The Galapagos On A “Budget”

The Galapagos Islands is easily one of the major highlights of AJ and I’s travels so far (and 100% will be a major highlight of the entire year); we got up close with allsorts of beautiful and amazing wildlife including the blue-footed boobys, Galapagos penguins, sealions, marine iguanas, sea turtles, giant tortoises, and the ever-adorable finches. In the space of 8 days we managed to explore three islands, go hiking, snorkelling, explore beaches and rock pools, wander through wetlands and mangrove forests, and learn all about the fascinating history of the islands and the work being done to conserve their environment.

We had planned to go to the Galapagos from the moment we started planning our trip however we knew that because we were travelling long term we would have to make it as “budget” as possible. I say “budget” because even on a budget the Galapagos is far more expensive than travelling around mainland Ecuador, everything from the food to the accommodation to the transport just costs more. In this article, I will talk through the budget breakdown for our 8 days in the Galapagos, and how we kept our trip as “budget-friendly,” as possible. I will also list the different activities we did on each island and offer some tips to travellers planning on going to the Galapagos.

How much did we spend?

Altogether for 8 days the trip cost us $1997.53 (£1599.62). This breaks down to:

  • $476.77 (£381.80) on the flights
  • $240 (£192.19) on the park entrance fee and the transit control card
  • $240 (£192.19) on ferry transport between the islands
  • $317 (£253.85) on accommodation
  • $375.42 (£300.64) on food and drink
  • $264.74 (£212) on activities – tours, taxis, snorkel gear
  • $20 (£16.02) on Isabela island tax
  • $63.60 (£50.93) on sun cream and souvenirs.

A cruise costs on average around £3,000 per person for a 5-day cruise. Even a last-minute deal is around £1,000 per person, and only for 5-6 days. We spent less than that in 8 days, so DIYing the trip was definitely the right choice for us and our budget.

Could we have done it cheaper?

Sure – we splurged on some of our meals (especially breakfast, the fruit salad and granola from the Galapagos Grill was too hard to resist!), had a few drinks here and there, and possibly could have done the highlands tour for cheaper if we’d been able to haggle with a taxi driver ourselves. We could have avoided the tours completely, but this would have made the trip a bit of a waste. Some accommodations could have been a bit cheaper (we paid a bit extra to have a private room), but not massively so, and we could have only gone to one or two islands, thus saving on the transport fee, but again that would have been a waste as each island brought something different and amazing to our Galapagos experience.

What were our budget-busting must-dos?

  • We booked our flights months in advance and booked them directly with LATAM – when we looked at booking the flights with STA who booked our long-haul flights, they were coming out around £300 each. When we looked on the LATAM website for the same dates they were coming out at £190 each. We flew out of Guayaquil into San Cristobal and then out of San Cristobal into Quito – Guayaquil and San Cristobal airports being the cheaper to fly in to and out of.
  • It’s cheaper to travel between the inhabited islands and explore them yourself than to take a day tour to them; when we looked into the Isabela tour we found out that most of the activities covered are ones you can do yourself for free.
  • Go in the low season (April – May, September – October) as it’s cheaper for tours and accommodation. In terms of wildlife there’s no real “off season” so there’s no need to worry about missing out on seeing any wildlife, unless there’s something in particular you want to see such as the blue footed booby mating dance.
  • On San Cristobal stay in Casa de Laura – it’s 5 minutes from the main port and costs far less than the hostels around the port.

What were our budget-busting no-no’s?

  • Cruises, even last-minute deals, were completely out of the question as they were far too expensive.
  • For us day trips to the uninhabited islands were too expensive (most are around $150 – $200 per person) so we ruled them out for our trip. However, we were told that some of the trips were amazing, especially the trip to North Seymour, so if you have the time and can afford it, they are a good idea.

What were the unavoidable expenses?

  • The entrance fee into the islands – $100
  • Transit Control Card – $20
  • Ferry transport between the islands – $30 each way
  • Isabela Island Tax – $10
  • Water Taxi at Santa Cruz and Isabela to get from the ferry to the main dock – between $0.50 and $1 each way

What free/cheap things did we do on each island?

