Everyone knows them; everyone wants to see them. For many it’s too far away and others think travel to the Galapagos Islands is just not in their budget. To know how it works with little money and make the trip affordable, read from here.
Many backpackers that I have met along my journey through South America had to skip the Galapagos Islands with a heavy heart. Others have “indulged” even though the travel budget didn’t allow for it. I, too, had the big wish to see the islands, giant tortoises, iguanas and other animals in nature; but when I saw the very expensive prices of the agencies in Quito, the dream to visit began to fade. But I didn’t want to give up that easy.
On the spot decision: I started looking through the Wi-fi connection in the hostel for online flights (Skyscanner). In the end, I was very happy that I could find a return flight with Avianca for 420 USD. At check-in before taking off, my backpack was checked and sealed for $20. After a short layover in Guayaquil and another two hours, we landed on San Cristóbal, the most eastern of the islands in the Galapagos. Arriving in the hall at the airport, I was asked to pay $100 for national park fees. I was not even there yet and already had about 540 USD spent. As they were going through the airport exit, everyone apart from me was welcomed with a signboard. They were probably European cruise tourists who probably spent a couple thousand Euros. At this point, I was more excited about the adventure ahead.
6 ITF TIPS TO MAKE THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS AFFORDABLE
A significant reason to keep the Galápagos Islands as affordable as possible is to go as soon as possible; in the next few years the local government will increase the national park entry fees and taxes to as high as $600/person. it was $120 when I visited at the end of April 2015. Some other tips:
There are two airports to fly into the Galápagos Islands. The main one is Santa Cruz (known as Isla Baltra airport) or San Cristóbal. I recommend booking the flight in advance and getting an open jaw flight to San Cristóbal Island. You can fly out of Isla Baltra (about one hour outside Santa Cruz). Aviancaoffers multiple flights. This saves you $30 for the ferry and valuable travel time. Bear in mind, if you love being on the islands as much as I did, you can change your flight with Avianca for just $15. This is a very good tip to know and you may make use of it.
I didn’t book anything in advance and just turned up and stayed in hostel/hotels for no more than $15-$20/night. This is the price for a private double room with en suite–clean and in a good location. I recommend places to stay in each section of the island in this post, which you cannot find in online hotel portals so check it out. An important fact to know is that the local government wants to make hotels increase their prices to a minimum of $50/night. The reason is to only attract wealthy people, but most of the hotels couldn’t ask for this amount because the standard is just not good enough (although theoretically they could). The government will also fine hotels and hostels if they offer rooms with multiple beds like a dorm room.
3. Food & Drink
I recommend to eat in local places such as street food vendors, etc. Ask and follow the locals; they know where to go and where its good. The other option is to buy at the supermarket and cook the ingredients yourself as most accommodations provide a kitchen. Locals love platano cut in slices and fried. It’s super cheap and delicious when dipped into cream cheese. If you don’t feel like cooking, which I totally understand, be prepared to pay between $5-$10 for a meal. Some restaurants I recommend are Bolon de Verde($5.50, Cafe Hernanat the port of Santa Cruz), Cri’s Burger Factory($5-$9, San Cristóbal) and delicious empanadas or warm milk rice ($0.75-$1, local hotspot next to the Hotel Brisas del Pacifico on Santa Cruz Island).
There are a lot of agencies on the islands offering several tours, i.e. diving, snorkel, hiking, volcano, and several other trips. For each trip, you have to be prepared to pay between $35-$140. $35 was the cheapest for a volcano hike; $85-$95 is what you pay for a half day snorkel trip and $140 for 2-3 dives. If you dive, try to find other people to book with and to get a discount (if they don’t offer, ask !). If this all sounds too expensive, you can rent a snorkel kit with fins for about $5/day or bring it yourself. There are awesome snorkel spots around the different islands and it’s free. If you like surfing, the Galápagos Islands offer some good spots. If you don’t bring your own surfboard, be prepared to pay $15/half day or $25/full day.
The ferry between the main islands Santa Cruz, Isla Isabela and San Cristóbal run in the morning and at noon (distance 1,5 – 2,5 hours) and cost $30 each way. Therefore, it comes to a total cost of $90 when you start in San Cristóbal and go to Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela & Isla Isabela and then Santa Cruz.
If you are studying in Ecuador, don’t forget to bring your student ID because students only pay an $20 entrance fee.
After reading these tips, you have good knowledge to keep your travel to the Galápagos Islands on a budget; and I hope you decide to visit. Now, on to the different islands of San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isla Isabela and the best places to visit.
SAN CRISTÓBAL ‒ the oldest
Observe sea lions gather anywhere
On the Portf Baquerizo Moreno, there is the bus station or boats. In the evening, crowds of sea lions sleep on the beach and make noises, something between barking, snoring and squeaking.
Tour to La Loberia
A beautiful spot for snorkel or surfing. Afterwards, continue to the volcano rocks at Tongo Reef to observe iguanas nesting, and the surfers. See the beautiful sunset. Important: Stay on the path. Otherwise you destroy the nesting eggs of the iguanas.
Taxi tour to discover San Cristóbal
$60 for four hours (book one day in advance) and stop at:
1. Laguna del Junco, volcano crater with lake and all kinds of flora and fauna.
2. Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, research and breeding station for the giant toirtoise.
