The Galapagos Islands are famous for giant tortoises, a staggering diversity of birds, the birthplace of Charles Darwin’s theory ‘survival of the fittest’, and for those who’ve been or want to go as a really expensive vacation destination. I can attest to that after having spent 3 weeks in Galapagos, my budget is hurting. But did it really have to?
Like many others I chose to do Galapagos up right, splurging on an extravagant 8 day liveaboard dive cruise to Darwin and Wolf Islands. While most travelers don’t blow the budget in this way, most do take a cruise around the islands and that’s where much of the expense comes in. These cruises can run as cheap as $150 a day or as much as $400 or more a day. The difference in the price tags is determined by the class of the boat and type of accommodations and it really makes Galapagos out of reach for many people, especially backpackers and budget travelers.
The thing is, there’s a way for budget travelers to do Galapagos on the cheap and still enjoy most of what the islands have to offer.
Finding the Best Airfare to the Galapagos Islands
Let’s start with airfare. If you’re already in Ecuador when arranging your flight you can usually get a flight to the Galapagos Islands for around $375 to $400 for a roundtrip ticket from Guayaquil. It is also an international airport and much better to fly into than Quito as you’ll have to go through Guayaquil anyway so at minimum you cut out one leg or the flight but you’ll also probably see a lower price, cutting Quito and its new expensive airport out of your itinerary. For the best fares check Aerogal and TAME though LAN also flies there but is more expensive typically. If you are a member of the One World Alliance, ie have airline miles on American Airlines or British Airways among others, you can cash in your miles with those carriers to fly on LAN to Galapagos for free. That’s what I did.
There are two airports in Galapagos, one on Santa Cruz Island and one on San Cristobal Island. By flying into one and then flying out of the other you can ensure you see both islands and cut out the cost of one speed boat ride between the islands which runs about $30 each way. If that’s not an option, I found it cheaper to fly into San Cristobal. Also San Cristobal’s airport is only about a 10-15 minute walk or $1 taxi from the center of town whereas the airport on San Cruz is on the other side of the island and is at least a $20 taxi ride that takes 30-45 minutes.
Getting to the Galapagos Islands by Boat
Though not all that common, it is possible to hitch a ride on a boat from Guayaquil to the Galapagos Islands. If you’re not on a time limit and have at least some Spanish, you can hit the port in Guayaquil and ask around for boats leaving to the Galapagos. Guayaquil is the port city that ships supplies to the Galapagos and is also where boats from the Galapagos go for repairs and service so chances are there will be a boat heading that way in the near future. You’re chancing of finding a ride on the return is lower though so plan on flying back to reserve all your time on the islands for enjoying them versus running around trying to find a ride back to the mainland.
Accommodations in the Galapagos Islands
Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of budget accommodations and hostels in Galapagos. Quality does vary widely but you can easily find a dorm bed for $15 or less a night and can even score a private room with private bath for $20 to $25 a night. Your best bet is to arrive on the islands without making any reservations and then to visit a few hotels and hostels to check prices. Always ask to see the rooms before you commit as sometimes the front desk is the nicest part of the place. I was able to find a nice hotel in San Cristobal about 2 blocks off the water for $20 a night or on the water for $35 a night for a private room with private bath. In Santa Cruz, where it’s a bit pricier, I was able to find a hotel about 2 blocks off the water and another 3 from the main section for $25 a night for a private room with private bath. There are certainly more expensive accommodations, but this price range is very doable for clean, comfortable rooms.