San Cristobal:

  • Visit the Interpretation Centre to learn about the history of the island and walk the trails along the tops of the cliffs. (free)
  • Visit Punta Carola beach to hang out with some friendly sealions. (free)
  • Go snorkelling at La Loberia beach – we saw all sorts of fish, rays and sea turtles there! (you can walk there for free or take a taxi for $3 each way, and you can rent a snorkel and flippers for $5 for the day)
  • Go on the highland tour to see El Junco Lagoon, the tortoise sanctuary, Puerto Chino beach, and the Ceibo Treehouse. ($40 per person, but if there’s a group of you you can organise a taxi to take you out for the day and it works out cheaper per person)

Santa Cruz:

  • Hang around the ship port at night – small sharks and fish are attracted to the lights so you can watch them and the pelicans that also like to hang around. (free)
  • Visit the Darwin centre and tortoise breeding centre to learn all about the conservation work being done on the islands and visit the saddlebacked tortoises that live there. (free)
  • Visit Playa de la Estacion which is right by the Darwin Centre. It’s a cool place to hang around and find birds, crabs and marine iguanas – we were able to watch part of a pretty epic brawl between two males while there.
  • Go swimming in Las Grietas, a series of volcanic crevices. The crevice is narrow, long, deep and filled with crystal clear water. It’s a really fun place to swim around in and go snorkelling in. (water taxi from the main port to the port for the trail to Las Grietas is about $0.80 each way, and you can rent snorkels for about $8 a day)
  • Visit Tortuga Bay for a chance to spot sea turtles depending on the time of year, watch lots of marine iguanas walking along the beach or swimming in the sea, lounge on the first or second beach, and go swimming/snorkelling on the second beach. When we went there the snorkelling wasn’t great as the water was really murky and there wasn’t a huge amount of fish to be seen. However, we did spot a group of white tipped sharks lounging together in the shallows of the mangroves on one side of the bay which was pretty cool. (free)
  • Go on the highland tour to visit Los Gemelos, two huge sink holes where you can spot lots of different types of birds, and El Chato Ranch where you can walk through a lava tunnel and wander around a giant tortoise ranch getting close to an abundance of giant tortoises. ($25pp)

Isabela:

  • Walk/cycle through the beaches and wetlands to the Wall of Tears. Along the way, you can stop off at various points to see beaches with lots of wildlife, partially collapsed caves, viewpoints, and watering holes – some of which STINK by the way. (free if you walk, $5/$6 to rent a bicycle. I would recommend cycling as the walk is very long)
  • Visit the interpretation centre to learn about work with the tortoises, see the tortoises of the breeding centre, and watch the flamingos to be found along the way. (free)
  • Go swimming/snorkelling at Concha Perla, a closed off bay where you can find sea lions, eagle rays and all sorts of fish. Word of warning, the water is FREEZING with the odd warm patch here and there. If while snorkelling the water suddenly becomes blurry it’s because there’s a mixture of warm and cold water which is scattering the light. (free if you just swim, $3 to rent a snorkel for the day)
  • Go on the Tintoreras Tour. This takes you out to Isla Tintoreras and the waters around it; you get to go hunting for wildlife in the boat, hike along Tintoreras Island and look out for marine iguanas and lava lizards, and then snorkel a little bit away from there. On the tour, we saw a group of blue-footed boobys, Galapagos penguins, eagle rays, white tipped sharks, lots of fish and iguanas and lizards. ($40 per person)

Favourite Island? San Cristobal – the snorkelling was beyond amazing, there were so many sea lions everywhere and it was the first island we explored so everything we saw was brand new.

Favourite Tour? Las Tintoreras easily – it was our last chance to see blue-footed boobys and we managed to see them and so much more than we were expecting, plus there’s a good variety of activities you get to do.

Anything important other travellers to the Galapagos should know about?

  • When you’re flying over to the Galapagos get to the airport at least two hours before your flight time; before you can check in to the flight you have to queue to pay for your Transit Control Card and get your luggage x-rayed and inspected to make sure you’re not bringing anything inappropriate to the islands. This took us almost an hour, after which we still had to check-in for the flight and go through the usual airport security processes.
  • Keep your Transit Control Card safe as you need to hand it back in when you fly back to mainland Ecuador. If you lose it, you will have to pay for a new one.
  • Bring LOTS of sun cream – it is ridiculously hot there (we burned even with sun cream on) so you need to reapply during the day, especially if you do anything in the water. If you run out you can get it on the island but it is ridiculously expensive.

Would we go to the Galapagos again? Definitely, only next time I’m going to make sure I have the money to do a cruise of the uninhabited islands and try see a bit more wildlife.

So, is the Galapagos worth it?

Absolutely! Yes, it is expensive, but if you have the time and can spare the money by budgeting carefully, I would highly recommend going to the Galapagos. It is an unforgettable experience and you can get a lot out of DIYing the trip to suit your wants and needs. You can discover wildlife and nature which can be found nowhere else in the world, and experience a truly unique place on Earth.

Slán!

G.

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