If you’re anything like me, a destination where you can experience diverse landscapes, endless animal encounters, and a variety of adventurous activities sounds like a dream come true. When I initially set out to visit the Galapagos Islands, I was disheartened upon reading the price of Galapagos tours and cruises. While my mind was telling me I could make it work, my bank account was telling me that perhaps I was being too ambitious. But thankfully I’m persistent, and with a bit (well, a lot) of research, I figured out a way for my partner and I to spend a week in the Galapagos for relatively cheap.
How to travel:
The most common way to explore the Galapagos Islands is on an organized cruise. These leave from one of the main inhabited Islands (usually Santa Cruz or San Cristobal). Prices for a tourist class cabin on a decent boat start at around $2000 per person, and this doesn’t include the Visa/National Park fee. Although you can spend some time on one of the islands and wait for a cheap cabin while the company tries to fill up the boat.
Other organized tours will take you Island hopping on land tours, and you’ll spend your time between the 3 main inhabited Islands in the Galapagos. Alternatively, you could do this yourself without paying for a pricey tour. In this travel Guide I will give you an insight into how to get the most out of your time in the Galapagos Islands, while spending time on Santa Cruz, Isla Isabella, and San Cristobal, the 3 most popular of the 4 inhabited Galapagos Islands. (All costs given are in USD)
Flights to the Galapagos can be quite pricey depending on where you come from. If you’re traveling through South America it is advisable to fly in from Quito in Ecuador. Also, if you fly in to Baltra Airport (Santa Cruz Island) and fly out from San Cristobal, not only is it more convenient, but you can save $30.
Visa/National Park fee
Upon arrival you are required to pay $20 for a Visa and a $100 National Park Fee. The Galapagos Islands are all protected as a national park, so this fee covers you for the entirety of your trip, instead of having to pay each time you enter a different island or site.
The best thing about the Galapagos is that you can camp anywhere in the national park for free (well, technically you pay for it with the National Park Fee). If you’re coming solely to the Galapagos and not traveling anywhere before or after your visit, it might be worth bringing some camping equipment to avoid paying for accommodation.
Hostels and hotels are abundant between the 3 islands, but if you’re trying to keep it cheap hostels are always the way. Most hostels will cost between $10-$15 for a single bed in a dorm, while a double private room with your own bathroom will cost between $30 and $40 per night. Don’t worry about booking in advance, you can just ask around for the best deal upon arriving on each island.
There aren’t many supermarkets on the Islands, and most locals buy their food in bulk, from markets, or get it delivered to the islands, so if you’re looking to cook your own meals you might struggle a bit. There are plenty of restaurants and local eateries that wont break the bank, expect to pay about $8 for a cheap meal or $25 for something fancier.
Getting around to the attractions on each island can mostly be done on foot, but for a few of them you may require a taxi. Taxis are reasonably priced, and they have set prices so there’s not much use haggling with the drivers.
Getting between each Island can be easily done using the inter island ferries, which are speedboats that can hold between 25-50 people. Tickets can be purchased at any travel shop, and cost $30 each trip.
There’s a huge array of tours on offer on each of the Islands, but in order to get a true Galapagos experience you don’t need to spend much money on tours. (Keep reading for a list of recommended activities).
Altogether my partner and I were able to spend 8 days in the Galapagos for $750 each, which compared to the price of a lot of tours is pretty reasonable. However with careful planning I’m confident you could do it for less.
I recommend flying into Santa Cruz and out of San Cristobal, but you can fly both in and out of Santa Cruz (Baltra airport). It’s important to note that the official inter island ferries run between Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, and Santa Cruz and Isabella, but not between San Cristobal and Isabella. An ideal route would be to arrive on Santa Cruz, then visit Isabella, and then come back to Santa Cruz for a bit before finishing in San Cristobal. However if like us you fly both in and out of Santa Cruz, you will just have to spend time in Santa Cruz, Isabella, back to Santa Cruz for a day, then to San Cristobal, and then finish back in Santa Cruz again.
Santa Cruz is the most populated of the 3 Islands, with Puerto Ayora being the capital. The airport on Santa Cruz is located on Baltra Island, just North of Santa Cruz, so you will need to pay for a 5 minute water taxi ride across. Once you arrive you can either get a $3 bus or an $18 taxi to Puerto Ayora.
Isabella is the largest of the 3 islands, but also the least populated. There are no ATMs on the island, and although some places do accept visa/mastercard, you’re likely to be charged a lot extra, so make sure you get enough cash out on Santa Cruz beforehand.
San Cristobal is not as built up as Santa Cruz, but definitely more than Isabella. Like Santa Cruz there are an abundance of hostels, restaurants, and tour companies here, and taxis are readily available in town.
The best thing about the Galapagos is that there are so many easily accessible activities (most of which are free) on each Island that you don’t need to spend heaps of money. We only booked 2 tours, and managed to see every animal that we wanted to encounter on our trip. Below is a list of recommended activities on each island.
Charles Darwin Research Station – Free: Start your Galapagos experience with a trip to the Charles Darwin research station, a short walk from Puerto Ayora. It has a museum that will teach you about Charles Darwin and how the Galapagos islands helped him develop his theory of evolution. You can also learn about the endangered species on the islands and what is being done to help them. There is a turtle breeding centre, you can see semi-wild land iguanas, and there’s a trail leading to a black lava rock beach, a popular nesting area for marine iguanas.
