Is it really possible to travel to the Galapagos Islands on a budget? This would be a pointless article if I said no! So yes!
First of all, there are two expenses that there is no way around.
There are airports on two of the Galapagos Islands. You can either fly into San Cristobal or the main island, Santa Cruz. I will take this opportunity to spell out something that confused the hell out of me for the longest time. The main island is called Santa Cruz. The airport on this island is in an area called Baltra. The main town on this island is called Puerto Ayora. You may read these three different names, but keep in mind, they are the same island! I hope this can save at least one person the confusion I had faced.
You can fly nonstop from Quito or Guayaquil to the Santa Cruz airport. As for San Cristobal, the flight is direct only from Guayaquil (a flight from Quito will stop in Guayaquil). The going rate for a roundtrip flight from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands is in the ballpark of $420. Local Ecuadorians have discounted rates on flights.
Park Entry Fee
Upon arrival at the airport, each foreigner will be subjected to a $100 entry tax which helps fund conservation efforts. There is also a $20 fee to be paid at the departing airport for your immigration control card. To avoid waiting in line twice on arrival in the Galapagos, be sure to pay this at your departing airport (but if you don’t, it is not the end of the world; I lived to tell about it).
Once You Are There
There are essentially two ways to travel around the Galapagos Islands. You can take a cruise (which often comes with a price tag of two months salary and a small chunk of your liver) or you can stay land based and “island hop.” If you visit the Galapagos without having a plan, there is a possibility to score a last minute cruise ticket at a severely discounted rate.
My plan going in was to not have a plan. I dreamed of visiting the Galapagos Islands since I first learned of the Blue-footed Boobie in seventh grade. Man, I was mature. But to be honest, I did not do a lot of research in advance. I wasn’t sure which islands I was most interested in visiting, but I was sure if I were to find a last minute cruise, it would take me to all the best places.
I spent part of my first day perusing the tour agencies looking for last minute cruise deals for my time frame (4 nights). If I could find a deal less than $1000, I told myself I would take it. While I did find such deals, due to my limited time on the islands, the cruises didn’t cover much ground. Part of the time was spent on the opposite end of the island I was already on and I didn’t need a boat to do that.
I was familiar with the islands of Isabela and San Cristobal, but noticed not one of the cruises would visit both. With that, I let my hopes of taking a cruise sail away and began to plan my land based adventure.
So What Do Things Cost?
I spent 2 nights in Puerto Ayora and 3 nights on San Cristobal. I paid $25 per night for a private room with a fan in Puerto Ayora and $30 for a private room with air conditioning on San Cristobal. Word to the wise: pay extra for a/c. It is humid AF and your clothes and swimwear will not dry. There are also dorm options in Puerto Ayora which will save you more money. I hadn’t seen much information about dorms online, but on arrival, there are so many accommodations available. In fact, I booked my rooms on arrival because the guesthouse I had booked was not open on arrival. Though I didn’t stay on Isabela, I heard it is advisable to plan accommodation in advance because there are fewer options.
Search for restaurants that offer a menú del día (spanish lesson: menu of the day!). For a maximum $5 you will receive a soup, a main dish, and a juice. This is most popular during lunchtime but can also be found for dinner. Additionally, in Puerto Ayora, there is a street dedicated to food kiosks and street food. You can find breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but most stalls do not begin cooking until later in the day. They have big ass lobsters at a fair price…for a lobster.
If you plan to island hop, these are necessary. As of January 2016, the cost is $30 for a one way trip. You can purchase a ferry ticket at any tour agency and they will give you a voucher. Ferries generally run twice a day in either direction. Beware that while the cost will never be lower than $30, the tour agent may try and charge $35 or $40 and give a BS excuse about fuel costs. Leave and go somewhere else! Check out more of my ferry tips below.
This is the area that you can choose to be frugal or splurge on organized tours. There are many free activities around all of the islands. There are a lot of budget activities on Santa Cruz; however, the expense comes from transportation. Taxis are not cheap on Santa Cruz as the island is so big. You can visit the giant tortoise reserve (entry: $3), walk through lava tunnels, and view Los Gemelos (or craters). I shared a taxi with two other girls for $30 to visit the aforementioned sites. The driver waited for us at each stop. On San Cristobal you can walk around quite a bit, visit the sea lion beach, and meet Charles Darwin, all for free!
I also participated in some tours including a day trip to Isabela, a snorkel trip to Punta Pitt, and a scuba trip to Kicker Rock. Unfortunately, there is really no such thing as a budget organized tour when it comes to the Galapagos. But do you really need to do a tour to fully experience the Galapagos? I would say not.
My day tour to Isabela was probably one of the least organized shitshows I have ever partaken in. I would have been better off going on my own. In fact, based on what I saw on my day tour, it is the island I would skip if pressed for time. Possibly others have more positive views based on more positive experiences! Scuba diving will always be expensive unless you are in South East Asia. It is also an activity where I don’t think cheaper is better! I will always pay more for better equipment and guides! Lastly, it is very possible to do your own snorkeling. There are many beaches where you can bring or rent your own equipment.
Tips For Taking the Ferries
There are regular ferry routes between Puerto Ayora and San Cristobal and Puerto Ayora and Isabela. You can also go from Puerto Ayora to Floreana. Notice you cannot go between San Cristobal and Isabela directly. Plan accordingly!
Arrive for your ferry departure early. Boarding is a chaotic mess. Each “ferry” can only carry 25 passengers so there are quite a few boats departing at the same time.
Ferry is a generous term. These are fairly small speedboats which really do not seem adequate to battle the rough seas surrounding the Galapagos Islands.
Piggybacking on the previous point, you are probably going to feel really sick. The waters are rough. At least one person lost their cookies on each of my four ferry rides. Take motion sickness tablets! Also sit in the back for fresh air, it helps!
You may feel a bit unsafe. I had one trip where the water was so rough and the captain made no effort to avoid the waves. The boat continuously landed hard and I was certain it was going to either capsize or crack in half. Neither happened! With that said, if you have a good captain, purchase future ferry tickets from the same shop as they own their boats and may have a more quality operation going.
Some islands require you to take a water taxi to shore. This is not included in your ferry ticket price and should cost no more than $1. Isabela also requires a $5 entry fee for foreigners.