Galapagos is truly a rare gem on our planet and that’s why we really wanted to sail there with Stella Polaris. We had heard rumors that checking in to Galapagos could be a nightmare, but we didn’t let that deter us. The process for us was as follows:
Before you arrive at the island, you need to decide on the following: Autographo or not? An Autographo means that you do a normal process of checking in to Galapagos and are given permission to sail between 3-5 of the islands and can stay for up to 60 days. If you don’t get an Autographo, you can only stay in the port you arrive in and are not allowed to sail between any of the islands.
If you don’t get an Autographo, when you sail to Galapagos, ensure that your Zarpe from where you sailed from (for example Panama) says Marquesas (or wherever you’re sailing to after Galapagos). You can then be granted a temporary stay here of up to 20 days, but you could be given as little as 3 days, depending on the port captain, where you check in.
If you get an Autographo, they recommend that you secure an agent and get the paperwork in at least a month or two before you’re arriving, because everything needs to be sent to the mainland, where the official documents and permissions are given. We sent ours in less than 2 weeks before and it was by the skin of our teeth that we got it in time.
The process to find an agent for us was straightforward: we contacted every agent listed for the Galapagos on Noonsite and saw which ones we liked the answers from the most. They appear to be quite busy and most of them send generic answers with costs, etc, but in the end we settled on Ricardo Arenas, because he responded promptly to email and appeared to be reasonably priced. In hindsight it appears you end up paying pretty much the same for them. Ricardo responded quickly before we got to Galapagos, but once we got here (and had paid), he never responded to email and we needed to use our sat phone to call him. He did everything we asked, and was easy to deal with, with the small irritation of not responding to email.
Pricewise getting an Autographo works out to the same amount as checking in without getting one and this made the difference to us: it would allow us more flexibility, time and freedom on the islands. We paid $1600 for a 3-port autographo (in February 2017) Having emailed copies of ship papers and our passports to our agent, he set the wheels in motion to get the Autographo.
When you arrive in Galapagos, make sure that you have three things: 1. Black Water Certificate, explaining that you have septic tanks for the sewage installed (I made ours). 2. Hull Cleaning Certificate, showing when your hull was cleaned, by whom, etc (I made ours) 3. Fumigation Certificate from your last port of call (you need a certificate of fumigation from your last port of call, if not you’re fumigated upon entry into Galapagos … Though many boats got fumigated even though they had been fumigated in Panama, so there was no guarantee).
When we arrived in Wreck Bay on San Cristobal, the watertaxis (always listening on VHF channel 14), came by with Carmella (our agent’s representative on San Cristobal). She welcomed us to Galapagos and told us she’d be back with the officials. After an hour she returned with 7 officials and a diver. Part of the paperwork went without a hitch and even the quarantine official was happy with the fruit, vegetables and inside of the boat, BUT the diver was not. He found a few barnacles behind the blades on the bow thruster and a few in a couple of throughhulls as well as a couple on top of the rudders and that was enough for us to fail the inspection. Literally a handful of barnacles was enough.
We then had to lift anchor and motor to outside the 40nm Marine Reserve zone, to clean our hull again. We were lucky because it was very calm, so it was no problem to stop the engine and just drift, while Camilla and I went into the water and cleaned the hull … again. It was eerie to be in the water and clean the hull, because I kept hearing the jaws theme, but it went well.
To be clear about one thing: we cleaned the hull in Las Perlas, a week before arriving in Galapagos and even stopped the day before we arrived in San Cristobal to do a last clean-up (there were no wind or waves), so our hull was almost spotless, but they are very picky. If you have the same misfortune we had, make sure you motor outside the 40 nm zone, because they do check and want to know the exact position where you cleaned your hull. Some people opted to bring local divers with them to do the job, but we did it ourselves.
There were some tiny shrimp-like creatures that really enjoyed the anti-fouling and when we came and wiped them away, they attacked us, so when we got out of the water, we need to pull off the “shrimps”.
So, after spending an additional 24 hours motoring out and in again, we needed to get a new quarantine inspector onboard (and spend an additional $100) and get a new dive inspection. We held our breaths and were nervous when the diver was underneath, but we passed and could finally pop the beers and celebrate a successful passage.
One thing to keep in mind is that even though we had an Autographo, you still need to check out and get a zarpe (and pay a check-in fee of $15-16), before you sail to one of the other islands. Then when you get to the next island, you need to check in (and pay a check-in fee of $15-16), and so forth. With our Autographo (which is the most normal one to get), we could sail to Wreck Bay on San Cristobal, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Vilamil on Isabela.
We recommend doing San Cristobal first, followed by Isabela, ending on Santa Cruz, primarily because you can’t check out of the country from Isabela and the provisioning for a long trip is the best on Santa Cruz.
Some sailors are a bit disappointed with the limited options you have in Galapagos with your own boat. You are absolutely not allowed to stop in any other place than the three main ports (heavy fines, confiscation of boat and imprisonment can be expected), nor are you allowed to take your dinghy to explore. In all three ports there are water taxis that pick you up and take you to shore for $0,80 – $2 (per person, per leg). You can use your own dinghy to the dock, but only in Isabela can you leave it on shore and even there it needs to be tied off to a dock that’s not connected to mainland, so you need to swim out to retrieve it.
The people that grumble about limited options, in my opinion, fail to recognize that it’s because of these stringent rules that the islands are as unspoilt and beautiful as they are. We did day trips on all the islands we stopped at and had a fantastic time. We are very happy we got the Autographo and would recommend doing the same to anyone else. If we ever return, we’ll do it the same way then.