A Budget Guide to the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands. Home to giant tortoises, marine iguanas and blue footed boobies. In fact, the Galapagos is home to a number of species that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. This bio-diverse archipelago featuring active volcanoes, mangrove forests and soft, golden sand beaches caught the attention of Charles Darwin and is now famed worldwide as THE place to visit for wildlife enthusiasts. If you thought a visit to the amazing Galapagos Islands meant spending a huge amount of money, then think again, because it can be done on a budget and I can show you how.
Cruise or Land-based?
Most people heading to the Galapagos will join a live-aboard cruise. These range from luxury options to the more basic tourist class. If you’re short on time this is probably your best option as at night you’ll move from one island to another which maximizes your time visiting different sites. If you do decide to take a cruise then I highly recommend not pre-booking it. In Puerto Ayora you can haggle your way to a last-minute deal, often getting 50% off which can mean a saving of a couple of grand on the luxury boats! I took the cheaper land-based option, meaning I stayed in hotels and took day trips out. To travel between the three inhabited islands costs $25+ for a ticket on the twice daily boat. From these towns you can then organise snorkeling or diving trips to most parts of the archipelago. There are also beaches, lagoons and giant tortoises to keep you occupied on land.
How do I get to Galapagos?
Located smack bang on the equator and 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the first step is to get there. Flights leave daily from Guayaquil and Quito (which also has a short stop in Guayaquil) with TAME, Aerogal and LAN. Our flights cost $480 return but we ended up buying them at the TAME office in Cuenca as the website wouldn’t accept non-Ecuadorian cards. On the islands we met somebody who used Despegar and got return flights for under $400, so that is definitely worth checking out. When you arrive at the airport for your flight do not head straight to the check-in desk. First you need to get your bags scanned for any organic matter, get a transit card for $10 and then you can check-in. Another strange thing we noticed was as our plane started the descent into the Galapagos the cabin crew sprayed insecticide into the overhead lockers.
On arrival you’ll need to pay $100 to enter the Galapagos, make sure they stamp your passport, I was gutted when I realised Zach had a giant tortoise stamp and I didn’t have anything! There are two airports but the most commonly used is Baltra, from here there is a free bus that takes you to the boat crossing to Santa Cruz island. The boat will chuck your bag on the roof and charge you 80 cents then there is a $1.80 bus to the main town of Puerto Ayora.
Where to stay?
There are lots of hotels in Puerto Ayora catering to every budget. I stayed in the Hotel Darwin for $30 for two people with a private bathroom, it was very basic but with such a central location we hardly spent any time there anyway. On the plus side there was wi-fi and a great book exchange. On Isla Isabela I stayed at Hotel Tintorera for the same price, it was much more comfortable but 5-10 minutes walk from the beach. It’s worth noting that there is no ATM on Isabela so make sure you take enough cash for the duration of your stay on the island!
To really keep the costs down there are a few different free or very cheap activities on the islands.
Laguna de Las Ninfas – on the edge of Puerto Ayora a boardwalk through mangroves around a very pretty lagoon.
Tortuga Bay – about an hours walk from Puerto Ayora, mostly through a cacti forest, will bring you out onto a long white sand beach with waves perfect for surfing. Walk along this beach to the right to find the smaller bay with picture perfect blue water. Hire kayaks, sunbathe, take a dip and if you’re lucky you may spot a shark or two!
Darwin Research Centre – on the other side of Puerto Ayora you’ll find this giant tortoise and land iguana breeding centre.
El Chato Tortoise Reserve – you’ll have to get a taxi here to see giant tortoises roaming the highlands of Santa Cruz island.
Lava Tunnels – also in the highlands of Santa Cruz, take a walk through a solidified lava flow, at the end you’ll need to crawl out (unless you walk back the way you came in) which means you will get mucky!
Puerto Ayora Port – sea lions and marine iguanas often laze around here during the day, at night the dock’s lights attract all sorts of fish and marine life.
Wall of Tears – built as prisoner punishment when Isabela island was home to a penal colony this rock wall lies about two hours walk from Puerto Villamil. The path branches off leading you to numerous brightly coloured lagoons, beaches covered with marine iguanas, and blue-footed boobies perched on rockpools along the way.
Concha de Perla – a short boardwalk through the mangroves from Isabela’s dock takes you to a perfect snorkelling spot where you might spot sea lions, turtles and rays.
Laguna Salinas – just outside Puerto Villamil this lagoon is home to a group of flamingos.
Giant Tortoise Rearing Centre – you’ll find giant tortoises of all ages and sizes at this centre on Isabela island.
Are you planning on visiting the Galapagos Islands? Or have you been? Do you have any other tips for a budget traveller to Galapagos?