Islands to Visit in the Galapagos
There are 3 main islands in Galapagos that are must see; Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela. If you were to book a cruise you would likely see each of these islands as well as some of the uninhabited islands as not all of the islands have residents aside from wildlife. The good thing about visiting each of these islands using the speed boat transfers and staying in hotels or hostels is that you can still see all the same wildlife but for a fraction of the cost. There are many spots you can visit for free while others will cost you but still won’t add up to the price of a cruise. Also all of the islands offer good opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Activities on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos
Santa Cruz is the main port in the Galapagos and definitely the most busy, populated, and touristy. I stayed there for about 5 days but really wish I’d stayed less time there and spent more time between Isabela and San Cristobal. On Santa Cruz you can walk from town along the main drag by the beach to the Charles Darwin Research Center which is free to visit. This was the home of the late Lonesome George who died back in 2012 as the last giant tortoise of his particular species. While George is gone, there are still a number of other giant tortoises to see. They don’t technically roam free here but pretty close. They’re sectioned off by short lava rock walls and have ample roaming room. There are wooden decks where you can walk over the tortoises and get a good view as they lounge, snack, and sometimes fight. You can also take a tour inland for between $50 to $70 and see the giant tortoises roaming free and also visit lava tunnels.
Activities on Isabela Island in the Galapagos
Compared to Santa Cruz, Isabela is a sleepy beach town. The streets are made of sand and the seafood is plentiful and cheap. There are a few main attractions on Isabela including hiking volcanoes (must be done with a guide on a tour), checking out giant tortoises and marine iguanas roaming wild, visiting lava tunnels with blue footed boobie birds, and more. My favorite activity on Isabela Island was also the cheapest. For the cost of renting a bike for a few hours I rode to what used to be a prison on the island before the Galapagos Islands were established as a national park. The prison is actually not the interesting part, just what happens to be at the end of the path. Along the way I saw numerous giant tortoises roaming free, and encountered hundreds of marine iguanas. It’s a gorgeous hike or bike ride filled with different wildlife to encounter.
Activities on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos
On San Cristobal, the star attraction is the sea lions. There are sea lions on all of the islands but on San Cristobal I’d say the sea lions actually outnumber the people if I had to guess. Strolling along the main street lining the beach you’ll find sea lions on park benches, lounging on the sidewalks in the sun, and swimming in the water. It’s far more common to see sea lions than dogs or cats on San Cristobal. You can even walk about 15 minutes from the center of town to the public beach, Playa Mann, and lounge on the beach with these playful creatures. Don’t be afraid to get in the water and swim along with them too, though don’t get too close. They are inquisitive but also like their personal space as I found out on a few occasions….accidentally. You can also rent a bike and take a tour of the island finding pristine white sand beaches that are usually deserted and see the volcanic rock structures and of course sea lions along the way.
Scuba Diving on the Cheap in the Galapagos
To be honest it doesn’t get very cheap in the Galapagos to dive but you can shop around a bit for some deals. About the best you’ll find for diving on Santa Cruz is $130 for a two tank dive. Ouch, I know! $150 is more the average with better dive shops charging up to $175. I recommend checking out Gordon’s Rock if you can only pick one dive site. It’s blessed with tons of hammerheads along with spotted eagle rays, turtles, and a variety of fish.
On San Cristobal you can dive for a bit less at Kicker Rock which is an interesting site where you dive in between two large rocks sticking out of the middle of the ocean with sharks, rays, turtles, and more swimming in between the rocks. It’s also just as good as a snorkeling site.
Fixed Costs in the Galapagos
Many people arrive in the Galapagos and are surprised by the entry tax for the Galapagos National Park. It is required to be paid in cash at the airport and is $100. They give you a Penguin ticket as your receipt which you have to show again when leaving the island or you’ll be forced to pay the $100 fee again. There is also a much smaller $10 fee to be paid before you leave Guayaquil for the Galapagos Islands.
Food and drinks in the Galapagos are also pricier than a budget traveler will hope for. Beer goes for around $4-5, sodas are about $2, and water $1-2. While there are cheap meal options with small stands in Santa Cruz, in San Cristobal and Isabela you can do well eating in the restaurants as well. Plan to spend around $10 for a meal as long as you don’t splurge.
Budget Travelers Can Visit Galapagos Too
So while Galapagos will never top a budget traveler cheapest destinations list, it is possible to experience the wonders of the Galapagos and still be mindful of your budget. Basing yourself on land instead of on a boat means less expense but doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on the wildlife or experience of the Galapagos Islands.