Ever dreamed of traveling to the Galapagos islands ? Well, you could make this dream become a reality without going broke! In this post I’ll try to cover not only the main attractions of this nature lover’s paradise, but also the logistics of getting there, how to move from island to island, and how to optimize your budget.
About the Galapagos Islands
I’m not going to go all Wikipedia on you guys, but the Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands located in the Pacific Ocean right around the equator, 900 km west of Ecuador. Charles Darwin notably developed his theory of natural selection thanks in part to his visit to the Galapagos islands in 1835. Indeed, their relative isolation, diverse climates from island to island, and teeming wildlife made it an ideal ground for Darwin to study how species tended to differ according to their environments.
The Galapagos Islands’ wildlife has been very well preserved and protected, which is great for us tourists, because birds, sea lions, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and other interesting species are not only numerous, but also tend to be fearless of humans. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see a sea lion chillin’ on a bench or wondering around on the piers!
Nature lovers definitely need to put this destination on their bucket list. And let me reassure you: it is possible (and not difficult at all!) to experience Galapagos to its fullest on a 1,500$ – 2,000$ US budget. But first, let’s figure out the logistics!
Getting to Galapagos
Galapagos can only realistically be reached by plane from the cities of Quito and Guayaquil, in Ecuador. The return flights, though much cheaper for Ecuadorian residents, should set you back 400-500$ US (I personally paid 435$ US for a mid-December flight). You must however add to that 120$ US (20$ US for the visa, and an additional 100$ National Park fee that must be paid in cash at the airport in the Galapagos).
Once arrived at the airport, it will cost you about 3$ to get to downtown Puerto Ayora, the main town. So all in all, with about 550$ US you should be good to get to the Galapagos islands from Quito.
Now, on to how to move around the islands.
Moving around from island to island
You basically have two choices when traveling to Galapagos: booking a cruise (which I do not personally recommend, see the budget optimization section of this post) that will take you from island to island, or using Puerto Ayora, Isabela island, Floreana, and/or San Cristobal island as your base, and booking days tours to other (uninhabited) islands.
In general, it takes about 2 hours of nausea-inducing boat rides to get from island to island, so if you get easily sea sick, make sure to be mentally (or medically!) ready before booking your trip.
Islands to visit on a 7-day trip
Santa Cruz: Puerto Ayora, the main town, is where most tour operators, restaurants, and hotels are located. I definitely recommend staying at least a couple of days here to book your day trips and enjoy the slow-paced, relaxed lifestyle of the Galapagos islands. Make sure to visit Tortuga Bay and las Grietas while there. The Charles Darwin Research Station, IMHO, is not really worth a visit, as you will see numerous giant turtles and iguanas in their natural element over the course of your stay.
Isabela: The largest island. I would recommend staying two days in Isabela, since there are many interesting things to see:
- A day tour to Los Tuneles is a must (Canals in lava rocks where you will be snorkeling with giant tortoises, harmless rays and sharks, penguins, sea lions, sea horses, etc.).
- A day tour to hike Sierra Negra volcano and vulcan Chico is also fun. However, expect a long, but relatively easy, hike to the crater rim. The views are quite amazing; it literally seems like you are on Mars at certain points!
- Hike to the Wall of tears (muro de las lagrimas): A relatively short but very nice hike (you’ll get to see beaches with iguanas and sea lions, lakes with flamingos) to reach this 25 meter high wall built by prisoners in the 1940s and 1950s.
San Cristobal: You’ll want to spend a full day or two here. The main town is very charming. The highlight here is a visit to Kicker rock, where you will can deep-sea snorkel. You will see an astronomical amount of exotic fish, small sharks, and might get a chance to see the Hammerhead shark (the guides say you get about a 50% chance to see them. I, however, unfortunately did not)!
Floreana: A day trip to Floreana is sufficient. This island has amazing snorkeling. A trip to the highlands is also interesting, where you’ll be able to spot land tortoises and listen to really interesting (if not disturbing!) stories about the history of the island.
So there you go, 2-3 days in Puerto Ayora, 2 days in Isabela, 1-2 days in San Cristobal, and a 1-day tour to Floreana should guarantee you get a great and diverse experience of the Galapagos islands.
Optimizing your budget: 7 days for less than 1,500$ US
There are two simple, but veeeeery important tips to saving a huge amount of money while traveling in the Galapagos:
#1: Do not reserve your accommodation / tours / cruise in advance! This was a bit stressful for me, since I normally reserve all that in advance, but it was very easy to do so in Puerto Ayora. If you want to play it safe, book your first night in Puerto Ayora, but nothing more. You will probably end up paying around 40% less by booking everything from there instead of in advance. For example, our hotel in Puerto Ayora (Crossman hotel) cost us 50$ US per night, when the rate on the website was north of 100$ US. Likewise, cruises that are sold on the web for 3,000$ US+ will sell for less than 1,500$ last minute.
The astronomical amount of tour and tour operators will almost ensure you get the exact trip you want, while paying a whole lot less.
#2: Do not book a cruise! Even if booked last minute, cruises will be much more expensive than hotel accommodation, and in general will not allow you to experience the charm of the Galapagos islands. Use the aforementioned islands as your base (tour operators can help with hotel bookings too), and book your day tours.
The least expensive decent quality 5-day cruises will go for more than 1,000$, while you can easily get decent accommodation for 70$ per night and day tours for less than 100$ per day. So if you are sharing a room, let’s make a quick calculation: 7 nights at 70$ per day, with 5 day tours at 100$ per day per person = about 750$ per person for the land option while the cruise would be 1,250$ + 2 nights accommodation on land, so north of 1,300$. I’ll take MORE for LESS anytime!
If we put this all together, your estimated (and very conservative) Galapagos budget:
- Flights + visa +entry fee: 550$ US
- Accommodation: 250$ US
- Tours: 500$ US
- Food and others: 200$ US
- Total cost: 1,500$ US.
So here it is: your dream of going to the Galapagos Islands is not as far fetched as you thought!
Do not hesitate to comment or ask questions in the comments section!