Visiting the Galapagos islands was on my bucketlist for some time, but the expensive cruises options available placed it out of reach. Whilst travelling in South America we met a number of backpackers and travellers who had explored the Galapagos without booking the costly cruise. So we decided to research a little more…
We discovered that it is possible to do this trip by basing your self on land and organising each of the elements of your trip yourself. Granted even in doing this, a trip to the Galapagos is by no means cheap, when you factor in getting to Ecuador and some of the un-avoidable costs, but you can certainly do it for less than the price of a cabin on a cruise.
In this guide I share the highlights of Galapagos, our itinerary and trip costs.
Let’s get started with the unavoidable costs:
- Flight to Ecuador
- US $ 300 return flights from Guayaquil to Baltra. The price of the flight rarely changes no matter when you book.
- US $ 100 park entry fee (payment required in cash on arrival)
- US $ 10 (payment required in cash on arrival)
- Accommodation – from as little as US $20 per night
- Meals – US $5 – 20 pp
- Boats between islands – US $20 – 30 pp one way
- Taxi Transport from US $1
But once you have covered these expenses, everything else on the island can be done relatively inexpensively, or free. Accommodation can be found on the islands for as little as US $20 in a hostel dorm. Many restaurants serve freshly caught fish and seafood for US $15 per person. Taxis anywhere in town are US $1 and 1/2 day trips cost around US $ 35, with the majority of land based activities free. The most expensive element of the trip will be snorkelling and diving tours where you can expect to pay US $50 and US $150 respectively.
Having spent a month in Ecuador we choose to fly from Guayaquil over to Santa Cruz, the starting point for a trip to the Galapagos. Alternatively you can fly from Quito if your international flight arrives there. Airfare is around US $300 and this price doesn’t really change, so the timing of booking is not important.
You will arrive on Isla Balta, Santa Cruz and from here you will take a small ferry crossing which cost US $0.5 and then a taxi (white pick up truck) to the main town which costs $5 if sharing or $15 to charter. The journey is around 30 minutes to the main town where the majority of accommodations, tour companies are restaurants are located.
We spent one week based on Santa Cruz since the island is the more populated and a great place to explore the Galapagos from. Once you have explored Santa Cruz, boats leave everyday to San Cristobel and Isabella for around US $20 – $30 per person one way. Note, the boat journeys can be very rough so be prepared and I recommend sitting at the back of the boat where it is less bumpy.
SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
As I mentioned you can find cheap hostel accommodation on the island and you can even camp on Garrapetero Beach, with the owners permission. We choose The Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge as a treat having spent alot of time in budget accommodation in South America! The hotel is located at the end of Avenue Charles Darwin, around a 10 minute walk from the centre. If you are
The hotels position right on the dock means that you will get to enjoy plenty of sealion encounters as you sit at breakfast, or dinner as these island inhabitants spend most of their time lazing on the hotel sun loungers! The hotel is also ideally positioned close to the Darwin Centre and right next door to Galapagos Divers if you are planning on diving during your trip.
ACTIVITIES ON SANTA CRUZ
Charles Darwin Research Station – Entry Free
I suggest starting with the Charles Darwin Research Station so that you can learn about the islands discovery, early settlors and other history before you begin exploring them. The centre is a scientific non-profit organisation that was established to help with the conservation of the Galapagos Islands. You can also meet a few of the giant tortoises. You can walk here from most accommodations in town.
You can arrange an organised tour to start seeing some of the island and to meet the giant tortoises at Reserva El Chato. However, it is more cost efficient to just take a taxi from town and arrange with your driver to take you to a few of the must see sights on the island. Cost for the driver for half day will be around US $30 negotiable.
Most taxi drivers will also come with you as you explore and act as a guide, our guide gave us the tip be respectful to the animals and approach the tortoises from behind slowly and quietly, which means the tortoises are more likely to pose with their heads out for any photos than if they see you approaching. After you have captured all your IG shots, you can test your strength by trying on a tortoise shell to feel the weight the tortoises are carrying around all day!
Whilst you have the driver, you can also make stops at the Lava Tunnels, Garrapatero Beach, Media Luna Hill and The Ninfas Lagoon all of which you can explore for free.
