Land-Based Budget Travel on the Galapagos Islands
Before we went to the Galapagos, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen, mainly because of what I perceived to be prohibitive costs. I thought you had to do an 8-day cruise or you just wouldn’t get much out of the islands.
I’m happy to say that I was wrong.
Jared and I spent 10 days on the islands, didn’t take a cruise, and managed to do it all within a budget we were happy with. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t have been sublimely happy on a cruise; we just couldn’t afford it and we had no regrets anyway.
We tried to book flights through a travel agency, who told us it was impossible because they only booked flights and cruises together. So, left to our own devices, we managed to book AeroGal flights through Orbitz. Booking them directly through the website didn’t work, and I was worried that they would deny us at the airport, but we breezed through without any problems. Our outbound flights were from Guayaquil to Isla Baltra (Santa Cruz Island), and the returns went from Baltra to Quito. Total cost: $405 per person
At the airport, we had to pay a mandatory $10 fee to get our Galapagos visa. On entry to the islands, we had to pay the $100 park fee before we could pass through the gates. These fees are unavoidable, but means that many of the attractions are free. Total cost: $110 per person
Jared did some research on hotels, and we came armed with a list (most did not have online booking available). In Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, we walked up to the Hotel New Elizabeth, right off of Charles Darwin Avenue, and got a double room for $30 a night. The hotel had wifi, the room was basic but comfortable, and the personable owner let us use the kitchen.
On San Cristóbal, our first choice was Hostal Leon Dormido, just around the corner from the main drag. It was full, so we went to the Albatross. At only $24 a night, we were initially pleased, but that didn’t last long. The room was a windowless dungeon with three single beds and a bathroom that gave off a relentless aroma of sewage (but it must be said that the lady who runs the place is super, super nice). The next day we went back to the Leon Dormido. They had a clean, cheery room available with wifi for $40, so we didn’t waste any time.
Total cost: 4 nights on Santa Cruz, 5 nights on San Cristóbal – $152 per person
Santa Cruz: Restaurants aimed at tourists are expensive, so we avoided them. Instead, we took a local tip on Santa Cruz and went to ‘Los Kioscos’, a street off of Av. Baltra in Puerto Ayora. During the day, the restaurants do set menus of local food for around $4. At night, the street is filled with plastic tables and chairs, where locals and tourists alike sit down for cheap, good eats with beers or batidos (milkshakes). On our last night, we tried La Vaca Chimba, a little place on the corner near Los Kioscos that does awesome sandwiches for about $5. We also made our own breakfast (granola & yogurt) at the hotel and cooked dinner a few times.
San Cristóbal: With no kitchen, we ate out more than we would have liked, but it was still relatively affordable. For $5, we got a burger and fries from Patagonia, a cafe on the main street. Breakfasts are available for $3 from most cafes, and that includes eggs, toast, and a drink. We also discovered a street cart on Avenida Alsacio Northia, right in front of the park, that does the most incredible pork sandwiches for $2. Unfortunately, the woman was only there sporadically and changes up her menu so the sandwiches aren’t always available. She seemed to arrive after 2:30 in the afternoon and stay until the evening. Alternatively, local set price lunches and dinners can always be found for $4.
Total cost: Approximately $15 per person per day
Optional Paid Activities
Diving: On Santa Cruz, I went diving with Sope Dive shop. It cost $120 for two dives, including lunch on the boat and photos/video from the dive.
Snorkel trip: Jared and I both took a snorkel trip to Leon Dormido through Patagonia (the restaurant also has a travel agency) while on San Cristóbal. It cost $50 per person and included all gear and a hot lunch.
Snorkel rental: We rented masks from the shop next to Leon Dormido for $3 apiece for the whole day, which we took with us when we discovered the secret sea lion beach.
Bike rental: On Santa Cruz, we rented bikes from a shop at the corner of Av. Baltra and Charles Binford. It cost $6 per bike for 2 hours, which was much cheaper than the tour companies, and the friendly shopkeeper didn’t bat an eye when we returned, sweating, ten minutes late.
Taxi tour: On San Cristóbal, we hired a taxi for a half-day tour of the highlands. He charged us $40, and we ended up paying $45 with a tip, plus $1 each for an unexpected treehouse excursion.
Total Cost: $82 each, plus $120 for me to go diving
There are plenty of things to do that don’t cost anything; that’s why you pay the park entrance fee. The islands are small and easy to get around, so I don’t have specific directions but you shouldn’t have a problem once you get there. Here are a few options for the two islands we visited:
Santa Cruz: Charles Darwin Station, Las Grietas (water taxi $0.80 each way), Tortuga Bay, Lava Tunnels (off the road to Baltra there is a viewing spot where you can see them for free), and El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
San Cristóbal: Interpretation Center, Playa Mann, the Malecón (rife with sea lions), and the walking trails and beaches accessible via trails leading from the Interpretation Center. All of the places (except for the treehouse) we visited on our highland tour were free to enter as well.
The inter-island ferry between Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal cost $25 each one-way and took about 2 1/2 hours. It was a rough ride, crammed with passengers, so beware if you’re not a boat person. The only other transportation we paid for was from the airport to Puerto Ayora, which cost $2.30 per person each way.
Total cost: $54.60 per person (return ferry and airport transfers)
In the end, we managed to spend 10 days in the Galapagos on roughly $2000 ($1000 per person), which includes our flights there and back. We could have added Isabela to our itinerary, another island accessible by ferry from Santa Cruz, but were happy enough with the two that we saw, and weren’t too keen to take another bumpy boat journey.
What I would have done differently
Had we thought about it, we would have flown into Baltra on Santa Cruz and out of Puerto Baquerizo on San Cristóbal (or vice versa). It would have saved us the return ferry to Santa Cruz, and the airport on San Cristóbal is really convenient to the town. However, we wanted to keep our schedule flexible in case we wanted to go to Isabela.
Things to know
- In December of 2012, and there was some serious construction going on in Santa Cruz. Charles Darwin Avenue, the main street along the water, was completely torn up. All that remained was mushy, gravelly dirt as the crews worked (seemingly) round-the-clock to get the road put back down. It might be finished now; it might not, but it’s no more than a mild inconvenience.
- Animals are everywhere, and those iguanas are really good at blending into the scenery. Don’t be surprised if one is suddenly underfoot and hisses at you. And please, please, treat the animals with respect. This was their home first.
- Galapagos taxis are white pick-up trucks.
- Supermarkets are expensive. Look for the local markets, where you can get fresh fruit and veg for a more reasonable price.