I don’t like the smell of burning wads of cash but I do like tortoises, so I thought visiting the Galapagos Islands would be a bit of a tight rope act. However, now that I’ve finally conquered Galapagos, I can officially say you don’t need to incinerate your savings to actually put together a decent trip that still takes advantage of the best of the islands. Here are a few of the best ways I found to trim costs without skimping on awesomeness.
I’ve divided the following tips into three sections: planning, arriving and exploring. Enjoy!
1. Have Ecuadorian residency. This will save you money pretty much every step of the way, but is obviously not an option for a lot of people (myself included). If like me, you don’t have residency, skip to the next step.
2. Don’t go with a tour/ cruise if you don’t want to pay big bucks. I’ve met plenty of people who have had brilliant cruise experiences and done great land tours. Sure, if you do one, you’ll have a great time. But, you’ll pay much more than if you simply book a flight to the Galapagos, and piece together a DIY, land-based trip it on your own. Even the cheapest land tours on offer are a few hundred dollars more than you should expect to spend if you go it alone. I found an excellent overview comparing costs of organised tours with DIY trips here.
3. Book flights from Ecuador/ online, and shop around. My partner and I booked flights from Tame’s Quito office (Amazonas y Cristobal Colon) for under US$500 each. I’d suggest allowing at least four full days on the islands, up to around eight days max. We did five days, though our last day we couldn’t do much, as our flight left early afternoon.
4. Research everything you can about Galapagos, then try to narrow down your priorities. The plethora of options the Galapagos has to offer can be overwhelming, so early on decide what you want to focus on (seeing as many animals as possible, getting as much water sports done as you can, or just chilling). I found this Bootsnall article a really good resource for planning.
5. Understand the basic logistics involved in a visit to the islands. Most visitors arrive by plane on Baltra, and take the ferry across to Santa Cruz. From here, it’s possible to do day trips to islands like Santa Fe, Seymour Norte and Floreana. You can also head to the inhabited islands of Isabella and San Cristobal – both of which are more laid back and pleasant bases than Santa Cruz, but have less transport options.
6. When you arrive at the Baltra airport, transport is fairly straight-forward. Brush past the parking lot touts and take a free airport bus to the ferry. Cross onto Santa Cruz, and grab a bus to the island’s main settlement, Puerto Ayora. This trip should cost no more than a few dollars, with small fees for the ferry crossing and the ferry-Puerto Ayora bus trip. A second option would be to take a taxi after the ferry crossing, and ask the driver to drop you at los crateres – a group of massive volcanic sinkholes half way between the ferry crossing and Puerto Ayora. Expect to pay between US$10-15, including paying for the driver to wait while you explore the craters.
7. In Puerto Ayora, eat on Charles Bindford, the third street from the docks on Avenida Baltra. The street is lined with decently-priced eateries, and really comes to life at night. Get in early, and you can get lobsters cheap (during season).
8. Plan day trips just a day or two in advance, and shop around on Santa Cruz (or whatever island you happen to be on). Keep an eye out for last minute deals, and an open mind for going with an option that may not have been at the top of your list. All the island day tours are great, so no matter what you do, you’ll have a good time. Doing single day trips from Santa Cruz/ Isabella/ San Cristobal is much cheaper than the per day cost of most all inclusive tours.
A few of my favourite day/ half day tours trips included:
Sierra Negra hike: An easy half day hike to Isabella’s volcanic interior. Booked from a tour agency in Puerto Villamil (Isabella’s main settlement) for around US$30.
Las Tintoreras: A guided tour of a small island just off the coast of Isabella. I saw penguins, iguanas and sharks. This was booked as a half day tour from Puerto Villamil for around US$40.
9. Don’t worry too much about booking accommodation ahead of time during low season. While you may want to lock in a bed ahead of time during high season, for most of the year it’s not hard to find a place to crash on the fly. Shopping around means more options, and you get to see what you’re getting before paying.
10. If you do want a tour, never book online. Shop around Quito’s Mariscal area, and compare as many prices as possible. You will find dozens upon dozens of options, with a massive variety of prices. The cheapest land tours tend to hover around US$1200 (excluding airfare and US$100 Galapagos Park Entrance Fee). This means you can expect to pay around US$1800 for a cheap land tour (around 4-5 days). A land tour will normally involve staying in hotels on a few islands and doing day trips around the archipelago. Then there are the cruises, which likewise come in all shapes and sizes. One of the biggest advantages of cruises is they tend to go to some of the more isolated islands – places that are impossible to reach by going it alone or taking a land tour. For some visitors, the premium cost of a cruise might be worth it to see some of the most far flung corners of the archipelago. It’s up to you.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to see plenty of the archipelago on a DIY trip. Skeptical? Check out some photos from my DIY trip here.
If you’d like to compare tours to what we did, here’s an overview of our itinerary. Including flights from Quito, the entire trip was around US$1000 each.
Arrived at Baltra airport mid morning. Bussed to los crateres, then Puerto Ayora, basic almuerzo, tortoise reserve, walk from Puerto Ayora to Tortuga Bay (a nice beach), booked Day 2 tour, for dinner ate a huge fish.
Day tour to Santa Fe, mostly snorkeling. Saw a sea turtle, lots of sea lions and colourful fish and a few blue-footed boobies. For dinner, ate a family-sized lobster for US$15 in Puerto Ayora.
Hiked the Sierra Negra volcano in the morning (interesting volcanic landscape), did a tour of Las Tintoreras in the afternoon (saw marine iguanas and penguins).