There are plenty of tour operators on the island, mostly offering the same day trips. We choose the Bay Day Tour. The day begins with a boat trip out to see the sealions on a nearby island, if the water is calm enough you can snorkel with them. Next stop is Las Grietas, a crevice filled with crystal clear fresh water where you can snorkel with parrot fish and scale the cliff to jump in. Throughout the day you will see Blue Footed Boobies, plenty of Iguanas and reef sharks resting in the bay during the low tide.
Tortuga Bay – Entry Free
Tortuga Bay is arguably the most beautiful beach on the island. Getting there require a 2.5KM walk from Peurto Ayora, which will take about 30-40 minutes depending on your fitness level. The path is well maintained, but be sure to wear comfy shoes and bring anything you may need for a beach day, including water and snacks as these are not available there. Tortuga Bay offers its visitors crystal clear blue seas, baby black tip reef sharks swimming in the shallows, more iguanas than you can count snoozing on the beach and some good surf waves. Make sure to walk the full stretch of the beach to the right, as round the corner you will find a large bay where you can snorkel and kayak.
The next stop on our trip was San Cristobal, where we spent a second week. Taking the morning boat ride over to San Cristobal is around 45minutes. San Cristobal is a quieter island with less restaurant options versus Santa Cruz. But the island is beautiful and there are plenty of activities to keep you busy.
WHERE TO STAY
We booked Casa Playa Mann, a lovely guest house a little out of town, but just a few minutes from the Interpretation Centre and Playa Mann Beach. The hotel was perfect and honestly better images on their site, with views from the bedroom out over the ocean. You can also camp for $5 a night at El Ceibo or at Puerto Chino with permission from the park.
ACTIVITIES ON SAN CRISTOBAL
Playa Mann Beach – Entry Free
The best place to spend some time in the company of sealions on the Galapagos. You can spend the day here, but I suggest going to the beach for sunset as this was one of the most beautiful places to be at the end of the day.
Interpretation Centre & Cerro Tijeretas – Entry Free
Another must visit in the Galapagos is the Interpretation Centre where you can learn more history of the Island and then make your way to the walking trails to Cerro Tijeretas. The walking trails are moderate uphill trails where you will be rewarded with some beautiful views over the ocean.
Whilst on the island you can also make stops at fresh water lagoon El Junto, Playa Cabo de Horno (Cape Horn Beach), which has resident sea-lions, marine iguanas and offers some options for surfing, La Loberia where you can snorkel and surf, Puerto Chino beach and Galapaguera Cerro ColoradoGiant Tortoises Breeding Centre. All these activities are also free.
DIVING IN THE GALAPAGOS
Snorkelling tours from US $ 50
Diving from US $ 150
The Galapagos is a divers heaven and if you are certified try to fit in as many dives as possible! Whilst you may have been able to see the Galapagos on land for free, seeing its underwater inhabitants is significantly more expensive. But it is definitely worth every penny!
If you are an experienced diver you will have plenty of options for diving and opportunities to go to the more advanced dive sites to see whale sharks and schools of hammerheads. However, if you are a newbie you will need to discuss which dives are appropriate for you to go with your dive center. Diving in the Galapagos is not easy, with strong currents, cold temperatures and poor visibility in some areas so be honest with your dive school about your expereince.
We did four dives whist staying on Santa Cruz with Galapagos Divers. The dive center is one of the best I have ever gone with. The team were incredibly professional, had our kit fitted the day before the dives so no rushing around at 6am to find a wetsuit that fits! Before your dives you will have tea and coffee and a briefing at the dive centre, the briefing is repeated on the boat each day before your dives.
We dove at Mosquera and El Canal which were incredible. As soon as we entered the water we were welcomed to the Galapagos with huge schools of colourful fish. Followed by plenty of reef sharks, groups of Eagle rays, sea turtles and even the Hammerheads that we thought we would only see if we made it to Gordon Rocks.
We also dived at Punta Commorant, Champions, Wizard Hill and Kicker Rock. Kicker Rock was the most difficult dive that we did in the Galapagos, with poor conditions, bad visibility and an extremely strong current. Coupled with the freezing water, I got through my tank of air in half the time. Once back on our boat we found that the people snorkelling had seen large groups of sharks and other sea life and we hadn’t seen anything at all! So I would recommend saving the money and just go for the snorkelling instead of diving at Kicker Rock.