Rancho Promicias – $45: This is one of the best places to encounter the famous Galapagos tortoises. Santa Cruz has two large neighboring ranches that are home to wild tortoises, Rancho Promicias and El Chato Ranch. Both will cost you $40 in a taxi for a round trip and your driver will wait until you’re finished. Entrance will set you back another $5. We chose Promicias over El Chato because the visit includes entry into the Lava tunnels which are located on their property. The Galapagos islands are volcanic islands, and the lava tunnels allow you to walk through huge underground tunnels that were carved out from volcanic lava. You can spend at least 2 hours at the ranch and you’ll get up close (up to the allowable 2 metres) to giant hundred plus year old tortoises.
Torutga Bay – Free: Tortuga bay would easily be a strong contender for the nicest beach I’ve ever been to. To get to the beach itself you have to walk 30 minutes through the national park, so make sure you wear a hat and bring plenty of water because it can get very hot. Once you’ve walked through the national park you’ll get to a long stretch of white sandy beach, but as tempting as the water may look don’t stop here, as the water usually isn’t safe for swimming. Instead turn right and follow the beach along 20 minutes or so until you get to the rocky cliffs and trees, pass through these and you’ll find a calm secluded section of beach perfect for swimming or snorkeling.
Las Greitas – $3: Hidden away from the town centre is a local favorite, Las Grietas. Down at the port you need to catch a water taxi (which shouldn’t cost more than $1.50) across to Angermeyer point near a popular tourist restaurant. Just tell them you’re gong to Las Grietas and they will know. Upon arrival you’ll see a sign that marks the beginning of the Las Greitas trail, just follow to signs for about 20 minutes past the beach, salt marsh, and the wetlands, and you’ll arrive at the beautiful deep blue gorge hidden between two large cliffs. The water here is quite deep and there are a few platforms you can jump in from. Make sure you bring a snorkel (or at least a mask), although there isn’t a large variety of fish you’ll see lots of really big ones swimming near the bottom.
Concha de Pearla – Free: Follow the 150m trail through mangroves to Concha de pearla, a small enclosed beach area near the jetty on Puerto Villima. You can easily swim or snorkel here as the water is quite warm, shallow, and protected from waves, and depending on the time of the day and year you’ll encounter sea lions, penguins, sting-rays, and different fish.
Villima Lagoon – Free: When you’re out and about near Puerto Villima, take 10-20 minutes to check out Villima lagoon, which is located in the middle of the town. You’ll see plenty of birds hanging around the area, and even a few pink flamingoes.
Los Tunneles Snorkelling Tour – $75: This was he most expensive activity we did in the Galapagos, but it was well worth it, and it was the only chance we had to experience the abundant marine life in he Galapagos. You’ll begin snorkeling in the mangrove area, where you’ll encounter plenty of sea turtles and a reef shark or two, before making your way to see some of the lava tunnels which are a highlight of the Galapagos archipelago. After swimming through a few tunnels and seeing all of the colorful fish nearby, your boat will take you to the land lava tunnels, which look like huge natural lava bridges, and despite being in the middle of the ocean they are covered in cacti, trees, and other plants. Here you’ll see plenty of different bird species, including the famous Galapagos blue footed boobies.
Sierra Negra & Chico Volcano tour – $30: Isabella Island has many of the Galapagos island’s largest volcanoes, and being volcanic Islands, a trip to the Galapagos wouldn’t be complete without experiencing at least one of these. Sierra Negra is the largest on the Galapagos, with a black crusty lava crater that extends 10km in diameter, with the nearby smaller but equally impressive Chico volcano. Tours are available from all tour companies in town, and shouldn’t cost you more than $30-$35 depending on whether you include breakfast and lunch. The hike itself is quite easy and the views are well worth every penny.
Las Loberias Beach – $3: This was definitely the highlight of my trip to the Galapagos. Located about a 20 minute drive ($13 in a taxi) or 40 minute walk from town you’ll find Loberias beach, a calm but very rocky beach with plenty of sea lions that you can swim with. Hire a snorkel from any tourist shop in town for $3 for the day, and make sure you bring a camera! Mating season occurs for 9 months of the year, so regardless of when you visit you’re bound to see baby sea lions. Although you can’t touch them, they are very curious creatures and I had one come right up to me and sniff my foot while I was just sitting on a rock about to get in the water. Plenty of them won’t hesitate to get up close to you and play with you.
Interpretation Centre – Free: The Interpretation centre on San Cristobal is definitely the best information centre on all the Galapagos. You’ll learn so much about the geography and history of the Islands, and also about how tourism impacts life for the locals and the animals on the Galapagos.
Behind the interpretation centre you’ll find a few trails, which you should definitely check out depending on how much time you have. We did the Cerro Tijeretas trail (Tijeretas Hill) which only took about 30 minutes return, and takes you to a nice viewing platform where you may see frigate birds, although we weren’t so lucky. There are other great trails that lead to different parts of the beach, which are also great snorkelling spots.
I hope you find this guide helpful when trying to book a DIY Galapagos tour. If you have any questions please post them below and I’ll answer them promptly