images on Google Maps, you will be able to make out a faint donkey trail.
There are countless other waves on Isabella that you are likely to drawl over on your way by boat, to the permitted famous tours like Los Tunnels (lava tunnels, $120 ½ day tour). Sadly they are all ‘illegal’ to surf without a permit. On an island of the size of Isabella, the surf options out there are endless!
Floreana Island – SW swell
The pier – A-Frame, right in front of the harbor
Sketchy barrel to the right, nice steep left.
Loberia – West of the bay
We were surfing in the Galapagos on our first stop whilst sailing across the Pacific Ocean on the way to Tahiti. It was one of those places that captured my heart with its raw energy, simplicity and transcendent environment. I was incredibly sad to leave and say goodbye to the amazing people that I had surfed with over the three weeks. Although hard to to get to, expensive to stay and annoyingly permitted to an inch of its life (again rightly so to preserve the environment), the surf in The Galapagos stole the show. The animals are great but there are only so many Sea Lions I can gawk at. The waves, however, I would never get bored of. Especially when the vibes are so friendly.
It was sad to be the only girl surfing other than a few gringos on a working holiday. On Santa Cruz my heart was warmed by a group of local girl surfers in a little posse, but I was disheartened to hear that traditionally, parents do not let girls surf because they worry about the deadbeat culture and drug-use that the sport carries. I hope that will change and more local girls will have access to the ocean and all the life lessons, confidence and strength it can bring.