3. Puerto Chino, a beautiful beach with the blue-footed boobie.
4. Casa del Ceibo, a 300-year-old tree house with a cool bar built of 22.000 beer bottles (entrance $1.50, accommodation $ 25/person/night).
Underwater World at Kicker Rock
A breathtaking snorkel and dive trip great to spot hammerhead sharks and with a lot of luck Orca wales.
(Snorkeling $80, Diving $160, Sharksky Tours).
Snorkel at Cerro de Las Tijeretas
A 20-minute walk from the port is another hotspot for snorkeling (a snorkel set can be rented for $5/day at San Cristobal Tours). On the way back, you can see a really beautiful sunset on the beach of Punta Carola near the lighthouse. Swimming with sea lions – a dream !
The nightlife of San Cristobal
At night you can join cool parties at El Barquero or The Island with beer ($3-$4) and Caña, a typical aniseed brandy ($12 for 0,5l- bottle).
Where to stay ?
I recommend Hostal San Francisco for a double room near the port. I arrived spontaneously and it was great ($15/person/night).
SANTA CRUZ ‒ the liveliest
Charles Darwin Research Center
The research center informs you about the origin of the Galapagos Islands, the fauna and the various protection programs. From the port in Puerto Ayora, the station can be reached by a 20-minute walk. Along the way, there are a couple of beaches to go for a swim and spot iguanas and pelicans.
Sea rocky gorge of Las Grietas
Jumping into the wonderful beautiful gorge with turquoise-colored water is the best reward you can ever imagine after the 20-minute walk among nature and along some other beaches (Playa de los Alemanes). To get to Las Grietas, use the taxi boat from port Puerto Ayora to the opposite located bay ($1.20 return) and follow the signs.
Chill, swim & surf at Tortuga Bay
This is one of my favorite places on the Galapagos Islands. I went to the park entrance of Tortuga Bay by taxi ($1/person). After another 20-minute walk, it was so beautiful and empty. I chilled there with some locals and surfed. I surfed there every time I went and once I even spotted a shark and so I left.
Where to stay ?
Lirio del Mar has single and double rooms, a terrace and is very well located. ($15/person/night)
ISLA ISABELA ‒ the most original
Tunnel system Los Tuneles tour
The snorkel trip in the crystal-clear ocean surrounded by breathtaking lava rocks was incredible with a small group for only $65 (booked through the hostel). In the connected lava tunnel system, I dived through a cave where five reef sharks were napping. I was able to swim with a giant tortoise, penguins and sea lions, spot manta rays, blue-footed boobies, iguanas, sea horses, sea stars and myriad of colored fish. It is best to travel there between January and May (because other times of the year the site entrance is shallow and the waves can be strong, making it very complicated to access with the boat and dangerous to swim around the tunnels).
The simmering volcano Sierra Negra
The most active of the five Galapagos volcanos erupted in 2005. The 7 x 10km crater, 1,100 meters above sea level, has fascinating scenery like I would imagine on the planet Mars. I even spotted a wild giant tortoise hiding in the bush. This trip was also booked at the hostel for $25 and can also be booked at Pahoehoe Galapagos Tours.
Discover Isla Isabela by bike
I went to a rental place across the road to rent a bike ($5, two hours) in order to discover the Isla Isabela island. I was cycling on a very hot day along the beach towards the former prison Muro de las Lagrimas (The Wall of Tears) and I stopped in several places along the way such as the view point Cerro Orchilla, beaches (Playa del Amor), a lake, etc. It was just beautiful, peaceful and a good change having a different travel vehicle this time.
I then had to catch the ferry but was still Centro de Crianza, which is a breeding center; but since I had seen one in San Cristobal, I didn’t mind missing out on it.
Where to stay ?
Hostal Brisas del Mar double room, lounge with hammocks to chill, between the port and the center. A very caring owner booked everything and took good care of me ($20/person/night).
I TRAVEL FOREVER’s VIEW & RECOMMENDATION
In retrospect, I would say that the Galápagos Islands have definitely been a highlight of all the places I’ve visited in my life, and in two weeks I managed to only spend $1,200 including everything.
The Galápagos Islands are a “magical paradise” blessed with biodiversity and unique wildlife including giant tortoises, iguanas, sea lions, blue-footed boobies, penguins and more. The people on the islands are awesome, super friendly and very welcoming. Become friends with them while drinking Puro de Caña and you will have the time of your life.
The Galápagos Islands was probably one of the best trips I’ve ever taken in my life. I would recommend to go as soon as possible, as the local government is pushing the price up for the entrance fee and also encourages the hotels to increase their prices drastically. Rumors are also going around that probably the islands in the future will be closed for tourism for some years to protect the species and this unique place – I wouldn’t be surprised. As it gets very hot, I also recommend bringing a lot of sun lotion, as it is super expensive on the island, and also accessories for the GoPro. I recommend arriving at the airport early as there is a pre-check-in where your luggage gets checked and sealed; and the queues can be really long and slow.
Alternatively, if you miss the opportunity or the costs aren’t in your budget, apparently ‘Isla de la Plata’ in Ecuador is the “poor man’s Galapagos” — cheaper, but not nicer, and it also offers hand back whale watching in September. Personally, I would always wait to save that little extra to visit the Galápagos Islands.
If you are still unsure whether to go or not, watch the great and interesting Galapagos documentary with David Attenborough. Click on Galapagos 3D with David Attenboroughor find here a travel guide by Lonely Planet, which I didn’t use: Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands.