The Galapagos certainly do not cater to the do-it-yourself crowd. The majority of the park is off limits to those unaccompanied by a naturalist guide. Naturalist guides are official guides trained for ~8 months by the park. The idea is to have responsible and knowledgeable people to guide and educate visitors to the park and also attempt to keep tourism from altering the ecosystem. The motives of the naturalist guides are honourable and our two experiences with them were positive.
While tours can be educational, we both prefer visiting places by ourselves and at our own pace rather than being herded around in a mob. Luckily, there are a few areas in the park where it is possible to enter without being accompanied by a naturalist guide.
Sierra Negra, on Isla Isabela, has the largest caldera in the Galapagos (7.2 x 9.3 km) an On a clear day it is possible to see most of the northern portion of Isabela from Sierra Negra. This was as close as we could get to Northern Isla Isabela as it was inaccessible to the public at the time of our visit because of the helicopter-assisted culling of goats (which were introduced by pirates as a hardy food source back in the day--or so we were told).
Before arriving on Isabela we had heard mixed reports of whether or not it was possible to hike to Sierra Negra without a guide and since the park office was closed for the weekend, we decided to go and find out. We caught an early bus to the road head and then hitchhiked to the park entrance. When we arrived a park official told us that we were not permitted onto the trail without a naturalist guide because we would get lost and then it would be the responsibility of the President of the Republic to rescue us. We explained that we were under the impression we were allowed to enter, to which he responded that if we tried he would have the police officer who was stationed up there arrest us. He told us that if people didn't need a guide then anybody could come and walk around on the trail!! When we asked him what was wrong with that he changed the subject. Despite our pleas for him to call the park office to ask he refused (claiming he had no cellphone reception).
Frustrated, we walked the 18 km back to town and went straight to the park office to speak to Isabela Island's Park Director. We told him that we could not afford an organized tour (45 USD per person) but would still like to walk the trail to Sierra Negra. He told us that while the park encourages the use of a guide at Sierra Negra, there is nothing they can do to stop people who are not in an "organized group" from entering. Another park official in the office tried to contradict him but he patiently explained that it is clearly written in the Plan de Manejo. We asked the director for his name and phone number and he told us to have anyone who gave us a problem call him.
We returned to the park entrance the next morning (partly out of spite, but also because we wanted to see the caldera). Upon our arrival the park official came out and angrily yelled at us that he had told us the day before that we were not allowed in without a guide. We calmly produced the phone number of his boss and after a 3 minute conversation on his cellphone he sheepishly waved us through.
We thought the hike was scenic and we are glad we did it but the bureaucracy was a hassle. We feel that one of the reasons the park worker was so reluctant to allow us to enter was because many park workers are also naturalist guides so allowing people to enter on their own could be bad for business. After all, another reason for the naturalist guide program is to provide job opportunities to people who may otherwise seek work in more environmentally destructive activities such as illegal fishing. Again, an honourable motive but our pockets are only so deep.
Which way? One of the biggest arguments the park official at the entrance could muster as to why we were not allowed into the park was that we may get lost in the lava field. He told us troubling warnings about a naturalist guide who got lost and needed to be rescued along with his group. With this in mind we followed the well trod trail marked with white rocks and painted arrows very cautiously. Everything was going smoothly until we arrived at this confusing arrow which seemed to direct us to go both forwards and backwards at the same time. We believe that this is likely the very spot where the lost naturalist guide came to a standstill and needed to be rescued.